September 29, 2013.
Fifty years ago this month, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram published a groundbreaking article describing a unique human behavior experiment. The study and its many variations, while ethically controversial, gave us new insight into human tendencies to obey authority, surprising the experts and everyone else on just how susceptible we are to doing the bidding of others. The original experiment revealed that a majority of participants would dutifully administer increasingly severe electric shocks to strangers - up to and including potentially lethal doses - because an authority told them that pulling the levers was necessary and required (the "shocks," subjects found out later, were fake). People who obeyed all the way to the end did so even as they experienced tremendous moral conflict. Despite their distress, they never questioned the basic premise of the situation that was fed to them: the institution needed their compliance for the betterment of the common good.Milgram was driven by the need to comprehend Nazi horror, and today his research is rightly recognized as a warning of how easily things can go wrong if people obey authority uncritically and systematically. Yet its social contribution is only rarely understood to have here-and-now implications. We urgently need to update our appreciation of the perils of obedience to accommodate our contemporary global situation.
*****Comment: I like the theoretical framework within which this article is couched. The notion of obedience versus disobedience as a measure of right or just action is a compelling highlight of the post-Nuremberg world as the author suggests.
But just how much of the weight of Nuremberg presses the average person toward moral or just action when most folks are just trying to get by and make a living or at the very least, trying to survive?
During apartheid very few folks who lived in my neighborhood were actively engaged in any form of disobedience or conscious struggle. In fact, I can't remember any.
Most people were content with the system and their marginal placement. It may not have been a contentment that expanded their moral purview but it was a resolved expediency based on the need to get by and survive.
But just how many of those folks remember their position differently now that apartheid is two decades in the past?
Similarly, most white South Africans were content with the system and the privileges that it afforded them. Today you cannot find a white person from that era - or any other racialized beneficiaries of apartheid - who will confess to supporting apartheid and being active by default in its gross inhumanity.
Last year when I crisscrossed the US it amazed me to listen to Americans talk about a second term for Obama. Good people - some who are close friends - appeared shockingly disconnected from the reality of what the US does to support its greedy and evil habits on foreign shores.
In the end the Uncle Tom who is a prop for whiteness was returned to office. Most black and brown folks who should know better turned their backs on the shores where Obama kills other black and brown folks and joined white Americans to re-elect a man who was said to be the lesser of two evils.
When the final bloodied history is written - if ever - will those who voted in accordance with their myopic fixation on their pocketbooks even want to remember their obedience to a system that killed millions as a result?
At Nuremberg the defense of those who carried out atrocities on behalf of the Nazis was to argue that they were only following orders. At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa a version of this defense was also forwarded.
Yosef Brody is asking if the repudiation of following orders to do dastardly deeds does not similarly compel us to repudiate obedience to corporate-state authority that is destructive.
It is an engaging argument.
Still, it must be said that Brody is too careful in this installment of his argument. The general problem is not the minutia of living under corporate-state authority but rather the corporate-state itself and the political will to undo its contrived existence and its legacy in larger structural terms.
Nonetheless, Brody's theory is expandable and quite compelling in its calculation of the need to break the chains of destructive authority. See this passage for example:
Acts of obedience have over the centuries been the cause of far more destruction and savagery than have acts of disobedience - maybe most dramatically during World War II. Humanity witnessed an eruption of systematized violence on a scale never before seen, an outcome fully dependent on the obedient behavior of ordinary people. The war ended with two extraordinarily destructive acts: a handful of men obediently followed orders over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in the instant incineration of several hundred thousand human beings. Soon afterward, as a result of the Nuremberg Tribunal, it became crystal clear for anyone touched by the war that personal considerations of conscience were simply unavoidable when making decisions in hierarchical contexts. The duty to obey authority could no longer justify inhumane actions, neither morally nor legally. Questions regarding obedience and disobedience were revealed to the world as intensely personal, deeply ethical and of supreme consequence. In a post-Nuremberg world, the ultimate responsibility for one's actions falls on the individual, not on powerful interests that persuade or coerce.In this context the notion of a universal human being as conceived in human rights theory is perhaps a needed injunction to dissuade and ward off mass atrocities as described above.
Unfortunately, universal notions of human rights may be on the books but it is the relativist objections that seem to trump the concern with collectivizing humanity. I am not entirely pointing fingers at cultural relativists here. What I am mostly saying is that atrocities continue largely because situations are judged relative to interests - including culture - and not by the inclusive measure of the common good.
Inside of this historical conundrum the exposition that obedience to authority is not enough of an excuse continues to provide a compelling motivation to stand up for what is right, moral and principled no matter the personal costs.
I remain convinced that we can arrive at a collective humanity even if it means that the individual is the agent of resistance in the face of naked authority.
In other words, it is not inconceivable to expect - as history illustrates - that progressive social movements can be instigated or propelled further by convicted individuals who see justice as more than just a life balanced between contentment and survival.