Another dot in the blogosphere?

How to (not) erode moral authority

Posted on: February 14, 2018

I wondered if I should illustrate this reflection with a photo of an inconsiderate patron at the library.

I made up my mind when I recalled how she opted to sleep in public and then raised a fuss when approached by a librarian. There is no shaming the shameless.

But this reflection is not about a character attack. If I had such inclinations, I would use Facebook.

No, this my observation of how public servants lose moral authority by compromising on standards.

Inconsiderate patron at a library.

The person in the photo was sleeping in the library. This seems harmless until you realise that she:

  • Was denying a more legitimate user of a seat
  • Set a phone alarm that alerted everyone but her
  • Drew the attention of the same librarian on two occasions
  • Verbally abused the librarian

The librarian had first told the woman not to sleep there. In her second patrol, the librarian responded to the ringing alarm. She asked the woman, “Are you feeling ok?” and this set the woman off. The woman cussed and complained.

Thankfully, inconsiderate patrons are still the minority, but I still do not envy being the librarian. It takes just one to spoil your day.

That said, librarians (and anyone in authority) are gatekeepers of behaviour. If they let one misbehaviour through, others will follow. If they attempt to stem the flow and do not do it well, the flow continues.

The librarian asked an indirect question in an attempt to deal with the problem. She was hoping that the woman would realise her anti-social behaviour and correct herself by leaving. She did not and she was recalcitrant.

A more direct approach might have been to tell the woman that it was library policy not to deny a more legitimate user a seat. If she did not get that message, the librarian could do what the periodic announcements declare — tell her to leave.

It is not always wise to let sleeping dogs lie. They will take over and you will lose moral authority.

This is a principle that applies broadly to other contexts, e.g, classrooms, public transport, parenting. Our authority as educators, public servants, or parents lies not in who we are, but in what we stand on. Lose that ground and we will lose that authority.

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