Arthur Chappell

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                                    FOLLOWING ORDERS AND GODWIN’S LAW


What does the phrase “I was only following orders’ make you think about? The chances are that you will think of the post-WW2 Nazi war crimes trials at Nuremberg, where this phrase was used as a chilling defence by many arrested concentration camp guards, who felt in misguided sincerity that they had merely been soldiers following their duty for those who outranked them, up to and including Hitler himself, who had of course committed suicide just before the German surrender. Had Hitler been captured alive, he would have not been able to say he was ‘only following orders’. He could only have a/. accepted responsibility. B/. Denied knowledge of the war crimes committed in his name and cause or c/. tried to justify his actions. It is unlikely that he would have been able to argue a case that would have cleared his name.  Similarly, the many who said they were following orders were plainly and quite rightly given back their own moral responsibility for their actions and decisions, and sentenced to long incarceration, and in many cases, to execution for their personal war crimes.


Orders give order and meaning to life. We need order to avoid chaos. In Greek creation myths the Universe already exists, but everything is tangled up and confused. Creation is where the Gods give order, by putting everything into a workable pattern, sky above, sea below, land in between, everything set into its rightful time. The phrase Alpha and Omega comes from this, as one day the Universe will collapse back into chaos. To order is to put things into place to maintain sense and meaning. A parent ordering a child not to go out of sight near busy roads is to keep the child safe, though the child may not realize it at the time.


Nazis gave, received and followed orders, but their orders were extreme and destructive. They saw heir own sense of order and meaning in their action, but they were really driving their country and the occupied nations into chaos. They were so blinkered to the orders that they failed to see where they were really going or why the orders were evil.


I digress. This essay isn’t really about the Nazis. But about post war order following. Many people today follow orders. This does not make them Nazis. If you are in the Armed forces of virtually any nation, a job in which you have an employer, a role to play in a play, film or TV show, or some other entertainment in which someone else can tell you what to do, if you live in a house owned by someone else, be it a parent, or a landlord, you will have to follow and obey certain rules, contracts, and orders. You however have a moral responsibility to decide whether the orders are good or bad and whether or not to follow them, refuse to follow them or encourage some modification in the orders before proceeding to follow them.


Orders are basically rules in life, just like rules in a game of Chess or a football match. In signing a contract with an employer you are stating the will to follow the rules. Non-compliance by too many would ruin the business; just arbitrarily turning pawns into knights would ruin a game of chess. Some rules, commands, instructions, laws and orders nevertheless require changing, refusal or breaking. There are times when civil disobedience proves justifiable. A socio-political revolution is a way of saying no to the order givers.


The thing to remember is that at some time in our lives we all follow orders. It’s important to keep this in context. In being ordered to process a set of invoices for a major shipment of chocolate bars is not likely to lead you to a war crimes tribunal, but it is still order following. Not doing it, or achieving it, could lead to trouble, so naturally you get on with it. There may or may not be a pay or bonus rise associated with the extra workload, but the important factor here in this analogy is that the worker is now ordered to do more work in no extra time.


Supposing however that the boss, often through a hierarchical series of managers, team leaders and supervisors, (all of who outrank you0 decides to increase the number of invoices you have to work on in any given day. Your job becomes more difficult, and trying to say that the workload is getting too difficult, stressful, etc, might mean a trade struggle through the entire chain of command, with each supervisor, manager, etc telling you to just get on with the job and not rock the boat.  To many employees, the struggle to lessen the workload to manageable levels would become too much of a Herculean labour in itself, so they may well either not start to fight against the work load increase with a grievance, or they might start the grievance, but give in to management wishes quickly, and struggle on with the workload.


Imagine then, the worker is genuinely under strain by the workload he takes on with little or no protest. He suffers a heart attack. He dies. Who is morally responsible?  The Boss who distantly gave out the increased workload? The managers and supervisors who passed the instructions down the line? The immediate line-manager who would at least have been in a position to se the stresses the work-load put on the staff member who died, or the staff member himself for having done what he was told and ordered to do?

Unlike the concentration camp guards, the worker and his bosses were in no way wilfully evil. No one planned to work the office invoice clerk to death. Everyone involved regrets what happened to him.  Orders were still given. Orders were still followed. To many, there is no sense of guilt about having in any way caused the poor man to die, until someone dares to suggest that there might be guilt involved, and then the office hierarchy feels shocked, and mortified to face such a dreadful stigmatising accusation.

The pointing finger of accusation starts at the inquest into the death, and particularly through its focus on the increasing workload as a major contributory factor to the tragedy that has just unfolded. The coroner may well say that the orders given were excessive and that the worker should not have followed them so rigidly. Imagine that he did not. His protests about them having failed, what were his other options? Refuse to work so hard and risk dismissal? Quit the job?  His income might have been affected by such action.


As with Nuremberg the defence and prosecution will deal with moral responsibility.  Who was really and most effectively to blame here? The problem is that as soon as it becomes apparent to the survivors that they are being accused of giving, passing on and following orders, they are going to cry foul, and become convinced that they are being unfairly associated with Nazism. The Boss will say that his underlings had a duty to notify him of the possibility that the staff member he rarely if ever met was taking on too much work. 

Told that they followed orders too rigidly the various managers may well invoke references to Godwin’s Law, even where Hitler was not named. Too many will associate ‘order following’ with Nazis at Nuremberg. The very use of the words stings like an accusation of being a card carrying Nazi.


In many argumentative debate cases the association with Nazism is genuinely uncalled for. Someone in a heated argument with an uncompromising opponent may well compare the opponent to Hitler and the Nazis, especially in relation to giving or blindly and dogmatically following orders. For example, anti-abortionists may accuse pro-choice lobbyists of being Nazis for allowing women to terminate the lives of their foetuses, while the Pro-choicers might just as readily accuse the anti-abortionists of being Nazis for denying women the right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy.


Godwin’s Law (developed by Mike Godwin in the 1980’s) has it that unless you are comparing nationalists like the BNP (British Nationalist Party) to the Nazis, the call to someone that their point of view makes them into fascists is rarely relevant, and may simply be emotive, rude and a reductio ad absurdism.


The invoking of the Godwin’s Law rule become problematic when the argument that someone has blindly followed an order, or rashly given out orders is bona fide, and doesn’t have any association with Nazism.


Example - A stage hypnotist calls up various members of the audience each of who volunteer or give in reluctantly to peer group pressure from their family and friends to take part. The volunteers are then mesmerized / hypnotised into a trance (presuming for the sake of this argument that such a trance is possible, which I actually doubt), and each is then subjected to a different humorously silly task by the hypnotist for the amusement of the audience. Some are made to behave like chickens or dogs, another is sent pretend swimming. The last volunteer is made to take most of his clothes off and pretend to be a naked Elvis. Once out of the trance, he is deeply embarrassed by what he did and how much everyone laughs at him over it. He feels ill from the effects he associates with the hypnotism. He tries to take legal action against the club, the hypnotist, his agent, etc.  In his case argument, he rashly says that he was ‘only following orders’. The case now swings round as the hypnotist angrily states that he does not like being compared to Hitler and having people only following such orders. The stooge’s efforts to say Hitler has nothing to do with it are drowned out by the loud emotive ‘how dare you call me Hitler case, and that swings the case in the hypnotist’s favour.


Hitler aside, was he, the stooge, only following orders? He felt pressured by his peers into even volunteering. He would have been seen as a coward otherwise (as he sees it0. The things he did were not done by choice, but under orders and irresistible command from the hypnotist. He didn’t do any harm to anyone.  Were the club or the stage act responsible for his state of mind during and after the show? Were the orders possible to not follow? Were the tasks too humiliating? Was he a sap for giving the games a try (without prior warning or expectation of the consequences)? Here again, order following, but no reason to draw upon Godwin or his laws. And yet, the laws would probably end up dominating the discussion online.


The law was recently presented to me personally when a stage entertainer in an improvisation show deliberately allowed her entire act to be dictated by a small portion of members of the audience, through the medium of text and tweet. Interestingly, she ignored texted instructions from some audience members asking her (sometimes inpolitely) to stop while other performers were trying to entertain us. The audience members still on her wavelength instructed her to continue to perform her robotics even when the other artistes were on (something she had asked some of the co-performers to allow for in advance on this occasion, though she had tried to do the same thing at a previous cabaret I witnessed without such consent being sought first). In a Facebook discussion of my online review of her act, and indeed, the show, (which was overall very enjoyable and interesting) I  drew attention to the question of whether she was only following orders from the audience or by ordering them to order her, was she giving them moral responsibility for her activity? The reference to following orders sadly made the lady think I was comparing her to Hitler, when that was far from the case. The term ‘following orders’ has become so emotionally charged that even uttering the expression in any social context other than direct reference to Nazis is fraught with peril. The lady’s robotics act was in no way a threat to anyone’s life or livelihood. It was an exercise in dividing the audience between those who wanted to use her as a proxy heckler, and those like myself who would rather have enjoyed the show she was  making herself an instrument of heckling against.

Debate between us on my review shifted to the question of whether or not I’d compared her to Hitler (which I had not) and detracted heavily from the general points raised. Eventually, she told me to fuck off and blocked  me from her Facebook page. That saddened me, as she felt as if I was treating her like a monster and therefore felt obliged to treat me like one in turn.

I have followed orders myself, and I have dared not to as well on occasion with equally disastrous results.  In the early 1980’s I spent four and a half years in a very sinister religious cult, The Divine Light Mission (aka Elan Vital). See BRAINWASHING. At the time, I felt comfortable in doing whatever the guru, Maharaji (Prem Pal Rawat Sing) wanted of me though we rarely met, as he lived in Malibu.  As I grew older and a little wiser I drifted away from his clutches in increasing disillusionment and doubt. I found myself questioning and freeing myself from the orders to meditate for a minimum of two hours daily and spread the word of his Mission. At first I blamed him, and his followers for making me do what I did and feel the way I felt. After many years though (having escaped in 1985), I came to realize that though I had given away much of my existential freedom, denying that my actions and choices were anyone else’s responsibility other than my own was wrong.  Maharaji was evil and corrupt, but going as far as to say he was Hitler would justify the invocation of Godwin’s Law.  That I was ultimately able to decide to leave showed that I retained some free will.  I was not an automaton. The brainwashing was not inescapable.


Orders can be defied and denied and refused. Sometimes challenging order makers can be problematic. I have a reputation for not getting on well with authority figures. I am too cynical by far, and I have been known to walk out of jobs where the orders are not to my liking. I have never called any unpleasant employer a Nazi.


I wonder what would have happened to me in Nazi Germany. Would I have become a Nazi? Possibly yes, as I was likely to have been as susceptible to social pressure and desire for acceptance as any. I hope I would have been a ‘god Nazi’, i.e., an Oskar Schindler, realizing all was wrong and trying to fight the system, leading a resistance and helping to save the victims of the camps from their dreadful fate, but I would probably have been a terribly cruel and fanatical Nazi. I was regarded as a zealot even in the cult, so I might well have followed my Nazi orders too well. That scares me. It also scares me how easily today that people play casual games with order giving and receiving, audience and crowd manipulation, etc. If anything, we should be encouraging people to think for themselves and question the orders and the authority of those giving them out.


Many people think that the best response to any reference in a non Third Reich discussion or argument to Hitler or order following is to be immediately trumped with a Godwin’s Law card that simply ends all further discussion with a check-mate move. The idea is that if you are emotive enough to compare your opponent to Hitler you’ve already lost the argument. That is sadly nonsense in many (though by no means all) cases.  In web discussions, in chart rooms, etc, the nazi comparison can simply be a slur, or an inflammatory jibe against someone with strong heart-felt beliefs. No doubt many people have been accused of being fascists just as a sneering insult. I would never use such an accusation in such a childish context.


For me, it was not a comparison to Hitler that caused problems but a reference to order following in general,  that had too powerful an association with Nazis for many, including the lady I was criticising, to handle. She is no Nazi. Sadly, by accusing me of accusing her of being one, she made me feel like the Nazi. It is not an accusation I faced comfortably, and I’m sure many people who have faced such an allegation when not being supporters of right wing extremist organizations or racist groups, feel just as badly when such labels are cast around too casually. Names can hurt as badly as  sticks and stones so be careful what you say and write.





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