Yesterday, I had an interesting discussion with my Grandson concerning the recent episode in which a young woman was found dead in her jail cell of an apparent suicide. She had been stopped for a minor traffic violation which following a confrontation between her and the arresting officer resulted in her incarceration. This was portrayed in the media as merely another example of the use of excessive force by police. After watching the images from the officer’s body cam, I likewise placed the entire blame for the incident on the cop for having over-reacted to an angry lady who he had charged with a very minor traffic infraction. Imagine my surprise when my grandson placed an equal amount of responsibility on the victim.
Carter reminded me that the lady had appeared to deliberately provoke the policeman, which set in motion the events leading to her arrest. He went on to generalize from that with the observation that his generation had “no respect for authority”. He cited examples from his own experiences such as the relationships of his peers with his basketball coach, teachers, parents, those charged with law enforcement, and indeed anyone in a position of authority. I responded that in my opinion this cop was being a real asshole, and not deserving of any respect. He counterpunched with the statement that I was missing his point for if she had treated the officer with the respect due someone in his position, she would have simply received a ticket for the violation and moved on. He did agree that the cop had acted inappropriately and that the entire interaction was something which required the participation of both parties.
With this last statement, I bid a hasty retreat for my own Grandson had inadvertently rubbed my nose in one of my own mantras. It hearkened back many years ago to the time when I taught marital therapy. My students were reminded that most couples blamed each other for their problems; therefore establishment of blame could never be therapeutic and must be avoided at all costs. The couples needed to learn that they both played a part in causing their problems if they were to be successful. Of course this same principal would apply to any human interactions, and my own analysis of the situation under discussion had ignored my own admonition.
Later, I thought (always a danger in my case) more about the subject of respect and the issue of authority. Initially, it occurred to me that if Carter respects his elders, why did he disagree with me, but that was followed by the not so brilliant insight that were he to pretend to agree solely because of who I was he would be patronizing me, which is for me the worst kind of disrespect. I concluded that the idea of respecting authority was not as simple as it would appear at first glance, and decided to google my old friend Mr. Merriam-Webster for the definitions of both respect and authority. The results were as follows:
- The power to give orders or make decisions.
- The power or right to direct or control someone or something.
- The confident quality of someone who knows a lot about something or who is respected or obeyed.
- A quality that makes something seem true or real.
- A feeling of admiring someone or something that is good or valuable, important, etc,
- A feeling or understanding that someone or something is important, serious, etc, and should be treated in an appropriate way.
- A particular way of thinking or looking at something.
Anthropologists seem to agree that the ability of humans to band together in order to achieve common goals was an important factor which led to our domination of the planet. Prehistoric man learned this early on: families got together into groups, who then joined with other groups to become tribes and so on. The process continued as bigger was found to be better resulting in our current state of affairs with nation states populated with millions or even billions of people.
It must have become obvious early on that if a group of guys decided they would like to kill a Wooly Mammoth (said to be about twice the size of your average elephant) there would need to be a game plan. There would need to be someone in charge who would be given the power to “direct and control”, and who “knows a lot” about how to kill that big sucker, in other words someone in authority as defined by Webster. It goes without saying that the hunters would need to have respect for their leader’s skills and/or experience if he was going to risk his life. It seems reasonable to assume that the respect accorded the leader would have been earned.
I am one who has always considered humility a virtue; consequently when I went into the Navy as a medical officer, I felt embarrassed when enlisted men saluted me. I confided this to an old chief with whom I worked and he assured me they were saluting the uniform and what it stood for, not me personally. In that case I had not earned the respect deserving of a salute, but others had done that for me. I was definitely an authority figure for I was given “the power to give orders and make decisions.” I was endowed with that power by virtue of having taken an oath to preserve and protect the Constitution of the United States.
In like manner the police officer under discussion had taken an oath to protect and serve his fellow man, as lofty a goal as one could imagine. With that in mind he was endowed with considerable power, and his badge was deserving of respect. He forfeited that respect at the moment he violated his oath for his behavior was antithetical to his promise to protect and serve. I will concede that the lady in question did not initially offer the respect due the cop, but feel strongly that his is the greater sin for such incidents undermine the credibility of those who take their mission seriously and disrespect a profession that should be the most honorable of all.
In my opinion the ultimate blame for this incident should be laid at the feet of a system that does not adequately vet applicants for law enforcement positions, nor offer reimbursements sufficient to guarantee the most highly qualified and trainable people. We are told there was a time when the neighborhood cop who walked his beat daily was accepted as a highly respected member of the neighborhood. Sadly there are now many neighborhoods in which police are feared rather than respected.
In that vein I noticed that Webster’s definition of respect describe it as a feeling of admiration. I do agree with Carter that the current generation is less respectful than was the case in my younger days. That would seem to indicate that they do not find people in positions of authority whom they can admire. Perhaps we who complain about lack of respect are actually the cause of the problem. The current generation certainly hears more about the moral or ethical failures of those in authority than about their good deeds. Today our children witness a continual parade of scandals, cheating, drug abuse, and other bad behavior by those athletes who in previous generations would have garnered unlimited respect.
We also note that authority is power. The quote from Lord Acton that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is as true today as it was 150 years ago. Throughout history absolutely powered people or governments have time and again proven his point; consequently although authority is necessary in any civilization we must be ever vigilant that the power granted does not exceed established boundaries. The lust for power seems almost a part of the human condition. Unchecked it is certain to undermine the purpose of the authority from which it originated.
Before closing my ramblings I feel the need to express my concerns about the power exerted by those who purport to represent my interests. Millions of dollars are now being spent on never ending political campaigns to elect people who are to make and enforce laws which I must obey. Our supreme court has ruled that money is speech, and I contend that in our society money is power. If both positions are accurate then people in poverty are likely to be left speechless and powerless.
For those of you who have endured this far, I end offering some free advice, (a commodity that never seems to be in short supply, and is rarely worth more than you pay for it). If you admire a person or entity it probably has earned your respect, but if you don’t, it more than likely deserves your contempt.