Thursday, November 13, 2014

"An uncomprehensive, non-authoritative overview of the shifting nature of authority"

The title of this post is that of post done by my good friend and fellow-blogger marleerocker that I want to transcribe here (w/the addition of my comments) because 1. her post is so good and 2. it enabled me to say a few things I've been thinking about lately. (Check it out the original post here and feel free to read more of her awesome posts!)

An uncomprehensive, non-authoritative overview of the shifting nature of authority
Looking at religious or political Facebook arguments through the lens of authority and power struggles can be very useful.

It's impossible to overestimate the impact two consecutive World Wars and decades of living with the threat of nuclear holocaust had on the American psyche. Two catastrophic wars followed by over a decade of living under constant paranoia - Google search the effects of prolonged stress and fear, now apply that to a population of  millions.
When I teach a History class about the 1960's I like to teach it in context of what preceded it. At some point people get tired of being told to be afraid and tired of allowing a few men in power to send millions to the gas chambers and the trenches - and in large measure, the hippie or counter culture revolution that revolved around anti-war sentiment, was a massive shrugging off the weight of this fear and powerlessness. It's important to note that the baby boomers - turned hippies grew into adulthood during the 50's. They had to be affected by the contradiction of the constant presence of threat of war in a time of relative peace with no first hand exposure to a conflict like the ones their parents and grandparents weathered. 
The net result was a deep abiding societal mistrust and contempt for authority.
...that continues to today and permeates political and religious rhetoric.
Would you agree that:

  • A lot of people are worried about the corruption in the government?
  • A lot of people are unwilling to listen to take advice from just anyone?
  • A lot of people are leaving the religions they were raised in?
  • A lot of people subconsciously walk around with the attitude that is the equivalent of saying, "You don' know ME!" unwilling to legitimize opposing viewpoints, criticism or rejection? 
IMHO - The nature of authority has evolved in such a way that it requires a level of consent and compliance unprecedented in human history; and in a connected, affluent society it has never been more difficult to acquire and maintain. 
Everyone wants to be their own authority. I think the Bible describes it well in 2 Timothy:
1 This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. 2 For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 Without natural affection, truce-breakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, 4 Traitors, heady, high-minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God;
 That being said, shirking the confines of an assumed authority is not necessarily a bad thing.
It's not as if people are disillusioned with authority without strong reason; we are well acquainted with the devastating impact of abuse or misuse of power - you don't have to look far to find child abuse, genocide, police brutality, corporate fraud, etc. And history is riddled with proof that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. 
Growing up in the fog of cynicism and witnesses to the human suffering incurred by unbridled and unchecked power, is it any wonder people are unwilling to be vulnerable and to put their trust in power given to other humans?
Furthermore, it turns out that as a free moral agents, challenging authority is a civic duty.
Brigham Young himself said: 
“I am more afraid that this people have so muchconfidence in their leaders that they will not inquire forthemselves of God whether they are being led by him. Iam fearful they settle down in a state of blind security,trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaderswith a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart thepurposes of God in their salvation, and weaken thatinfluence they could give their leaders if they know forthemselves by the revelations of Jesus Christ that theyare led in the right way. Let every man and woman knowby the whisperings of the Spirit of God to themselveswhether their leaders are walking in the way the Lorddictates or not.”
Un-examined trust in ANY authority, even one previously found to be moral and correct can lead to moral degeneration and is an abdication of personal responsibility. Use your agency to select which authority you accept in your life, and by all means you should accept it from somewhere.  That being said, I also want to make a case for why every free moral agent should hone their capacity to think critically and evaluate the authority figures and institutions that wield power over their lives and if necessary reject them in part or in full. 
In one of my favorite books, "Choices Under Fire; Moral Dimensions of World War II" the author Michael Bess draws relevant conclusions from a psychological experiment many of you will be familiar with. The experiment consisted of actors hired to be scientists and students and test subjects who were assigned the roll of teacher. They were to administer a test and for each wrong answer give the student a progressively more intrusive and painful "shock". Many of the test subjects protested but persisted under the direction of the scientist who insisted they continue. In short, they were willing to inflict severe harm upon other humans - sometimes past the point of suspected unconsciousness or heart failure - based on the authority they perceived in the person telling them to continue. Bess quotes one subject's response from the actual transcript:
'Mr. Renseeler: No, I can't continue. I'm sorry...I know what shocks do to you. I'm an electrical engineer, and I have had shocks... Experimenter: It is absolutely essential that you continue. Mr. Rensaleer: Well, I won't - not with the man screaming to get out. Experimenter: You have no other choice. Mr. Rensaleer: I do have a choice (Incredulous and indignant.) Why don't I have a choice? I came here on my own free will. I thought I could help in a research project. But if I have to hurt somebody to do that, or if I was in his place, too, I wouldn't stay there. I can't continue. I'm very sorry. I think I've gone too far already, probably.' 
Here was a classic case of "disruptive empathy" at work. Rensaleer's reliance on critical reason to assess the situation and reject the scientist's assurances; his ability to put himself in the other man's shoes ("I know what shocks do to you"); his appeal to higher moral principles ("If I have to hurt somebody to do that..."); his unshakable confidence in his own free will; his willingness to submit his own behavior to stern moral scrutiny ("I think I've gone too far already")' his forceful rupture of the situations momentum, breaking the facade of normality by crying foul after a certain line had been crossed - all these elements paint a portrait of a highly evolved moral agent..." 
For someone who is religious this can be a very difficult paradox to navigate. How do I submit to religious authority and, at the same time, maintain my ability to evaluate it objectively and reject it if necessary (if only in part)? How do I defend the legitimacy of religious authority in a climate of such resentment and distrust towards it, and at the same time acknowledge that opponents may have valid points since, even in my own religion's history there are copious examples of the misuse and error of authority? 
It requires great effort, personal integrity, humility and honesty to maintain a capacity to fairly scrutinize external authority. That, perhaps, is the work of refining your soul. On the other hand, it takes only self-righteousness and pride to flatly reject OR accept religious authority and then put all of your effort into developing your position with clever arguments and justifications. 
The first step is to be aware. Be aware of biases and the attitudes towards authority that we inherit from our parents and the past. Know enough history to understand why completely submitting to authority is dangerous for you and everyone else, and how disrupting existing power structures can also cause unnecessary societal upheaval. Develop a tolerance for ambiguity and cognitive dissonance. Take a deep breath. Relax. Use the intellectual talent that God has given you, nurture and develop it. Reach for greater knowledge, goodness and wisdom. Above all else love. Peace and love. 
I have a deep appreciation for the idealistic contribution of the "revolutionaries" in the 1960's. Perhaps they fell short of their goal to reshape the world in their own image of community, equality, and peace. But their legacy lives on anytime anyone ever updates their Facebook status to raise difficult questions about the merit and validity of current power structures and whether or not they should be changed.

My response to her post (i.e. our ensuing conversation as of the time I published this post):

  1. So many thoughts!

    First of all: "Growing up in the fog of cynicism and witnesses to the human suffering incurred by unbridled and unchecked power, is it any wonder people are unwilling to be vulnerable and to put their trust in power given to other humans?" THIS IS SO TRUE. I think about it a lot because of how exposed we are (thanks to the internet) to the world (to good things like funny cat videos and to bad things like ISIS beheadings). Every day almost the entire world is on display and I am bombarded by human suffering via news articles, facebook posts, email fwds, etc. It certainly makes me retreat back into my protective habit of just not clicking, not reading, not listening to things -- as well as to feel more and more helpless and hopeless. (Some days it seems there just aren't enough "Faith In Humanity Restored" articles to make up for all the "I Don't Want To Live On This Planet Anymore" articles.)

    Secondly, this post totally resonated with my thoughts on how often we tend to either give up personal responsibility to follow authority blindly OR totally abandon all authority to live solely on our own personal compass. Why? Because it is EASIER than having to always figure out who to follow, what to listen to, and how to align our sense of right/wrong with what we are told. That is a lot of work! If we just blindly follow we don't have to put for any effort to validate what we are told and we have someone to blame other than ourselves when everything goes sour (no personal responsibility there!). Also, just letting go of authority makes everything so subjective, so there is less need to worry about being "right" so much as feeling good. Again, less work to do and less weight of significance. I think this is why things are getting more and more polarized -- more and more people are just giving up and taking the path of least resistance.

    Which leads me to your statement "It requires great effort, personal integrity, humility and honesty to maintain a capacity to fairly scrutinize external authority. That, perhaps, is the work of refining your soul. On the other hand, it takes only self-righteousness and pride to flatly reject OR accept religious authority and then put all of your effort into developing your position with clever arguments and justifications."

    Someone once told me they despised apologetics for this reason -- that it is basically just people trying to justify their position. In a way, I have begun to agree with this because I can see how people will decide to stick to an authority based solely on the fact that it is an authority, without personal effort to explore and question, and then from blind obedience seek to justify their position. However, I also think there are those for whom their "apologetics" are not just them seeking justification, but instead are seeking to find balance in cognitive dissonance and, like you said, "use the intellectual talent that God has given [them], nurture and develop it. Reach for greater knowledge, goodness and wisdom." What they end up with is a kind of justification, sure, but it is personal, intimate, assurance for them to trust an authority in a certain regard -- which isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes trust in something/someone beyond ourselves is a good path.

    Again, I guess it all comes down to asking yourself:
    Why do I trust?
    Why do I doubt? 

    marleerockerNovember 12, 2014 at 6:15 PM

    1. I'm so glad you made that point. I think I meant to exclude apologists, or anyone who sincerely acknowledges weaknesses in their position and/or the validity of opposing arguments, when I said "flatly" but I should have developed that idea more.

      I think what I find "unintegritable" if I can make up that word, is when people spend all their energy justifying what turns out to be more of an emotional reaction (motivated by (self) righteous indignation/pride) than a well-thought out conclusion.

    2. Absolutely. I think it's human nature to feel defensive of our positions, without taking the time to thinking critically about their origin. (When we do, we often find most of our opinions are based in some sort of personal experience, which garnered some sort of strong emotion, which cemented our idea of that experience as personal truth.)

      *and personal truth needs to be more than just emotion and experience; there has to be logic, reasoning, and even connections to outside sources as backup to bring us to a "well thought out conclusion" that is comprehensive enough to come close to "truth."

  2. Also: since I know where some of your post is coming from I want to recommend this:

    (Ahh! The last line! ‘Isn’t it interesting that today’s challenge to our faith is coming directly from the church?’)

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