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Why Do Good Men Do Nothing?


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By Wendy McElroy



In his book Thoughts on the Cause of Present Discontents (1770), the British philosopher Edmund Burke wrote, "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one…" This sentiment has survived as "All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing."

Why do good men do nothing in the face of evil, especially when evil aggressively invades their lives?

The question has red-hot relevance to those who value the tradition of individual freedom into which America was born -- a tradition that includes freedom of speech, the right to bear arms and to demand due process. These traditional freedoms are crumbling under the wheels of run-away government. Through dozens of 'alphabet agencies' -- the IRS, BATF, CPS, DHS, et al -- government aggression enters the lives of good men who do nothing to protect themselves or their families.

Some people are paralyzed by fear; some by denial. But many others are immobilized by an apathy that strips away the emotional will to act in self-defense.

In psychological terms, apathy is a state of constant indifference that is generally associated with depression. Apathy leaves an individual unresponsive to the world and creates a disconnect between what he believes, how he feels and which actions he takes. For example, a man might fully recognize that food is necessary to life but, because he doesn't care, he doesn't eat.

Translated into political terms, he might realize that a gluttonous government is feasting on his liberty, his wealth and even on his children's future but, because he feels only numbness toward government, he doesn't act in self-defense. He obeys even when the command is self-destructive.

The question of why people passively obey government has haunted the history of political discourse. In 1552, Étienne de la Boétie addressed what he called the most important problem confronting freedom: people consent to their own enslavement. His analysis of 'why' resulted in the world's first book on non-violent resistance, The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude.

Modern historians ask the same question. During the mass arrests of Stalinist Russia, people reportedly slept in their clothing not in order to flee more easily but in order to be fully dressed when seized. In Hitler's Europe, Jews reported on their own to deportation centers and to their deaths. Why?

Part of the complex answer lies in what psychologists call 'object specific' apathy. That is, a person's numbness is directed toward a specific situation and may not be manifested in other areas of his life. The same man who is passionate about music or his wife may feel impotent in the area of demanding or even wanting his own freedom.

This response is a form of 'learned helplessness.' It is 'learned' because the response comes from relentlessly teaching an individual that he has no control over a situation and, so, his efforts are futile.

The original and now-famous experiment from which the term 'learned helplessness' derives involved shocking dogs with electricity until they developed the psychology of submission. When applied to human beings, 'learned helplessness' is most often used to describe people who have been institutionalized, for example, in prisons, mental institutions or orphanages. There, the regimentation strips an individual of the smallest choice and punishes the expression of preference. In time, many institutionalized people accept the inevitability of their environment. Some of them lose all ability to feel their own preferences.

The depth of learned helplessness that comes from being institutionalized is rare. But most of us absorb a degree of this apathy through constant exposure to a society that attempts to control almost every choice in daily life: smoking, eating fast food, gun ownership, telling a rude joke at work, marriage and divorce, boarding an airplane, medical care, banking…making a phone call. It is difficult to find a choice that isn't scrutinized by bureaucracy and covered by some form of government control. The message is clear: Conformity is rewarded; the 'wrong' choices are punished or otherwise discouraged. The public school system is just one example of what could be called the institutionalizing or bureaucratizing of daily life.

The Castle, a brilliant novel by Franz Kafka, offers a window into what happens to the psychology of a man who confronts bureaucracy. Due a mistake in paperwork, the main character K. is summoned to work in a village as a surveyor but ends up as a janitor. The Castle is the summoning authority with which K. must but cannot deal because he cannot contact the proper official. K.'s long and agonizing exercise in futility reveals the impact that bureaucracy has upon the human soul: it deadens.

K.'s error was to accept the authority of The Castle in the first place.

The foregoing observation contains good news: bureaucracy and authority require consent. And, if that consent is learned behavior, then it can also be unlearned.

Something within the human spirit seems to want to shake off destructive programming. Call it a survival instinct. Perhaps it is the inbred urge revealed by every two-year-old who yells 'no' over and over again for the simple joy of exercising veto over his own life.

Adults need to recapture the childlike joy and power of saying 'no'. The words most feared by those in authority are 'I won't.' Individuals with the habit of obedience may need to start by saying 'no' on small matters like refusing to fill in racial information on application forms. They may be shocked by how difficult it is to say 'I won't' even to petty demands. But the difficulty is a sign of how important it is. Only when a person is able to say 'no' can he say 'yes' and have the word mean more that the obedient response of a servant. 'Yes' is properly the affirmation of a free man.

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