Habituating reliability: The curse of the unreliable Dutch Uncle – and how to cure it.

Mutiny is the reliable proxy signal of unreliable leadership.

Photo by: Javonni Christopher

There is a category of cinema we might as well call the dutch uncle movie.

(Yes, it is taxing to talk to me, since the same terms come up in different contexts. You’ll manage.)

A dutch uncle movie marries the bad dad yarn to the magic negro trope:

An underfathered single-mom slowly learns to appreciate the micro-doses of the until-then-disdained masculinity her son is covertly imbibing from the filthy old creep next door.

That’s how Hollywood praises fatherhood – by faint damnation. The story isn’t about the kid, nor even about the smelly curmudgeon. They’re decoys. The theme is this: Single-motherhood rules, because, if kids needs dads, they don’t need ’em very much. Accordingly, the character who is most changed by the end is whom? Abre los ojos.

I don’t like dutch uncles or magic negros in film – and not just because they turn Hollywood’s favorite deus ex machina, the magic wand, into a dirty joke. I despise the idea of magic as such – since it could not possibly be more anti-human-efficacy. And I am in lifelong rebellion against the entire class of notions that virtue is somehow injected into a person from the outside. And, obviously, anything that portrays an underfathered upbringing as anything but a (surmountable) handicap is a vicious lie – propaganda.

But the worst thing about dutch uncle movies is that they’re all actually, inadvertently about adult reliability – and they all get it wrong.

Mom is not just hugely unreliable at home, at work and in her cultivation of her son, she is unreliable everywhere – and not just now but all along, hence her divorce. She married the wrong guy? Duh! Femininity in cinema is unreliability all the way down.

And the curmudgeon is not wrong everywhere except where the script says he’s right. His process is mocked as being eccentric, but he pursues it scrupulously. Uniquely among the players we meet in Act I, he is unashamedly himself.

Both mom and the dutch uncle neighbor are unavoidably all-the-way role models, but mom is in mutiny against all adulthood, where the creep, apparently, is simply in rebellion against the popular aversion to untouchables. Mom needs a reliable father-figure even more than her son does, and the plot turns on her grand epiphany that she enjoys and profits from micro-doses of fungible avuncularity, too.

She doesn’t need a father, mind you. Nobody does. Hollywood says so, constantly, and Hollywood is god. All she needs is to be yelled at by a scruffy old man from whom she craves approval but for whom she has no respect. Oh, wait…

Reliability is not of minor or temporary importance to a child – it is everything. I like to say cultivation is expectation, but that’s looking at things from the cultivator’s point of view. From the child’s perspective, cultivation is reliability. And what is the objective of the cultivator’s expectation? The gradual emergence of that same reliability in the child.

The purpose of self-responsible adulthood is to cultivate self-responsible adulthood in the next generation of adults. (Dispute that claim? Your grandkids – if any – will not.) From both the perspective of the actor and the people with whom he interacts, self-responsible adulthood is expressed, expected and (ahem) relied-upon in the form of reliability. This is the actual substance of the quality we call civility: The universally-shared expectation – ideally the unshakeable confidence – that the other guy will always behave reliably, will always hold up his end.

We educate our children in order that they might be human, and reliability is how they are human. It is what we cultivate by expectation in our kids, and it is what they cultivate in us, in their turn, by their belief that we will behave reliably.

You will hear the word stability a lot in discussions of children. As always, we have the outside-in bias: Upbringing is what we think we’re doing to a child, where in fact he is actually growing himself up, with some outside assistance. He would grow up with other upbringing – or with what you might insist is no upbringing at all. But: Fish don’t know they’re wet, and every home is a tiny fishbowl that the kid thinks is the whole ocean; the less that fishbowl gets knocked around, the better.

But as much as I might want for children to be able to grow up in a never-changing world, the world they were born into has never been less like that. Still worse, by undermining everything that makes families strong – starting and ending with self-responsible fatherhood – we have made day-to-day stability all but impossible for our offspring.

What would be perfect? Families would never move, for one simple thing, especially not when any kid in that family is graduating from Toddler to Child. Parents would never divorce – and not just in this home, not in any home. No step-parents and their step-children, obviously, and certainly no come-and-go paramours. Strangers near and far – neighbors and merchants and functionaries – would always stay right where they are. And no one would ever die – especially not a sibling, parent or grandparent.

Yeah. It’s a problem. Good parents and other self-responsible adults can control for some of that, but for much of it we can’t: Into each fishbowl a little acid rain must fall. But we will always manage to find a way to say the only thing that can be said in the face of loss: “Thank goodness kids are resilient!”

In fact they are – provided their grown-ups are reliable – since the stability that matters most to children is the stability of their relationships, not their circumstances. If your kids know they can count on you, no matter what happens, they can weather storms. But if they know they can’t rely on you – or if they’re not convinced they can…

Mutiny is a graduated state of rebellion: I have not fought or fled – my two options from nature when faced with a threat – and yet I have not fully embraced our relationship, committed myself to it whole-heartedly and without reservation. In that way, mutiny can be seen as a sort of renegotiation-by-threatened-rebellion – behavior that, among strangers, we would readily identify as cheating, fraud-by-annoyance, combat-by-insistent-hinderance.

But the fact of a mutiny in an ongoing relationship argues that there is an unaddressed threat or peril, against which the mutinous behavior is a kind of hedged-bet: By seemingly-infinite silent proclamations, I reserve the right to break and/or take over this relationship. Mutiny is a graduated competition for dominance coupled with a graduated threat to desert: If I can’t boss the boss around, I’ll quit.

My question: Why is the boss behaving so unreliably as to incite mutiny?

For that is the ultimate, underlying reality: People don’t rebel against leadership they trust – only the other kind. What is untrustworthy in your leadership that, instead of upholding it and advancing it as we agreed, I seek instead to undermine and divert it? Fault me all day for what I’m doing – motes or beams, have it your way – but if you were holding up your end, everyone else would be, too.

A fish rots from the head, and your kid doesn’t bug the neighbor for leadership if he’s getting enough at home.

We’re talking about school, but we could just as easily be talking about any kind of human relationship: What is most broken in any broken social machine is its leadership. Every ongoing relationship is a Dutch Uncle Game, and every failing relationship is being led by an unreliable Dutch Uncle.

Unreliable according to whom? According to the mutineers.

What’s unreliable in poor leadership? What isn’t? Abandonment, absence, indifference, caprice, vacillation, inconsistency, disproportionality, favoritism, jealousy, self-dealing, competition, deception – all the way down to open combat, captivity, even brutality – all for your own good of course.

You don’t do any of that? Got mutiny? “Yes” cannot be the answer to both questions. How do I know that’s so? Your mutineers told me: Mutiny is the reliable proxy signal of unreliable leadership.

So now that we know that, like almost everyone else, you are behaving unreliably when you hold responsibility for leadership – when you are implicitly if not explicitly the Dutch Uncle of that social machine – let’s go back to the question I asked before:

Why is the boss behaving so unreliably as to incite mutiny?

I can name that tune in two words: Asymmetrical accountability: You answer to me, but I don’t answer to you. Mutiny is an irrational survival strategy deployed in response to an irrational relationship, one where consent is to some degree assumed or prescribed and where escape is to some degree obstructed. Mutiny is a campaign of graduated retaliations against a graduated tyranny.

From time immemorial, humans have sought to pretend that power imbalances are in some sense immalleable manifestations of being rather than temporary artifacts of instantly-reversible choices. They deploy that stupid claim in displays that come down to this: “Me boss. You slave. So there!” In due course, that answer to that ‘argument’ always turns out to be, “Tell it to Caesar, chump!” And in the interim? Mutiny.

Most people’s complaints with their parents – and with school, with their employers and with the state – result from the non-venal abuse of asymmetrical authority – from unreliability. The boss thinks being the boss means something other than Dutch Uncle leadership – authority universally regarded as being appropriate by ongoing unanimous consent. And when the boss expresses what he insists is his extra-special magical ‘authoritah,’ mutiny ensues. The people he is affecting to lead know that he is unreliable in his leadership, so they come to be steadily less reliable in hewing to it – and steadily more reliable in undermining and/or defecting from it.

Why must all this be so? Because every social machine is a family and every family is bound together by storgic love – by the enduring love of families.

The love of friends is fungible. The love of lovers fragile. The love of families is neither: “We made a commitment to each other, and we will stand by each other through thick and thin.” Doesn’t always last, but nothing can last without that willingness to bear losses together now in hopes of reaping gains together later.

That’s marriage, yes, and family, too – both the one you’ve started and the one you started out in – but it’s also the skeet club or the country club or the La Leche League or anywhere people come together as self-selected volunteers. It’s school, sad to say, and every job you’ve ever had for more than one day.

Good leadership or bad, if you stuck with it, it’s because you made a commitment, and that commitment was made of storgic love, at least on your part: “My belief, as expressed by my ongoing actions, is that I stand to gain more from being loyal to this social machine than I do by abandoning or betraying it.”

So why do clubs work so well, marriages, families and jobs less so, school even less so – with the state working worst of all? Asymmetrical accountability. When an ‘authoritah’ takes over a club, everyone else quits. Because accountability flows freely in both directions, leadership of clubs is almost always appropriately sane and reasonable.

The same is true for families, except the threat of abandonment and physical or legal force can create non-consensual power imbalances.

Your boss at work buys the ‘right’ to shit all over you with pretty golden handcuffs. How do we know he has your consent for his continuous abuse? You haven’t fought or fled, you’ve just steamed away your life in a marriage you won’t commit to and won’t break up. Do you want to tell me it’s not the same thing? I know it is.

And the state – by way of its many, many minions – just pushes you around at gunpoint, with no concern for or even any discernible awareness of your undeniably freely-willed autonomy. People just love to be treated that way.

Looked at in this context, it’s easy to see the seed of all mutiny: The abuse of asymmetrical authority.

Someone must drive the car, and, accordingly, everyone else – even the person who shouts “Shotgun!” – is necessarily in a subordinate position, a follower in fact if not by whole-hearted commitment. As long as everyone agrees that the Dutch Uncle – the driver – is leading reliably – driving us efficiently but safely to where we all want to go – there will be no mutiny, nor even any rankling awareness of super- and subordination.

No one resents the boss when everyone believes he’s holding up his end. It’s when one or more members of the social machine come to doubt the Dutch Uncle’s reliability that all hell breaks loose.

Tolstoy said, “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.“ That seems superficial to me. The underlying reality is that every broken storgic social machine is broken in exactly the same way: The boss is unreliable and, in consequence, every member of that social group will be steadily less reliably committed to it over time. Some will rebel openly, by mutiny, some passively, with a frantically-accelerating passivity.

And with all that as introduction, would you care to take a look around the classroom to tell me what’s wrong?

Every broken social machine is broken, ultimately, because the boss is failing to convince himself that there can be leadership that does not have to be earned, that leadership is imposed from the top down and from the outside in, and that the failure of his followers to respond appropriately is their fault, not his. He won’t relinquish that absurdly, obviously wrong position, nor will he yield his ‘authoritah’ to someone who can actually manage it.

Every social machine is broken because the boss – as demonstrated by his choices – wants it that way. He seems unreliable because he is unreliable. Whatever he wants from the social machine, it’s not the shared purpose of that group – and it shows. Mutiny tells – on the boss.

Power corrupts? No, asymmetrical accountability corrupts: It’s because I don’t answer to you that I am able to pursue my own agenda instead of – or even in opposition to – our shared goal. With the accountability of clubs, bad management is easily managed. But with the accountability of governments…

Even disregarding the anti-humanistic Ci curriculum, modern schooling is hostile to the notion of reciprocal accountability: It’s me-boss-you-slave all the way down. That’s why it works almost as well as the Internal Revenue Service: Same level of respect for the clientele.

The classroom itself is an irrational compromise: Education is a solitary activity pursued socially for economies of scale. That artificial construct makes the teacher more alike to a bus driver than to the driver of a car: There are fewer direct opportunities for each kid to weigh the probity of the boss, and many more opportunities for the boss to bellow out generic compliance displays. Works great, don’t it?

ThriversEd aims to cure all this. How? Usus est magister optimus. Almost everyone is bad at leadership because almost no one has any practice at it – not practice based in an actual understanding of how people really work. That’s the purpose of The Dutch Uncle Game, to give children regular practice exercising appropriate authority – authority universally regarded as being appropriate by ongoing unanimous consent.

Go back and look at the rules: Consent is negotiated, not assumed, and escape is never blocked. That’s a mutually-voluntary polity, even if it’s a polis consisting of one putatively-unreliable Dutch Uncle. He blew it today. The PEAK evaluations – reciprocal accountability – will tell him where he went wrong. In consequence, he’ll do better next time.

All of ThriversEd is built to cultivate reliability with reliability: You perform reliably, you evaluate reliably and you lead and follow reliably – all the time.

The maturation of every organism emerges from the inside out and the bottom up and in no other way – no matter how much easier and more propitious it might seem to pretend otherwise.

Children grow into adult roles by taking on and experiencing gradually-increasing adult responsibilities. That’s what the salty old goat is doing in the dutch uncle movies: He’s letting the kid grow up, where his patronizing mammy insists on infantilizing him. ThriversEd accelerates the cultivation of adult reliability by focused, consistent practice.

We’re not cultivating heartless poindexters or mindless schmoozers. That’s all we get now, but that’s just because we’ve been going at this wrong. ThriversEd cultivates adult reliability by continuously cultivating adult reliability.

And thats’s what we’re schooling our children for.

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