Hooray For The DIS-es
The DISobedient And DISsenters

by Philip Greenspan

September 6, 2004   


(Swans - September 6, 2004)  When the GIs in World War II came upon the Nazi death camps they uncovered atrocities that shocked and baffled the world. How could a cultured society that produced such greats as Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Dürer, Einstein, Plank -- giants in the arts, music and sciences -- be guilty of such heinous crimes?

It was difficult for Americans who prided themselves on their morality and beneficence to comprehend. Americans responded to humanitarian needs of their fellow man. They were quick to assist those who were the unfortunate victims of natural or man-made tragedies. Their democracy and culture could never, never, never tolerate such conduct.

Was it Nazi indoctrination that turned moral people into such depraved monsters?

Psychologist Stanley Milgrim set up an experiment to determine just how many ordinary Americans could be induced to perform barbaric acts.

He recruited volunteers for a supposed educational study, to determine if inflicting pain on a subject would improve the subject's ability to learn. A professor at a prestigious university instructed each volunteer to administer a shock of increasing intensity to a learner until the learner responded with the correct answer to a problem. The volunteers were unaware that the procedure was an act to determine how he, the volunteer, would respond.

How much voltage would volunteers subject the learners to? As much as 450 volts?

A few predicted that a rare pathological individual would inflict the highest available voltage.

Most volunteers were troubled as higher and higher voltages produced cries of excruciating pain and obvious medical problems. They were experiencing an unduly stressful event and were reluctant to continue. But upon prodding by the professor and his assertion that he accepted responsibility, about two-thirds of the volunteers continued shocking up to the maximum available voltage.

That ordinary Americans irrespective of age, occupation, income, education, class were just as likely to perform barbaric acts shattered all prior assumptions.

Obedience to authority overcame sympathy and compassion for suffering victims and moral and ethical dilemmas.

Further studies showed that the numbers who would progress to the top voltage could be increased or decreased. If the volunteer did not have to touch the shocking switch but directed another individual to do it instead, or if the instructor was not present but spoke to the volunteer by phone, the number would increase. If the volunteer had to physically press the learner's hand on a shocking plate, it would decrease.

Hannah Arendt was correct to claim that Adolf Eichmann was not a sadistic monster but a bureaucrat who was diligently pursuing his job. Eichmann insisted "I was merely a little cog in the machinery . . . I am neither a murderer nor a mass murderer. I am a man of average character, with good qualities and many faults."

Yes, he was just one of many who ran the killing machine.

If many others are engaged in an unconscionable activity will that provide an excuse for doing the unthinkable?

Another psychologist, Solomon Asch, provided support for that premise. He showed that unanimity of opinion by a small group could exert influence. Even when the group was unquestionably wrong, an individual would agree about a third of the time rather than be the sole dissenter. When the individual could make his decision privately conformity was cut by about two-thirds.

If groups are influential when they are obviously wrong, their impact must be substantially greater on controversial issues.

While these experiments on obedience and conformity disclose surprising results, in the social culture where we live, if one wants to avoid difficulties one learns instinctively to "go along, to get along."

The nation state relies on obedience and conformity, which it equates with "patriotism," to maintain support from its citizens.

Through its institutions and the media it cloaks numerous immoral activities with legitimacy. Activities that often violate international laws. But nation states ignore those laws when they want to, and if powerful enough, are able to get away with it.

An example of victor's justice is the Nuremberg trials. The self-righteous victors of World War II presumed that they were justified in trying the losers. That they, the winners, were just as guilty of committing war crimes was of course irrelevant to that court.

Curtis LeMay, the general who firebombed Tokyo and many other Japanese cities admitted that if the U.S. had lost the war he would have been deemed a war criminal. Certainly, many other bombings by both the U.S. and Britain were also war crimes. Harry Truman's decision to unleash the atomic bomb was objected to by most of the top military brass. They insisted that it was unnecessary. But obedience to authority compelled them to commit war crimes -- "they were only following orders."

The Smithsonian attempted to display an accurate description of the controversial decision at an exhibit scheduled for the 50th anniversary of the bombing. Because "patriots" objected and strongly defended that dastardly decision, the script was dropped. History must never question that decision!

The state relies on all available psychological advantages to secure the loyalty of all. But not everybody buys their spiel. As the experiments showed, there are principled individuals who oppose authority and refuse to conform.

Big Brother doesn't take kindly to those who disobey or dissent. Principled individuals pay a price. Disobey the authority of the boss and lose a job, a promotion, or a raise. Disobey the authority of the military and be subjected to a court-martial. Dissenters suffer the same penalties as the disobedient. In addition, they are shunned, libeled and otherwise abused by the majority.

Those individuals are aware or soon learn that those abuses "come with the territory." That they accept them and carry on proves their devotion to principle. They know that their actions are necessary to restore humanity and justice.

Among the loyal obedient conformists are open-minded individuals who are so tied up with the needs of living that they are unaware of the government's duplicitous and iniquitous actions.

Exposures of the lies of the present US administration by disobedient whistleblowers trouble those open-minded loyalists. They learn that the actions of the Bush administration were unnecessary, unjustified and criminal. How should they respond? What can they do? Should they join the other dissenters?

It is extremely hard to become a dissenter. Human nature says, "Go along to get along." But the presence of other dissenters including many upstanding citizens makes dissent attractive. The stigma and abuses suffered by the LONE dissenter have vanished.

More and more who are perplexed are thinking and deciding that the proper course -- the course that leads to truth, reason, humanity and justice -- is through dissent.

Many in the military are searching their consciences. When they signed up they pledged to obey the orders of the senior commanders. But they know the right course leads in another direction. What do they do?

Claiming conscientious objector status or otherwise refusing to murder or commit other criminal acts is an extremely difficult choice to make. But it becomes easier as the number of dissenters grows. They know they will have supporters for their decision.

Since an initial group of Israeli soldiers refused to serve in the occupied territories, more and more Israelis joined the refuseniks and their ranks keep swelling.

The New York City protest revealed how tough, energetic and effective the anti-war movement has become. In spite of all the obstacles that the organizers and participants were confronted with -- refusal to permit a rally in Central Park; threats that terrorists would attack in New York; fears that brutal police punishments such as occurred at protests in Seattle, Miami and Genoa could be expected -- the turnout from all over the country of a half-million was twice as large as the optimistic organizers expected. The willingness of each participant to expend money, time and effort and to travel, for some great distances, attests to their commitment.

The election is a distraction that should not affect the anti-war movement. Neither candidate nor party intends to change the current pro-war policies.

Both parties, all branches of government and the media as well are fully aware of the existence and the demands of the anti-war movement. But they remain intransigent.

The momentum must continue. All who are sympathetic to the anti-war movement should be persuaded to JOIN the DISSENTERS in future protests.

Scores of organized groups are demanding and hopefully will eventually succeed in getting the U.S. to:

Bring the troops home.
End hostilities in Iraq.
Stop the one-sided support for Israel.

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Iraq on Swans

Israel-Palestine on Swans

America the 'beautiful' on Swans


Philip Greenspan on Swans (with bio).

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Published September 6, 2004
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