Authority and Disobedience

March 25, 2009 at 11:13 pm (School, Writing) (, , , , )

Several of you may have already read this, as it was an assignment to be written for my English class. However, I need a space filler while I contemplate more interesting things to write about on here. We recently discussed the research study called the Milgram Experiment in less formal places. Officially, the published paper was (pretentiously) called “Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority.” If you follow the link, you will find a more detailed description of what the research was about, but a brief summary is appropriate.

After watching the Nuremburg trials, Stanley Milgram was stunned and somewhat appalled to find many of the Nazis on trial to either be unrepentant or unwilling to take responsibility for the atrocities they had committed. He posed himself the question “How far can a human be pushed until they reach a point at which they will disobey authority?” So he conducted a study with Yale in which he tested male subjects aged 18 to 40 from all types of educational and social backgrounds in the following situation: The subject was placed in a room with an experimenter who functioned as the authority. In another room was an actor – the fact it was an actor was not disclosed to the subject. The subject was to administer electroshocks to the actor when commanded by the experimenter.

Milgram found that it took an astonishingly long time for almost all of the subjects to disobey; many of them showed signs of psychological distress and extreme tension, but it was only at 120 V shocks that the first subjects began disobeying the authority. Many subjects continued administering shocks when absolved of the personal responsibility for hurting another human being or only verbally protested. Milgram was obviously appalled by these findings and raised the question that, if humans are so willing to follow authority, this kind of power in the hand of a government with malicious intent could be fatal. Then he proposed this: “Perhaps our culture does not provide adequate models for disobedience.”

My task was to work with the following assignment: “In paragraph 47, Milgram comments, ‘Perhaps our culture does not provide adequate models for disobedience.’ What do you think of this hypothesis? Are there such models? Ought there to be? Have such models appeared since the experiment was conducted? Explain your stand on Milgram’s statement.” I thought the topic was interesting enough to post here.

Models for Disobedience?

Disobedience is, in itself, an unpredictable form of refusing to conform to certain standards or to blatantly resist an instruction given by a third party or society. For Milgram to state that “Perhaps our culture does not provide adequate models for disobedience”  (467) is nonsensical. A model of for disobedience would imply a rigidly structured set of rules to be followed, therefore defeating the purpose of disobedience. Would a person truly be disobedient if he or she were simply complying with the laws of disobedience? Clearly the answer is “no.”

The act of disobeying is natural to humans, as we are a species gifted with the ability to form critical thoughts and reflect past, present and future. An intrinsic moral compass that allows us to compare reality to our ideological standards guides us. When our perception of what is right and what is wrong collides with what we witness in our lives, we are inclined to demonstrate our ability to disobey so long as we are fully responsible for our actions. This was the catch in both Milgram’s experiment and day-to-day life.

Closely linked to resistance, disobedience comes in many forms. It is possible to violently resist conformity just as it is possible to take a passive, more intellectual path to disobeying a strict set of rules. Depending on the circumstances, it is up to the individual in such a situation to rely on their own judgment. Disobedience can be as simple as not obeying a command or as complex as resisting the general societal consensus on what is right. During the Third Reich, disobedience was not simply disagreeing with what the government dictated, it was actively seeking to save individuals or raise awareness to the government’s inhumane practices. The lack of a model for their disobedience was apparent in the diversity of disobedience, ranging from assassination attempts to intellectual resistance from groups such as the White Rose, which was group of college students eventually executed for writing and circulating flyers condemning the politics of the Nazis.

One could argue that the extreme conditions and the indoctrination into a collective mindset would not be able to offer up a model for resistance in the first place, but at least it is plain as day that disobedience was not accepted as an appropriate phenomenon, which made it a valid act. Various forms of disobedience manifested themselves in pop culture in the last fifty years, all of which became moot once they were accepted as trendy. One such “model for disobedience” is punk. Punk was considered to be a real breakthrough for its time, delivering a message of anti-authoritarianism, anarchy, direction action and non-conformity. It quickly developed into a subculture of its own through which young people could defy the beliefs of the older generation by listening to loud music, protesting the establishment (The Man) with their dress and hair and radical politics. However, over the years, punk became a more mainstream phenomenon that pressured its followers into a pre-made mold of “disobedience,” which defeated the purpose of such actions. With the establishment of rules to be followed in order to disobey, the intentions become muzzy at best.

At the end of the day, disobedience is a matter of personal choice and it shaped by the beliefs and background of the individual. There can be no standardized form of disobedience because there is no standardized form of society.


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