Study Notes for Scott Ainslie’s Don’t Obey

The Song

As it was in Hitler’s army and Stalin’s awful crew,
Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Pearl Harbor too;
Across the sweep of history — There’s a truth they never tell:
There’s more horror in obedience than there’d be if we ‘d rebel.


So, when they speak to you of glory, and colors bright and true;
And using words like ‘good & evil’, say it all comes down to you;
When they offer you a weapon and send you out into the fray,
Don’t Obey. Don’t Obey.  Don’t Obey.

From Selma to Sharpville;  Chicago to Bei Jing;
From Kent State to Tiananmen Square;  We cry out; we bleed.
From Tolstoy to Gandhi;  and Gandhi to King.
From Malcolm, and Mandela, and Biko to me.



Aren’t those your loved ones – huddled against the wall?
Can you hear the windows shatter? Feel the building start to fall?
Something’s gone wrong with us all —-
There’s shooting in the alley, footsteps in the hall.

If every sin were tallied, if every mother knew
Just exactly what they’re asking; exactly what you do;
How long do you think they’d stand there, with their hands by their sides?
Even all wrapped up in bunting — A lie is still a lie.


What It’s About

Don’t Obey is a powerful song.  Its title may make you think of the phrase civil disobedience   More specifically, the song is about refusing to fight in wars, which is one form of civil disobedience.  According to political scientist Glenn Paige, dozens of countries recognize a right to conscientious objector status.  A conscientious objector is a person whose government demands that he or she serve as a soldier in a war, but who refuses to do so. A good PBS video about U.S. conscientious objectors in World War II is The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It.

People (usually young men drafted into the military) have stood against wars and refused to serve in them, in many different countries.  Sometimes their refusal has resulted in their deaths. Sometimes, as in the U.S. and many other countries, a different kind of service is possible for
draft resisters. Those who refuse even this alternative service are often sent to prison.

In the Israeli Defense Forces today, there are refuseniks who will not serve in the Occupied Territories because they believe that Israel oppresses the Palestinians who live there. Punishments for being a refusenik are intentionally mild.  Refuseniks are usually reassigned to other duties outside the Territories. They would actually prefer to go on trial for refusing their orders, but the government does not wish to draw attention to the political views of the refuseniks by holding public trials, and does not want to be accused of holding secret trials.

Why not just obey? People have a very strong inclination to do what other people ask, tell, or suggest that they do, whether it is good or not.  Psychologists like Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo have studied this tendency, and found that it is not rare, but almost universal.  This propensity to obey people in authority gives political and military leaders a dangerous kind of power to mobilize for war. But when countries do go to war, the consequences are usually drastic; war is never as noble and tidy as leaders claim, and always produces terrible unintended consequences.

The first verse of Don’t Obey ends with the line “There’s more horror in obedience than there’d be if we’d rebel.” This line echoes a quotation by author C. P. Snow from his book Science and Government: “More hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.”

Perhaps this idea will remind us that obedience is not always good or appropriate, that leaders are not always wise and good-hearted, and that our most sacred duty as people is to think for ourselves, for the good of everybody.

Terms for further research: civil disobedience, conscientious objectors, military draft, alternative service, refuseniks, obedience to authority, compliance with requests, Milgram experiment, Stanford prison study.

Some Sources on Nonviolent Civil Disobedience

Finally, here is some detail on the history behind one line from the song: “From Tolstoy to Gandhi; and Gandhi to King.”

In Martin Luther King’s book Stride Toward Freedom, he pays tribute to the great Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi’s influence on him:

Then one Sunday afternoon I traveled to Philadelphia to hear a sermon by Dr. Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University.  He was there to preach for the Fellowship House of Philadelphia.Dr. Johnson had just returned from a trip to India, and to my great interest, he spoke of the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.  His message was so profound and electrifying that I left the meeting and bought a half-dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works.

Like most people, I had heard of Gandhi, but I had never studied him seriously.  As I read I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance.  I was particularly moved by the Salt March to the Sea and his numerous fasts.The whole concept of “Satyagraha” (Satya is truth which equals love, and agraha is force; “Satyagraha,” therefore, means truth-force or love force) was profoundly significant to me. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform. Prior to reading Gandhi, I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationship.The “turn the other cheek” philosophy and the “love your enemies” philosophy were only valid, I felt, when individuals were in conflict with other individuals;  when racial groups and nations were in conflict a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was.

Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.  Love for Gandhi was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation.  It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered a method for social reform that I had been seeking for so many months.
The intellectual and moral satisfaction that I failed to gain from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, the revolutionary methods of Marx and Lenin, the social-contracts theory of Hobbes, the “back to nature” optimism of Rousseau, and the superman philosophy of Nietzsche, I found in the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Gandhi.  I came to feel that this was the only morally and
practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.   (pp. 96-97)

Gandhi, in turn, admired the Russian author Leo Tolstoy, and actually corresponded with him.In Gandhi’s Autobiography, we find this specific acknowledgment of Tolstoy’s impact along with others’.  The passage, written around 1920, resembles King’s above, in that each thinker is reflecting on people whose ideas have shaped his views:

I purchased Sale’s translation of the Koran and began reading it.  I also obtained other books on Islam.  I communicated with Christian friends in England.  One of them introduced me to Edward Maitland, with whom I opened correspondence.  He sent me The Perfect Way, a book he had written in collaboration with Anna Kingsford.  The book was a repudiation of the current Christian belief.  He also sent me another book, The New Interpretation of the Bible.  I liked both.  The seemed to support Hinduism.  Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You overwhelmed me.  It left an abiding impression on me.  Before the independent thinking, profound morality, and the truthfulness of this book, all the books given me by Mr. Coates seemed to pale into insignificance.  (pp. 137-138)

(Mr. Coates was a Quaker who had tried to convert Gandhi to Christianity.)

What was this book of Tolstoy’s which so affected Gandhi?  Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You is subtitled Christianity Not as a Mystic Religion but as a New Theory of Life.  It is harshly critical of corruption in the Russian Orthodox Church, and includes an angry denunciation of the Russian Church’s cooperation with the Tzar’s Army and its military draft.  Here is a sample:

It is just what has taken place of late years at recruiting sessions;at a table before the zertzal – the symbol of the Tzar’s authority – in the seat of honor under the life-size portrait of the Tzar, sit dignified old officials, wearing decorations, conversing freely and easily, writing notes, summoning men before them, and giving orders.Here, wearing a cross on his breast, near them, is a prosperous-looking old priest in a silken cassock, with long gray hair flowing on to his cope, before a lectern who wears the golden cross and has a Gospel bound in gold.

They summon Ivan Petroff. A young man comes in, wretchedly, shabbily dressed, and in terror, the muscles of his face working, his eyes bright and restless;  and in a broken voice, hardly above a whisper, he says: “I – by Christ’s law – as a Christian – I cannot.”  “What is he muttering?” asks the president, frowning impatiently and raising his eyes from his book to listen.  “Speak louder,” the colonel with shining epaulets shouts to him.
“I – I as a Christian — ”   And at last it appears that the young man refuses to serve in the army because he is a Christian.  “Don’t talk nonsense.  Stand to be measured.  Doctor, may I trouble you to measure him.  He is all right?”
“Reverend father, administer the oath to him.”

No one is the least disturbed by what the poor scared young man is muttering.  They do not even pay attention to it. “They all mutter something, but we’ve no time to listen to it, we have to enroll so many.”

The recruit tries to say something still.
“It’s opposed to the law of Christ.”

“Go along, go along;  we know without your help what is opposed to the law and
what’s not;and you soothe his mind, reverend father, soothe him.  Next: Vassily Nikitin.”
And they lead the trembling youth away.  And it does not strike anyone – the guards, or Vassily Nikitin, whom they are bringing in, or any of the spectators of this scene – that these inarticulate words of the young man, at once suppressed by the authorities, contain the truth, and that the loud, solemnly uttered sentences of the calm, self-confident official and the priest are a lie and a deception.(pp. 40-41)


  • Gandhi, M. K. (1957).An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth
    Boston: Beacon Press.
  • King, Jr., M. L. (1958) Stride Toward Freedom. New York, Harper.
  • Milgram, S. Behavioral study of obedience.
    Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.
  • Paige, G. D. (2002). NonKilling Global Political Science.
    Philadelphia: Xlibris.
  • C. P. Snow (1961).Science and Government: The Godkin Lectures, 1960. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It. (2002). PBS Video.
  • Tolstoy, L. (1984).The Kingdom of God is Within You.  Lincoln: Univ of Nebraska Press
  • Zimbardo, P. (1972).Pathology of imprisonment.Transactional/Society, 4-8(a).

Charles Collyer

Nov 2004

Charles E. Collyer is a nonviolence educator and trainer with a long history of activism. He studied and continues to work with Dr. Bernard LaFayette, who was a member of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s executive staff, and is today’s principal spokesperson for Kingian nonviolence.


Charlie teaches at the University of Rhode Island, where he co-founded the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies. Charlie and his wife Pam co-founded and serve as directors of the Ira and Mary Zepp Center for Nonviolence and Peace Education at Common Ground on the Hill at William McDaniels College in Westminster, MD.


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