Obedience to Authority

Obedience to Authority


John Moore’s June 2018 photograph of a two-year-old Honduran girl watching her mother get searched near the U.S-Mexico border is up for World Press Photo of the Year.
John Moore/Getty Images

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.
— Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority

Looking at the above picture earlier today brought me to tears and they weren’t simply tears of sadness or grief — there was a lot of anger in those tears. Many will ask how as a nation we have arrived at such cruelty. Of course there are those who will say, “Well, her mother shouldn’t have taken such a perilous journey,” ignoring the fact that it was the US that destabilized the Honduran government to such a degree that it’s the murder/ rape capital of the world.

The question should be: how can such evil exist? Actually if you really want to know where that evil comes from, all you have to do is look in the mirror… we have found the monster and it is us.

Anyone who has taken any psych 101 course will have heard of Stanley Milgram, who shocked the world in the early 1960s with his discoveries at Yale while conducting what became known as the obedience experiments. In brief, he found that average, presumably normal, groups of residents of New Haven, Connecticut, would readily inflict very painful, and even deadly, electric shocks on an innocent victim whose actions did not merit such harsh treatment.

The experiment, supposedly dealing with the effects of punishment on learning, required that the subjects shock a learner every time he made an error on a verbal learning task, and to increase the intensity of the shock in 15-voly steps, from 15 to 450 volts, on each subsequent error (the “shock machine” was a fake, with actors playing the tortured learners in a separate room). The results: 65% of the subjects continued to obey the experimenter to the end, simply because he commanded them to.

Groundbreaking and controversial, these experiments have had enduring relevance, because they demonstrated with stunning clarity that ordinary individuals could be induced by an authority figure to act destructively, even in the absence of physical force, and that it didn’t take evil or aberrant individuals to carry out mass actions that were immoral and inhumane.

Milgram’s findings have had the effect of making us more aware of our malleability in the face of social pressure, in the process making us reshape our individual morality. While I’m sure most of you reading this would like to think that when confronted with a similar moral dilemma we would act in line with our conscience. However, Milgram’s experiments taught us — in shocking, irrefutable detail — that, in a concrete situation containing powerful social pressures, our moral sense can become trampled underfoot.

And this is how evil happens, we allow evil to happen through acquiescence, obedience, and not wanting to “rock the boat.” This how Black and Brown children get gunned down by police or corrections officers brutalize incarcerated people. This is how the twin Black and Jewish holocausts and the genocide of First Nation people are allowed to happen. This is how countless immigrant children are rounded up like animals, separated from their parents, and put in cages – many of whom (thousands!) are subsequently psychological traumatized and sexually abused.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…


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