examining authority.

25 Jan

Examining Authority
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church on January 25, 2015

Listen Here:

There are many perspectives from which we might examine authority. Our moment for all ages gave us two ways: positional or personal, and then Weber’s characteristics of legal, traditional, and charismatic. We could also look at where we find religious authority, or what we imbue with moral authority, or at our relationship with ministerial authority. But none of these are the kind of authority I want to address today. Instead, I want to focus on the intersection of authority with power and with leadership.

To do that, we’re going to start with a short video clip. If you’re of a certain age, then you probably can’t think about authority without being reminded of the image that is on our order of service. It is a boy named Cartman, from the TV show “South Park”. As you will see, Cartman has a thing about authority. There is some mild language and cartoon violence in this clip – it is South Park, after all – so if you’re easily offended or very gentle-hearted, you may want to step outside for one minute….No? Okay, let’s watch the clip.

There is nothing worse than Cartman with “authoritah”. How many of you have seen some of these excerpts before, or are familiar with the Cartman and authoritah meme? And how many of you maybe felt a little different about watching them today? Maybe you picked something up that you hadn’t before. Or maybe you felt a little uncomfortable – not just because we’re watching South Park in worship, but because in these clips, we see an abuse of authority that has eery similarities to real life – we might be finding what my kids call a “text to life connection”.

Authority, particularly police authority and other legal authorities, are under scrutiny these days. The curtain has been pulled back and those of us who were happily unaware cannot now turn back from the reality that some people who are in positions of authority, who are in positions where they are supposed to serve and help people – not all, but some – abuse their authority.

This is the type of authority I want to look at today, because as Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger said “Authority founded on injustice is never of long duration.”

So let’s start with the basics. What is authority? Authority is commonly defined as power that is given to some one in order for them to perform some function or service. Because it is part of an exchange, then if the conditions of the exchange are not met, the authority can be removed.

Some people grow up understanding that it is their choice whether or not to confer power – this leads these people to view authority figures more benevolently, knowing that they can retract the authority. Others however, grow up learning to fear authority.

Business leadership expert Ronald Heifetz says that

“People expect authorities to serve five basic social functions: 1) direction, 2) protection, 3) orientation to role and to place, 4) control of conflict, and 5) maintenance of norms.

People look to those in authority to maintain equilibrium and to provide direction. They expect this direction, not in the form of questions, but in the form of answers.

[People] expect those in authority to protect them from change and painful adjustments, from facing tradeoffs or gaps between the values they espouse and the reality that they live.

[People] expect those in authority to keep them oriented to their current roles and organizational relationships, rather than to generate disorientation. Yet if you want to make a substantial change, you often need a certain amount of disorientation.

People expect those in authority to control conflict. So people who are in authority often hesitate to see conflict as a source of creativity and as a necessary component in a process of adaptive change.

People expect those in authority to maintain norms.”

We can see all these expectations in our relationship with the police. We look to them to maintain safety – to follow the rule of law. They are not expected to examine each law and look for nuance. Those of us who are progressive or liberal may feel that people are ultimately good, and so we look to the police to handle those whose behaviors don’t fit our worldview. We expect them to reduce conflict rather than inspire it. And, not surprisingly, many police officers and jurisdictions are uncomfortable with the disorientation that can lead to creative cultural change.

These expectations of authority are not value judgements – they are not inherently good, or inherently bad. They just are – and they can go either way. Though we sometime resist authority, it is necessary. As Heifetz writes in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers, “Social living depends on authority. Indeed our capacity to form authority relationships lies at the base of our organizations, from the family to the nation.”

However, it is important to to determine whether a relationship is a true authority relationship, or a dominance relationship. Dominance relationships, according to Heifetz, are coercive or are based on habitual deference. “All too often,” Heifetz says, “power is just taken, and deference to it indicates no authorization whatsoever. Yet over time, if people become accustomed to deferring to dominant individuals or institutions and develop a set of familiar habits and payoffs in exchange for their continued deference, then the act of deference begins to look like conference. Deference over time may become authorization, even without deliberate decision.”

If we realize we have become habituated to what is a dominance relationship, or if we realize our collective power to grant and retract authority, those with authority become vulnerable. And this is the case with many police forces right now. Those of us who are white are waking up to the dominance relationship that the police have exerted unjustly over black people – particularly black men. And those who are black are reclaiming their collective power.

It is exactly the type of creative conflict in which change is possible, but with which those in authority are most uncomfortable. Because, remember – authority is not leadership. Authority is tasked with maintaining the status quo, not challenging it. Challenging the status quo is the task of leadership. When an authority tries to show leadership, Heifetz says, it risks losing some of its legitimacy. This is why it is so hard for people in Weber’s category of legal authority to actually lead – how can you provide order and at the same time bring about the creative discomfort necessary for change?

Heifetz points out that

“If leadership were about telling people good news, if it were simply about giving people what they wanted, then it would just be easy, it would be a celebration. What makes leadership difficult, strategically challenging, and personally risky is that you are often in the business of telling people difficult news – news that, at least in the short term, appears to require a painful adjustment. You have to ask people to sustain a loss. It may be that the loss is only temporary and that the future will be even better. But in the current moment, when people are experiencing the pressure to change, those future possibilities are simply possibilities. What people know is that right now it hurts. And they resist that hurt.”

So leaders ask people to change which causes discomfort, authorities try to maintain order, and those in dominance relationships take power through coercion or habitual deferral. So why does all of this matter? It matters because it can give us a big picture view of what dynamics are at work in certain systems as we strive to live our fourth, fifth and sixth principles: to engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, to affirm the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; and as we work for the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

Let’s take the situation in New York as a brief example of what this examination process might look like.

This past July, Eric Garner, an African-American man, was killed in an illegal choke-hold by a New York police officer. I am going to assume most of you know the details. In December, a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer. The public was outraged.

Through this all, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed deep sorrow at Garner’s death, calling it a terrible tragedy. He issued a statement urging all parties involved to create a dialogue, and find a path “to heal the wounds from decades of mistrust and create a culture where the police department and the communities they protect respect each other.” When the grand jury decision came, de Blasio shared his disappointment. He then spoke about his son Dante, who is black. De Blasio said “I couldn’t help but immediately think what it would mean to me to lose Dante. Life would never be the same for me after…Chirlane [his wife] and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers that he may face…” De Blasio talked about wanting to keep his child safe “not just from some of the painful realities of crime and violence in some of our neighborhoods but safe from the very people they want to have faith in as their protectors…No family should have to go through what the Garner family went through.”

NYPD officers and their union took these comments as a sign of disrespect. Patrick Lynch, the head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said the mayor’s comments were the equivalent of throwing the city police under a bus. Lynch continued by recommending that all parents, no matter their race or cultural heritage, should teach their children to respect police officers and to comply with police, “even if they think it’s unjust.”

Tensions were already high when, on December 20, two NYPD officers were shot in their police car by a man who posted on Instagram that he was doing it in retaliation for Garners death. As Mayor de Blasio walked through the hospital where the two officers had been pronounced dead, dozens of NYPD silently turned their backs on him for his perceived lack of support. This back-turning was then repeated by police at both officer’s funerals.

Meanwhile, after the officers were killed, police engaged in what was called an unofficial work stoppage. For the week of December 22, “citywide traffic tickets dropped 94% from the same period in 2013. Court summons for low-level offenses, like public intoxication, also dropped 94%. Parking tickets were down 92%. Overall arrests were down 66%.

This tactic, intended or not, may have backfired. It turns out that most people didn’t even notice the reduction in tickets and summons for smaller offenses, particularly as violent crime rates in NY continued to drop throughout 2014. Instead, many were grateful, as the tickets and summons that make up the bulk of police activity disproportionally affect those in the working class. Some people have been wondering if it is fair for the city coffers to be funded by such activity, especially as crime rates continue to drop.

Through this all, the Mayor refused to apologize for his comments and basically ignored the backs turned in his direction. His response was vindicated by recent polls that show that people are dismayed at the police tactics.

So that is the broad summary. Now let’s look at some of the authority, power and leadership dynamics at play. To do so, we will focus on relationships, particularly between the mayor and the police, and the police and the citizens.

The police and the mayor are both legitimate legal authorities by virtue of their positions. The Mayor, however, is also tasked with that delicate art of leadership – and so we see that there is bound to be conflict and discomfort – even pain – as he challenges the status quo while the police are tasked with maintaining it.

It is not surprising then, that the police resist the changes he proposes. Let me be clear that I am not talking about individual officers right here, but the NYPD as a system. As a system, the police are resistant to these changes the Mayor is urging. Heifetz reminds us

“Some resistance [to leadership] strategies are well known and rather obvious, such as scapegoating, externalizing the enemy, or killing off the leader in the hopes that if only we had the right leader our problems would be solved. But some organizations have more subtle mechanisms, such as reorganizing once again, denying the issue entirely, creating a decoy issue and so forth.” The NYPD seems to be employing many of these mechanisms in their resistance.

The police seem to believe that they have granted the mayor authority – given him power in exchange for some service. And, not getting it, they are trying to deny him authority. But this is not the exchange that occurred. The mayor does not get his authority and power from the police, but from the citizens. The Mayor has to answer to the citizens. As do the police. However, the police don’t seem realize that they are risking the authority that has been given to them by the citizens.

The relationship between the police and the citizens is rocky. While communities are generally willing to overlook much bad behavior on the part of their authorities, provided the authorities maintain their part of the exchange, there is growing discomfort at the force used by police in regards to black men. Additionally, Lynch’s comment that there would be no problems if people were just to obey the police, even if they think it is unjust turns the authority relationship on it’s tail! The police serve at the pleasure of the citizens – we give them power and direction – it is not the other way around. Indeed, one writer, Ben Domenech at the Federalist, calls the police actions a threat to democracy. “The NYPD needed to be reminded that [a] chain of command exists, and that they are not at the top of it..Instead, what New York City is experiencing now amounts to nothing less than open rebellion by the lone armed force.”

There is also a dominance relationship based on habitual deference that is at work and that is being challenged: when the police stopped writing so many summons, the citizens realized that the NYPD had gone beyond the social contract of given authority. As the people continue to wake up from this habitual deference, they threaten to revoke some of the authority of the police. Very few systems can gracefully accept a reduction of a power level to which they have become accustomed.

This means that there will likely continue to be conflict in New York as these power, authority and leadership relationships are worked out. Hopefully, it is the type of conflict that is a “necessary component in a process of adaptive change.”

Thomas Jefferson said that “All authority belongs to the people” and what the people have given, the people can take away. But it is not easy or comfortable. Heifetz says that “The transformation of either a dominance or a habitual authority relationship into a social contract is no small event. These are revolutions. Even the idea itself that such transformations can be achieved [signals] a major intellectual development.”

“You will respect my authority!” But that respect is only given to a point. There comes a time when authority relationships have to be renegotiated. Not tossed out – we need authority after all – but renegotiated. As the ones who confer legal authority, citizens have the right and responsibility to call for such a renegotiation. If we don’t like how the police, as a system, are functioning, we have the right and responsibility to reset their direction. It won’t be comfortable – change requires a certain amount of discomfort. And it doesn’t mean we should suddenly go about breaking laws or demonizing police officers. But it does mean claiming the power that we gave so that a certain service could be performed. Those we give authority to serve us, not the other way around. May it be so. Blessed be.

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