A friend sent me a book review of Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect by a therapist and former educator named Stephen Prichard, MDiv. In the review Prichard picks out a quote that Zimbardo uses (by C.P. Snow in Either/Or). Got that? Prichard quotes Zimbardo who is quoting Snow…

“When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find far more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have been committed in the name of rebellion”.

My friend connected this quote to some of my thoughts on Rwanda. There, a genocide was committed under the guise of obeying the government.

I like this quote even though I am not sure of Snow’s context or meaning. Of course, all crimes are rebellion–rebellion from God’s decree. But still, we use obedience (either by demand or by denial) to excuse bad behavior and our responsibility in it.


Filed under Abuse, Cognitive biases, Cultural Anthropology, Great Quotes

7 responses to “

  1. Lou Buses

    Why do you like this quote? Even if the author’s observation is true (and we have no basis for judging), it is a tacit encouragement to endorse rebellion rather than encouraging obedience. Out of context, this quote shows no indictment of the human heart, such as that advocated in your last sentence. Why do you like this quote?

  2. Actually, I don’t see it as a tacit endorsement of rebellion against the good. Rebellions such as what godly Germans did to save Jews, what a few Hutus did to save their Tutsi neighbors, what MLK and others did to stand up for civil rights for all is much better than obedience of governments bent on perpetrating evil. I would suggest that it does indict us when we allow deception to encourage “obedience” in the face of evil intentions by others. That’s why I like it. In Rwanda, 1 million Rwandans died in the name of obedience to a genocidal leadership. I listened to 19 mass murders tell me they were just following orders, submitting to the commands of their leaders.

    • Lou Buses

      Thank you for your explanation. I love you brother, but I disagree. Those Germans did not “rebel” they “obeyed” God. Let’s call it that rather than giving the term “rebellion” any credence. I reject using the term in this manner, primarily because it is held in such high esteem in our culture and the scripture uses it in a pejorative manner about 200 times. We are in a war of words as Paul Tripp reminds us.

      • Yeah, you have a point, but I still disagree. Ask a German and they will talk about obeying God AND rebelling from their human leaders. You can use obedience in a bad way just as much as you can us rebellion. The quote need not mean anything other than human to human activity. Under the name of obedience, many bad things have happened. The point we probably agree on is that the fall now means that we distort meanings. Under the supposed meaning of love, abuse has happened. Under the guise of obedience, evil has taken place. Under the guise of rebellion against evil, people have perpetrated their own evil acts. May we be on alert to these kinds of deceptions that always grow in the heart first.

  3. D. Stevenson

    Much abuse/sin/evil occurs under the banner of obedience.

    — Children, obey your parents.– Eph. 6:1

    Don’t rebel when your father wants to pull your panties down and put his finger in your vagina.

    Obey your mothers command to not talk about it.

    — Obey your leaders and submit to them. — Hebrews 13:17

    Obey your pastor and submit to him, even though his commands crush your spirit.

    To the naive, obedience to the spiritual leader is often equal with obedience to God.

    Sadly, we don’t have to look very far to find instance after instance of the naive taking many small steps of obedience as they are seduced into a sexual relationship with the pastor/elder/deacon/Sunday School teacher.

    These are only a couple of examples from the hundreds, perhaps thousands of situations where obedience shouldn’t be and rebellion is warranted.

  4. Lightbearer

    It actually seems that the point Zimbardo was trying to make with the Snow quote is that, being the social species that we are, that we have a tendency to equate authority with morality.

  5. Bruce Johnson

    I don’t have access to the journal *Progress* in which “Either/Or” appeared (in 1961), but it seems Snow made the identical same statement in his lecture “The Moral Un-Neutrality of Science” at the1960 annual meeting of the Amercian Association for the Advancement of Science. The lecture was published in Science 27 January 1961: 255-262.

    Here’s a copy of the article: http://www.cooperativeindividualism.org/snow_morality_and_science.html

    In context Snow is referring to the behavior of German soldiers involved in the Holocaust, so the obedience & genocide connection is clear. So yes, Snow’s point would seem to connect to your thoughts.

    Zimbardo’s use of the briefer quote (no mention of the Germans), thrown in without comment at the end of a section discussing the Milgram obedience studies, doesn’t quite draw that connection.

    (For what it’s worth, I find what seems to be the central purpose of Zimbardo’s book –to apply his ideas to events in the ‘war on terror’ and esp. to charge members of the Bush administration with “war crimes”– utterly unconvincing, based on a selective, tendentious re-telling of events. This may not be the place to try to detail factual gaps & logical fallacies, but I think it is worth remarking that one may consider and appreciate the argument of the first two-thirds of the book without necessarily accepting his political slant and interpretations of recent events in the final chapters.)

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