“It is easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an intermediate link in a chain of action.” — Stanley Milgram
While it would be easy to look at the pictures of Auschwitz guards (released by Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance) and write the people off as monsters and psychopaths, it’s far harder to imagine yourself as being capable of the very same thing.
Especially if people in positions of authority tell you to do it, and you’re not sure what the consequences of not obeying might be. Either for yourself, your family, or your friends.
Most of you have probably heard of Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience. If you haven’t, you can check it out on YouTube:
Now, you might think yourself to be immune to this. But you’re getting to view it from a distance. What if I told you that you might be making these kinds of decisions each and every day? Not in leaps and bounds, but in small increments.
Let’s say you’re working as a store clerk. It’s right after the holidays, a customer comes up to you and asks for a refund. You notice that it’s 9 days after the purchase and the return policy is only valid for 8 days.
The customer says that there was no way for them to return it in time because it was given as a Christmas gift, and the shop was closed.
At the core of it, you have two basic choices:
- Tell the customer: “I get it, but them’s the rules. Nothing I can do.”
- Tell the customer: “Naturally, we’ll make an exception.”
Don’t get me wrong, I believe rules and laws are good to have. It’s just that when people put rules and laws ahead of critical thinking, that’s when it gets dangerous.
Of course we all want to ensure the safety of ourselves, family, and friends.
But here’s where it gets grey. What if it stands between that and the safety of our fellow human beings?
What do we do when we’re faced with that choice? Do we say that there’s a bigger issue at hand here, and face the consequences? Or do we say “better them than me”?
Those choices aren’t easy, and I’m not going to pretend they are. But each and every one of us has to make that decision.
And we have to make that decision without saying: “Well, the rules/boss says…”
Let me make one thing clear as well. It’s not about the few people at the top or at the edges who are going to make decisions about what kind of world we live in.
It’s the ~70% of people in the middle.
Most people are moderate, but are being pushed and pulled to pick sides. And when the scales tip toward one side or the other, they tend to go along with it.
Therein lies the danger.
Just because you voted one way or the other doesn’t mean you have to swallow every single choice they make or every single rule they make up.
You’re allowed to voice your concerns, in some way it’s your duty.
History will judge you, no matter how much you say you “just followed orders”.
You’re responsible for your actions.
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