Is this the identity of the next tyrant?
When our leaders embrace persecution of their own people, they’re simply reflecting the society from which they have been drawn.
In 1961, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram started conducting a series of obedience tests in what would become known as The Milgram Experiment.
The study was designed to determine the effects of authority on obedience and used a highly controversial technique in which participants were ordered to deliver what they believed to be painful electrical shocks to another person.
In the most famous variation of the experiment, 40 men were recruited through a newspaper ad and believed themselves to be participating in an exercise where they were delivering shocks of between 15 and 450 volts to a ‘student’ in a neighbouring room when an incorrect answer was given to a question. The so-called students, who could be heard but not seen by the newspaper recruits, were actually part of the test team but acted (very convincingly) as if they had been shocked – with some even screaming, banging on the wall, and pleading for the experiment to be stopped.
Ominously, 65% of the participants in the study ignored these pleas and delivered the maximum shock anyway, with only 35% having the strength of character to stop before reaching this point. According to Milgram himself, this level of obedience was due to the presence of an authority figure, the status of the institution backing the experiment, an assumption that the Authority figure was competent, and an assurance that the shocks were painful but not dangerous.
In the years since, more recent investigations have cast doubt on Milgram’s findings and the conditions under which his experiments were conducted – however, in a 2009 replication of Milgram’s experiment, participants responded at roughly the same rate as they had in the original experiment.
In any case, even without the addition of an element of (obvious or immediate) physical pain, I think the experiment simply confirms something that we all already know – that many people will do unreasonable, even unconscionable, things if they believe that their actions are sanctioned by ‘authority’.
History is replete with examples of this phenomenon and shows us that people are willing to do appalling things, and be party to evil acts, if they think those acts are committed under the cover of Authority. Just eight decades ago, during the second world war, 6 million Jews in Europe were first ostracized, then systematically murdered by the Nazis under the pretense of the prevailing narrative of the day – an atrocity in which the populations of many European nations were not just compliant but enthusiastically complicit.
The list goes on. The slaughter of two million Cambodians under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, Stalin’s elimination of 20 million Russians, Mao’s murder of 45 million people under his ironically named ‘Great Leap Forward’ policy. These are all examples of purges from recent history in which local populations obeyed, and even embraced, atrocities because they were empowered to do so by their leadership.
Of course, we in the democratic nations of the New World are more enlightened, right? Such things couldn’t happen in Canada, the United States, Australia or New Zealand because we put more stock in the rights of the individual and the sanctity of democratic institutions?
Well, not so fast. While we may not be as guilty of the wholesale murder of populations as those in these previous examples, all of our nations have their own dark chapters in which we’ve embraced tyranny. McCarthyism in the United States and the Dawn Raids in New Zealand both come to mind as examples of atrocities which were backed by official policy where large numbers of people looked on, approvingly, while others were persecuted.
These and other examples show us that, not only are we much closer to tyranny than we’re comfortable accepting – but that many of us are even capable of endorsing and supporting that tyranny if it’s sanctioned by those in charge.
Witness, for example, the Covid mandates in New Zealand between 2020 and 2022. While these were probably justified during the first twelve months of the pandemic during a time when there were fears that up to 7% of the world’s population could die – this was less true as time went on. By early 2021 international data was already proving that the official claims being made about the effectiveness of the various vaccines were exaggerated, that mask wearing and social distancing weren’t necessarily reducing the rate of infection and, most importantly, that the mortality (death) rate was a fraction of what had been feared or planned for. Despite this, the New Zealand Government persevered with its mandates and, rather than engaging with detractors, attempted to silence them – threatening their livelihoods, referring to them as ‘a river of filth’, enacting laws and rules to limit their freedoms and engaging rhetoric designed to divide families and communities.
However, worse than this was the way these actions were received by a section of New Zealand society. Rather than being horrified by a government that was willing to ostracise its own people, many New Zealanders not only supported this treatment, but actively encouraged it. Indeed, entire sections of the media piled in on the character assassination – not just reporting proceedings, but also becoming willing agents in the attempt to stifle debate in a style of attack which was chillingly reminiscent of McCarthyism in 1950s America. It was, and continues to be, a dark time in our nation’s history.
Or, consider recent events in the US where activists on both the left and the right have demonstrated their willingness to forego the rights of their fellow citizens – and even support acts of violence – where they believe that those acts have been endorsed by their leadership. Trump supporters chanting ‘Kill Hillary’, advocating armed insurrection and violently attacking the Capitol building in the belief that their leader has encouraged them to do these things; Democrats endorsing and participating in civic riots, seeking to repress the rights of, and enforce a worldview on, those who disagree with them, all under the approving eye of a President who, just recently, further inflamed matters in a bizarre speech in which he attacked Republicans, describing them in terms that were an echo of Hillary Clintons infamous ‘basket of deplorables’ comment. And how did the American public respond? Once again, millions of them were willing to embrace such division, refusing to see that such conflict will only further damage their already troubled democracy.
So what can we learn from this, and other such examples? That a section of any society will follow, and often enthusiastically support, the dictates of their leaders – even when those dictates are destructive and even when they border on totalitarianism? Well, yes – but there’s also more afoot here that I think the Milgram Experiment may have missed.
Consider this: prior to the 17th century, virtually every nation on Earth was ruled, directly, or indirectly by a Monarch – so acquiescence to authority meant deferring, ultimately, to an unelected leader who was in that role by dint of birthright or conquest. But that all started to change with a series of events which, arguably, started with the English Civil War, continued with the American and French Wars of Independence and reached its zenith with the creation of the world’s first truly ‘universal’ democracy when New Zealand extended to right to vote to adult women in 1893.
Since then, our leaders have been drawn, not from the rarefied levels of elite society but from amongst our own, by democratic vote.
Or, to put it another way – our leaders are now us.
Interestingly, this reality has an eerie echo in an unlikely source – the Book of Revelation in the New Testament of the Bible. You may be surprised to learn that the first three chapters of that book concern themselves with Letters to ‘Seven Churches’ and that (according to some) these Churches are both a reference to seven bodies of believers which actually existed at the time the book was written, as well as an outline of Church history since the time of Christ.
If this view is correct, it’s interesting to note that the last of these Churches, and the one that would therefore appear to relate to our time, is the Church of Laodicea, which literally means ‘governed by the people’. That’s spooky enough – but things get even more interesting when you consider what that letter has to say to its intended audience. Unlike the other six letters which have both brickbats and bouquets for the recipients, the Letter to the Laodiceans has nothing good to say about those living in our time. It accuses them of being neither hot, nor cold; and of claiming to have reached a level of wealth and sophistication in which they think they no longer need a God – when in fact they are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
While it’s true that this letter was written to Christians rather than the broader society, its message applies to both in this instance – and it’s a message that Milgram would appear to have missed: we don’t defer to, and enthusiastically support the actions of, our leaders as a mark of mindless respect – we do it because they are a representation of us and, by extension, their actions echo our own wishes (at least to the extent that we voted for them or politically support them).
All of which brings us to a series of uncomfortable truths:
When we seek laws to force others to accept our political views, penalties to punish those who don’t, and legislation to silence views that aren’t consistent with our own – WE are the Tyrants.
When we enthusiastically support the Governments persecution of those in our society who don’t agree with our views – WE are the Tyrants.
When we call for, or threaten, the death of those in leadership – WE are the Tyrants.
When we place our own lives and rights above the lives of others – WE are the Tyrants.
When we claim that we have the right to kill those whose existence inconveniences us, whether they’re still in the womb, or clogging up our penal system – WE are the Tyrants.
When we advocate armed response as a way of dealing with unwelcome social change, all in the name of a God who called on us to lay down our arms and ‘turn the other cheek’ – WE are the Tyrants.
And when we seek to expel that same God from our society because we’re uncomfortable with what we see when we compare our own lives to the standard that He expects of us – we’re the worst kind of Tyrants of all.
It should be obvious to you, by now, that tyranny isn’t exclusive to the left or the right – it’s an ever-present threat to any society which loses sight of its moral authority in favour of the dictates of the mob. And when our leaders embrace those dictates in order to justify persecution of their own people, they’re simply reflecting the broader society from which they have been drawn.
Interestingly, the Letter immediately preceding the Letter to Laodicea in the Book of Revelation is the Letter to the Church at Philadelphia (referring to a region in 1st century Turkey, not the US city which was named after it). The message to this Church is arguably the most positive of any of the seven and (if the prophetic timeline theory is correct) happens to coincide with a period when the emerging democracies of the West existed hand in hand with social orders which were built on Christian values. This shouldn’t surprise us since modern democracy, itself, came about as a direct result of the role of Protestant Christianity, first in Europe, and then in the nations of the New World.
This also goes some way toward explaining why society seems to be getting worse, even at a time when health stats, average incomes, and technology suggest that it should be getting better. In our headlong pursuit to expel God from society (or reshape Him in our own image) we’ve lost the very anchor which would provide us with a moral standard and steer us away from the excesses which inevitably lead to persecution of those who don’t share the prevailing viewpoint.
We’re not in danger of being overrun by Tyrants – we ARE the tyrants – and we’re just a heartbeat away from kicking off the chain of events which eventually lead to the collapse of any society which no longer recognises a supreme moral authority.