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#224: When Obedience Is Not the Answer

Now is a good time to examine the wisdom of history and observe how the human family has weathered crises of demagoguery and dictatorships. How has resistance been manifest? How has goodness survived in the face of greed and bigotry? How do we present to our children a message of hope? How do we explain to them that they really can follow their innocent childish instincts which are largely oblivious to differences in race, creed or color?


I encountered a beautiful poem by James Russell Lowell called The Present Crisis. It was written in 1844 and was adopted by the NAACP in their fight against the evils of slavery:


We see dimly in the Present what is small and what is great,

Slow of faith how weak an arm may turn this iron helm of fate,

But the soul is still oracular; amid the market’s din,

List the ominous stern whisper from the Delphic cave within,-

“They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.”


I believe that we are in the grip of a “weak arm” that will indeed be turning the helm of our great country. There is the possibility that we will be asked to make “compromise with sin” in the form of bigotry, greed and great financial inequality.  But I also think that the “soul” of our country is still oracular. Don’t know what “oracular” means? Yeah. I didn’t either. But it refers to prophetic knowledge or access to information that is gained through spiritual means. It goes above and beyond that provided by a tyrant and it represents, we hope, the best of humanity. In my view it embraces charity, inclusiveness and equality for all. It embodies a powerful human force—one that has never died throughout all of history. But we need to nurture that spirit in each of us as individuals and in our children. We must also support the activities of responsible groups who believe in inclusiveness and equality for all.


At the moment we are in the grip of a “weak arm” at the helm and the path ahead appears to be one of acquisition and aggressiveness, no matter the human cost. History has shown us that many people, masses of people, tend to follow an authoritarian leader, one who promises prosperity but achieves it only for himself or a few close followers. How does this happen?


The Milgram Experiment (Saul McLeod published 2007) carried out in 1963 was a study of obedience and was designed to explain how Nazi officers willingly agreed to carry out the atrocities of the Holocaust. The experiment required subjects to shock another person when he made a mistake, up to an including levels of extreme pain on the other subject who was actually a confederate of the experiment. Milgram concluded that ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being.  Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up. People are obedient to someone whom they recognize as a legitimate legal or religious authority. The experiment has been subsequently critiqued as a lab situation and not representative of real life behavior in that, for example, the subjects were all male. Nevertheless it points out the ways in which people can give up their agency and submit to authority even when they would not do so on their own.


An example closer to real-life experiences was provided by my childhood friend Mary Lois Brugler who posted the following story written by Allen C. Marshall. Marshall tells the story of a time in the seventh grade when the teacher told the students that one of them, Steven Webb Sladki, had not been taking notes as he had been instructed to do. For this infraction she was going to send him to the principal’s office. The other students saw that he was taking notes and tried to tell the teacher but they were shouted down. With no credible defenders the teacher made her case and escorted Steven out of the room. When she came back in she said, “See how easy that was.” It was easy to disbelieve one’s own experience and condemn a fellow student when the teacher refused to countenance any disagreement.


The point of these stories and our best bet in the never-ending resistance to tyranny is that we must think for ourselves; we must follow the information that we obtain with our eyes and ears and feelings. It doesn’t mean that we always do “what feels good” but we act as agents of our own lives. We take responsibility for our actions and their consequences. We allow our children to think for themselves—even when it is a real pain in the neck to do so.  We assume that each of us carries the spirit of good within and that that spirit will eventually prevail to rout out tyranny in any form.




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#224: When Obedience Is Not the Answer

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2016). #224: When Obedience Is Not the Answer. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 8 Dec 2016
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