I used to think selfishness was the basic flaw in most of humankind. That all problems in the world could be cured with a cure for selfishness (see How to Cure a Man, in this award-winning piece of horseshit). This hypothesis is perhaps too flattering to the human species. Selfishness takes the presence of mind to know what a person wants, whether it destroys another human being or not in the process is irrelevant. Selfishness is bold. It is daring enough to step over an injured child on the side of the road to catch a fluttering $5 bill in the tempestuous prairie wind.
Obedience, a compliance or submission to some form of authority, real or imagined, takes nothing. It takes cowardice and brainlessness. It takes cowering in a corner and an inability to think for one’s self. It takes the physical ability to nod.
When I consider the ghastly orders obeyed by underlings of Columbus, or of Aztec priests supervising human sacrifices, or of senile Chinese bureaucrats wishing to silence unarmed, peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square only three years ago as I write, I have to wonder if obedience isn’t the basic flaw in most of humankind.
-Kurt Vonnegut, Sucker’s Portfolio, Episode Seven – The Last Tasmanian, p132
As young mushroom-hair-cutted brats of 1998 (photographed above) we were taught to be compliant. Schools are dens of obedience. Being conditioned to work well with others, to finish projects without accessing the portion of your brain that requires questions that make the teacher do more work. Being conditioned to keep quiet and not to ask stupid questions. Conditioned to see the virtues of obedience as opposed to those of knowledge. To avoid sounding too conspiratorial, I will avoid using the term ‘the system’, but the molding of impressionable sock-footed suburban kids is done intentionally to make a smoother transition into the system of obedience. (Dammit, I said ‘system’.) When we come out as full-fledged adults, procreating in healthy uteri or test-tubes, spending money and buying dinnerware, we are well-prepared to nod our heads when told what to do by the prevailing order.
We are taught to obey politicians, those brave and intellectual souls who do what is best for their country without even a thought about themselves or their friends’ corporate interests. We are taught to obey societal and relational norms and end up reclusive, in debt, and lonely. We are taught to obey the market, the ultimate form of democracy, the system that leaves no one behind. We are taught to obey the status quo.
Without rebellion from the opinion of corporate powers (even as minor as voting yes), souls will continue to be crushed by the forces that originally indoctrinate children with obedience. Without disobedience, creative thought would cease to exist. Without disobedience, those in power will continue to rape the land without end. Without disobedience, the population, you, will be complicit in everything you hate.
In works such as On Power and Ideology and Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky has, more than any other American intellectual, charted the downward spiral of the American political and economic system. He reminds us that genuine intellectual inquiry is always subversive. It challenges cultural and political assumptions. It critiques structures. It is relentlessly self-critical. It implodes the self-indulgent myths and stereotypes we use to aggrandize ourselves and ignore our complicity in acts of violence and oppression.
-Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class, Chapter 2, p35
Obedience is death.
Deciding which is a worse human abomination, selfishness or obedience, is maybe an impossible task (like Oprah vs Dr. Phil, or politicians vs lawyers) and wouldn’t accomplish much. We are naturally selfish, and this is something that we will never grow out of. We are taught to be obedient, however. It is easier to unlearn something learned than to override a natural instinct.
Blind obedience is foolish. Selfishness is barbaric.
The fool is cowardly, while the barbarian doesn’t know better.
It doesn’t really matter which is worse, it matters that we can acknowledge both in our own person. Let us unlearn, then let us defy natural instinct. Our children’s haircuts will be all the better for it.