“For thousands hacking at the branches there is one striking the root.” ~Henry David Thoreau
If, as Albert Einstein said, “unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth,”then it stands to reason that we should think critically toward, rather than blindly believe in, authority. No matter who or what that authority might be.
Whether it’s an eccentric physicist with wild hair or an authoritarian president demanding respect without giving it. Whether it’s a flat-earther challenging the very foundations of physics, or an overreaching cop high on false power. Belief in authority is a huge psychological hang-up for our species. It’s an evolutionary impediment of monumental proportions.
Even as we daily self-overcome, so too should we daily overcome the myth of authority. It’s a myth because it’s foremost a story. It’s a story we’ve all fallen for –hook, line, and sinker. It’s a story that most of us were culturally conditioned to believe in. It’s a story that most of us take as a given, but certainly should not. For, ultimately, “it’s just the way things are” is a cowardly copout.
Rather than cowardice, rather than willful ignorance, complacency, and intellectual laziness, we should challenge the myth of authority –across the board. We should be ruthless with our skepticism, like a scientist regarding his own hypothesis, like peer-reviewed interrogators keeping the science of others honest.
Because the art of life, especially an examined life that’s well-lived, is scientific, logical, and reasonable. It strikes at the heart of the orthodoxy, whatever that may be. It undermines the Powers That Be, whoever they may be. And that’s likely to upset more than a few blind worshippers, myopic rule-followers, and wilfully ignorant law-abiding citizens. So be it. Upset their precious apple-cart anyway. Especially if that apple-cart is outdated, violent, and based upon parochial reasoning and fear. As Oscar Wilde stated, “Disobedience was man’s original virtue.”
“As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go. Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.” ~Wendell Berry
The problem with belief in authority is that it leads to the idea that we need to give a group of people permission to control us. And, as Lord Byron taught us, power given to an authority tends to become corrupt.
The problem with power is not the intent behind it. The problem with power is that it tends to corrupt the one wielding it regardless of their intent. So, since we all know that power tends to corrupt whether one has good or bad intentions, and since we know that we will all seek power anyway, it behooves us to be mercilessly circumspect both with our own power and against the power of others.
It stands to reason that we should not ignorantly give power to an authority by blindly believing it. We should instead challenge authority first, and trust it second, if at all. The best way to use our power is to use it against authority by ruthlessly questioning it. It’s a social levelling mechanism par excellence. As a wise, young sixth grader once said, “Question authority, including the authority that told you to question authority.”