Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Obedience and Authority
distributed 7/6/07 - ©2007

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 in 1974 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 who tell us to continue.

We receive direct messages (from President Bush on down) that buying is an obligation, that war is necessary, 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 injury 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; the situation requires it; keep doing what you were doing." And most people are obedient.

Seeing our damaging behavior as a matter of obedience leads us into new perspectives and strategies. Rather than seeking to change the individuals who are carrying out the actions, we need to look at the relationship between those primary actors and the authority figures who are urging them on. Several strategies for breaking down these damaging patterns of obedience and compliance are suggested to me by Milgram's paper.

  1. First and foremost, contrary voices of authority need to speak up and reject the message that "it is OK." Religious leaders, economists, journalists and other respected voices must refute the assertion that our way of life, our economy, or our social system "require" ecological destruction and social injustice. The reassuring lie that "this is the way the system works" cannot be allowed to stand without challenge.

    I think the presence of these dissenting voices has been a significant factor in changing sensibilities about global warming in the last few years. For a variety of reasons -- both moral and practical -- a growing number of respected people in the US are asserting that it is not acceptable for this country to continue its unchecked emissions of greenhouse gasses. As a result, many people can no longer justify the harm they knowingly are causing to the climate, and they, too, are now calling for new policies and technologies.

  2. We need to provide ways for people to reject the existing 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."

    If dissent is labeled as "unpatriotic", then people who love their country will have a very hard time speaking out. People who have been trained to think of themselves primarily as "consumers" don't have a language to think of themselves in a different role. Churches and other religious communities can help people to identify themselves as community members, global citizens, people of faith, or other categories which will allow them to reject a role which forces them to continue in paths of destruction and pain.

  3. We can try to increase the distance between conflicted individuals and the authorities who encourage them in "business as usual". If that message of "it is OK" can't be heard as clearly or as often, then people are far more likely to respond to the anxiety and distress that do feel when knowingly causing hurt and damage. We need to help people escape from the round-the-clock broadcasts of government and business authorities, and their pervasive messages of comfort. Getting people to take a break from mainstream media -- by finding other sources of news and entertainment, or by taking on other activities in the community -- will reduce the power of those who want us to continue causing hurt.

    Churches and other religious communities are well positioned to do all of these transformational works. We can be among the leading voices which shout, "It is not OK!" We can encourage 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, new roles and new language that will allow them to resist and disobey the powers of destruction.

Many of the people in our pews do feel 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

This commentary is a revision of a similar message first distributed on May 23, 2003.

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