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On Authority

I have a very old habit. Whenever I encounter an unusual truth I find myself mental describing it as if to my son.

For much of my life this "son" whom I mentally imagined hanging on every dispensed nugget of mine wisdom, was entirely theoretical. Which unfortunately for my less than theoretical child, I never once jotted down any of these seemingly notable epiphanies, and in fact, forgot the contents of nearly all of them to the one.

Which is just as well, since this exercise in retrospect seems to resemble more of a day-dreamed fantasy of being old and wise enough to be listened to by others, than about producing a body of "street wisdom" to pass onto my subsequent generations.

So when I next go the itch to perform one of these one-man "life seminars" for an audiance of myself, I decided to try to commit it to paper. If only to see if the thoughts seemed as important as they seemed reflected in the dreamy and engaged fake child in my mind seemed to think they were of if they truly were a weak pretense at mental masturbation.

I now present to you, what may, or may not become a recurring segment "Letters to My Son" on the subject of Authority. I warn you not to attempt to follow this advice, as it assumes the audience is a bit off like myself, and is unlikely to be of much use to most normal people.


Letters to My Son: On Authority

Since this is the first of some letters, there is a rather distracting amount of clarification to be done away with before we get onto the titular subject.

I write this letter as a new parent who has no idea what he is doing, or has even decided on what precisely the verb "to parent" means. Whether it requires the active molding of the child toward what my definitions of desirable physical and mental attributes or if it is a more passive job, requiring "active manipulations" only when necessary, and otherwise trying to do my best to keep yourself from committing creative permutations of physical, mental and social suicide is still a subject to which I am entirely undecided.

Since I am at heart an engineer, who plans for worse case scenarios, I imagine my audience for this being a surly fifteen year old, whose father is forcing him to read this document aloud in it's entirety as punishment for failing to bring the trans-dimensional car home within an hour of your agreed curfew.

It seems evident to me that people's views on authority seem to change with age, which is one motivation for tackling this particular subject first, as I have a terrible fear that my years of possessing parenting authority over you, as well as the tides of age upon my brain will change and fracture my current opinions on the matter most drastically.

I would like you to meditate on the importance of this last point, since the irony of this entire letter must have been immediately annoying to you. As your father I am likely to be a very major symbol of unreasonable authority over you. Every hormone and book of teen fiction you possess is very likely recommending against the acceptance of anything I have to say on anything, ten times so on the topic of authority.

While I cannot completely solve the uselessness of that situation, I will promise that the following text will assuredly contain both ideas and quotes that, if aptly employed, will provide invaluable ammunition in any debates or disagreements that you and your current future father me are to have, and that employing these against me, with my own permission is a tactic that is guaranteed to vex future me terribly.

With the largest of the meta and temporal subjects addressed, I will now attempt to make headway on the core subject.

Authority, at it's essence is a combination of rules, enforced by people or peoples, during certain times, at certain places, when people have assumed certain roles. That is to say that Authority itself exists only in the minds of those participating in it.

When I was young, they usually referred to things that met those conditions as "imagination" or "pretending", and so I was always confused why everyone seemed to "know" to treat Authority differently. To me it was as if saying that of course *most* colors of invisible of gorilla are simply your imagination, but you do not joke around about invisible red gorillas. Those will come alive and fuck you up.

To extend that totally sweet metaphor more, imagine that you and a group of friends all agreed to pretend that there was an invisible gorilla in the room, and that part of the pretending was to act like you were not pretending it, but to pretend that you truly believed it was real. It does not take long to allow this to perpetuate by suggesting that anyone who suggests the gorilla isn't real gets punched in the shoulder by someone nearby you at the order of said gorilla. At that point, the concept of the gorilla is self-perpetuating, and resists attempts to dismantle itself.

The gorilla itself doesn't punish, those who submit to being punished, so as to have the chance to punish others, do. That is to say, authority is a voluntary consequence of joining any system of agreed upon rules.

Some might point out moments in history when men in uniforms executed outrageous punishments to people who were entirely involuntary of the authority that was on the men's hats. Which is an excellent, if macabre, point. It is not my goal to make light of any of those terrible incidents. Only to draw a distinction between violence and authority. Clearly any authority which is perpetuated not by acceptance, but by the implied threat of violence is not proper authority at all, but instead bald intimidation. I draw this point to both define the stakes I speak of and to avoid confusion in examples to come.

Right now, you might be thinking that the only way to properly defy authority, is to disassociate from it. To take your ball and go home, thus stripping all your friends of their referee rank. I disagree with this.

One of the problems in this, is that humans simply seem to love creating rules. Rules, some spoken, many unspoken to cover very nearly any situation imaginable. From buying groceries, to getting married, to arranging to meet a person on the internet who shares a similar fetish, nearly ever aspect of life which involves more than one adult person is filled to the corners with invisible, unspoken, but yet largely agreed upon rules. So to truly defy authority via disassociation would involve living alone in a cabin on a land yet undiscovered.

Another more straightforward attempt at defying authority is to be exactly contrarian. To break the rules deliberately to show that your actions cannot be controlled. In many ways this is the very worst of options, as it achieves the exact opposite. By breaking rules, you give those in authority both the excuse and the permission to wield their authority to punish you. While the results of your rule breaking may annoy them, I assure you it will be nothing compared to the joy they will feel by getting to punishing you. Even if the punishment drives you to disassociate from the group altogether, that can still be perceived as a victory for the system, as everyone else sees that rule breakers are swiftly delt with, which then only strengthens the resolve of those who remain pledged to governing rules you were attempting to prove powerless.

So what is a young rebel to do? How do you direct the urge to illustrate the ridiculousness and insubstantial nature of rules and authority to those who have raised them up to an inappropriate importance? To humble those who mistake the agreed upon collective power of authority as an extension of their own self-worth?

If we cannot leave all rule-bound groups, and cannot break the rules themselves, we seem left with few options.

I have worked with computers and math for much of my life. In doing so, one of my primary tasks is to write constraints and actions which a computer or equation must obey. In theory, it seems easy. You prescribe a list of simple, logical actions towards a desired end. The computer than does its very best to obey.

Yet, even given these ideal circumstances, and a perfectly loyal subject, the results of my programs are very often surprising and in many cases achieve the complete opposite of my intentions.

Think on that. If even a mindless glob of Boolean logic, which has been caged inside a purposefully built cage of inalterable statements can still break free and surprise the one who possessed ultimate authority over it. What chance does real world authority have against you?

The real world is difficult and more complex by orders of infinity (which is a real thing, look it up). Most of the rules that constrain us are largely nebulous social contracts, which are meant to bend to accept the intricacies and special situations that arise in a chaotic world.

This is how you properly expose the true nature of authority to those who seem to have forgotten. You strive to act within the prearranged limits, while attempting to achieving new and unexpected results. Most people who have become intoxicated with authority see it as a means of ensuring things never change, simply by finding a new way to move within the old constraints will be enough to annoy them. The fact that you introduce newness will be slightly annoying. That they are helpless to punish you for it is what will truly drive them mad. It also illustrates that it is the agreed upon rules that are in charge, not the man who has memorized them or taken up their mantle. By creatively obeying the rules you can actually weaken authority, and correct it's context for everyone else.

While tweaking the nose of the stuffy school marms is fun, it isn't the full point.

The fact that we are surrounded by constantly shifting rules, often leads people to begin to think each moment in their life is a short zero-sum game. 7:45-7:50 try to catch the earliest bus. The fact that the score they keep only seems to make them happy the 10% of the time they arrive just as a new bus arrives, escapes them. They get off the bus, go into an office, where they rank themselves on the corporate ladder to everyone about them, and bemoan their static position.

Just because we are surrounded by rules that we must accept to function in society, doesn't mean that the results of each of the games dictated by those rules defines us.

Their chief function is only as a social tool, the ugly cement support columns of civilization, confusing them as a rubric for measuring success in life is a dire mistake indeed.

But this is difficult to see, given the amount of our brain power it takes to adapt and function by all these rules. "Am I on the bus or in a grocery store? What is my relation to all these people? What is acceptable right now?" We are social animals, and we have social computers that spend a lot of time measuring our relations to one another. We spend so much time consciously and unconsciously thinking about it that it becomes difficult not to inflate the importance of each intermediary result.

This is one joy of constantly looking to bend the rules. That "game" can always be played wherever there is rules, and by definition, needn't end at the boundaries of one to the other. It is a continuous game without a game or score. So, in the end, it isn't about showing up those in authority at all, but is a mental exercise to lighten the burden of the complex place we live in. Being ever vigilant for weak rules that beg to be broken keeps you reminded to not take any of it too seriously, to avoid the temptation to qualify yourself by machinations that were never designed to make people feel good about living in the modern world.

High School doubly, neigh, triply so.

And now, having read this you are in a pickle. Either you follow the intended advice of me, your old father, and redouble your efforts to confound your current father, or you spurn this advice to spite me, and commit yourself to obey all rules and social conventions forever more.

I think I may have a solution for you.

I recommend simply saying aloud how dumb and useless you found this advice? How you could barely bother to read it, and how it doesn't make any sense anyways? This is sure to wound the old me who has been waiting in anticipation for this very day and no longer remembers writing this last bit. That keeps old me from winning, while still allowing you use this wisdom to fight to great effect to bend and stress the authority of future overbearing stodgy me.

Because seriously, fuck that guy.

P.S. If you would like to learn more about overly wordy rationalizations for being a total spaz, I highly recommend this book.

2 comments:

Dear Kelvin,

Heed the words of your wise father, however difficult to grok.

For another perspective on authority, I'll offer mine.

I've never felt more free than when windsurfing on open water. The physical and mental focus as well as the dominating presences of natural forces is an amazing release from the social forces at work in the rest of life.

For more on this type of resistance to authority, I recommend Emerson.
by: Mike (contact) - 28 Jan '10 - 19:38
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Meta Information:

Title: On Authority
Date posted: 28 Jan '10 - 00:17
Filed under: General
Word Count: 2,243 words
Good Karma: 104 (vote)
Bad Karma: 68 (vote)
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