Author: Aldon Hynes
One of the mailing lists I am on is hosted by a 501(c)3 in the United States. Among other things, it means that the hosting organization cannot actively support specific candidates in U.S. elections. This resulted in an email from their general counsel’s office warning about political discourse on the mailing lists. It generated a lot of interesting discussions, and I sent an email to the list about the larger issues that this has generated. I’ve modified the email to make it more generic, and present it here.
It seems like some of the posts recently get to what I find the most fascinating issue around politics, psychology, and group dynamics, which is how we understand authority.
To many people, the President of the United States is the ultimate human authority figure. The people of the United States are in the process of deciding who will wear that mantle next. As such, the campaign is about much more than just issues, personalities, or parties.
This brings us to the issue of how each one of us, individually, understands and confers authority on others, as well as how people in positions of authority attempt to maintain authority.
To what extent is authority granted from above, whether we talk about the divine right of kings, or simply the authority conferred on people as a result of playing by the rules of existing governing authorities and receiving their blessing, in the form of degrees, credentials, licenses etc? To what extent is authority granted from below, from people whose trust and respect we have earned?
I don’t want to promote black and white, or red and blue thinking on this. Indeed, it seems like authority comes from a mix of above and below, and the important question is, where do you stand on the spectrum.
From my writing, it should be fairly clear which end of the spectrum I tend towards, and if my writing doesn’t give it away, the fact that I often wore a T-shirt saying ‘Question Authority’ might be another useful clue.
So, let us take for a moment, a look at the question of authority as it relates to the ‘prohibition on political activity’ on the mailing list. The Associate General Counsel for the non-profit sent this message to List Managers. She focused on authority from above, she notes her credentials, as Associate General Counsel, which is an authority granted upon her by the organization that employs here. She sends the message to the managers of the lists, again working from the top down.
Then, the manager of the list sends the message to the list itself and there is some rebellion. The rebellion is from the bottom up.
And the sign says `long hair freaky people need not apply`
Now, let’s take this a little bit further into the realm of the political. People in power, as a general rule, do not give up power willingly or easily. They focus on the authority granted from above as a means of maintaining their power. They may even do things to discourage discourse which would threaten their power, such as promoting an overly broad interpretation of the rules concerning non-profits in the United States.
We have seen this in other areas, including the recent arrest of journalists in St. Paul, the efforts of the current U.S. Administration to centralize power in the executive branch by very broad interpretations of ‘executive power’ and by the pressing of new laws that further erode the rights of citizens.
If we look more closely, we see it in the rhetoric of the candidates, the denigration of ‘community organizers’, people who focus on empowering authority from the bottom, and the exalting of the role of ‘governor’, that is authority wielded from the top.
We have also seen it in the dismissing of people who lean towards a power structure where authority is granted from below when people who question the current power structure are labeled ‘unpatriotic’ or even ‘traitors’. We have seen it in the discourse, where critics are drowned out by people chanting ‘U S A … U S A’, which I would maintain, in the context is not about love of a country based upon democratic ideas where authority is granted from the bottom, but in a context of respecting the current authority structure. We may even see it in people equating rebelling against an overly top down authority structure with immaturity.
So, what do we do with all of this? One member of the list wrote about this saying,
Oppressive power stays in power when the citizens pass the point of no return on speaking out because they have become afraid. With no challenge to that power, the institutionalizing of oppression and the harshness and probability of the punishment increases until there is a point of no return to civic discourse.
It seems like what is most important is to encourage people to explore their own relationship with authority, and to speak out about it; to speak out against power that has become oppressive. It seems like we must create spaces where it is possible and safe for people to do such exploration and speaking.
I think the manager of this list is doing a good job in carefully navigating this for this list, but I would encourage each of you to look a little more closely about your own views about authority and power, and how it relates to this list, to your work, and to political processes worldwide.