Sunday, November 27, 2005

Question Authority

The slippery slope toward Storm Troopers in the street asking for your papers (and where you got those 'droids) just got a bit slicker and steeper.

On the 9th of December 2005, one U.S. citizen by the name of Deborah Davis will be arraigned in U.S. District Court for refusing to show identification to a federal security guard, while on a public bus going to her (non-government) job. Turns out the bus cuts through a complex of government buildings on its public route, and the local security believed they were authorized to demand identification papers from anyone passing through - whether or not said individuals actually worked in the complex, or had ever signed any documents (like government employees are asked to do) submitting to said searches.

(If I thought the Jose Padilla case was an early indicator of the erosion of personal freedoms and constitutional rights of U.S. citizens, this one tends to raise the temperature a notch or two.)

Power corrupts. This trite saying is trite because everyone and their Aunt Minnie knows it to be true. It appears to be part of human nature. Power placed in the hands of human individuals, no matter how well intentioned, inevitably gets misused by those who are not completely pure of heart.

Okay, I went to school at UC Berkeley. "QUESTION AUTHORITY" was embedded the culture of the school. But I think most of you have had at least one experience (and probably a few) where a police officer, a bureaucrat, a teacher, or some other authority figure used the power of their position in a way that was less than

I remember the cop who pulled over my (black) friend because he was running through the parking lot (wearing a suit, and carrying his suit carrier, dashing to make his flight). When I caught up and questioned the officer as to why he was hassling my friend, the officer threatened to arrest me for obstruction of justice. Sure it wouldn't stick - but he could have arrested me, and it would have been on my record.

Now not all police are racist pricks like this guy. But even power in the hands of the well meaning but not well trained can lead to serious adverse outcomes. I remember one time I was visiting NORAD, and showed up slightly after the shift change. I was getting out of my car, in full uniform, when I found myself looking into the barrel of an M-16 held by a cocky 18-year old. I slowly presented ID, and he slowly lowered the weapon, but the facts that the gun was pointed at my head and his finger was actually on the trigger did make me a bit nervous. Ten minutes later, as I'm riding the bus down the tunnel, the ambulance comes screaming by in the other direction, as we hear on the radio that some guard managed to shoot another one accidentally with his M-16... (Life number 7 - check...)

But it's not just abuse of power by the authorities that is a danger. The climate of fear and compliance engendered by these controls creates the opportunity for exploitation.

A case in point. This little item from 2004 caught my attention at the time because it was such a clear example of what blind compliance with authority could lead to. Some perv managed to convince managers at multiple locations to strip search a coworker. Not only did the manager obey this anonymous, unseen "authority figure", the employee subjected to the strip search also complied on most occasions. Either the nation's McDonalds are filled with a strange mix of Nazis and Exhibitionists, or there's some strange common behavior in humans to obey authority figures - even when they know the action to be wrong. (And there were real world repercussions to obeying - many of these managers were later convicted on various charges, such as rape, kidnapping, assault - 7 were known to be convicted!)

I had been aware of Stanley Milgram's experiments with obedience to authority, wherein ordinary people obeyed an authority figure to give potentially lethal levels of electric shock to an innocent test subject. The Stanford Prison Experiment is another famous example of how ready we are to kow tow.

Fascinating work is also going on in marketing research around the world on how to persuade people to do something they wouldn't have thought of doing on their own. How to induce persuasion through seemingly innocuous techniques like asking questions, to reducing resistance to persuasion, the soft sciences are starting to exploit some of the hard sciences (evolutionary biology, neuroscience) to understand how the brain is wired, and how to short circuit it. (MacGyver, armed only with a paperclip and a battery, manages to convince the Storm Trooper that these aren't the droids he's looking for...)

It is tempting to cede more and more freedoms for the perception of more security. But unless you want a country where Junior Patrolman-in-training Billy Bob can tell you to produce your identity papers or be subjected to a strip search next to the french fry machine, it might be wise to pay attention to these trends - and question authority.

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