Yesterday, a friend relayed a story about his three year-old daughter. They had company over for the evening, and as the guests were leaving for the night, my friend asked his daughter to say goodbye.
“No,” she said and shook her head. He asked her again to please say goodbye to the departing guests.
“No,” she repeated and crossed her arms.
“Alright,” he said to her, and he turned and said goodbye to his friends.
Two generally recognized dynamics typically play out in such situations based on two opposing principles. The first, demonstrated by the above interaction, is that the right to refuse a request is absolute. Nobody should be compelled to engage in a behavior that they, for whatever reason, don’t support.
The underlying principle is the equality of all human beings. If my friend can say, “no” to a request, for example, to play hide-and-seek and expect to have his response ultimately respected (the pleading of a three year-old aside), then his daughter should have the same “power.”
Oddly, this is something we all (well, mostly) recognize among adults. Those that don’t, people who take or touch against the will of another we call criminals–thieves and rapists. When kids are involved, it’s unfortunately all too common for the second dynamic play out. This dynamic is based on the principle that authority is to be obeyed. If obedience is not forthcoming, the authority can use their superior power to inflict increasing levels of coercion until his will is followed.
Thankfully it’s less common these days, but in the very recent past it was acceptable, expected, in fact, that a disobedient child be immediately physically punished so that they would learn to obey reflexively and without hesitation.
An interesting personal reflex worth some self-examination is one’s discomfort with a child being allowed to exercise it’s will. In all of us who grew up under some version of the authoritarian model, there’s a twinge of anxiety when a parent “backs down” from a “command,” or compromises with a child. A commonly heard concern is that the child will become spoiled or demanding and that a parent will “lose their authority” if they give in to a child’s refusal.
The “Grown Up” Parallel
On Jan. 24th, Pete Eyre was asked to remove his hat while observing proceedings in a New Hamphsire court. He refused, and was commanded to remove his hat. He refused again and was immediately dragged from his chair onto the floor and placed under arrest.
Yesterday, at the bail hearing, Pete Eyre refused to identify himself. Now he will be held indefinitely in a cage.
If you are interested in the story, you can find all kinds of perspectives arguing that Pete was wearing his hat because it was cold, that he doesn’t give his name because he doesn’t want to be “processed,” (photographed, finger printed, etc), but all of that is irrelevant from my perspective.
Pete Eyre is locked in a cage for the foreseeable future because a man referring to himself as “the court”, like the brutalizing parent, cannot compromise, cannot back down, and must be obeyed. Once a line is drawn, “take off your hat,” or “state your name,” the only acceptable resolution is one in which the order is obeyed. State officials are the other exception (the first being the aforementioned violent criminals) to the rule barring physical coercion between adult human beings.
The mind, at least my mind, when processing a story like this, immediately leaps to the instruction of our youth: do what you’re told, take off your hat, give your name. If you cooperate, you can be home instead of a prison. Refusing to obey is unreasonable.
The more developed, intellectual aspect of our response might be that the rules of the court must be followed. Police officers must be obeyed. Aren’t these principles the foundation of a civil society?
Of course they are not. The foundation of a civil society is that all its members are equals. Nobody has control of another person and all laws, for lack of a better term, are symmetrical. That is to say that if person A can demand that person B take off an article of his/her clothing and, if refused, can throw person B into a cage, then person B must be able to do the same to person A. If A can ask B’s name, and lock B up indefinitely if he/she refuses, then B can do the same to A.
Equality makes such behavior untenable at best and dangerous at worst. This instability (and, I would argue, human nature) leads to adherence to the opposite set of policies. Removal of clothes and exchange of names are undertaken with consent, negotiation and a lack of physical coercion.
The bottom line to the story, when all the trappings of high-school civics class are stripped away, is that a peaceful man, who hasn’t harmed anyone and against whom no one has a complaint, is locked in a cage because he wore a hat and wouldn’t give his name. As much as the mind attempts to bend this story into something reasonable or acceptable, the bare facts remain unchanged. If they are absorbed and truly comprehended, the ghastly and unjust nature of the situation is inescapable.
Tipping My Hat to Disobedience
The Name of the Game is Woof
For much more and breaking news: Free Keene and Cop Block (which I think is co-run by Pete Eyre)