Thursday, August 21, 2014

What trustworthy authority looks like.

Having a themed blog is a weird thing.

It probably looks like the only thing I care about is how polyamorous families are treated by American Protestant churches, since this blog is my current public face. (Except that most readers are coming from my Facebook feed according to the traffic stats, so, hi, guys!).  At the same time, I feel a certain amount of internal pressure to stay "on topic," and since I have a self-imposed posting cycle of a-week-give-or-take, I feel some guilt when my attention is consumed by something that seems incompatible with writing a post consistent with the blog's theme.

It's getting close to two weeks now that the police shooting and response to community uproar in Ferguson, MO has been that something consuming my attention. It is the defiantly corrupted authority on display that pushes me from grief to outrage. As one Los Angeles police officer conveniently says out loud for all of us to hear: "I'm a cop. If you don't want to get hurt, don't challenge me." Set aside for the moment that this advice works about as well as the advice for women to dress modestly if they want to avoid harassment by men (i.e., it doesn't). Set aside, too, that the white men speaking loudest for unconditional deference to the police overlap significantly with the white men who talk about "Second Amendment solutions" (i.e., their rhetoric jumps straight to resistance in the face of government action they perceive as intrusive). Focus on the narrow question of whether anyone claiming this kind of authority can be trusted with it. The answer: No. They can't.

For almost the entirety of my adult working life, I've held positions where I've been entrusted with authority. (I have written about the experience from time to time.) I've had the opportunity to watch colleagues and peers navigate their own relationships with personal authority. My five years in municipal government were especially illuminating in this respect. Here is what I've learned about trustworthy authority.

It is transparent. Whenever possible, the process and rationale for decisions is shared freely. When not possible, the reasons given for non-disclosure are clear and consistent. Almost always, the only acceptable reasons are "it would be illegal" or "it would go against generally accepted professional ethics" or "we're not sure ourselves." And you cite your sources.

It takes responsibility. When you have authority and bad things happen on your watch, it may not always be your fault, but it's always your responsibility. It is literally your job to make things right to the best of your ability. If there is never any progress, and the same bad things seem to keep happening over and over? It's your fault.

Its goal is stewardship, not dominion. Every exercise of authority must be directly justifiable by the benefit it brings to the people subject to it. Sometimes it takes time for that benefit to establish itself and bear fruit. But if it never comes? You're not authoritative. You're authoritarian.

It accepts condemnation. I won't lie. It sucks to be heckled, mistrusted, misinterpreted, accused, even hated. But there will always be people who think you're doing it wrong, or who find it expedient to act like they do. You have to keep doing your job right anyway. And you know what? Sometimes your critics are right. If you don't let them speak freely, you'll never learn when they are.

Everything about the situation in Ferguson shows the local police failing each of these conditions, miserably. And unfortunately, Ferguson is just one of many, many jurisdictions where the police are betraying the communities they serve. (In my opinion, Portland, where I live, is one of those.)

Do American police always screw up? Hardly. But authority is not an area of life where it is acceptable to look at aggregate results and dismiss a minority of abuses as a statistical cost of doing business. These aren't errors by sports players or a till that doesn't balance out at the end of the day or a student who gets a C in one class. These are people's lives and livelihoods harmed or completely destroyed. No trustworthy authority is okay with that or tries to deflect attention from its responsibility.

I could tie this all back to church authority and polyamorous families. Oppression is, after all, rather dull in the predictability of how it plays out. But it would trivialize the impact that police brutality and lack of accountability has on people's lives, especially Black people. Sometimes the only respectful thing to do is to go off-topic.


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