by Alice LoCicero
In a tiny village in southern France, in 2017, lives a courageous contemporary resister: Cédric Herrou .
Herrou is a farmer who has helped African refugees along the treacherous route to Europe through Italy and France. He has done this openly, publicly, in violation of the law, and despite much criticism. He has been tried in court and could be jailed for it, although he has not, so far.
Which of us would resist convention and law in order to help others who desperately need help in just to survive? How many of us have taken the safe, self-protective route, and advised others to do so as well? Are there ways we can increase the likelihood that we, or others, will be resisters? How can we teach selective obedience and selective disobedience? What does it take to disobey civil law, and comply with moral, spiritual, and ethical mandates?
When we look back into history and consider well known Holocaust resisters and rescuers, such as Oskar Schindler, we celebrate them, and we are sure they made the right choice. But at the time they were making those choices, they were not celebrated; they were either doing so in secret, or were criticized harshly. They were disobeying the law and defying their governments. They were doing what they did at grave risk.
If we were to make the right choice today, we would face the same risks. We could be jailed. We could lose our jobs and standing. We could lose professional respect. We could be sued. We could be killed. What does it take to disobey?
Every psychology student and professor knows about Milgram’s studies of obedience and later partial replications of those studies—partial because contemporary research ethics would not allow researchers to put participants through what turned out to be an emotionally wrenching experience. Most of the participants in most of these studies obey the person they see as an authority, even when it means applying what they are led to believe are painful and—in the early studies—what they believed were deadly–shocks to a stranger.
Most, but not all. What are the qualities common to those few participants who disobey? Some recent studies by Burger  answer that question. Those who resist in obedience studies are no more compassionate or empathic than those who continue to shock. That is not the common theme.
The common theme is that they believe themselves to be personally responsible for their actions. They do not, in other words, attribute responsibility to others. They take responsibility. This finding is consistent with a finding reported by Kelman and Hamilton in their classic text On Obedience. 
At the same time, we know from a well-supported principle of social psychology, that one person who breaks with convention is likely to lead to others doing so as well. And the more who do so the more likely others will join.
Honoring Resisters, Becoming Resisters
In Oslo, there is a museum dedicated to Norway’s many resisters during World War II.  Most of their names will never be well-known. Most of them died without anyone thanking them or giving them glory. Without their courage—had everyone taken the safe route, and had there been no resisters to the Nazi regime–we might already be living in a tyrannical, authoritarian society.
We face a very similar challenge today. If we do not resist the anti-humanitarian, pro-war, xenophobic, white supremacist forces rampant in American society and its leadership in 2017, we will very likely be seen by future generations as complicit in the establishment of authoritarian and tyrannical rule and genocide. Silently standing by will not be seen, by future generations, as having been sufficient or acceptable.
Can we teach ourselves to take responsibility for our own behavior? Mentor others to do so as well? How can we and others be prepared to resist and disobey when given unethical orders?
Had we done a better job of teaching psychology students to take responsibility and not obey unethical orders, psychologists might have put a stop to torture at Guantanamo and in black box sites during the Bush era. Had they publicly and openly refused, their actions might have inspired others.
If we teach current psychology students to disobey, we might have more humane treatment of those with mental illnesses who are currently detained in hospitals and prisons. We might have a system of incarceration that focuses on rehabilitation rather than punishment. And we might have a chance to prevent authoritarianism in the US.
Burger, J. M., Girgis, Z. M., & Manning, C. C. (2011) In their own words: Explaining obedience to authority through an examination of participants’ comments. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(5), 460-468.
Burger, J.M. (2014). Situational factors in Milgram’s experiment that kept his participants shocking. Journal of Social Issues, 70 (3), 489-500. doi:10.1111/josi.12073
Dr. Alice LoCicero is currently a visiting scholar at The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California, and president-elect of the Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict (Division 48 of the American Psychological Association.) Dr. LoCicero was the first president of the Society for Terrorism Research. She is author of two books and several peer-reviewed articles on terrorism. Her recent scholarship has documented the costs of the US counterterrorism policies, focusing on the flawed Countering Violent Extremism programs, and the American Psychological Association’s actions that supported torture of detainees at Guantanamo and other sites. Dr. LoCicero was shocked to see water protectors at Standing Rock, who were committed to non-violence, being treated as if they posed a threat equivalent to terrorists.