Hopeful possibilities of resistance
The discussion in July’s Psychologist ‘Why [almost] everything you now about Milgram is wrong’, while informative regarding Milgram’s theory of the agentic state, perpetuates an unfortunate impression that has permeated understanding of the obedience studies and psychological theorising of the behaviour of people living in totalitarian societies. Few of the atrocities or human rights abuses that occurred under the Nazi or Soviet systems or, for example, the Maoist or Milosevic regimes concern situations in which individuals were directly compelled to carry out atrocities.
Reicher is without doubt correct to point out that ‘people make choices over which “voice” to listen to in a given situation’, but we must acknowledge the unpleasant truth that many people under a wide variety of settings all too willingly embrace and second-guess the wishes and desires of authority figures. In so doing they frequently and actively make their own unique contribution to the suffering of others.
‘Obedience’ then must not be understood in too narrow a fashion. We would do well to include under its remit, complicity in and conformity to wrong doing. The euthanasia programme in Nazi Germany functioned in this way, as does the current system of Work Capability Assessments in the UK, which have exacted a horrendous toll on the lives of disabled people here, just as the separation of parents and children on the US/Mexico border has been aided by a legion of willing officials.
It is time we turned our attention away from the dispiriting majority of Milgram’s willing accomplices to shock and instead interrogate the hopeful possibilities of resistance and non-conformity. The times we live in demand nothing less.
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