Don't Rock the Boat

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As a boy, I was brought up with respect for authority. No, my parents didn’t sit me down and lecture me about it; nor did my teachers. It was simply a part of the culture. There wasn’t television when I was a schoolboy, and newspapers and magazines didn’t seem to delight in publishing accounts of corruption in government, although it probably existed. I wouldn’t have dreamt of disobeying any order given me by a policeman, or teacher, or, if truth be told, almost any adult. They were the good guys!

As I grew older — a very great deal older! — I came to realize that authority figures often acted without any specific authority, simply relying upon the public’s acceptance of their official position to achieve their objectives. Indeed, it was perhaps this tacit acknowledgement of authority that greatly facilitated government expansion. As I sat watching TV recently, it occurred to me that much TV programming serves to reinforce the idea of respect for authority, whether merited, or simply out of fear.

It was a murder mystery. (Did you ever stop to think that without crime, television "entertainment" would be in serous trouble? There is never a day that programs concerning crime don’t comprise a very substantial portion of everything that’s broadcast. Which, come to think of it, works out very well if you want to reinforce a respect for, or at least fear of, authority.) In this program, which was British, a rather stuffy inspector enters the offices of a large corporation, and demands to speak to the chairman of the board. The receptionist can barely contain her amusement at his brashness. "I’m afraid Sir Geoffrey will not be able to see you," she says sweetly. "He’ll see ME, Miss," says the policeman, flashing his badge. The girl is flustered. "One moment, Inspector. I’ll summon him." This situation comes up frequently in crime shows, and the receptionist never continues to smile and say, "As I said, Inspector, Sir Geoffrey will be unable to see either you OR your badge." There may be no reason to refuse the policeman’s request, but the point is, in TV fiction, it is never refused, as though a request for an interview by a policeman amounts to an order that must be obeyed, and pronto.

There was a somewhat similar incident in an American crime show, in which two cops enter a bar and show the bartender a photo. "Has this young woman been in here?" The bartender looks flustered and says "No. I don’t think so." But he’s obviously being evasive. So cop A remarks, "Nice place you’ve got here." And Cop B picks up on it: "Yeah, sure would be a shame if you were to have your liquor license revoked." Cop A agrees: "Yeah, if our buddies from liquor control poked around here, I bet they could find some offenses that would shut this place down." So the bartender gets the message, and tells the cops what they expect to hear. The message is less elegantly stated than in the British version, but clear nonetheless: do what you’re told to do, and don’t rock the boat.

Government employees have, to varying degrees, authority. But in doing their jobs, they may exceed that authority routinely. When a traffic patrolman, on a routine stop, asks the driver to step out of the car, what law requires the driver to obey? When the clerk at the drivers’ license renewal office takes your photo and asks you to take off — or put on — your glasses, must you? When an IRS agent notifies you that you are being audited, and that you must appear with your papers, etc., does that request impose a legal obligation upon you?

The wheels of government turn smoothly and efficiently when no one rocks the boat. And if the turning of those wheels produced, as a product, a free and prosperous society, then it would be foolish, perhaps, to even think of rocking it. But is that what is happening? What if those turning wheels are grinding away individual freedoms, eroding values of justice, and wreaking havoc upon the fortunes of every productive individual in the country? Do we want to keep them lubricated with our acquiescence? Perhaps some sand in the gears is indicated. When we see no incongruity in the fact that the sovereign citizen hastens to obey his servant, something is wrong!

Maybe, some day, a TV program will deal with the fact that these officials call themselves "public servants," and that it is incongruous, to say the least, for the servant to give orders to the master. It would be prudent to remind them of that fact by asking them, very nicely, to state the lawful basis of their demands. The proper attitude of a servant is servility, and this might be brought about by frequent, gentle, reminders of the nature of the relationship between them and the public, and of the fact that simply because they make a request, or ask a question, does not mean that the person queried is under any obligation to respond. Freedom of speech surely includes freedom from speech.

Were such a program to be produced, it would no doubt air on the science-fiction channel.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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