Posts Tagged ‘authority’


The system is fucked. When it’s working well, it fucks people over with maximal efficiency. We need something wholly different, not just to patch some things over in a way that’ll hopefully suck a bit less.

A caution: While you’re burning the system to the ground, be careful of the people inside it, propping it up. They’re not the enemy. In a way, they’re a victim of it just as much as you are.

Classroom discussion questions

1. In no more than twenty words, what would an acceptable replacement to the current system look like and how can it be achieved?


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Sometimes, as I read some new and unsurprisingly depressing political story, I can feel my own tendencies plunging ever further toward the anti-authoritarian left even as the words scroll slowly past my eyes.

I can be minding my own business, catching up on recent events in the worlds of politics and pop culture in my news feed, or watching the latest iteration of the ongoing gender politics nightmare explode across the atheoskeptosphere.

And then a North Carolina Senate Committee chairman perfectly encapsulates the inevitable feeling of superiority that festers in the ones with privilege and power, as well as the accompanying contempt for those lesser wretches who simply exist on a level of society barely worthy of recognition or respect. And he does so in a few neat, elegant phrases:




…aaaaaaaand anarchist.

But don’t blame this guy. His only crime is believing the hype.

Everything about the US political system which elevates people to these positions of authority reinforces the idea that members of elected office are better, more important, more powerful, more consequential, more right, than the unwashed masses from which they ostensibly arose.

And this system, frankly, is unacceptable.

It’s not worthy of us, because it gives us characters like Tommy Tucker, quoted above, who completely lose sight of any desire to serve the public good – charitably assuming that was something which once motivated him – in favour of telling the plebs to pipe down whenever a hint of representative democracy gets in the way of his career.

And it’s not worthy of Tommy Tucker, because he’s a human being like the rest of us, and he deserves better than to have his worst tendencies nurtured at the expense of his humanity, and to be turned into even more of a selfish, despotic, bureaucratic thug than he would have managed on his own.

Individuals like him are not the root problem. We’ve had centuries to find ways to populate our representative democracy with good people who won’t cock it up. If it was going to happen under a system remotely resembling what we have now, we’d have got there ages ago. We should be seriously looking for an alternative to this “if only the right party would win” thinking. Otherwise we’re just going to carry on repeating the same action and expecting different results. (Someone had a word for that, though I suspect it may not actually have been Einstein).

The system is not good enough. We can do better.

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There are people who want to control your lives.

This is no surprise. You interact with them to some degree every day, and they already do control your lives to a frightening degree. You’ve probably been warned many times about how dangerous it can be to let these people and organisations have any power over you.

You might wonder whether it’s really so bad. After all, the power these people possess wasn’t simply stolen. It’s not the result of some military coup. It’s been earned legally, and granted to them in effect by a sizeable chunk of the population. They wouldn’t be in the position of authority and national prominence they are if people hadn’t rationally elected to put them there – if society as a whole hadn’t chosen to allow them to control the things they do.

It’s a tempting argument. But I don’t think you should be convinced.

If everyone acted completely rationally and knew exactly what they were supporting, every time they took any action which affected the world, then maybe it’d be okay – but, speaking for myself, I’m not that smart and I’m not paying that much attention. And when power accumulates, then it becomes the main interest of the powerful to protect that power. If that means obstructing our already feeble ability to get an accurate understanding of how they operate, so that we’re less able to make rational decisions which might not favour them, then they’ll have a strong motivation to do that.

And they’re going to be motivated that way, even if they enter this arena with the best of intentions, and believe they can do much good for everyone once they have the authority and disproportionate influence. Even if they’re attempting to act unselfishly, they’ll end up protecting their privileged position and justifying it with claims that it’s best for everyone. That’s just how power works.

In theory, the general population should be able to keep this power in check. It’s our decisions to support these people which are the source of their power, and if we all withdrew that support because we disapproved of the power they wielded, they’d crumble. So, in principle, those who remain powerful do so because they’re earning it, because they’ve risen to the top of a meritocracy, because they’re the best people for the job and our continued actions prove that.

But if it’s easier to have laws changed in their favour… to divert people’s anger and hostility toward others… to exercise some of their considerable power spreading propaganda, persuading us that allowing them to continue exerting their power is a moral necessity, and that curtailing it in favour of a more egalitarian system would be an unacceptable breach of everyone’s freedoms…

If doing all that is easier than actually being the best people for the job, and if actually providing a truly optimal service which benefits us all is more trouble for them than simply convincing us that’s what they’re doing…

… then maybe that’s what they’ll do.

Okay, enough melodrama. Quick question: Am I talking about governments or corporations?

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Rick Santorum gave a speech recently in which he observed that conservatives would “never have… smart people on our side”.

It didn’t get a spontaneous round of applause, which I guess is something. But he’s someone a frightening number of people still take seriously, even now. He’s a prominent Republican politician. And he’s proudly defiant of the fact that people with intelligence actively distance themselves from him and his ideas.

A while ago, I’d have just sighed and expressed exasperation at the world, and probably declared that I give up on America as a country. The temptation to see it all as tragically futile is still strong.

I’m trying to move away from that these days. If there’s a way to actually engage with the kind of people who think this way, and bring some of them around to the idea that “smart people” – those guys who’ve studied things, learnt stuff, and have some idea what they’re talking about – might possibly be worth listening to, then I really think it’s worthwhile making the effort.

But I don’t know how to do it. At times like this, I don’t even know where to begin relating to other people’s opinions and feelings. If I had to try and guess what’s going on in their heads, I could waffle something about a resentment of intelligence and a skewed idea of what it means to be academic or intellectual being imbued from an early age somehow… and maybe something about being so committed to an idea and their familiar in-group that any cognitive dissonance about its value is resolved by rejecting outright any criticism…

…but none of this leaves me with any understanding of what the hell someone like Rick Santorum thinks he’s doing.

Here’s the rationale he gives for washing his hands of smart people:

They believe they should have the power to tell you what to do.

Except they don’t. No more than anyone else. Asserting authority over others is entirely orthogonal to intelligence.

You know what is a strong indicator of wanting the power to tell other people what to do and control their lives, Rick Santorum? Running for President.

Now that’s some megalomania right there.

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This right here is what I mean about the police.

If you’re a cop and you sexually assault a kid in Texas, you will serve less time behind bars than if you are a woman who has consensual sex with adults; you’re better off having a badge and a rape conviction than a vagina and consent.

It’s not that the police are all terrible people who do bad things. The fact that a particular police officer sexually molested a young girl is, I suspect, largely independent of his career choices.

But the police, as an institution, have a role of particular power and privilege in society which isn’t questioned enough. The prevailing attitudes around them seem to be such that they get off lighter for serious abuses of trust and power than the rest of us would.

Their authority makes it harder for accusations to be made against them, and for prosecutions like this to be successfully brought. There needs to be a sea change in the relationship between cops and everyone else. Part of that change is saying fuck the police, without losing our humanity.

Hey, remember when I was mostly just interested in how a lot of other people believe in God?

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I touched briefly yesterday on the role of the police in perpetuating and exacerbating America’s serious gun problem. This deserves to be expanded on.

In Florida, police knocked on someone’s door, and when the guy answered it with his own gun drawn, they shot him dead. They hadn’t announced themselves as police, and the guy was apparently just a little paranoid. The cops were trying to track down a murder suspect, but had got the wrong apartment.

In California, a crowd gathered to protest against the police’s treatment of a homeless man suffering from mental illness last year, who died after an alleged violent beating by police. At the protest, cops fired rubber bullets into the crowd, and sent a police dog to engage with members of the public, who included a mother holding a child.

In Virginia, a police officer went to a family’s home, to let them know that their son was dead, having been the tragic victim of a shooting. After breaking this sad news, the officer found himself being approached by the family dog, which he shot and killed.

These are just a handful of the examples of this kind of thing which I’ve noticed in the last week or two. Hang out with Radley Balko, and there’s another story like it pretty much every day.

And it’s not just the US which has problems like this. The most prominent example from my own country in recent weeks has been the case surrounding Ian Tomlinson, who a coroner’s inquest found died in 2009 from internal bleeding, as a direct result of being struck and pushed by PC Simon Harwood. His death was ruled an “unlawful killing”.

When the jury trial of PC Harwood concluded last week, he was found not guilty of manslaughter.

So, the complete official picture is that Ian Tomlinson was unlawfully killed… but not by the thug who violently beat him and caused the injuries from which he died.

(If my use of the word “thug” seems needlessly inflammatory and pejorative there, have a look at the video, read about his history of disciplinary proceedings, then see if that still seems like something worth complaining about.)

This isn’t just about “fuck the police” (on which I’ve written before, here and here – the title of this post might make more sense when seen as part of a pattern). Although yes, that is somewhere to start, so to reiterate: Fuck the police. But that’s not because I want there to be a combative relationship between ordinary people, and this separate demographic of individuals who just happen to be given a lot more leeway in their use of violence.

We need to change the way we see the police. Not as an “enemy”, who we can “beat” if we fight them hard enough and then we’ll have “won”. But also not as people who can be relied upon to look after us, to fix our problems, to be forever brave and principled in their commitment to justice.

And definitely not as a powerful authority to be feared.

There are legitimate things for a police force to do, and ways in which such a force could legitimately act to keep order, deter crime, and foil the actions of criminals. Sometimes they do act like this, and numerous individuals have done great things and shown commendable courage in their roles representing the police. But we don’t need to choose between supporting or condemning the entire institution and all its actions together.

The police aren’t without purpose, but they’re also potentially dangerous people with weapons and authority, both of which they’re prone to use unjustly against us, with tragic results. Many people, not without good reason, live in greater fear of the harm this protective force will do against them, than of the criminals they’re being “protected” from.

I’d love to be able to see the police in a more generous and respectable light than this. But they’re going to have to earn it. And the rest of us should be more aware of what we will and won’t put up with from them in the meantime.

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Order, order

(I should probably put this disclaimer up about this one.)

Is following orders a good thing?

Clearly it isn’t always. The phrase “just following orders” has become strongly associated with Nazism, because of how often it’s been used to refer to those numerous soldiers of the Third Reich who carried out inhuman atrocities, but who probably weren’t unusually immoral people outside of the context of Hitler’s dictatorship. As Stanley Milgram later described, regular folks are capable of doing terrible things under the right circumstances, and these Germans found ways to rationalise and justify to themselves the abominable acts they committed.

One of the things that helped many of them sleep at night, and reconcile the slaughter of innocents with their self-image as not-evil, was the idea that they were “just following orders”. Their job was to do what the higher-ups told them to do. It wasn’t their own decision that these things should be done, and if they didn’t do what they were told, they’d be harshly disciplined and someone else would be sent to do it instead.

Any Nazi soldier who defied this authority, and determinedly did the right thing regardless of the risk to themselves if their insubordination was discovered, we would likely be inclined to think of as heroic and noble. And you don’t have to be a Nazi to earn acclaim for thinking independently, acting morally, and not following orders. If you were told to do something morally wrong, and you decided not to do it because it was morally wrong, chances are you’ll have a good chunk of public opinion on your side.

But if doing wrong things is still wrong, even when someone in authority instructs you to do them… doesn’t that rather undermine the concept of “orders” altogether? We seem to have redefined an “order” as “something you’re told to do, which you ought to do except when you oughtn’t”. It seems like we’ve decided we can pick and choose what orders to follow based on whether the thing we’re being ordered to do is morally permissible, which puts “orders” on about the same level as “suggestions” when it comes to carrying moral weight.

And yet the assumption remains ingrained into much of modern life that following orders and instructions is an important, valuable skill. It’s sometimes justified by the idea that we need defined roles of order-takers and order-givers in order to maintain structure – nothing would get done in any organisation if someone wasn’t telling people what to do, and had some sort of authority to make sure it gets done.

So, do we have to admit that, sometimes, it’s morally necessary to follow an order to do a bad thing, for the sake of maintaining group cohesion? Is it an unfortunate fact we just have to face that, now and then, we’re morally obliged to drown a puppy for the greater good of bolstering a social structure which allows us to achieve so many other things and avoid descending into chaos?

Or is it still only morally right to follow such orders, if doing the thing you’re ordered to do would be morally right anyway?

Back in the increasingly distant days of my having a job, people ordered me to do things all the time. In practice, they were much more polite than to make it seem that way, but that’s what it amounted to. And, generalising broadly, if I hadn’t followed those orders, I wouldn’t have got paid. I don’t recall ever being ordered to do anything morally problematic, but I wouldn’t have been motivated to do them if not for that financial incentive, in the form of an order from the people paying me.

Even this, though, doesn’t seem to imbue order-following with any kind of moral righteousness. My employers were limited in what they could order me to do, after all, by the agreement I’d made with them about what my job actually was. The only moral thing I was doing was adhering to a pre-arranged contract to perform a certain role in the office. The “orders” I was given day-to-day defined the details of what comprised that role at any given moment, but the parameters were fixed, and it doesn’t seem like there was ever any particular moral goodness behind obeying any order in particular.

The main thing compelling me to keep following orders was that I didn’t want to get fired. Sometimes the authority behind an order amounts to “do this thing or this negative consequence will befall you” – which, rather than relegating orders to mere suggestions, now wholly equates them with threats.

Are they capable of being anything else?

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