Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Obedience and Authority
distributed 5/23/03 - ©2003

An award winning-study makes a point that we'd rather not admit. When acting in obedience to an authority figure, people will knowingly cause severe pain to others.

Stanley Milgram's research dealt with psychological questions about violence. His research subjects (who thought that they were helping conduct an experiment on others) were called upon to administer ever-larger electrical shocks to victims. Most of the subjects dutifully flipped switches to zap people, starting at 15 volts and working up to 450 volts, even as the victim protested, screamed, or seemed to pass out. (The "victims" were part of the research team, and no real shocks were administered.)

In a postscript to the published research, Milgram wrote: "With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe." "A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority."

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Milgram's research about inflicting pain is important as we seek out new strategies for healing the ecological distress of our planet, and for creating societies that are more just.

Those of us working for eco-justice are very aware of the pain that is being inflicted on the world -- the exploited workers making cheap goods for our consumer society; environmental toxins that cause cancers; energy generation that pollutes the air and causes global warming; countless species driven to extinction. My work shows me that the general public is also aware of those painful realities. Perhaps not in great detail, but the basic problems are well known to most people.

So how can we live each day, knowing that our lifestyles are causing pain and suffering to people around the world, and causing extreme damage to the environment?

For years, I have assumed that we're all experts in denial, managing to create some sort of mental barrier between our actions and their damaging effects. If denial is the problem, then a central part of the solution involves pushing people to acknowledge their participation in the damage. But that usually doesn't help. Naming that involvement may increase guilt and stress, but it usually doesn't change behavior.

Obviously, there's more going on than denial, and Milgram's study names a critical piece. In much of what we do, we are acting in direct obedience to (or certainly in some level of conformity with) various external authorities.

We receive direct messages (from President Bush on down) that buying is an obligation, that war is an acceptable option, and that environmental damage is normal. A constant flood of advertising drenches us with less explicit messages about participating in a consumer economy. A multitude of respected sources -- in classrooms, newspapers, offices and popular culture -- tell us that "this is the way the system works, and it is OK."

In Milgram's experiment, when objections were raised about the pain being caused, the researchers made no attempt to deny the pain. Rather, the authorities simply stated, with calm assurance, "The experiment requires that you go on." And the shocks continued.

So, too, with our social behavior. We become aware of the tragic consequences, we voice a question or concern, and the authorities around us say, "We know; it is OK; keep doing what you were doing." And most people are obedient.

Dealing with the matter of obedience leads us into new perspectives and strategies. Rather than focusing our full attention on individual actors, we need to look at the relationship between the primary actors and the authority figures who urge them on. Milgram's paper suggests to me several strategies for breaking down these damaging patterns of obedience and compliance.

  1. We need to continue our attempts to bring the actors and the victims into closer contact. We've been doing this to break down denial, and it is still important. Make visible the farm workers who are poisoned with pesticides, and the garment workers who suffer in sweat shops. Make it clear that our actions are harming God's creation.

  2. At the same time, we need to try to increase the distance between the actors and the authorities. We need to help people escape from the round-the-clock broadcasts of government and business authorities, and their pervasive messages delivered with the full emotional and psychological impact of carefully-honed video images. We need to help people experience far less advertising. And we need to help people question and challenge the authorities that they do experience.

  3. We need to provide ways for people to reject the patterns of exploitation and destruction. (Milgram wrote: "Many subjects cannot find the specific verbal formula that would enable them to reject the role assigned to them by the experimenter. Perhaps our culture does not provide adequate models for disobedience.")
Churches and other religious communities are well positioned to do this sort of transformational work. We can continue to build compassionate relationships. We can encourage our people to turn off their TVs, and to question the authority of those who push business as usual. And we can help people claim new visions and new language that will allow them to resist and disobey the powers of destruction.

The people in our pews are feeling the stress of being obedient in immoral actions. We will provide pastoral care to them, and healing to the planet, when we help them challenge the patterns of authority and obedience.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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