LOVE LETTERS TO TANZANIA : How helpful is strict obedience?

Friday March 9 2018



By Sabine Barbara

Society needs order. Rules, regulations and agreed practices create such order. Collaborative cultures, common goals and respectful environments are vital to allow all kinds of organisations, institutions, workplaces and governments to function properly.

Clearly, employers also want workers who play by the rules, accept their guidance and refrain from questioning their authority. Lucky for our bosses, there is no shortage of employees who will do just that. Thanks to the flood of books which teach employees how to take their career to the next level via obedience and networking, ambitious employees study the many steps to please the boss and read extensively about the need to surround themselves with “the right kind people” (in other words, judge and befriend co-workers and superiors purely based on how useful they are to our personal career progression).

Although the compliance of convenient, obedient employees may make the lives of insecure managers much easier, mindless conformity can have a rather negative impact on society.

A rapidly changing world needs critical and creative thinkers who have the mental strength to reject the status quo and start afresh. We need educated youngsters to question existing practices to find new and more effective ways of addressing problems we tried to solve for decades. Asking them to blindly follow in the footsteps of those who failed to provide solutions would be illogical.

If I may borrow the words of Chilean-born writer Isabel Allende, society needs “dissidents” and “rebels” ready to “ask questions, bend the rules and take risks”. The next generation of leaders need less blind obedience and more inspiration to develop the visions worth pursuing to solve the problems we will collectively face in the future.

If everyone toes the line and kowtows to the boss, who is going to create the change we want to see? If we all seek to further our careers based on the rules and expectations of the establishment, who is going to challenge unreasonable expectations and unfair rules?

If we want to drive progress in our area of passion or expertise, create fairer political structures for the next generation, in short, change the world, we simply cannot be “compliant”. Strict obedience and uncritical acceptance of rules and status quos may be a good way of scoring a job promotion but will not further society.

Conformists are rarely good leaders. They may be good administrators, effective enforcers of rules and probably good soldiers, but they rarely contribute innovative ideas or advance society. In contrast, many dissidents who respectfully question the status quo and peacefully rebel against unjust structures are motivated by a real moral purpose which transcends established practices and ineffective routines.

Critical thinking and problem solving skills are often overlooked at primary and high school level where strict discipline is considered a hallmark of a good school. Many teachers are thus uncomfortable with students questioning concepts, even obsolete theories in outdated resources.

Educators need to learn to encourage discussion and relinquish some control. They need to become facilitators of student debates which foster creative thinking and analysis. Such activities will not always result in one correct answer but allow students to tackle complex and conflicting opinions to develop the ability to evaluate sources of information and validity of data presented to them in education and beyond.

The more they learn, the more powerful students become, but we need not fear this power. If we equip youngsters with the right values, we can trust they use their moral compass as they seek to re-negotiate rules and take risks to rebel against unjust structures.

If we want them to develop the big ideas which advance society rather than create a smooth personal career path to score the biggest salary, we may need to accept a degree of questioning, perhaps even rebellion by students.