Of all of the principles of the Scout Law, I’ve struggled the most with traditional point #7, A Scout is Obedient. As an educated American who values my integrity above almost all else, living my whole life in a country founded on democracy and liberty, where being independent is a primary virtue, I am not one to take orders well that contradict my conscience. Personally, I believe our country has become ill and decrepit, primarily because too many people have been obedient...to corrupt government leaders, school teachers and administrators at all levels, corporate employers, the military, the police, banks, the wealthy, and the corporately owned media. We are taught to be obedient as children and adolescents and as adults, and for some it never wears off. Over time, many lose their natural will for autonomy, their energy, their initiative, and their health, and become fearful complacent followers. They literally unlearn or never learn how to think for themselves and develop the discipline to act on their own conscience and do what is right and good for themselves and the world. They are then at risk of becoming controlled by the powerful minority to serve the will of the minority, and worse, to commit harm against the majority, their Brothers and Sisters.
To be clear, I am not advocating anarchy. Many rules exist for good reason, such as safety, respecting the rights and property of others, and keeping basic order in society. However, many rules are out of date and worse, were instituted for the control of the many by the few. Again, conscience, be it well developed, should be a guide. And obedience in the realm of adults is different than in the realm of children, though I believe that children should be respected as the future adults that they are and taught to make decisions for themselves based upon their conscience.
And what about the role of Scouting in all of this? As published by Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting, in his 1908 UK landmark book, “Scouting for Boys,” he expounds on this precept further:
“A SCOUT OBEYS ORDERS of his patrol-leader, or scout master without question. Even if he gets an order he does not like, he must do as soldiers and sailors do, he must carry it out all the same because it is his duty; and after he has done it he can come and state any reasons against it: but he must carry out the order at once. That is discipline.”
Later, in the pamphlet, “The Scout Law and Promise Interpreted for Rovers,” which was incorporated into the booklet, The Presentation of a Rover Scout,” Baden-Powell had this to say about Obedience:
“As a Rover Scout you discipline yourself and put yourself readily and willingly at the service of constituted authority for the main good. The best disciplined community is the happiest community, but the discipline must come from within, and not merely be imposed from without. Hence the greater value of the example you give to others in this direction.”
The traditional Boy Scouts of America version reads thus:
“OBEDIENT. A Scout follows the rules of his family, school, and troop. He obeys the laws of his community and country. If he thinks these rules and laws are unfair, he tries to have them changed in an orderly manner rather than disobey them.”
This tenet has remained has fixed in the Scout Law of the BSA or Boy Scouts of America, since the original version in 1910, though it has ironically disappeared from the current UK Scout’s Association version (it is still part of the WOSM or World Organization of the Scout Movement’s recommended version, based on Baden-Powell’s 1911 revision of 10 points of the Law). Interestingly, the modern UK version adds the following language as its 7th point:
“You may not always agree with other people, but you should always be willing to listen to what they have to say, and you should respect their views and opinions even when they do not match your own point of view.”
As I consider this Law of Scouting more deeply, I explore the following questions:
First, it’s fairly clear that as a British military officer, B-P’s intent initially was to prepare young working class boys to become obedient men, fit for military service, to glorify and sustain the British Empire throughout the world at the turn of the 20th century. He perceived a weakening in British society and as part of a cultural shift “back to nature,” he proposed a program that would excite boys to join and at the same time, capture their energy under the flag of obedience...to their leaders...who would later become their military officers. But there is also evidence that as he witnessed so many former Boy Scouts slaughtered and maimed in Britain and all over Europe as a result of World War I, that his perspective on this goal of Scouting shifted. B-P came to see Scouting as a beacon of hope to bring world peace, and focused in the later decades of his life on imputing Scouting with a drive to come together internationally to promote world peace. He promoted World Jamborees, the establishment of a permanent World Jamboree in Kandersteg, Switzerland, and traveled often to many countries to promote Scouting there. When he spoke at so many of these gatherings, he constantly lectured the crowds about the importance of a “worldwide Brotherhood of Scouting for the establishment of world peace.”
To shore up my theory that B-P considered Scouting to be a World Peace Movement, he stated in the pamphlet, “The Scout Law and Promise Interpreted for Rovers,” which was incorporated into the booklet, The Presentation of a Rover Scout,” concerning Friendliness to All:
“As a Rover Scout, you recognize other fellows as being, with yourself, sons of the same Father, and you disregard whatever may be their difference of opinion, or caste, creed, or country. You suppress your prejudices and find out their good points; any fool can criticise their bad ones. If you exercise this love for people of other countries you help to bring about international peace and good will, that is God's Kingdom on earth. ‘All the world's a Brotherhood.’”
I do find it both interesting and compelling that the expounded BSA interpretation of this tenet contains the American value not to put blind trust in leaders and to question what they say and measure it against one’s conscience, a principle that I’ve applied to my life since my youth. However, the BSA Scout Law does not go far enough. It continues to order obedience in all cases but only weakly recommends that Scouts continue to follow unjust laws while working to try to change them in an orderly way. I believe the modern UK Scouts Association version has it best, ordering only that Scouts respect others with whom they disagree and removing direct obedience from the Law completely. I believe this is the healthiest way to understand obedience, especially as one evolves from childhood to adulthood and no longer must obey authority no matter whether one agrees with what is ordered or not. In fact, I argue that to obey an order that is directly against one’s conscience--even in the case of a military order--is an affront to what is good, just, and natural and should never be done. Too much harm has resulted from this kind of thinking...includes the murdering of millions in wars and genocide and the destruction of our planet. There is nothing worth the corruption of one’s integrity and honor, the mark of traditional Knights upon whose example B-P built the concept of Scouting. For though Knights were in point of fact often contracted by rulers and authorities to do their bidding, they also had a code of honor that forbid them to harm others that didn’t deserve it or to otherwise cross their own consciences.
Admirably, Baden-Powell did allow the insertion of the words in the Oath/Promise “To render service to my country” in lieu of “To do my duty to God and to the Queen/King/my country” as what he called the Outlander’s Promise, respecting those who did not want to swear an Oath to God or to a Sovereign or Nation. This allowance and flexibility reflects my point that absolute obedience to authority figures is a reasonably questionable and arguably morally objectionable practice, potentially threatening autonomy, inclusiveness, and other important points of the Law and Promise (Courteousness, Kindness, Friendliness, Helpfulness at all times).
I am saddened that Scouting, at least in the BSA (USA), has continued to be a training ground for future soldiers and that the leadership of BSA in particular continues to vie for the military’s support of its programs. Other Scouting organizations in other countries--especially independent traditional associations such as under WFIS--have moved away from this practice and focus more on developing character, inclusiveness, cooperation, social skills, confidence, camaraderie and world Siblinghood, world peace, and a love and commitment to stewardship of the outdoors...principles that I believe represent the core value of Scouting to the world. It’s clear to me that’s what Baden-Powell wanted, especially as he and the Scouting Movement matured, and definitely after World War I. It’s also clear he didn’t support blind or unquestioning obedience, especially with Rovers.
My favorite Scout Promise is the current version by Scouts Australia, which does away with obedience (and other objectionable language) altogether, and is in my view most inclusive:
On my honour, I promise To do my best, To be true to my spiritual beliefs, To contribute to my community and our world, To help other people, And to live by the Scout Law.
And their Scout Law thankfully disposes of obedience and is quite inclusive as well:
Be friendly Care for others and the environment
Do What is Right
Be trustworthy, honest and fair Use resources wisely
Believe in Myself
Learn from my experiences Face challenges with courage
Another excellent Scout Law is the current UK Scouts Association version (long form, short form omits non-bold text):
A Scout is to be trusted:
Always keep your promises; if you agree to do something, then make sure that you do it.
A Scout is loyal: As a Scout, you are dedicated to Scouting, your family, friends and your work.
A Scout is friendly and considerate: As a Scout you must always think about how what you do may affect others (including people that you do not know). This includes things such as not making noise which could upset your neighbours and always disposing of your litter carefully.
A Scout belongs to the world-wide family of Scouts: The Scout movement is like a large family, and as such you will find that you can share in Scout activities throughout the world.
A Scout has courage in all difficulties: When things get tough you will do your best to overcome any difficulties.
A Scout makes good use of time and is careful of possessions and property: Plan what you are going to do and when. For example, when you get home from school, plan your evening, do your home-work first! Always look after the items you own and the things you use, and everyone else’s for that matter. When you are at school, look after the books and equipment you are given to use.
A Scout has self-respect and respect for others: Look after yourself, don’t rely on someone else to tell you when to do things. For example, your parents will not always be with you to tell you to get washed in the morning, or dress smartly. You may not always agree with other people, but you should always be willing to listen to what they have to say, and you should respect their views and opinions even when they do not match your own point of view.
Chief Rover Scout, Ken Pataky
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