Question Authority!

The national anthem came on and the kids obediently stood and turned to the flag. These grade 7 & 8 students had just filed into the room for the assembly and had, by all accounts, done so without much fanfare or disruption. They stood now, some singing quietly along to the words, others still in the groggy stupor of first period. Apparently more was expected though as one adult, teacher or administrator (I’m not sure which), began to bark commands. “I can’t hear you,” she called. “Not all of you are singing.” She urged them to sing louder and to smile while singing. “Smile!... You’re not smiling!” I stood there fidgeting uncomfortably as these kids were subjected to be treated like they were performing monkeys. It wasn’t a gentle reminder from a friend, it was heavy-handed and the type of use of authority that I have always despised. “I can make you do what I want you to do. What I think is important. What I think is good for you and you have to obey.”

Being a youth can really suck. Okay, that’s actually understated. Youth are one of the most marginalized populations of our society. They are constantly in situations and circumstances where they have no authority and quite often have to deal with authority in their life that flaunts power and forgets the humanity of the youth they are dealing with.

As a 34 year old man the only way that I would feel like I have to dance to the beat of authoritarian puppet-masters is if I were in some trouble with the law; and in that circumstance only because I don’t want to get in more trouble because of my attitude...  Perhaps that’s why our youth get treated as they do, it’s like some constant threat of punishment or reprimand lay over their heads.

We were all there, in that room, prepared for assembly because I had come there to talk, so I told the youth not to worry, they wouldn’t always be told, “sing louder” or “smile” and that, in fact, even now they better learn to start making choices for themselves because if you are always waiting for someone in authority to tell you what you should do, then you are in trouble. (I might argue that most people in our society do exactly this, perhaps a blog for another time.)

When is was around 14 or 15 years old, some friends and me were hanging out at the Heart Lake Town Centre (a common meeting place). We were over by the Petro-Canada because someone needed to use the payphone (That’s right, a payphone!) and there were bottle caps from beer bottles lying around. A couple of us picked some up and starting tossing and flicking them. We were close to the four lanes of Kennedy Rd. and there wasn’t really any traffic so we started to go for distance. Then I launched the cap of the day! It left my hand and soared on the breeze perfectly, like a Frisbee. It floated elegantly over the sidewalk and boulevard, across 2 lanes, across the median, across the third lane...

Meanwhile a car was turning right off of Sandalwood Pkwy onto Kennedy and as it turned and accelerated it met my bottle cap in the far lane of traffic. I could not, if I tried a million times have launched a bottle cap over that distance with the timing and accuracy to hit a car that wasn’t even on the street when I threw it... but, I heard it hit and reacted the only way I knew how after such an amazing toss with the added bonus of hitting a car. I threw my hands in the air, like I scored a basket from half-court!

Later we were over at the other end of the plaza, near Pizza Pizza when I saw someone talking to a police officer and pointing directly at me. The officer came over and asked me about the bottle cap and I told him the whole story. “You expect me to believe that you threw a bottle cap and it just got such amazing air that this car turned and drove into the line of fire?” I should have responded by saying, “Would you more easily believe that I was able toss a bottle cap 50 feet with perfect accuracy in the mere second that I would have had if I was deliberately aiming at the vehicle?” Instead I just responded with a “Yes!”

“These your friends?” asked the officer, motioning towards the group I was hanging out with. I knew the implication immediately so I boldly, proudly and emphatically declared, “Yes!” I think, maybe, somewhere, deep, deep, down inside the police officer might have actually thought he was trying to do me a favour... “You keep hanging out with friends like these and I’ll be seeing you again.” This was really when the officer’s ‘authority’ really got out of hand. No physical violence, but silent presumptions.  He began to presume that he knew me, he presumed that he knew my friends, he presumed to know what kind of people we were and what our futures held. That is always condescending and has never sat well with me. I made sure to get the last word when I responded, “I guess I’ll see you later then.”

This was my first encounter with a police officer as a youth and it tainted my view of that kind of authority for the remainder. There was no warmth, no real conversation and a whole lot of assumption. Like my friends in Grade 7 and 8, he wanted me to sing the anthem and smile! “Just do what I tell you and you’ll become a good person!” Not true. It would just make a person who is easy to control and doesn’t learn to make his own choices.

I could have learned that day that throwing things across Kennedy Rd. was a bad idea (a decent lesson to learn). Instead, it only became another encounter with authority where I was just a dumb kid who needed more respect and fear for authority.

The amazing benefit of getting in trouble over and over and over and over is that you lose your fear of getting in trouble. In elementary school I was called names, tied to my chair, had my mouth washed out with soap, had my desk turned around to face the class, was made fun of, all by the people who were in authority over me; teachers and administrators. The idea of trying to humiliate someone into behaving is idiotic. I was embarrassed, many times, but I never wanted them to see that. All it really did was cause a power struggle, me vs. them. One lesson I’ve learned over the my years of working with youth and later as a Father is that if you end up in a power struggle, you’ve already lost, and I have fallen into that trap many times. True authority is not about exerting power over someone else. I made a promise to myself before I ever had kids that I would never respond to my kids asking ‘Why?’ with the response, “BECAUSE I SAID SO!” If I don’t have a good reason for what I’m asking my kids to do, then why am I making them do it?

I never want you to make it easy for someone to control you. Ask questions A LOT! Ask ‘why’ a lot and don’t accept, “Because I said so!” as an answer! Perhaps, dangerously but most of all, don’t be afraid of the consequences of questioning authority. Notice, I didn’t say the consequence of actions... that is completely different. There are real consequences to bad choices. I also don’t want you to be a huge pain for your parents, a family requires that we all pitch in and help out. However, don’t clean your room because your Mom told you to and you’ll be in trouble if you don’t. Clean your room because YOU CHOOSE TO. There are things we will do that we don’t necessarily like, that’s not what this is about (it is not rebellious to be a lazy, whiny complainer). It is the feeling of someone having control and power over us that sucks. It feels bad, and for you youth in particular, it is something many of you deal with every day of your life.

Many parents might hate that I would tell you to make it difficult for people to control you. I won’t apologize though. I always wanted to send my kids to their first day of school with a “Question Authority” t-shirt on... I never followed through. However, I’ve always been fully aware that if I want my kids to question authority; that will include questioning mine. Ever since I became a Dad there are some who laugh and joke that my kids will pay me back for all the grief I caused my parents... while I hope they avoid some of my bad choices... I hope they’re right! I do however intend to engage my kids in conversation. Where conversation is not permitted it is likely you have found a place where power is being used in an unhealthy way. True authority is humble, invites conversation. This is also the character of our rebellion, humble conversation, not arrogant defiance that resembles the closed ears of those figures of authority we are rebelling against.

I read some “Iconic American Prayers” the other day, one from George Washington which included the words, “that he (God) would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government.” That prayer makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit. Especially considering prayers by Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez and aboriginal leaders were included; all of whom who could not just act in a subordinate and obedient manner in the face of injustice and discrimination. In fact, the history of the States would be much different if Washington himself had been “subordinate and obedient” to the British government. Such is the hypocrisy of those with power; they feel like they can defy but don’t wish to be defied. Understandably, as a slave owner, George appreciated the qualities of subordination and obedience of those ‘beneath’ him... but THANK GOD for those who are marginalized, subordinated and oppressed and learn NOT to appreciate those qualities! We must despise subordination in all circumstances and even obedience when it is to the controlling power of a closed fist rather than to the humble authority that serves and holds power in an open hand, ready to give it away.

Question authority! Don’t allow yourself to be controlled. Stimulate conversation and think deeply about things. When those with authority refuse to see you as an equal, stand up tall and kindly remind them that you are! Don’t accept tradition for traditions sake or the way things have always been just because they’ve always been that way. How else can we expect that you, our youth, will show us a new way to live?

Had another encounter with

Had another encounter with abusive authority last night in our ball hockey game. The game was getting a bit chippy and heated and our opponents got called for 4 penalties in a row, so we knew that one was coming our way soon. Sure enough our player was battling with another along the boards, the sticks got up and our player was called for a high-sticking penalty. The ref was already animated and aggressive in the way he called it and our player turned to him and said, "The guy was holding my stick."

Now, perhaps he 'should' have said nothing and just made his way to the box, but that type of post-call discussion is total normal. Not for this ref... he lost it... he starts yelling right in our players face. One more word from our guy and he was tossed from the game. This was, hands down, the softest 10 minute misconduct penalty I've ever seen called. Our player didn't yell, didn't swear, wasn't being agressive and basically said 7 words to the ref.

After the game was over I decided to QUESTION AUTHORITY and told the ref that I thought it was a bad call, that our player hadn't said anything to merit being tossed from the game. I didn't yell and wasn't aggressive either but yet again, this ref lost it and starts yelling at me about how I wasn't close enough to hear and I don't know.

The ref is supposed to help calm the aggression on the floor and take control of the game. This ref was the biggest hot-head out there and, unfortunately, the one with all the power. I let it go, first because it's no use trying to reason with someone that out of sorts emotionally, and secondly, because I didn't want to hurt my team by having this guy make more bad decisions like trying to suspend me for questioning his authority. Again, the threat of punishment that protects the one with authority from being engaged in an actual conversation.... frustrating.

However, I also ran into this story on the weekend about the 'Coolest Cop Ever' who came upon a bunch of guys in the woods jamming on their instruments. I suppose he too could have decided that this was not appropriate and had them clear out. But instead he decided that they weren't harming anything or anyone and decided to have a real human interaction... nice to see...

Actually on youtube you will find that there are lots of interactions with 'cool' police officers. The reality is, they are just moments where humanity trumps authority.

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