Atten-shun! At ease! Keep Right. Do Not Pass. Print out two copies, sign and return one and keep the other for your records. Enter PIN.
In a gazillion ways, we are enjoined to do as we are told, and indeed, the orderly process of society depends on our doing so. Nonetheless, in the exceedingly unlikely eventuality that I were asked to deliver a commencement address, I would probably speak about the virtues of disobedience.
Of course, I really like my dogs to be obedient. There are few things more annoying than a canine who doesn’t come when called, or more worrisome than one who jumps up on an octogenarian visitor. I absolutely insist that my horses be obedient. There are few things more dangerous than 1,100 pounds of mostly muscle and bone and with a brain no larger than a small tangerine who insists on having a “mind” of its own. (As for my cats, well, I gave up long ago.)
Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. It wasn’t only Whitman who contained multitudes, and part of my multitudiousness is what may well be an unhealthy dose of “demand resistance.” Especially when it comes to people.
Homo, ostensibly sapient, is famously and repetitively urged to be obedient. Indeed, one can argue that the primary demand placed upon human beings by the Abrahamic religions is to be good. Do as you are told. Obey.
I’m thinking of the Ten Commandments, and all its Thou shalts and Thou shalt nots. And of Romans 5:12, where Paul says, “Wherefore as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned. By one man’s disobedience many were made sinners.” Surprising to many of the theologically illiterate, “original sin” does not refer to sex, but to Adam and Eve’s primal disobedience.
Disobedience looms especially large in the Quran, which to my admittedly untrained eye appears to outdo both Judaism and Christianity in concerning itself with the need to tame humanity’s stiff-necked inclination to disobey. Thus, “It may be that your Lord will have mercy on you, but if you again return to disobedience, we too will return to punishment (17:8). And “O you who believe! When you confer together in private, do not give to each other counsel of sin and revolt and disobedience to the Messenger, but give to each other counsel of goodness and guarding [against evil]; and be careful of your duty to Allah” (58 9). Indeed, as often remarked, Islam itself means “submission,” although to my disobedient mind the Quran contains so much emphasis on human freedom (admittedly, in the context of the need to restrict it for our own good) to be downright thrilling.
As an evolutionary biologist, steeped in the doctrine that natural selection operates via snippets of DNA jousting competitively—albeit occasionally cooperatively—to get ahead, it isn’t surprising that to a large extent the world’s religions have targeted disobedience as public enemy number one. And yet, I can’t help wondering whether all the fuss is sadly misplaced since the panoply of harm and horror attributable to disobedience is trivial compared to that caused by a far greater “sin”: obedience.
What, then, are we to do? Should we teach disobedience? And if so, how? I’m reminded of the Soviet-era military handbook that insisted officers be prepared to extemporize when necessary, and then presented a detailed list of precisely how and when to do so …
(image from wikimedia.commons)