It’s one of those complex competencies we acquire over the years as we move through childhood to the teenage years to full-blown adulthood: When to do what you are told and when to oppose or resist a directive. Let’s focus on the endgame here and think about adult scenarios. Lots of people and institutions tell you to do things. Some of them have the authority to issue commands or directives, others don’t. Those that have some sort of legitimate authority may issue lawful or reasonable directives, but may also sometimes exceed those limits. Scenarios can run from the trivial to serious life and death confrontations. It’s a topic worth discussing.

Here’s how it came up. At the library, I ran across a book titled Humankind: A Hopeful History (Little, Brown and Co., 2019). I figured that with so many things going wrong with the country the last few years, I could use an upbeat treatment of history. It’s nice to think that deep down, most humans are kind and considerate and compassionate, and that there is some hope for the human race. Halfway through it, I think the book accomplishes that to some degree, although it’s possible that a second edition will add an extra chapter titled “What Went Wrong in 2020: How Everything Blew Up and Everyone Got Angry About Something.”

A Shocking Experiment

Writing a book claiming that people are, on the whole, a lot nicer and kinder than is generally portrayed in the media and in our culture, the author (Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian; my copy is an English translation) needed to confront and debunk a few events and episodes. One of them is the classic shock machine experiment run by Stanley Milgram, a young Yale professor of psychology, in 1961. You’ve all heard about it before and you can read a good summary at Wikipedia. It is often held out as some sort proof that people will rather mindlessly submit to authority, in this case a fellow in a lab coat telling a volunteer to push a button administering increasingly painful shocks to a subject in the next room when the subject gives a wrong answer to one in a series of questions. The volunteers thought they were helping with a learning experiment. In fact, they were the experiment.

The published results were held out as supporting the idea that people will pretty much do what they are told by an authority figure, even when it seems wrong or even when it appears to be almost inhumane. The problem is that the published account misrepresented some of the results and presented what appears to be skewed conclusions. The archived data from the experiment became available a few years ago, and they show that many volunteers resisted the directives quite vigorously. Here’s from the Wikipedia page:

In 2012 Australian psychologist Gina Perry investigated Milgram’s data and writings and concluded that Milgram had manipulated the results, and that there was a “troubling mismatch between (published) descriptions of the experiment and evidence of what actually transpired.” She wrote that “only half of the people who undertook the experiment fully believed it was real and of those, 66% disobeyed the experimenter”.

Now others have replicated the Milgram experiment in various guises, and there is some validity to the results. But the bottom line is this: It’s not like 99% of us mindlessly follow orders, even questionable orders. Some people will follow questionable directives, others will resist. Some people will accept commands from a questionable authority figure, others will demur. Here is what seems like the most interesting issue raised by the experiment: Who obeys and who resists? What explains those choices? Here’s a paragraph from page 175 of the book:

In 2015, psychologist Matthew Hollander reviewed the taped recordings of 117 sessions at Milgram’s shock machine. After extensive analysis, he discovered a pattern. The subjects who managed to halt the experiment used three tactics:
1. Talk to the victim.
2. Remind the man in the grey lab coat of his responsibility.
3. Repeatedly refuse to continue.

So resistance is not futile, and there is your template for how to resist.

Choose Your Battles

You can probably see where this is heading, but let’s curb out enthusiasm a bit. Resistance and rebellion should not be our first reaction to any directive. That’s sort of the teenage rebellion model, and most of us grow out of that phase. There is no point or purpose for walking into the library, point to the “please speak quietly” sign, and shout, “NO! I WILL TALK AS LOUD AS I WANT!” A lot of directives and commands are just how we, as a society or a company or a team or a church, manage interactions and help everyone follow a set of reasonably fair rules. But not all rules are fair and not all commands are legitimate or defensible. Some commands or directives should be resisted. Even in the military, unlawful orders do not need to be followed and in some cases should be assertively resisted.

Now we could talk about this in a variety of scenarios: When can you or should you disregard or flat out object to a directive from a supervisor or boss at work? When can you or should you disregard or flat out object to a request from a parent, a neighbor, a store manager, or a librarian? (Just as an aside, have you ever noticed how the loudest people in the library are generally the librarians?) But we’re going to focus on church scenarios: The EQP or the Bishop or the Area Authority or a visiting GA or a letter from the FP.

Choose Your Mormon Battles

Lots of men claim authority in the Church, to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do in a wide variety of spheres. Let’s try to pinpoint a few particular issues in this Mormon context.

Too much obedience. At all levels, there seems to be too much emphasis on obedience, without any caveats. As noted, even the military recognizes the difference between lawful and unlawful orders. But in the Church one often hears the very questionable claim that one *should* follow a questionable or clearly wrong directive from a priesthood leader, as if that is somehow a praiseworthy choice rather than a questionable one. And there is also the problem that only organizations that routinely issue questionable directives need to spend so much time dwelling on the duty to obey every order.

Inflated scope. At all levels, the men exercising authority within the Church seem to have an exaggerated sense of how far that authority reaches. That sense tends to be reinforced by anxious rank and file Mormons who go to their bishop with every problem and seek counsel on a variety of issues having nothing to do with the Church. Once in a while leadership will push back on this, encouraging a little more autonomy in the membership, but not often. Anecdotal (but not necessarily unreliable) accounts of such overreach are often about a bishop who disciplines, in one way or another, a member about a social media post or a fashion choice or a picnic on Sunday or whatever. But the issue exists at almost every level in the Church. It’s an issue because reasonable limits to one’s authority within the Church is almost never addressed. Some leaders probably reject the idea there is any limit to their authority.

Too much conformity. I’m not sure how to describe this one. There’s often an all-or-nothing view of one’s standing in the Church, so if you tell the bishop “actually, I’m going to stick with blue shirts, not white ones,” your score drops from 98 to zero. Or maybe it’s that there are few avenues for complaint or feedback. There is no LDS suggestion box. There is no LDS challenge flag for a bad call. Even constructive feedback or helpful suggestions are likely viewed as simply negative criticism. Or maybe it’s the mismatch between thinking big and acting small. Talking like the Church is God’s Kingdom which will fill the earth and bless all its inhabitants, but acting like what really matters is a drawing lots of lines and using them to push lots of people outside the shrinking Mormon tent. Is this a vision thing? Is it too much bureaucracy and too many rules? Is it confusing righteousness with conformity, as though it only comes in one flavor? Is it too much top-down thinking?

It’s a complicated topic, and I probably haven’t done a great job outlining the issue or showing how it manifests inside Mormonism. Perhaps some examples, or possibly counter-examples, shared by readers will clarify things.