Power, Authority, Obedience

I’m guessing that I’m not alone in struggling to find some way of comprehending the enormity of the satanic brutality catalogued in the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. Though I am no longer a child, I have a child of my own, and I am so terrified by the manifold implications of the report in its detail that I find myself struggling for some sort of silver bullet explanation that would put matters to rest. Over the next while I would like to explore some of the issues highlighted in the report, as an aid to my own learning as much as anything else.

This morning I was thinking about one of the report’s conclusions:

The deferential and submissive attitude of the Department of Education towards the Congregations compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspection and monitoring of the schools.

A good starting point for understanding why the Department of Education displayed a ‘deferential and submissive attitude’ toward the religious congregations is Obedience To Authority, Stanley Milgram‘s account of the experiments he conducted at Yale University in which he demonstrated that ordinary people could be induced to administer massive electrical shocks to victims protesting in agony, simply because they were required to by an authority figure.

The behaviour revealed in the experiments reported here is normal human behaviour but revealed under conditions that show with particular clarity the danger to human survival inherent in our make-up. And what is it we have seen? Not aggression, for there is no anger, vindictiveness, or hatred in those who shocked the victim. Men do become angry; they do act hatefully and explode in rage against others. But not here. Something far more dangerous is revealed: the capacity for man to abandon his humanity, indeed, the inevitability that he does so, as he merges his unique personality into larger institutional structures.


Each individual possesses a conscience which to a greater or lesser degree serves to restrain the unimpeded flow of impulses destructive to others. But when he merges his person into an organisational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of humane inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority.

Writing about American democratic society – a far freer society than that of Ireland in the years of the industrial schools- he said:

The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory, are to this author disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature, or -more specifically – the kind of character produced in American democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.

He concluded:

Our business, if we desire to live a life not utterly devoid of meaning and significance, is to accept nothing which contradicts our basic experience merely because it comes to us from tradition or convention or authority. It may well be that we shall be wrong; but our self-expression is thwarted at the root unless the certainties we are asked to accept coincide with the certainties we experience. That is why the condition of freedom in any state is always a widespread and consistent scepticism of the canons upon which powers exist.

Thinking about the ‘larger institutional structures’ prevalent in Ireland when the worst of the abuse was being perpetrated, it seems a mistake, ex post facto, to draw a conceptual distinction between Church and State, even if a weak formal distinction did exist, and then idealise the function of either entity, and look back in horror in the conviction (say) that the Church ought to have followed its own teachings, or that the State ought to have existed in the service of all its citizens.

No: what we ought to see is either a Church-State complex, or equally a set of institutions, whether nominally religious or secular, all operating as The State (I think ‘The State’ is more correct, but given the frequent capitalisation of ‘the state’ in Ireland and its various meanings, I will stick with Church-State complex here for the purposes of clarity). Seen in this light, the actions of the Department of Education workers take on a different significance: they are not acting in the interests of children as such, but, as lay members of the Catholic Church (I expect this was the case for many if not the vast majority), educated and formed within institutions of that Church, they are acting in subservience to the interests of the Church-State complex.

As Catholics, they would have been raised to accept the absolute authority of the Church. They may well also have shared the Church’s view that the industrial school was an appropriate place for the needs of these children, and that the system of locking children up for stealing chocolate bars served the common good.

The culture of obedience within the Church, instilled in its schools, would have been replicated in the institutions of the State. Whether this culture was tempered or re-inforced within the institutions of the State is a question I am not capable of asking at the moment, but any official would have been well aware of the potential sanctions from authority -that is, from Catholics in higher echelons of State bodies, who would have been in close contact with Church hierarchy- were he to highlight any form of abuse on the part of a religious congregation.

Let’s imagine a situation in which a Department of Education official encountered some detail about a member of a religious order sexually abusing a child. How might he raise the matter with a brother or nun? Milgram proposes an experiment to consider the potential confrontation with authority:

First, identify a person for whom you have genuine respect, preferably someone older than yourself by at least a generation, and who represents an authority in an important life domain. He could be a respected professor, a beloved priest, or under certain circumstances a parent. It must also be a person whom you refer to with some title such as Professor Parsons, Father Paul, or Dr Charles Brown. He must be a person who represents to you the distance and solemnity of a genuine authority. To understand what it means to breach the etiquette of relations with authority. You need merely present yourself to the person and, in place of using his title, whether it be Dr, Professor, or Father, address him using his first name, or perhaps even an appropriate nickname. You may state to Dr Brown, for example, ‘Good morning, Charlie!’.

As you approach him you will experience anxiety and a powerful inhibition that may well prevent successful completion of the experiment. You may say to yourself: ‘Why should I carry out this foolish experiment? I have always had a fine relationship with Dr Brown, which may now be jeopardised. Why should I appear arrogant to him?’

Now, in the case of the official considering confrontation with the member of the religious congregation perpetrating the abuse, not only would the ‘distance and solemnity of a genuine authority’ have been more vivid than for you or me, but it is not simply a case of breaching etiquette, but of levelling the accusation of child abuse against the congregation, and this would have seemed tantamount to blasphemy, to say nothing of the sanction that might have gone along with it.

None of this is to make apologies for the actions of inspectors, who are as guilty as sin, but to point out that the effects and demands of authority are likely greater than we might be inclined to credit at first glance. Which is to say: if we simply say that these people betrayed those in their care by not speaking out, and leave it at that, we are ignoring the full extent of the pervasive effects of authoritarian rule on society during the years of the industrial schools. More to the point, we are ignoring the pervasive effects of such rule to this day.

To give one example from another Church-State complex institution:

As the hospital was owned and managed by a religious order, continuity at management level was assured. The sisters belonged to an era when nurses were efficient, ordered and respectful. They carried out orders and did not question consultants. Matron maintained a formal, distant authority over nurses. The nuns who had set the practices and protocols for training nurses and midwives in the hospital in the 50s thus produced suitable nurses who fitted their mould – hardworking, respectful, Catholic nurses who were well trained, knew their place, trusted the consultants and suspended their critical or questioning faculties. They were trained to certain tasks – and to those tasks only.


The ethos of the hospital was that consultants were respected. Respect was number one on the agenda and that came before anything else. You could question as to facts – surgical or medical facts or knowledge – but you certainly wouldn’t be able to question the handling and the management of a patient. The nuns had created an aura of unquestioning respect around the foundation consultants who were revered. This attitude to consultants made its way in a watered down version to later consultants but the attitude of not
questioning was established.

From The Lourdes Hospital Inquiry.

If people think they can simply shuck off the shameful effects of authoritarian rule that pervade Irish life by getting the church to pony up more money for the victims, they are mistaken. There needs to be a realisation that the structure of today’s society is largely the product of the severe religious authoritarianism of yesterday, and that that authoritarianism served the interest of a particular class, and that the institutional dyarchy of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is its chief political beneficiary. And the authoritarianism was not merely religious (though Dermot Ahern’s blasphemy law was a reprise), nor is it gone: witness the recent RTE apology to the ‘Office of the Taoiseach’ for showing a story about the Brian Cowen paintings.

In Man For Himself, Erich Fromm wrote of man’s attitude toward force and power:

The paralyzing effect of power does not rest only upon the fear it arouses, but equally on an implicit promise-the promise that those in possession of power can protect and take care of the “weak” who submit to it, that they can free man from the burden of uncertainty and of responsibility for himself by guaranteeing order and by assigning the individual a place in this order which makes him feel secure.

If, in Ireland today, the fear appears to have subsided, might it not simply be because people have taken on board the implicit promise: that those who hold power -and their assorted ne0-liberal consiglieri in government- know what’s best for them?

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May 2009

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