On obedience and discipline

published Apr 13, 2007, last modified Jun 26, 2013

Parents impose it. Schools grade you on it. Society demands it. What does that word really mean?

What is discipline? And, for that matter, what's obedience?

Well, let's grab a dictionary, shall we?

Discipline is any training intended to produce a specific character or pattern of behaviour,

Interesting. So, seen from different angles:

  • You train for goals.
  • Society trains you to "fit in".
  • Your parents impose their notion of discipline upon you.

Discipline is used to elicit obedience to a rule. It doesn't matter if it's you telling yourself to do something, or someone else ordering you -- it's through discipline that you're able to carry the order out effectively.

Lest we confuse discipline and obedience further down this article, I will repeat: when we
instill discipline to make others conform to a rule, we call that obedience. They are not the same, but they can be mutually reinforcing.

What could possibly be wrong about that? Hmmm... time for some critical thought.

How I came to understand obedience and discipline for what they really are

When I was 16, recently back from an exchangetrip to Germany, I was partying with a couple of friends at a rave (something unheard of in this third-world corner). I was bustling with joy, and having a great time.

Come 1 o'clock, I (being the obedient kid) phoned my parents to inform them that I wasgoing to get home at about 3 o'clock. I recall the moment clearly: eleven years ago, I used a Motorola Classic 850 to make the call. Hell, the phone itself was almost bigger than me.

Naturally, they freaked out. I should have pointed out that getting home before 12 o'clock was the house rule at that time and age. They asked (more, like, shouted) where I was, and told me not to move, because they were going to pick me up in person.

Right then, something snapped inside of me. Up to that point in my life, I always felt discomfort when following the rules that were laid for me to obey, but I just didn't know why I felt it. That's exactly the question that tipped the scale: why?.

And that's exactly the question I asked out loud on the phone. Why? Why should I get home now? What's wrong with me partying out later?

Of course, I knew what the risks were: a minor drinking and partying with older people at a rave. I wasn't stupid. But I wanted them to tell me themselves.

They refused. They just repeated out loud their previous request. I knew what I had to do, so I did it. I hung up cold, and turned the huge phone off. I didn't realize it then, but I had unconsciously decided never to obey a request again if I didn't agree with the reasoning behind the request.

I got home at 3 o'clock, rang the bell several times, desisted, and slept over at my neighbor's (which is, incidentally, my best friend). My parents were furious for two weeks. But I was happy with myself, because I had driven a point home, although I didn't really know what the point was. And I had established that my will was going to overrule their desires from then on.

It took me a little over a year to generalize and consciously understand the train of thought I had boarded that day, and it's taken me almost 12 years to actually sit down and put it into words. Here it is.

Discipline and morality

Go back to the first quote in this article. Do you note something interesting?

The definition of discipline is completely amoral. Amoral, as in "neither moral, not immoral", in other words, devoid of any moral value. It's just training. Moreover, obedience is also amoral. Both are just concepts. They are both potentially useful, just as a hammer can be.

At this point, no one could possibly be against discipline. It's like being for or against hammers.
The same can be said about obedience.

Remember when your parents told you that discipline and obedience (intentionally confusing the two concepts) were good moral values? Well, they were utterly and irreparably wrong: discipline and obedience alone have no value, and applied indiscriminately, they can have horribly bad consequences for you and society.

Stupid parents of yours. OK, you don't need to feel alone in this belief-shattering discovery -- my parents were just as wrong as yours on this count. Or maybe you "never had no parents"; whatever, dude, wipe your eyes and get over it... because here's when the whole discipline discussion turns interesting.

Against obedience

Just as killing someone with a hammer might be immoral, so can discipline and obedience be used for an immoral purpose.

And obedience (supported by strong disciplines) is actually used, millions of times each day, as a tool to elicit obedience to immoral rules. Discipline has been hijacked to enforce almost all manner of immoral activities and pernicious thoughts throughout history. War, arguably among the most atrocious events Mankind could trigger, is absolutely dependent on what we contemporarily call military discipline. Which is actually obedience through suppression of thought.

Everyone falls in this trap.

  • Schools grade you on your ability to obey. They call it "discipline" (again, confusing the concepts), because the truthful word for it, obedience, is now out-of-fashion.
  • Parents all too frequently demand obedience in lieu of critical thought. It's easier to teach a child to obey than it is to teach him to deduct the consequences of his actions.
  • Employers enforce lots of rules which have no actual relation to job performance, and those who defy their rules, despite getting great results, get punished

My point is, obedience must take a back seat to reasoned thought. Hence, the individual should temper his discipline and make it subject to his mind, not the other way around.

Ever notice how the smartest people are the ones who have authority issues? That's because the smart ones are those who dare to ask Wait a second, before doing what you ask me to do, tell me why. Not to brag, but I should know: I've had more problems than I can count simply because I refused to obey without logical arguments. In fact, this blog is an entire act of disobedience, which has even gotten me reasonably believable death threats.

To me, it's that simple: dumb people obey, smart people question. Change and progress thus depends on those that question.

Thus, beware the discipline freaks and obedience-mongerers

Hence, I contend that using discipline as a tool for:

  • conformance enforcement, or
  • execution of immoral acts

is wrong and should be fought at all cost. And the only way to detect this kind of activity early is with a solid, potent reasoning ability.

The minute you see someone hailing discipline and obedience for its own sake, your inner moral alarms should go off immediately. Because I said so and In the name of discipline and uniformity are terrible reasons to do something that affects you or other people, and it certainly isn't a good reason to make others execute one's desires or conform to their beliefs.

Being trained in jiu-jitsu is very useful when you actually need it to save your ass -- and being self-disciplined is arguably as useful, if not more. Just don't fall into the trap of believing discipline for the sake of it is good for you. Don't just obey orders because doing so woud be more convenient than demanding or reasoning an explanation. Don't let people hijack your discipline for the sake of mindless obedience to others...

...lest you miss unforgettable weekends!