Authority is an important concept. We’re social animals, and we need to work together, but we’re not telepathically linked to a hive mind. That means we all need to be able to assess many situations individually, and make more decisions than we’re capable of making.

That’s why authority matters. It’s necessary — but it isn’t absolute, or God. It’s inherently fallible, which is why we’ve come up with a lot of checks on authority as we’ve built better, more productive, more advanced societies.

Those checks are annoying and often bureaucratic. In some cases, they make us feel like we’re undermining “the good guys” (if we’ve had good experiences with authority). But that’s exactly the challenge — authority doesn’t make you good or bad. It just gives you power and related responsibility; it doesn’t guarantee you’ll meet those responsibilities or use that power properly.

Authority is broken

I don’t know how we have a functional society (at this stage of humanity) without authority. But I also know the society we’re used to, and certainly the one we aspire to, requires competent, just, regulated authority — and that’s more true than ever as the ability to see when authority has failed us has expanded faster than our ability to make sure authority is used properly. In other words, we increasingly aware of authority’s sometimes egregious failings, but we are not getting that much better at making sure those failings don’t occur.

I think authority figures and institutions (especially ones that aren’t very good) can feel this external dissatisfaction, but it seems like most of them aren’t looking in the mirror. Instead, a lot of them are simply treating that feeling like anything else that challenges authority; as something outside of the rules that they are obligated to eliminate.

That’s why we have so many disingenuous conversations about problems with authorities, whether it’s dismissing anyone outside of a traditional media institution as a blogger in their parents’ basement, or responding to increasing anger over racially disproportionate police violence with the argument that police officers lives are important as well — as if anyone was actually claiming otherwise.

Authority is lashing out

Two unrelated examples leapt out at me the other day, from very different places (with very different stakes). One was a Louisville police stop captured on video that is probably all too familiar to minorities, and particularly young black men in particular. What was interesting about this piece though was the overwhelming condemnation mentioned in the article by criminal justice experts and other police officers. This is an objectively poor way to interact with a community, and to accomplish the goal that is the reason we have police at all, which is to protect and serve our communities. But the response from the people on the ground, especially in the moment, is “I can do this“.

“This is not illegal” is a reasonable & important (although often smarmy when applied) argument against authority — as I mentioned, the law is as much, or even more of a check against authority as it is a tool for it. But it’s a truly bizarre argument for authority itself to make. You’re only empowered as an authority by the rest of us so that you serve the interests of the people who put you there. You weren’t chosen by God, at least not directly.

That brings me to the second example; MLB umpire Ron Kulpa, who — after blowing a call — responded by looking for, and finding, any excuse to legally punish the people upset by his mistake. This is obvious awful umpiring, and a terrible approach to handling authority, but what’s arguably the most frustrating (and familiar to people who have dealt with incompetent authority figures) is how Kulpa veers back and forth between angrily exercising his administrative powers (calling strikes, demanding certain forms of communication stop, berating people, ejecting people), and calmly making points about what he can and cannot do.

Anybody who’s had an experience with someone in power can relate to this — being held to a standard of perfect behavior yourself (“calm down”, “why do you have an attitude”, etc.), while the person enforcing that standard doesn’t abide by it at all. It’s a movie trope for the friendly police officer to order you to calm down and then suddenly and angrily ask “what’s so funny”, but it’s also terrifying in many situations — just not to the police officer.

Good authority figures and institutions wanted

The real kicker is that I’ve experienced the exact opposite of this kind of behavior from people with the exact same jobs, and while it’s not easy, it’s undeniably important and impressive. I’ve seen otherwise unassuming cops defuse escalating situations (sometimes not even on-duty) with the perfect blend of strength, empathy, and patience. I’ve played tough, physical basketball games with refs who did the same thing and come out on the losing end thinking “those are some damn good refs, that job is hard”. It’s not like it’s impossible — we see great performance every day. We just need to build in institutional and social support for things like great journalism, community-first policing, teachers who care, bosses who listen, and other areas that simply can’t function without the existence — and proper use — of authority.

But the trend, by all appearances, is alarming. The most visible forms of authority don’t seem to be handling increased (but appropriate) scrutiny particularly well. They don’t need to be perfect, but they can’t just hand-wave away criticism or objections to their decisions if they expect to be effective authority figures in the long-term.