Questioning Authority

Posted by Mike

What happened to the healthy skepticism of our country’s Founding Fathers? In the late 1700’s those men and women who led the rending of what is now the United States of America from Old World control had a healthy distrust of the authority of the English government and of the authority of the established religions. It is true that it was also easy to see the practical effects of British economic policies toward the American colonies that disfavored the colonies in comparison to the people in the British Isles. During the period of the westward expansion in this country, among the people who moved west and settled the vast unpopulated interior of the country there was a suspiciousness of lawfully assigned governmental authority. It was likely more a suspiciousness of authority that was appointed by rather distant government that was distrusted, rather than democratically elected local officials.

The early American religions of the Puritans and Pilgrims and others represented an escape from the authoritarianism of the dominant European religions. They were certainly questioning traditional authorities; yet, it appears that these early followers gave up one authority who was not to be questioned for another, who was equally authoritarian.

If we look at what our current population responds to, in general we do seem to be a people who are willing to accept statements of “authorities” rather unquestionably. Turn on the TV or radio and watch and listen. The news commentators, including the ranters and ravers – from talk radio, to Lou Dobbs, and the commentators on CNN, to the religious right on radio and TV, evangelical and Catholic; they all tell us what to believe – regarding current events, regarding values, regarding what is truth and what is falsehood. Do you ever hear even a slight degree of uncertainty in their voices? I don’t. I guess it would seem too wishy-washy for Rush Limbaugh or Rick Warren to say something like, “Well, it seems to me that….But I’m not sure about it. What do you think?”

We have a plethora of examples, historically and recently in politics and government, of legislators as well as the public going along with simplistic policy decisions that when implemented proved to be disastrous. The decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein and Iraq is perhaps just the worst of many recent examples.

I will say that as humans we probably like to and want to trust those in positions of authority. They present to us images of conviction, confident that they are in the right and are making right decisions, that they can guide the country and us with the necessary knowledge, skill and wisdom. We don’t realize that to some extent they are play-acting, playing roles in a performance, just as we parents, teachers, students, doctors, lawyers, and supervisors are also to some extent playing out the roles that we have taken on in the family, education, and other work-related dramas that we are all a part of.

There’s a difference between being a skeptic and a cynic. The cynic doesn’t trust the motives of authority as a general character trait. The skeptic is a questioner and explorer, seeking to acquire facts himself and come to his or her own opinion. I guess I’m suggesting that we all acquire a healthy skepticism toward authority, even – and perhaps especially – that which we ourselves wield. Not obstructionism for it’s own sake. But to some extent we need to make them prove it. The aura of authority should never be a reason to give a commissioner or superintendent or a doctor or a pastor – or the President – a “by.” We get to feeling comfortable and secure knowing that Donald Rumsfeld is leading the troops with complete confidence, with Alan Greenspan sounding like God and reassuring us about the economy, with Vice President Cheney justifying torture of enemy combatants, and with Rick Warren telling us (based upon the Scriptures, of course) what we are to believe and how we are to behave. Let’s try to remember that like all of us to some extent these folks and everyone else in authority is playing a role – and it’s intended to convince – that what they say is one thing and that truth and reality is almost always more complex and finely nuanced, because that’s just the way life is. A healthy skepticism is the best attitude to have toward all authority. It will help to keep us out of trouble. It’s not only okay but vitally necessary to seek details and as much proof as possible, to consider alternatives, and not accept unquestioningly attitudes and values handed to us by authority figures, regardless of the weight of their roles or of years and even centuries of respected tradition. The President, the Pope, senators, kings, princes and potentates are all human and not only subject to but prone to human error. Slavery, religious absolutism, government by monarchical dictatorship, the wars in Vietnam and Iraq are all products of our very human tendency to trust and rely on authority. Let’s stay in touch with reality. Though it may be more painful at first, in the long run a reasonable questioning skepticism of authority is less likely to lead us to further disasters.

                                                                                                                                       -mz

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