What is so special with a uniform? It is not the case that we generally respect a person in uniform – if someone approached us in the street dressed in a school uniform and ordered us to stand back we would probably not obey. At least, we wouldn’t automatically obey and make sure to quickly and silently communicate (using body language or whatever) that we have every intention of following orders.
Add a shiny plaque in the guy’s wallet and the reaction is the same. We would probably wonder what the hell is wrong with him and why he is flashing his wallet as if it gave him the right to boss us around. Many of us would think he was crazy, some might even think of calling for help. Some of use would definitely refuse to follow orders and perhaps even argue with the guy in school uniform and with shiny plaque in his wallet.
But if we change the design of the uniform so that it looks more “official” (which really means “intimidating” or “aggressive” or “militarist”) nobody would think the guy to be someone who had escaped a nearby sanitarium. Rather, we would accept the authority of the clothing and the shiny thing in the wallet at face value and obey the orders. How many of us would ask for this person’s authority, critically check what the uniform is about, or look closely at what the shiny thing in the wallet is?
Most people would definitely not do that. Especially if the person claims he is a “police officer” we would not even consider looking at the “badge.” Actually, we would accept his authority and obey whatever orders given without even thinking of checking the badge. The interesting thing is that most of us would probably not even have a look at the badge or even the uniform – if the “police” just sounds very sure and decisive we would obey.
This is a very interesting psychological effect, in part. We, as humans, tend to believe a person who tells us something if he or she makes the impression he or she is confident it is correct. It should be fairly easy to make people believe the most outrageous things – it has been done before. “This guy really knows what he is talking about,” is the general response.
Add to this the so-called “respect” we have been brainwashed with since we were infants, and it is easy to understand why people so easily can be told what to do and obey the orders of anyone. In any social context the person being a police officer would not be an authority – it is the uniform that makes him one. We have learned to “respect” (meaning obey) the state’s authority no matter who is calling for our “allegiance.” And most of us never question what we have been taught.
What we do not realize is that it is not the person’s natural authority that we accept and choose to take into account when we act (or don’t act). It is the uniform.
Part of the reason we immediately and without question do what we are ordered to do is of course fear – we know this person telling us he is a police officer will be protected by the state and thus can, with the help of the guns of government, lock us up more or less indefinitely – or use physical force only because he is not content with us or our actions.
But the underlying threat of the use of force, ultimately deadly such, is not the only reason we back away and obey whatever orders tossed at us. Many of us voluntarily choose to do things even though they can definitely mean we might get killed – we drive way too fast just for the fun of it, we stay out late in cities we don’t know very well, try foreign and domestic foods in restaurants where we are pretty sure we don’t want to see the kitchen. A lot of things we do can very well be the end of it all.
As the bad joke from medical school goes, the most severe condition a person can have is life – because it has a 100% death rate.
No, the reason we accept the stupidest orders from alleged police officers is not primarily that we fear them. Actually, there are numerous examples of people witnessing obvious police brutality where their victims are close to suffocating – without anyone doing anything. Is it because we fear the police officer, even if the people witnessing the brutality are 50-1? No, in most of these cases these people have much greater fear for the life of the victim. Yet they do nothing.
The problem is that no one takes the first step. If someone would take one step forward and state clearly that they will not allow for this brutality to take place many will most certainly follow their example. And they can all tell the same story in a court of “law” if there will be a trial. The police officer will definitely be acquitted and found guilty on all charges (if any), this is always the case (not surprisingly when the state is to judge whether the protectors of the state acted “justly”). But so would probably the people stopping the obvious brutality – it cannot be fear of repercussions that stops people from helping a fellow human being from being brutally assaulted and perhaps even killed before their very eyes.
No, we hesitate because we have been taught every day of our lives that we have a duty to obey when the state or the representatives of the state give us orders. And since we all hesitate nobody ends up doing anything. We all wait for someone to take the lead, to show us the way – to act in such a decisive manner so that we can interpret it as an order.
We are thus back again to authority and our desperate need for someone to show the way, for a leader – a Führer.
The centuries living under a state’s rule have made most of us so unable to act, and so uncomfortable with making decisions ourselves, that we are in every sense sheep looking for a shepherd. And we believe everybody else is also sheep, which means that if we actually do something we will be the only ones.
This is the most fundamental problem with the state system – we have lost the confidence in being men and women. We gladly accept authority wherever we see it and in whatever shape it is shown to us. It is, from this perspective, strange that kidnapped often end up working for the kidnappers against those who try to set them free? This “phenomenon” has been studied extensively, but no one has made the connection between our society of sheep and the need for authority that we have been force fed since we were born.
What this means is not only that we subject ourselves to authority and the state; it means not only that we subject ourselves and everybody else; and it does not only mean we feel uncomfortable with people without uniform (in whatever form) taking the lead. It means we have fundamentally accepted that some people have the right to do whatever they think necessary with other people’s lives. It means we have accepted inequality.
Inequality is necessary for every oppressive and exploitative relationship between people or groups of people. The sad truth is that there cannot be freedom as long as there are different “kinds” of people – with inequality there is no chance for freedom.