When I was flying from Johannesburg to Belfast recently, I was caught out by the new system some airlines have started of weighing bags before you check in. As a result, I was found to be carrying a 24-kg bag. I was subsequently reprimanded by an official, who claimed he was just doing his job and that I had to shed four kilos or pay for the extra weight. I removed two large books and a file from my bag, reducing the weight to 20 kg. I was then told I could carry the books on board in hand luggage. That said, I was lucky compared to the woman in front of me. Her bag weighed 26 kg and, when she pointed out she had no hand luggage, she was told by the same bureaucrat to “make some hand luggage” of precisely 6 kg of weight. She had to run around the airport trying to get a plastic bag so she could carry some of her clothes on to the plane. She then had to deal with other people “just doing their jobs” who refused to give her a large bag unless she made a large purchase. “I am just doing my job” has to be one of the most inane excuses in the world. It is a phrase that I most associate with bureaucracy and, at the risk of being melodramatic, Nazi Germany and other atrocities. Remember the case of the American soldiers who tortured Iraqi prisoners and then took photos of them – they, too, claimed they were just doing their jobs and carrying out orders.
Of course, the annoying airline bureaucrat who enjoyed bossing me and others around cannot be compared a torturer, but the process that led to his unquestioning rule enforcement has, at least to a degree, the same root cause. Like the American marine or ‘grunt’, as they are known, who tortures someone, our friend, the baggage-weighing man, also finds himself at the bottom of a heap of bureaucratic power. No doubt, he was ordered to ensure passengers’ bags do not exceed the weight limit. Whether people do this or not is irrelevant to him personally, but he feels the hand of the rational bureaucratic machine on his shoulders and that his competence will be measured by carrying out instructions. The result is an unwavering and illogical set of actions, because, in this case, extra weight would mean little (other than more profit for the airline), considering the aeroplane was half-full. But why are we, humans, so bad at resisting problematic orders? In the 1960s, Milgram carried out his famous experiment on obedience. He showed that, when people were ordered by an official-looking person to administer shocks to participants in a study (actors, who were not hurt) when they answered questions incorrectly, most people continued to ratchet up the power because they felt they needed to do what they were told. Over 60% of the volunteers obediently administered up to 450 V.
Despite Milgram’s highlighting our weaknesses over 40 years ago, people still carry out orders which are damaging. Soldiers who commit atrocities continue to use it as an unacceptable defence. It seems, as Milgram himself warned, that when individuals merge “into an organisational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of human inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority”. But Milgram teaches us more than the fact that people will follow problematic orders when instructed to do so. The real finding Milgram made was that most of us (okay, 65% of us) have a little torturer inside and, given the right conditions, we too might just “do our jobs”, no matter how unpalatable. So I forgive the baggage-weighing man in Johannesburg and his sardonic smile, because, apparently, there but for the grace of God go I.
Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, February 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 7 February 2007.