The Need For Authority

About four years ago I posted a piece on my blog about “Parental Authority” that incorporated the comments below by Christopher Lasch. Now, I have referred to Lasch many times as I regard him as one of the most astute thinkers I have encountered and certainly one of the very few who seems to have his finger on the pulse of contemporary society. Lasch is convinced that our permissive society has brought about the “Culture of Narcissism,” and while we are fond of accusing our current president of this malady, it would appear that it is widespread in our commodified, hedonistic culture in which success is measured by the size of one’s pocketbook and increasing numbers of folks can’t see beyond the perimeters of their own diminished selves. In any event, I want to revisit the comments I quoted from Lasch’s book in an attempt to unpack some of the more important insights he shares with us in an attempt to understand the role of authority, not only in the family, but also in the society at large.

The undermining of parental authority began in the 1920s with a book, Parents On Probation, by Merriam Van Waters. The movement toward the rejection of notions like “authority,” “discipline,” and “virtue” was given tremendous impetus in the 1950s by people like Dr. Spock and the other pop-psychologists who decided that it was they who should be raising the kids, and not the parents, and that in the end no opinion ought to be given preference over another — unless it was their own. In any event, Lasch had this to say about the lost notion of authority and its effects on society as a whole:

“. . .the collapse of parental authority reflects the collapse of ‘ancient impulse controls,’ and the shift ‘from a society in which the Super Ego values (the values of self-restraint) were ascendant, to one in which more and more recognition was being given to the values of self-indulgence.’ The reversal of the normal relations between the generations [in which the children have come to rule the home], the decline of parental discipline, the ‘socialization’ of many parental functions, and the ‘self-centered, impulse-dominated, detached, confused’ actions of American parents give rise to characteristics that ‘can have seriously pathological outcomes, when present in extreme form,’ but which in milder form equip the young to live in a permissive society organized around the pleasures of consumption. . . In this way [parents] undermine the child’s initiative and make it impossible for him to develop self-restraint or self-discipline.”

Lasch is convinced that not only the kids but their parents as well all need some sense of authority to give structure and coherence to their lives. It is the development of a healthy Super Ego, according to Lasch, that provides this structure and without it we have self-indulgence, confusion, uncertainty, and even the frustration that leads to violence when we are told that something we want we cannot have. The “values of self-restraint” that Lasch speaks about in the above comment are precisely those values that were once called “virtues” and which made the peaceful and successful coexistence of humans in society possible. These were the virtues that were prized during the Victorian Age and before that in the Age of Enlightenment and which lead to such things as the founding of this nation on the basis of  the conviction that citizens were virtuous and would invariably elect wise and virtuous men and women to high office. This, unfortunately, has not been borne out as recent experience will attest. Much of this comes from the rejection of the notion of authority, the notion that there is someone else who knows better than you or I what is the proper thing to do in a given situation. Some would argue that the Protestant Revolt diminished the role of the church as the ultimate authority and this has undermined the notion of authority of the church and placed the ultimate authority in the Bible which is subject to the interpretation of anyone who could read. Is it possible that this displacement planted the seeds of relativism, the gradual translation of virtue, which is fixed, into values, which are merely matters of opinion? I simply ask.

The “reversal of normal relations” between parents and children of which Lasch speaks refers to the child-oriented families and schools that are now commonplace in which the child is regarded as the better judge of what is best for him and the parent hides in the forest of self-indulgence and the pursuit of wealth and pleasure. The teachers also look to their students for guidance as to what it is their pupils want and those whimsical desires are codified into a curriculum that changes with the whims of the students. Everywhere we look we see confusion and self-doubt — except on the faces of the spoiled and entitled children who appear to be self-assured while all the time they have no idea where it is they ought to be going. Indeed, the notion that there is an “ought” that needs to be recognized is alien to a narcissistic culture that revels in pleasure and self-indulgence. The parents and the teachers reveal, as Lasch mentions, “self-centered, impulse-dominated, detached, confused actions.” The children and students are bewildered and float aimlessly through life. The authority of a parent or a teacher, someone who knows better and who can provide guidance, is missing and the result is  predictable: it becomes impossible for the children or the student to “develop self-restraint or self-discipline.” Indeed, it is not clear to most of us just what these things are or why they are needed.

In the absence of a fixed point of reference provided by an authority figure or indeed any sense that there is anything other than self that matters, it is no wonder that undisciplined and bewildered children grow up to become ill-suited to a society or a job that may demand of them self-restraint and at times sacrifice.  It is no wonder that many of them resort to violence in rejecting those demands which are foreign to them, demands that were once normal but which are slowly being eroded away.

Parental Authority

One of the most difficult concepts for our society to come to grips with has been that of authority, especially parental authority. The authority of the policeman is fairly simple to deal with: if we see a badge or a flashing light most people listen and respond appropriately. But the authority of experts and especially the authority of parents and teachers has been questioned for a number of years now in what is an increasingly egalitarian and permissive society in which a leveling-down process has given birth to a sense of entitlement on the part of a vast majority of the spoiled young people in this country. No one has wrestled more successfully with the concept of authority than Christopher Lasch, whom I have referred to in previous blogs and who has brought his grasp of basic Freudian principles to bear on the subject and helped clarify what is decidedly a very misunderstood concept. “Authority” is not a nasty word, as some would have us believe.

We need to start by distinguishing between spurious authority and legitimate authority, rooting out, for example, the bogus authority of “experts” such as Merriam Van Waters, author of Parents On Probation, who as early as the 1920s started the rumor that in an increasing number of cases parental authority was “warped” and children should be raised by the “helping professions” rather than parents.  One must question the credentials of these supposed “authorities” in child rearing. Such bogus authority is simply power in another guise, leading to the rejection of the legitimacy of the parental role in the family in the name of  the state’s “social responsibility” for the children. I hope to explore this theme more fully in a subsequent blog.

The recognition of the legitimate authority of acknowledged experts with bona fide credentials is something we all benefit from and our society desperately needs. This is the case with regard to the authority of those who have a thorough understanding of their field of expertise, as recognized by their peers, and it is most assuredly the case with regard to the legitimate authority of parents and teachers. While we have solid grounds for rejecting the supposed authority of many in the “helping professions,” not only must we recognize the authority of the physician and the auto mechanic, we must also recognize the authority of the scientist who tells us that the globe is warming and that human existence as we know it is facing radical change while the planet itself is in jeopardy. And we must allow for the legitimacy of the authority of the parents over their own children and the teachers to teach the young.

But ours is an egalitarian age in which we have begun with a misunderstanding of the notion of moral equality in which all are entitled to fair treatment under the law and expanded the notion to the absurd conclusion that there are no differences between men and women, or between the gifted and the obtuse, or between a spurious opinion and a reasoned opinion. This is the “leveling-down” process I mentioned above. In insisting, wrongly as it happens, that there are no differences that make any difference between opinions or people  we have tossed out the notion that there are some who know more than others, that some things are true while others are false, and that some people are capable of remarkable deeds while others simply are not. While we are all equal before the law and from a moral perspective differences are less important than similarities, some people are simply more able than others to do specific things: some differences do make a difference. And there are those whose legitimate authority we should all admit, though we seem reluctant to do so.

Now, whether or not one agrees that the general abandonment of the notion of legitimate authority is a serious problem, one must agree that the attack on the legitimate authority of the parents most assuredly is. As Lasch has noted, quoting  anthropologist Jules Henry,

“. . .the collapse of parental authority reflects the collapse of ‘ancient impulse controls,’ and the shift ‘from a society in which the Super Ego values (the values of self-restraint) were ascendant, to one in which more and more recognition was being given to the values of self-indulgence.’ The reversal of the normal relations between the generations [in which the children have come to rule the home], the decline of parental discipline, the ‘socialization’ of many parental functions, and the ‘self-centered, impulse-dominated, detached, confused’ actions of American parents give rise to characteristics that ‘can have seriously pathological outcomes, when present in extreme form,’ but which in milder form equip the young to live in a permissive society organized around the pleasures of consumption. . . In this way [parents] undermine the child’s initiative and make it impossible for him to develop self-restraint or self-discipline. . . The parent’s abdication of authority intensifies rather than softens the child’s fear of punishment, while identifying thoughts of punishment more firmly than ever with the exercise of arbitrary, overwhelming violence.”

In a word, by denying the legitimate role of the parents as authorities in the raising of their own children, and/or the abdication of that role by parents who are too self-absorbed and preoccupied with making a living (as we say), we have brought about a permissive society in which the child has become the center of the family; “discipline” has become a pejorative term; “reform” has replaced punishment; an increasingly coercive state has intruded itself into the private arena of the family which should ideally be off-limits; and the young are convinced they are entitled to what they perceive as “the good life,” and are increasingly inclined to resort to violence in order to make sure that this comes about. We have no one to blame but ourselves.