Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Sass", Insubordination, and the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Stupid Authoritarianism

Over the last couple of months, as I've been working in earnest to finish out my first book project, I've found myself mining more and more of my own memories for dramatic ammunition in my Clay Dillon stories.  It makes sense that I'd do this--Shaping Clay is a series about coming of age with autism before the DSM-IV, so it's got to be a bit autobiographical.  As I was working on my most recent section of the first book, Nothing is Right, it occurred to me that a lot of Clay's behavior would be construed as defiant or "Sass" by a good many adults.  After all, most kids don't just do exactly what they're told.

If you tell the typical 6 year old "Go outside, and don't come back in until dinner," they'll go play.  If you said that to a kid and he just sat next to the door, waiting until it was time to go back in, then you might get it in your head that he was intentionally refusing to make the best of the situation.  Most people wouldn't assume that the child knew he was in trouble, but didn't know why, and that he was simply terrified of doing anything he wasn't supposed to do.  It's not necessarily natural to think he was only doing exactly what he was told because he didn't want to invite any more seemingly random retribution against himself.

When I was a child myself, the thing I was most often punished for was "sass".  If I asked why I was supposed to do something too many times, it was assumed that I was trying to avoid the task.  If I didn't hear someone, or if I didn't realize that I was being addressed, then I was punished for ignoring the instructions.  If I got confused and said something like "what good will that do?" in an attempt to understand the purpose of my task, then I was very often barked at, grounded, or otherwise punished.

Now, as an adult, I can see why some people thought that I was being intentionally difficult when these things happened.  What I don't understand is why this pattern of behavior wasn't noticed.  That is, if I "sassed" in the same way every time, and if punishment only confused me and made me throw temper tantrums, then why didn't anyone ever stop to question either my understanding of the incidents or the fitness of the punishment?

It's a question that really bothers me, because I wound up with a few really erroneous beliefs because of it.  I came to believe:
  1. Authority figures are always stupid.  They only care about pushing their own agendas, and attempting to appeal to them for help understanding the instructions will always be treated as insubordination.
  2. That I was a particularly insolent and insubordinate person who was incapable of cooperating.
  3. That, because of #1, I always knew better than the person "in charge" in a given situation.
  4. That, because of #2 and #1, my peers expected me to "rescue" them from the stupidity of the person in charge.
Understandably, my first few tries at the job market did not work out well.  I was suffering from a classic self-fulfilling prophecy:  tell a kid he's bad, and he'll be bad.  Tell a kid that his only problem is that he just doesn't respect authority, and he won't.

After all, why should authority be respected when it's most basic assumption is that someone who's trying his best to pitch in doesn't respect authority?