Saturday, December 20, 2008

The downside of Obedience

As an undergraduate I did a research paper on the topic of obedience. I have even done a blog post about this in relation to the works of James Bryce on this issue of obedience. 

One of the controversial works that I looked at was the experiments conducted by a Yale University associate professor Stanley Milgram in 1961. 

Those of us who read academic works voraciously will have noted that British academics have traditionally worked on the basis of a priori arguments that is rooted on specific academic propositions and philosophical principles.

American academics are quite different. They are proponents of quantification. They treat analysis of qualitative issues lightly unless these analyses are backed by solid quantification via experiments and surveys. It was probably in this academic ethos that Milgram conducted his controversial psycho-social experimentation on the issue of obedience.

Milgram's results confirmed what James Bryce had propounded, that people are inclined to obey. The level of obedience is heightened when there is a clear authority figure giving directions. 

Recently, American academic Jerry Burger has conducted an experiment similar to Milgram's. Read the report here.

These experiments and their results not only confirm the propositions of thinkers like James Bryce on the phenomenon of obedience. They also explain the Nazi officers who testified at the Nuremberg trials in the aftermath of World War II that they had merely been carrying out the orders of their superiors in the mass genocide of Jewish civilians in Europe, the Holocaust. If they are to be believed, these Nazi officers were mere automatons who performed their duties mechanically without any pangs of conscience at all.

I wish to end by making this observation. Amidst the current swirl of angry polemics and rants about the self-interests of Malaysia's many ethnic communities on issues ranging from religion to education to race itself, the opinion leaders must exercise restraint and measure their words, verbal and written, with great care. 

This is because the basic proposition is that independent thought is difficult. It is even more difficult if one's mind is not trained to tertiary level where critical thought and analytical thought is taught. The tendency of these minds would, therefore be, to follow the thoughts of opinion leaders. These opinion leaders could be political leaders. They could also be bloggers. If these opinion leaders adopt callous attitudes and choose their words carelessly they run the risk of creating a mob of racists and bigots who are "obedient" to the racist and bigoted words of the opinion leaders. These are tribal behaviours that will endanger the social fabric. The situation will be even more incendiary in a climate of economic turmoil when adversely affected Malaysians will start looking for outlets to vent their anger and frustration.

Where will such a situation lead? To nothing good but everything bad.


satD said...

Influence and its persuasive power in an environment with poor information without any referential integrity creates blind logic.

We need to be the agent of change rather than perpetuate "mob rule" mentality into our "readers"...

enlighten them bro de minimis...

have a nice weekend

mekyam said...


like you, i too believe that opinion leaders have a responsibility to work towards reducing instead of encouraging tension and discord. given the current trend of sopo bloggers and their more articulate commenters playing the role of fifth estate, the onus are more on them, esp the popular and influential ones, not to post recklessly and become batu apis. the social fabric is tenuous enough as it is.

but very few seem interested in working towards retrieving whatever racial harmony malaysia had pre GE12. instead even those bloggers and commenters who came across as sensible before seem not to want to be outdone in letting themselves be distracted by issues that are partisan, many of which are quite irrelevant to solving the ills the country are facing.

they are almost as bad as the politicians. this is such a distressing turn. since we certainly cannot place our hopes on the politicians as their interests are vested in maintaining distrust among the races, for a while there it was comforting to know that malaysia was seeing the emergence of some kind of civil society leadership.

rather premature of some of us to hope, i guess. i'm slowly convinced that malaysians don't have it in them to change. [sigh!]

Anonymous said...

Very well written! Excellent piece.

I've always had a fond fascination for the Milgram electric shock experiment. What's interesting is that the more you convince people that they won't have any responsibilities in relation to the outcome, the more they are willing to do some really perverse things.

And let's not forget Hermann Goering's words during the Nuremberg Trials...

"Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is TELL THEM THEY ARE BEING ATTACKED, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. IT WORKS THE SAME IN ANY COUNTRY."

It is chilling each time I think about how America got it's people riled up for the War on Terror and what our politicians say in relation to this whole Ketuanan Melayu/Bumiputera issue.

Anonymous said...

Like to share a thought through this coincidental mental stretch..

First a qualifier - I like history, all kinds. Then I like numbers. In fact, I live & breadth numbers - BUT not the ‘Btoto-type’. U can perhaps term me as the Yankee’s proponents of quantification.

Now the story. Couple of weeks ago, there was an interview in The Star with the ex-MD of MAS about the elusive ‘Social Contract’. The only view that stuck to my mind was the following question about this across the board policy for race rather than need.

“But if we’re both poor and there is only one house?

Then the Malay gets the house.”

Such straight & firm answer from a highly educated lawyer! Of course one cannot split the house into two!

“Article 153 stipulates that the Agong MAY mandate reservations for the Malays in education, scholarships and business permits, obviously, if the Malays are not sufficiently already represented.” (Zaid’s speech). But then what about some other social benefits that help the poors?

The question can very well be;

“But if we’re both poor and there is only one loaf of bread?

Then the Malay gets the bread.”

During a subsequent long break, I went back to my kampong. The place is still the same, with the various races of old folks going about their daily lives. The understandings & muhibbah are still ticking thick among these old inhabitants. Many younger generations also ‘balik-kampong’ during this break. During normal time, most of them will be living in the various more exciting cities.

I put the second version of the question to my Malay kampong friends during the Raya get togethers.

Here are the ‘unofficial’ – the sample size is only in the 50s - survey;

62% of the old PAS Malays – share the bread

12% of the old UMNO Malay – share the bread

13% of the young PAS Malay – share the bread

9% of the young UMNO Malay – share the bread
4% - no opinion

Those below 50 is young. The 4% has claimed no political affiliation & are all < 50.

See the trend? What are the conclusions can one draw from this ‘small’ findings?

Why Malays? Because they have the biggest civil servant populations. They are the policy implementators. Saya yang mengikut perindah. They are also the political shaper of M’sia political landscape due to their grips of political power.

Now back to your topic about Burger's findings in blind obedience. There are conscious minds about right & wrong but the onslaught momentum of herd mentality just overwhelm these sparks of righteous. No thanks to BTN & umno bigots. Same thing like the Nazi officers who testified at the Nuremberg trials in the aftermath of World War II that they had merely been carrying out the orders of their superiors.

Juxtaposition the two findings & superimpose them with the complaints about the acts of the little napoleons, again what conclusion can one draw?