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Gene Sharp 1973

Book Review and Commentary

Another chink in the human edifice of peace is available in this book.  Short it is, but loaded with key information it also is. A contemporary of Stanley Milgram,  Sharp illustrates how the findings of  Adorno and Milgram on the  Authoritarian Personality  play out in society. All three predate Altemeyer’s  excellent study of Authoritarians in politics that  Dean was able to bring into the 21st Century in the philosophy of the  Neocons,

Although Sharp and Milgram came from very different backgrounds and perspectives, their works fit together as hand and glove. Milgram studied several hundred individuals and showed our tendency toward  Authoritarianism  is so strong, that when hearing about it, many can only laugh in pure defensiveness. Sharp, in contrast, shows just how important that feature of evolution is to civil society. Some of our traits are double-edged swords. This is one of them.

For example, from Milgram’s "The Perils of Obedience:”

    “The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

    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.

Milgram was right on in his dire predictions. Human beings are as obedient (conventional) as they are aggressive and hierarchical.

What Gene Sharp adds is an appreciation that civil society could hardly exist without at least some obedience. Sharp’s perspective is that of a historian specializing in politics. His insights go deeper. Aggressiveness combined with obedience leads naturally to hierarchy. The three pillars of the Authoritarian Personality are thus seen to be intimately linked.

Beyond that, Sharp also notes that obedience is a product of "weak egos" (in the vernacular), lack of confidence in one's self (a product of nature/nurture), and, we might add, an educational system tuned to produce robots in the name of achievement." These features run counter to truly functional democracy.

Sharp discusses the question, “Why We Obey” in societies. He suggests seven reasons:

      1 Habit --
      Has several facets: custom, prejudice, utility, expediency. Once formed, few people ever think of deviating from their habits. In a sense, a habit, once formed, becomes a Hang-up. 
      2 Fear of sanctions -- This one is self-evident; brutal dictators employ sanctions for example. But fear also permeates many otherwise well-developed societies. Sanctions can take the form of terror. In the US, fear of terror attacks far outweighs fear of dying in an auto crash, even though 21st Century odds of the latter event are some 80-fold greater!
      3 Moral Obligation -- Moral obligation arise during the normal process of growing up in a society. It is similar to habit except that our sense of right and wrong govern actions we take. Moral obligations may come from many sectors of society, including a despotic ruler bent on genocide, or a self-styled war president. More often they have well defined social or religious origins.
      4 Self Interest -- Self evident and a product of evolution; we would not be here without it. It has been around forever. When self-interest is positive, societies benefit. Self interest drives market economies. Self interest can be negative when corruption intervenes as it has--especially since 9/11.
      5 Psychological Identification With the Ruler -- When subjects can identify with a ruler or superior, a closeness is felt. This is the most common of hang-ups, also known as  Projection.   If we feel someone is "our kind of person" we feel an affinity. It is as ubiquitous as love and war,
      6 Zones of Indifference -- Milgram illustrated this one superbly. Most of us have a zone of indifference where we will accept orders without question. Milgram’s contribution was that our zones are much wider than most of us would like.  But then most of us have not been tested in the sense he tested his subjects, nor have many of us in the US faced dire life choices that tested our ability to disobey.
      7 Absence of Self-confidence Among Subjects -- Here is another result of nurturing. Few of us have parental and other social guidance that reinforces our strengths. Although we are taught big boys don’t cry, we are also taught winner takes all wherever we turn. "It is tough out there." Resulting submissiveness is a natural defense mechanism; it numbs the pain of failure. It also dumbs down any thought that we as individuals can make a difference. We never seriously address the question of what would happen if only we stand up.

The sum total of these amounts to civil obedience on the parts of all subjects. And as  Milgram showed so ably, the tendency toward blind obedience is strong indeed.  It is strong enough to overcome moral obligation in some 65% to 85% of all of us.  See also Lederer   for society-level observations of what blind obedience can mean.

Is there a cure?

Of course: Education.

Having said all that, Sharp sees the silver lining--the necessary silver lining--for stable societies. It is all a matter of degree.

Humanity needs enough obedience to form societies,
but not so much that thinking, and acting in consequence,
are stifled or corrupted.


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