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“Because that’s how it’s done here…”

February 9, 2015
(The first in a series on great books…)
One of the many posts about how to conduct yourself at Point Pleasant Park in Halifax

One of the many posts about how to conduct yourself at Point Pleasant Park in Halifax

When we first moved to Halifax we noticed the Haligonian propensity to post “the rules” everywhere.

Coming from Toronto, where there is hardly a rule posted anywhere (except maybe about dogs), it was especially noticeable to go to the Public Gardens or Point Pleasant Park and see whole sets of rules posted – long enough to take up 20 minutes of your time to read all the fine print.

At one point we thought of starting a web page called “Halifax Loves Rules” where we would post pics of every set of rules we came across in our travels through the city, but ultimately thought it a bit mean-spirited.

And then you start to work here (eventually) and you realize that Haligonians are bit obsessed with rules, and most especially, following the rules. As in, don’t rock the boat, the experts know best, just keep your head down, and follow the rules.

After a couple of years now of reading how extraordinarily dysfunctional the provincial government is in this province, how much corruption there is among the “old families” in maintaining the “white, Maritime, Nova Scotian” status quo – you start to realize the dark side of everyone simply following the rules and doing what they are told.

Which brought me back to thinking about, and re-reading, one of the most important books I have ever read. A book that I wished more people felt compelled to read.


Many of us have been introduced to the infamous Stanley Milligram experiment (usually in high school) whereby people were instructed to apply increasing levels of electricity to a subject – to the point of apparent death (the subjects were actors) – the majority of whom do so – because they are under the assumption that the authority figure instructing them to do so is the one responsible for the apparent torture and death.

We all watched the video – but few of us (in high school) were told that Milgram wrote a book about the experiment.

_DSC0751Brilliant in its straight-forward simplicity of a complex psychological behaviour, Obedience to Authority, should be required reading for anyone who wants to know why we are so easily led down the garden path by authority figures, and how much harm we do to ourselves when we allow this to happen.

Tradition, nationalism, and tribal thinking all owe their power to obedience.

Stephen Harper uses the idea of obedience to increase government surveillance of the people – knowing full well that the majority of obedient Canadians will acquiesce.

In Nova Scotia, bad management, nepotism, corruption, inefficiency – and the little outrage and action it seems to generate: all of it can be traced back to obedience.

Of course, a certain amount of social cohesion is necessary to run any group of people – and people understand that they have to give up a certain amount of personal freedom and observe a level of communal obedience for the group to function.

But like all things – intentionality is the root of action – and there are both good and bad intentions that can be carried out under the banner of obedience.

Nova Scotia is slowly drowning in its own acquiescence to authority (presented in the guise of tradition).

Sadly, Nova Scotia also has the lowest reading and writing skill-levels in the country – so my hope that more people will run out and read Milgram and make a bit of Nova Scotia ruckus is more than a little bit of a fantasy.



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