Gee, I’m blogging a lot this month. Must be because I have a novel I need to write…
Recent events have me thinking back to this fundamental truth that I’ve known for a long while: No one person (at least in this world without magic powers) can destroy the world. We talk a lot about men like Hitler or Mussolini but we don’t often talk about the thousands and thousands of soldiers who were out there implementing their orders.
And it’s easy to think that everyone of those soldiers was evil. That they were corrupt at their core. But that’s just not true. Read Ordinary Men if you want to understand how a group of normal, average men were transformed into mass killers during World War II.
Also read The Lucifer Effect by Phil Zimbardo for a more recent study of how normal people can be led to perform “evil” acts.
Because here’s the deal. We as humans or as part of American culture or Western culture or whatever it is have a predisposition to comply with authority. Your boss tells you to do X, what do you do? Do you sit back and debate whether X is the best move for the company or the best use of you as a resource? No. You just do it. If you think it’s stupid or misguided maybe you shrug your shoulders and tell your co-worker about it, but you do it.
If your doctor tells you that you need a surgery RIGHT NOW, do you sit back and ask yourself whether you really want that surgery or do you go along with it? (When my grandma fell and broke her hip and shoulder a couple years back I honestly believe if she’d had the time and pain-free ability to think about it she would’ve actually said, “Thanks, but I’ve lived a good life and don’t want months of rehab and a life that will now be constrained by limited movement and pain,” but no one explicitly gave her that choice they just acted as if and moved ahead and so she had the surgery.)
Almost every single person goes along with what their doctor tells them. It’s hard to put the brakes on and say “no” when you have an authority figure telling you the answer is “yes”. Especially when they won’t even do you the courtesy of debating it. I recently asked my doctor about the side effects of going off a medication I’m not sure I need to be on and his response was “Keep taking it. Happy Holidays!” Well, fuck him, right? But it was really, really hard for me to decide to go against that statement. He’s so certain. He’s so adamant. He went to school for years, he must know what he’s talking about. I shouldn’t question him.
But…many many many years ago my father had a kidney transplant performed by a world-renowned surgeon, a man everyone treated like God. Afterwards my father wasn’t doing too well and my mother got very concerned about him. The doctor told her the surgery had gone great, the kidney was doing well, it had all been a success, not to worry. But…my dad wasn’t doing well. Finally, because my mother dared to question God (as she likes to phrase it), they realized/acknowledged that my dad had pneumonia. And because he was on immunosuppressants due to the transplant, it was running wild. Long story short, my dad lived. But after three months in the ICU and losing the lower lobe of one of his lungs. If my mother hadn’t questioned? My dad would’ve probably died when I was six.
Sometimes questioning authority makes you an idiot. Or an unnecessary obstacle. It exposes you to scorn or anger. It may cost you opportunity or even your job or your health.
But sometimes you have to question. Sometimes you have to outright refuse. It’s not enough to say, “I was just doing my job.” Or “It wasn’t my place.”
And trust me what I’m saying is not as easy as I make it out to be. A few weeks ago I was confronted by this yet again in such a small way. I was at writes’ group on a night when it was maybe 10 degrees Fahrenheit outside. About an hour and a half into it one of the writers said they had to run outside to check on their dog who’d they’d left in their car. I was stunned that they would do this. Internally I was thinking, “Who the hell is stupid enough to leave a dog in a car in this kind of weather?” But all I said was, “Why don’t you bring the dog inside. I’m sure the bookstore won’t mind.” (And privately thinking that if the bookstore did I’d raise holy hell.) But I didn’t confront this person. Neither did the other three sitting there with me, all of whom are dog owners and all of whom were sharing glances about this. And when they brought the dog back inside and it was shivering terribly and they had to wrap it up tight, the most I was able to do was respond when this person said, “I didn’t realize it would get so cold so fast” with “Yes, it’s really not safe to leave your dog in the car in this kind of weather.”
Such a small moment, but a failure by me. Because we’re programmed to go along, to be agreeable, to not create conflict, to not put our nose in someone else’s business.
I’m trying to overcome that, to push back when needed. It’s hard. But there will be people in the next few years whose choice to comply or go along or to push back or refuse will impact the course of all of our lives. It may be something as simple as turning away while someone commits an act of hatred to something as complex as agreeing to build a nuclear weapon.
The world is a tinderbox right now. We all need to stand strong and be sure we’re not the one that lights the match.
Don’t comply blindly. Don’t go along when you know something is wrong.