Michael Ashcroft

March 14, 2021 20:11

Different kinds of authority

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about authority and, in particular, its relationship to a non-coercive way of being.

I plan to write a long and considered essay about this, but for that to happen I need to write lots of smaller chunks along the way. This is the first.

The way I see it, there are actually two kinds of authority that are often and unknowingly conflated. This conflation has huge implications for our relationship to authority, whether external (e.g. a boss) or internal (e.g. ourselves). It’s important to disentangle these if we want to make sense of how we and others feel and behave when interacting with authority.

Despite my interest in ‘non-coercion’, I don’t think that authority is inherently bad. At the same time, I have strong anti-authoritarian tendencies when it comes to abuses within systems of power. This is not a conflict, but evidences my attitudes towards these different kinds of authority.

The clearest way I can think of for now to explain these two kinds of authority is to frame them around ‘going along with’ and ‘resisting’ each authority.

So what might it mean to ‘go along with’ authority?

Well, you can go along with the contents of authority. The CEO sets out the strategic vision for the company and everyone says “yes, I agree, let’s go that way.” Some people might call this ‘object level authority’.

You can also go along with someone’s role as an authority. The CEO is selected by the board and the staff say “yes, you are the CEO and we agree that you shall lead us”. Some people might call this ‘meta level authority’.

These also become clear when we think about what it means not to go along with authority.

Again, you can not go along with the contents of authority. The CEO sets out the strategic vision for the company and some people say “meh, that doesn’t seem wise, don’t like it.”

You can also not go along with someone’s role as an authority. The CEO is selected by the board and some staff say “no, I disagree, I do not think you should be CEO.”

Okay, the scene is set. Future writings will build on this frame.

Want more?

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