Respect Whose Authority?

I have a problem with authority.

Not that I think it’s admirable to be a 40-year old version of Holden Caufield, but I’ve never been good at handling the self-seriousness and meagerness of a good many authority figures I’ve encountered, nor had much patience for their petty games. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’m not good with arbitrary authority.

Recently, I’ve risked getting in trouble at work for two violations of protocol that strike me as trifles. In the first place, I’ve been forgetting to bring my digitized ID badge that lets me into the buildings that I clean when I arrive at 6 a.m. This sounds important, however we also bring keys, which we pick up at 6 and return at 2:30, that also give access to the buildings. So, I just use the keys. Many of us do. The university doesn’t like this practice because the cards allow them to monitor who goes where; students use them as well. I suppose the idea is to prevent theft. But, of course, it’s also recorded who has what keys, so this extra security measure seems redundant: simply another layer of surveillance.

partitionsMy second violation is even more serious. The next time you enter a public washroom, take a moment to consider the large partition dividers between the stalls. Often, they’re made of aluminum. In our washrooms, they are plastic laminate. As you might imagine, motes of dust often fall and remain along the top rim. You might have noticed this upper lip was dusty and recoiled in disgust, but more likely you did not run your finger along the top of that rim because no one does ever. Except for one of our cleaning inspectors, a man I will call “Reggie”, who runs a white-gloved finger along those rims to see if there’s any dust. We have two inspectors in our section. The first one is always happy with my work. Reggie was added as a second inspector last year for reasons I will explain in a moment. The other day, he found dust on one of my partition dividers and was very upset and assigned me to clean a set of banisters for four hours. As soon as he left, I did too.

The partition rim rule is a bit like the famous “no brown M&M’s” clause on the Van Halen tour rider. In reality, no one has ever complained that they went into a clean washroom and found dust on the rim, but the rule exists so that the inspector can make sure we’re paying attention. More specifically, the rule exists so that the inspector can assert his authority. In Reggie’s case, this is particularly important because some of the full time workers refuse to interact with him, particularly the women. As incredible as this might seem, he has twenty-one complaints of sexual harassment of female workers and one complaint of physically assaulting a female worker. And so, he was removed from his job as night shift supervisor and made a day shift supervisor.

The union made a stink about this, of course, and actually got a story about it into the local paper – something of a miracle considering how beholden our local newspaper is to the university, which is the most powerful institution in the city. The students were generally indifferent, although one did write an article in the student newspaper, in which she quoted a university spokesperson who claimed that Reggie was fired and never coming back. He was, in fact, given a brief vacation and moved to a different shift. Otherwise, the students and professors were unconcerned.

Some friends have commented how startling it is that a university, a “bastion of political correctness,” would employ a sexual harasser. But there is a wide gulf between the academic community and the “help”. It does stick in my craw a bit when I clean offices with signs on the door reading “A feminist professor works here. Violence against women is unacceptable,” I must admit. And the mid-50s immigrant woman who Reggie used force with in order to get her to work faster died of cancer last year, basically ending the court case. The university flew the flags at half-mast.

Some of my co-workers have suggested that Reggie gets a pass because he’s an African immigrant. I suspect it’s more likely because he’s in with a particularly cliquish circle that forms our upper administrative class. Others have suggested that the complaints might be the cleaners’ way of resisting his rigid, often arbitrary, authority. I don’t buy this at all because the second time I met him, Reggie was talking about which of the cleaners were “his girls” and which ones weren’t among his favorites, and I was recalling the lunch I’d recently eaten. This brings us to the issue of authority.


The term originates not in Greek, but in the Latin auctoritas, which is the quality of an auctor, a person who either originates something or his descendant that continues and strengthens it. So, the first progenitor of a family is an auctor and his oldest living descendant carries on his auctoritas. Romulus was the auctor of Rome. A priest can be said to have auctoritas, as can a parent. In the case of the Roman Senate, Theodor Momsen described auctoritas as something more than advice, but less than command.

In English, the word also conveys the idea of potentas, the right to issue lawful commands. The Roman Emperor, for instance, had both auctoritas and potentas. Authority figures generally have the right to be obeyed, but not in everything. An authority figure is a vessel of authority. This is someone wise enough to convey rules and standards, if just through their example. Think of a Scoutmaster or a parent. Or just think of an umpire who is in a “position of authority” but maintains their individual authority by issuing rulings within certain limits. An umpire has no authority to tell a player to start eating a vegetarian diet, for example.

Many thinkers claimed there has been a “crisis of authority” in American culture, starting in the late 60s and early 70s. Stanley Milgram’s “Obedience to Authority” (1974), for instance, critiqued that sort of obedience as being prone to manipulation. Milligram, famously, had test subjects administer “electric shocks”, at the prompting of an authority figure, to “students” who got test questions wrong. Milgram found that many of the subjects accepted the command to give shocks past the point in which they believed themselves to be inflicting serious pain. In his book, Milgram compared this to soldiers who accept the authority of their commanding officers to kill. And it seems as if many protesters of the 60s “New Left” associated all forms of authority as of a sort with the military command to kill.

E.D. Watt makes the point, in contrast to Milgram, that “Where authority means a right to be obeyed, such a right cannot be thought of except in association with the limits proper to it.” It is as easy to lose authority as to maintain it. Ultimately, authority is drawn from something larger than the individual, a greater body of knowledge or tradition that the individual has absorbed and embodies, or fails to. What I find quite often in the work I’ve done is that individuals who have no particular personal authority will be put into positions of authority by virtue of time served, and try to maintain those positions through the exercise of power. While authority gives them a certain right to be obeyed, it does not give them power, which conservatives in particular have argued is at odds with authority. We forget this because of how many authority figures have used power as a corrective for their own lack of authority. Nevertheless, power enervates authority.

Conversely, the absence of authority breeds power. Such was the conservative argument: when a culture loses commanding structures of authority, power invariably rushes into the void. Such cultural crises are important because it’s far better to be guided by authority than ruled by power. One has to wonder what cultural conservatives make of Donald Trump, a man whose supporters claim for him an authenticity derived from having no respect for, and thus embodying no, structures of authority that might inhibit him, an argument strangely evocative of the New Left in the 60s.

Finally, there is reason to believe that obedience to legitimate authority can be elevating. I often recall, during my years spent teaching, the feeling I had that the students sought out an authority figure whether or not I wanted to be one. The great novelist Thomas Wolfe once described his basic story line as being about an individual dealing with the loneliness and lost quality of existence by searching for a second father. Henry Adams talked about signposts along the road that offer guidance, which strikes me as something more useful than limiting. While we ultimately come to find authority within ourselves, I think too much emphasis can be placed upon this sort of self-reliance, which easily tips over into making our will into our authority and our obsessions into our guide.

But, of course, we’re not living in a village with elders anymore. Most of us will live our lives governed by and working in large, hierarchical structures in which authority is derived from things, such as degrees, certifications, or inherited wealth, that are largely removed from personal experience or bodies of tradition. It seems more the luck of the draw now whether or not we wind up with authority figures who inspire any sort of respect or obedience. Instead of taking persons who have inspired respect by their embodiment of authority and placing them in leadership positions so that the respect grows from the person and adheres to the title, more often organizations elevate persons into leadership positions because they have been particularly obedient in lower ranks and expect respect to grow from the title and adhere to the person.

When it does not, and when we find ourselves ruled by people like “Reggie” or many (most?) of our political leaders, it is hard not to feel like we’re being paid to watch a tedious play with a terrible actor in the lead role and asked to fake applause.


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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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35 thoughts on “Respect Whose Authority?

  1. Excellent!

    I could write this in the context of my military experience and it would read much the same way. The only difference being that the military makes an effort (even it isn’t always successful) to move authority figures around until they find a fit (e.g. an officer very good at Administrative leadership will not be placed in a combat leadership position if at all possible, etc.). If no fit can be found, or if the person is just a very bad leader, they tend to have their career sidelined (not promoted, stuck in back end roles, etc.) unless they have some healthy political sponsorship (and even that isn’t a guarantee, since sponsorship attaches, so if the sponsored officer makes a mess of things, that blows back on the sponsoring officer).

    That said, I’ve had some very good officers and non-coms who understood authority & power, and some horrible ones who could not command authority and just fell back on the power of the rank and position. The difference in their command efficacy was night & day.

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    • I just finished reading George MacDonald Fraser’s McAuslan stories. Fraser is by far best known for his Flashman novels. The McAuslan stories are completely different, and excellent. They are semi-autobiographical stories about Fraser’s experiences as a junior officer in a Highland regiment after WWII. I bring this up because one of the stories, about when McAuslan was court martialed, is as good an illustration as I have seen of the point you make, when a newly minted corporal gives McAuslan what starts out as a joke and turns into an order. Highly recommended.

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    • That’s a great example. It is a difference between night and day. My dissertation director, for instance, was tough as nails, but she had more of an impact on my mental development and work habits than anyone I’ve ever worked under. A good leader can put you through your paces day in and day out and it’s worthwhile. A bad one makes any exercise seem pointless.

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  2. Your bathroom inspections reminded me of the time I read a COE contract an old employer had. It defined in great detail how bathrooms were to be cleaned, defined cleaners, results, etc. The inspector actually used the “dust in an area no one cares about” as one of his approvals/certification that we were doing our job.

    I just checked our bathroom stalls. Seems our cleaning contract address the specific issue you mention. Ours are free of dust.

    And I believe it’s “authoritah”

    Just do your job, as Reggie wants, and maybe after a while, he’ll ease up and assault some woman and finally get fired.

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  3. I think there is always going to be some struggle between employers and employees and control and what are big deals vs. small deals and in the eyes of whom. Some employers just like exerting as much control as possible. In my mind, worker’s rights are really about the providing of balance.

    The issue I’ve noticed is that a lot of employers have strong ideas about “X activity should take Y time to complete.” Now I don’t think it is wrong for employers to have these ideas but what they seem to forget is that it might take a newer employee longer for the first few times on a particular task as they get used to it. Or, the employer has been so far away from doing a particular task (because it gets assigned to underlings) that the employer forgets how long it really does to complete that task.

    As to authority, the Bay Area is home to plenty of current and former worker co-ops where the employees are also owners. Some succeed and and succeed well like Rainbow Grocery. Others fail because of outsider forces. Others fail because of a lack of management and nothing gets done or delegated well. I don’t know what separates the first from the third categories of worker’s co-ops.

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    • I think it boils down to how well such a place practices the idea that a business is a democracy up to a point, then it has to fall back on the hierarchy. Where that point is depends on a lot on attitudes across the board. Misreading those attitudes and placing the point in the wrong spot results in failure.

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      • That’s a good point.

        Another thing I have been thinking about is employee perks and morale. Some places just have high attrition and demoralization as features, not bugs. My girlfriend and many of her friends have MBAs. They also tend to work for tech companies or started tech companies where the whole thing is about having all these nice and amazing perks to attract the top talent.

        I wonder what is going to happen when the investors start being less generous with their cash and saying “where is our profit?” Google and facebook will always be able to provide nice perks but how about Air BnB or Lyft or Uber or Munchery, Caviar, Washio, etc.? What is going to happen at those places when the perks go away?

        Also the perks are not universal. Those companies still higher contractors to do janitorial work and/or drive the buses. Those people are not getting perks.

        When I tell them about some of the places I have worked for, my girlfriend and her friends react with expressions but “That is such an old school management style.Why are you being judged so heavily on X, Y, and Z. The new style is all about flexibility. Don’t your bosses understand that spending more money might be more efficient because of X, Y, and Z.”

        All of these makes me wonder if nice work atmospheres are just another way in which the “elite” win over everyone else. Not that I have ever worked anywhere atrocious but my girlfriend gets a free winter vacation of about two weeks and another one during July 4th when her company goes into shutdown mode and operates with skeleton crews. I don’t think this will ever happen to me.

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        • “I wonder what is going to happen when the investors start being less generous with their cash and saying “where is our profit?” Google and facebook will always be able to provide nice perks but how about Air BnB or Lyft or Uber or Munchery, Caviar, Washio, etc.? What is going to happen at those places when the perks go away?”

          The perks will go away (except for top management). At that point, it will be clear just what was being accomplished aside from spending money.

          IMHO, companies with lots of cash to burn will have nice perks. They other sign will be lavish investment in pet projects unrelated to what the company actually does.

          I’m thinking of Google’s self-driving vehicles as a prime example.

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        • They also tend to work for tech companies or started tech companies where the whole thing is about having all these nice and amazing perks to attract the top talent.

          I wonder what is going to happen when the investors start being less generous with their cash and saying “where is our profit?”

          Have you considered that the “nice and amazing perks” are actually just ways of being less generous with their cash?

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          • Indeed. I read, back in the day, that the point of all the game rooms and vending machines, and the cart guys who brought you coffee, lunch, on site dry cleaning, etc. was to keep you working and productive longer. That makes sense. If you’re eating lunch or playing table tennis at work you are likely discussing work and solving problems, in addition to discussing last night’s game.

            It’s one reason I generally don’t socialize with work folks after work. I’m not getting paid for it. I’m not going to the company picnic on a Saturday where people will be asking me about work.

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          • True but they still get paid amounts that most people would be envious of on top of the perks. A lot of people work for far lower salaries in much more dreary and perk free environments.

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  4. I like to make a distinction between “authority” and “power” that I think fits here. I have no problem with the former but a major problem with the latter.

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  5. Rufus: “Such was the conservative argument: when a culture loses commanding structures of authority, power invariably rushes into the void. ”

    I don’t see what this means, in any real sense. Taking the Civil Rights Movement as a clear example, from the viewpoint of conservatives, the commanding structures of authority were weakened, but so was their power.

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      • That’s funny.

        I’ve been thinking about this Black Lives Matter thing, and it is sort of both good and bad.
        First, I did this study for a class last semester where I looked at all these police shootings. Every other student did the same, but for a different area.
        In my area, 33% of all police shootings involved someone described as “mentally ill” or “mentally disturbed.”
        Some students had as high as 50% in their area.

        Of course, I’ve said over and over that police shootings are about a lot more than just the police, and a lot more than institutional racism.
        And I’m not going back to that dead horse.

        But really, being mentally ill or mentally disturbed is the best predictive factor as to whether someone will be shot by the police.
        And if you take the proportion of the population which counts as mentally disturbed as compared to racial minorities, the differences are staggering.

        But it’s ok to shoot and kill the mentally ill.
        We, as a society, are ok with it.
        If the guy was on Prozac at some point . . .
        If the person had taken Ritalin at an earlier time . . .

        But it’s like this:
        BLM does a lot of good in bringing the issue o the table.
        They do a lot of harm in centering around the wrong problem.
        Any solution they come up with will address some problem other than police shootings.

        But every one of us has limitations on our good, and our usefulness.

        That’s what makes this funny:
        structures of power that warped all related cultural institutions.

        The Civil Rights Movement has come of age, in that it can now act as an impediment to meaningful progress.

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        • Okay, that’s interesting. I vaguely remember the idiocy of W.F. Buckley on that issue. To my mind, the use of discriminatory laws and practices had already tipped their hand that it was about power and that they had zero moral authority on the issue. That segregation would be ended through federal power at that point is a given. However, it would be interesting to read the journals of the time to see how many writers tried to fob off racist power as some sort of moral authority.

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          • That is sort of straying away from what I was getting at.

            The two most accurate predictors of whether the state will remove children from a household are: 1) single-parent families, and 2) racial minorities.

            Now, when’s the last time you heard:
            Black Children Matter (?)

            I’m not even going to go into the “Mentally Ill Lives Matter” thing, because we all know that is sort of (?) ridiculous . . .

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  6. IIRC, there are six different types of authority bases.
    The one you see in Reggie is “authentic authority,” which is derived from position.
    It’s also known to cause all kinds of problems.
    The problem you see with Reggie is one of personnel management, and not authority.
    Generally, people who rely on authentic authority are very poor managers.
    It’s something of an indication that no one really likes them on a personal level, and no one really thinks they know what they’re doing.

    Also, it is very poor structurally to have an inspector as a supervisor.
    An inspector must maintain his independence, or what occurs is not an inspection.

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    • Yeah, I’ve done work with the MIC and with the private sector and there are pluses and minuses to both… the military has all sorts of heraldry to properly delineate who can tell whom to do what. But you can always tell which guys are the guys that everybody listens to and which guys are the guys who only get listened to the bare minimum. The private sector, by contrast, has much different forms of heraldry… but, within a few minutes, you can tell who can ask whom to get something while they’re up.

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  7. Some friends have commented how startling it is that a university, a “bastion of political correctness,” would employ a sexual harasser.

    This sentence is important in that it related intimately to the rest of the piece. Yes, the university is a bastion of political correctness, but it is a political correctness that serves the interest of the university. That is the way authority works. It uses whatever tools it has at its disposal and in whichever direction is most useful. If you confronted Reggie about his treatment of women, he might very well accuse you of being politically correct.

    The thing that I find continually surprising is the extent to which so many people have made misunderstanding political correctness a key component of their identities, which in turn makes them perpetually subject to someone else’s authority.

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  8. no one has ever complained that they went into a clean washroom and found dust on the rim

    You’re obviously not in Kansas, where it’s a common complaint that “all you see is dust on the rim”.

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  9. Generally speaking I’m not a fan of “leaders” or those at the top in power chain of command. But I will say this: 1. They too are subject to “rules” and 2. they have bosses who have power over them; and 3. liability is vicariously upwards, ultimately the President of the organization gets in trouble for fires down below they couldn’t prevent from occurring or put out.

    The best organizations are those that can voluntarily learn to works things out among themselves without the need to engage in threats and so on.

    If you are a boss you need your workers to get shit done. If you are constantly fighting, that’s a huge obstacle to achieving your outcomes.

    On the other hand if you want to throw a monkey wrench in the entire system, read Saul Alinsky and follow his tactics.

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    • There are two different phenomena of organizations that I am interested in (at present).
      One is the rewarding of unethical conduct. Many times such persons acquire a reputation of “getting things done,” and are shifted upward in the organization to effect even more egregious ethical violations.
      The other is the squelching of negative feedback. Feedback is an incredibly important aspect of the six-step communication model. It is what gives organizations the ability to self-correct (as well as separating feedback from noise).

      When these two occur simultaneously within the same organization, schtuff starts to happen.

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      • One downside I’ve noticed to having a team/chain of command that is “too comfortable” working with one another is a kind of error can get embedded in the system. And it’s not even that critical feedback is “shut down,” rather it’s either ignored or excuses are made for it.

        That is until someone in a position of power comes in and shakes things up. This might be one reason why “new blood” in leadership positions leads to things like more firings and layoffs.

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        • That is an interesting observation.
          But I have to wonder, what is the cause of this feeling of being “too comfortable” in an organization?
          Is it a matter of roles being unclear? A matter of cliques within an organization? Some inadequacy of oversight of the directors?
          From my understanding of human nature, I am inclined to believe that the answer is something that is laughably stupid.

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          • “Is it a matter of roles being unclear?”

            It could be, but probably not so much. We can always give a description of roles that are overly clear (that is, in principle, give too much work for which one is responsible in the event that all of the undesirable contingencies occur).

            “A matter of cliques within an organization?”

            Yes. That’s important. It’s like a informal mini-union. If you can get yourself in such a group it benefits your self interest. A union, to the extent that they don’t bring down the house, is like a huge version of such a clique.

            “Some inadequacy of oversight of the directors?”

            That’s possible. Though directors and high level executives cannot possibly know of all the minutiae that occurs below them for which they are responsible. So when they make decisions that affect those down below, one criticisms is “they, the bosses, ‘don’t know what they are doing.'”

            Being able to see the “big picture” whiling knowing there will be smaller, perhaps important details they cannot possibly know is what makes a leader more effective.

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