Obedience to Authority

Write about a piece of literature and its meaning to you.

I never thought that I could be made to do someone serious harm until I read Obedience to Authority by Stanley Milgram. The book describes the Milgram experiment, in which ordinary people were made to believe that they were doing something potentially harmful to another human being for the purposes of a scientific experiment. Despite an obvious moral dilemma, a vast majority of subjects could not diverge from the wishes of the authority figure. The greatest revelation I had after reading this was that I was potentially no different than any of those test subjects. This is not to say that I believe I am weak, or that I follow instructions blindly. It is merely recognition that there is a mechanism that exists within all individuals which governs our behavior, and that mechanism is not always in our control. Obedience is necessary if one wishes to function in a society, but it can become problematic when it is manipulated by a malevolent authority. It is very rare that I would have the occasion to exercise my free will in the face of a malevolent authority figure, nor would that be a good time to flex my emotional muscles for the first time. However, there are elements of obedience which I encounter daily that provide the perfect opportunity for self improvement. By recognizing these opportunities, I now feel confident that I will be able to listen to my conscience, rather than authority, when the two are in discord. One pattern that the author observed was that subjects who were interviewed after the experiment came up with a multitude of ways to distance themselves from the task they were told to perform. They placed the responsibility on the authority figure, or even on their “victim” for making mistakes. This phenomenon of removing oneself from a situation occurs frequently in life, and it can be a dangerous habit to fall in to. From my understanding of sports psychology I know that the mind often protects itself from stress by placing too much emphasis on external influences. As a fencer, some of my most regrettable losses occurred when I saw my good fortunes shifting, and in a desperate attempt to protect my ego, I became obsessed with factors that were outside of my control, and allowed them to rule my behavior. One instance in particular was at the 2009 Junior Olympics. I was sick the week prior and had not fully recovered before the event. I had a difficult path in the elimination round, and I was worried that I would not have the stamina to continue. My first bout was not the most difficult, and I should have been able to handle it. Regrettably, I was not just fencing the bout itself; I was also wrestling with my sickness, the anticipation of harder bouts still to come, and the stress of how my performance would be viewed. If I had focused only on the bout, I might have had a chance, but in reality I lost before it was even over. I let the fate of that bout slip out of my hands to protect myself from emotional stress. That was just another way of submitting to an internalized authority, which existed in the stress of competition, when it went against my best interests. When I should have faced the difficult circumstances and fully applied myself I became emotionally detached and let the situation play out.There might not have been anyone telling me to dwell on irrelevant distractions, but the same mechanism that helped distance test subjects from their task in the Milgram experiment was in play when I began to lose mental focus in competition. I allowed internalized fear to determine my actions, which is just as bad as submitting blindly to a more tangible authority. The cure for this, I realized later, was easy to recognize, although far from simple to execute. I am aspiring to live with a philosophy that I must be accountable for everything I do, that the buck stops with me, and that no one or nothing else can ever be responsible for my behavior. Other test subjects in the Milgram experiment became focused on their task so thoroughly that they blocked out what it was that they were actually doing. They performed their job as they were asked, asking the right questions and pressing the correct buttons as necessary; they were so exclusively focused on their physical actions that they did not need to think about what the consequences really were. These test subjects reminded me of something I was taught in driver’s ed, of all classes: that I should look far down the road instead of what is right in front of me. Similarly, in my life, I realize that I need to look at the big picture. I am currently in the phase of my life where I am seeking further education. This is an important part of my life, but it does not end there. My education is crucial, but only to prepare me for an exciting and fulfilling career, but that career is even less significant than the kind of life I hope to lead and the type of person I want to be. While I begin thinking about these intermediate steps, I have been keeping in my mind what is really important to me—living a fulfilling life doing something I enjoy with people I love. When my focus is on that goal, the intermediate difficulties that present themselves along the way seem less ominous and I know that I am heading in the right direction.I do not claim to be perfect in my ability to resist these behavioral patterns, but I am aware of them and working on them wherever they appear. Obedience to Authority did not change me in any way, but it provided me with a new perspective. When I confront a decision I am able to see it in terms of obedience, and I can make a stronger choice. For me, this means the difference between setting the course of my life or having it decided for me, and between staying true to myself versus being lost and confused. I can take hold of my future confident that, no matter what I do, I will be the one who is ultimately responsible.

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