The Problem with Obedience

The Problem with Obedience

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Obedience and loyalty ensures that people reach their goals together, but by blind conformity we risk losing ourselves and our values. It can be dangerous!

Obedience is necessary; a team, family, army or for that matter any organisation runs smoothly on the tenets of obedience. All the organs must work towards a set direction in order to achieve set goals. The objective is set and the group knows that they must now unstintingly go ahead with the plan.

This seems straightforward enough; but what happens when the goal is at odds with those of the larger organisation. A person who believes in the futility of war who is forced into one or a person who believes in euthanasia being a part of a medical organisation that follows the policy of extending life. We may find ourselves in a situation where the policies of the agency that we work with are against our personal belief systems. In these cases, we may decide to compromise due to the career choices or circumstances of our personal lives. We settle for a compromise on account of the certainty that the organisation offers, the compensation we receive or the opportunities that appear in front of us. If this is not acceptable, there is a route of moving out of the situation by considering a change of workplace or career. In cases where moving out is not an option, like the soldier on the warfront there is only the option of quieting the voice of the soul and going along with the demand of the moment or entering a mental state akin to a breakdown.

So, what is the problem?

The problem lies in the mental state preceding an act of obedience. A child is obedient to the parent in a state of innocence. This form of obedience is essential for survival. As time passes by, the child enters a stage of identifying boundaries and making a personal definition of the world. Insufficient guidance, excessive judgemental responses, low display of mature behaviour and an environment riddled with bigotry affects the ability of an individual to form a strong sense of self.

We see examples of this in our daily lives and are all in some way a part of this behaviour cycle. The girl who decides she needs surgery to look better, the man who chooses to marry and keep homosexual preferences in check and the person who stays on in a seemingly happy relationship to avoid social censure. We see images of seeming perfection and rarely question who has decided that this is indeed perfect. How often do we stop to think whether there is an industry that thrives on individual insecurity about physical imperfection? Cosmetics, medicine, entertainment, fitness, foods, fashion and a host of others are direct or indirect beneficiaries of the need to obey the diktat of the knowledgeable few.

Multiply the external influences with a family of people who live to please or impress the outside world and rarely stop to think about what they are doing, the product is a highly obedient, unsure and emotionally uncertain human being. This person will be led into decisions that seem to advance them but will benefit others. Joining a religious group on the premise of proximity with a supreme power, being a part of an organisation that propagates obedience as a route to satisfy the will of an invisible power are but examples of this mindset.

An individual of the high obedience – low self thought mind is easily led by those who feed insecurity by providing sufficient doses of appreciation to keep the interest high. Such an individual can be expected to do what is told in order to keep the much needed dose of appreciation coming from the right quarters. The individual starts to feel a false sense of power without realising the manipulation involved.

A decision to be obedient that is preceded by emotional awareness, thought, involved discussion with an open attitude the resultant obedience will be a positive experience. The person will go through an enriching experience and will know when to move away from it when it shows signs of decay.

Mr. B is a senior management member of an organisation. He is asked to frame a policy that he is aware will not be acceptable to the employee base at large. However, his superior is of the view that the policy should be forced notwithstanding individual viewpoints. Mr. B comes from a standpoint of obedience to superiors and avoids arguing his case since he is afraid of being viewed negatively. He goes ahead with the instructions. During the next few days, business heads have reverted to the top management that Mr. B’s draconian policy is creating anguish among the employees. Clients heard about the policy and asked the business heads how they expected to continue in business if they adopted such questionable work practices. Mr. B’s superior changed his stance and roundly condemned Mr. B for introducing the rules. The business heads were critical of Mr. B’s role.

When Mr. B tried to remind his boss about his original stand, the superior informed him that he had not done a good job of convincing his superiors.

Mr. B is unable to understand the issue. He had voiced his opinion, it was ignored. When the business heads brought up the same view, the policy was revoked. He had tried to do his job but had wound up lampooned from all sides. What is the problem?

Now consider Mrs. X who has always been described as a highly obedient person. Give her a rule, she will make a process out of it and never let the rule bend unless permitted to. When she married, her husband seemed like a good person though he tended to bully her a little bit. Of late, he has started physically abusing her and insulting her at the slightest opportunity. She goes out of her way to keep him happy but nothing seems to work. She is now afraid to make a move without her husband’s tacit approval, but that does not make the abuse any less. Her husband seems repentant at the end of his bouts of violence but always makes it seem to be her fault. The coffee she served was too cold or she forgot to add salt or she was unresponsive when he called, whatever, she provoked a reaction. She continues to obey and tries to please her husband while he continues to find reason to let her hurt.

Excess Obedience

Obedience that necessitates sacrifice of personal power is excess obedience. You may trust a friend but withdraw from the friendship when the trust is broken. This means that the ability to use your mind and weigh the situation lies in your hands. However, if the trust is broken and you continue the friendship because you are afraid of being lonely, it is likely that you will find the trust being broken again. A cycle of continued trust reneging followed by repentance and a return to normalcy starts to wear away at the seams of the relationship. The friend is likely to perceive your need for dependence as a sign of your weakness. The ability to break trust and retain the friendship soon gets perceived as a sign of personal power by the friend.

This type of relationship tends to feed itself with the obedient one facing victimisation and hoping for correction and the perpetrator feeling a sense of enhanced power that must be maintained at all costs. The boundaries of trust will be explored while the obedient person flounders for ways to handle new transgressions and the bully finds new ways to hold on to power. The relationship has evolved into a bully-victim cycle.

Obedience that allows for a powerful and weak person combination is a sign of excess obedience.

Every relationship must work within boundaries of trust and personal space in order to flourish. A belief that obedience constitutes a good job done is questionable. Time has shown us that good teams require thinking and contributing members in order to be successful. Once the entire team’s intelligence has worked on a solution, it is time to go ahead. A team’s efforts may be impeded along the way or might find itself in a different situation from what was originally envisaged. It is necessary to find an immediate solution to the changed situation and again move on.

Similarly, in a personal relationship, the parties must understand each other and agree to certain behavioural norms if the relationship is to succeed. Once both parties are in agreement, it is time to forge ahead in a state of trust.

Right Forms of Obedience

Obedience to a cause involves identifying measures and means to reach the goal of the cause. A person may decide to work towards world peace or develop innovative designs or work to better internal business processes.

Obedience to legitimate demands, adjustment to global needs, legally upheld clauses are all forms of right obedience.

Obedience to medical advice is right obedience.

Obedience to a teacher or parent within legitimate limits is right obedience.

Obedience to an individual must however be treated with care. Every relationship must have limits within which it functions. A parent may obey a child’s request for a purchase, a spouse will obey a family rule to clear a mess, and a subordinate will obey a superior’s legitimate demand for information. In each case, the request is weighed before acceding to.

Obedience that leads to a sense of confusion, a reduced sense of self, acceptance of abuse, removal of power from your hands, reducing your personal rights or causing harm or injury to self or others is not right obedience.


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