Wherefore art thou, authority?

Sorry for the long break in blogging.  I’ve been busy getting my gardens in order and just got back from a trip to Chicago.  Of course, not blogging isn’t the same as not obsessing over things, so I suppose I’ll just jump right back in with the latest fun item to be taking up brain space . . . the potential purpose and role of authority in our lives.  Sounds like a good time, eh? 🙂

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 🙂

6 thoughts on “Wherefore art thou, authority?

  1. Great post! I was very lucky to be raised Catholic and with a clear sense of right and wrong. I even broke up with a guy when I was 17 because he had very different beliefs and I knew I could never marry him. I’m pretty thoughtful and cautious by nature, so I may have been able to avoid a lot of mistakes even if I didn’t have the moral framework of my faith, but you never know. People are very good at deluding themselves. I know I make excuses for my sins all the time.

  2. This subject has consumed a lot of my thoughts as well. Great blog, btw, very well written.

    I think part of the transition that we need, in order to make authority a benevolent part of our lives, is to examine our definition of it. Every historical reaction comes from somewhere – so I believe that our times’ reaction against authority probably came from a flawed view of authority by those who held it in the past.

    I grew up thinking of authority as very much a heierarchical, top down thing – people being invested with the right to be obeyed simply because of official positions. Some things I discovered as I began to experience authority in the Body of Christ:

    1) Although all authority flows from Christ, that does not mean it automatically flows from the offical “top” downward, in descending concentrations.

    2) Authority is not so much the right to be obeyed as the credibility to be believed. You obey those you believe in.

    3) True authority, the kind that keeps us safe and leads us on to proper independance rather than childishness, is discovered when people offer Christian obedience to one another, not when people try to excercise power over one another.

    To put it all together, wherever people emulate Christ’s humility in yeilding to one another in the fear of God, a natural authority structure begins to operate. Note, I do not think this means mindlessly submitting to abusive “authority figures” who demand from us what the Lord does not. But when the whole group is obedient, something that looks more like concensus than regulation emerges. The better it all works together, the more Christ’s voice is heard. There is true authority in that voice: it is the one that, when you hear it, you fall down and say “Lord” even as you ask “Who are you?”

    There’s a long journey from this to regaining societal authority, especially in our day. But here’s the bite: religion creates culture, not the other way around. Which means that our society’s present lack of authority is due to authority problems in our society’s religion. I think we have to go back to the beginning and trace our way down through history to understand what went wrong, and where, and why.

  3. I’ve given this subject a lot of thought as well, especially since becoming a parent. Suddenly *being* the authority gives you a new perspective, no? ;o) I struggle with how to equip my kids to discern the difference between rightly submitting to legitimate authority, and slavishly following corrupt or simply misguided authority figures. (To both avoid being victimized and to avoid being pressured into doing something immoral or unethical at the direction of a boss, teacher, etc.) I agree with AR that the difference has something to do with her point #2.

    I’ve come to the same conclusion as you have regarding the problematic nature of expecting this level of discernment from children. It’s not fair to them, really. Yet I still have quite a bit of unease with the notion of teaching them to be unquestioningly obedient to authority figures in general. It is a sad fact of life that there are those who would take advantage of very compliant children. Also, we haven’t dealt with this yet, as my sons are still little, but young black men have to be taught to tread very carefully with the authority of the police — being respectful and obedient in conduct almost to a ridiculous degree, yet not allowing themselves to be railroaded into confessing to something they didn’t do, kwim? It’s a big messy issue. “Son, the police are good guys there to protect you, but…” Sigh.

    Also, I wish I knew whether bucking authority takes some practice or not! I suspect it does, since I was raised to be obedient to authority and have a hard time standing up for myself or others in situations where I might have to confront authority. But is encouraging kids to question authority the answer? Will a child who has been allowed to practice some forms of questioning authority be strongly true to their principles, or will they simply be cynical and either “go along to get along” or flout authority for no good reason and just be trouble-makers? Or (option 3) does all of this really depend on the child’s personality and, within reasonable boundaries, it doesn’t matter that much how a parent handles the authority/obedience question? How I wish I knew the answers…

    Finally, as for being weird — you and me both! ;o)

  4. I think that perhaps we need to model with our children how to deal with authority in a healthy way. I know that in our house our kids are allowed to ask us to reconsider what we want from them if they can offer a reason why they think we are mistaken in our judgement (of course they must do it respectfully and not in angry, whiney mode). However, at the end of the day, we do expect them to do what we want even if they disagree or don’t want to. I don’t know how this will translate to the real world, however.

    But I do doubt that kids who are expected to blindly obey will be able to make good choices about when to stand up to wrongly wielded authority and when they just need to go along with something they may not “get”. OTOH, there’s my husband who was expected to blindly obey, but was also constantly told, “when you’re grown you can do whatever you want, but as long as you’re living under my roof . . . ” He’s been sorely disappointed to discover that contrary to his parent’s promises, he can’t really do whatever he wants now that he’s grown and supporting himself.

    Right now with my kids, I am making a big point of teaching my kids my “philosophy of life”. They get a lot of “this is what I think. Here’s why I think it. Other people think this. Here’s why I think they’re mistaken.” Which is all well and fine for them, but how many parents are able to do this with their own children?

    What I am finding is that something like what AR says in her #2 point is occurring. My 13 year old is actually getting easier to deal with because he has learned to trust my judgement so he doesn’t push back nearly as much as he used to. I hear him telling his 9 year old brother who is still rather un-cooperative, “just listen to Mom. It’s much easier that way. Besides she almost always has a reason for telling us to do something and she’s pretty much always right.” Nice to have your 13 year old son as a fan :).

    AR, “religion creates culture, not the other way around”. So true. Doesn’t say much for the state of our religion, does it?

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