Obedience makes you stupid

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There is a particular trend in German society, a kind of unwritten rule which says that people should follow laws and state orders uncritically and far too many Germans do this, to the degree that one can even say that they are characterized as a society by this unquestionable obedience.

Pedestrians for example follow traffic lights to the second. A typical German will not cross the street until the little green man appears, even if the street is completely empty for a km in either direction. They claim that this is to give the good example to children but then again, they will act like this even if no children are around. A cyclist will wait on the red light, even if the green pedestrian light of the direction he is riding, is on. Even worse, when the green light is on, people start walking without even looking. They just assume safety.

This behaviour is not isolated in traffic of course but permeates almost every aspect of life. From state laws to rules of etiquette to even personal behaviour. If there’s a rule, it must be followed as closely as possible. And to make matters worse, when someone does not follow the expected behaviour, many Germans, especially the older generations, will take it upon themselves to scold and complain in an attempt to set them back on the “right track”.

This post is not to complain about Germans and Germany of course, not to paint them in a broad brush as there’s quite a few that rightly dislike and rebel against this behaviour. Germans simply provided me with the insight into something else; an interesting side-effect of this excessive obedience to laws and rules that I’ve noticed; it  is making people behave in a weird way, a way that I can only label as stupid.

It seems to me that an unquestioned acceptance of authoritarian orders makes people’s own individualism atrophy, it strips them of the capacity to decide for themselves which course of action to take which in turn makes them afraid of making their own decisions and taking responsibility for them. Better to defer to authority and absolve yourself in the hierarchical chain of command. If, as a car driver, you drive with a green light and you end up hitting a pedestrian because you couldn’t break quickly enough or you weren’t looking anywhere except the light1, it’s their fault. If, as a soldier,  you are ordered to shoot some civilians, then you’re “just f0llowing orders”. If, as a insurance worker, you deny coverage because of a technicality, then you’re just following the rules. And so on.

When you stop thinking and constantly judging your own actions on their own merits then you simply can end up committing the worst actions because you feel no responsibility for them. Atrocities do not happen because everyone found them proper. They happen because everyone just kept following orders. Without thinking. Without looking at the greater picture.

And the worst part is not simply how many mistakes people will do if they feel irresponsible, but how much it affects their underlying mentality, twisting the understanding of authority. Instead of thinking that someone is in power because they need to be able to do the right thing, they start to believe that someone is doing the right thing, because they are in power.

Power does not only corrupt the minds of those exerting it, but just as much the minds of those respecting it. While those below become thoughtless drones, sluggishly trying to avoid any and all work and creativity, those above have to compensate for this and thus start to consider themselves superior, more intelligent and worthy or their position and authority. It a vicious self-perpetuating circle.

This is why authority in all its forms should always be challenged. Many times, it will be defensible, such as authority from knowledge or wisdom. The authority a carpenter has over wood making practices or the accountant over record keeping. But most often than not, it has no true basis in reality. The boss’ and manager’s authority does not rely in them being smarter, more productive or being able to make others more productive. The politician’s authority does not rely on them being more capable of creating the rules for thousands, if not millions of others. The Judge’s authority does not rely on them being more impartial. And while those arguments will be used as the reason, they are not based on evidence but on theory, articles of faith and “lesser-evil” fallacies.

Such authority need to be challenged in all its forms. The worker should challenge the boss’ orders, vocally if possible but silently when not, and decide for themselves how they can work productively. The soldier should challenge their orders and follow them only if they stand on their own merit, regardless of nationalist and religious rhetoric. The pedestrian should challenge the law of the street and take it as a guideline, not an order.

I can’t drive a car, but I do drive a bicycle and I keep crossing red lights all the time. Red and green are for me only an indication and my true decision rests in my own eyes and ears. A red light will be crossed when the street is clear and a green one will be waited when I don’t feel secure. These actions are not simply petty rebellion but simple rational common sense. There will be little consolation to me if someone gets punished for breaking my spine for crossing a red light and I’d rather die than be like those Germans I saw a few months ago which where waiting at an (obviously broken) red light for 5 minutes more after I’d had enough and crossed the street (and that is just until they left my vision).  Just stuck there, cars and pedestrians, apparently not knowing what to do when trapped in a red light prison of their own blind obedience.

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  1. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to run the street because the drivers started accelerating, while I was in the process of crossing, while keeping their eyes on the orange light and not on the street in front of them with the very obvious person in it []

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