“You Have No Other Choice, You Must Go On.”

“The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. … The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation. Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.” —Stanley Milgram

There were four prods when subjects resisted: “Please continue.” “The experiment requires that you continue.” “It is absolutely essential that you continue.” “You have no other choice, you must go on.” Often not reported is that the fourth prod met with the greatest resistance. In fact, in the studies I have looked at, all subjects refused to continue with the experiment when the authority told them, “You have no other choice, you must go on.”

That’s why we are seeing Americans taking to the streets in defiance of the lockdown orders. As the government moved through the prods—“Please shelter in place,” “Public health requires that you shelter in place,” “It is absolutely essential that you shelter in place”—the public followed orders. They still do. It makes them feel like they are part of something greater than themselves, that their choice is for some greater good. But then the government said, “You have no choice but to shelter in place.” And a number of people said, “Fuck that,” and gathered in public to make their defiance known. That’s mutual knowledge. Good for them. What’s wrong with other people that they would submit to destructive demands backed by threat of punishment? And why are they shaming those who are resisting authority—or in this case power, since for power to be authority it must have legitimacy.

I was just out walking in Allouez. I had to wait to cross the street because there were more cars traveling down Baird Street than I have seen on all the other days since the lockdown combined. Once on the other side, on my way to the East River trail, I had to walk in the road repeatedly because the driveways and roadsides were filled with cars. The smell of barbecues filled the air. Music was pumping. People were laughing. Three cop cars huddled by the trail. The looks on the cop’s faces told me they were looking at a level of defiance that they could not deal with (maybe they didn’t want to). This follows the police order that those who engage in precisely the behavior folks were engaged in at that moment would be subject to hefty fines.

What I saw out there today was “Fuck that.” Good for them. Maybe they’re paying attention to the news that this was overblown. Whatever the case, it made me feel good about my fellow man. Roy Batty’s words filled my ears—“That’s the spirit!” And that is a feeling I have been sorely missing over the last several weeks.

Thank you, Allouez.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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