I got fired last Monday. For sedition.

Dictionary.com defines it thusly:

  1. incitement of discontent or rebellion against a government.
  2. any action, esp. in speech or writing, promoting such discontent or rebellion.
  3. Archaic. rebellious disorder.

Now my (ex-) boss isn’t running a Government, but he isn’t stupid, and to a certain extent the charge was/is a fair cop. What’s going on here?

The Oxford English Dictionary is off-line, they say until December 2010. Google turned up something called “Oxford Dictionaries On-Line”, and it saysconduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch.” That’s closer to what J— was on about. Strike the last clause; sedition is undermining authority.

I think most of us use “authority” in a mistaken sense, as a loosely-applicable synonym for “power”. That’s a mistake that people who have or want power encourage — you will often find references to the “authority” of this or that Government agency. True authority, though, comes from expertise — education, experience, or both. If the person who “wrote the book” on a particular subject tells you to do something, or to do it in a certain way, you are wise to comply, and most people do. For people who aren’t paying attention, especially those who are anxious to get people to comply with their pronouncements and other ukases in order to satisfy their competitive urges, that looks like power — the authority speaks, and people comply.

A true authority has no problem with challenges. The person making the challenge is either right or wrong. If wrong, the challenge is easy to meet by simply displaying greater expertise. If right, the challenger gains authority; but this isn’t a problem for the original, who loses nothing and gains  an adviser with greater knowledge.

Those who euphemize power as “authority” have a problem, though. By definition, they don’t have the expertise to be a true authority; if they did, they wouldn’t have to substitute power — people would do as they say because they know what’s what. The deal — the contract, if you will — with authority is “do as I say, or bad consequences will flow from doing it wrong.” The equivalent for power is “do as I say, or I’ll hurt you.” Hurt qualifies as a “bad consequence”, but it’s not at all the same thing, especially in the (normal) situation where the Power’s dicta are wrong, and the sufferer gets both the hurt and the consequences of error.

So sedition, properly understood, is either impossible or is mostly committed by the accuser. It’s impossible to undermine true authority; it’s only possible to supercede it, to the benefit of all concerned. It is possible to undermine power — but, in the case of power masquerading as authority, the most common situation is for power to undermine its own “authority” by issuing orders that are wrong. When power is confronted with the consequences of its error, it screams “sedition!”