Obedience and absolutes

Western culture is a mess of contradictions. We are taught to be individuals, yet to follow, to think for ourselves and yet to obey. There are so many contrasting ideas that it’s a wonder that anyone ever gets anything done.

It makes me think about obedience. We teach our children to be obedient, to not argue with parents or teachers and do as they’re told. We teach people in a work context to be obedient, to do their job and take on extra projects when told to, to get criticised without complaint and to do our best work. Our societies are set up on the idea of obedience. I’d like to say I can’t imagine what the traffic would be like without that obedience, but I’ve lived in Asia so I’ve seen the results of that and trust me, it isn’t pretty. The military is a bastion of obedience, where men and women are trained to obey in the certain and unending knowledge that their commanding officers and their politicians know better and so their own opinions and will should submit to that higher authority.

Almost every aspect of our society teaches obedience, rewards it, and punishes its opposite and yet it can be and has been so destructive. In the 1930’s, an entire country was obedient to the whims of a madman, and the resulting destruction nearly destroyed the planet. We can see in our society today the effects of total obedience to a religious paradigm. And yet nobody seems to question the underlying convention. Nobody seems to question that we should be obedient, it just seems to depend what we’re obedient to.

And that’s completely arbitrary. You can claim that the people who are obedient to the ‘right’ authorities will always and only be told to do the ‘right’ thing. But those ‘right’ authorities are totally based on where you were born and the culture and context you grew up in. I’m Australian. That means the ‘right’ authorities are the Christian church and the government here. If I’d grown up in certain places in Africa, my idea of who and what was ‘right’ would be quite different.

I’ve been struggling with this for some time. The idea of obedience as so destructive, and extremely repulsive to me on a personal level, and also as necessary. The fact is that we need obedience. There are too many people and too little land to live otherwise. Societies, cultures, cities, everything we have built relies on a basis of obedience and without it civilisation, such as it is, would fall.

As much as I hate the idea of being obedient, I can see the need for it in every context of society, so I’ve been trying to reconcile these ideas in my head. It’s hard, my revulsion for obedience has only grown stronger over the last few years, both because of my constant study of history and my observation of the world around me. But I think I have come to a conclusion at last.

Obedience is necessary. We would not survive without it. But obedience, and authority, can never be absolute.


A funny word to say, considering the original idea, but I stand behind it. No authority can be absolute. Perhaps that’s the only absolute in life.

No rule can be absolute, applicable in every circumstance and to every person. No authority can be unquestionable, no obedience unthinking and automatic. This has a lot of implications. It means constant vigilance. It means that you can and should obey, but always think and question beforehand. It means not slipping into inertia, ignoring the authorities of the world in the belief that they are good and right and are making the right laws. And it means that any authority that tries to set itself up as absolute is to be automatically distrusted and fought against.

And it also means that your own authority cannot be trusted as well. It means that even as you’re questioning everything around you, testing the institutions, individuals and culturally created norms, you have to question yourself at the same time. The means by which you evaluate these authorities, the beliefs you hold and the norms you have internalised naturally become suspect, subject to constant examination and testing. That’s hard. There is so much to do in our lives that we like to put certain things on autopilot, allowing our internal workings to be set in stone while we focus on the details of daily life. We trust the authorities, the culture around us to create the ‘right’ internal belief system. But we shouldn’t.

Even our own ‘right’ beliefs, norms, laws and values cannot be absolute. And that sounds like an absolutely exhausting, and perhaps unavoidable, way to live.

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