Long, long ago, when I was in school, we were taught to close our letters with “Yours obediently”, if they were addressed to seniors. Today, not only is this form of valediction archaic but it would actually be frowned upon as it has connotations which are unacceptable by modern ethical standards. Even the traditional Christian vows that are exchanged at a church wedding are modified by many so that the bride does not pledge to “obey” her husband till death. So the bride promises to “love and cherish” her spouse for life but significantly does not promise to “obey” her partner simply because in a partnership both parties must be taken as equals. How equal the partnership actually turned out to be remained to be seen even if the term “obey” was not included in the wedding vows. I find it amusing and sometimes infuriating when a man announces expansively that he “allows” his wife complete freedom!
Even in unequal relationships such as child and parent and school student and teacher, where obedience is expected of the child, it is important for the child to be given the power of questioning why she should obey a particular order or prescription. Many people I know believe in unquestioning obedience to God, guru or teacher and parent. But when you sit and reflect, you are likely to conclude that a child will grow up to be strong, rational and principled if she knows that her principles have solid foundations rather than having stemmed from untested convictions based on blind obedience.
I don’t know why I didn’t get into serious trouble but I used to teach my pupils the value of disobedience. It was the fear that they could follow charismatic but unscrupulous leaders and become unsuspecting objects of exploitation that I included this in my value education lessons. The findings of Stanley Milgram’s experiment on “obedience” at Yale University in the 1950s were quite chilling. His study was to explore the justification of war criminals at the Nuremberg trials that they were merely obeying the orders of a superior. The findings of this study indicated that if a “superior” gave an order, most would carry it out even if they felt that the consequences could be dangerous and would harm others.
Disobedience, therefore, has to be resorted to, when a figure of authority is ordering a subordinate to do something that goes against his or her conscience.
Apart from developing minds of their own, it is important from the educational perspective that the young learn to reason, question and argue in real life, in the classroom as well as at home. Children’s arguments can be quite exasperating but parents must try not to give into the temptation of saying: “You have to because I am your mother (or father) and I say so!”
It has to be kept in mind that obedience is necessary for discipline. And discipline is imperative in any civilised society. It is shocking to see young parents today being completely controlled by their offspring. “Please do something,” they plead with the school authorities, “she just won’t listen to us!” Yet at times, when the school does take action over some misdeed of the child, the same parents protest or try to defend her. The point is, just as we need to obey the traffic rules to prevent chaos, obeying certain rules of day-to-day living is needed to lead a productive and meaningful life.
Next, we come to dissidence. Dissidence is “the holding or expression of opinions at variance with those commonly or officially held”. This is not only important in a democracy, it is also extremely important for shaping character, for developing individuality and for keeping at bay the herd mentality. It is also important for creativity. Experiments on conformity have been carried out which have established that for various reasons, people have an innate tendency to conform even if they know that others are wrong or when a “leader” or an “expert” insists that something that is plainly wrong is correct. Solomon Asch (1951) conducted his classic experiment in 1951 to investigate the extent to which social pressure from a majority group could lead a person to conform. This kind of “pressured” conformity is very dangerous. To counter this, it is vital that peaceful or non-violent ways of disobeying and dissenting are adopted. But then if coercion is used to browbeat people to conform — as it is happening today — courageous people will fight tooth and nail for their right to freedom of thought and expression. This cannot always be peaceful.
“Dissent” is a strong and courageous act, but we are often reluctant even to accommodate differences of opinion. In a school it is usually the teacher’s or the textbook’s interpretation that is accepted. In board examinations, marks are not given when answers deviate from the fixed marking scheme. Our committees, councils and cabinets are either filled with “yes” people or they are so full of strife that these bodies are unable to function. Often a public figure is taught a fitting lesson if he or she dares to express an opinion which is “out of line”. Yet different interpretations of ancient scriptures and lores abound in plenty. Even today, Ravan’s effigies are burnt in some places, while his idols are worshipped in others.
If we did not make room for different and revolutionary ideas, we would not have had a Copernicus or Galileo, and closer home a Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. I fervently hope that teachers and parents will exercise discernment while bringing up the young. Along with discipline they must value disagreement, disobedience and dissidence. Ultimately it is these that will nurture the strength of our democracy and enrich the quality of our people.