A Law of Social Nature: Obedience, Conformity and Leadership

By Dennis Loo

A debate has broken out at my Open Salon blog around the question of whether or not the chief problem we face in this country can be laid upon the shoulders of individuals (among the public) and their actions or inactions. I refer people to that back and forth discussion in the comments section there as a preface and to my Water Line article. This debate invariably comes up and merits digging into in depth. You cannot effect a dramatic change in society if you do not understand deeply - theoretically - the underpinnings of the status quo and the key factors that have produced change historically. If we don’t study history, sociology, anthropology, and psychology, to name a few, then how can we possibly know what we need to know about what works and what doesn’t? Personal experience is just not enough.
As Harry Homeless put it in a comment on my blog:
“[A]s a con man I can tell you the single most important insight on society is that all the world is a byproduct of our personal lives. A nation of assholes can never have a good government in the end. The assholes will see a ‘good’ man as a threat and kill him (just ask the Kennedys). The reverse is true also.
"The single greatest driving force is the need for self-expression.”
I do not agree with this view and believe its persistence to be not just a mistake but also a hindrance to the resolution of the problems and crises we face. I say this not to undermine the importance of individuals acting on behalf of morality and justice; in fact, I want to underscore the importance of individual action. But to really make a difference we have to understand the actual conditions that we face, otherwise we’ll be spinning our wheels and thinking we’re making a difference when we are doing much less than we think.
What is the relationship between individuals and the group/society?
In any society and at any point in time, no matter what that society’s nature, whether it is pre-industrial or industrial/post-industrial, whether it is communal, tribal, feudal, capitalist or socialist, the majority of people are conformists to the dominant norms. If this were not true then the society itself would be in upheaval and it could not for very long be called a society - the centrifugal forces would either cause it to splinter apart or a revolution would happen. 
It doesn’t matter whether the dominant norm is moral or immoral: the majority are going to abide by it. Joe and Jane Doe do not set the dominant norms. The dominant norms are - under normal circumstances - a combination of tradition and the imprimatur of the leading groups and leading individuals who are in turn acting within the parameters of the society’s leading institutions and institutional forces.
This essential truth is apparent when you consider, for example, the inculcation of values and beliefs in infants and children by a key societal institution, the family. (The family in turn is surrounded by other major social institutions such as the economy (its mode of production), schools (or other forms of social preparation and training where schools don’t exist), politics, art, music and so on.) Families (nuclear or extended) teach infants and children language and norms. Infants don’t invent language (although they babble for a while as they are acquiring language). Language is something they learn from the society via their parents and other caregivers. Infants don’t feed themselves. They must be fed and raised by adults. Infants do not produce society's values. Those values are part of what they are socialized in. When animals raise human infants (so-called feral children), those infants do not grow up to be recognizably human in some very obvious and important respects. They act, instead, like animals. 
Being human, in other words, isn’t biologically determined. We have to learn how to be human.
We are first and foremost social beings. The idea that society is principally shaped and brought into being by the nature of the individuals who make it up is the obverse of the truth. We have to be social beings first and foremost because even the most asocial among us rely on others to provide us the means of life. Even hermits had to be raised in the first place by others. There is no such thing as a self-raised and self-taught hermit. They don’t exist because infants who aren’t raised perish.
Thus, when psychologists have tested people for obedience in which four people are secretly told (confederates) to give the same wrong answer to a simple and obvious question and the experiment is to see what the fifth person who has not been previously coached will do, they find that a large majority of those fifth persons will conform to the group's wrong answer, even when they know indisputably that it is the wrong answer.
Why? As social beings we know that we are risking ourselves when we depart from the group. We risk, at minimum, group disapproval and at maximum death. The reason that so many people in the famous Milgram Experiment demonstrated their willingness to torture a stranger with electric shocks was not because they were all sadists. It was because the power of the situation is so strong and obedience is something that people in their large majority will do, even when they know that what they are doing is wrong. They will handle the cognitive dissonance they experience by handing over responsibility to others, and to their leaders in particular: "I'm not responsible. They are."
Thus, in America circa 2009, a majority of people knows that what Bush and Cheney did was wrong (a majority came to know this over time) and a majority of Americans (over time, beginning at least as early as 2005) said they wanted them impeached (in polls). But that majority sentiment didn’t lead a majority or even anywhere near a majority of them to act publicly upon that sentiment in the form of demonstrations in the streets. It did lead a majority of them to vote against Bush and Cheney. Voting, however, doesn’t decide public policy. If it did, Bush and Cheney would never have taken office in the first place - or second place. If public sentiment decided public policy, the Iraq occupation would never have happened and it would at the very least have been over in early 2007 after voters swept the GOP out of Congress in November 2006.
The fact that the US government is torturing people (under Bush and continuing now under Obama) is not something you can blame the American people as a whole for in the sense that they did not and do not as a whole want to torture people.
You can and should blame torture on leaders such as Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Addington, and Yoo for this. The individuals who actually carried out the orders to torture (to “take the gloves off”) are responsible for their egregious actions and should be harshly punished. But in terms of degree of culpability, they are not as culpable as the political leaders who ordered this to happen.
The American people’s relative (and deafening) silence about crimes against humanity such as torture - now that they in large numbers know about it - is not an acceptable situation. It must change and it will only change if enough individuals stand up and speak out against it and call on others to do likewise.
But here is where what Noelle Neumann called the Spiral of Silence - people silence their true views in the face of what they think is the majority sentiment - and what social psychologists call “pluralistic ignorance” come into play. People en masse gauge what the appropriate actions are by what they see other people doing. They assume that if everyone else is doing something (or more to the point here, not doing something), there must be a very good reason and that everyone has individually made a decision to do such and such. In fact, of course, nearly everyone else has adopted group norms not because they strongly believe in those norms, but mostly because others are following the norms.  
Does this tell us that most people are weak? Yes and no. Most people are conformists. This is a law of social nature. Calling it a weakness and expecting something else isn’t productive.
So is there no solution? How do you change this? There is a solution. The minority of people who are stronger in their convictions, wiser, better informed, and willing to speak truth in the face of possible disapproval, must step forward and change the conditions, setting a new “social proof,” and creating the conditions for others to emulate them. By so doing they can create a new and different explicit consensus. Individual actions do matter; they can change the overall dynamics dramatically. But individual actions matter only if you carry out such actions on the basis of understanding social dynamics and the relationship between the individual and the group.
People who study fish and fish behavior have observed that in schools of fish there are leader fish and there are also fish that aren’t leaders but are simply oblivious to the group. The leader fish change the direction of the school by shifting directions. The ones that are oblivious to the group also can change the school’s movements simply by striking out in a new direction. Humans won’t follow the Kramers (of Seinfeld) of the world like fish will follow putz-fish. But humans will follow the moral leaders of the world. If enough of us take on that responsibility to lead others, the rest of the world will discover that a majority of people have been feeling more or less the same way, only that sentiment had until then been latent and unappreciated. Then the upside down world we are now living in has a chance of being set right. 
Those who step forward to speak the truth do so now against the drumbeat of falsehoods, distortions, half-truths, and deceptions coming from the White House, the mass and right-wing media, and the leaders of both major political parties. In addition, there is a tremendous reservoir of wishful thinking among the people. (Among those who are most disillusioned by Obama are civil libertarians such as the Center for Constitutional Rights and lawyers representing abused and tortured detainees who have followed most closely and carefully what Obama's Administration has done in relation to the status and treatment of so-called and inaptly named "enemy combatants," domestic spying, misnamed "state secrets," and indefinite detentions. Their disillusionment and outrage - they are part of this society's "canaries in the coal mine" - needs to spread much more widely throughout the society.)
Many people want to believe that everything's alright or going to be alright now that Obama is president and the despicable gang under Bush and Cheney is out of office. Getting people to see what's really going on - and what their individual responsibility is in light of that - is difficult. But the openings are there. The unjust and immoral wars of occupation are being carried forward under Obama, rendition is being retained, torture and indefinite unjust detentions at Bagram are being continued, and Obama isn't going to prosecute the war criminals and tyrants who openly defied the rule of law unless the American people force him to do so through persistent and determined actions geared to mobilizing broader and broader ranks of the people by delegitimating the existing system and its leaders. Obama has raised people's expectations tremendously. This is, however, a double-edged sword for him and the system that he represents. 
It's a treacherous landscape before us, full of pitfalls, misleaders, and mistaken ideas that must be overcome. We are moving forward while under fire. But we must traverse it and take this ground. If we decline to do what must be done then far worse fates await us all. 

 

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World Can't Wait mobilizes people living in the United States to stand up and stop war on the world, repression and torture carried out by the US government. We take action, regardless of which political party holds power, to expose the crimes of our government, from war crimes to systematic mass incarceration, and to put humanity and the planet first.