Insubordinate: From the root word subordinate, origin Medieval Latin subordinatus:

adjective. Not obedient to orders; defiant of authority; rebellious, disobedient: Originates from 1830-1869

noun. An insubordinate person: Originates from 1870-1899

In the thirty-nine years of my life, I have never been labeled as “insubordinate”—that is, until last week. Inattentive—once or twice. Incapable—admittedly, I have to own this one on occasion. Incessant—often. Insubordinate—this is a first. I’ve always managed to play by the rules—to not cross the double yellow lines of what is considered, “toeing the line.” Yes, I realize I mixed metaphors of driving a car with those of nautical origin, but I can do that now because I’ve recently obtained the epithet of “insubordinate.”

The statements I made were “inappropriate and frankly insubordinate.” That’s what the email from the director said when I came back to work. Inappropriate and insubordinate, but not untrue. I could see how the statements I made could be construed as insubordinate by those in a position of authority. I even agree with their word choice—insubordinate. What a great word. What a fitting definition.

When you look at the word in the dictionary they break it apart like this:

in ּ sub ּ or ּ di ּ nate

My brain, being owned by a slightly narcissistic personality, immediately picked out, “Nate.” Being named Nathan, I’ve endured my fair share of being called “Nate.” It used to bother me, but as you get older you become more selective about what to be bothered by. If a new acquaintance slips up and calls me “Nate,” I generally let it slide. There are a few people who are grandfathered into the ability to use “Nate,” for example, I ended up working with my first-grade teacher at the library—she called me Nate a long time ago, so she’s grandfathered in. I suppose our newly minted library director, who has been in position nine months and hasn’t ever had a conversation with me before last week, would categorically be considered a new acquaintance. I can’t say she addressed me as “Nate,” nonetheless, I find it amusing the label she attached to me in her email contains the nickname. It almost makes me smile.

As a student of philosophy, the next thing I saw was that the combination of “in” and “nate,” from either end of the word, form an adjective anyone familiar with philosophical arguments would immediately recognize, “innate.” That word indicates something originating in the mind. It comes from the Latin innatus, the past participle of innacisi; the in means “into,” the nacisi means “be born.” Considering how the comments the director was referring to originated in my mind, I thought the presence of the term apropos—a word with mid-17th century French origins.

My oldest son saw “sub ּ or ּ di” which he correlated with “Subscribe or die”—obviously showing how much social media has infiltrated his life. I saw the same “sub ּ or ּ di” as “Submit or Die,” as if it were a Borg reference to “Resistance is futile”—yep, a useless remark from Star Trek that I can now get away with using because of my “insubordinate” status. The fascist undertones in the center portion of the word are not lost on me.

I’ll admit, when I first opened up the email that contained the subject line “Follow-up” and read its contents, I think I audibly gasped when I read paragraph two. Couched between an apology for any misunderstanding regarding intent and a statement about communications being managed by skilled staff to “relay a consistent message” was where the assertion of my insubordination resided. To my knowledge, I have never been accused of being insubordinate before. Certainly, no one has informed me that I ever was. I’m sure being a cisgender, middle-aged, white guy with a beard and dad-bod has afforded me certain privileges. Maybe not being told about being insubordinate is one of them? Then again, I’ve worked for some very powerfully assertive women throughout my life, who likely wouldn’t have let insubordination pass by unaddressed, and it’s never come up.

I find the use of the sandwich method when communicating through email particularly distasteful. It’s less noticeable in a conversation, but in an email, it’s practically insulting. For those who are unfamiliar with the sandwich method, here’s the basic rundown. You take something innocuous, sometimes even flattering, and you use that as your lead-in. That’s what the first paragraph was, reaffirming they were not “taking [me] to task” and apologizing for “any misunderstanding.” Then you take the meat of the message, the bulk, whatever it is you want to use the two slices of bread to deliver, and you insert that. In this case, this was where the zinger of a declarative sentence that I was “frankly insubordinate” lives. Finally, you follow it up with another slice of banality to ease the person on the receiving end out of the conversation and back to their mundane existence. In this case, that’s the declaration that we have talented staff working on a consistent message, touting a proactive and not reactive approach (which has yet to manifest), and asking me to “reach out” with any questions or concerns. It was as if it was taken right out of the managing difficult people playbook from the chapter on how to make a shit sandwich go down easier.

The thing I can’t seem to wrap my head around is the same thing I can’t wrap my head around about the first “conversation” that led to this whole mess. Why do it in the first place? I don’t understand why they would bring someone in for a “conversation” to discourage them from using their First Amendment rights how they see fit, even though their very own policy reaffirms an employee’s right to do so. I also don’t understand what purpose is served by declaring the content of “a conversation” as insubordinate. There is no upside to either action.

After examining the content of the conversation the director was referring to in her email, over and over again, the portion where I challenged the administration’s professional obligation to speak out for the freedom to read and protect diversity and representation in our community is the only point where I challenged their authority; aside from pointing out that the assistant director didn’t even know our policy or that they didn’t understand the history of our area.

“He is not a good man, who without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name, and with the means which he helps to supply, because he will not trouble himself to use his mind on the subject,” John Stuart Mill, 1867. The way I see it, to stand idly by without stating the infringement of the rights of members of our community being assailed is abhorrent. It is tantamount to allowing evil to triumph by doing nothing. If I’m labeled insubordinate by reminding those who are in positions of authority of their professional obligations to the community they serve and the employees they lead, then I will wear it as a badge of honor.


I am insubordinate.

I’m proudly insubordinate.

I’m going to order some stickers, maybe even make a button to wear.