Obedience has a long history. The assimilation of this principle over thousands of years has allowed the creation of empires and nation-states. In the bible we find that, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) The scriptures designation 5.5 (minus the full stop) is frequently used by Thais to signify laughter or a joke.
Religion, culture, society, and politics wouldn’t exist in the absence of obedience. We are too far down the road to turn back. In other words, as it turns out biblical quote or the idea of obedience isn’t a joking matter. It is a deadly serious one. To obey is the bedrock of all monotheistic religions. It also underscores political ideologies from communism, socialism, fascism, capitalism and democracy. Although if Thomas Piketty’s research holds, it appears inheriting the earth hasn’t quite worked out well for the meek.
Last week in an essay titled Obey I briefly examined Henry Miller and George Orwell’s legacy with the subtext (and in Orwell’s case in the text itself) that issued a warning to be watchful of those in power. In the name of obedience to a principle or belief, the true intention of the powerful is to control us for their benefit. Both Miller and Orwell lived, wrote and died in a pre-Internet world with different tools and methods and opportunities being used by the powerful. For those born after 1990, they have only experienced a post-Internet world, and that set of experiences and tools has shaped their identity, attitudes, beliefs and values, including those surrounding obedience. An identity separate from the digital world would be unthinkable.
Miller and Orwell are for the most part to the post-netters, artifacts frozen in a world that is alien to them as the world without electricity and cars is to the pre-1990 population. In my recent books I have sought to begin building a literary bridge between the pre-netters and post-netters. This essay is an example of an attempt to examine the infrastructure of society that manufactures identity in the way any mass product is designed and assembled. In the process a key to our psyche removed barriers to full-blown 24/7 narcissism. Our big data and capitalistic system refine ever more and newer products and services that raise the pleasurable desire bar, and consumers become group of individuals wishing to pole vault over that bar. Our new gods and rituals are in the digital world where celebrities offer salvation chatrooms, Facebook and Twitter the new confessional booth are all available to any individual with an Internet connection. A narcissist never had such a perfectly ordered world to experience his or her self-love. The contradiction is having created a mass market of individuals, who live inside a society that demands they obey rulers, leaders, teachers, police officers, judges, and a long list of people and institutions that narcissists can’t eliminate by going online. Obedience is a concept that is under construction. This essay looks at how the rebuilding of obedience is coming along.
Obedience is built into social systems at many levels. Someone who is convicted for a crime is often released from prison before serving the full sentence as a reward for good behavior. And what is this good behavior? It is steadfast obedience to the prison’s rules and regulations. A person who has adhered to the rules and the norms of cellblock is thought ready to follow the rules and norms waiting for him on the outside of the prison walls. Though recidivism rates suggest that such a causal connection is illusory. In Thailand, just admitting guilt for failing to obey the law is rewarded by halving the sentence for those convicted of a crime. A person who insists on maintaining his innocence but who is found guilty by a judge is doubly punished for his failure to show obedience to authority’s judgment of his or her wrongdoing.
The Thai word for ‘obey’ is chua fung, which translates as ‘believe and listen.’ That is likely as good an explanation of what ‘obey’ means in any language. This two-step formula assumes a consensus that flows from a cultural understanding of who you are required to listen to. By the time you are nine years old, if not long before, your mindset is conditioned to know who these people are. Your parents and teachers are the earliest people to be listened to.
In team sports, unless the team followed the play called by the quarterback of an American football team or the captain of a football team, with each player improvising, the result would be an exercise in chaos. Teams, like armies, are destroyed by disobedience among the ranks. The team captain, military general, air traffic controller, judges, wardens, politicians, teachers, or investment bankers expect and receive obedience from those within the cone of their power and influence. Eliminate this socially conditioned automatic impulse to obey and games, plans, prisons, schools, markets, competitions and political systems fail to function. Playing chess without obedience to the rules of the game means there is no game called chess that is being played. That same is true of poker, blackjack, or any other game. Not to obey is not to play the game.
To obey is to accept subservience to a set of rules, institutions, or persons. To restrict our freedom of choice and free will is the price we pay and the currency is paid in units of subservience. It is a price most people are conditioned to pay as if they had no choice in the matter. Those who refuse to pay up in units of subservient behavior and break the law are classified as ‘criminals.’ But even criminal gangs have their own code of obedience and subservience so it isn’t that outsiders are inevitably ‘free’ of compliance obligations. We have to go deeper to understand why we willingly obey some people and institutions but are defiant in obeying others.
We appear to be at a stage of development where the manufactured narcissist’s identity rebels against obedience in the offline world. Online is another matter and a digital world exacts its pound of subservience as a price of being ‘liked.’ The post-netters aren’t happy with the baggage the pre-netters wish them to carry.
Traditionally, enforcing obedience on a large population, living within the same geo-political space, is the use of or the threat to use coercion or violence against anyone who disobeys. History isn’t always a reliable guide, but one thing it teaches that remains true can be summarized in a few words—most people, if you put a gun to their head, will obey the gunman. Duress underwritten by such violence works in the short term, as fear is a powerful emotion and obeying is the default response to fear. Over long stretches of time, though, people tend to become less fearful. At some stage they realize that there are more of vastly more fearful people than the handful holding a gun on them. When that moment crystalizes you witness an event like the Berlin Wall. The larger population stops being fearful. They tear down the wall and overnight no one obeys the soldiers with guns, large numbers of whom have dropped their weapons and joined the ex-fearful masses to dismantle the wall.
Why is one wall torn down while another wall remains a fortress? The history of obedience is fused with vesting ‘trust’ and ‘legitimacy’ in the person or institution seeking subservience. Not everyone sees a wall as a restriction. Others see it like the Great Wall of China to give safety and protection against barbarians. While most people in the West welcomed the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, for example, there is no movement (mass or otherwise) to destroy the air-traffic control system at airports around the world. Passengers, pilots and crew on aircraft have no issue with obeying the orders of an air-traffic controller. Human error, lapses of judgment, or equipment malfunctions may cause a plane crash. An investigation and inquiry often follows such an incident to restore confidence. What one doesn’t find is a massive, worldwide distrust of the air-traffic control system that disintegrates into pilots landing wherever and whenever they wish.
Political systems, unlike air-traffic control systems, are based on beliefs and ideology that are fine-tuned to inspire trust and confer legitimacy. A political system risk defections if the subservient believe the system is corrupt, self-serving, or incompetent. Opinion polls are released around the world daily as a weather vane to show which way the political wind is blowing—and politicians ignore the ones that embarrass them and broadcast to all near and far if they support their policies. Do the masses agree that the government or its leader is going down the right path, doing a good job, forming and implementing the right policies? If a poll shows a 1% approval of a policy, the issue of legitimacy is raised and one would expect to find large-scale disobedience in following the policy. Beliefs and norms shift over time, and political actors who depend on popular elections learn to stay in power; they either govern in a fashion that at least creates the illusion they reflect the popular will or they take repressive measures to head off mass disobedience. The challenge to the war on drugs is an example of a political shift. Changes in social norms concerning sexuality and gender are resulting in a change of laws.
It is never really a choice of choosing to live in a world where everyone marches to their own drummer, or a world where there is one drummer and everyone falls in behind him. With a population of 7 billion people we have no other choice but to create systems that enforce obedience but stop short of falling into tyranny. That has been the great challenge, and in the post-Internet world the task is more difficult to manage. The power to make others do what you command is subject to abuse. If you control the guns and the polls, you can maintain in the short run the illusion that people consent to be confined inside the Berlin Wall for their own good and happiness. In the long run, without a foundation of trust, order givers who refuse to have their power checked, revised, and limited will suffer from loss of legitimacy. As legitimacy isn’t something found in nature. It is a social construct, a sentiment, a belief, and once people no longer believe in it, the wall comes tumbling down.
We have been conditioned for thousands of years to be obedient followers. Our population size before the agricultural revolution 12,000 thousand years ago was around 8 million. Obedience inside small-scale bands would have been a far less complicated affair. Without a modern concept of subservience it would have been impossible to scale to the current size of population. We’ve been domesticated. The wolf-like nature changed to that of a domesticated house pet. For most of that history, subservience was enforced by the sharp edge of the sword. Only in the last 500 years has the basis for obedience been questioned. And role of the larger population expanded into a process of questioning the basis of their servitude. Parliamentary democracies, while imperfect, turned out to be one way to guide the process.
With the diminished role of religion in the West and the contradictions of ideology, the world has become less stable, less subservient. The Internet is filled with thousands of communities of the new digital disobedient who challenge their overlords. Focused on computer screens, the analogue masters are in another room and can see or hear them. Anonymous disobedience is the new virus in the old pre-Internet process.
The digital heretics, seeking comfort in emotional and intellectual support provided by their online communities, refuse to bow to authority. They can play cat and mouse, hide and seek with censors. It is no surprise to find the elites inside existing political system, nostalgic for bringing back earlier political arrangement, which relied on official violence and unquestioned acceptance of authority. Whether it is America, the Middle East or Asia, the battleground is playing out a version of the same life and death struggle—who do you listen to and who do you believe? And the evidence is abundant that post-netters aren’t listening to analogue authority as their parents and grandparents once did automatically. Cynicism and skepticism has reduced the range of people will believe and what they are prepared to believe in. Meanwhile, the reality show of modern time is a talent search toward the establishment of a new legitimacy that connects and creates a paradigm for obedience in a digitally networked world. As there is every indication that narcissism has gone deep into the post-1990 population, it is only a matter of time that obeying must have a narcissistic payoff for them individually. I have little doubt that some committed, well-financed and clever people are working to manufacture a tailored made political product that once it appeals to our deepest well of vanity, that product will go viral.