To Be Good Is To Obey: Unpacking Authoritarianism

October 12, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be an anti-authoritarian.  I’ve never actually heard anyone claim to be an authoritarian… worrisome since it seems to me that this is an unrecognized status quo.  In the simples, broadest strokes it seems to me that being an authoritarian means believing that those in authority, those with power in terms of unequally large proportions of resources and/or status, are inherently right, good, or better than others and that subsequently they ought to be obeyed.  My belief is that we are all taught to be authoritarians.  Only through active choice can be unlearn it.  And it is hard to unlearn.

The belief  that to be good is to obey is the beating, perverted heart of authoritarianism.  It functions on many levels in our society but none so stark and formative as the relationship of children to parents.  Children are often explicitly taught to think, “I am good when I obey,” often to obey without questioning, resisting, or responding negatively by showing signs of pain, unhappiness, sadness, anger and other “troublesome” emotions while complying.  At other times the message is implicit in the withholding of affection or attention or resources or other unacknowledged punishment, which theorists like Alice Miller and John Bradshaw point to as the cause of the construction of a false self, an inauthentic self adapted to the demands of a parental figure in order to survive.

Perhaps the next most stark and evocative example of this dynamic is in religious teaching and hierarchies.  First it stands out in the manner in which we relate to our religious “authorities.”  I’ve talked before about the idea of the Bible as “the ultimate authority” and pointed to the reality that there is no such thing as a direct Biblical ethic since everything from the translation, to the application, to the picking and choosing of what would otherwise be contradictory in its content, to oftentimes the simple reading of the Bible is in fact through this argument being left to the “authorities” which often means the clergy and significantly to celebrity or widely publicized members of the clergy.  The implied message is not to think or engage with ethics and spirituality yourself, but to obey the mandates of others.  This is appealing because it allows us to be lazy (our inherent, original sin) and hard to escape because it threatens us with fear of rejection and damnation should our own consciences and beliefs contradict with those messages.

But more heartbreaking and what seems more personal and pivotal to me, it shapes the way we think of God, of the Divine.  We see God as an authority figure – self-centered and temperamental, ready to dish out rewards for our obedience and punishment for our disobedience.  We imagine God wants to police and restrict us, to water-down our thoughts, correct and censor our feelings, to constrain and reduce our desires.  God wants us to conform to what God wants.

For some of us, this isn’t even as explicitly “religious” as all that.  I think in our own minds most of all we find ourselves engaged in a disturbed dynamic in which obedience is equated with good.  When our shame, guilt, self-consciousness or ungrounded “selflessness” guides our actions, we imagine some external authority approving of us.  When we begin to listen to our own feelings, bodies, minds, and conscience we often find ourselves fearing retribution, feeling arrogant, uncomfortable and fearful that we are stepping out of line.  Self-violence is the watermark left on the conscience of those raised in authoritarian contexts.

I seriously doubt that many of us would believe in authoritarianism if it were presented as such and the alternative well represented.  But we are taught and imbedded in that teaching is deference.


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