I was at a concert a few years ago with some friends. We arrived early at the gate so we could get great seats in the outdoor theatre. We hung around, admiring the American Wild West scenery and shooting the breeze. We felt free and happy to be away from housework, bills and worries for a weekend. Then one of us noticed we were standing in front of a sign that said DO NOT BLOCK THIS SIGN.
Then, as if on cue, out of nowhere popped a plumply officious security guard.
“You can’t stand there,” she said.
“Because it SAYS ‘do not block the sign,’” she huffed.
“But there’s no one to read it,” one of us said. “And who wrote it and why?”
“Doesn’t matter. You CANNOT stand there. Sign says.”
“But there’s no reason for the sign. You wouldn’t need the sign if you didn’t need to tell someone not to block the sign because then the sign wouldn’t exist. There’s really no purpose for the sign. It’s like an impossible puzzle!”
She huffed again. She didn’t like this kind of back talk.
“Be that as it may…”
Two of us moved. Two of us didn’t. We just stood there nonchalantly, whistling and pretending life was normal.
“I’m asking you to move,” said Ms. Huffy Security once more.
We dug in our heels. We weren’t rude (Canadians apparently never are). We just didn’t move (the Canadian method of protest).
Eventually, Ms. Huffy Security went away or we got bored. I can’t remember. It was a rock concert, after all so things were all a little surreal. But what stayed with me is how much some people just love to make rules. And some people just love to enforce them, even when those rules are absurd.
Children like to make rules, so maybe it just comes naturally to humans, or maybe we just emulate what we see around us. I remember going to school with a bossy-little-boots who tried to rule the universe. You played by her rules or you didn’t play. I sat alone a lot, excluded from her circle. Today, that bossy-little-boots is in politics, still making rules.
I’ve been guilty of rule making myself though it doesn’t really come naturally to me. I’m more a live and let live type. But I remember, as a kid, playing jailer to my little brother, putting him in a “cell” in my grandparent’s upstairs closet during a game we called “jail”. It was a big well-lit closet that we papered with Mad magazine cut-outs and centerfolds from my dad’s Playboy magazines. We were sure they had Playboy mags in prison.
“Can I come out now?” my brother would ask.
“No, you can only come out when I say you can come out. You’re in jail!”
Yes, I too loved my power. But I DID give him magazines. I was a humane jailer, not a bad one. As one saying goes, “It’s absurd to divide people into good or bad. They are either charming or tedious.” At least I wasn’t tedious.
Not all jailers are so humane. Most undergrads studying Psych have heard of Phil Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). Thirty years ago, Zimbardo and his students created a fake prison to study how people react in the roles of jailer and jailed.
Here’s how it went down: a normal group of college males were randomly given roles as “guards” or “prisoners” in the “Stanford County Jail” (the basement Stanford University’s psychology building). The experiment, meant to last two weeks, was stopped after six days because the “normal” students turned into guards capable of sadistic and degrading abuse. Meanwhile, students assigned to the roles of prisoners, some of whom had previously been rebellious, became withdrawn and submissive victims.
What are any of us capable of if given too much power? Some people can’t handle even a little bit of it. They become officious. They huff a lot. They stand in an overly rigid manner. They are the enforcers and the first ones to say, “Rules are rules.”
Here’s how one commissionaire from the local parking authority responded when I pulled off the road into a metered parking spot to take a call on my cell phone (in British Columbia it’s illegal to use “handheld devices” while driving). So I obeyed the law (I don’t want to give the impression that I rebel against everything), got off the road and was talking away when the commissionaire knocked on my window.
“You have to plug the meter or move your car.”
“Sorry, I’ll just be a sec. I’m on my cell. I’m not staying.”
“Ma’am [it's scary when they call me ma’am], you have to move the car or I WILL ticket you.”
“This is absurd. I just pulled over. I’m not staying.”
“You have 30 seconds to move your car or I will be forced to ticket you.” I looked at him. Yup, rigid.
“No sir,” I replied politely, “you won’t be FORCED to ticket me. You will DECIDE to ticket me, because you can. No one is forcing you. You could just be reasonable and let me finish my call and continue safely on my way. No harm done.”
“Thirty seconds ma’am, that’s it.” He walked away but not too far. I took every second of my 30 seconds to finish my call, and then I drove away.
I know. I’m a brat. But some rules are just silly. “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth,” said Albert Einstein.
Suw-Charman Anderson of the blog Strange Attractor says there are four main models of authority:
- Claimed authority: “You must respect me because I say so”
- Institutional authority: “Respect me because of my affiliation”
- Historical authority: “Respect me because I’ve been doing this a long time”
- Earned authority: “I have been consistently reliable on this topic”
We need all of these kinds of authority at various times in our life. There would be chaos without some kind of authority (I’m a mom so I do get it). But of these four types of authority, not surprisingly, earned authority meets with the most positive response. If you think about it, that’s the kind Einstein enjoyed: earned authority. I mean, he got a lot of authoritative mileage out of his Theory of Relativity.
The security guard and the parking commissionaire both could have had my respect so easily by being less officious and more human. “You know, I know it’s a bit silly but I really need you to move away from that sign…” Humour is a wonderful ice breaker and motivator.
And then there’s Jim Morrison of The Doors who was the epitome of an anti-authoritarian. “When you make your peace with authority, you become authority,” he once said.
When I first read this quote I thought Morrison was being all Zen-like about it. Then I thought about it again and wondered if what he was really saying was “if you sleep with the enemy, you eventually become the enemy.” But maybe he was saying you become free of authority if you make peace… or… I don’t know.
He’s dead so I can’t ask him.
But I do know this. When Nike says, “Just Do It” I will always be the person standing there asking “Why?”
“Obey!” Original Bliss @ Flickr. com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Stanford Prison Experiment”, Discovery Magazine
“Sign” Sign Sp0tting
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