Social Conformity to Obedience

Obedience is the act of obeying orders from others. As humans we are indoctrinated to obey authority figures. This training begins from the moment of birth as we are reliant on our parents to take care of our every need, in turn being subservient to our authority figure or parents. As we begin to mature and are thrust into society we obtain more influential authority figures from outside the household. Schools have a system of order and authority. Teachers give us guidance and direction academically and even socially because we begin to learn how to act in a group or societal setting. The school environment is all a preparation for careers. When we begin working most of us work for a company or organization with all levels of management who we must be obedient to. As we mature we are given more and more responsibility over our actions and judgments, thus making it more beneficial to our societal advancement to be obedient. Stanley Milgram, a famous social psychologist,

performs a number of experiments on human obedience in the 1960’s. According to Milgram, every human has the capacity to function as an individual exercising his or her own moral judgment and the capacity to make their own moral decisions based on their personal character. What happens to the average person who overrides their best moral judgment to be obedient to an authority figure. The My Lai massacre which occurred in the 1960,s as well as the Milgram experiments gives a good example of willingness to be obedient to authority. In this case the murder of hundreds of unarmed men, women and children. I will show a connection between Stanley Milgram’s experiments and the events which occurred in Vietnam.

Obedience is a basic human trait and is a deeply ingrained behavior. Some form of obedience is a requirement for function in modern society. The Milgram shock experiment proves these characteristics. The experiments first took place at Yale University and eventually involved over one thousand participants from all walks of life. Two individuals were to enter a psychology laboratory and take part in a study of memory and learning. One of them was to be the teacher and the other the student. The student was instructed to learn a list of word pairs and whenever the student made a mistake would receive an electric shock of increasing intensity. However the focus of the experiment is the teacher. The teacher watches the student being strapped into place and then taken to a shock generator. The shock generator features switches ranging from 15 to 450 volts in 15 volt increments. If the student gets the answer correct the teacher is to move on to the next problem. If the answer is wrong the teacher is to shock the student beginning with 15 volts. The teacher, being the focus of the experiment, does not know that the student is not really being shocked and that the student is really an actor. Each time the student answers incorrectly and is shocked, he pretends to be shocked. As the teacher watches the student being tortured by the electric shocks, he continues to follow the orders he was instructed. “Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and with the subjects’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.”(Milgram 360) The experiment proves that obedience is something humans teach one another and follow through with. Milgram thinks the problems lies in the structure of society, people are just following orders of superiors and are not directly responsible for his or her actions.

The Vietnam war was one of the most unique wars ever fought by the United States. It was fought over 10,000 miles away in a virtually unknown country, with the enemy and allies looking virtually alike. William L. Calley Jr., the platoon leader of Charlie Company, was born in 1944 Miami, Florida. He attended grammar and high school there. In 1963 he flunked out of college and later pursued the military. In 1967 he became platoon leader for Charlie Company. Nothing out of the ordinary with this young man. This young man soon became the center of one of the most controversial genocides in U.S military history. He was charged with ordering the execution of more then 300 unarmed Vietnamese men, women and children. Every civilian found was killed, apparently on his orders. Calley argued that he was acting simply on orders form above.

Charlie Company’s first month in Vietnam passed without any direct incident. By mid March the company had suffered 28 incidents involving mines or booby traps which caused injuries and five deaths. Colonel Oran K. Henderson urged his officers to “go in their aggressively, close with the enemy and wipe them out for good” “Most of the soldiers had not participated in crimes, but neither protested nor complained to their superiors.” (Bilton 113) This shows complacency at the very least in the atrocity which occurred by some of the soldiers. I believe that this complacency is just as bad as committing the actual murders. “Some of the men in the company were a little unusual. There were some who were cruel. But there wasn’t anything extraordinary about them. There’s going to be that element in any group. Most of the men were just ordinary Americans. They weren’t the bottom of the barrel. They were men who would have been accepted for military service at any time. I wouldn’t expect them to murder anybody or torture anybody…In the United States they would have been friends of mine.” (Bilton 56)

Ordinary citizens are ordered to destroy other people, and they do so because they consider it their duty to obey orders. Some people argue that the very fabric of society is threatened by disobedience. The theory that only those on the sadistic fringe of society would submit to such cruelty is disclaimed by Milgram’s experiment. Charlie Company is made up of ordinary American soldiers. Findings show that “Two thirds of Milgram’s studies participants fall into the category of obedient subjects, and that they represent ordinary people drawn from the working, managerial, and professional classes”. Ultimately 65% of all the “teachers” punished the “learners” to the maximum 450 volts.” (Milgram,1974) Extreme cases known in the 20th century, where obedience was used by authority figures to perform or subject immoral acts on other human beings is evident no more clearly then the My Lai incident as well as various others. Military training sets apart soldiers from all others to prevent competition with authorities outside the military. The purpose of basic training is to break down concepts of individuals and expand on the group or unit. During this time the soldiers spend a lot of time being disciplined. Following orders is the basis for the soldiers’ actions. Cultural differences set the two sides further apart and race was used to depersonalize the actions of war. The soldiers involved with the massacre felt that they were just following orders and it was their duty to follow orders from their authority figure. People who are doing a job as instructed by an administrative figure are following the instructions of that person. The feelings of duty and personal emotion are separated. Responsibility shifts in the mind of the subordinate from himself to the authority figure. Even when the subject is an agent of a destructive process, he or she will continue to administer the shocks. The subject may feel an obligation to the experimenter telling them what to do, so withdrawal from their promise may feel awkward. The subject may also feel the need to keep his relationship with the superior authority. This probably happens often when acting against individuals who are perceived to be lower in social status, especially when being told by someone credible or high up. When a subject gets so absorbed in the task at hand that he disregards moral conflict and becomes immersed with doing a good job that is when obedience is shown at it’s fullest extent.

Stanley Milgram has pointed out a human characteristic that may very well be in each and every one of us. My Lai and Milgram’s experiments show us that ordinary people will go to any length to be subservient to an authority figure, no matter the moral dilemma. I believe that everyone in society has, at one time or the other, overlooked his or her personal feelings to conform. Perhaps, if people were to do a little historical research, they wouldn’t be so shocked by the results of Milgram’s experiment or the atrocities of My Lai. Only when we can differentiate between being a good subject and having good morals will we be able to make a distinction between being obedient and committing crimes by our own individual actions.