Thursday, April 24, 2014
The Illusion of Authority Or The Allegory of the Cave Dweller
On 2014 Planet Earth it seems to be a given that there are some people and institutions that are generally acknowledged to have "authority" over certain persons and people groups. In other words, have the legal right to exercise power over people. Why? Who gave them the right to exercise physical, economic, and even psychological force upon another person? Where is the natural autonomy of the individual? When and how do these natural rights conflict with the constraints of living in a civilization? Can a person be free in 2014? In this short piece, I would like to evaluate and challenge the nature of "authority" and its current role as judge and jury in society. It is my hope that by the end of this entry you will not accept any "authority" simply because it exists, but instead question everything because it is your right and your responsibility as a naturally free person.
I feel like I need to be upfront. I am not writing this entry in a vacuum; this subject did not just swipe across my mind like an idea on InspirationCupid. I have dealt with it my whole life. As a child, I never understood why I should just do what someone told me because they told me to do it. As an adult I have never lost this tenacity to always ask why? It has not always been the easiest road, but I have felt compelled in school, church, the workplace, and in society to ask for an accounting of why things are the way there are. However, I have found that people and institutions have always been taken aback by my relentless pursuit of accounting. Even in the business world—which western civilization seems so keen to idolize—critical thinking and innovation are lauded and praised; yet questioning of authority is punished. Are not innovation and "insubordination" based on the same idea? Furthermore, is not democracy based on the idea of ideological synthesis? When one idea becomes outdated, archaic, or unuseful then should it not be scrapped for a new more appropriate idea? However, this process cannot take place in a world where power is maintained out of fear of change. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; and hate to suppression. Conversely, dissent leads to dissatisfaction; dissatisfaction leads to innovation; innovation leads to progress. This is the purpose of my piece: to dispel with the theory that challenging "authority" is a bad thing. On the contrary, I plan to argue that "authority" is simply an illusion based on fear and perceived power. My thesis will also lead to a suggestion: rebellion in every corner of society for without dissent progress is impossible.
Let's start with a story:
Once upon a time in a land probably not too far from where you are sitting there wandered a group of hunter-gathers. Every day or so a couple of the folks in the group would go out on a hunt and bring back a kill for everyone in the group to share. However, at some point two of the hunters—let's call them Jeff and Dean—were sitting around a campfire with the kill in between them. One of them, Jeff, had been the one who thrust the spear that killed the deer. Jeff wasn't always the one who threw the killshot but on this occasion he was. Most of the time it was someone different and no one bothered to squabble over who had done what. The basic narrative was "we gotta eat" so everyone pitched in. On the day in question though something changed.
On that day Jeff felt like he should be entitled to more of the kill. He may have felt this way for a number of reasons (fear of not having enough next time; jealousy at how much someone else had taken by sheer coincidence; or simple black and white greed, among other possibilities), but when it is all said and done Jeff felt privileged and wanted to keep the booty for himself.
He picked up the carcass and started to drag it off to a cave when Dean stopped him and looked at the kill and then back at Jeff several times before realizing what he was doing. No one had ever tried to keep something back for themselves before so he had no point of reference for Jeff's actions. So, since Dean was hungry he reached for a piece of the meat only to have Jeff raise up to full height, pound his chest, and scream at Dean, intimidating him to back down. Dean being the smaller of the two knew he was no physical match for Jeff so he let him go and joined the others who looked on with wonder as Jeff climbed a hill to the nearest cave to store his treasure in a defensible area.
The other folks of the group did not understand what was going on either so they ascended the hill of Jeff's new cave dwelling and attempted to enter to obtain some of the meat; they were hungry. When they got close Jeff again raised up to full height and intimidated them with his strength. Jeff, though he had always been the most strong of the group, now positioned himself as the lone alpha; the one in charge because everyone else was either too afraid or too hungry to challenge him.
After the others realized that they are not going to get any food from Jeff they simply organized another hunting party without him. Like every other hunt they went out into the wildlands, captured their prey, and brought it back to camp to share with everyone. However, when they came back they found Jeff waiting for them.
In all his time on the mountain Jeff had started to look down on the rest of the group—literally and figuratively. Since he had a steady supply of food he did not need to joint the hunt (thought I suspect the others may have been wary about him joining anyway, considering his previous actions). When he started running low Jeff had an epiphany: It was his strength of intimidation that had won him the carcass last time; maybe he could do it again. When the hunting party came back to shouts of joy and thankfulness from the rest of the group, Jeff was waiting at the edge of the clearing with a devious smirk on his face. He moved to take the meat. Again, the others were not used to selfishness so they thought they maybe he was simply trying to help them carry it back to camp. However, it did not take them long to realize that he was dragging it back up to his cave again to hide away and gorge.
This time the group confronted him, but Jeff—having an excess of nutrition while the others starved—had a size and energy advantage and intimidated them into submission. The others would continue to starve while Jeff gorged on his booty by virtue of his brawn.
Though the group tried to get around Jeff's notice time and time again, he always inevitably came for his due. After a while others started hoarding resources too in order to keep them from Jeff. They even took to the hills to protect their food from Jeff's and consequently each others' (they now started to doubt each other too) evil grips. After performing this grift several times Jeff started to feel entitled—not by his strength—but by right. However, Jeff had come to realize that this wedding feast couldn't last forever (a few of the others had started giving him contemptuous looks) so he invented a system by which people felt obligated to feed him with their labor in exchange for his good graces.
"It's the natural order of things," he would say. "I am the chosen one to preside over the food. If you will bring me all of the kills then I won't kill you. However, I am a just ruler; I will give you a piece of every kill you deliver."
The people out of their fear of Jeff's brawn and status as the Cave Dweller accepted the deal. So, from then on out Jeff had "authority" over the food to divvy out as he saw fit. He had no natural or divine right in reality, but had scared the people into believing that he had some special status because of… well, whatever he chose to tell them. My guess would be the blessing of the stars or gods. In reality he was just bigger than them and had scared them long enough that they thought he deserved it by right.
Eventually, the group would grow so accustomed to their new master lording their own labor over them and being malnourished that Jeff would be able to swindle a few of them into increasing his stock in brawn. Jeff realized that he could amass such a wealth of meat that it would not hurt his gorging feasts one iota if he were to break off a little bit of sinew and tendon here and there in exchange for increasing his dominion. So, he goes into the group—as they now bow the knee to the master of the meat—and chooses the five biggest and strongest people to come with him back to his cave. They look at each other apprehensively—for they were all even more scared of Prophet Jeff than they were of Strongman Jeff—yet they eventually marched up with him.
When they arrived he set out a hunk of meat for them five times the portion of the normal ration. They had been so hungry that their mouths watered at the sight. Jeff beaconed them to feast. After they had feasted they sat down against the cave walls satisfied with their "blessing." Jeff was also satisfied but for another reason. He then gave a speech…
"My friends," he began. "You are such a noble group among those swine down there in the group. Your muscles are strong; your legs swift; and your hunt reliable. You are clearly blessed by the gods and deserve to be up here with me on high, not down in the pits with the pissants."
They all looked at each other questionably. They had never considered themselves qualitatively in relation to the others before. It was really everyone else and Jeff at this juncture in human history. However, they felt so satisfied with their 5x portions and their greedy sides liked that they could look down from the top of the mountain at the others (who were coincidentally at that very moment glaring up at the cave wondering what had become of the five). By virtue of the place that Jeff had put them they indeed felt "above" the others; they belonged there. They agreed.
"Excellent," Jeff glowed "You are the peacekeepers of the cave. You are in charge of protecting the meat and me from any predator foreign (other animals) and domestic (other humans in the group). In return for your services I will give 3x the normal portion of the hunt!" He said the last part like it was a great blessing and showed them their bounty.
"That 3x portion doesn't look as big as what you just gave us," one of the brave newly dubbed guardians piped up.
In reality, Jeff was being greedy and trying to keep the extra 2/5 to himself, but he was a sly devil… "That extra portion is for the gods who have demanded a sacrifice."
"Why do the gods need meat?"
Jeff smacked the warrior. Though Jeff had put on a considerable amount of weight since the beginning of his grift, he was still the biggest person in the group.
"Because they demand it."
Again, Jeff had intimidated his "subjects" into obedience. Only this time he retained their loyalty out of fear and reward.
For the rest of his life Jeff sat on his hill fattening himself off of the labor of the group. He sat in his cave dwelling "communing with the gods" (which really meant he was eating, eating, eating) while his band of brothers met each hunting party at the edge of the clearing to take in their take to bring back to the cave.
(Jeff had long since abandoned the whole "take the whole carcass and divvy a portion out among the group" scheme. He had made it much more efficient. Now, the hunting party simply had to turn over 3/4 of the kill. They could keep the last 1/4 for the group. After all, they'd earned it, Jeff would assert. Jeff then gave a small portion to his guards and stored the rest away for himself.)
As the years went by Jeff grew older and his appearance was matched only by his mystique. In his old years he never left his cave. Year after year he received his due as the gods commanded and the rest of the group shouldered his lavishness with their labor and hunger. Eventually though, Jeff came to his deathbed. By now he had come up with a fantastic group of rituals that he “received from the gods” that were performed on him day and night by his band of brothers, but he was still dying. One day he died and the group became at a loss: What would they do without their leader? How could they function if there was no one to divvy up the hunt? Who would tell them how much to eat? To whom would the band of brothers be loyal?
It didn't take long for the band of brothers to realize that they were now in power. They were the ones that the group was coming to for their answers and so they all separately got it into their heads that they each should be the new Cave Dweller. So, they all sat around a campfire and chewed on a piece of meat to try to figure out who should be the new leader. When their shares ran out and they had not yet figured out whom the new leader was, one of them—Abed—picked up another chunk from the stockpile.
When the others reached for the carcass as well Abed stood up full height, stared them down, and intimidated them with a primal scream and a show of brawn. A second man tried to scream back, but was shouted and then pushed down by Abed. The others were also invigorated to challenge this would-be-meat-hoarder yet none—out of their fear—rose to the task. Thus, the next Cave Dweller was chosen by strength of arms—literally.
This cycle continued until someone realized that the same process kept happening over and over again. Apparently, there was something systematic and consequently—in the mind of the brainwashed—natural to this order.
Fast-forward a few millennia...
Jeff and Abed's successors do not need to bother themselves with storing meat away in caves anymore. They have factories all over the country producing so much pork that the pig feces are in endangering the water supplies. And they don't live in caves anymore. Now they take their booty up private elevators to their posh penthouse suites in Manhattan or DC. The setting has changed, but the game stays the same.
You will recall that Jeff's whole "authority" structure started out of fear. The cooperative environment that the Cave Dweller was born into was harmonious; everyone had his or her fare share of work and reward. There is no difference today. Though the complexities of sustenance have changed, the principles have remained the same. Instead of a small group going out into the forest to hunt, individuals trek from their individual homes to their workplaces where in exchange for their labor they are given pieces of paper that Jeff's successors have assured them can be exchanged for anything they need if they have enough. However, Jeff's successors also create the rates at which these exchanges can be made.
The successors also have developed their own band of brothers, which they use to shield themselves from the group down the mountain (the workers from the previous paragraph). Instead of finding the five strongest warriors they have created systems to create the strongest warriors. By teaching their intimidation techniques to people who will trade their allegiance from the rest of the group to the successors, they are rewarded with more pieces of paper for trading and also societal rules that make it a punishable offense to fight back. Thus the military and police forces of today are given not only great rewards and guaranteed safety in return for their allegiance, but also a piece of the inherited "rights" of Jeff's successors.
The People in this story have faired no better than their hunting-and-gathering ancestors. As a matter of fact, their plight is much worse. Instead of trying to deal with one despot and his cronies hoarding their labor, we are left to deal with a system that produces despots and lionizes the tenants that create more cronies in a circle of violence, abuse, and corruption. The lustful spoils of such evil even inspire envy in some, producing wanna-be strongmen in the home, school, and workplace all motivated by the same factor—fear.
Jeff and his crew lorded over the rest of their fellow humans in the same way that bankers, politicians, bosses, gangsters, "private security", military commanders, cops, and domestic losers do now: out of fear, intimidation, greed, and selfishness.
"Authority" in the hierarchical top-down model that is practiced today from Presidents to Paupers is designed out of fear to use intimidation to keep control over the means of social stability. The world could function just fine in a cooperative model where everyone chips in and reaps the rewards equally, but it is kept divided by those who would hoard the abundant resources of the good Earth as a means to control how those resources are distributed. Such figures have been sly for millennia, convincing us that they deserve the responsibility (and reward) by virtue of their blessing as being divinely inspired, democratically chosen, or—worse still—a conquering ruler.
This privilege is an illusion based on the ignorance of the People and the willful deception of those in power. There is not one "authority" figure on Earth whether they be a King, CEO, or Police Commissioner who does not know deep down in the back of their consciousness that they are one uprising away from usurpation or the gallows.
Part of the blame lies with those first humans who let Jeff wander off with that first carcass. Had Dean picked up a rock, bashed him over the head with it, and put the meat back out for the group then maybe civilization would not have (d)evolved into a society of have's and have-not's. If the group had come together and decided amongst themselves that this "authority" thing wasn't working out for them and gave Abed and the band of brothers the same fate, then maybe we wouldn't have a militarized police force deciding who are the patriots and the terrorists. Today such a democratic coup de tat is not so easily accomplished. Jeff's successors have done a fantastic job of dividing the people down the mountain by race, class, and creed. They has so convinced the people that they are different that the have forgotten that they are one—and always have been—under the boot heel of Jeff, Abed, the band of brothers, and their kin.
Jeff and his successors have been smart. Rocks to the back of the head don't work anymore for when you cut the head off of one of these serpents two more sprout up in their place by virtue of the systems they've created. However, I am convinced that if the people came back together from their disparate caves and decided to work together that they could replace Jeff and his successors' dirty schemes with more natural and cooperative systems that make sure that everyone has access to the booty of the good clean Earth and not just a few who hide their spoils away in some god-blessed cave on Wall Street or Capitol Hill.
Authority is a powerful illusion, but it is a mirage nevertheless. We can remove it...one "disobedience" at a time.