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Obedience and Individualism in American Culture

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In America today, individualism is at the core of American culture. In America, the ideal is for all people to be able to make their own decisions freely. We teach that individualism gives you the freedom to pave your path, make your own choices based on your morals, as well as the responsibility to accept the consequences of your actions personally. From the time a newborn comes home from the hospital, every achievement is celebrated and rewarded. Throughout developmental years each accomplishment is celebrated and encouraged, while each misstep is punished and ostracized. The educational system praises students who take the initiative to raise their hand, question, and confront problems, while continually pointing out the people that hide behind their school books to avoid conflict. Ultimately trying to break a person out of their collectivistic behavior, teaching students that the more independent they are, the better off they will be in life. From cradle to college, it should be no surprise that conflicts may arise as parents try to assert their rules over a child taught to be independent. Nonetheless, children know they must obey their parents tell them to do, as they are of superior authority. As we go through life, we continually walk a line that separates autonomy and authority, expected to find middle-ground. When people see uniforms and badges, hear an authoritative, self-assured voice, or discern that someone is part of a larger society, one can become more willing to participate in what they instruct as they have earned respect from society’s point of view. Furthermore, when there are situations of unjust ideology, and authoritative figures step in to tell us something against our morals, more than likely some people will conform to the directions, even if the results may end in hurting another person. May we live in a country that creates similar groups rather than true individuals.

In order to live in a stable society that maintains individuality, a balance between obedience and defiance is necessary. Throughout history, we have encouraged people to think outside the box and be their own person. However, we seem to have created a culture that is more apt to blindly follow the crowd instead of standing out from the crowd. Because of this, one must question just how obedient society can be without losing its individuality? Where does individuality start and obedience stop? With this in mind, many experiments conducted show us what happens when identity is extinguished by the blind obedience individuals feel towards those in a state of power. Compliance is detrimental when it can cause physical or mental distress. If one is tasked with producing pain to another person, rebellion in the form of insubordination is the choice that should be taken. Moreover, if one follows the task and causes pain to another person, they have lost their individuality and ability to choose. We have been socialized to comply with the commands of authority, and too often we act out of habit. Of course, we need to cooperate and conform when it is fitting and fair, but we need to question as well. As individuals, we should automatically feel the need to ask, as we know that our actions cannot be blamed on anyone else. The behaviors towards others define the human race. Causing harm to others merely because someone orders them to is not a reason to follow through. If one has the decision to either follow orders or assert their individuality, the conclusion should be theirs to do and the consequences theirs to own, the decision should be theirs to make. Obedience to authority is necessary for the success of most human groups and organizations. To successfully participate in culture people must conform and surrender some individual freedom and take on new responsibilities. As there would be no advantage to living in a culture where most, or all, consistently put self-interest above common goals. Behaving by socially accepted conventions and standards for the overall greater good is entirely rational, and essential to human life. However, while conformity to authority occurs, we are not sure who the absolute authority is. Society cannot give direct orders or commands, but authority figures can, the words of authority often act as the voice of culture. Authority figures help organize and direct group operations in order to overall live a better-organized life. However, we come back to the fine line of autonomy and authority again. Unlike agreement or conformity within society settings, obedience has a public judgment of being habitual and is a definite and superior form of social influence. People fully believe the legitimacy of authority, as opposed to the more voluntary acts which take into account societies influences. While obedience shares aspects in common with other forms of social power, the subconscious reasons people feel they have to be obedient compels a different approach in its explanation. And, time after time we are shown the dangers of obedience without question. However, the reason people blindly accept authority cannot merely be reduced to the influence of social norms, as for obedience to occur it is necessary to first identify the figure of authority, and recognize them as a legitimate power. Henceforth, we are obedient to authority because it is an integral part of society, provides social organization and regulation of relationships, and it is a social norm to obey to higher power. We are still taught to think for ourselves though and decide whether an authority is legitimate and appropriate in the situation before acting upon the ordered tasks. Even in cases where we do not obey authority there comes with it a fear of what may happen as a consequence. Although obedience and group processes share a desire to maintain a balance and cohesion between relationships, the dynamic of hierarchy with an authority-subject relationship makes the type of social influence far more overt, involuntary and externally constraining.

Ostracism is a universally applied tactic of social control. Within the penal system, the home setting, or schools nationwide, the use of ostracism is used in order gain control over the masses (Riva et al. 209). When we think about obedience to authority, we often think of the famous Stanley Milgram. He conducted an experiment focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal morals. As participants were told to administer shocks to a stranger on the other side of a partition, they began to hear pleas and cries of anguish from the stranger. However, the subjects were told to proceed and still inflicted what they thought were electric shocks on unwilling strangers. In analyzing the results of his work, Milgram made the following observations: Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work became patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

Milgram’s work on obedience and authority was groundbreaking, and his research left a lasting legacy in the field of psychology regarding why people follow orders. Every day we are faced with following the unwritten rules, and there are certain circumstances in which we find ourselves stepping away from these rules because we are given independence. For example, in schools, many teachers find that their absence from the classroom instantly causes a shift in students behaviors. This is because from a young age we have been raised to view teachers as a legitimate authority figure – and in the majority of events, we will obey them. Nevertheless, when the noticeable absence of the teacher is apparent, the ‘unspoken’ rules (for example, no cell phones) are dismissed. People perceive legitimate authority when they assume that a person has a high-ranking position, and therefore holds more considerable expertise and a right to exercise power within his domain. When a substitute teacher is assigned to a class, the class automatically looks down upon them as we believe they are not worthy of being a permanent teacher. They too feel the pressure of being in a classroom for only a day and may even conform to what students are saying despite the instructions left for them. This is because our behavior is motivated by a desire to be liked by everyone in the system. Substitutes will often hold back giving out objectives or enforcing personal rules as to avoid ridicule or humiliation from others. While compliance and obedience both involve the target to agree to the desired request by first setting them up to agree on a modest request, behavior or action may not reflect an individual’s beliefs, opinions, and values. Shared is the way both obedience and compliance involve a subject’s agreement with the demand. The only difference is that while obedience is an order, compliance presents a less aggressive form of a request.

In fear being labeled a social outcast, an individual will follow the crowd rather than stray away when put into unknown situations. These attempts to follow the crowd and fit in can be seen in affective, cognitive, and behavioral responses. As we have moral inhibitions that develop to protect us from feeling guilt towards injury we induced. Through the process of authorization, routinization, and dehumanization, people allow themselves to see their victims are numbers rather than human beings. The only way people can justify what is being done to these harmless people is by coming to the belief that they are subhuman and deserve to be rooted out of society. While obedience often restrains violence, it also enables violence by allowing perpetrators to blame their actions on the authority figure who issues the orders and to avoid any moral distress by saying ‘I was only following orders.’ If someone feels they have less responsibility in a situation, they will be more likely to obey others without even thinking because they are not responsible for their actions. However, as personal responsibility increases, obedience levels decrease because they are the ones who must live with their choices.

Our society is continually raising children to accept that obedience is gratifying while disobedience is immoral. We are taught that we should each do whatever we are told and that the people who disobey are almost always going to turn out unsuccessful. Society tells us this, but it may not be entirely accurate. If we create a society that doesn’t question, we create a society that will follow orders in any situation, even to the point of hurting others. Disobedience is not always immoral, as it is necessary in certain situations to be disobedient. Nonetheless, obedience is a behavior deeply ingrained in all, and some may argue that it is a value everyone is born with. But what turns obedience into intolerance, often an impulse that overrides ethics and sympathy. There is not a new concept, as we have seen historical events where not just a small group of deranged individuals committed an atrocity, but rather a large population who had blindly followed authority. The tendency to obey authority is due to the safety and comfort we feel from them, the fear of being an outcast in society eye’s, and the desire to be a part of a group. We cannot make mistakes because the authority decides our fate for us, yet we can’t be alone because authority watches over us. No matter what our behavior is, we are consistently creating a paradoxical society, in which we tell people to be individuals and free thinkers yet turn around and scold them when they make a mistake out of their free will.

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