Authority: Who’s in Charge Around Here?

Apr 23, 2020


The dictionary defines authority as the power to “influence or command thought, opinion or behavior.” Authority’s Latin roots are master, leader, author—thus it lives next to its tough cousin, power. Families, organizations, and governing bodies influence and command us, whether slightly or mightily. Authority has legitimacy, from a traffic officer’s directives to a mentor’s wisdom . An authority may reward desired behavior or provide expert advice. We can rebel against authority, be coerced into compliance, or fall into identification with a leader.

Ultimately, we must claim our own authority in determining values and making decisions. Jung says, “Life calls us forth to independence, and anyone who does not heed this call because of childish laziness or timidity is threatened with neurosis. And once this has broken out, it becomes an increasingly valid reason for running away from life and remaining forever in the morally poisonous atmosphere of infancy.”


“There is a viral outbreak. I’m in a car pulling out into the street. I see a lot of police cars parked to monitor traffic. I’m pulled over by the police and taken to a medical facility for testing. The police officer gets tested first by a shot in the arm and then I’m taken downstairs for a “cheaper, less reliable test for the virus.” This seems stupid and vindictive. My perspective shifts to a news flash vignette showing how amidst the pandemic, young men have regressed into grotesque testicular forms who engage in tribal rituals of dysfunctional, impractical sex, chanting “me to me” or “us to us” like in the sex scene in the film Requiem for a Dream. Very dark and disturbing. The global birth rate is plummeting. From elsewhere on the planet a “pure as the driven snow” baby girl is born and mankind is redeemed.”


Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (Amazon).

Check out this episode!

1 Comment

  1. Aimee P

    What an excellent episode! Really wonderful.

    The hunter-gatherer model for authority is one that made sense to me. This is where the one in charge is never stable, but constantly changing in a structured system depending on the skill needed at the moment. There is not one person who is assumed to know everything or most things (because as humans we work as groups with many brains in tandem, each filling in the gaps of the other) and thus no one has a permanent leader role. This also seems how the human brain itself works, with different parts leading at different times to form a working whole that somehow makes sense. As such, hierarchy is constantly in flux. Where hierarchy is too stable, that could be a sign of something unhealthy, as for example invariably with corrupt government systems where there is often a single corrupt source with an inordinate amount of power, which overstays their moment in power and which corrupts all around them – instead of, say, some of the more successful running governments in the world today which have many experts working on a more egalitarian level (yet it’s not socialism) with low corruption, open mindedness and healthy exchange of many ideas.
    To summarize I will quote from Wikipedia: “The egalitarianism typical of human hunters and gatherers is never total, but is striking when viewed in an evolutionary context. One of humanity’s two closest primate relatives, chimpanzees, are anything but egalitarian, forming themselves into hierarchies that are often dominated by an alpha male. So great is the contrast with human hunter-gatherers that it is widely argued by palaeoanthropologists that resistance to being dominated was a key factor driving the evolutionary emergence of human consciousness, language, kinship and social organization. Anthropologists maintain that hunter-gatherers do not have permanent leaders; instead, the person taking the initiative at any one time depends on the task being performed.”
    This theory also makes sense in terms of how there is so much resistance and rejection of authority if it is forced on someone and not chosen of their own volition (such as seeking advice from a doctor or consultant). If we did more easily cede power in a hierarchy of more permanence, this would more closely resemble the alpha male/hierarchical systems of our chimpanzee cousins rather than our more egalitarian, cooperative, authority-turn-taking (and, I would argue, naturally capitalist) hunter-gatherer ancestors.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *