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Practicing Disobedience: Social and Environmental Justice Depends on Our Capacity to Disobey

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Why is the world being destroyed? In large part, the answer lies with consent. The vast majority of people living in Empire either actively or passively support the systems of power—white supremacy, capitalism, industrial civilization, patriarchy—that are killing the planet. Why do people obey unjust authority? It is a confounding question.

If we dig a little, however, there are answers.

In the 1960s, social psychologist Stanley Milgram designed an experiment to test the power of obedience to authority. Participants in the study were told that they were participating in an experiment on the effects of punishment on learning, and that they could serve as the teacher in this experiment.

Each teacher was led into a booth that contained an audio link to another participant in the study; a learner, who was strapped to a chair.

The teacher would then be instructed to ask the learner a series of questions on basic topics. If they answered wrong, the teacher was told to apply a progressively increasing electric shock by pressing one of a series of buttons labeled with various voltages. The first shock was to be 15 volts, the last 450 volts. Signs beside each button described the effects, ranging from “Slight Shock” to “Danger: Severe Shock” and finally “XXX.”

There was only one factor pushing the “teacher” to apply shocks: an experimental observer, who would simply instruct the “teacher” to proceed if they balked at applying pain to another human being. If they balked more than 4 times, the experiment would end.

In truth, the learner was an actor; no real electric shock was being applied. However, as the imaginary voltages applied to the learner increased, the actor would begin to yelp in pain, then howl, ask to be released, and finally fall silent as if dead.

When asked to predict the outcome of the experiment, outsiders predicted that between 0 and 3 percent of participants would follow through to the end of those experiment. In truth, 65 percent of those participating in the study administered the maximum voltage level.

Milgram conducted follow-up experiments. In one, the teacher only needed to call out the test words; another person would administer the shocks. In this test, thirty-seven out of 40 participants—92 percent—obeyed to the point of administering “fatal” shocks.

***

From birth, we are trained to obey authority. For most of our history as human beings, this may have been in our best interest. For most of the history of our species, our authority figures were elders and chiefs. Ideally, these leaders/authorities would be trusted, wise individuals taught and raised from birth to put the needs of the community first.

Today we live in a different world, a world run by sociopaths. Self-interest and ruthlessness are the qualities that allow people to advance to positions of power. Wisdom has been perverted into knowledge for the sake of violating the genome and shackling the Earth. Trust has been twisted into a relentless barrage of propaganda teaching us to be good consumers, to support empire, to hate and fear those who aren’t like us, those who must be exploited, those who threaten our precious way of life.

***

It is hard to resist social pressures, especially when we have become accustomed to going along with norms. But it is essential that we learn how to disobey.

One remedy is practice. Like lifting weights or writing a five paragraph essay, resisting is a skill that can be learned. If resistance is a muscle, then our situation—a world wracked by global warming, species extinction, imperial war, resource extraction, and systematic violence against women, people of color, and the poor—calls for us all to start training.

Start with a warm up: protests, strikes, and public events. Push your boundaries and find out what your skills are. Then comes the cardio: organizing, the long distance running of the movement. Weight training is composed of civil disobedience and low level hit-and-run techniques, gaining experience with each strike. Finally comes the competition itself: the revolutionary confrontations, sabotage, undermining, hacking, and other actions necessary for dismantling empire.

Of course there are practical considerations for learning to resist, empire being the aggressive, violent, abusive, torturing, demeaning regime that it is. Lawbreaking must be done carefully, always measuring the impact of action versus its potential cost. Given the resources of the corporate state and the comparatively few people who are willing to take decisive action to stop it, we must be careful not to show our cards too early.

***

My journey into disobeying began at age 11, when I started writing political slogans on the whiteboard in my classroom. At 12, I attended my first protests. We took the streets and our large numbers held back the police. The space was ours. This was perhaps my first victory, even if it only mattered to us. I was hooked. By age 14, I was a revolutionary.

I knew, even then, that the Amerikan empire was based on genocide and stolen land, racism and slavery, exploitation and objectification, and above all theft. Theft of land, theft of resources, theft of people, theft of lives, theft of imagination, theft of alternatives, theft of free thinking, theft of ancestors, theft of labor, theft of reason, theft of sanity. This culture is a kleptomaniac serial killer, and the victims are all around us: women, the poor, black and other racialized people, Iraq, people with disabilities, the unhoused, indigenous peoples, and the land itself.

Since that first protest, I have tried to do what I can to protect forests, to stop the flow of fossil fuels, to demand justice, to stand with the dispossessed. As with any skill, practice must continue and mastery is a lifelong task. Use it or lose it.

***

The real lesson of Milgram’s experiment is not that most people will obey authority even when it leads them to commit acts of brutality; we have known that about human nature for a long time. We are capable of true evil; each of us must make choices between morality and depravity. What is noteworthy about Milgram’s experiments is that no matter what he tried, that were always some people who would disobey, some people who would not sacrifice their humanity in order to conform.

In the murk that is the ethical world in 2016, as Donald Trump prepares to make the White House white again, there remains a spot of hope. It comes from those people who will not obey, those who will resist, no matter the cost to themselves. When the moral compass points towards danger, these people will not shy away.

The torch of justice is still burning brightly around the world. In India, in Standing Rock, in Washington, in France, in Ethiopia, in Tibet, and in many other places around the world that we will never know about, people are standing up and demanding dignity and respect for sacred land. We must take up their example.

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Max Wilbert is a writer, activist, and organizer with the group Deep Green Resistance. He lives on occupied Kalapuya Territory in Oregon.

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