When I was at primary school in Napier, New Zealand, all the kids – including me – were terrified of a particular teacher, the ‘go to’ disciplinarian who was invoked when other teachers wanted a kid especially punished.
This bellowing drill-sergeant of a teacher demanded total submission to his power, even down to punishing kids for moving after he’d given them an order to move, but before he’d issued the separate ‘go’ command. When he prowled the playground, nobody was safe. Any excuse, it seemed, sufficed for him to hurt the kids; and to be accused by him was to be guilty, no defence – whether you’d done anything or not. He didn’t hesitate to slam 7-10 year olds with his ‘strap’, the leather appliance with which teachers were allowed to bash children at the time. And he habitually touched his own trouser-front, right there in front of everybody. I have a distinct memory of seeing him do it; and his habit was also commemorated on the school’s centenary Facebook page (“always touchin’ his fly”, “the fly watchers lol”). On the same page, former pupils also reported that they still got “scarry dreams” [sic] about him.
I don’t believe the teacher was ever held to account for any of this. My father tried raising the issue with the school at the time, but wasn’t able to get very far. Why? Because some pupils and their parents worshipped this teacher for the very conduct that left so many other kids traumatised by the fear of what the guy might do to them. To his advocates, this teacher had authority, he could control kids – and some parents clearly liked the way he did it. It was an uphill battle to get backing to raise a complaint. There were aspects of this teacher’s character that spoke to some parents – and, based on Facebook feedback, to children – in ways that caused them to leap to his support.
The problem is that this phenomenon, in which people follow and defend an authoritarian figure, exists at all scales. A lot of it is to do with the way that such a figure validates self-worth, which may well be tied to a specific ideology or way of thinking. The behaviours that follow can emerge anywhere there is an institutional structure to give such conduct power, even at the pettiest levels such as a provincial school. But it works at the very largest social scale too. History gives us many examples of governments that have drawn whole societies that way – Elizabethan England and Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth among them. Maxmilien Robespierre’s ‘terror’ of the early 1790s was another example. This last century there have been many more, from grand scale to small, and not just in the western sphere: Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, Stalinist Soviet Union, and – further afield – Idi Amin’s Uganda and Pol Pot’s Cambodia among them.
These dictatorships worked because ordinary people were willing parties. And the dangers of authoritarian followership – which is how authoritarian leaders obtain their power – must be understood, lest it happen again.
The ultimate example, of course, is Nazi Germany, where Adolf Hitler was elected to power in 1933 on promise of making Germany great again. They plumbed depths never seen before – a rational, calculated evil where even genocide was industrialised. But the thing is that polls in 1949, after the depth of the Nazi crimes had been publicised, showed a proportion of West Germans still preferred Hitler to the Adenauer government. It’s been argued that West Germany was not truly de-Nazified until the 1960s, when a generation grew who had not been inculcated with the sense of manifest destiny and national exceptionalism originally nurtured by Otto von Bismarck in the late nineteenth century. This mind-set – as Sir Robert Vansittart pointed out in 1944 – was Germany’s real problem.
The question the horrified Allies asked in 1945 was this: how could ordinary, intelligent people with loving families and a sense of moral compass elect an authoritarian leader and then support that leader through thick and thin? And how did so many become direct parties to the crimes Hitler and his administration nurtured? After all, somebody had to work in the death camps. The issue was examined by Hannah Arendt and others such as Theodor Adorno and Robert Altemeyer. Answers had to be found – for what the Nazis did was so shocking that it seemed scarcely possible for sane individuals to go along with it. But they had. Arendt concluded that evil is banal – ordinary, indulged by everyday people if they get the chance; and Hitler gave Germany that chance in 1933-45.
A good deal of work has since been done into the phenomenon – notably Stanley Milgram’s experiments of 1963, in which test subjects obeyed orders to ‘hurt’ and ‘kill’ others, by electric shock. Those results have been debated, in part by criticising the methodology, and have been considered to be due to conditioning rather than the innate flaws in humanity supposed by Milgram. And yet replication of the experiment, after the methodological debate, came up with the same results. In other words, it appears to be something humans do.
The question is why. Research since Milgram has shown that people will obey commands to hurt and kill for a variety of reasons. One explanation is a reduced sense of responsibility for their misdeed – because it was ordered. However, the more compelling (and frightening) answer is that of engaged followership. This emerged in more recent studies and suggests that people also follow instructions out of a sense of collaboration; that those doing it believe what they are doing is for the good. In short, the feel-good reward such people get from hurting someone (perhaps by exploiting institutional structures or through direct order, both of which may be contributing ‘permission’ factors) is greater than the reward they get from altruistic kindness towards strangers. And so moral compass is lost. And that can happen at all levels – from the pettiest scale of a provincial schoolteacher to that of a state whose people are seduced by the validation such conduct offers.
My answer? We define ourselves by our intelligence. Let’s prove it. Kindness is a virtue, and the path to that kindness is through reason, tolerance, acceptance of others, forgiveness and understanding. We must learn to genuinely care for the well-being of all of us, without doubt or hesitation. While it may seem to be the harder road, it is the one we must take.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017