Monday, 13 August 2012

Can't You Follow Instructions?

A few days ago I saw a dump truck full of rubble and twisted metal bars inching its way up a small street. Two men in construction gear were involved: one driving the truck, and the other walking in front making sure the way was clear. A few cyclists were heading up the street in the other direction, and as they approached, the man in front of the truck held up his hand and told them in an authoritative voice to go past on the footpath.

The cyclists gave him funny looks. There was plenty of space either side of the truck, after all, and due to the very heavy load it was moving too slowly to be dangerous. Ignoring the red-faced man, they rolled past the truck with a bike-width of clearance on either side.

"What's the matter with you?" cried the driver, incensed. "Can't you follow instructions?"

The cyclists were certainly capable of following instructions, but they were also capable of thinking and assessing risk for themselves. More importantly, they were capable of ignoring pointless and toothless instructions. If there wasn't enough room to pass safely next to the truck, they probably would have jumped onto the footpath.

This is what I mean when I say that anarchism is a thoroughly practical philosophy: quite apart from the question of whether obeying the driver's commands would have been sensible, there's the question of where the driver gets the right to issue any commands at all.

Nietzsche was right about this, at least - following orders does not come naturally, and anybody who finds it second nature to do so has probably been beaten or bullied into it. It's easy (and fun!) to scoff at adolescent rebellion, but beneath the tantrums and petty narcissism is the basic and praiseworthy human instinct to make our own decisions. Smothering this instinct is very difficult, but fortunately we have a similarly powerful drive to make decisions for other people. This is the primary purpose of almost every educational institution, workplace or prison - to mould its inmates into the kind of people who follow instructions.

We've gotten very, very good at it: a long time ago, you needed a constant threat of physical force, made real by reminders like public executions and torture. Now you can do it with a relatively small number of policemen and an array of cameras. The cameras don't even need to all work! The law is ever-present, omniscient, and possessed with a superhuman ability to collate and understand the information it gathers. Disobey legal-sounding orders, and you'll be found out and punished, so in general we obey.

It's good to know that we're capable of not following instructions, though - up to a point. If the man walking in front of the truck had been a policeman, after all, I doubt any of the cyclists would have stayed on the road.

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