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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #40, 12/6/2006

Playing God

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

If you have significant power over someone else, you become a god in their eyes. Judges are gods, and so are parents, bosses and leaders of all kinds. People look up to you and expect you to solve their problems. They may also expect you to have god-like omniscience and wisdom that you can't possibly achieve.

Being a god conveys an outward image of strength, but what you feel inside may be quite the opposite: humility, weakness, self-doubt and fear. People expect you to do so much for them, but once you control the helm of whatever ship you are sailing, you realize how little power you truly have. You are still swept along by wind and waves. More than anyone, you see how one false move can lead to disastrous effects and how you will be responsible if things fail.

Judges, for example, seem powerful on the surface. Distressed people come to them expecting them to right all wrongs, but the actual power of judges is extremely limited. They can only act within the constraints of the law, based on the case that is actually presented to them. They are far from omniscient, because they are only allowed to see the documents and evidence that the lawyers formally present to them—lawyers who aren't always as competent or eloquent as they should be. Inevitably, this leads to some bad rulings, and judges get the blame.

Being a god, by its nature, is only a few steps away from being hanged by a lynch mob. People worship gods, but they also expect unrealistic things from them,

"He has left us... his shoe!"
and they curse the gods when things don't go their way. Gods may also curse themselves, knowing privately how weak they are and how they often can't win no matter what they do. As much as it is glorified, leadership is not always a fun position to be in.

At Family Court, some people can be seen praying before they go into the courtroom. Can you imagine the sort of expectations this creates? They aren't just expecting the judge to make a reasoned decision based on the presented facts. They are expecting divine intervention.

The job of being a god can be drudgery like any other. People expect you to solve their problems even if you don't have the tools. It can also be a burden to know that, in most cases, you shouldn't be doing this job at all. Ideally, each person and family should be working out their own problems. After all, they are closer to the problem, know the facts better and have more discretion, flexibility and opportunity for creativity than a god will ever have.

As a god, you should always being working toward this goal: getting the hell out. Your primary role is to put yourself out of a job by restoring local control to the place where it properly should be. Otherwise, you will be trapped forever in this no-win position.

The gods we call "parents" should be doing this almost from the day the child is born. They should be saying, "Listen, kid, you are responsible for yourself. I will protect you, but only to a certain extent and for a limited time. If you want something, you have to earn it. If you touch something hot, you're going to get burned, and I'm not going to protect you from that experience."

Instead, most parents want to play Santa Claus. They want to give their kids stuff and be glorified for it. This is the great seduction of godhood: It feels nice to be worshipped.

The main problem with being Santa is that the gratitude of your subjects quickly turns into a sense of entitlement. Santa has to perform bigger and bigger miracles every year to satisfy the ever-escalating expectations of him. Eventually, there's going to be a crash when starry-eyed wonder turns into betrayal. "You mean there isn't a Santa Claus?"

It might feel gratifying to see your face on every lamppost and displayed every night on TV—Der Führer, Our Cherished Leader! Public adoration might pump up your ego, but it is only a matter of time before your subjects turn on you for failing to deliver on impossible dreams. Mom and Dad aren't gods, and if they set themselves up this way—as the god-like givers of all good things rather than facilitators to independence—then there's going to be a price to pay in the end.

A coddled child inevitably becomes a narcissistic adult, believing that the gods exist to serve him. Likewise, a populace that has been ruled by a dictator tends to be dissatisfied by any democratic form of government that follows. They expect the illusion of perfection like they once knew. Set up by his own ego, the god may eventually find himself hanging upside down in a meat shop, but his people may be just as badly off, having never learned the skills of self-regulation.

Perhaps there should be a "God School" that all leaders, judges and parents should be required to attend. It would teach them humility and educate them on the psychology of their flock and the responsibilities of their position.

The god would learn the every word has significance. You don't make a joke or speak a criticism without carefully analysing its potential effects, because the risks of damage and misinterpretation are huge. Whole societies, young lives and great swathes of the future can turn on a single word, so a god has to be very careful whenever he clears his throat.

Inevitably, there is some superficial pomp and circumstance in every leadership role, because people want their leaders to be superhuman, while leaders have to exert some discipline on their subjects to get things done. Judges, for example, wear a sacred robe, sit in a raised podium and have to be addressed in a certain way. If you disrespect the judge, you could get thrown in jail.

It is only theatre, however, and the leader must recognize that the people are not really worshipping him, only the role. Where necessary, he can accept the crown and tolerate the ritual, but his real mission is not to be a permanent leader, only a temporary facilitator. He should know that being seen as superhuman is a terribly vulnerable and dangerous position that he needs to extract himself from as quickly as possible.

He highest message has to be: "You have to work it out for yourselves."


A family involved in a juvenile justice is seen praying before the start of a sentencing hearing in June 2006. The prayers didn't seem to affect the judge, who sentenced the youth to 30 days in detention and a year of probation.

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