Really. Question Authority
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
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