Saturday, December 12, 2009

When to Obey?

Thinking back over my long prison career, the strongest continuous theme has been my questioning orders and sometimes refusing to obey them.
In order to do this in a rational way, I have had to create a set of criteria to sift out what is a proper order and what should be disobeyed. To rely on whether it is personally convenient is pretty vague, so I hope I surmounted that. I don't randomly go around disobeying for the sake of it.
Presented with a requirement which instinctively feels a bit dodgy, I ask myself two questions. Does the order have a legitimate aim? That is, does the order relate to the context of imprisonment and its purposes? If a screw ordered me to hop on one leg, for instance, it would fail that test. Ditto with the order I received when I was at Open to sit around a table full of smackheads and fold bits of paper. Open is about seamlessly reintroducing us to the community, not take the Mickey.
If an order does pass this initial filter, then the second question arises. Is the order likely to help achieve that aim? It's amazing how many orders are given which don't actually relate to the stated purpose. If it is a legitimate order and likely to achieve some lawful purpose, then fine.
Alas, so many governors have a genuine messianic belief that their authority derives from the Divine Right of Kings. No sense or legitimacy is required, the very fact they say it is enough. And therein lies my problem.
Power does not carry its own justification. Just because someone holds a gun to your head doesn't mean their order is 'right'. It has to be legitimate and rational. If it is not, then it is down to each person’s conscience and moral compass to decide their response.
Although I have grown increasingly flexible as the years have passed, there are still many moments where it boils down to a black or white decision. Should I comply with illegitimate, irrational orders? Or should I resist?
For me (and I don't recommend this to anyone), to comply with an order when it's only justification is that 'I will hurt you if you don't' is to undermine all that it means to be a sovereign human being. For me, not only is refusing to comply the prime option, it is a moral and political imperative.
Without wishing to imply I fall into this category, there is profound truth in the statement that 'for evil to prosper, it is only necessary that good men do nothing'. And those in authority who expect their orders to be obeyed solely by virtue that they possess greater power are an evil.


  1. Much of this is fine Ben, though in the example you gave what would you lose by sitting down and folding paper? Also just because you cannot see the point of an exercise or the person supervising cannot explain it does not mean there is not a point to it.

    I remember at university in 1st year Biology being made to draw a sprig of oxygen weed. I resented this immensely since my drawing skills are not good. Also in the age of microphotography who draws stuff? or I could use a camera lucida and trace it.

    Later during my PhD when I became a teacher I realised belatedly why they got us to do it. It was not about the drawing, it was about the looking. When you photograph something you don't necessarily look at the details, all of them. However when forced to draw something it teaches you to look at it, to really look at it, which is the essence of both art and science. So I got benefit from doing something I saw no point in except that I needed to do it to pass the subject well.

    I suspect that you need to learn some humility of knowledge in such situations and hope that the purpose will reveal itself to you, or you simply might enjoy it more than you expect.

  2. "Open is about seamlessly reintroducing us to the community, not take the Mickey".

    Are you sure that isn't just news-speak? Open sounds quite like my school in some ways! It was a degrading and disempowering environment, with a strong message that you cannot/shouldn't do anything of significance unless you are in a position of power/accountability, and you must always do what you're told (it's irresponsible to do otherwise).

    I think that's a deeply ingrained part of our heritage/culture. It serves some purpose, because it empowers people in authority, it enables them to keep social control/order, it's self-perpetuating, and there's no prospect of it changing in the foreseeable future. I really cannot see how your behaviour/obstinacy/incarceration is helping to change this situation. I don't see your strategy.

    It seems like self-flagellation, and you seem to be making the situation worse, because you are almost demonstrating and reinforcing the disempowerment that we all feel, but most of us shouldn't. For example, people could say:

    "Look at this guy!" ... "Isn't it terrible?" .. "Somebody should do something about it" .... "The government ought to do something" ... "My MP should do something" ... the implication is that it's a shame we are powerless little people with no way to make any change to the situation. We might as well just keep on corresponding using (run by a multi-billion dollar corporation) and gripe to our MPs (who are luxuriating themselves), because this is the comfortable/convenient thing to do. Is that the effect of your actions? To make us feel less empowered?

    And do we honestly believe that your wardens (or the incoming Conservative-run state) will ever willingly release you, unless they feel confident that you will be harmless to this culture of passivity? I suspect they want to break you, "for your own good", but mostly to make sure that you will occasionally defer to people in power, so the state keeps running as it is.

    In reality, isn't Open all about re-socialising you into conformity and obedience? Are you expected to demonstrate a willingness to compromise, by (at least) pretending to be a sheep? If so, then this is exactly the same sort of 'education' that I was given at school. Looking back, I recognise now that the cleverest kids did hold strong ideals and recognise the problems, but they played the game more effectively than me, they compromised when they knew that obstinacy meant a hiding to nothing. I fought like you, and ended up a manic depressive, scarred by the system.

    So you say "for evil to prosper, it is only necessary that good men do nothing", but do you really have a strategy to reduce/prevent evil? It seems you are just throwing yourself into the path of evil. Are you doing this to make a name for yourself? Or to protect your pride in front of other prisoners?

    There should be no pride in fighting futile battles when there are more effective things you could be doing outside (I think there are at least).

    Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I really don't see what your goals are here. I don't even know why I'm still writing ... perhaps because you are very interesting! Thanks, M.

  3. "Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves." -- Thoreau

    "Thoreau's ideals are inoperative in the real, everyday world, and because he will not compromise his ideals, at all, they have no effect upon the world" -- From a critique written in the 1970's.

  4. This reminds me of my mother answering my "why?" with "Because I said so"

  5. @ Max: I think Ben is looking after his spirit, his soul and his heart. Excuse me please, Ben, if that is wrong. Or an over-simplification. Or presumptious.

  6. Ben,

    I get what you are saying here. But trouble is if you don't comply with meaningless orders then surely you just get marked down as someone who who reacts badly to any rules. And lots of rules exist in society - so maybe it wouldn't be a great idea to let you be part of it again.

    What you came up with was a rational for your behaviour but frankly mate its bollocks. It's just a clever justification for saying 'Fuck You I aint doin it'...

    or that's what the guys who hold your fate in their hands will think.. and just maybe they have a point..

    If I were you I would think beyond where your thinking is now. You are not creating dignity for yourself by kicking against authority you are just maintaining that authority against yourself.

    Interesting stuff. Think you are doing a great job with your blog. My advice, and I know it's impossibly arrogant of me to dispense any, is simply that you should treat your 'incarcerators' with sympathy and empathy because ultimately it will help you get out so you get on with then next big challenge of your life.

    Good luck Ben. You seem like a good guy.

  7. Some comments here seem to advocate pragmatism, and even criticise ben for not adopting that stance. Please remember that if pragmatism had prevailed, then blacks would still be denied civil rights, women would be disenfranchised, and the nuremburg laws would still apply. Bens criteria for judging the legitimacy of orders seem coherent and consistent, perhaps we should all follow suite and see how the world changes...


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.