Are You Talking To Me?

Nov 4, 2019 by

“Is carotid artery pulsating?  Is subject making any oral clicking sounds?  Any deep sighs?  Is there any darting of eyes or arching of eyebrows?  Is subject smiling at the wrong time?  Does the subject have goose bumps or are hairs standing on end?  Are subject’s nostrils dilated or distended?

These are actual questions lifted verbatim from an old training manual from a law-enforcement academy designed to help size up subjects during interrogation.

In most cases, the subjects are ordinary members of the public who did nothing to particularly arouse suspicion. But when people are in a position of authority and there is little recourse but to submit to them as they are acting within their official capacity. If you are the person of their interest you’ve just got to hope that they’re decent people under their uniform and will not be abusive, even if they could get away with it.

The questions from the cheat-sheet document are very telling, though.  They won’t reveal much about the subject of interrogation, but they tell a lot about the mindset of a powerful bureaucracy, whether it be police or in the area of education administration.

They sound like they came from the operators manual of a secret state police force or a screenplay salvaged from the cutting floor of Saturday Night Live.

But can’t you imagine those helpful hints being used by principals in dealing with staff members summoned to their office to answer charges of varying severity?

Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but I have witnessed the tone implicit in those questions being employed willy-nilly by supervisors. For instance, “After Johnny trashed the room and beat up Jimmy, did you tell him that he couldn’t sit next to his friend at lunch that day?”  That is an actual case (only the names were changed) and not so atypical. If the teacher had answered in the affirmative, she would have been disciplined.

The principal did not articulate the questions, but there were unmistakable signals in his demeanor that they were crossing his mind.  He luxuriated in being the boss, a goon if it were his pleasure to play one, went to town on that fantasy and his body language gave him away.  That’s the only language in which he was literate.

The Department of Education stays out of most meetings of this kind, but through their policies and their communications to principals, they empower the kind of attitude reflected in those questions. 

Their massive legal department has gifted principals with templates for how to dot the “i” s and cross the “t”s to hopelessly snare subordinates into surrendering their career. They have hired a regiment of former principals to be mentors to school leaders to keep them up to speed for that specific purpose.  That is a greater priority than curriculum and there are always openings for hatchet men and women.

People in positions of superior authority, especially when they have control over people’s lives and can do them lasting damage, should consciously apply principles of humility. Whether it’s border guards, principals, teachers in their interaction with students and parents, or any other combination of humanity.  When any department of any government gives us its de facto blessing to be a bully, we must resist the temptation to run with it.

Ron Isaac

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