By Richard Weiskopf
On my way home, I often pass a café, which displays an anarchistic saying in its show window: “Even more dangerous than the virus is blind obedience”. There is much about this saying that is correct and important. Much has been written and researched about “blind obedience” and its dangers. “I have only done my duty” – many “obedient” perpetrators have used this justification formula in an attempt to evade responsibility or to justify their own moral failure. But just as dangerous as “blind obedience” is “blind disobedience”. When one thinks of the various so-called “Querdenker” who today protest and defend themselves against the “restrictions” and “coercive measures” of the government in the context of managing the Corona crises, this becomes very clear. One must fear the “blind disobedience” at least as much as the “blind obedience”.
So perhaps the distinction between obedience and disobedience is not the core of the problem, but rather the blindness that is associated with them. Blindness – as a metaphor for the unreflected reaction to some impulse – is the problem.
More than 200 years ago, Immanuel Kant defined the Enlightenment as “mankind’s exit form its self-incurred immaturity”. The “motto of the Enlightenment: Have the courage to use your own understanding”.
To “make use of one’s own understanding without the guidance of another” is becoming more and more difficult nowadays. In many contexts, even with the best will in the world, one’s “own understanding” is not sufficient to make a reasonable or responsible decision. One is dependent on the knowledge and assessment of experts and complex machines that generate information and “extract” knowledge from data.
So we have to trust in the experts. We have to trust that the “experts” – e.g. experts in science, virologists, statisticians, doctors, economists etc. – can assess the situation better than we ourselves as “lay(wo)men”.
But does this mean that we can or must follow the experts in “blind obedience”? Or that politicians* must follow the experts (blindly) and only simply have to “implement” the assessment of experts? Are or should politicians* be obedient enforcement bodies of the experts? Should politicians simply execute “evidence-based decisions”?
That is easy to say, or easy to demand. But what does it mean? It is often assumed that “evidence” is or would be unambiguous, or that evidence occurs in the singular. However, it is rather the case that (also) evidence has to be interpreted, and that “evidence” (the visible or obvious) occurs in the plural. Evidence is also not simply given and discovered, but it is fabricated. Many evidences exist – evidence as a multiplicity – often also evidence(s) that contradict each other. Decision-makers must therefore (necessarily) interpret, weigh up, compare and then draw their conclusions from it.
Decision-makers cannot simply ignore the “evidence” (like the post-factician or the “blind disobedient”), but they also cannot simply derive the decision from the “evidence” (like a calculating machine – or an “obedient law enforcement agency”).
A responsible decision is always risky, it often has to be made under conditions of urgency based on incomplete information. It falls in the “night of non-knowledge and non-rule” and is in this sense “a moment of madness”.
But how can one deal with this situation? Is there a reasonable way out? Some people hope for “data”, they hope that more data, even “Big Data”, can provide the basis and certainty for decisions making. Powerful algorithms are said to transform the masses of data into unambiguous instructions or “decisions” (Another form of madness).
Others trust that the well-meaning rulers and “choice architects” will push us laymen in the right direction through a series of well thought-out “nudges”. For them, better than “using our own understanding” is to bypass human reflexivity and trust that the “choice architects” are well-intentioned and know what is good for us.
For those who do not want to simply surrender themselves to this – those who do not want to trust the experts “blindly” – but who also do not want to (blindly) resist all kind of authority, the only option is to engage in a “decisional becoming” (R. Chia), a dialogic process that generates new meanings, positions and insights, particularly in situations where there is no one good or best way to go or to decide.
Organizing here becomes a process of opening a space of encounters, a process of disclosing, inventing and actualizing new worlds. Appreciating the uncertainties that come along with this opening appears as a more viable alternative than closing the situation by unquestionable facts and evidences or dogmatic certainties.