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October 2009

Fear of authority

It is foolish to always trust authority.  It is equally foolish to always resist all forms of authority.  So, the question must be asked, when is it healthy to fear and resist authority?  Alternatively, when does a fear of authority represent nothing more than paranoia? 

It is first necessary to consider the purpose of authority.  In a democratic society, authority is given to government functions by the citizens (and is, theoretically, not imposed upon them).  Perhaps the most legitimate purpose for authority is in keeping us safe from others.  If someone else is pointing a gun at me, I want that individual restricted and the gun taken away.  If someone is actively building a bomb, I want the materials confiscated and the individuals involved arrested.  If someone is driving drunk, I want that person punished in order to keep me safe.  And if it should be the case that my actions are threatening the safety of others, I also accept that the authorities have every right to restrict me or punish me.

However, what I see more of these days is another kind of authority altogether.  I see airport security questioning people about where they traveled and why, I see people being arrested for smoking marijuana (doing no harm to others), I see people being turned away from night-clubs for the crime of being 20 years old.  Much worse yet, I see profit-hungry corporations taking over the authority of democratically-elected governments in order to maximize profits by dropping more bombs, making more fighter-jets, or filling more (for-profit) prisons.  I see a government that spies on citizens with no reasonable cause.  I see cameras spying on us in every public space.  I see a government telling gay people they can't marry, immigration officials telling human beings they can't work without documentation, and I see scared people taking their shoes off to pass through metal detectors just to enter a government building or get on a flight.  What I don't see is probable cause for how any of these behaviors are examples of people threatening harm to others.

Authority has pushed too far. As individuals, we do not have the power to resist illegitimate authority in every case.  To do so would be self-defeating and foolish.  However, it is our shared responsibility to recognize illegitimate authority where we see it, to make no justifications of it, to detest it, and to push back on it whenever and wherever some small battle can be won.