You know, I get sick and tired, and a bit more than that, or I used to, when I went to the school and all the teachers’ cars had “question authority” bumperstickers. These were also the sort of people who – of course – would come down on a kid like a ton of bricks for using the red pencil instead of the yellow, or for deviating a micron from the assignment.
That I managed to get through the kids’ schooling without either keying one of those cars, or putting in a little addendum on the bumpersticker saying “but bow to mine” is a miracle and a testimony to my upbringing.
But the whole matter of authority – by which I don’t mean physical power, even through troops – is an important one, and one we should be more aware of.
By authority here I mean a certain type of trust. For instance, my husband is the authority on computers in the house. If he says “we’re not buying this system because the bzzg is rgdrd,” I believe him because he knows a hell of a lot about computers, and I know next to nothing.
In the same way, if the kids have a piece of fiction writing, I’m the authority, even though Dan knows a bit about it.
Or if the cats just threw up in the hallway, I’m the authority on how to clean it. I mean that type of authority. The “I know more than you do about this, let me do it/tell you how.”
There are some types of authority that must exist for a society to make sense. For instance, you must have people you know more than you do about running large economies. (And I wish we could find some.) And I should hope my doctors know more than I do about surgery and infections. (Not always true.) And… you know, about anyone would know more about growing a lawn. (Don’t go there.)
The problem comes when authority becomes credentialism, and when authority is being claimed in soft fields that are a matter of opinion. You really can’t tell me “I know more about how to raise children than you do” when your subject is how I’m raising MY children. You might have read a heck of a lot about raising children, but you don’t know MY children (who tend to be oddities.)
This appeal to authority in soft subjects often melds into appeal to credentials. So, the kids teachers would tell me, “I know more than you do about this, because they taught us this and this and this.” One of them told us group work was essential “because the future of work is group work” – this was insanity, because it’s actually going the other way. But she was “TAUGHT” so it’s credentialism.
My parents absolutely believed “experts” when it was things like teaching and medicine. I think it was because neither of them had enough experience of them. So, when my teachers said I needed to do something one way or another, my parents believed them, even if it was absurd. That was something I couldn’t break them of. And doctors… I remember when I was 20 I had this horrible pain which I swore was from a tooth in which I’d had a root canal. Dad took me to the dentist who told him it was psychological, and dad should “marry her off soon.” (I swear. Doctor was a woman, too.)
Five years later, in the States, pain became unbearable and the local dentist in Charlotte, said the root canal was never properly done and there was a massive infection which involved my jaw bone and a bunch of nerves.
But dad believed the dentist and had a long talk with me all the way home. (I don’t think I ever told him either, because what’s the point?)
In a sane (ah!) society there is a balance between the authority and deference to authority and questioning authority. Either acquiescing to everything the authority says or questioning everything is a sign of trouble for a society. And pasting “question authority” on your car when you intend your authority not to be questioned is a special kind of insanity that makes my eyes cross.
About twenty years ago I started noting a weird tendency for people – some people – to make appeals to authority. And it was always soft subject authority. Things like “Well, you know, she’s a teacher.” Or “She knows a lot about this, she’s a Women’s Studies major” (When I explained why I wouldn’t be oppressed, even if people tried.) or…
And it wasn’t just people. If it were just people, it would be endurable. It was the mass culture. All of a sudden we were getting stuff pushed from the media-industrial complex along the lines of “We can’t publish cozies, because amateurs don’t solve mysteries. Policemen do, that’s why they’re trained to do it. They’re professionals.” Also, you weren’t allowed to have a bumbling police officer in a book because it was “disrespectful”. The same happened in other fields, at the same time. Part of the death of SF as a well-selling genre was that you couldn’t write cooky ideas. Yes, I know the idea of a past human civilization at the same level or above us is highly unlikely, but some of the best books of my youth posited just that, and came up with creative ways to explain the lack of remains. It made for exciting reads.
All of a sudden, in the late eighties early nineties, houses were requiring both that science fiction have a “big science idea” – which largely excluded the human element – or that “you can’t violate things we know to be wrong.” Which sent a bunch of people running screaming into Fantasy. Even me, for a while.
Was this a conspiracy? No. I think it was when the boomers achieved some prominence in their fields – again, not because they’re boomers but because they’re a large cohort of generally the same age . There’s a tendency in your middle years to appeal to authority and feel threatened by questioning and try to support other authorities. So all of a sudden – and partly in reaction to their own youth culture – the boomers wanted people to respect those with learning in whatever field. And because by then they were in command of the media-industrial complex, this idea pushed everywhere, even in places it shouldn’t go, like entertainment and teaching.
Even I was jaw-droppingly shocked when in a kerfuffle on my then LJ blog, a bunch of my kid’s classmates said I couldn’t question their teacher because… duh, she was a teacher. Even though a) what she was teaching them (that culture was genetically inherited) was inherently wrong (and evil) and b) she was younger than I and had FAR LESS schooling than I. But the kids were by then one generation deep in “must respect the authority of the credentialed ones” – their parents probably were taught the same, and therefore the teacher was an “authority” and we must respect her. (PFUI.)
I would guess this is part of the issue we face with police abuses “but, we’re the authority. We get to protect ourselves with military gear, and we can do no wrong.” And with teacher abuses, and to an extent with “doctoring by computer models” and don’t EVEN get me started on climatology.
Plus there was a tendency to put an “authority” veneer on a ton of things that are more art than science, like sociology. And to confuse things like economics with “social justice” aka “Wishful thinking.”
However – and at the risk of Foxfier accusing me of being Irish again – I think the insanity itself is a good sign.
Why do I think it’s a good sign? Because in other countries the authorities aren’t shouting QUITE so loudly “Listen to me” and “respect me.”
I think part of the shrill screaming here is that they sense a large number of people don’t believe them/respect them/think they’re all that.
This leads to vicious attacks (sometimes physical, as in the case of police forces but mostly calling you things like “Climate change deniers.”) and to much screaming and trying to overbowl people with their “authority.”
But what I keep thinking is this: I live with people who are very knowledgeable in the sciences, and have several friends (hi Speaker! Hi Les!) who are real-life-scientists. Those don’t scream “Believe me” or “respect my authority.” Instead they bring out the figures and explain things to you. And then you do believe and respect.
Because they know they are right and that you will respect them, once you listen.
Which leads me to believe all this sound and fury is because they know their position is precarious.
So, make them more uncomfortable whenever you can. When they tell you “But I know this, I studied it in school,” and it’s clearly false, (Keynesianism) laugh at them. Pointing is optional.
… It drives them nuts and gives them a sense of perspective!