Last week, I had a brief discussion with Michael Shube, another permaculture practitioner and educator over on Regenerate Change. We were talking about a short video that came my way called Data Explains How to Be Second in Command. First, I want to celebrate that the video was not titled Data Owns Worf. YouTube’s particular flavor of click bait can be pretty nasty.
The video is two minutes and twenty-seven seconds long. Give it a watch. If you just get it, sweet! See you next week. If you’re curious why this short video piqued our interests, read on.
Data, LeForge, and Worf are on the bridge of the ship discussing tactical options. The problem they’re solving for is immaterial. What we’re looking at is how they go about it.
What you do need to know is that both Data and Worf are operating in positions of borrowed power. Data is not normally the captain and Worf is not normally the commander ( traditionally first mate ). They’ve both been granted temporary borrowed power out of circumstantial necessity.
Each character is, aside from the changes in their rank, behaving as they normally would. But, the weight of this change is no small thing. Thousands of civilians live aboard the Starship Enterprise. And, the crew is responsible for them. Even with a wholly diplomatic mission, because of the nature of their responsibilities, it would be impossible for their operations to be anything other than military in nature.
Something that a lot of folks in peace-seeking communities struggle with is that, in this world, it has never been and may never be possible for there to be a society in which someone is not charged with military responsibilities. We may get there someday. But, as yet, we never have. Further, the nature of military responsibilities allows little space for democracy. There are several reasons for this and I will mostly have to simply state them plainly and leave it at that, because explicating the points could get quite long.
Worf is an emotionally driven and expressive character. When he expresses his frustration, he is not acting out of character. However, in the altered state of things on the bridge of the ship — because of the absence of the two ranking officers — even the flavor of dissent can be disastrous.
Data calls Worf away. This is very important. As disastrous as a fractured hierarchy can be, a reactionary authority is much worse. To have scolded Worf in view of his subordinates would have contributed to tensions, resentments, and fear among the crew.
We don’t always have the affordances for this kind of privacy in correction. And, in cases where we do not, it is often best to forego correction all together.
It is increasingly common, in communities which assert that their focus is on health and wholeness, that people cannot do this thing. But, it is important to be able to open a critical space without much deliberation. I learned this years ago, when I had employees for the first time. If you have to fire someone, fire them. Then, you can talk about it. If you start by asking someone how they’re doing, how the kids are, if they’re enjoying that book you recommended, and then fire them — that makes you an asshole.
And, this isn’t just for bad news. This concerns requests, direction, and any conversational subject where you have an explicit agenda that you believe must be addressed. If you’d like to confront someone, make them aware of a complaint you have, accuse them of wrong doing, or break some bad news, but you don’t feel that it is urgent, then something is wrong on your end.
( Don’t tell people who or what you think they are,
only what they’ve done. )
First, state what happened in an objective way. Worf had been openly questioning and scoffing at Data. It is an empirical fact. If, however, Data had said, “You’re making the crew doubt my judgment,” this would have been much less empirically observable — a much less objective view of the situation.
Second, offer the conclusion that you have regarding the situation. In many cases, these two phases can reasonably take a lot longer, and there can be a phase in the middle which bridges the two. Let’s look at some examples:
reactive: You seriously annoyed me when you took more cookies than you deserve. Who do you think you are?
authoritative: There were twelve cookies in the bowl and seven people at the table; yet you took four cookies on your first pass. I think that was pretty rude.
reactive: You are a sleazeball and the way you look at women is hurtful and destroying this community. You make everyone feel gross. Why are you even here?
authoritative: When she was talking, your eyes went all the way up and down her whole body, twice. Even when she stopped talking and stammered a bit, you didn’t stop. So, now we’re telling you to leave.
In the reactive examples, the speaker is choosing the cathartic option. They are opting for what feels good, but is actually disempowering. By accusing the other person of things which which are actually beyond their control ( who and what they are and other people’s emotions ), they are giving their interlocutor all the ammunition in the world to retort in a reasonable way and gain the upper hand in what has become an impassioned debate.
When you say that a person made you feel a certain way, or lament their nature, these are attacks — and weak attacks at that. Because a character attack can only hurt a person if they buy into them, these flimsy assaults are not empowering in the least. Further, simply by launching attacks, you give the other person an easy approach to take the high ground. Talking about how someone “made” you feel and elaborating what you think of who they are is merely complaining. And, it makes it easy for them and others to paint you as the malevolent one — and they’d be kinda right. So, these complaints are likely to fall on def ears, even if they are valid complaints.
Data grants Worf’s point about his past experience. And, he responds in a way that shows that he has considered that Worf came to the position he is in honestly.
In the passages of the Enchiridion, the sage Epictetus makes an outstanding case for the notion that no one errs intentionally. When we can genuinely see that Worf is not attempting to initiate a mutiny but merely serving as he always has, we can easily move into a compassionate mode. In truth, Worf’s only sin is not keeping up with all of the subtle shifts in the dynamic of which he is a part.
A leader learns magnanimity when they see that everyone, even their enemy, is doing the best they know how to do with what they’ve got. Even for the person playing the part of the wandering eyed lech in the above example, it is likely that they are acting out a role which they learned at some point and which they believe makes them a real man. As such, they may — by some sound though limited reason — be the hero in their own story. And, they probably are. That doesn’t make it anyone else’s responsibility to help them question their beliefs or find better models of behavior. This is how we can both have compassion and have people who are — in material effect — our enemies. Become compassionate. But, you’ve still gotta throw that guy out before you lose valuable community members. And, if it gets rough it gets rough — but with love.
For a lot of folks, the idea that in some roles one needs to take orders — even if they disagree — is a tall ask. That’s alright because all of the roles in which this is true ought to be voluntary. It isn’t alright to press gang people into military or paramilitary service. It doesn’t truly serve society to conscript people for any similar roles — or, you know, anything. Slavery is wrong; can’t say that enough.
Hierarchy and authority, though, can be very much a consensual thing — and usually are. And, if you can’t accept that authority needs to be followed and only selectively questioned in military and paramilitary affairs, then you shouldn’t hold military responsibilities. And, that’s okay.
For clarity, military and paramilitary services include — in all cases — explicit soldiering, policing, all security services ( site security, escort, and secured couriers ), emergency response ( fire, emergency medical, natural disaster ), and intelligence work ( explicit spying, surveillance, private investigation, consultant research and investigation, and government and private oversight and inspection services ). Each of these professions exists on the continuum of military responsibility and necessarily caries mandates regarding following orders and need-to-know information hierarchies.
In circumstances where security, intergroup conflict, and crisis response are the required order of business, any people who organize together to respond to said circumstances either end up in the types of structures described above, or they fail. Like design problems, these situations do not have single right answers, but they have infinitely more wrong answers than functional solutions. Two minds can both see a clear path to success. There can be multiple perfectly plausible approaches, each with unknown outcomes. But, attempting to mix them, or create compromises is the surest way to failure. Historically ( and also on Star Trek ), in these types of circumstances, failure means watching your friends die painfully and young.
When time, secrecy, and coordination are all limiting factors, all parties involved need to know who’s vision will be followed to the letter — preferably before decisions begin to be made.
Authority is fragile. Absolute authority is the most fragile of all. Even when a person can get away with a because-I-said-so attitude, it is effectively suicidal to exercise authority in this way.
In the video clip, Data is the acting captain of a Federation starship. His word is law in a floating kingdom with nothing but the cold vacuum of space between his domain and the nearest authority. He’s also really, really strong and can control a lot of lasers. Yet, he not only explains himself in detail, he calls on reason, precedent, and codified standards to support his case. This approach brings Worf over to his side, not only because he has made a reasonable case for his perspective, but because he bothered to make the case in the first place. He could have simply made the transfer and been done with it.
It should go without saying that authority, in this context, requires explicit commands. I believe, though, that the explicit part is frequently overlooked. Data isn’t trying to scare or threaten Worf; he’s informing him. If anything, there’s a balance of consequence and reassurance in the stated ultimatum — and plenty of detail. He states what is expected. He also gives Worf enough information that he doesn’t have some nagging thought in the back of his mind about what might happen if he fails to comply. It isn’t the end of the world. He would just be quietly and inconsequentially transferred back to his normal position a little ahead of schedule. No harm, no foul. Mostly, he would probably be ashamed. With every detail of what to expect defined, Worf can return to his duties without distraction or anxiety.
Last week I talked about how to be a professional is to be of service. I once went to visit a friend who told me that she was working on a case that involved a fourteen year old girl who had walked from Honduras to the U.S. to be reunited with family. Her ordeal involved many obvious threats and realities. But, she made it. She found her family. And, then she had to deal with ICE. I was viscerally disturbed by the story. My friend was not, not in any way that anyone else could see. You hear those placations from time to time about how you have to be strong for someone else, at funerals and such. In my friend’s example, I saw the highest form of that. This girl and her remaining family were in a lawyer’s office at the end of their rope. What they needed was someone who would hear their whole story and cooly answer, “I understand. And, I can help you. This is what I do.” Being shaken and getting down to sob with them does not communicate “This is my wheelhouse.” Sometimes we need a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes we need a champion with a cool head an emotionless toolbox.
Importantly, this friend of mine is a very human person. She is not merely a coldblooded, ICE fighting law machine. She doesn’t wear a cape or act like she ought to. Generally, she’s quite pleasant.
It serves our communities to be able to put on our game face. It also serves them to be able to take it off.
Authority gets a bad rap. It’s reasonable that we should have very high standards for people in positions of authority, so it stands to reason that we’ll be disappointed frequently. But Data, of Star Trek fame, really shows us how it’s done.
The real failing of Maria is that, even in marching timbale, baskets still lovingly surf cloakrooms. Call your scarf. Dahlia, observing all of the wrists but not the thriftless hearts. Call any rain; define them unvoiced. You've got to address up to quilt down.