When I was 14, I wanted to be Kurt Cobain. I wanted to drop out of school, be sad and poetic, and start a rock band. I actually said this to my dad. He took me to a burger joint and heard me out. After listening to my explanations, my father said, “Son, you’re full of s***.” That simple statement was enough for me. I regained perspective and went back to being a normal teenager. My dad had fulfilled his role as the authority in my life. It was a good moment. Authority is necessary. It is an innate part of human nature, but it is in crisis today because it has been rejected. Why?
Authority is present everywhere in nature. A wolf pack is led by the alpha, pups learn how to hunt through their parents’ example. A troop of gorillas is led and defended by an adult male. In each case, authority is natural and essential to the preservation of life.
Similarly, human beings need authority in our lives to continue to seek a quality life. We do not simply survive: We require the liberty to exercise free will and, along the way, the authority of our parents and teachers to guide us. Their experience teaches us the difference between a wise decision and a harmful one.
Today, authority is regarded with suspicion. Evidence of this can be seen everywhere. Students in public schools are encouraged to hide things from their parents. They are taught, through the actions of local governments and school boards, that the authorities in their lives mean them harm. In California, parents are being told that their children will be taken away if they (the parents) do not abdicate their authority to the state. In history classes around the country, students are being taught that the authority of the founders of the United States is illegitimate because it is based on racism.
Why does Western culture reject authority today? Two answers are worth pondering.
Authority has been misinterpreted as domination. First, there is the fear of domination. The goal of human law, if the law is just, is not domination of one class over the other; it is mutual survival and fulfillment. Now, if I perceive my father as a dominating force instead of an authority who guides and protects, I interpret his words and actions as threats. His judgment of my desire to quit school becomes an attempt to repress the happiness that I was seeking in my rock star fantasy. The difference between authority and domination has been confused.
The other answer is that Western society has lost its sense of transcendence. One can view transcendence in two related ways: on the one hand, as the progress of human life toward the eternal and, on the other, as the individual’s transcendence of himself. The transcendence of the individual means that a person does not live for himself alone. An individual exists within a societal context, and his life is intertwined with the lives of others.
Today, both understandings of transcendence are under attack. The idea of the eternal value of life is being replaced with the notion that value is given by the immediate world: There is no value outside of the here and now. Man creates value himself. The inevitable result of this is the alienation of the human person. Every individual becomes the author of his own set of values. Each person becomes his own authority. What follows from this? That everyone is everyone else’s enemy, or at least their competitor. There is no authority. All that remains is the threat of domination by others when their values get in the way of one’s own values.
Clearly, authority is in crisis. Fortunately, it is not dead. The natural sources of authority are still in place: father, mother, teachers. There are also still religious institutions with spiritual authorities who base their responsibilities on the intrinsic value of life and the instinct to guide and protect it. I, for one, am glad I listened to my dad when I was 14. He knew what he was talking about.
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