I suggest reading this post to the end, then watching the videos and reading the links. -DM
“Think for yourself, question authority.”
These words are more than an anti-authoritarian exhortation from Timothy Leary and part of an excellent TOOL song. It’s a way of interacting with the world that helps guard against charlatans and others who would seek to manipulate you. Lately I’ve noticed more and more people saying things like, “You should always do what a police officer tells you,” or, “If he’d only followed orders everything would have been okay.” This line of thought ignores human nature when wielding authority, and it’s the sort of mindset that leads to excuses such as, “I was just following orders,” a phrase which has been used to justify some of the worst abuses in recorded history.
“The experiment requires that you go on.”
The average person will administer electric shocks to the point of killing or injuring another so long as someone in a lab coat–a perceived authority figure–encourages them using the quote above. This was shown in the early ’60s, roughly two decades after the end of World War II, when Stanley Milgram’s experiments showed that 26 out of 40 subjects would apply a 450 volt shock at the urging of someone in authority, possibly killing the other participant (who was an actor, a fact unknown to the subject administering the charge). One of the purposes of this experiment was to show why the average German citizen didn’t do more to oppose the Nazi party.
Think humanity has improved since? The experiment was repeated in the UK less than a decade ago with similar results.
Surely this is a reflection of British culture, right? Modern-day Americans are no better, as shown by NBC in 2010.
(Click here to watch the full episode on NBC’s website.)
Why is default trust of authority such a bad thing?
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. -Lord Acton
This phrase was uttered hundreds of years before the Stanford prison experiments showed that even seemingly normal people possess the capacity for great evil. We owe it to one another to ask questions and to demand accountability regardless of title or social standing. If you see someone doing wrong, do your best to oppose them. That’s how to make a difference. One person acting alone can affect change. All it takes is questioning orders you believe to be wrong, and not accepting easy answers intended to shut down that line of questioning. Freedom of speech and of the press are so important that they were included as some of the very first protections delineated in the Bill of Rights, yet in a video posted just days ago, a Detroit officer violates the first amendment rights of a journalist who’s covering a protest. His excuse? “I’m gonna enforce what my supervisors tell me what to do.” This officer could have made the choice to uphold what is unambiguously written in the constitution, but he did not.
Stated simply, it’s in humanity’s nature to obey authority. In the eyes of many asking questions is discouraged and standing out is anathema. When these attitudes combine it’s a recipe for long-term disaster, a world where saying, “I was simply following orders,” is praised until hindsight turns it to castigation. It’s a world where we spend more time talking about fictional lives endangered by the information given to Wikileaks by Chelsea Manning instead of the very real Collateral Murder video showing US forces firing on a reporter, those trying to help him, and children. It’s the type of world where police officers murder people, mostly minorities, again and again (and again and again and again and again and again) and seldom face a jury, while many excuse their actions and blame the victims.
It’s time to admit there’s an institutional problem with policing in America.
It’s a problem cameras won’t fix, because there are now several examples where cops murder or abuse people on camera, put conflicting information on an official report, but still are never charged with any crimes. How many times has this happened with no video evidence? More cameras won’t do any good if the cops can turn them off or “lose” the footage, and citizens recording the police doesn’t do much good if they turn off the camera as soon as a cop demands it. The problem goes far beyond cameras and viral Youtube videos though. Part of the problem is accepting when a local DA with close connections to the police department calls a sham Grand Jury–in which the DA defends the accused–and then pointing to the result and calling it “Justice”. Justice is a trial, a cross-examination before a jury who has been selected after the prosecutor and defense attorneys have had cause to interview and excuse them. That is why you hear protestors chanting, “No Justice, No Peace.” Another part of the problem is the media portrayal of police as heroes, when in fact they’re as fallible as you or I. Yet another facet is a police culture that glorifies violence and views every person as a potential perp, an attitude which enables departments to abuse its citizenry and then sell t-shirts joking about it or encourages a cop to wave to the camera minutes after choking a man to death because the man deprived the State of tax revenue.
So there’s nothing we can do, then?
No, there are many things we can do! Amidst all this seemingly abysmal news there is a positive takeaway: many of the people in the Milgram experiment (and subsequent offshoots) expressed distress at their actions. There are also examples of police speaking out against their own (although it does not usually end well). Most of us have some sort of conscience. Even people who don’t are usually observed by those who do. If you see something wrong, at the very least record it. Report it to anyone who will listen. Go to the media, post it online, stand on a street corner holding a sign if you have to. Hold authority figures accountable, and to higher standards than those who don’t wield the same power. If someone abuses their authority they should lose it, not be shielded from consequences. Get involved locally. Call police stations that abuse their citizenry and demand answers. Don’t rely on mass media for your information (because they often distort or outright misreport the facts); instead be the media (or network with those who are).
A healthy skepticism of those in authority helps ensure a free society. All it takes is asking, “Why?” It’s a good start, anyway.