Challenging Authority: The Creative Imperative
Challenging authority at all levels is vital in our building of a healthy society. And for the creative, there is hardly a greater imperative.
In systems of education, national and local government, in work environments, sports clubs and organisations.
Wherever there are those who would assume authority over others there must be those who are willing to challenge them no matter what.
There must be, in the creative, the dissenter, the non-conformist.
Someone who is willing to stand up against authority despite the weight of its opposition and indifference of the masses.
Women and men who are prepared to highlight social injustices through their work, no matter how much negative sentiment they invite on themselves.
For where authority is allowed to exercise its power with impunity, people will suffer.
Just like generations of people did in my country under the immoral and insidious gaze of the Catholic Church.
Creative people are born non-conformists.
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They are catalysts for change and must exercise their moral and creative obligation to break the rules of static and often oppressive circumstances at every opportunity.
The Artist’s Duty
I don’t know about you, but if I find myself in a situation where obvious problems exist I’m compelled to open my mouth.
Now, that can be disturbing for others around me because I’m not supposed to rock the boat.
We’re all supposed to keep our mouths shut, aren’t we? Say nothing, keep your head down and it will go away.
Get what you have to do done and don’t bring attention to yourself because if you do you’re risking everything.
That’s the unspoken rule.
These informal, standard behaviours come from a need to have approval and acceptance from the group.
To oppose them is to bring unwanted attention to us from authorities and risk isolation.
To be isolated is to be alone, and to be alone is to not exist.
Seriously though, apathy towards unwanted circumstances and adherence to authority completely inflame me!
I have a significant disregard for authority and always have.
There is nothing healthier and more energising than to graciously present the middle finger to those who would insist that you do what you are told.
No. Not gonna happen here.
The Schoolboy Revolution Circa. 1986
When I was a boy in school about 13 or 14 years old, I had a yellow canvas school bag.
All the cool kids had these bags.
We’d buy them from Army Bargains on Little Mary Street in Dublin and use different colour pens, markers and Tipex to write slogans and logos of bands all over them.
I wrote, Fuck The System! down the side in big black letters.
Needless to say, that didn’t go down too well with my parents.
“He’s a rebel without a cause”, I heard my mother say to a neighbour one Saturday afternoon.
“Tut. Jesus, that’s so embarrassing”, I said to myself quietly. “She hasn’t got a clue”.
I’d hear The Wall play over and over in my head as I dreamed of a schoolboy revolution in the St. Vincent’s field.
I would see myself play electric guitar, calling all the kids to revolt against the oppressive school system.
The teachers would be rounded up. They’d be made pay for their oppression of the kids, for pinning us against the wall by the scruff of our collars for minor indiscretions.
It never happened though.
The revolution never came either.
What Makes Us Relinquish To Authority?
Why are we so willing to conform to authority?
Why do we give up our individuality for the sake of group identity?
What is it about uniforms and other symbols of authority that makes people go placid and accepting of ordinarily unacceptable behaviour?
Psychologist Stanley Milgram asked this question in the wake of the atrocities carried out by the Nazi regime during WW2 on the ethnic minorities of Europe.
Milgram wanted to understand why ordinarily compassionate, stable people blindly adhered to authority, often carrying out acts against their otherwise better judgement.
He conducted an experiment where participants were falsely told they were examining the effects of punishment on learning ability.
The experiment included Instructors (experimenters), Teachers (participants), and Students (actors).
All participants were assigned the role of teacher. The student was placed in an adjoining room out of sight but within earshot of the teacher and instructor.
The instructor ordered the teacher to ask preset questions of the student and upon receiving a wrong answer, they were to administer an electric shock (fake) to the student.
The (fake) electric shock ranged from 15v to 450v and was to be increased by the teacher every time the student gave a wrong answer.
As the shock level increased the student (actor) made audible their (fake) discomfort and pain. Despite this, 65% of the teachers continued delivering (fake) electric shocks.
Some participants questioned whether they should continue out of concern for the student, but did so upon continued instruction from the authority figure.
Popular expert opinion at the time held that only 1% of the population were capable of such obscenities as seen in Europe during the Nazi regime.
The results of the study found this to be grossly inaccurate.
The study participants, ordinary Americans, put aside their better judgement in favour of obedience to the authority figure.
This was of course as they thought, at the expense of the well-being of their fellow human beings.
Milgram found that people would suspend personal values, core principles and proper judgement for fear of reprisal or desire to remain cooperative to authority.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
Although highly unethical, Milgram’s wasn’t the only study that showed our blind obedience to authority.
Shit got heavy in the basement of Stanford University in the summer of 1973 when Craig Haney, Curtis Banks and Philip Zimbardo took things to a whole other level.
If Stanley Milgram got heat over his 1963 study on obedience, he was to be dethroned by Zimbardo and The Stanford Prison experiment 10 years later.
It is believed that when Milgram met Zimbardo in a Stanford University hallway he thanked him for taking the spotlight.
The Stanford Prison Experiment was and still is, the subject of ethical debate around the ethical treatment of human beings in scientific research.
Subsequent to the publication of the study’s findings, ethical guidelines were radically changed for the better.
The Prison Experiment
The experimenters put an advert in the local paper seeking participants to take part in a scientific study of prison life.
22 males, mostly white, were chosen for participation based on the successful completion of a questionnaire to establish mental and physical suitability.
The men were divided equally and randomly assigned roles as either guard or prisoner.
A fake prison was built in a 35-foot section of the basement of Stanford University to mimic as close as possible, the environment of a prison.
Doors to small lab rooms were replaced with steel doors with bars, a small dark closet was used as solitary confinement and very basic living conditions were afforded.
Guards worked on a shift basis, prisoners remained in the prison 24 hours per day.
Prisoners were given a number, had their normal clothes replaced with a gown type muslin smock, had no underwear and had a chain locked to their ankle.
Guards wore a military-style uniform, had a nightstick and whistle and wore mirrored glasses.
The uniforms were designed to reinforce power and authority in the guards, and dehumanisation and deindividuation in the prisoners.
There are times when external circumstances can overwhelm us, and we do things we never thought. If you’re not aware that this can happen, you can be seduced by evil. We need inoculations against our own potential for evil. We have to acknowledge it. Then we can change it. – Dr. Philip Zimbardo
The guards were told to enforce their authority any way they saw fit without inflicting physical harm on the prisoners.
Prisoners were referred to only by their numbers.
After the first day, the experimenters wondered if the experiment would be a waste of time given the passive nature of everyone involved.
However, it only took another day for guards and prisoners to begin acting out their respective roles. Shortly afterwards, extreme pathological effects began to emerge in both guards and prisoners.
Long story short, after only 6 days Zimbardo was urged by his girlfriend to call off the study due to the extent of negative psychological effects on the prisoners and guards.
Aggressive behaviour gradually escalated to the point where they recognised conditions to be highly unethical and damaging to all involved.
Such was the effect their roles and the environment had on them.
Who Is Responsible?
The Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram’s Obedience study serve to illustrate the nature of the human condition and our propensity for adherence to rules enforced by authority.
It is disturbing to see what human beings are capable of doing to each other.
It is perhaps even more disturbing to know that organisations utilise the knowledge gained from these studies to extend their reach and influence over people.
They know that we humans beings will essentially do what we are told given the appropriate environment.
To such an extent that we will inflict terrible atrocities upon each other in order that the rules be upheld.
Authority will then distance itself from the moral crime and announce the perpetrators, the foot soldiers, as the bad seeds.
Zimbardo reminds us that people, the seeds, are not inherently evil. They are rather in large part the product of the environment, the soil.
He says it is the responsibility of the makers of the system to ensure that the system does not encourage the adverse behaviour.
Bullies may be the perpetrators of evil, but it is the evil of passivity of all those who know what is happening and never intervene that perpetuates such abuse. – Dr. Philip Zimbardo
A Final Word
I gave my boys three rules for living a successful and happy life.
Those rules are;
- Break the rules.
- Don’t get caught.
- Respect all living things on this planet.
Do what your heart says you must do and most importantly, accept the consequences of your actions. Once you drop the cake on the floor there’s no putting it back together.
We, creative people, have a moral and ethical obligation to challenge the status quo at every opportunity.
Authority must not be given free reign to go unquestioned.
Never accept lame responses.
Use your art to break the rules.