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.