Resisting Authority: First We Must Resist Ourselves

Many people have been talking and posting about Orwell’s 1984. They’ve found in it meaningful parallels to our present political situation. I want to suggest another book: Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority.

Milgram’s book describes his classic experiments in which he measured the degree to which normal people would obey instructions simply because they were given by an authority figure (in this case a scientist running an experiment). It may be the single scariest book I’ve ever read. It may be the most important book for us to read and remember in these times.

The concise summary of his research is this: two out of three people will apply what they believe to be a fatal shock to a subject (person) because they are told they must do so. There are ways to increase that percentage–such as by increasing the separation between the person receiving the shock and the one administering it–but in all variations of the experiment, at least two in every three individuals administered what they expected to be a fatal level of electricity.

These experiments were conducted

Cover of Book "Obedience to Authority"
Obedience to Authority

in the early ’60s, a direct reaction to the Holocaust. It was, in part, an attempt to understand how average Germans carried out Hitler’s plans.

These experiments have not been repeated or further explored because they have been seen as damaging to the subjects (the individuals who thought they were applying shocks). In fact, the Milgram experiments resulted in human subject committee approval being required for any studies involving human subjects.

We do not know whether knowing that there is a two in three chance that any of us would kill someone if ordered to do so changes our probability of doing so. It is my hope that it does. And that is why I think it is critical that we pay attention to Obedience to Authority now.  If we are to resist the encroachment of an authoritarian government, we must first accept that we are inclined to accept and aid that government.

We can resist.  We must resist. But to do that, we must first understand ourselves, and be willing to resist our natural inclinations.

Here I Stand

For years, I have been relatively careful about my postings. As both a freelancer and, at times, an applicant for more permanent positions, it has seemed sensible to keep politics (for the most part) out of my blog. I also believe that there are others who can speak more knowledgeably about politics than I, my field being spirituality and the sacred.

Times change, the rules change. I can no longer keep silent for fear of giving offense or limiting professional opportunities. The threat is too great. Too many of those who are more “expert” than I in politics turned out to be no more correct than I, and in many cases, were far less correct about events to come.

We, as Americans, face an existential threat. I put the odds of a “free and fair” election in four years at less than 50% (and by free and fair, I mean with no more interference than the electoral college, gerrymandering and voter ID laws have already imposed). Our current president truly does not understand the Constitution he swore to defend. More to the point, he doesn’t care. He cares about himself. And how he is seen.

Donald Trump has a need for everything to be all about him all of the time. At the moment, it’s pretty easy for him to garner headlines–it’s the first week and anything he does gets headlines. What happens in two weeks when a simple executive order is no longer as shocking  to us and the media? What will he do in order to draw our attention back to him? If he needs to launch a nuclear strike in order to get headlines, I suspect he will. He needs attention. Not wants it. Not enjoys it. Needs it as an addict needs drugs.

How do we resist? I have no idea. The Republican party has abdicated their responsibility towards America. They have placed winning ahead of achieving their goals. Trump does not represent Republican values–not those of Eisenhower, not those of Reagan or either Bush. Not even those of the Tea Party (which, in truth, weren’t all that Republican so much as socially conservative). Republicans in congress are unwilling to stand up to this president, to protect our democracy. And each day, as he becomes more entrenched, as he demonstrates his willingness to carry out personal vendettas against those who stand against him, fewer will be willing to stand against him.

And that is why I’m writing on politics. If I want federal civil servants to continue to put out truth despite the threat of retaliation, if I demand that Republican congressmen and women vote with their conscience rather than with a megalomaniac who has taken over their party, I must be willing to step forward. To identify this as a moral issue, and one for which I am willing to speak.

We are the resistance. We cannot negotiate. We must not bend. We must be the rocks upon which Trump breaks. Because we must outlast him, and we must be able to take back our Republic when the time comes.