On Civil Obedience

“Laws control the lesser man…

Right conduct controls the greater one.”

– Mark Twain

Never be obedient. Obedience is for dogs. No offence to dogs – I love dogs, and dogs are very admirable, as well as lovable, and there is much that we can learn from dogs. But we are not dogs, and we should not behave like dogs – or cattle, or sheep. Be cooperative, yes – at least, when it is intelligent to do so, and when it does not compromise our integrity or our principles – but never be obedient.

Be respectful, be compassionate, be cooperative when and where it is ethical and intelligent to do so, but never be obedient. The world is filled with obedient men and women, and it is because of this, that the world is also filled with horrors and terrible acts, committed by a few individuals who are mad with greed, hate, ego mania or power-lust. It is precisely the apathy, and the obedience of the many, that allows the sociopathic few to get away with murder – and often literally so.

“Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”

~Albert Einstein

Stop being obedient. Never be obedient. First, be a man, be a woman, be human – then decide for yourself how to act.

Obedience is deadly. Sever all habits of it, and now. To paraphrase Thoreau, our first loyalty should be to our own conscience. All else follows from that, and not before.

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To be clear, I am talking here about adults being overly obedient to whatever powers happen to be dominant or ruling in a given society at a given time, not children, who do not yet have enough awareness to make every decision for themselves. If children were allowed to decide their own meals, for example, they’d be eating chocolate bars and pizza-pops all day long; so clearly, children need guidance. But adults being overly obedient to authority is a problem. I would say that it is due to such an undue obedience to authority that it took so long, for example, to abolish slavery, or child labour, or to bring in the universal right to vote, or end racial segregation or apartheid. And I would say it is because of an excess of obedience and conformity that the severe social and ecological problems which we still face today, are not being resolved at anywhere near the speed they need to be. This is a very serious problem. This obedience may cost us our survival as a species.

It is worthwhile here to quote Henry David Thoreau, On Civil Disobedience, for there has never been a more lucid essay or literature of any kind on the subject of obedience to authority versus obedience to one’s own conscience.

I HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto, — “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have…..But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

– Henry David Thoreau, On Civil Disobedience

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. – Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience

Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power. – Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others, as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders, serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it. – Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience

I think we would do better if we were more obedient to our own conscience, and less obedient to social authorities. In that, I side with Thoreau, and his great essay, On Civil Disobedience – which inspired Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement, the movement to end the war in Vietnam, the environmental movement, and other, very positive social movements, right up to today.

Einstein said it best: “The world is a dangerous place, not because a few people do terrible things, but because millions of people let them.” The great sociologists C. Wright Mills and Erich Fromm would agree, as would Aldous Huxley, Chomsky and Orwell. Many people are rebellious in foolish ways, in ways that lead nowhere, but are passive and timid and deferential, and excessively obedient, when and where it counts. That, I think, is a real problem.

There is a time for casting the money changers from the temple. And sometimes, that means challenging, and even defying, authority. And we have good precedents and examples to follow in that.

J. Todd Ring,

September 18, 2015

For further reading, see:

The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, by Etienne de la Bottie

On Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau

And my recent book, Enlightened Democracy: Visions For A New Millennium, on Amazon now.

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