On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

Published on Author Kristoffer

This book was written as a response to the Trump phenomenon and look back on history to explain the outfall of the 2016 presidential election. The book is one of the shortest most simple books that I have read in a long while; it goes straight to the point. I can recommend listening to the podcast between Timothy Snyder and Sam Harris where they discuss his book.

In this note, I summarize some of the interesting excerpts from the book. The books give a short review of the twentieth-century difficulties with war and political instability. What is interesting about the review is that it identifies several interesting phenomena and draws several interesting parallels between these phenomena and the current political situation. The following are some of the points I have found the most interesting from the book.

 

Anticipatory obedience

At the very definition, anticipatory obedience means adapting instinctively, without reflecting, to a new situation. This phenomenon was a big problem for Austria during the second world war in which Germany annexed Austria without much resistance, and no one gave must consideration to the fate of the Austrian Jews. In his book, Timothy stress that it is crucial that we do not automatically adapt to new authoritarian powers but challenging them. The following example by Milgram is an excellent example of how we are susceptible to anticipatory obedience.

 

Milgram experiment of anticipatory obedience

In 1961 American psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a famous experiment in which he showed the effect of anticipatory obedience.

Milgram told his subjects that they would be applying an electrical shock to other participants in an experiment about learning. In fact, the people attached to the wires were not a part of the test and only acted, and just pretended to be shocked. As the subjects (thought they) shocked the (people they thought were) participants in a learning experiment, they saw a horrible sight.

People whom they did not know, and against whom they had no grievance, seemed to be suffering greatly – pounding the glass and complaining of heart pain. Even so, most subjects followed Milgram’s instructions and continued to apply (what they thought were) ever greater shocks until the victims appeared to die. Even those who did not proceed all the way to the (apparent) killing of their fellow human beings left without inquiring about the health of the other participants.

 

Investigate

During the Trump campaign, it was not uncommon for reporters to be banned from rallies or hear hatred expressed against the journalist. Trump undermined the established source of truth and empowered the more erroneous sources of information, the internet. These techniques were to a large extent also used the likes of Adolf Hitler who spread misinformation in the media and claimed that journalism was a campaign against himself.

In context with the anticipatory obedience then people risk they will not question the information from authoritarian people. We are lazy and spend little criticising articles and understanding what is true.

We find it natural that we pay for a plumber or a mechanic, but demand our news for free. If we did not pay for plumbing or auto repair, we would not expect to drink water or drive cars. Why then should we form our political judgments on the basis of zero investment? We get what we pay for.

Read the full book :On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century