It Only Works If Everyone Complies

This is something I think about often when I’m reading fantasy books or writing something myself. And that’s that there’s often some big evil, bad person who is presented as the antagonist.

For example, right now I’m struggling my way through a book where the ruler is physically weak and also crazy. (He’s talking to his dead grandma’s portrait.) He just killed one of his subordinates, imprisoned another, and threatened to kill others of his advisors.

What always fascinates me about these stories is this is just one person. Yes, they’re in a position of power. In this case, a hereditary position that they earned by being born.

But books (and reality) rarely question the compliance by everyone around this person that results in them being able to do all these horrible, horrendous things.

One person alone can only do so much damage. (Granted in our modern times, a lot more than say five hundred years ago.) But the actual true lasting harm comes from others complying with that one person.

If in this book the leader who is so sick he can’t physically do much himself ordered someone executed and everyone around him said, “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” that would be it. That would be the end. Because he can’t do it himself.

Or he can do it to one subordinate who stood there and didn’t fight back. But even then, if the man had fought back, he’d have lived.

But because of how humans are conditioned to obey and to respect authority and to not question the status quo, a single person with bad intent can perpetuate true, lasting harm against hundreds or thousands of people.

In our modern age the wrong person in the right position of power surrounded by people scared to act independently can harm millions. Or billions.

And everyone looks at that one person or that limited group of people as the perpetrators, which they are to a certain degree, but it’s everyone who goes along with it who does the actual harm.

It’s not the general who gave the order who kills the enemy soldier, it’s the soldier who obeyed the order and fired his gun who kills them.

The supreme court case overturning RvW came down just last week and it’s unclear the extent to which that impacts abortion access in each state because if I understand the decision it basically put the determination as to who can get abortion access back to each state.

And, yes, some states had laws set to go into effect when the ruling came through, but immediately abortion clinics in states that had laws on the books shut down. No one came knocking on their door or sent out a notice, they pre-emptively did so because they anticipated that the laws would be enforced.

And I’m now hearing anecdotally of people with illnesses that require a medicine that can cause a miscarriage being denied that medicine. Just in case.

As far as I’m aware nowhere is there a law that says that people capable of child bearing are not allowed to take medicines that treat an illness if that medicine might, if taken improperly, result in a miscarriage.

But members of the medical profession (doctors, pharmacies, etc.) have decided they don’t want to risk their licenses to treat these people for an illness unrelated to pregnancy, so they’re denying them these medications.

Which makes them (the doctors or pharmacists) the ones doing the actual harm.

The changes might have been started by a very small group of people making an ideological-based ruling, but the true harm is being perpetuated by everyone who goes along with that decision and extends it in ways that aren’t even there in the law. Out of fear.

Just in case. Better to let someone suffer or die than risk that precious medical license.

But that going along with it is what perpetuates and worsens the harm. The legal system is not equipped to find and prosecute everyone who is taking a drug that may cause a miscarriage. It’s not even equipped to find and prosecute everyone who has a medical abortion. Doing so would overwhelm the courts.

Because people have chosen to willfully comply, they don’t have to. They get their result through the threat of potential consequences. Because we are so compliant and rule-based that we do their work for them.

If you haven’t read it yet I still think The Lucifer Effect by Phil Zimbardo is an excellent book that discusses the studies on what makes people comply and perpetuate evil. So is Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning which looks at a real-life example of how ordinary citizens were turned into murderers.

People don’t have to be evil to do evil. They just have to be willing to follow someone else’s orders.

Or even worse, to anticipate someone else’s reaction or order and do the harm without anyone even telling them it was necessary.

(And, yes, I know these things are far more complicated than they look on the surface, but I also know that the rule of law does not function if the majority of people don’t willingly comply. We are heading into a very ugly period of time in the United States and possibly other countries where whether people go along with increasingly harmful laws or rulings is going to determine just how bad things get. A minority only gets to rule if enough of the people in the majority let them.)

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres. You can contact M.L. at mlhumphreywriter [at]

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