This MLKjr weekend, I had a lot of conversations about leadership and authority, specifically about respect for a venerable position. They were very good conversations.
However, at some point, this idea of respect for an office got conflated to owed respect to the person in the office. In short, the person in a position of authority must automatically deserve respect or else how did they get into that position of authority? If they didn’t deserve respect as a person, then they wouldn’t be an authority figure. This mobius strip merging of position of respect and a person in the position automatically deserving of respect is not that uncommon. Not only do people give respect to undeserving people in powerful positions, those undeserving people seem to think that respect is their right because of their office as well.
I remember when my son was young and struggling with behavior in school. He was physical with other kids, active, disruptive in class. He was BAD. For the first three years of his public school education, I routinely punished him after school for behavior he exhibited in school that wasn’t corrected then (they preferred to tattle to me). Because of this disconnect between lack of discipline in school and my being the heavy for things both in home and away, he associated discipline with me and chaos with school. Needless to say, my son’s behavior didn’t change at school but he was VERY well-behaved in front of me.
We were both miserable. His life outside of school became a prison with his going to bed right after dinner, no play dates on the weekends, no toys, no Meercat Manor, anything I could think of to punish him into respecting his teachers. Nothing worked. Towards the end of his first grade year, I remember coming into his room which by now resembled an ascetic monk’s cell (blank walls, empty bed with only a fitted sheet on the mattress–he’d play with any blankets) and found my son happily playing shadow puppets with his fingers. What was I supposed to do now? Lock him in a dark room? Take away his hands? It was then I decided that I was not going to force my son to respect people who didn’t deserve it.
Because the thing is, his kindergarten, first grade, and to an extent second grade (she, unfortunately inherited a bad situation) teachers didn’t deserve respect. They had no control over their classrooms with 5-, 6-, and 7-year-old students often freely moving about, making disruptive noises; the teachers exercised no authority, often melting down and throwing tantrums of their own when they felt the class was (rightfully) out of control. I once walked in on his first grade teacher yelling at the entire class, telling them that they would all end up in jail because they were so terrible. And that incident wasn’t a one-off moment.
My punishing my son to respect an adult who he knew so obviously didn’t deserve respect just because this adult happened to be his teacher was not teaching my son to be a respectful person. Rather, I was disciplining him into being the type of person who is abused by bad people in authority just because they happen to have authority over him.
Respecting a position of authority, say that of an educator, does not mean we have to respect a bad person who happens to be in that position. Many bad people manipulate their way into authority through lies or exploiting a flaw in the system. I’m sure you can think of some famous examples right now. We don’t have to respect these bad people automatically because they happened to have made it there. Especially, if they exhibit behavior that conclusively demonstrates they are not worthy of respect.
Here is where I get into trouble with authority figures because the above statements often sound to them as if I am saying “throw out authority; let anarchy rule.” Not so. Because power and people in positions of power can get tricky with all the feelings and history and such, let’s think about two situations with truly bad people in authority.
- A physically abusive person who is a parent.
- A child molester who is a priest.
Both the position of parent and priest are offices with long histories of respect. Both offices have been held by amazing people who have worked positive things in the world. And when we meet someone who is a parent or a priest, we, rightfully, often ascribe certain reverence to their vocation because of its rich tradition. We parents teach our kids to respect parents. We people of faith teach our kids to respect people in the church.
But I don’t think any of us would say that our kids need to respect a beater or a molester just because they hold positions we traditionally respect. In fact, these bad people in my example are not only unworthy of respect, but they also do not get to keep their positions of authority. These bad people lost both when they chose to violate the personhood of another.
While I highly respect both positions of parent and priest. I do not respect a person who abuses another person even if they hold these positions.
Our chatting calmly about how we need to respect a bad person who is about to assume an office of authority is akin to letting the beater and molester keep their positions because we value the institutions that set these positions up more than the people who are being hurt.
For many of us, we can talk so calmly and oh so civilly about these things because the consequences of a bad person in a position of authority doesn’t affect us directly. We can talk and not do things to remove this person because we have the privilege of not being the people who get the bruises and broken bones and flayed psyche. And by pretending we are so wise and sage as we just sit and talk behind our privilege, we are choosing to ignore the bloody signs right in our faces. What does that make us? What are we teaching our kids?
Bad people don’t deserve respect no matter what type of job they have. And bad people know that. So often they hide in jobs that come with a cloak of authority. They hope that we won’t see the evil they perpetuate and that we’ll let them be. Sometimes they hide well but in the cases when we clearly see the hurt, the damage, the evil, we have no excuse of “respect” to allow it to continue one second more.
My son’s first grade teacher was not a bad man. He was actually a very nice man who just had no idea how to teach 30 feral 6-year-olds (hell, I don’t know how to do that). He wasn’t actually hurting the children with his undisciplined classroom and all of those kids were able to thrive once they moved up a grade. He wasn’t a beater or a molester, but he still didn’t deserve respect from my son.
Right after I realized that I couldn’t force my child to respect someone who didn’t earn it, I had a parent teacher conference with the first grade teacher. Out of his frustration with his class, he began berating me for not disciplining my son better at home, thus letting him bring his bad behavior to school. It wasn’t personal; just the complaints of an exhausted man who shouldn’t have had the job he had. But I had had enough. Finally, the teacher said to me, “Your son just doesn’t respect me.”
“I can’t make him respect you.” I replied. “You have to earn that.”