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How the Shadows of Fascism Falls Unseen: The Dangers of Ignorance – Part 16

Do not obey in advance

On Tyranny: Twenty lessons from the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder

Why do common people become part of an angry mob that carries out unlawful hatred crimes toward marginalized communities in an authoritarian state?  Why don’t they stand against oppression?

It’s anticipatory obedience in action.

When a leader with a cult of personality wins an election, their supporters can become willing to do anything to demonstrate their unwavering loyalty to the new leader, even if it means compromising cherished values. This initial action by the supporters enables the authoritarian regimes to consolidate power. 

When people are given the authority to harm others or intimidated to become mute spectators of hate crimes, authoritarian regimes gain power uncontrollably from the action and inaction of its citizens.

For example, in one of his election rallies in Iowa, Donald Trump said: “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. Just knock the hell out of them. I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. There won’t be so much of them because the courts agree with us” 

His supporters feel empowered and the dissidents become fearful of speaking against him and that led to his growth in popularity and a sense of anticipatory obedience among his followers.

Other examples of anticipatory obedience in history

In 1922 Italy, Benito Mussolini and his supporters from the National Fascist Party organized a march with 30,000 Black Shirts in the capital to seize power. The military and local authorities didn’t take any action fearing repercussions from his supporters. 

In Germany, Nazis organized a pogrom in 1938 known as Kristallnacht to destroy Jewish properties and persecute Jewish individuals. The onlooking Germans were either amused by this massacre and took part in it or silently watched the events unfold, enabling the Nazis to carry out their anti-Semitic agenda. 

In multiple instances, supporters of the Turkish authoritarian regime have shown anticipatory obedience in persecuting opposition after the alleged coup in 2016, helping Erdogan expand his powers and consolidate authority. 

In her book, How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship,  Ece Temelkuran quotes Erdogan’s supporters calling them the real people of Turkey. Even in India, incidents like lynching of minorities and welcoming rapists back from prison happen with religious chantings, the perpetrators believe they have the legal immunity to committing any crime while the seculars feel the fear of repercussion in case of action. 

Milgram experiment and findings

Human beings obey authority without any question. And it’s been proven by the Milgram experiment.

When a criminal of the Second World War, Adolf Eichmann was on trial, his defense was that he was just following instructions when he gave orders to execute millions of Jews. This provoked Milgram to conduct an experiment, in which the participants were asked to apply electric shock to unknown strangers. In reality, the strangers receiving shock are only acting as if they are receiving high volts of electricity, screaming in pain. 

Without knowing this as an experiment, the participants when ordered to give electric shocks, carried out the task without much hesitation. 

In another version of this experiment, Milgram introduced a break in between the procedure. After applying 150 Volts of shock, the participant has to take a break for a few minutes and come back to continue the task. In doing so, only 20% of the participants continued following the instructions.

This shows that authoritarian regimes should continue to engage their followers without a break so that they continue to take instructions incessantly. 

What about the non-followers? 

The rest of the articles in this series will focus on actions (borrowed from books on these topics) from the non-followers to prevent authoritarian regimes from consolidating power. 
Reference books mentioned in this article

  1. On Tyranny: Twenty lessons from the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder
  2. How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship,  Ece Temelkuran

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