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Byron Shire
May 18, 2021

The meme of obedience

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It is the duty of every policeman or policewoman to submit to the authority of the state and wilfully follow its orders.

In his essay Politics as a Vocation (1919) Max Weber defines the state as an organisation that holds the exclusive right to legitimately use, threaten or authorize force against the residents of its territory.

Many people believe that the cohesiveness of our society relies on the enforcement of the law and that it is the duty of police to serve and protect the community.

However, serving and protecting are duties of care. They require one to wilfully exercise his or her conscience.

In order to be able to help someone, we must understand their situation and feel into what they need, so we know what is right for them.

We have to exercise our judgment and take responsibility for acting upon it.

For example, should a person need to drive away from their home because of some natural disaster, with their family, their pets and all their belongings, a police officer, critical of the manner in which the vehicle was loaded, might choose to help these people make the load more secure rather than giving them a fine.

But in order to apply the law a police officer must relinquish their moral conscience as if it is irrelevant.

A law or an order might be completely unfair and might have disastrous consequences for someone’s day or even life when applied, but those who follow orders must do their job.

If the duty of a police officer is simply to follow orders without making use of their own judgement of what is right and wrong, it is inconceivable that her or she could truly serve and protect other citizens.

The police solely protect the state and its laws.

Through abdicating one’s personal responsibility and blindly following and executing orders through the use of violence or the threat of it (and let’s be clear here, taking a large amount of money from someone against their will is a form of violence), the police, as well as the military, are responsible for the continuation of violence and injustice in our society.

Without order followers, an unfair law or order has no power.

We have been taught to believe that law enforcement and obedience are the only ways to preserve order and peace in our society.

But back in my home country, France, I remember learning in high school that in the face of a corrupt government civil disobedience is the duty of every citizen in order to protect our country against fascism and abuses of power.

Coming from a culture that prides itself of its ability to say no to injustice as a people, I was surprised to hear some members of our government here talking about protesting and civil disobedience as ‘antidemocratic’.

I believe that democracy depends on people speaking out and doing the right thing in a time of great inequality and injustice.

And I’ll go as far as saying that civil disobedience is actually required to maintain a democracy.

And don’t get me wrong. I am not promoting violence. I am promoting justice and compassion.

I’d assume most people would want to be in the police or the military to make the world a better place.

After all, we need support to be protected against crime.

But institutions tend to be corrupt and only serve and protect their own interests.

These days you can get a huge fine for trivial matters: a toot of the horn and a wave goodbye out the window as you drive down the street could cost you almost $600 and 3 demerit points in NSW.

Again, I’m not suggesting we throw the baby out with the bath water: some laws are clearly right and just.

But solely following orders with no consideration for the unique circumstances at play or the impact that following an order will have on an individual, a people or even the environment, is morally questionable. It has no intrinsic virtue.

And in a true democracy, it is our duty as citizens (civilians or not) to take responsibility to keep our law makers in check in order to protect our rights, our freedom, our environment and our dignity.

Acting upon and standing up for what is right, rather than what is lawful, requires the freedom to exercise one’s own moral conscience.

Only then can we fight the rampant corruption and cruelty that dwells in the higher realms of politics, business and finance and truly serve and protect our democracy.

In the end, we ALL need to be courageous and stop blindly following the gospel of the order-givers.

Blind obedience is the source of the most violence in our times.

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