Follow the leader

The reluctance of people to stand up against things which they know to be wrong is fascinating and horrible. It has freaked me out ever since I read about the Milgram experiment as a teenager. This is the experiment where they persuaded 66% of participants in the experiment to administer near-fatal electric shocks to a person who was supposedly behind a screen and answering questions. I really hope that I would be one of the ones who refused.

Tigtog at LP has written a post about the Mai Lai massacre, in which some American soldiers bore arms against their own colleagues, and refused to participate in the killing of villagers. She then goes on to say:

Now, bear with me while I wrench away from blood and death to everyday blokes and “banter”, but what justifies the common voluntary male subjection to the homosocial phenomenon whereby men who don’t “go along” with “the blokes” are ostracised? Why is that ostracism such a strong tool in so many male relationships, especially amongst groups of men who are not close friends, or who may not even know each others’ names?

Tigtog seems to be saying that this is a peculiarly male phenomenon. I would have to disagree strongly. I think it is a phenomenon that applies to all genders.

As I have said in a previous post on another topic, I agree that where societal coercion is concerned, men tend to be more physical and women tend to be more psychological. In the school yard, boys would beat each other up, whereas girls would be much more likely to do the psychological “freeze” out and whisper nasty things about one another. Of course, this is a generalisation: there were cases where girls had violent physical fights (I recall one where two girls pulled clumps of hair from each other) and cases where boys “ganged up” on other boys. But it was rarer that way around.

However, the ultimate effect of such coercion is the same, which is to minimise dissent. Therefore, I do not think there is a difference between men and women in this regard. Each are equally likely to refuse to tolerate dissent in certain circumstances. In fact, I think fear of social ostracism is just as strong as threats of physical violence, if not stronger in some circumstances. There is a reason why, in ancient communities, wrongdoers would be “exiled”, and why we gaol people today – to be cut off from one’s community is a terrible punishment, because human beings are essentially social.

I think humans have a basic need to comply with authority. It must have some biological basis (a predisposed tendency to obey the silverback in the gorilla troop?) Why is this? Well, we learn from a very young age that obedience can be a good and necessary thing. I found this out when I was four years old and went against my grandpa’s instructions not to touch his razor. Obedience can save us from harm.

Further, it has to be said that sometimes the fear of social ostracism can have a positive effect – for example, in today’s world, if someone says a sexist or racist joke at a social gathering, they are likely to be regarded with distaste by most present, so are less likely to say a joke like that. In fact, the criminal law works partially by deterring people from acting illegally on the basis that to do certain things will result in social ostracism and removal from mainstream society.

However, in certain circumstances, obedience can produce horrific results. Skepticlawyer wrote an interesting post a while back on genocidaires in which this very phenomenon was discussed. She said genocidaires were typically individuals with high IQ and very low empathy, as well as posessing an ability to convince other less intelligent individuals to follow their command. (Please keep writing some posts if you have time, skepticlawyer! I did enjoy them.)

Why is it that people follow commands which they know are wrong, and don’t stand up for what is right? People don’t want to end up on the bottom of the heap with the despised minority. Better to be on the side of the bully than to be on the receiving end. I think, as described above, there might also be a basic biological urge to follow authority because this may be a positive in some circumstances. Think about all the emphasis in job interviews on the ability to “work in a team” and toe the line!

It is also really important to have individuals who will stand up against the status quo and question what is right. This is partially why I don’t follow a particular political “doctrine” – I like to look at each issue and carefully consider what is right according to my own beliefs. It is essential to encourage debate and to listen to other points of view. And to allow iconoclasts and dissenters, even if we do not agree with what they say.

I’m going to finish off with another quote from Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, in which the demon Crowley considers humanity:

…[H]e rather liked people. It was a major failing in a demon.
Oh, he did his best to make their short lives miserable, because that was his job, but nothing he could think up was half as bad as the stuff they thought up themselves. They seemed to have a talent for it. It was built into the design, somehow. They were born into a world that was against them in a thousand little ways, and they devoted most of their energies to making it worse. …
And just when you’d think they were more malignant than ever Hell could be, they could occasionally show more grace than Heaven ever dreamed of…

Here’s to those human beings who show more grace than Heaven could dream of.


Filed under feminism, politics, society

9 responses to “Follow the leader

  1. tigtog

    Oh, I very much like the way you’ve riffed off my post, Legal Eagle.

    I hadn’t considered the positive social enforcement aspects of ostracism because I was so focussed on the horrors of My Lai, and on what I saw as cowardice in the face of homosocial threats of ostracism in the episode of Ricky Gervais’ Extras. You are quite right to point out the other side.

  2. Graham Bell

    Good one.

    Compliance can be overwhelming ….. and dangerous. At the height of the Azaria Chamberlain affair [the diappearence of an infant at Ularu/ Ayer’s Rock in the Northern Territory a quarter century ago] several women I knew were convinced that the infant’s mother, Lindy Chamberlain, was as guilty as sin. They had no knowledge of the place, the people and the events other than what was prsented in the mainstream media. Anyone who disagreed with them was ostracized and slandered as supporting infanticide. These weren’t depraved monsters; they were thoroughly nice, intelligent ladies. But on this one isuue ….. they were witch-hunters.

    Obedience often does mean the difference between survival and annnihilation …. this is ONE of several reasons it became such an important part of Prussian [as opposed to non-specific German] culture. Obedience helped them survive the horrors of the Thirty Years War and to win victory against all odds in the Seven Years War; it helped make their economy so efficient despite the paucity of many vital raw materials. But we all know the result of that same trait of Obedience being perverted after 1928 to enslave the Prussian people and drive them to ruin and near extinction as well as to wreck and depopulate so much of Europe.

    …..[[btw – keeps refusing my normal email address; don’t know why; if concerned please ask moderators at Larvatus Prodeo or at Catallaxy; I do exist ….I think :-)]]

  3. Law Student

    We studied the Milgram experiment during first year uni.

    I think, as you mention, its simply obeying orders. The people who were giving the shock were obeying a man in in a labcoat which they percieved as a symbol of authority. At one point a man with a heart problem was screaming so he could stop being electrocuted, but he still got the shocks.

    Hitler led many good Christians to doing very un-Christian acts, and they obeyed without much hesitation. I once read in a book about the third reich where the bible used to be read out to Nazi troops.

    After all obeying authority is mostly normal.

  4. Aimee

    I wasn’t previously familiar with the Milgram experiment, but after reading up it reminds me of a documentary I once saw (late at night and I don’t remember its name) where they tested how a group of people who thought they were waiting for a job interview reacted when smoke and heat began emanating from the door at the far side of the waiting room. The gist of it was that if you were waiting by yourself, you would get up and investigate and ultimately leave the room where you’d been told to wait. If there was a group of people waiting everyone sat around and waited for someone else to say something, and when they finally did move it would have been too late and (had it been a real fire) they would have already been dead.

    This is not so much, I think, about people obeying authority as the way people in a group abdicate responsibility to someone else to respond, perhaps partly because they don’t want to look like an idiot in front of other people, and partly because there’s a kind of inertia in a group. It is a related issue to the question of obedience (and does appear to have been taken into account in someof the Milgram variations).

    Another related experiment would be the Blue Eyes experiment, and doco “Blue-eyed” regarding the same experiment and its aftermath.

    It’s all fascinating stuff…

  5. The Daily Magnet

    This exclusion or ostracization is also seen on a societal level with whistleblowers where legislation (introduced over more recent years) vilify them, long after departments and authorities and individuals, because they just don’t ‘go with the flow,’ not ‘team players.’

    Is it possible that school education introduced so Australians could go to work, breeds a pack mentality of conformity?

    In Mr Howard’s last term he has made education funding schemes reliant on compliance with nationalistic measures, such as flags and posters displayed in classrooms which depict military images as Aussie images so children are more tuned to his idea of military intervention.

    I wonder if this is something which has been present all the long in different forms, like say male oriented sports – in football we are seeing compliance with drug culture, and footballers have been involved with infamous criminal figures for decades, but there’s mass marketing of group sports, team sports even individual swimmers are identified as part of an ‘Australian team.’

    Do you think there is a move away from individualism in our present culture?

  6. Legal Eagle

    I think there is a very strange dichotomy in the present government’s view of modern society.

    On the one hand, we’re expected to be rampant individuals: bargain with our employers ourselves, fend for ourselves etc. But only a certain kind of individualism is allowed…

    On the other hand, there is an expectation that we should toe the line – do not question the government’s actions, be patriotic, etc. If you’re not comfortable with all that, then you must be a moonbat.

    To my mind, patriotism is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t entail blind loyalty and disdain towards other countries. I realised when I lived overseas how proud I am of Australia, and that I do love my country, but that doesn’t mean I support jingoism.

    I’m happy for schoolchildren to discuss the heroism and contribution of the Diggers to modern Australia, but I think there should also be a discussion about why the cream of young Australian men were sacrificed for someone else’s war! I read Les Carlyon’s Gallipoli a while back, and the waste of life and talent was simply tragic. My own great-grandfather died relatively young as a result of injuries sustained at the Somme.

    My experience at primary school and high school is that there is definitely a “follow the leader” mentality in sport in Australia. I’m sure in AFL and cricket that you have to be one of the blokes (booze and party hard), or else you won’t be accepted. No wonder there are the present problems in AFL!

    I found that England was more tolerant of eccentricity than Australia, although substantially less tolerant than Australia in terms of class divisions.

    I’m just not a team person, although I have once been in a sporting team which I enjoyed (a women’s soccer team). I do find it difficult to follow the leader, and it has always gotten me in trouble throughout my life, from the moment I was thrown out of ballet class at age 3 because I wouldn’t dance like the other “kittens”. Although it makes things problematic sometimes, I wouldn’t have it any other way. As one of my friends likes to say, “Difference makes us special!”

  7. Anonymous

    In relation to the Milgrom experiment – I came across this information on a book written by Zimbardo, who was involved in the ‘prison experiment’ all of those years ago. Sounds interesting.

  8. Pingback: “You have to die, so that I can live.” « The Legal Soapbox

  9. Pingback: skepticlawyer » “You have to die, so that I can live.”

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