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To Obey or Disobey?

Rules and instructions are social constructs, existing to exert certain stability and control over a region or groups of people. Be it parental control over children, a teacher’s authority over students or bigger instances of authoritarian governance, a fine line separates willful obedience from blind obedience. Ultimately, blind compliance and submission leaves a person hollow and empty of their idiosyncratic qualities, ethical code of conduct and basic moral grounding. It results in a conflicted and confused personality that simply cannot ascertain between the dichotomy of good from evil. Such people lose the ability to gauge extremities of behaviour and have a false sense of correctness as things seem right by virtue of them being compliant or ‘simply following orders’. In this vein, conformity becomes a valid excuse to carry out inhumane and otherwise unacceptable tasks.

As the Milgram Experiment has revealed, psychologically people feel less responsible for their behaviour or actions when obeying commands from an individual placed in a figure of authority. A person doing the obeying becomes a pawn or a puppet in the hands of the figure wielding such control over them. Hence, being overly obedient often makes it difficult to abide by a code of morality and ethics, blurring the boundaries between what is considered right and wrong, and what is soft versus hard power. In the face of this conflict, the valid reasoning, and purpose behind performing a task of obedience is lost. Most of the time, people obey figures of authority due to a fear of being punished, judged or disadvantaged by virtue of standing up to power-figures or their ideologies. A prime example of obedience in social situations is peer pressure, ranging from the typical pressures to drink, smoke and date to sometimes performing life threatening tasks just to prove yourself. In a social context, this pressure is born from a strong desire to be accepted and much like other instances of obedience, goes against what a person really wants or desires to do. When an action goes against an individual’s grain of being, they experience cognitive dissonance – a dissonance in their actions, emotional states and conflicting perceptions about what road they must take. As a result of this dissonance, a person attempts to alter their intrinsic thought processes to fit or provide a meaningful explanation to their actions. For example, during the Eichmann and Nuremberg Trials, Nazi officials did not admit to their wrongdoings stating that they were innocent and simply did what was asked of them, shifting the blame for their actions on the orders of their superiors. In this agential state of existence, the responsibility of one’s actions can effortlessly be displaced to others. This connotes the extremity of excessive obedience that leads to a loss of self and almost serves as a manipulative mechanism to force others to obey and conform.

Acts of civil disobedience such as protests and marches occur when people realize that systems of governance are flawed and unjust. This serves as an instance of utilizing your own values to differentiate between injustice and a ‘normal way of life’ as explicated by an authoritarian leader. The normalcy with which Hitler advocated the mistreatment of Jews made people conform to his atrocious ideology, and in turn influenced them to believe mistruths. The lack of questioning and reasoning on the part of the masses showcases the poison that is unrestrained obedience, especially in the face of an influential leader. Carl Jung stated that, “No tree can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell” — the morally good agent must be capable of immorality, but in control thereof; blind obedience renders such a situation impossible. There is no saying that Hitler or Eichmann’s atrocities led to their heavenly appraisal and this certainly does not serve as a justification for their actions. Ultimately, it is both the leader and the person doing the conforming who are responsible for not having attached any thought to their actions. What is the point of education when you cannot reason right from wrong, and become foolishly victim to a horrendous set of ideologies? Being principled and following orders is very different from following orders thoughtlessly and blindly. After all, it is usually the obedience of some that leads to the prosecution of others.

While conformity can be defined as the active choice of a citizen to conform, obedience from a dictator-like figure becomes a manner of constraining people and controlling their minds by infusing them with a collective group identity. Most people who break standard norms or stand up against utter obedience are labeled criminals or deviants. Yet again, it is morally criminal behaviour to conform to any unreasonable dictator or leaders, who are in turn criminals by virtue of their actions. Instead of being an extension of or mere instrument in the hands of a leader, own your acts of obedience and judge them against your own code of ethics. In my opinion, obey until obedience runs counter to your ingrained beliefs or values. Don’t bend your will to conform, especially to be accepted, or respected, or merely to mimic others' responses because there’s a loss of interiority involved in blind obedience. There’s a reason why Hitler and Mussolini’s slogans and speeches solicited complete obedience to the law and the leader. You shouldn’t be easy to control or be bent to submission. Willful disobedience is more so a reflection of strength of purpose than utter, blind obedience.

Illustration: Marios Diakourtis

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