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Intelligent Disobedience2020-01-22T22:19:17+00:00

by Jon Atack

Standing Up and Doing the Right Thing

Intelligent disobedience means the ability to assert ourselves when we disagree. It is “doing right when what you’re told to do is wrong”. Too often, we teach children to simply obey, rather than teaching them to reason and express their views.

Intelligent Disobedience - Healthy Skepticism

Obedience Can Be a Sell Out

Sometimes in emergencies it is necessary to act on the directions of a leader, but most of the time we are better off discussing options and considering possibilities. Obedience can strengthen groupthink and compliance with ill-conceived plans.

We are too often willing to accept information without checking the source. Fake news is readily believed, and reliable sources of information dismissed, because we have not learned how to collect and examine evidence. Intelligent disobedience is the first stage of this process: we have the right to doubt, to question any information presented to us. Only tyrants teach otherwise.

Intelligent disobedience is not rebellion against authority, but rather the best check against tyranny. Children – and adults – should be taught to disagree agreeably.

Investing in Courage

Intelligent disobedience can be learned from an early age, as this video demonstrates:

In his groundbreaking book, “Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to Do Is Wrong” Ira Chaleff offers a formula for intelligent disobedience:

  1. Understand the mission of the organization or group, the goals of the activity of which you are a part, and the values that guide how to achieve those goals.
  2. When you receive an order that does not seem appropriate to the mission, goals, and values, clarify the order as needed, then pause to further examine the problem with it, whether that involves its safety, effectiveness, cultural sensitivity, legality, morality, or common decency.
  3. Make a conscious choice whether to comply with the order or to resist it and offer an acceptable alternative when there is one.
  4. Assume personal accountability for your choice, recognizing that if you obey the order, you are still accountable regardless of who issued the order.

Acting or Refusing to Act

Intelligent Disobedience goes beyond querying or speaking up in dissent. It means refusing to obey if you think that obeying may produce avoidable harm. Intelligent Disobedience requires critical thinking but it goes beyond critical thinking into acting or refusing to act. We cannot claim innocence by saying “I told them I thought it was wrong” if we proceed to obey anyway.

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