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What Edward Snowden Teaches Us about Heroic Disobedience

Reflections on bravery

With the movie Citizenfour winning last year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary, with Edward Snowden’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, and with the ruling last year by a federal appeals court that the NSA’s sweeping surveillance of phone records is illegal, it is a good time to revisit Edward Snowden and reassess how we think about heroic disobedience in this country.

In the Milgram experiments on obedience in the early 1960s, participants played the role of a relentlessly strict teacher administering what they thought were increasingly intense electric shocks to an innocent learner. In the most well-known condition, with the learner’s torment audible in another room and the experimenter encouraging the teacher in person, more than half the participants went to the most extreme level of electric shock. Nearly all participants went to a level that was distressing to the learner.

If presented with a version of this experiment in our everyday lives, would we do the same?

Edward Snowden is a real-life example of someone who defied the judgments and encouragements of others around him. He is the prisoner in Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment who refuses to go along, despite the punishments of the guards and the pleas of his fellow prisoners. He is the rare individual in the Milgram studies who chooses not to shock the learner. The perspective of these studies is particularly helpful in considering the actions of Edward Snowden – as seen in the movie, Citizenfour.

The simple time-honored word for such disobedience is courage – doing what you think is right, knowing that your actions put you at risk. Snowden actively chose to give up his home, his comfortable life style, a high paying job, contact with friends and family, and a long-term relationship – in order to reveal what he interpreted as an ominous abuse of power by the NSA.

In addition, Snowden explicitly chose not to release information on his own because he did not trust himself to judge what was most relevant and what could endanger others. Instead, he turned to seasoned journalists and one highly respected documentary filmmaker to make these decisions. They chose to focus not on individuals but on the larger story of a vast surveillance network accessing our cell phone calls, our internet searches, and our credit information.

Citizenfour includes lengthy, uncut shots of Snowden talking, so we see him in detailed context and hear him in his own words. Whatever one’s politics, the movie can be viewed as a profile in courage and a real-life example of heroic disobedience.

Snowden’s eyes near the end of the film convey months of sleepless nights and the dark toll on his health. He went to Moscow only because there was nowhere else to go, except prison. He does not sympathize with Vladimir Putin. In fact, his courage persists, even in exile. He spoke in favor of LGBT rights, openly defying Putin and Russian law.

We see in Citizenfour what social psychology experiments do not show us: the aftereffects of heroic disobedience. The heavy personal cost that such disobedience exacts. Given this cost, it is not surprising that so many of us convince ourselves to go along, despite internal messages telling us to disengage.