Edited by: Tejaswini Vondivillu
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead rightfully quoted that an organized group has great power to instil unparalleled change in the world. In order to make the groups that have the power to change the world into a methodized functioning unit, the members have to obey the rules and to authority. While some people may hold views similar to Sophocles, a greek playwright, who believed that “obedience to authority saves many skins,” others may deny it.
Living in a society is rudimentary to human nature. From childhood, a person is associated with various groups, including different friend circles, classmates, colleagues, religion, and identifies as a citizen of their country. Membership to these groups makes the person obliged to follow a set of rules commonly agreed by the members. This is very important for the smooth functioning of society. The problem arises when obligation turns into obedience, and sometimes this may be the end result of blind faith and not common consensus.
The dreadful Jewish holocaust was the outcome of unchallenged authority and indisputable obedience. Though Hitler and other Nazi authorities were the masterminds behind the gas chambers among other horrifying events, it were the followers who committed the heinous crimes. After the war, when executioners such as Adolf Eichmann were being tried, they expressed surprise at being hated by the world for their atrocious actions. Adolf Eichmann wrote in his jail diary, “The orders were, for me, the highest thing in my life and I had to obey them without question.”
This incident prompted the well known ‘Milgram experiment’. The subjects in this experiment were asked to read out a list of paired words to a learner and then test the learner on the knowledge they had recently acquired. For every wrong answer, the subject was supposed to pass an electric shock to the learner. The intensity of electric shocks on the machine rose up to the level of 350V. It was later found out that almost 65% of the people continued to the highest level of 350V. Some of the subjects hesitated to continue, but the experimenter and the authority figure insisted that continuation of the experiment is necessary and the responsibility of the learner’s wellbeing was of the experimenter, he assumes complete authority and micromanages the subject. The subject feels intimidated by the experimenter and feels compelled to carry out the orders against his wishes.
Time and again children are taught to obey their elders. In my opinion, in countries like India, often in primary teaching institutions, the quality of obedience is well sought for in students. Schools tend to give a lot of importance to discipline the students. Schools want to control every aspect of a child’s individuality: from the clothes they wear to the thoughts they think. In a classroom, the teacher possesses the authority and students are expected to follow and obey the teacher’s orders. Most students who challenge this authority are often reprimanded and are forced to obey the teachers without questioning them. This not only depletes a student’s creativity but also their capabilities of being responsible. As noted in the Milgram experiment that people may continue their actions no matter how immoral, as long as they are not responsible.
Patriarchy in our society has thrived for many years. Gender discrimination is an old vice of society. The fundamental pillar of patriarchy rests on male dominance and female submission as well as obedience. It has been years since people have tried to break this unjust ideology, some have succeeded however many are still struggling. One of the reasons that male chauvinist attitudes still prevail is because patriarchy is often interlinked with religion and culture. Both religion and culture are linked to power and are described and defined by people in power. While many hold religion to be sacred, they also fear the wrath of ‘God’. This fear makes people follow orders without scrutinizing the practice. Many women may also comply with patriarchal practices in order to maintain conformity with their social group and what is perceived and thought to be their identity and behaviour.
Leaders may charm their followers with their charisma as was the case with the Nazi regime or may instil fear and fright such as with religious leaders, in order to gain unquestioned superiority and to Carry out commands as they desire. Unreasoned acceptance of orders can hinder the progress of a society. As written by Rabindranath Tagore in one of his poems, “Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit” This poetic line very boldly expresses the adversities of caged and narrow minds in society. “Obedience to authority” is the main element of a bureaucratic society. Small institutions such as schools and large organizations such as countries tend to function in a hierarchical manner, where the orders are received from superiors. In such systems, the onus of following orders rests on a person’s shoulder but it does not force people to obey those who order them, without perceiving, analysing and questioning them. Unquestioned obedience has a detrimental influence on society.