Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Picking One's Battles

Chris writes his own Authority Problem essay:

...Wilson's conclusions are somewhat different from yours, though. Rather than being somewhat confused and horrified at how difficult most people find disobedience, he found it quite natural and understandable. More importantly, he recognized -- which you, Pretty Lady, apparently do not -- the potential within himself -- within all of us humans -- to do the same.

To me, too, that's the most important lesson of the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments: Almost everyone, given the chance, would be a concentration camp guard. Maybe we all wouldn't be the most sadistic guard at Treblinka; but neither would most of us be the most compassionate, either.

A small example from my own life. I believe, and will quite passionately argue (with very little provocation), that the so-called security routine Americans submit to when traveling by airplane is not only not helpful but actively harmful. I believe that the humiliation of taking off our shoes and belts, and forcing people to carry liquids in quart-sized (not gallon or pint) clear plastic bags, is at least a waste of effort and at most designed to soften American citizens up for the next assault on privacy and freedom.

I further believe -- cribbing again from Robert Anton Wilson -- that the only truly inalienable human right is the right to say no and take the consequences. I believe that the only way to stop the nonsense of so-called airport security is for us, the people, to stand up and say no. To refuse to submit to it.

I almost never take an airplane anyway, so this is an easy stand for me to make. Except just last week my wife and I traveled to Las Vegas so she could receive a prestigious award. I agonized over how I would handle the security issue. And when the time finally came...I took off my shoes. Because...

Because. I can invent a lot of reasons. But, ultimately, there are always reasons. The human brain is absolutely unparalleled in inventing reasons for the things it does. Why sit idly by as your Jewish neighbors are arrested and sent away in cattle cars? Why administer deadly electric shocks on the orders of a man in a white coat? Why pile up naked prisoners and take a picture? Why take off your shoes at an airport checkpoint?

To me, enlightenment -- wisdom, whatever you choose to call it -- is understanding, truly understanding, that you yourself are not above this. Yes, there are always times and places where some individuals find the courage to stand up, and we'd all like to hope that we'd be like those people. But that's just hope.
Clap, clap, clap. Woo-hoo!

Pretty Lady has a few teensy little comments:

1) Pretty Lady's ego-self is, by definition, not above this. That is the definition of ego-self. As long as we identify completely with frangible little bodies, running around at odds with other bodies, we are not above this. This is why Pretty Lady works so committedly, if lazily, to transcend her ego-self.

2) There is such a thing as choosing one's battles, and degree of exigency, and seeking one's Tipping Point moment. It is unreasonable and hyperbolic to equate the taking off of one's shoes--so that one's beloved wife may have her well-deserved Fun Time In Vegas, instead of committing a futile one-man-stand against tyranny, getting jailed, and ruining her weekend--to the wanton torture of, perhaps, that same wife, or someone like her. As Milgram and Wilson point out, we are social, relational creatures, which is the very reason for the Authority Problem in the first place. If we were all self-aggrandizing narcissists, who threw gratuitous temper tantrums in airports for moral ideals which nobody around us is likely to understand or be influenced by, there would be no society to give rise to unjust governments, or, in time, to us.

2) a) Remember: contrary to popular myth, Rosa Parks planned her moment very, very carefully, buttressed by an entire Organizational Movement waiting in the wings. These Quixotic Individual Standing Up for Freedom myths do more harm than good.

3) It is quite probable that the simple wrestling with the shoe question, and contemplation of the issues thereof, would make you, Chris, a fraction less likely to sign off on concentration-camp warrants, should they cross your desk; which brings us to:

4) Once we know that such Authority Problems are a universal danger, how do we train our minds to recognize and resist them?

Well, it is said that the few German youngsters who found the notion of Hitler Youth to be boring and silly beyond belief, were home-schooled by permissive but intellectually rigorous parents.

And having an independent income helps, too.

For we cannot become enlightened all at once. First, we learn to Obey. Then we learn to understand the reasons for obedience. Then we learn to discern the circumstances where mindless obedience does not match up with those transcendent reasons; then, with much struggle and failure, we learn to act in accordance with those meta-standards, rendering obedience obsolete.

There is a lot more to this than mere Hope, Chris; frankly, it involves a lot of work.


Anonymous said...

How about, you take off your shoes so the next 200 people in line don't have to deal with your grandstanding?

Jeez, it isn't like anyone is asking you to swear fealty to the Bush Dynasty. And you know, someone DID try to blow up a plane with explosives in his shoes.

Welcome to reality.

Chris Rywalt said...

That essay on Rosa Parks is actually really inspiring.

Mark: I thought I made it clear that it's not about grandstanding. People following orders to keep society moving smoothly is exactly how you end up with people in concentration camps.

As far as someone actually trying to blow up a plane with explosives in his shoes: First, it didn't become a TSA requirement that passengers remove their shoes until 2006, nearly five years after Richard Reid smuggled explosives on in his shoes. Second, in addition to metal detectors, security checkpoints are also equipped with gas detectors, which would detect explosives in one's shoes. In fact taking them off causes them to bypass this.

Here, go read something.