Obedience and Conformity

Obedience can be understood as “a compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority”, while one of the meanings of conformity is “behaviour in accordance with socially accepted convention“. Obedience to authority forms one of the basis of civilisation. Unless the citizens abide by some rules there will be a complete chaos. In early days, this was done by rulers in form of rules and edicts. Now we have the constitution. 

Obedience is essential and must be achieved by cunning…

We usually use obedience and conformity as interchangeable terms or having at least similar connotations. but they are not same. But both are forms of power and control over other humans. Here is how Orwell puts it forth in Nineteen Eighty Four.  

“The real power, the power we have to fight for night and day, is not power over things, but over men.” [O’Brien] paused, and for a moment assumed again his air of a schoolmaster questioning a promising pupil:

“How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?”

Winston thought. “By making him suffer,” he said.

“Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

Stanley Milgram made a distinction between the two and identified four major differences that distinguish the two. This differences tell us about the nature of obedience and conformity. The core of the difference lies in the person who is commanding obedience and the person who is following that in case of conformity usually the person following others is at equal status to them. Where is in the case of obedience there is a hierarchy between the commander and the commanded. This is the first difference: the hierarchy. In a classroom the teacher commands the students to follow certain task or to do some task. This is an example of obedience. When students try to follow each other in terms of the things they do or they dress outside of school or the games that play or the clothes they wear is closer to conformity. The in the first case is the clear distinction and difference in hierarchy in the second case it is not so.

The second major difference is imitation while obedience involves compliance with orders, confirmatory involves imitation and adoption of similar behaviour. If neighbours are beating the plates to make corona go away, so shall I, otherwise we will be seen as socially non-fitting.

The third difference is that in case of obedience the commands are more explicit whereas for conformity is more of an implicit thing. An unspoken rule which everybody around you follows. Conformity is more about following others who are your peers than following explicit commands so in case of confirmative their might be some elbow room to express yourself slightly differently than others. But in case of obedience that is not possible obedience is to the full and no lateral thinking is allowed.

Final difference is the voluntary nature of conformity as opposite to attribution to authority figures. In case of obedience there is no choice but to follow the orders.

Milgram’s experiment on obedience shows how suggestible humans are in presence of authority. 

Would you torture another human because someone in authority tells you to?

The experiment is setup as such. The subject let us call them X is called for doing an experiment in the lab. X is then introduced to the experiment. The experiment involves X teaching another participant Y word association using punishment for wrong answers. If Y does not give correct answer, X has to give Y a punishment in the form of an electric shock. X is given a mild shock to make them experience of the punishment, so that X knows what is the type of punishment and how Y would feel when punished. X has a dial which can control the amount of shock delivered to Y. Overseeing all this is a researcher Z in a white lab coat. A person wearing a white lab coat somehow represents authority figure for most. This is why you see doctors/scientists in advertisements wearing white lab coat: because it is a symbol of authority

Now, Y is actually part of the experiment and accomplice of the researcher. X does not know this. The test starts, and Y deliberately chooses to give wrong answers. Now according to the “rules” of the experiment X has to give “punishment” to Y for incorrect answers. The dial for controlling the shock, the “shock generator”, is calibrated with incremental levels of shock, finally going to 450 Volts. (Of course this is make believe, there is no real shock given, but let us keep this secret with us and not tell X.)

With each wrong answer X is supposed to increment the level of shock punishment to Y from the shock generator. Now, X knows that increasing the shock will cause incremental pain to Y. When X hesitates to increase, Z intervenes and tells X authoritatively (remember Z is wearing a white lab coat) that this is the rule: “With each wrong answer punishment must be increased.” This is where the crux of the experiment comes in. It is found that majority of X, under the influence from authority figure Z, obediently inflicts serious punishment to Y. This even when Y cries in agony, asks experiment to stop, but more X continue to punish Y.   

This is highly counterintuitive result. How so you would ask?  Consider the following gedankenexperiment. Suppose someone looking authoritative tells you to go and thrash someone. Would you do it? Most probably the answer would be no. Then why are the participants X so willing to inflict the incrementally harsh punishment? Because they start with something that is seemingly innocent – a mild shock. Once that threshold is crossed rest of the punishment becomes easy. And you adjudge yourself being not at fault as you are “just following the orders or rules”. This has large implications for how we as a society, every now and then, fall for authority figures and do things which we think we will not do. Perhaps in such cases, we think that since authority figure is telling us to do something, it must be for greater good and we let not our puny morals or conscience come in the way. Also, since we are obeying authority, it takes off our own personal responsibilities as such. This is a slippery slope and can lead to genocides and living hell for those Y who are at the suffering end. Just because Z is popular and in authority does not make following them blindly a right thing. But then the aspect of conformity sets in. If we don’t follow the current norms we are seen as outcasts in the society and that leads to further pressuring of conformity.

Moral is we should exercise our own set of morals and conscience as much as possible.  





Great Ideas in Psychology by Fathali Moghaddam

Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell

World We Live In

“I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded. That’s not something I’m willing to support, it’s not something I’m willing to build, and it’s not something I’m willing to live under.”

via Techdirt.

Illegal and Wrong

We have to get out of the mindset of thinking that things are wrong because they are illegal. People make laws and people can change those laws.
via Silk Road

Often people equate being illegal to being wrong. Though this may be true at times, it need not be always true. This is a fact that many people forget and do not think about.The laws that we have were made in a specific time with conditions pertaining to those times. And the fact that  they are made by people. They may not be relevant any more. Or it might be just that the laws presented views of the majority or of the rich and the powerful. And many times breaking the law itself is the right thing to do. Gandhi in his life showed this many times. So was it wrong when Gandhi broke the salt law, for example? If there is a law against speaking about wrongs government does, it would be illegal to break such a law, but would it be wrong?


So, it seems that ebook users need to add a new word to their vocabulary: “undownloading” — what happens when you leave the authorized zone in which you may read the ebooks you paid for, and cross into the digital badlands where they are taken away like illicit items at customs. If you are lucky, you will get them back when you return to your home patch — by un-undownloading them.
via Techdirt

Consider this was a physical book, you would be fined for smuggling books that you have legitimately brought or your books taken under protective custody by someone, after all they contain the most dangerous things known to humans – ideas!

NYT Newspeak

Asylum is for people who are afraid to return to their own country because they fear persecution, unlawful imprisonment or even death because of their race, their ethnicity, their religion, their membership in particular social or political groups, or their political beliefs.
Mr. Snowden undoubtedly fears returning home because he would be arrested and prosecuted. But those fears do not qualify him for asylum. And does he really feel safer in a country where Mr. Putin, an increasingly authoritarian leader, has jailed and persecuted his critics?
via NYTimes

This is complete newspeak on part of NYT. Mark the last words in the first quote “their political beliefs”. The case of Snowden is not about military secrets, but about his political beliefs. The belief that those in power should not abuse it, the belief that those who have abused the power should be brought to light. It is in fact for these very beliefs they are targeting him.
And why should not he fear arrest and prosecution? As they have done with Manning, they will do with him and Assange. This would be just to set an example, so that no one else does it. Actually Putin and Obama are no different. If at all someone from any other country, lets say Cuba, would come to the US, having leaked Cuban secrets, won’t the US consider giving them asylum. And does giving that person the asylum, has to do anything with how Obama himself is running the show. If spying on your own people, breaching their privacy to the fullest is okay then jailing and persecuting the critics is no different.

On Privacy…

Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we’re doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance.
Too many wrongly characterize the debate as “security versus privacy.” The real choice is liberty versus control. Tyranny, whether it arises under threat of foreign physical attack or under constant domestic authoritative scrutiny, is still tyranny. Liberty requires security without intrusion, security plus privacy. Widespread police surveillance is the very definition of a police state. And that’s why we should champion privacy even when we have nothing to hide.

via The Eternal Value of Privacy.

Free Press and Democracy

A free press is an essential part of a democratic system. In a society like ours, with its stark inequalities, only a media free of government and corporate pressures can ensure that the voiceless are heard. What we are seeing currently is not just blatant collusion between the media and big business but also a deliberate obliteration of much of what happens to the millions who live on the margins.
via Economic and Political Weekly

This is what Media Lens has to say about the BBC which is supposed to be in public interest and impartial.

Instead of providing responsible, public-service journalism, the BBC acts as a conduit for government propaganda. It is particularly noxious that the organisation relentlessly channels the state’s supposedly benign intentions abroad. This is the diet of daily bias and distortion we are all fed. When will BBC heads roll for that?

But isn’t this true of the media in India also? Or elsewhere in the world for that matter. Tehelka reports that many of the barons of power also control the local media in newly formed state of Chattisgad. And what is the use of controlling media when they are not used for gains. When the so called free media becomes a part of the political parties we cannot be sure of what they report.

If the Congress has Naveen Jindal, the BJP has Ajay Sancheti. If the Congress has the Lokmat, the BJP has the Hari Bhoomi. Barring coal, in which both the Centre and the states had their hands in the till, in the case of other mineral resources, the real corruption lies in the states.

It is not that people do not use media for their own gain, media is used for spreading ideology, there are many mouthpiece outlets for political parties and others which propagate the ideas. But what is worst is that the masquerade that many media houses put on themselves claiming to be honest and working in public interest, and people at large believe them, being obliviousto the fact that these very media houses are the ones who are power brokers and very much in the filth as corporates and politicians. A recent example of this was the Radia tapes.

The complete blackout of the Niira Radia tapes by the entire broadcast media and most of the major English newspapers paints a truer picture of corruption in the country than the talk shows in the various news channels and the breast-beating in all the newspapers about the 2G, CWG, Adarsh, and other scams.
via|G. Sampath – DNA

It was not until the non-main-stream media began to show up too much, there was some coverage given. But the very fact that the accused are in complete denial of what happened is what is disturbing. We usually held names like Barkha Dutt, Vir Sanghvi well but these tapes just show how much they are in the filth of what they pretend to expose. From then on, I have given up on NDTV as a reliable source, which earlier I thought it was. But then what do you trust?

At the same time, it is worth noting that neither Barkha nor any of the other journalists whose names have come up have denied that those conversations took place. So why not let the reader or TV viewer read or listen to the transcripts and decide whether Dutt and Sanghvi’s conversations with Radia are a part of “normal journalistic duties” or amount to pimping for politicians and business houses? Or perhaps they were doing social service for the Congress? Play the tapes on your show, na, Ms Dutt, instead of tweeting about them? Why not let ‘We, The People’ decide, instead of you deciding for us all?
via|G. Sampath – DNA

The media blackout of particular events is what I find disturbing. What it shows the kind of camaraderie that exists between different media houses and their corporate and political cronies. That basically means that the news, sorry the Breaking News that you see is like a managed play, with directors and writers deciding what people see, hear and think. In Marathi novel (Ithink it was Swami (स्वामी) by Ranjit Desai) I had read a sentence which fits these situations well, it reads:

मी मारल्या सारखे करतो, तु रडल्या सारखे कर.
( I will feign to hit, you feign to cry.)

This creates an illusion about real problems. Most of the News channels that are beamed in India follow this line. Put all the focus on some non-issues, or twist them from certain angles so that why all this happens remains oblivious to the viewers. If our media was after all serious about the issues that they present, they would have seen to it that things are done.
Many a times what I have also found reading reports on various different news services is that they are same. I mean many a times they are word to word same, as if the reports have been written at one place and distributed. I do not have links right now, but will update this post when I do. This again creates a picture that what news we see is heavily filtered, and sometimes flavours are added to create sensationalism. And the icing is that we all think this is genuine, with “Free Press in A Democracy”. Orwell had a foresight about this as well:

Of course, print will continue to be used, and it is interesting to speculate what kinds of reading matter would survive in a rigidly totalitarian society. Newspapers will presumably continue until television technique reaches a higher level, but apart from newspapers it is doubtful even now whether the great mass of people in the industrialized countries feel the need for any kind of literature. They are unwilling, at any rate, to spend anywhere near as much on reading matter as they spend on several other recreations. Probably novels and stories will be completely superseded by film and radio productions. Or perhaps some kind of low grade sensational fiction will survive, produced by a sort of conveyor-belt process that reduces human initiative to the minimum.
via The Prevention of Literature | George Orwell

The only reason I see that India is feudal and corrupt is that the so called Free Press was never able to take up the challenge to the nexus, and ultimately now has become a part of it.

In our age, the idea of intellectual liberty is under attack from two directions. On the one side are its theoretical enemies, the apologists of totalitarianism, and on the other its immediate, practical enemies, monopoly and bureaucracy.
via The Prevention of Literature | George Orwell

Though there are dissidents here and there, this now has become global phenomena, with the Indian media people just following the suit. And if this is the case, what difference does it make whether you are living in a democracy or a totalitarian state?
And Orwell wraps it up thus:

A totalitarian society which succeeded in perpetuating itself would probably set up a schizophrenic system of thought, in which the laws of common sense held good in everyday life and in certain exact sciences, but could be disregarded by the politician, the historian, and the sociologist. Already there are countless people who would think it scandalous to falsify a scientific textbook, but would see nothing wrong in falsifying an historical fact. It is at the point where literature and politics cross that totalitarianism exerts its greatest pressure on the intellectual.
via The Prevention of Literature | George Orwell


Reading in e-book era

Reading without surveillance, publishing without after-the-fact censorship, owning books without having to account for your ongoing use of them: these are rights that are older than copyright. They predate publishing. They are fundamentals that every bookseller, every publisher, every distributor, every reader, should desire. They are foundational to a free press and to a free society. If you sell an ebook reader is designed to allow Kafkaesque repossessions, you are a fool if you expect anything but Kafkaesque repossessions in their future. We’ve been fighting over book-bans since the time of Martin Luther and before. There is no excuse for being surprised when your attractive nuisance attracts nuisances.
via Boing Boing.

I agree completely.Though cases like these are going to become more common, unless we switch to a technology which we can see that is Free as in Freedom. Governments and corporates are going to use this technology against the people who are using it. It will create profiles of “dangerous” people who are reading revolutionary material, for example. It will go unchecked if we just are using the technology without questioning it.
Also see RMS’s view on this topic.

Kafka and Orwell

Two of my favourite authors. Both of them were from almost same era, early part of 20th century. Both of them wrote about bureaucracy, corruption, control, power, and helplessness of individuals in the greater scheme of things. Reading them a dark feeling covers your soul, and all chances of redemption appear bleak. We are, it seems, doomed for life, and only non-existence in to oblivion or death can relieve us of these torments, as it does to many characters of this duo.
The things that are happening now around us, the FUDs and stereotyping of “The Enemy” reminds one much of the situation in Nineteen Eight Four. Maybe the policy makers grew up reading Nineteen Eight Four and found enough material to be implemented in the real world. Or as it happens in The Castle, one can easily identify with the main protagonist whose life is made into an unending sequence of visits to the offices in The Castle. As it happens during visits to most of the government offices.

Wikipedia | New Politics Of Knowledge

Professionals are no longer needed for the bare purpose of the mass distribution of information and the shaping of opinion. The hegemony of the professional in determining our background knowledge is disappearing—a deeply profound truth that not everyone has fully absorbed.
In their view, Wikipedia represents the democratization of knowledge itself, on a global scale, something possible for the first time in human history.
As wonderful as it might be that the hegemony of professionals over knowledge is lessening, there is a downside: our grasp of and respect for reliable information suffers.  With the rejection of professionalism has come a widespread rejection of expertise—of the proper role in society of people who make it their life’s work to know stuff.
For instance, journalists, interviewers, and conference organizers—people trying to gather an audience, in other words—use “expert” to mean “a person we can pass off as someone who can speak with some authority on a subject.”  Also, we say the “local expert” on a subject is the person who knows most, among those in a group, about the subject.  Neither of these are the very interesting senses of “expert.”
To exclude the public is to put readers at the mercy of wrongheaded intellectual fads; and to exclude experts, or to fail to give them a special role in an encyclopedia project, is to risk getting expert opinion wrong.
If we reject the use of credentials, we reject all evidence of expertise; ergo, lacking any means of establishing who is an expert, we reject expertise itself.  Meritocrats are necessarily expert-lovers.
Experts know particular topics particularly well.  By paying closer attention to experts, we improve our chances of getting the truth; by ignoring them, we throw our chances to the wind.  Thus, if we reduce experts to the level of the rest of us, even when they speak about their areas of knowledge, we reduce society’s collective grasp of the truth.

via On The New Politics Of Knowledge | Conversation | Edge
On the brighter side of it, we are for the first time able to participate in many things. Just being trained in a discipline (PhD?) does not automatically create opportunities for one in the old system. But in Wikipedia it does. How many people who have PhD do get an opportunity to write a text-book or a popular article? I would like to ask how many of contributors on Wikipedia are really subject experts? There might be many, and they would be able to point at the right evidence, when needed to “show off” their authority in the field, which the normal user won’t be. So what’s the fuss about?