Saturday, 26 April 2008

Chomsky: The Obedient Rise, The Disobedient Fall

The following excerpt is from Anarchy in the USA, an interview Chomsky gave to Charles M Young for Rolling Stone magazine on 28 May 1992.
QUESTION: Do you ever wonder about the psychology of these American commissars? You've written about the filtering process by which the obedient rise to the top and the disobedient end up elsewhere, but I wonder what goes on in their heads.

CHOMSKY: I don't think it's that hard to figure out. All the people I've ever met, including me, have done bad things in their lives, things that they know they shouldn't have done. There are few people who say, "I really did something rotten." What people usually do is make up a way of explaining why that was the right thing to do. That's pretty much the way belief formation works in general. You have some interest, something you want, and then you make up a belief system which makes that look right and just. And then you believe the belief system. It's a very common human failing.

Some people are better at it than others. The people who are best at it become commissars. It's always best to have columnists who believe what they're saying. Cynics tend to leave clues because they're always trying to get around the lying. So people who are capable of believing what is supportive of power and privilege - but coming at it, in their view, independently - those are the best.

The norm is that if you subordinate yourself to the interests of the powerful, whether it's parent or teacher or anybody else, and if you do it politely and willingly, you'll get ahead. Let's say you're a student in school and the teacher says something about American history and it's so absurd you feel like laughing, I remember this as a child. If you get up and say: "That's really foolish. Nobody could believe that. The facts are the other way around," you're going to get in trouble.

QUESTION: Do you remember the fact you came up with?

CHOMSKY: Well, this happened so often. I got thrown out of classes...not a lot...I don't want to suggest it was any real...there are people who did it constantly, and they end up as behavior problems. You raise too many questions, you ask for reasons instead of just following orders, they put you in certain categories: hyperactive. Undisciplined. Overemotional. It goes all through your education and professional life. A journalist who starts picking on the wrong stories will be called in by the editor and told: "You're losing your objectivity. You're getting a little too emotionally involved in your stories. Why don't you work in the police court until you get it right?"

That does start in childhood. If you quietly accept and go along no matter what your feelings are, ultimately you internalize what you're saying, because it's too hard to believe one thing and say another. I can see it very strikingly in my own background. Go to any elite university and you are usually speaking to very disciplined people, people who have been selected for obedience. And that makes sense. If you've resisted the temptation to tell the teacher, "You're an asshole," which maybe he or she is, and if you don't say, "That's idiotic," when you get a stupid assignment, you will gradually pass through the required filters. You will end up at a good college and eventually with a good job.

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