The obedience circuit.

There is your normal run-of-the-mill observation, and then there is observation that is so outlandish, so unbelievable, that it cries out for a theory. Seeing the way that people look at the horrific brutality committed by police and say things like “they deserved it,” “they must have done something wrong to deserve this” and “kids need to be beaten” is an observation that demands to be explained. And we observe this sort of behaviour over and over and over. It must be explained, because it should be plainly obvious that their mindset is the exact opposite of love: they want everyone to be controlled, beaten down, reduced to nothing.

First, we have to set aside the facile explanations like “they’re stupid” or “they’re evil.” This may or may not be true, but not helpful at all in understanding what’s going on. Saying “they were beaten as children” is slightly better, but not very explanatory. Some people who were beaten as children support police abuse, and some don’t. Like most social problems, I believe it’s an issue of indoctrination.

We are drilled to be obedient even before we are able to speak or consciously think. The obedience circuit, therefore, is probably the first aberration that we receive as human beings.

A circuit is an if-then statement implanted in the mind, much like how we used to write computer programs. This statement eventually takes a life of its own, and becomes a part of our mind that we have little control over. The obedience circuit laid down by our parents can be described very easily:

“If mom or dad tells you to do something, then do it.”

For a child, his parents are the whole world. He depends on them for his very survival, and they lay it on thick. Because of this extreme asymmetry of power, children always end up brainwashed. Then, like a groove, the circuit gets deeper and deeper as it is used by a stream of new authorities: other adults, priests and pastors, school teachers and administrators, policemen and government bureaucrats, work overseers and capital owners, and for the unlucky ones, judges and other court jesters. An authority is anyone who is to be obeyed, and there are plenty of those around, especially for a child or teenager.

The only difference is that most authorities are only authorities in a given context, such as:

“If a school teacher tells me to do something when I’m in his class, then do it.”

When a circuit is used again and again for years on end in this fashion, it becomes an automatism. You don’t think about it because it’s not meant to be thought about, just pure stimuli-response. You observe an order in a given context and you obey it. Then once the automatism keeps running for a long time, it runs amok and generalizes itself. People start applying it everywhere, to all authorities, to all subjects, in any context. If they have to obey, then so should you. They say misery loves company, but I don’t think it’s as much misery as it is automatisms that just grow and develop out of proportion (faggot repression of homosexuality, I think, is another good example of this).

Another element that enters into the “they deserve it” attitude is the belief that people are inherently evil. I have already discussed this as being a fundamental political premise and a great help in understanding the source of people’s political worldviews.

It’s obvious that the belief that “people are inherently evil” has strong implications in terms of control and obedience. In fact, the belief that “people are inherently evil” is the single most important belief for the capital-democratic system to indoctrinate in people. We know this because it is the single belief that it devotes the most energy to making people believe. Many of the most popular television shows (and in the past, radio shows) are devoted to the proposition that the police, always honest and always upright, protects us from criminals. Much government propaganda is devoted to creating the perception of criminal elements, either internal or external, and many government functions exist solely to foster that impression. Many laws in the books serve no other function but to create new criminals, while heralded as the only possible way to fight crime. A great deal of our news reports are devoted to criminality. Finally, capitalist structures have only reinforced this impression by making human contact more and more unnecessary, and the Internet has made ideological contact with the Other completely avoidable.

The natural consequence of the premise “people are inherently evil” is that society, which is composed of people, is not workable without institutionalized control, otherwise people will just “run amok.” It’s no coincidence that this premise also underlies all collectivist systems under the form of “original sin” or “selfishness.” If you can’t sell the idea that there’s something fundamentally wrong with people, you can’t sell them the need for your organization or religion to control them and control others.

The only natural conclusion is that we must deal with other people, not according to morality, but according to rules set by authorities (or as they call it in politics, “the rule of law”). Individual values are made subservient to the need for obedience.

What applies to the criminal intentions behind “law and order” rhetoric also applies to the more common criminal intentions of the thief, fraudster or killer. They are, after all, only differentiated by their apparent legitimacy. The private criminal uses the same “humanity is evil” rhetoric to justify his murders than the politician. If humanity is evil, then the person I’ve just hurt is really not innocent or a victim at all, but rather he is guilty as much as I am, therefore I am in the right. Both lines of thought ultimately lead to “might makes right,” be it the might of the law and the police or the might of the individual.

But it goes farther than that. The control mentality is not a one-way street. The believer recognizes that politicians and other authorities are just as corruptible as they are, and believes that they should also be controlled. This role is supposed to be taken by the democratic process, paper constitutions, checks and balances, and so on. As I have discussed in the past, no method to control government or hold it accountable can succeed. Subjects believe that they collectively control their rulers, but they do not. Regardless, they believe that they do, and that belief drives their belief in democracy as being conducive and necessary for freedom. Complete and total freedom, in their mentality, is a state of legitimized and formalized control of all over all, where every other human being is so controlled that no harm can come to you.

The only logical conclusion, therefore, is that the more we use violence on other people “to keep them in line,” the freer we are. The more we beat on unruly teenagers, the freer we are. The more we abuse and execute criminals, the freer we are. The more we pass laws to restrain people from doing things we don’t like, the freer we are. The more we spy on people, the freer we are. The more we tell people what they can do with their resources, the freer we are. Here is an example of this twisted mentality:

I want the president to tell the American people that, contrary to what they have been taught for many years, government is a jewel of human association and an heirloom of human reason… that the size of government must be fitted to the size of its tasks, and so, for a polity such as ours, big government is the only government; that strong government comports well with strong freedom… nobody was ever rescued, or enlarged, by being left alone.

It should be clear to any sane person that this is a belief that leads to insanity on a massive scale. Its logical conclusions are the bread line and the concentration camp. Fortunately, such conclusions are generally not reached because it takes a lot of time and energy to sustain an insanity at that high of a level (in fact, you need an active mass movement, at least). It is probably the main advantage of democracy that it requires a lot more time and energy to turn a hundred million subjects insane than to turn one or ten leaders insane.

To come back to my initial question, I believe it is the combination of these two near-universal beliefs, if still in effect, that creates the “they deserved it” mindset. I believe that people who were beaten as children have a greater likelihood of accepting violence as a valid means of punishment, but that those who were beaten as a child and whose traumatism led them to reject authority as a whole will be least likely to support punishment. It would be interesting to see some psychological studies on that topic (abused children v attitudes towards violence) to confirm or disprove this.

10 thoughts on “The obedience circuit.

  1. [...] The Obedience Circuit  by Francois Tremblay [...]

  2. Vichy April 26 2009 at 6:24

    Don’t forget evolutionary psychology and the lack of adaptation that human beings have for civilization, especially mass industrial civilization.

    Most human beings are probably not well constituted for actually being happy in this world, or inclined to ‘accept the facts’. Which would explain – in a way that ‘historical and social intertia’ – would not. It would explain, for example, susceptibility to such stupid ideas.

    Most people have all sorts of intrinsic moral tendencies which fly in the face of sense and fact. They also have an inclination to care more about socially-constructed success than their own lives.

    Human, all to human as Nietzsche often says, but well supported theories nonetheless.

  3. kentmcmanigal April 26 2009 at 11:32

    That quote near the end, and the article it comes from, sent a chill through me. Strong government “comports well” with strong freedom? Tell that to the 200 million individuals killed by government in the 20th century and see what they say. Well, I guess “dead” IS pretty “free”, in a twisted sort of way.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork April 27 2009 at 12:50

    I’m quite enamoured of the radical re-reading of Freud’s Oedipus conflict that’s associated with, among others, Shulamith Firestone. The basic story is – authority figures, symbolised to varying degrees in ‘the father’, are initially disliked and resented, but children must recognise that they own the world and control the child’s symbolic entry into it: the child can only become a proper, recognised, accreditted person, accepted and responded to by others as a member of society, on the terms set by their parents/fathers/authority figures. So in order to become ‘well-adjusted’ they have to suppress their initial hostility to authority figures and replace it with an identification with them – a difficult period which Freud (completely missing its full social significance) called the Oedipus complex (for boys – the dynamics for girls are different because girls don’t get the same full-strength socially-recognised-personhood). Conversely, those who are victimised by authority figures must be rejected and distanced from – otherwise the “child”‘s own secret hostility to authority might emerge, which is feared.

    Upshot is, identification with authority figures is a defense mechanism, something necessary for someone to be at peace with their society.

  5. [...] have already discussed the general issue of obedience and why it happens at a psychological level. Generally, though, there’s something more added [...]

  6. [...] opposite of a hierarchy, which is predicated on a strict relation of obedience between superior and inferior, is equality of authority. None may order anyone else to act against [...]

  7. [...] of violent thoughts can emerge from that without being examined. It’s not hard to understand why people fervently believe in police brutality when they were raised to believe in parental brutality. That area of their life is closed off, and [...]

  8. [...] self-evidently incorrect and evil by any human standard. I have examined in the past exactly how people come to be so mentally corrupt. Now, you can have the exact same kind of dialogue than I described before, with the same kinds of [...]

  9. [...] addition to attribution, there are two cognitive biases at work: the obedience circuit and the just-world hypothesis (the belief that the world is just, and that therefore people get [...]

  10. [...] The link with cooperation/competition may seem less obvious, but cooperation is linked to the view that humans are not innately evil, and competition with the view that they are. You’d be more likely to promote cooperation as the way to accomplish tasks if you believe the people around you are basically good, competent, and so on, and you’d be more likely to set people against each other so they keep each other’s evil in check. [...]

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