When information becomes readily available to anyone interested and willing to study the details, the ‘professional – citizen’ relationship changes

There were two unrelated news headlines recently that shared a theme – individuals challenging authority and being punished for their knowledge.

Issue 1 – Knowing your rights

The first was an incident where a man was arrested whilst walking to pick up his children from school. He had arrived 10 minutes early and sat on a bench in a public area. The security guard from a nearby office asked him to move, saying it was a private bench. The man refused pointing out there were no signs nearby to indicate the bench area was private. The security guard called the police. By the time they arrived, the 10 minutes were up and the man was already walking to the school to pick up his children. The first police officer asked to see his ID. He refused stating that he wasn’t required to produce any unless they suspected him of committing a crime. The second officer pushed him, told him he was going to jail, tazed him to the ground and arrested him. Confiscating the phone on which he happened to have been recording the entire incident. The man was later released without charge and finally retrieved his phone six months later. Unsurprisingly, the video got uploaded to YouTube.

The Atlantic published the story along with the video, you can watch it there – Man Arrested While Picking Up His Kids

Issue 2 – Knowing your subject

The second was an incident where parents were arrested for trying to seek specialist treatment for a very sick child that was refused to them on the UK’s national health service (NHS). Challenging the medical consultant’s preference for chemotherapy led to being threatened that the hospital would apply for a court order to overrule the parents’ wishes. The parents had other ideas and discharged their son from hospital, making arrangements to self-fund the specialist treatment they believed would be better for him. The hospital called the police who issued an arrest warrant. The parents were found, arrested and put in jail whilst the son was taken to a nearby hospital and put under police guard. It then took three days to withdraw the arrest warrant, release the parents from prison and reunite them with their son. Even then, the medical consultant was still insisting he had to have the chemotherapy before any other treatment. The consultant has since backed down.

BBC News has been covering the timeline of events – Spanish judge orders Ashya King’s parents’ release

On being professional

In both cases, the citizens involved could have handled the situation better. The father waiting to pick up his kids from school didn’t help matters by accusing the police of being racist and being agitated in his reactions. The hospital was correct to involve the police when the parents and a sick child disappeared without any warning and were initially uncontactable.

But in both cases, the professionals behaved worse. The only issue to cause arrest was to challenge authority. There was no indication of criminal activity involving a bench in a public walkway and the parents had fully provided for the well-being of their child whilst making arrangements for specialist treatment. In both cases, the professionals escalated matters instead of resolving them. And in both cases, children were unnecessarily put at risk as a result.

These issues should concern everyone because the same situation could happen to anyone. The more knowledge people have, the harsher the response seems to be from those in positions of power to suppress them rather than respect a different perspective. This is never going to end well.

I have particular sympathies for the family of Ashya King. We’re taught to respect the medical profession as being experts on all things medical. Except they are not. Even a cancer specialist is unlikely to know as much about the latest research and treatment relating to a specific variant of that cancer as the family of a patient about to die from it.

We need a flatter hierarchy

The reason for highlighting these two examples is to show that we are seeing similar patterns in society as in the workplace. ‘Command and control’ has been baked into every aspect of civilisation. The pyramid of power that demands we leave decisions to those at the top and do as we are told. But it assumes that those in command are the only ones with access to knowledge. And that simply isn’t the case any more thanks to the rise of the Internet and public sharing of information on a global (and mobile) scale.

Professional training needs to accommodate this shift. The solution is to work in partnership rather than always assume a ‘them versus us’ stance. People in so-called civilised nations should be allowed to peacefully challenge authority when they have reason to believe the authority is wrong.

There is an ‘industry’ where acting in a partnership is the only effective method even though one side holds a lot more power over the other. The world of competitive horse-riding.

Show jumping at the London Olympics 2012

To be a successful competitor in modern equestrian pursuits such as show jumping, the rider must build up a rapport with the horse. You cannot force half a ton of horse to do something it doesn’t want to do. Not if you want a successful outcome. Horses may not talk but they have plenty of ways of communicating. To clear large obstacles, it’s a balancing act between control and openness. The rider makes the decisions and is responsible for putting the horse in a position to make it as easy as possible to clear the fence. But the actual effort of clearing the fence is down to the horse. And the horse can only do that if the rider doesn’t then interfere. You must be in balance whilst giving the horse the freedom needed to leap, stretch and land safely.

I think quite a few organisational systems could learn lessons from the world of horses and the benefits of partnerships versus command-and-control. This is not about networks versus hierarchies – there is still very much a pyramid of power in operation. But a partnership acknowledges that both sides are involved in achieving a successful outcome. That necessitates a degree of respect and a willingness to adjust decisions and actions based on feedback. Something that was lacking in both of the examples above.


Off-topic side note for those still reading… The choice of headline picture was deliberate. When I was competing full-time as a show jumper, my top horse had an absolute aversion to water jumps. If it was in the class, we were not…

London-Olympics-SJ-bannerFeatured images: Authors own photos from the London Olympics, 2012 – Individual Show Jumping Final

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Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. This is such an important topic and it is only going to become more important as the speed and scale of information grows and grows at a faster pace than the law that defines it and people’s rights. Thanks for addressing this. We came close to having a medical authority intervention moment when our daughter was about 4 months old. A doctor decided that our daughter was losing weight because my wife was breast feeding and neglected to even check for the urinary tract infection that was the cause. A quick change to a better doctor eliminated any action on his part, but he was threatening.

  2. Thanks Dan, a lovely comment. And goodness, what a worrying time that must have been for you and your family. It’s concerning just how many stories we hear about that share such a similar pattern – the arrogance of ‘I studied for years, I know best’ and the threat of escalating if you dare to question.

    A good friend says the mark of a great scientist is one who, when asked their opinion about astrology, doesn’t dismiss it as crazy but instead says something along the lines ‘I have yet to see it proven but retain an open mind…’

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