Obedience to Authority

by Tariq Khan

Most evil acts in the world are not committed by abnormally mean psychopaths. They are committed by quite ordinary people who are “just doing their jobs”. Most murder, torture, and destruction in and of the world is perfectly legal and is carried out by civilized, well-mannered, average individuals who are “just fulfilling their duties” to governments, businesses, and religions. They’re “just trying to make a living”.

A while back I met some veterans of the U.S. military’s invasion of Iraq; young guys in their early twenties. I had a chance to talk with them and hear some of their stories. On first impression they seemed like good, decent people. Even though I know that torture and murder are part of the military system, I was surprised when one told me tales of torturing prisoners in Iraq and even of shooting children. Another vet said that he was a sniper and he knowingly killed innocent people. Neither of these men have a violent disposition. Neither of them have a desire to kill and torture. In fact, they hated doing it and they both said that they hate themselves for what they did over there. One of them said that some of the other Iraq War veterans he knew have since committed suicide because they couldn’t live with themselves knowing the horrors they inflicted on people in Iraq.

So if these soldiers hated it so much, then why did they do it? They did it because it was their job. They were following orders. The fellow who was a sniper told one story of when he was ordered to shoot a man who was changing a tire. The Army was afraid that the man wasn’t changing a tire, but was actually setting a roadside bomb. So the sniper shot him. When they investigated the scene it turned out that there was nothing there having to do with any bombs and that the man was indeed changing a tire. So the sniper was very upset. He said that later that night he threw a fit, throwing around his things and such. The sergeant asked him what was wrong and he said something like, “Man! That guy I shot was innocent!” So the sergeant sent him to go talk to the chaplain. A chaplain is a religious leader in the military there to provide the troops with “spiritual support”. The sniper, telling the story, said that he was an atheist and had no faith in any chaplain but he obeyed the sergeant and talked to the chaplain anyway. The chaplain, like a true servant of the state, told the sniper, “Don’t worry about it. You’re doing this for God and your country.” The sniper thought that it was stupid advice, not helpful at all, but he went back to his job as a sniper and, against his own conscience, did what he was told to do, including killing more people.

Half a century ago social scientist Stanley Milgram carried out a series of experiments having to do with the issue of obedience to authority. In these experiments a “teacher” was ordered by an authority to administer electric shocks to a “learner”. The learner was actually an actor and the shocks were not real, but the teacher was unaware of this and believed the shocks he or she was administering were real. Even when the learner seemed to be experiencing a great deal of pain, the teacher, in most cases, continued with the shocks as ordered by the authority. In many cases the teacher did not want to administer the shocks, but pressured by the authority to do so, went ahead and obeyed. Milgram intentionally conducted these experiments with people of diverse class, education, race, occupation, and gender. He performed different variations and situations to test different factors. Regardless of race, class, education, or gender; most people obeyed authority even when obedience meant harming an innocent person and even when they clearly did not want to harm the person.

Milgram concluded that it is the drive to obey authority rather than any kind of innate maliciousness that is the cause for most horror in the world. Milgram was writing shortly after the fall of the Third Reich and, no doubt, was troubled by how it was that so many ordinary, mild-mannered people were led to commit the kinds of sick crimes against humanity that occurred in concentration camps and Nazi prisons. They were just trying to be “good Germans.” Milgram wrote, “Tyrannies are perpetuated by diffident men who do not possess the courage to act out their beliefs.”

So here we are decades later with ordinary nineteen and twenty-year-olds torturing and killing people for god and their country. They’re being “good Americans”. We have Air Force pilots who are nice people, good parents, good neighbors; they mow their lawns, go to movies, and watch their children’s soccer games and dance recitals, but when in uniform and ordered by higher ranking men in uniform, will drop bombs that end hundreds and even thousands of lives. From an early age we are taught that obedience to authority is a virtue. The first thing we memorized in kindergarten was the pledge of allegiance. We learned that “be good” means “do what you’re told”. In the Boy Scouts we said, “On my honor I will do my duty to God and my country…” In church they taught us that we are here on earth to learn to obey. Parents and teachers demand it from an early age. In school we were given detention for defiance and rewarded for compliance. A core value of the Air Force is “service before self” which means, doing what the Air Force wants you to do is more important than doing what you want to do. The university professor who “gets with the program” is far more likely to get tenure than the one who thinks independently. The university student learns that making waves leads to a bumpy ride while following the leader leads to smooth sailing. Anyone who’s ever dealt with a police officer learns that saying, “yes sir” leads to much less trouble than asking questions does.

In Milgram’s experiment some of the more obedient subjects took it as far as to try to justify torturing an innocent person. This is what I call the cop personality. Rather than admitting that there was something wrong with what they did, they came up with reasons why the learner deserved to be shocked. When being questioned after the experiment, one such man said, “Well, we have more or less a stubborn person (the learner). If he understood what this here was, he would’a went along without getting the punishment… The only time I got a little – I wouldn’t say nervous – I got disgusted, is when he wouldn’t cooperate.” In other words, the learner brought punishment on himself by not cooperating with the torturer. How many times have you heard a police officer make a similar argument to justify his own ill treatment of another person? “If she just would have cooperated, then I wouldn’t have had to pepper spray (or handcuff, or beat, or arrest, or kill…) her.” Notice how the subject in the experiment did not take responsibility for his own actions of shocking the learner, but transferred responsibility to the victim; what we call victim blaming (it’s the same as when a rapist blames the woman he raped rather than admitting his own responsibility for his actions; “Did you see how she was dressed?”). When the experimenter pushed the question of who was responsible for the learner being shocked, the man replied, “I say your fault for the simple reason that I was paid for doing this. I had to follow orders. That’s how I figured it.”

In other words, he was just doing his job, just as police who abuse others are just doing their jobs, just as soldiers who murder and torture Iraqis are just following orders, just as the businessmen and women who sell the military weapons of mass destruction are just doing their jobs, just as prison guards who abuse prisoners are just following orders, just as office workers, administrators, and bureaucrats who do the paper pushing of military and law enforcement are just doing their jobs, just as the Nazis who rounded up Jews for extermination were just following orders, just as the cop who pulls you over and harasses you is just doing his job, just as the men who clear-cut forests are just following orders, just as the people who torture animals in slaughter houses and factory farms are just doing their jobs, just as construction workers who destroy wilderness in order to build mcmansions and strip malls are just following orders, just as the military pilot who dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan was just doing his job, and on and on and on… I’ve had many experiences in which I complain to peers about police brutality or out-of-control soldiers stomping on human rights, only to be met with the disapproval of my peers who tell me, “It’s not the cops’ (or soldiers’) fault, they’re just doing their jobs.” I try to explain to my peers, “That’s the problem! They’re just doing their jobs!” If doing their jobs means abusing, torturing, and generally bullying people around, then they should get new jobs! The fact that it’s their job is no excuse. The cops sure don’t let other people get away with that excuse. What if a drug dealer were to tell a cop, “Hey man, I’m just doing my job.”? Do you think the cop would take the attitude, “Oh, ok. I suppose that I’ll just leave you alone then and stop messing with you because you’re just doing your job.”? But for some reason, mainstream society lets all kinds of official abusers such as cops, politicians, and soldiers get away with that. When a cop once told Emma Goldman that he didn’t enjoy putting her behind bars but that he was just doing his job, she told him to stop being such a coward and to find a more honorable way to make a living.

Obedience to authority, rather than being a virtue, may be the number one cause of blood and horror in the world. All of the war and occupation the world over would not be possible without obedient men and women in uniform who say, “yes, sir” to the orders from up the chain. It would not be possible without docile clerks, managers, and bureaucrats doing the administrative and logistical work that makes the death machine run smoothly. It wouldn’t matter if a Hitler popped up if no one would obey the Hitler. And it wouldn’t matter if the U.S. government wanted to wage war if soldiers refused to fight, or better yet, refused to be soldiers in the first place. Tyranny cannot function without yes men. It is obedience, not maliciousness, that makes the piles of dead bodies grow.

It may seem hopeless, but in Milgram’s experiment, just as in real life, there were some dissenters. The problem is that both in the experiment and in real life, there are not nearly enough people who refuse to obey. However, Milgram did do one interesting variation of his experiment which resulted in the majority of subjects refusing to administer electric shocks to the learner. In this situation there was an experimenter, three teachers, and one learner. The experimenter ordered the teachers to administer shocks to the learner, just like in the other experiments, and the learner (an actor) showed a lot of pain upon being shocked, as usual. The difference this time was that two of the teachers were also actors, unbeknownst to the subject. When the learner showed signs of pain and disapproval, the two teachers refused to administer any more shocks, even when ordered to by the experimenter. When this happened, in almost every case (36 out of 40), the subject followed suit, defying the experimenter, and refused to administer any more shocks. Milgram wrote, “The effects of peer rebellion are very impressive in undercutting the experimenter’s authority. Indeed, of the score of experimental variations completed in this study, none was so effective in undercutting the experimenter’s authority as the manipulation reported here.” When being questioned later as to why they disobeyed, one subject replied, “The thought of stopping didn’t enter my mind until it was put there by the other two.” Another subject answered, “The reason I quit was that I did not wish to seem callous and cruel in the eyes of the other two men who had already refused to go on with the experiment”.

Milgram pointed to some factors that lead to the group’s effectiveness:

1. The peers instill in the subject the idea of defying the experimenter. It may not have occurred to some subjects as a possibility.
2. The lone subject in previous experiments had no way of knowing whether, if he defies the experimenter, he is performing in a bizarre manner or whether his action is a common occurrence in the laboratory. The two examples of disobedience he sees suggest that defiance is a natural reaction to the situation.
3. The reactions of the defiant confederates define the act of shocking the victim as improper. They provide social confirmation for the subject’s suspicion that it is wrong to punish a man against his will, even in the context of a psychological experiment.
4. The defiant remain in the laboratory even after withdrawing from the experiment (they have agreed to answer postexperimental questions). Each additional shock administered by the naïve subject then carries with it a measure of social disapproval from the two confederates.
5. As long as the two confederates participate in the experimental procedure, there is a dispersion of responsibility among the group members for shocking the victim. As the confederates withdraw, responsibility becomes focused on the naïve subject.
6. The naïve subject is a witness to two instances of disobedience and observes the consequences of defying the experimenter to be minimal.
7. The experimenter’s power may be diminished by the very fact of failing to keep the two confederates in line, in accordance with the general rule that every failure of authority to exact compliance to its commands weakens the perceived power of the authority.

The two rebels in the experiment were only actors. For the real rebel it takes courage to be the first to say no, or to stand alone in defiance. But that is the role of the anarchist in society. Perhaps anarchists can take note of those seven points and apply them to ourselves. Maybe that would look something like this (this is by no means meant to be some list of “anarchist commandments”, it’s merely something worth considering):

1. It is for the anarchist to instill in individuals the ideas of defiance, resistance, evasion, and refusal. It may not have occurred to some people as a possibility, or the individual may not know how to go about it.
2. The lone individual in society has no way of knowing if her dissent is “normal”. It is for the anarchist to let such people know that they are not alone. How many people have breathed a sigh of relief and pleasure when reading that first radical book, or zine, or listened to that first punk record that validated the anti-authoritarian sentiments that everyone else they knew told them they were crazy for thinking? How good it feels when one lives in a sea of servility, conformity, and mediocrity to meet that single individual who thinks differently, or to find a group of people who defy the norm.
3. It is for the anarchist to provide the individual with confirmation that her feelings against what she is being ordered to do are valid. For example, when a soldier is ordered to torture prisoners; inside he feels that it is wrong to torture, but the military tells him that it is the right thing to do. The anarchist must be the one to give him social confirmation for his feelings against torture.
4. It is for the anarchist to remain in society, constantly registering disapproval of the horrors that authority is bringing down. This may seem like nothing, but it’s not always such an easy task, when multitudes of servile subjects are waving flags around and cheering for the leader, to be that one person or one small group of people pointing out the madness of it all.
5. It is for the anarchist to let responsibility fall where it belongs. When the police go nuts and shoot up the place, killing some innocent victim, or when soldiers do the same, they usually get let off the hook with such silly excuses as, “It’s a very stressful job and accidents are bound to happen,” or “collateral damage”, but anarchists have to be the ones to point out that no, that excuse is unacceptable, you are responsible for your own behavior, and you cops and soldiers are guilty and blood-stained as hell.
6. In Milgram’s experiment the consequences for disobedience were minimal, which led the subject to see that it was no big deal to say no, but in reality, the consequences are often much more severe. While anarchists cannot always, like Milgram’s rebels, demonstrate that the course of disobedience is easy, we can be there to support our rebellious peers when authority’s fist comes crashing down on them. We can see examples of this such as people who set up “underground railroad” type networks for AWOL soldiers, and those who back up soldiers who refuse to go to Iraq. Soldiers are far more likely to rebel when they know that there are dependable people who have their back.
7. Every failure of authority to exact compliance to its commands weakens the perceived power of the authority.

The rebellious peer variation of Milgram’s experiment led him to believe that “when an individual wishes to stand in opposition to authority, he does best to find support for his position from others in his group. The mutual support provided by men for each other is the strongest bulwark we have against the excesses of authority. (Not that the group is always on the right side of the issue. Lynch mobs and groups of predatory hoodlums remind us that groups may be vicious in the influence they exert.)”

Imagine a society that places more emphasis on being true to one’s own conscience and less emphasis on being true to an institution. More emphasis on inner integrity and personal reflection, and less emphasis on outward appearance and looking good on paper. A society in which people act on their own convictions rather than acting on orders handed down from above. Fewer soldiers with their “service before self”, and more Whitman’s with the dictum, “Resist much. Obey little.” Individuals who think for themselves and act for themselves. It would be terribly difficult for tyranny and oppression to take root in such a society because those who would tyrannize and oppress would have a hard time doing so with no one to carry out their orders. Bush could cry for war all day long, but with no obedient soldiers to fight his war for him, there would be no war. Sure, he could go to war by himself and even kill some people, but he wouldn’t get very far, and he would never, even if he wanted to, be able to kill the amount of people that an army kills. He wouldn’t have much luck setting up checkpoints, curfews, and torture chambers either. Those wicked endeavors also require obedient servants who will carry out orders. The same goes for any power-hungry maniac. Women-hating, queer bashing, reason-ignoring ministers, popes, rabbis, and imams would be out of business in such a society. The same would go for gang leaders, war lords, and corporate CEOs. If the individuals that make up the world’s human population would simply think and act for themselves rather than letting authority think for them and rather than acting for authority, there would be a lot less blood-shed, abuse, and coercion in the world.

Evil is unspectacular and always human, And shares our bed and eats at our own table. – W.H. Auden

To all of us who have been charged, we all agree that we don’t feel like we were doing things that we weren’t supposed to, because we were told to do them. We think everything was justified, because we were instructed to do this and to do that.

– Lynndie England, one of many U.S. soldiers who physically, psychologically, and sexually abused Iraqi men at Abu Ghraib prison