'The Threat of Authority'by William Norman Grigg
Aug. 19, 2012
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Skepticism, Santayana observed, is "the chastity of the intellect." In similar fashion, resistance – not compliance – is the default response of a free person to a directive issued by someone acting in the name of "authority." Louise Ogborn, a teenage employee at a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Kentucky, was sexually assaulted and confined for hours because this rudimentary understanding of individual autonomy was entirely alien to her workplace supervisor.
Louise was working a second shift as a favor to her supervisor, the improbably named Donna Summers, when someone identifying himself as "Officer Scott" called the restaurant. Claiming that he had the restaurant’s manager with him, the "officer" said he was investigating a theft. The caller offered a description of the supposed suspect, which Summers thought matched Louise.
The teenager was summoned to the office, where Summers – at the behest of the caller – informed the young lady that she had to undergo a hands-on search, either in the office or at a nearby police station. Believing that she was effectively under arrest, Louise consented to a search in the office.
Within a few minutes the young lady had been deprived of her cell phone, purse, and clothing, which – per the "officer’s" instructions – were taken to another room. In the service of modesty’s minimal requirements, Louise was provided with an apron.
After Louise had been disrobed, the "officer" ordered Summers to enlist a male employee to guard the "suspect." A 27-year-old line cook named Jason Bradley was asked to play the role.
Following a brief conversation with the "officer," Bradley informed Summers, "in appropriately strong, colloquial language" – most likely involving a reference to bovine digestive residue – "that the situation was unacceptable," recounted the Court of Appeals for Kentucky in a subsequent ruling.
Significantly, Bradley’s objection focused on what he was being told to do, not the identity of the individual issuing the orders. Summers remained credulous, however, and in compliance with the "officer’s" demands called her fiancé, Walter Nix, to come to the restaurant to guard Louise.
Left alone with Louise for a space of about two hours, Nix – dutifully carrying out the "officer’s" instructions – forced the victim "to perform a series of humiliating physical acts, conducted a cavity search of her body, engaged in the additional physical assault of spanking her, and ultimately sexually assaulted her," narrates the Court of Appeals decision. Louise objected to the abuse she was suffering. At various times during the three-hour ordeal, she "asked for her clothes, and requested permission to leave. Her requests evoked some sympathy from her managers but were ultimately denied."
Eventually a maintenance man named Tom Simms grabbed the phone, spoke with the "officer," and told Summers that the whole thing was a hoax. This prompted her to call the store manager, who was at home, rather than the police station. Only then was Summers willing to allow Louise to get dressed and leave.
This incident was similar to a string of hoaxes believed to have been perpetrated over a ten-year period by a former prison guard from Florida named David Stewart. In 2006, Nix was found guilty of false imprisonment and sexual abuse, and sentenced to five years in prison.
Summers, who was fired from her position at McDonald’s, pleaded guilty to a charge of unlawful imprisonment. Stewart, who may well have been a beta tester for the Transportation Security Administration, was charged with several felonies but acquitted.
During Walter Nix’s trial, the prosecutor insisted that he and Summers should have known that the caller wasn’t a police officer. This assumes that the crimes committed against Louise would have been justifiable if those acts had been carried out on the orders of a policeman, rather than a con artist. Jason Bradley’s entirely commendable defiance demonstrated that he recognized the immorality of what he was being told to do – and that the nature of those acts wouldn’t change if they were given the benediction of someone claiming to exercise "authority."
Several commentators have drawn comparisons between the outrage in Mount Washington and the notorious experiments conducted by Dr. Stanley Milgram, which were documented in his book Obedience to Authority. Milgram’s tests were intended to measure the moral pliancy of ordinary people when ordered to commit potentially lethal acts against other innocent human beings.
Milgram discovered that 65 percent of his test subjects were willing to subject an unseen – and entirely innocent – person to what they believed was a fatal electric shock on the orders of a person seen as cloaked in that mysterious property called "authority."
Deference to the Authority Figure, Milgram observed, permitted those who participated in the experiment to "shed responsibility" for their actions.
Ten years after Milgram conducted his study, Dr. Philip Zimbardo carried out a similar experiment with the cooperation of the Palo Alto, California Police Department. Zimbardo and a team of academics from Stanford University selected a group of 22 volunteers for a two-week study of the dynamics of prison life. On the basis of a coin toss, half were designated "guards," and assigned the proper costumes. The others were labeled "prisoners" and swaddled in prison attire.
Within a day, the participants had immersed themselves in their respective roles. The guards became aggressive, hostile, and verbally abusive (physical violence was forbidden); the "prisoners" became depressed, and a few developed psycho-somatic afflictions, such as rashes. The "guards," by way of contrast, reveled in their status, constantly inflicting whimsical punishments on the "prisoners" and looking for new and more inventive ways to restrict what little liberty they still enjoyed.
When a graduate assistant protested that it was a form of abuse to inflict suffering on poorly-paid volunteers, Zimbardo ended the experiment – after just six days.
When Dr. Zimbardo announced the end of his study, "most of the guards seemed to be distressed … and it appeared to us that they now enjoyed the extreme control and power which they had exercised and were reluctant to give it up," he wrote in an essay published by the 1973 issue of Naval Research Review.
"Being a guard carried with it social status within the prison, a group identity (when wearing the uniform), and, above all, freedom to exercise an unprecedented degree of control over the lives of other human beings," Zimbardo observed. "This control was invariably expressed in terms of sanctions, punishment, demands, and with the threat of manifest physical power. There was no need for the guards to rationally justify a request as they did [in] their ordinary life, and merely to make a demand was sufficient to have it carried out. Many of the guards showed in their behavior and revealed in post-experimental statements that this sense of power was exhilarating."
The "power" described here, of course, was entirely fictive – just like that exercised by the faceless "Officer Scott" who ordered the abuse of Louise Ogborn. Of course, the ability of the peculiar artifact called the "State" to regiment, expropriate, incarcerate, and annihilate human beings depends entirely on the willingness of its victims to accept the moral fiction that coercive "authority" is in some sense legitimate.
As the Appeals Court observed, although Louise may have been forced to part with her purse – and lose her job – if she had simply decided to leave, she was not physically restrained or threatened with violence by her supervisors. She initially cooperated out of a desire "to clear her name, save her job, and clear her parents’ name." As the caller’s demands escalated, Louise succumbed to the "moral pressure" of her colleagues, who insisted that it was somehow the victim’s duty to submit.
The outrages inflicted on Louise Ogborn (who eventually won a substantial civil judgment against McDonald’s) were made possible because she was effectively paralyzed by what the Appeals Court calls "the threat of authority." Her former colleagues suffered from a kindred affliction – the delusion that "authority" can redeem immoral conduct.
Louise’s ordeal is depicted – with predictable dramatic license – in the new indie film Compliance, and the reaction of a preview audience in New York is revealing.
During a panel discussion following the screening, psychologist Stanton Peele asked: "How many people in this room think they would have gone along with this scenario if they were present?" Not a single hand was raised. One audience member insisted that the deception worked because it targeted unsophisticated people of the kind who would work at a fast food joint.
While most of the audience was content to marinate in a sense of cultural superiority, one man – who pointedly noted that he was "well-educated" – gave voice to the unvarnished truth about most people who live in our degenerate collectivist culture:
"If you truly believed there was a threat of consequence, you would have done it. [If a]police officer is calling, saying you might lose your job, you might be held accountable if you don’t do these things, you might follow through" – even if that means being party to a grotesque sexual assault on an innocent co-worker as she cries and pleads for help.
It’s worth nothing that acts very similar to those prosecuted as sexual assault when carried out by a McDonald’s employee and her boyfriend in 2006 are committed thousands of times every day at airports by federal employees in 2012.
Those acts are carried out in the name of "authority"; accordingly, it is those who object to being publicly molested who confront the prospect of prosecution. When episodes of that kind are given publicity by the State-aligned media, the Ministry of Truth will always find at least one properly docile subject who will recite the appropriate words of chastened gratitude for the indispensable service performed by the TSA’s Molestation Corps.
The unpleasant and undeniable truth is that in contemporary America, most people will scream the equivalent of "Do it to Julia!" long before they face the horrors of Room 101.
William Norman Grigg [send him mail] publishes the Pro Libertate blog and hosts the Pro Libertate radio program.