Posted by: terrapraeta | January 3, 2008

Respect My Author-i-tay!


question authority
have they the right to say how it should be?
should one man be able to write it all down?
when half the time he can’t tell right from wrong
question authority
another mans law is not right for me
another lie to bleed my sympathy
another time there will be no pitty
is this what you wan to see?
is this the way you want things to be?

Circle Jerks, Question Authority

I ran across a blog the other day discussing The Problem with Authorities. The post ended with:

All I can figure is that there must have been some sort of survival benefit in our tribal days to not making any real effort to deter evil behavior that caused us to be biologically programmed to act that way; I can’t see what that benefit could have been, but I’ll keep working on it…

I have an answer for that, but it requires looking at the fundamental nature of authority as well as the way people react to said authority. And it starts with eliminating the assumption of evilness that the anonymous blog writer fell back on in a few instances. For this discussion, remember my rule: There’s Nothing wrong With People.

So, first thing, let’s talk about authority itself. There are two fundamental types of authority (or power: ascribed and attained.

Attained power is authority based upon the directly relevant actions of an individual. For example, an individual that has repeatedly demonstrated knowledge, wisdom or understanding such that the people around him (or her) tend to look to the individual for guidance. With attained power, the authority wielded only exists so long as other individuals continue to look to the leader with respect and deferment. As such, attained power is temporal and completely dependent on continuing effective leadership.

Ascribed power, on the other hand, refers to positions of authority that are founded upon birth circumstance, social class, nepotism, or any other characteristic besides the actions associated with attained authority. Ascribed authority, is always accompanied by the threat or application of coercive forces to maintain order. Ascribed authority may be permanent of temporal, but in cases of temporal authority, generally an overt action must occur to curtail the authoritative position. (IE the individual gets fired, the government is overthrown or a politician is voted out of office.

To find examples of attained power in our modern world you might look to social groups: most groups tend to have one or more individuals that suggest activities, make final decisions, advise or critique others within the group, etc. Also, in local politics, you may find community leaders that have not reached for ascribed power (as in running for political office), but that nonetheless have a voice in the community that other individuals listen to and even seek out for their opinion.

So how does this all relate to our tribal ancestors and our biological pre-disposition toward authority? Well, first it must be pointed out that our ancestors did not have a place for attained power in their societies. (Note: I am specifically referring to cultures prior to the agricultural revolution from the initial appearance of our species through the upper paleolithic ca. 12,000 years ago.) It is easy to understand why, when you stop and think about it: as I said, ascribed power is always backed by coercive force. In populations numbering in the dozens and lacking surplus production, there is little avenue to apply coercion. It is impossible to ‘withhold food’, and the risk of bullying behavior is detribalization: a death sentence for most humans.

Ascribed authority began to arise amongst humans as agriculture allowed increasing populations to develop food surpluses. Food surplus allows craft specialization (including professional soldiers) and surplus, further, requires professional soldiers to protect assets, ‘elites’ to manage and control surplus distribution, and poor/lower class individuals to provide the energy to produce the surplus itself. (Surplus, as a matter of course, requires some individuals to retain less than the full value of their work so that others may reap the benefits of same.)

Flash forward ten thousand odd years and what do we now find? Massive populations, bounded by strict and sometimes illogical and/or maladaptive social mores and laws, with many layers of ascribed authorities that rarely have the skills, knowledge or ethics to achieve effective leadership. Even in cases of assumed ‘attained power’ – like managers in a corporation – their positions are more accurately described as ‘ascribed’ because their roles depend on proclaimed leadership and coercive force. As such, those that they lead often are less inclined to believe int heir leadership having had little or nothing to say about their position.

In the nineties, before the dot.com bust, there was a growing trend in business to change all of this. There was an emphasis on teamwork, with teams being led by the charisma and leadership abilities of team members as opposed to tightly structured hierarchies. Every indicator shows that these loose structures were effective ways of organizing people. Unfortunately, when the market crashed, this new model was in many ways discredited. There are still some examples of it today: Google being the most visible; so perhaps it will make a resurgence. I hope so. After all, it is much more effective to address how people really are than it is to push and prod them into what one wishes them to be.

(Originally Posted September 26, 2006)

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