I was obediently driving down the right side of the street last week when I dutiful stopped at a red light. I noticed a video camera mounted on the light's pole and thought that the camera must have been there to promote free flowing traffic. I did not think about the light and camera again until later that evening when I watched a very entertaining DreamWorks film by Ridley Scott called "Gladiator" starring Russell Crowe. That movie made me think about authority, subservience and obedience and how those topics pertained to that traffic light and camera. Was the camera there because people driving down the street usually obey the local traffic laws or was it there because they don't? I am sure that I would not have run through a red light even if the camera was not present because I feel that I am an obedient citizen who understands and appreciates a need for some order and even governmental authority. Yes, I am obedient to authority. But, there is a saying that we Americans are the most 'watched' people in the world. We all have heard of Big Brother. Why on earth would it be necessary to monitor the comings and goings of the innocent? Aren't we all obedient to authority? This essay attempts to examine and thus present my position in regard to obedience to authority. This work also incorporates references from Erich Fromm, Crispin Sartwell and Theodore Dalrymple in the Obedience to Authority chapter of "Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum." These authors present an abstract view of why and how we humans are generally obedient. In other words, these author's essays serve as a basis for the argument associated with my views on obedience to authority.
Like in the movie Gladiator, I believe that the world's human population is generally obedient to authority due to some inert biological need for social order whether or not that social order is just or obviously corrupt. Consider the fall of Hitler, Stalin and more recently Saddam Hussein. These individual leaders and many more before them have all had the following of the majority of their populations even when the living situations were socially unacceptable, illegal or immoral. Early on in the movie Gladiator, Russell Crowe is introduced as the general of the Roman legions and he, Maximus, has obviously sent a representative into the Germanic defensive lines in an effort to negotiate a peaceful settlement prior to war. Of course, the representative is sent back on his horse; however, he rides back to the Roman lines without his head. Maximus calmly says something to the effect that the answer must be no and a high ranking soldier conversing with Maximus replies, "People should know when they are conquered."
The Germanic horde was seen as idiotic for disobeying the Roman authority and wanting to preserve their own way of life as opposed to being lead by the invading Romans. In a more modern example to a similar scenario, even the Iraqi person put up a bit of a fight prior to giving in to our American troops during the Gulf War and again after the war was technically and officially over. In the movie, Rome felt as though it was their social duty and obligation to give the Germans a more acceptable way of life just as we American concluded that Saddam had to go. Whether right or wrong, the need for social order had to take hold and the Germans eventually complied and became obedient to the Roman authority -- and, just like the movie, Iraq feels they have become democratic with the recent vote.
Later in the movie, the people of Rome find themselves under the rule of Commedus who killed his father because his father knew that the son would be a poor tyrannical Caesar for Rome. Other than Maximus, who was loyal and obedient to the dead king, and a few Senators who had a good understanding of their predicament, the majority of the empire went along with this awful leadership and authority figure. To bring the movie's mass acceptance and obedience to awful authority into real life and perspective, Adolf Hitler was technically voted into office in the 1930's.
Just like the Nazi's, the Roman people in the film did not rebel or remove the new Caesar from power or even publicly complain. The masses followed the rules in order to have that social process we humans so desperately need and crave. Crispin Sartwell in the "Genocidal Killer in the Mirror" asks the questions in regard to deference to authority, "ponder perhaps, how you react to a school principal or a police officer or a president. Do you often believe what the authorities tell you just because they are authorities?"
When I was at that red light with the camera, did I know that I was conquered? I accept the fact that rebellion is not an option even if I do not agree with the camera. In fact, I have been told and convinced that the camera is there for my own good. People do whitewash and therefore capitulate to what is spun to them because it is easier than constant rebellion. Human's overwhelming need for order dictates that we be obedient to authority. We have our need for order and we will take it any way we can.
American life is not bad but what of the rest of the world. Sartwell depicts the situation as he saw it in Rwanda and that nation's citizens were in a much worse place than we Americans will ever fully grasp. Now, Rwanda should rebel. But there are so many examples of the Rwandan people simply accepting what is being done to them by who ever was in charge at the time. The red light having a camera is a non-issue in Rwanda where food and shelter and Maslow' other biological needs are not being met. Social order in Rwanda means something completely different than it does here in the United States and yet the level of obedience to authority can still often be compared to being similar.
Sartwell also pointed out that in many situations the people who would be stopping the negative behavior of the authorities actually end up joining in. Consider the fact that Hitler did not physically kill all of the Jewish people with his own bare hands -- he had a great deal of help from people who ten years prior might have called you mad if you told them that genocide would be completely acceptable during WWII or that in Rwanda killing of whole tribes of people would be necessary and accepted. Theodore Dalrymple shows in his review of Stanley Milgram's work that most people will simply join the side of authority even when one might think that they would be socially incapable of doing evil things "The subjects were told to deliver electric shocks of increasing severity, from 15 to 450 volts, whenever a man was supposed to learn pairs of words made a mistake. Milgram discovered that about two-thirds of his subjects were quite prepared to give a complete stranger electric shocks ... "
People will join in to do evil things in order to comply with authority. In fact, the majority of Romans saw the killing of Gladiators as sport in the movie. Was this social compliance? At the time, yes, it was obedience to authority. Sartwell concurs with Dalrymple and points out that we, which entails any of us, could join a team about to commit some atrocity such as genocide because people will follow the cause that leads to social order and acceptance. That means even if the cause is wrong. Consider what message is given by the Roman soldiers in Gladiator -- throughout the movie the army is loyal to the corrupt Caesar even after they discovered that Maximus, their loved general, was alive and well.
Why Obedience or Disobedience
Erich Fromm points out that "In order to disobey, one must have the courage to be alone, to err, and to sin." Maximus in the movie was given a chance very early on to comply with authority. The situation was that the true Caesar had just been murdered by his son Commedus and Maximus knew something was wrong. In addition, Maximus had been given the task of righting the ship in Rome by the slain leader just prior to his death. To do this, Maximus was to remove the power by reinstating Rome to a Republic and thus usurping the authority from the prince.
While Maximus is brought in to witness that Caesar is dead, he is given an opportunity to shake hands with Commedus and therefore pledge allegiance to the new emperor but Maximus does what Fromm says is required of disobedience, he refuses to shake and walks out of the field tent and thus condemns his very future. Obedience can be defined as the act of obeying or…