You’ve probably already heard about this: United Airlines oversold a seat and threw a passenger off the flight – literally, with security guards dragging him kicking and screaming off the plane as other passengers, horrified, recorded it with their phone cameras.
Authoritarianism and authoritarian behavior limits your options, because the basic model of authoritarian behavior is to “obey orders” – that results in “blindly obey orders.” In fact, the whole idea of authoritarianism is to encourage blind obedience; presumably questioning orders is too inefficient, or might lead to someone realizing the orders are stupid.
That’s a bunch of uniformed goons dragging a doctor off an airplane, in order to free up a seat on an overbooked flight.
Stanley Milgram famously performed a pointless and stupid experiment[wikipedia] in which he determined that – well – actually, he didn’t determine anything – but maybe we could conclude that “just following orders” is a problem, based on Milgram’s experiment. Milgram’s experiment involved subjects who believed they were being ordered to shock another subject, and the subjects obeyed authority and turned out to be willing to deliver heavy pseudo-shocks to a human. There are so many things about Milgram’s experiment that are sketchy, but the rather obvious one is that, you know, World War II had ended 20 years before. So you had a massive experiment on authoritarianism carried on by the Germans, and, wow, shocking, Milgram learned that the problem wasn’t with the Germans it was with humans. More precisely, Milgram may have learned something about how people behave when they are being paid to do something and their boss is standing right there. But he probably didn’t even learn that much.
Milgram actually wanted to run his experiment on Germans initially, until he discovered that it’d be too expensive; at the time Milgram was setting up the experiment, Adolph Eichmann’s highly publicized trial was taking place in Jerusalem, and apparently Milgram had some half-assed idea of trying to see if authoritarianism was an actual German thing. That’s a level of scientific thinking that’s about as sophisticated as a typical eugenicist, as far as I’m concerned. We can’t conclude anything from Milgram’s study (except for some things about Milgram and the psychology department at Stanford University) but there is an underlying point, which is that it’s pretty easy to get people to do some pretty messed-up stuff if you tell them right.
These are cognitive biases – how brains work – in which a brain is told a ‘solution’ to a problem, and accepts it as a plan and begins executing on that plan, without re-assessing periodically whether it still seems to be a good idea. If you take my approach to authoritarianism, that it’s a cognitive bias, you don’t learn anything useful about “authoritarianism” at all; humans just don’t think very well. In some contexts, they stop thinking entirely.
Back when I was in the army, I spent a lot of time studying military history and modern battlefield doctrine. Ironically, one of the things that the US military used to think was that they’d clobber the Soviets because US command structures were more mentally flexible. The Red Army was hidebound and did things in a certain way, and wouldn’t be able to innovate. In other words, anti-authoritarianism was touted as a tactical advantage by the US military – which is one of the most hidebound and authoritarian branches of an otherwise fairly hidebound and authoritarian government. After all, the military isn’t standing up as a body and yelling, “Counter-insurgency? Are you kidding?! We need a strategy, first!” No, they’re just following orders. Hannah Arendt’s reporting on Eichmann in Jerusalem forced us to ask, not “why are people willing to do evil things?” We had to ask “why don’t some people even question what they are doing?”
Watching the security people dragging that fellow off the plane, in spite of the yelling from other passengers, you can see they’re in the authoritarian zone: heads down, shoulders up, they grab the guy and do their thing. Why didn’t the other passengers intervene, though? What are those people thinking, now, once they have time to realize that they sat there and watched another person get brutalized by an airline’s security goons? Why weren’t people blocking the aisle and calling the police? Those airline security goons are not officers of the law, they do not have arrest authority: what was happening was felony assault.
Right now, the US is doing an experiment on what happens when respect for authority is turned up, in the absence of a strategy. Everyone – DHS, Customs, cops, the military, CIA, NSA, FBI – feels like they are being given more leeway to tell people to just do what they are told. Someone told those goons to “go on the plane and remove the passenger from 13D” and the goons didn’t think – they did what they were told. And, because they had been told a certain thing, they circumscribed their tactical options; all they could think to do was use force. Part of the danger of authority is when leaders also fall into that pattern of circumscribing their options; they stop thinking and tell the goons “go on the plane and remove the passenger from 13D.”
There are two responses that authoritarians really don’t like:
… because they usually don’t have an answer. Ways to break that cycle are to challenge authoritarians to think laterally or rethink. Simply asking “Why?” forces them to confront their own failure of a strategy. “Can we work together to figure out a way through this?” might work better.
I learned something from Milgram’s experiment: don’t let psychologists experiment on humans.
The psychology department at Stanford also brought Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, another masterpiece of pseudoscience. [wikipedia]
Apparently, United is giving everyone who was on that flight a free ticket. If I were the guy who was grabbed and dragged off the plane, I’d be saying “Why?! They don’t deserve anything!! They stayed in their seats and watched me get brutalized! They’re sure as hell not my friends.” Perhaps the airline is rewarding them for being good authoritarian followers and not interfering. Meanwhile, the guy who was dragged off has lawyered up: I hope his lawyers and the jury teach United a lesson.