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No, Really. Question Authority

It’s an old and well-worn slogan, “Question Authority” is. It was when I had it on a button when was in high school. But then and now, it’s not as worn as it perhaps ought to be.

Politically, in high school, I might have had a claim to it, but when it came to everyday life, me and authority had a far smoother relationship than I would have liked to admit.

In fact, I find that I retain a certain distrust for those who reflexively question every rule and regulation. Perhaps it’s leftover from my high-school job at the library, where everyone seemed to think that they shouldn’t have to pay overdue fines, and surely the thing about no unattended kids under age 7 doesn’t mean my angel. Expand to speeding tickets and those supremely aggravating people who think they have a right to put their entire life’s possessions into a crowded overhead bin on the airplane, and my working assumption has often been that people who question rules generally have little reason other than lack of courtesy and a wish to be exempted from inconvenience.

Of course as time went on, I encountered plenty of rules that were themselves the problem, and plenty of authority figures who made up their orders with no regard for consistency, law, or decency. I grew more ready to include a questioning of any given rule in my initial reaction to it. But outside of certainly politically charged situations, it still battles with a reflex to “go along to get along.”

I know an eensy weensy bit about how hard it is to readjust what is generally a useful habit of deferring to orders, having participated in or watched several instances of civil disobedience. It is a disorienting thing to walk into the middle of an intersection and sit down. It is a disorienting thing to refuse police orders, even if one has prepared mentally. I remember being in Philadelphia for the protests surrounding the Republican National Convention. This was only months after some of the people I was with had been arrested at an earlier protest. We were well versed in our rights, healthily suspicious. And yet when we emerged from the subway and some cops yelled in a friendly manner for us to show them our signs, we complied instantly, only to realize moments latre that we had just posed for our surveillance file photos.

And still, I regularly comply with plenty of stupid or unfair or unnecessary directions from authority that my split-second judgment says won’t hurt anybody in order to keep things smooth, keep my blood pressure down, make my flights, etc. It’s a right pain in the arse to make a point just to make a point—and in many of these cases it would require a lawsuit. Still, this makes me uncomfortable, and the news of this week is making me wonder if I shouldn’t build some more automatic cantankerousness into my regular routine.

First, there’s the Pentagon expanding its domestic surveillance activity. There was yet another litany of stupid abuses by flight screeners: a woman forced to remove a nipple piercing, a quilter going to a convention whose sewing machine was confiscated. To quote the poet Marty McConnell, “If a man can disable a flight staff with a pair of blunt tweezers, does he need the tweezers?”

But here’s an even more disturbing example, and one that I hold up to everyone who is so paralyzed by the fear of terrorism that they are willing to give up basic liberties for the illusion of safety. Here is a non-terrorism-related example, a stark and sick and twisted reminder of just what the habit of uncritically obeying orders, especially combined with a lack of knowledge of constitutional protections, can lead to.

Over the past 10 years, across the country, managers at dozens of fast-food restaurants strip searched, humiliated, and sometimes sexually abused young female employees at the instructions of a persuasive hoax caller who claimed to be a local law-enforcement officer. Yes, they really did. The caller usually said the employees were suspected of stealing or drug dealing. (A suspect is in custody at the moment, but has not been convicted.)

According to an astounding article from Oct. 9 in the Louisville Courier-Journal, in one case an 18-year-old was kept naked in the office for four hours, and was forced to pose for (“to see if drug packets ‘fell out’”), kiss (“to see if anything was on her breath”), and eventually perform fellatio on (no excuse given) the fiancé of her manager at the instructions of an “Officer Scott,” who claimed he had the manager’s boss and “McDonald’s corporate” on the line with him.

It took a janitor, who was called in to continue where the fiancé left off, to call a stop to the whole ordeal with the brilliant observation that something didn’t seem right here. That manager, and her fiancé, are claiming they too were “victims” of the caller, and are blaming McDonald’s for not warning them of the hoax calls that were going around. Never mind that McDonald’s has a policy against strip searches, and that the rest of what this woman was put through would have been illegal, and oh yeah, immoral, even in the confines of a police station on someone who actually was a known drug dealer.

This of course calls to mind the 1960-61 experiments of Stanley Milgrim, who in trying to figure out how the Holocaust had happened, had authority figures in white coats tell people to deliver increasingly large—up to amounts marked “paralyzing” or “lethal”—shocks to research “subjects” (who were actually actors). Otherwise normal people showed a disturbing readiness to deliver the highest level of shocks to people (they believed to be) screaming in pain. Milgrim’s experimental results were repeated several times in other countries.

In both Milgrim’s experiments and the case of the fast-food hoax caller, there were people who refused. That’s the lesson. We do have critical thinking skills, and we do have choices. And if it takes a little hypersensitivity to people abusing their powers or trampling on our freedoms and rights to keep our moral perspective in shape to avoid becoming complicit in crimes of greater magnitude, so be it. Question authority. It’s good for you, good for those around you, and good for the country.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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