Speaking at the Harvard Law School Forum in February on “Winning the Culture War,” Charlton Heston delivered a vital lesson on the role of disobedience in American culture:

“I learned the awesome power of disobedience from Dr. King, who learned it from Gandhi, and Thoreau and Jesus and every other great man who led those in the right against those with the might. Disobedience is in our DNA. We feel innate kinship with that Disobedient Spirit that tossed tea into Boston Harbor, that sent Thoreau to jail, that refused to sit in the back of the bus, that protested a war in Vietnam. In that same spirit, I am asking you to disavow cultural correctness with massive disobedience of rogue authority, social directives and onerous law that weaken personal freedom. …

“Let’s be honest. Who here thinks your professors can say what they really believe? It scares me to death, and should scare you too, that the superstition of political correctness rules the halls of reason. … What does all of this mean? It means that telling us what to think has evolved into telling us what to say, so telling us what to do can’t be far behind. Before you claim to be a champion of free thought, tell me: Why did political correctness originate on America’s campuses? And why do you continue to tolerate it? Why do you, who’re supposed to debate ideas, surrender to their suppression?”

Until recently, few people besides Charlton Heston have expressed concern about whether or not American college students can disobey. Many have discovered that Johnny cannot read, but fewer have seen that he cannot disobey, and neither can his teachers. In matters petty and profound, conformity to cultural norms is increasingly demanded through an insistence on political correctness. “If you talk about race, it does not make you a racist,” said Heston. “If you see distinctions between the genders, it does not make you a sexist. If you think critically about a denomination, it does not make you anti-religion. If you accept but don’t celebrate homosexuality, it does not make you a homophobe.”

A long run of historical experiences with evil authorities should have, by now, underscored the importance of independent thought, free speech, the right to dissent and the necessity of civil disobedience. In our time, there has been no shortage of charismatic, malevolent leaders — Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson and Jim Jones, to name some of the worst — who are capable of committing wholesale cruelty to the point of directing mass killings. What remains shocking, however, is that they have been so successful at recruiting followers. Though Heston believes we may have healthy doses of disobedience in our DNA, there appears to be no shortage of individuals, who, after having been trained in a culture of conformity, compliance and obedience to authority, will offer their hearts and minds up on a silver platter to feed the egos of the power-hungry.

Since the Holocaust, we have lived with the realization that a nation of otherwise civilized people was capable of killing millions of their unarmed fellow citizens on command, but events such as the Hale Bopp and Jonestown suicides took us one step further: people will kill themselves on command. Researching the bewildering phenomena of the Nazi experience, Yale social psychologist Stanley Milgram wrote of the dangers of societal conformity in his book Obedience To Authority: “In growing up, the normal individual has learned to check the expression of aggressive impulses. But the culture has failed, almost entirely, in inculcating internal controls on actions that have their origin in authority. For this reason, the latter constitutes a far greater danger to human survival.”

Contrary to beliefs that the survival instinct is predominant over all other drives, the mass suicides at Jonestown offer testimony to the power of cultural indoctrination. Significantly, the greatest life force at the People’s Temple came from the children. Acting on their survival instincts, they went kicking and screaming to their deaths in an “immature” display of disobedience. The adults, civilized and educated people that they were, lined up and drank their Kool-Aid like the followers they were trained to be — a training that didn’t begin at Jonestown. When something as horrible as mass murders or suicides happen, people draw metaphors about the nearness of the jungle and the beast that lurks within us, but on closer scrutiny the beast within us looks suspiciously more like a sheep.

Despite our rich literature and history of freedom, a pervasive value instilled in society is obedience to authority. Unquestioning obedience is perceived to be in the best interests of the schools, governments, churches, families and political institutions. Nationalism, patriotism, religious ardor and peer pressure are its psychological vehicles. Certainly there must be an optimal level of obedience and compliance in any reasonably civilized society, but we have seen that unthinking obedience can become the most destructive of vices, a threat to our very survival.

In the 1950s, as social psychologists increasingly focused much of their attention on trying to understand the process whereby six million Jews were systematically exterminated in Nazi Germany, social psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a classic experiment on conformity behavior, conduct that is similar to obedience behavior in that it subverts one’s will to that of peers or authority. In Asch’s experiment, college students were asked to estimate the length of a line after confederates of the experimenter had given obviously wrong answers. The subjects, placing conformity above accuracy, then also gave wrong answers 35% of the time. Asch had expected people would be rational enough to choose the evidence of their own eyes over the wrong perceptions of others. He was mistaken. “It is important to keep the unambiguousness of the situations in mind,” explained Asch. “In many instances, subjects are quite certain of the correct choice and, in the absence of group pressure, would choose correctly 100 percent of the time. In contrast, when they conform, they are conforming despite the fact that they know the correct answer.”

If 35 percent of the students conformed to group opinion in unambiguous matters and in direct contradiction of the evidence seen by their own eyes, how much more must we fear blind following in ambiguous circumstances, in situations where the morality is unclear or debatable, or in situations where there exists a legitimate or charismatic authority?

In an effort to understand obedience to malevolent authority that had occurred in Germany, Stanley Milgram devised an experiment to put acts of obedience under his microscope. Milgram attempted to understand why otherwise civilized people had engaged in an extremely immoral act — the wholesale extermination of Jews. He had subjects of the experiment, placed in the role of teachers, “shock” learners for their mistakes. The “learners” were not real learners, but confederates of the experimenter who were faking their reactions. When a mistake was made by a learner, the experimenter instructed the subject-teacher to administer an ever-increasing voltage from a shock machine which read “Extreme Danger,” “Severe Shock,” and “XXX.” Although the machine was unconnected, the subject-teachers believed they were actually administering shocks. They were, in fact, themselves given a real sample shock before the experiment began.

Milgram asked his Yale colleagues to make a guess as to what proportion of subjects would proceed to shock all the way to the presumed lethal end of the shockboard. The professors’ estimates hovered around one or two percent. No one was prepared for what happened. All were amazed that 26 of 40 subjects obeyed the experimenter’s instruction to press levers that supposedly administered severely dangerous levels of shock. After this, Milgram regularly obtained results showing that 62 to 65 percent would shock all the way to the end of the board. He tried several variations of the experiment, one of which was to set it up outside Yale University so the prestige of the university would not be an overriding factor in causing the subjects to obey. He found people were just as likely to administer severe shocks whether the experiments occurred within the hallowed halls of Yale or in a three-room walk-up storefront in which the experimenters spoke of themselves vaguely as only “scientific researchers.” Milgram, had, in effect, re-created Nazi Germany in his laboratory!

In another variation of the experiment, Milgram found that aggression was not a factor in causing people to give shocks. When the experimenter was out of the room, thus permitting the subjects to choose the level of shock themselves, almost none administered more than the lowest voltage. Milgram concluded that obedience, not aggression, was the problem. “I must conclude that Hannah Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth (in explaining the Holocaust) than one might dare imagine,” he said.

“The ordinary person who shocked the victim did so out of a sense of obligation — a conception of his duties as a subject — and not from any peculiar aggressive tendencies. This is perhaps the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority. A variety of inhibitions against disobeying authority come into play and successfully keep the person in his place. It is a curious thing that a measure of compassion on the part of the subject, an unwillingness to ‘hurt’ the experimenter’s feelings, are part of those binding forces inhibiting disobedience — only obedience can preserve the experimenter’s status and dignity.”

Milgram’s subjects showed signs of severe physiological tension and internal conflict when instructed to shock. Presumably, these signs of psychic pain and tortured indecision were a manifestation of an underlying attitude of compassion toward the victim, but it was not sufficient to impel them to openly break with, and therefore embarrass, the experimenter, even though the experimenter had no real authority over them. One of Milgram’s subjects expressed the dilemma succinctly: “I’ll go through with anything they tell me to do. … They know more than I do. … I know when I was in the service if I was told, ‘You go over the hill and we’re going to attack,’ we attacked. So I think it’s all based on the way a man was brought up, in his background. Well, I faithfully believed the man (whom he thought he had shocked) was dead until we opened the door. When I saw him, I said, ‘Great, this is great!’ But it didn’t bother me even if we found that he was dead. I did a job.”

The Milgram experiments continued with thousands of people — students and non-students, here and abroad — often demonstrating obedience behavior in 60 to 65 percent of the subjects. When the experiments were done in Munich, obedience often reached levels of 85 percent. Milgram found no gender differences in obedience behavior, except that women exhibited more signs of internal conflict. Significantly, Milgram said, “There is probably nothing the victim can say that will uniformly generate disobedience,” since it is not the victim who is controlling the shocker’s behavior. Even when the experimental variations included a victim who cried out that he had a heart condition, this did not lead to significantly greater disobedience. In such situations, the authority figure dominates and the victim’s cries are for the most part ignored.

Milgram’s findings demonstrated that an authority figure’s power had to be somehow diminished before there would be widespread disobedience, such as when an authority was not physically present and his orders came over the telephone, or when his orders were challenged by another authority. Most importantly, subjects became disobedient in large numbers only when others rebelled, dissented or argued with the experimenter. When a subject witnessed another subject defying or arguing with the experimenter, 36 out of 40 also rebelled, demonstrating that peer rebellion was the most effective experimental variation in undercutting authority.

The social orientation in which the authority dominates one’s psyche is attributed by Milgram to a state of mind that he calls the “agentic state.” A person makes a critical shift from a relatively autonomous state into this agentic state when he enters a situation in which he “defines himself as open to regulation by a person of higher status.” An extreme agentic state is a likely explanation for the scenario at Jonestown, where even the cries of their own children were not sufficient to dissuade parents from serving them Kool-Aid laced with cyanide in obedience to the demands of their cult leader and peers.

How many of us have made the critical shift into an agentic state, making the assumption that our leaders know best, even though they repeatedly demonstrate that they do not? Milgram predicts that “For the man who sits in front of the button that will release Armageddon, depressing it will have about the same emotional force as calling for an elevator.” Evolution, he maintains, has not had a chance to “build inhibitors against such remote forms of aggression.”

What is the solution to this dilemma in which cultural conditioning and human nature have made us all too vulnerable? We need, most importantly, to embrace free thought and free speech and protect those freedoms at almost any cost if we are to prevent ourselves from falling destructively under the influence of charlatans, false prophets, charismatic leaders and demagogic politicians. As a nation and as individuals we are far better off developing thicker skins than enforcing speech codes that stifle free expression. Leaders, both political and spiritual, should be subjected to intense scrutiny and we must insist that their thought processes and proclamations measure up to acceptable levels of rational thought. Above all, we need to become practiced in activating our inner resources toward rebellion and disobedience when we feel the invisible chains of the agentic state pressuring us to say and think what our leaders and peers demand.

Unfortunately, most of us have gotten the message that it’s dangerous and costly to be different, and that disobedience requires exceptional courage. With sufficient practice, however, when the need arises, perhaps we may have the strength to force a moment to its crisis.

When met with intolerable demands for political correctness that stifle questions, independent thought, and free speech, Heston had a clear prescription for his Harvard audience: “Simply disobey. Peaceably, yes. Respectfully, of course. Nonviolently, absolutely. But when told how to think or what to say or how to behave, we don’t. We disobey social protocol that stifles and stigmatizes personal freedom.”

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