Obedience makes you stupid

Power does not corrupt only the mind of those exerting it, but just as much the minds of those respecting it

Crosswalk signal feature showing a female pict...
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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 light ((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)), 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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ToyTown: How an online community built around mutual aid is becoming a social wasteland because of hierarchy.

The ToyTown community has been overrun with abusive members and facilitating moderators. Why is this so and what can be done?

Today I wish to talk about ToyTown which is an online community, mainly a number of fora, where

English speakers can share news, ask questions, post answers, make advertisements, organise sports and social events, discuss current affairs, make friends, and generally engage with each other.

Now as some of you – particularly those following me on twitter or facebook – might have heard, I’ve been the victim of a real-life con (I will post details about this soon) as a result of which I started my own investigation to locate the perpetrator. At the advice of a colleague, I decided to try and ask for help in the ToyTown fora something which would also raising awareness of this type of scam to people living in my area.

Image by Bashed via Flickr

The reaction was a stunning display of hostility and mistrust, even after I went out of my way to substantiate my case. For a place which prides itself on its helpfulness, this just didn’t make sense.While I can understand people being snarky on someone who asks where to buy milk or not even making an attempt to use the search function, surely this

would not apply to my relatively unique thread right? Wrong.

Nevertheless,  it quickly dawned on me that what was really happening was that the overwhelming negative response I perceived came from a small number of vocal people who seem to have in face a very heavy presence in the fora. If one were to take the distinct people who posted in the thread and see their response, the reception was if not positive, at least neutral. The positive replies however were drowned in a sea of abuse…from the same few antisocials, either

trolling, deliberately insulting or simply being stunningly xenophobic, while also being under the auspicious eye of the mods who silently approved of obviously trollish behaviour, as long as it came from the “great old ones”.

To make this fact abundantly clear, let me show you one of the comments that was posted in the second page:

Now you see, this is why Greece is in the shit. And us German taxpayers are expected to sort your shit out for you. Bloody charming. And what’s more, we are led to believe you got scammed by a Greenlander…or was it by any chance an Icelander?

My reply to this borderline racist comment was to call the poster for the troll he is. The result? My post got pulled by the mods because the rules of the community forbid you from calling others trolls. Something which obviously facilitates their behaviour.

Surprised as I was from the results of asking for help in ToyTown, I asked my colleague as well as another, former colleague for their impressions. The former, while not as surprised as I was, still did not expect hostility of this magnitude and admitted that he feared this would happen. The latter said this among others…

yeah…trouble is..it’s the worst kind of forum, internet clique at its very worst mate – If you are new, more often than not you are ridiculed…if you have been there a while you should know better… Basically, be one of the normal 10 or 15 or forget about it.

Now both of these are expat brits mind you, very like the people who claim that this reaction is because people are expat. Bullshit. Just because you go to live in another country does not make people assholes. No, what was at play here was nothing else than a community gone astray after having morphed into a “old boys club”. Unfortunately it seems that the residents outside of this little clique have reached the point where they either passively accept this, or they feel helpless to do anything about it.

Soon afterwards a reaction post was in the forum where I believe everything bad with the community was put forth plainly. Unfortunately, the result was not a good discussion as the OP would have liked but a pathetic attempt by the good ol’ boys club and the moderators to skirt the issue with accusations of conspiracy or petty flamewars. The points raised where barely touched, even though there is an obvious support from the silent majority as can be seen from the positive ranking of the OP (which you must imagine persists despite the downvote brigade by those who like the community being difunctional)

So how come this situation persists even though it’s obviously unwanted by a lot of the community members? The reason seems to be the same as to why any class society persists even though change is wanted by the majority of people living in it. Inertia and Alienation.

You see, by now ToyTown has grown huge and it the stop for the english-speaking crowd in Germany. As this just happened naturally just because there was a demand for it, the one who happened to start it first became the de-facto leader and a hierarchy formed below him. First the mods and then the good ol’ boys AKA the vocal minority. Since ToyTown has always been the property of the admin, this situation has simply not been challenged, even though the value of the community lies in its numbers, not in its owners. The site, much like a nation, will keep on growing regardless of the actions and abuses of the admins due to the existing demand for an english speaking site in Germany. This leads to the the biggest challenge any new site will face when trying to setup a healthy community around the same goal. Oobscurity. The ToyTown administration and old boys club knows this and therefore have no reason to control their behaviour. And this attitude only worsens the more a community grows larger.

This is the curse of all hierarchy. Benevolent or not, it is corrupted by the sheer control that is centralized as it naturally grows. Those at the top see themselves as increasingly benevolent even while their actions become more and more intolerant and authoritarian. Those with social power, such as that coming from seniority or friends in high places, get more and more vain and expect that their social status grants them immunity from the same things that “lesser mortals” AKA newbies get punished for.

Those not in the upper strata of the community quickly learn what their place is and take on of two actions. They either leave or keep their head down, find a niche and try to work within it. As long as they do not draw the ire of the mods or the old boys club, they can function without many issues. To challenge and stop abusive behaviour coming from those higher than them is impossible however.The will of the mods will always be over the will of the old boys will always be over the will of the unwashed masses. As a poster called Jimbo said:

however, I think the quote above is quite wrong – it belongs to Ed Bob, and ultimately, the site is therefore created in his image. Or at least he allows it to be organic and grow in its own way.

Which is simply nonsensical. A community without Ed Bob is still a community. An Ed Bob without it isn’t. To quote another user

Uh, no it doesn’t and that is one of the huge problems around here. The site belongs to the users and without the users E.Bob would not be in a position to make a chunk of change by selling out to The Local. Our help and our comments made this site, he just gave us the vehicle. The real life E.Bob is a pretty cool guy, but can we stop kissing the virtual E.Bob persona for once and for all?

This is why hierarchy needs to be nipped in the bud. There’s no such thing as “too little” or “just enough” hierarchy. Just look at how it can even corrupt children’s relations in the same destructive manner. It is just disruptive to healthy human relationships making good people authoritarian and allowing bad people to be cruel. We need to learn to recognise this and start building our communities with this in mind from the start. Even when structurally necessary, as is the case for web sites which require at the least an admin, a community built around them will immensely benefit the more such privilege is consciously removed.

ToyTown may be too far gone to fix and like many online communities before, it may eventually implode. Just look at how quickly the immensely popular Richard Dawkins community self-immolated just by the actions of the few at the top who were completely disconnected from those at the bottom. Such events are not uncommon and more importantly, I’ve not heard of any of them which were not the result of hierarchical power gone bad.

Could it be salvaged somehow? Depends on how alienated the community is. For those at the top, things will always look good of course. They‘re at the top. This is why you see the vocal minority dismissing and trivializing the concerns others make. Unfortunately, from what I saw at ToyTown, those who do not like how things are going are not convinced or confident that they can make a difference which is not exactly true. I’ve seen a few fora and communities which managed to change things via dedicated non-conformity and persisting objection (think of almost everyone starting new threads to complain). If something like this cannot work, the only solution is an exodus which unless it is made to a system built around avoiding the same issues will only be a temporary solution.

Whatever happens, at the end of the day the power to change things is in the hands of those interested in it. The community itself, not the old boys club or Editor Bob. As long as people are too scared or apathetic to act, nothing will change obviously. For my part, I wash my hands of ToyTown. I do not care to wade into sewers just to take a shortcut.

UPDATE: It seems this blog entry is being linked from a private forum of ToyTown. I have no way of seeing what they’re saying but I’m guessing someone saw this post but was too scared to discuss it with the open public of the forum. Much better to mock me behind closed doors apparently.

UPDATE2: Given the responses that the second thread keeps receiving, I think this is appropriate

(h/t See Mike Draw)

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Tidyness FTW!

Liriel starts to notice the German mentality she had all her life and how it affects people and the stuff they use.

The following guest post was written by my Fiancée who, after living with me for more than a year now has started noticing how strong some of her German habits are and how some of the German commodities have a very…particular style. This is hopefully only the first of many posts to come from her in the future. Enjoy

The little bit of extra-tidiness in Germany

Since I am in a relationship to a Greek guy I am more and more questioned about the culture and manners in Germany. For example I realized that people who didn’t grow up here can’t even understand why a german is behaving so weirdly.

Consider the following situation:

I want to pick up my boyfriend and due to lack of parking space, I give him a short call to come outside and then stop on the sidewalk, in front of a private garage, with the motor running. Sidewalk has still 3 meters of space in width for the occasional pregnant with twins mother to pass easily.

It’s dark and rainy. A random guy walking on the pavement in direction of my car, beginning to hold his nose 5 m before reaching it. Stopping in front of it. Staring at me. Waiting…

I, knowing my beloved Germans, can’t be bollocksed to react. I am locking the doors (innocently, indeed it’s dark and that man could want to do something nasty to me 😉 ) and turning up the music. The guy walks to the front of my car. Staring at me, obviously expecting me to ask him what he wants. After that guy standing next and in front of my car for at least 2 minutes in a cold November rain, my boyfriend walks out of the house and gets into my car.

For me the situation was totally clear:

The guy was annoyed by a car parking on the pavement, which is a restricted area for cars and only reserved for people walking on it. Additionally to that, I kept my motor running which was insulting his nose and making the air dirty. He expected me to ask him what his problem was, which would be for him the ultimate opportunity to complain about my parking, accuse me of polluting the air with my diesel smell and not letting him walk straight (in fact, he would have had to pass my car in a slight curve).

Surprisingly, for my boyfriend it wasn’t clear at all:

“Did he want something from you? Why is he staring so accusingly?” He asked. My mouth dropped open and I needed a while to find the consciousness to close it again. That was the first time I realized how restricted the life is here in Germany. Our whole culture seems to guide us from childhood on while family members, friends and neighbours make sure during our lifetime, that all possible kinds of rules, laws, orders and expectations are followed.

How silly most of those are can’t be recognized by Germans anymore because we grow into it and take for granted that it is this way everywhere in the world. The only chance to having your eyes opened is somebody coming along and asking questions about fucking everything all the time! The Germans worst nightmare is Anarchy, because we are taught all our lives, that everything has to be regulated and can be regulated best by government or, at least, somebody else, an “expert.” Everything not strictly controlled must necessarily result in chaos and civil war.

Germans seem to need a bit more tidiness in their lives, always this additional bit that makes my boyfriend laugh repeatedly about offers in the supermarket. Tidy is not enough, super-tidy is what the average German is expected to aim for. If you’re looking into their bedroom it will most possibly be a mess like everywhere, but not showing that you don’t seem to be able to reach the highest goal of tidiness is what everybody works hard for. On the outside everything shiny, tidy and new, but don’t dare looking under the couch!

To support the Germans need for showing out his/ her tidiness and control over the chaos of custom goods all the country keeps buying to show their wealth, one of the top sellers are storage goods like a wardrobe hanger with holes for the scarf collection or this nice box I found (yes, I too am a German, and from time to time I buy storage goods!): Normally you would expect some random foldable box, looking like this:

What everyone would expect to get

But then, unpacking it, I found some additional gimmick that will just work to make my stuff look even more tidy:

Because everyone needs a special slot per sock pair

Because individual 10x10cm compartments are exactly what is missing to get everything organized.

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And you thought American privacy violations were bad…

According to a law passed by the German parties CDU, CSU and SPD, from 2008 on it will be possible to trace who has contacted whom via telephone, mobile phone or e-mail for a period of six months.

— Anonymising services will be prohibited. —

This is a really frightening prospect. However many organizations are already working on getting this up to the Supreme Court so hopefully it will receive a negative ruling.

Spread the word!

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