Rebirth of Reason


Responsibility without Authority: An "Incredible" Injustice
by JJ Tuan

There is one scene in the movie "The Incredibles" that caught my eye.  It isn't one of the action sequences, nor is it a climatic heroic confrontation.  Without giving too much of the movie away, it's a rather inconspicuous scene when Mrs. Incredible leaves her preteen son and daughter, Dash and Violet, in a cave before she goes out to explore on her own.  Like a good mother she tells her kids to be safe and that Violet, who is the older child, is in charge in her absence.  Right at that moment, I know that she has given all the power to Dash.  That's right, Dash, the younger son rather than the intended Violet.

Violet has been given responsibility without authority.  She has no real hold over Dash, and yet is expected to keep the situation under control.  Should anything go wrong, she would be the first to be held responsible.  What does that give Dash?
Full reign to let loose his natural curiosity with no fear of consequences.  And he proceeds to do just that.  As soon as their mom leaves, with the real authority figure gone and a designated scapegoat in place, Dash announces his intention to explore the deeper end of the cave.  Grabbing a torch and moving straight for the dark entrance, he means his every word.  What does Violet do?  All she could say is, "But mom said..." to no avail.  Would Dash have wanted to explore the cave? Probably.  But in his mom's presence?  Doubtful.  Yet he has no problem as soon as Violet becomes in charge, precisely because not only does she have no real authority over him but will shoulder most of the blame should things go wrong.

Being given responsibility without authority can breed a sense of helplessness, frustration, humiliation and despair, but never a sense empowerment.  Should anyone ever find themselves in that unfortunate position, the outcomes are easy to predict.

Take classrooms as an example.  Teachers are given no real authority to discipline their students even though they are held responsible for their students' well behavior. One way for a teacher to deal with this is to assume the authority anyway, for instance, spank the student.  The disciplined student would complain to his parents and escalate the issue to the principal's office.  The teacher ends up getting blamed for exercising powers she's not authorized to use.

Another way is to shrugged the responsibility.  Just let the student run rampant for all to see.  If the situation is bad enough, the problematic student would be removed and the teacher will no longer have to deal with that responsibility.

A third way is to be at the mercy of the student.  Nag, beg, plead, bribe, whatever it takes to quiet down trouble.  Clearly this is the worst of the three when the situation increasingly deteriorates as the student amasses more power.

None of the above three methods, whether it's assuming authority, shrugging the responsibility, or be at the mercy of another, is a winning solution.  There is no positive outcome possible when it comes to responsibility without authority. Ultimately, the injustice is that a person should never be held accountable for actions of someone else's.  Or as John Galt said when he was faced with the blackmail of innocent children getting killed if he did not cave in, "Tell the bastard to look at me, then look in the mirror, then ask himself whether I would ever think that my moral stature is at the mercy of his actions."
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