I’ve been on a bit of a Noam Chomsky kick lately. (I’m a nerd). First, I came across the recent documentary Requiem for the American Dream, which is essentially an extended Chomsky interview with infographics and historical film clips. It’s quite insightful about the current state of the American economy and the struggles of the middle class. I’ve also been reading through Chomsky’s most recent book, Who Rules the World?—an unflinching examination of the notion of American exceptionalism. The thing that sticks with me the most about his overarching perspective and recurring critiques is the need to scrutinize people and institutions with power and authority.
Now, to be clear, I’m not an anarchist or pessimist. If you’ve read through some of the pieces I’ve written for Upgraded Humans thus far, I hope you have the sense I believe that for whatever problems we face there are interesting and plausible solutions worth trying, and that human nature can evolve toward the good and the just. We need many of the structures and habits that exist in society. They just need to be constantly examined and reshaped around what’s good for people.
And one of the things that’s quite good for people is a broadly egalitarian society. We’ve seen over the last few decades–especially in terms of income, wealth, and opportunity–a dramatic and devastating rise in inequality. It’s the root of many of our present ills. The average American has been hurt by the current socio-economic arrangement, while a minority elite has benefitted immensely. They’ve been able to build reputation, power, and wealth. From a self-interested and self-centered standpoint, it probably makes sense to them to maintain the status quo. But immense authority and influence in the hands of a few is not a natural social relationship and not one that usually benefits the rest of humanity.
Which is why it makes sense that no matter what socio-economic arrangement we find ourselves in, or how well or terribly it’s working out for the average person, it’s crucial that the general public constantly examines and critiques people and institutions of authority. To quote Spider-Man (which was quoting earlier and less cool sources): with great power comes great responsibility. Some people and institutions of authority truly have an elevated social consciousness and use their influence and resources for good. A philanthropic billionaire can do some great things to help large numbers of people. News media can bring difficult, hidden truths into the light. A coach can change the life trajectory of a child with a rocky upbringing. Fantastic.
But often, people and institutions of authority shouldn’t have the power they have, or abuse legitimate power and use it for manipulative or destructive ends. With any person or organization in power, we must ask: why do they deserve our attention, faith, or allegiance?
Do they have a lot of experience in the field they have authority in? If so, is it experience worth praising and embracing? Or are there serious questions about motive, expertise, judgment, and ethics?
Have they been consistent, or are they easily swayed and play favorites? Do they seem to be working from a thoughtful, moral center? Are they aware of the profound consequences of their actions?
Too often, we allow people and institutions of authority to carry on without critique. We look up to them with godlike reverence, taking their words and actions as infallible. We fail to consider that as human beings, authority figures–presidents, coaches, corporations, academics, scientists, news networks, judges, CEOs, bankers, and the rest–are always at the whim of our limited, sometimes misguided, sometimes egotistical human nature.
This week, President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima and gave a heartfelt speech about the bombing in 1945, the power of military technology, and the need for moral progress. There was moving rhetoric and symbolic gestures. At the same time, most media barely mentioned–if at all–that the Obama administration has actually moved to upgrade America’s nuclear arms rather than reduce them, and continues to carry out a dubious drone warfare program that has killed hundreds if not thousands of innocent people. The Hiroshima visit is literally historic in the sense that President Obama is the first sitting president to visit since it happened. And some real healing and reflection may have taken place. But actions are always more important than words. Americans need to hold the administration accountable if it truly believes in a “moral revolution” of military technology and diplomacy that will lead to greater peace in the world.
Or take another example. Through the course of this election, Donald Trump has received virtually wall-to-wall free coverage on almost every major media source. Instead of focusing on real policy conversations about what the United States needs right now, more often than not CNN, NBC, The New York Times, and other go-to media sources are filled up with the latest absurdity involving Trump on the campaign trail. Many have remarked about the reality-show nature the rise of Donald Trump has contributed to this election. Those major media outlets are just as responsible as anyone else for that happening. On many occasions throughout the presidential campaign, CNN may as well have been Access Hollywood–unhelpfully distracting the public with segments closer to entertainment gossip than substantive truth-telling. If these go-to sources are failing in their basic journalistic responsibilities, how can the average person be in tune with what’s actually going on in the world and what we need to talk about most?
Or this: without a doubt, coaches can have a profoundly positive influence on others’ lives. But at the same time, coaches are often fanatically turned into revered demigods with little or no accountability. Baylor University is now in recovery precisely because of this complex. While football players raped and beat other students for years, the coach and school president (and apparently the local police, on occasion) looked the other way. With great power comes great responsibility, and coaches have a responsibility to humanity, dignity, and justice–not just to winning.
Does power always corrupt? That’s a big question for another time. Because of our human nature, we all need the balancing effect of thoughtful observation and critique from others–whether we possess real authority ourselves or not.
For now, it seems clear that for every person or institution of authority, every other person needs to ask why they have that power and whether they’re using it responsibly. They should be working toward advancing equality, justice, and the common good. And we should maintain a healthy skepticism about whether they’re actually doing that.