Chapter 2: Obedience

When it was invented in 1911, schizophrenia was said to be incurable. Since then, it has allegedly been cured with insulin coma … electric shock, lobotomy and neuroleptic drugs. In 1988, still another cure was announced: the transplantation of embryonic brain tissue into the brain of the schizophrenic patient. This emperor, as I have remarked elsewhere, has so many beautiful robes that it is unthinkable that he should not exist.iThomas Szasz, The Untamed Tongue. A Dissenting Dictionary (1990)

obedience-to-authorityI must confess that I am guilty of neglecting many things. Here, however, I will only address one issue of primary importance. You may at some point have been asking, “Why do people accept their diagnoses as “mentally ill” if they’re not ill? This is an excellent question, and I’m glad you asked it.

For many centuries millions of people were unable to separate “I suffer” from “I’m guilty.” Likewise, today millions of people confuse “I suffer” with “I’m ill.” (Metaphorical illness is the neo-guilt of the “modern.”) To see this, imagine two giant circus tents. In the first tent we throw all the people who suffer from mental illness, while the second tent is home to all the people who suffer from everything else in life (non-medical) that causes suffering. As time passes, the first tent gradually increases its size and number of occupants, while the second tent gradually decreases its size and number of occupants. More and more, problems in human relationships and life in general are sacrificed into the sacred psychiatric circle of segregation. This is very easy thanks to the psychiatric tradition of voting on what is or is not illness.

We could alternately ask why so many heretics were so eager to confess that they were indeed infested with the taint of heresy, and therefore sought priestly “Inquisitional” guidance and salvation. Does the existence of the Inquisition and millions of heretics confessing that they are heretics make heresy an objective condition? Obviously not. Then does the existence of Psychiatry and millions of mentally ill confessing that they are mentally ill make their clinically unverifiable condition objective? Again, obviously not. People are willing to play the role of The Sick for the same reason people were willing to play the role of The Guilty: to escape from their suffering and responsibility (and thus, their freedom) to take care of themselves—they want to submit to authority.

Two famous obedience experiments show that many people, while believing that they’re fully able, turn out to be unable to disobey. In the first ex-periment there are two subjects, (A) who plays the role of teacher, and (B) who plays the role of learner, while both are separated by a partition. (B) is hooked up to an electric-shock generator that has a series of switches ranging from 15 volts to 450 volts. (A) is given instructions to read a series of multiple choice questions or word-pairings to (B), who will answer either correctly or incorrectly. Upon each wrong answer (A) is to shock (B), and then move on to the next greater shock. (A) is led to falsely believe the purpose of the experiment is to study (B)’s ability to learn by being shocked. The real purpose, however, is to see how far (A) will go before refusing to continue. “Before the experiment was carried out, people were asked to predict their own performance. … They all said virtually the same thing: almost no one would go to the end.”ii

According to an encyclopedia from the local public library: “… the results were very different. Despite the fact that many subjects experienced stress, despite the fact that many protested to the experimenter, a substantial proportion continued to the last shock on the generator. Many subjects obeyed the experi-menter no matter how vehement the pleading of the person being shocked, no matter how painful the shocks seemed to be, and no matter how much the victim pleaded to be let out. This was seen time and again, and has been observed in several universities where the experiment has been repeated.iii

Of one group of forty subjects, for example, only fourteen (35 percent) broke off the experiment. Five refused to go beyond 300 volts, nine more disobeyed between 300 and 375 volts.iv Sixty-five percent (almost two-thirds) obeyed all the way to 450 volts after claiming that they wouldn’t. Were they all lying? Did they simply change their minds? Or did they learn something new about themselves?

Two results from these experiments defied the initial expectations of the experimenters. They were expecting that most people would break off the experiment fairly early as conscience would dictate. They were certainly not expecting the overwhelming “…strength of obedient tendencies manifested …” in all subjects obeying all the way to 300 volts, let alone the majority obeying all the way to 450 volts.v The second thing they were not expecting was that “… the degree of tension reached extremes that are rarely seen in socio-psychological laboratory studies.”vi For example, someone present during one experiment stated:

I observed a mature and initially poised businessman enter the laboratory smiling and confident. Within 20 minutes he was reduced to a twitching, stuttering wreck, who was rapidly approaching a point of nervous collapse. He constantly pulled on his earlobe, and twisted his hands. At one point he pushed his fist into his forehead and muttered: ‘Oh God, let’s stop it.’ And yet he continued to respond to every word of the experimenter, and obeyed to the end.vii

A particularly unsettling behavior witnessed was laughing fits. Just as 14 out of 40 subjects disobeyed at some point, 14 out of 40 at some point like-wise “… showed definite signs of nervous laughter and smiling. The laughter seemed entirely out of place, even bizarre. Full blown, uncontrollable seizures were observed for 3 subjects. … [Afterwards,] these sub-jects took pains to point out that they were not sadistic types and that the laughter did not mean they enjoyed shocking the victim.”viii

What can it mean to say, “I’m not really enjoying myself when I’m smiling and laughing”?

The truly disturbing thing about this is that the experimenters (“authorities” who represent “science”) had no means what-so-ever of enforcing their will. These people were in no danger of “punishment” of any kind for disobeying, and they knew it. And yet they obeyed, just the same. It was as if they were “trapped” between contradictory demands, and therefore sort of “split” in two directions. On the one hand, there was the fellow human being who was being shocked, kicking at the wall, and pleading desperately to be released. On the other hand, there was the impotent authority figure who could only respond to the resisting subjects with statements such as these:

Prod #1: Please continue, or Please go on.

Prod #2: The experiment requires that you continue.

Prod #3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.

Prod #4: You have no other choice; you must go on.ix

And so on …

The fact that most subjects manifested so much distress can be taken as evidence that they could relate to the person being shocked. (I’m not going to touch the laughing fits, at least not here.) But why should the mere presence of a statement spouting authority be enough to induce obedience? Why continue if there was nothing outside them forcing them to? What about the inside? Could they really be unconsciously longing to obey while consciously performing the opposite (just like the orthodoxy of 1984)? Are you beginning to see how easily many people could “be ill” if authorities of medical science tell them that they are, while a group of significant others (family, coworkers, etc.) support the claim as well?

The results of this experiment illustrate something directly relevant to poor Ed. The experiment was designed and intended to study obedience, but it revealed a bit more than they were looking for (and perhaps were willing to face). They not only discovered that obedience could in fact be increased and decreased by altering the external factors in the setting (just like my using a prop while monologging), but that these factors could induce people “… to sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, groan, and dig their fingernails into their flesh.”x They also unexpectedly induced laughing fits that alternated with nervous distress, just as so many people seem to alternate between mania and depression—so called “bi-polar” (two-sided) disorder. Though the context was an artificially constructed situation, it cast an individual between contradicting obligations with unexpected results. And because society is permeated with contradictory obligations overlapping every which way, why shouldn’t we expect that everyday situations could occasionally induce similar reactions? What’s more, doctors examining these subjects without knowledge of the vital role played by the context in creating their responses would find no biological disease, but they could find chemical imbalances (chemicals that simply differ from their expectations), and could easily conclude them “mentally” ill. They could be searched throughout their nervous systems to the end of the world, and like Ed, they couldn’t be properly understood unless the over-all context, including the paradoxical relations and obligations between people were also taken into consideration.

The second experiment, though simpler than the first, illustrates the same point. Motivated by the results of experiments like the first, “… psychologist Solomon E. Asch set out to create an experimental situation in which the individual’s initial correct judgment in an ambiguous situation would conflict with the judgments expressed by other members of a group, so that the individual forced to be a minority of one could be studied.”xi Imagine a group of people sitting and facing a poster with four lines on it. The group is asked to judge which of the first three lines is closest in length to the fourth. Just as the individual being shocked was acting in the first experiment, the group surrounding the one being studied agreed beforehand to “perform” an incorrect answer to see if the subject would testify to the evidence of their own eyes, or to the group. The experimenters found that the “… great majority of subjects would yield to the group, and a lesser majority of them would quickly come to believe the group, over the obvious evidence of their own eyesight.”xii

Now imagine asking each of these subjects before the experiment: “Do you really value your American freedom to voice your individual opinion?” What do you think they would say? I have no doubt that each and every one of them would say “Absolutely!” or “Of Course!” And yet, the majority of them would be lying (whether conscious of it or not). So why would they say this? Keep in mind that the subject in question—the length of a line on a poster—has neither political, religious, nor any other flavor of relevance. Perhaps they have to agree with the majority, because they’re “normal” or “orthodox” members of Amsoc. After all, doesn’t being orthodox mean that one holds an unwavering belief (or performance of such a belief) in a majority’s point of view? To lose this belief (or stop performing it) might place the individual at risk of being handled as the ab-orthodox/un-normal usually are. Whether belief is enchanted (medieval, tradition-al, holy) or dis-enchanted (modern, secular, clinical) is of secondary importance.

I have one final example—perhaps the finest example I’ve come across—of Americans frantically seeking escape from their freedom. It was presented by one of America’s most influential self-improvement gurus, Anthony Robbins, in his national bestseller, Awaken the Giant Within (1991). He calls this event an illustration of the power of belief, but I think he’s slightly mistaken. Because beliefs are instrumental—a means to an end—they depend on the desire of the person to hold said belief. That is, this event illustrates not the power of the belief itself, but of these people’s desire to believe; of their desire to play the role of The Sick:

At a football game in Monterey Park, a Los Angeles suburb, several people experienced the symptoms of food poisoning. The examining physician deduced that the cause was a certain soft drink from the dispensing machines … An announcement was made over the loudspeaker requesting that no one patronize the dispensing machine, saying some people had become ill and describing the symptoms. Pandemonium immediately broke out in the stands as people retched and fainted in droves. Even a few people who had not even gone near the machine became ill! Ambulances from local hospitals did a booming business that day … When it was discovered that the dispensing machine was not the culprit, people immediately and “miraculously” recovered.xiii

It was a miracle!

None of these of people were ill, but they were more than willing to act ill. Were they so alienated from their own bodies that they couldn’t really tell how they actually felt? Were they simply over taken by a tidal wave like belief? Or did they hold deep inside themselves a longing that found release when given the opportunity to play a sort of game? After all, don’t millions of Americans glorify and worship both professional pretenders (actors) and professional players (athletes)? Then shouldn’t we expect such people to imitate those they worship and glorify when given the opportunity? They seized an opportunity to pass responsibility for their care to someone else (giving up responsibility is giving up freedom).

We have seen that a majority of people, while claiming to believe in their own independence, submit to authority none-the-less when under mere vocal pressure to do so. Their desire to submit outweighs their desire to exercise their liberty. We have likewise seen that a great majority (well over 50 percent) of people in a group will voluntarily see the world through the eyes of the group, and give false testimony contradicting the evidence of their own eyes, while a lesser majority (over 50 percent, but less than group one) actually come to believe it. And most importantly, we’ve seen that a whole herd of sheeple can indeed act as though they’re ill and believe they’re ill—without being ill at all!

i P. 216-17.

ii OCM, p. 567.

iii Ibid, italics added.

iv Fromm, p. 72-73.

v Ibid, p. 73.

vi Ibid, p. 72, italics removed.

vii Ibid, p. 73-74.

viii Ibid, p. 72-73.

ix Ibid, p. 72.

x Ibid.

xi Cohen, p. 68.

xii Ibid, p. 68-69.

xiii P. 77, italics added.