Wherefore art thou, authority?
I am a child of my age, and as such, I have always looked at authority as something to be handled cynically and derisively. I recognize that certain authority, such as law enforcement needs to be obeyed if only to keep us all from crashing our cars into one another. Much beyond that, any authority, be it parental, church, political or otherwise was held to a “prove it” standard. And not just prove it to someone who would approve those in positions of authority, but prove it to me, the person you would have authority over. Honestly, it’s hard for me to think of anyone whose instructions or thinking I would follow simply because they were “the authority”. Question everything and everyone has been my MO.
Fear of or respect for authority were punch lines in my book, certainly not anything by which I would make decisions. I would guess that a lot of people are like me in this regard. However, I recently realized something which has made me re-examine my attitude towards authority. You see, over the last 10-15 years, I have invested a lot of time and mental energy into constructing what you could call a philosophy of life. It’s my understanding of the nature of life, the rules by which we ought to govern ourselves in order to live happy, productive lives which are a benefit to our families and communities. I can provide detailed, well reasoned and thought-out explanations for what I believe. You may disagree with my conclusions, but it would be hard to argue that I am simply making things up willy-nilly out of religious delusions or to justify my personal desires.
I have been compelled to do this, I think, precisely because I did not feel that there was a source of authority for how to live my life and think about the important questions of life which I could trust. And now, at the age of 35, I have managed to construct a framework for living which I am pretty satisfied with. The problem is that in the absence of authority, we’re all going to have to go through this process. If we each need to figure out right and wrong and rules for relationships and all the important things in life for ourselves, we are leaving ourselves obscenely open to majorly screwing up our lives long before we have a chance to figure out what’s what. It has taken me until age 35 to put together a framework for life that I have confidence in; do you even know what a wreck you can make of your life by 35? Heck, you can ruin your entire life long before you’re 25!
To make matters worse, most people if left to their own devices will never even reach the point of developing a coherent, logical framework to live their lives by. The fact of the matter is that I’m weird. I sit around and think about these things. I look for people to argue my ideas with so I can refine them, test them and flesh them out. Honestly, putting together my framework for life has been hard, sometimes mentally exhausting work. And even being the sort of odd ball who would actually take the time to develop a “philosophy of life”, I still managed to make a mess of my life by 25. In order for the whole “each person must decide what is right and wrong” thing to work, you’d pretty much have to have it all figured out by about age 17 in order to avoid all of the completely predictable, but oh-so-tempting mistakes we tend to fall for. The idea that the average non-freak person would do this is ridiculous. Most people live their lives going along to get along. They want to do what’s right, as long as it’s not too hard. And if we can just bring right and not to hard closer together, so much the better.
As I said, I am a child of the times myself, so the idea of us relying on our own wits rather than making decisions out of deference to authority appeals greatly to me. And the fact of the matter is that middle and upper class Americans have a lot of room to make mistakes and still recover from them. Our wealth and understanding of the game that is life in America provide a lot of protection. However, we need only look at our high incarceration rates, our 38% high school drop out rate, the large numbers of children born without dad around, etc. to see that many people are paying very high prices for not having their framework for life in place by their late teens. Many of these folks will never recover and will pass this mess on to their own children who also have very little chance of figuring it all out during their adolescence. The fact that those of us with a reasonable education and middle class lives have a pretty good shot of avoiding the worst consequences of our mistakes shouldn’t cause us to think that they are not actually mistakes. Nor should we be inured to the suffering that those who do not enjoy such protections endure when they make some of the same mistakes.
So as much as it pains me to say it, I think I am beginning to understand the need for and benefit of having sources of authority which we follow out of fear, respect and habit. If nothing else, it is probably needed to help us make it through the first half of our lives without making a complete hash of it. It is all well, fine and even essential to have thoughtful people who think deeply about, bicker about and challenge what the sources of authority teach and how they behave. However, to endow every 16 year old who sucks air with the responsibility for doing this competently doesn’t make much more sense than letting my 2 year old decide if I’ve proven to her that my instructions not to play in the street ought to be followed.
Of course, it practically goes without saying that the utter destruction of authority as a respected source of guidance for our behaviors was brought about by the failure of those to whom we had previously trusted to guide us. Following authority may be necessary to protect most people from their own lack of understanding and insight. However, authority which uses power to justify its place rather than reason, logic and a track record of success should probably never be tolerated.
Which is all well and fine to say, but at this point anti-authoritarian thinking is probably as powerful in our society as any authoritarian power could be. To bring us back to a point where it is a societal expectation and norm that one would follow the authority of community, religion or family would seem to practically take a miracle. Hmmm . . . another piece of my personal philosophical framework to figure out, I suppose. How ironic 🙂