We all like to think we can spot a fraud and tell a charlatan from the real thing, but sometimes prejudice, assumption, and years of indoctrination make it harder than we might think. Maybe it’s a fundamental feature of humanity, or maybe it’s a product of society, but for better or worse, people tend to see what they expect to see. This point is often made in the context of racism, and it certainly applies there, but it also has a lot to do with the way we handle authority, and the confidence we place in those who wield it.
The Emperor is Naked
The air of authority comes with the assumption of competence.
We give credence to what doctors and scientists say because their position in society invests them with authority. We assume that they know what they are talking about, even when they do not, and take temporary leave of our critical faculties even when it is most dangerous to do so. Nowhere is this more of a problem than in politics, where the mantle of elected office confers a certain respectability onto the men whom we would not otherwise give the time of day.
In the 1979 film Being There, we see an exaggerated (or somewhat exaggerated) portrayal of this phenomenon. In it, Peter Sellers plays Chance, a feeble-minded gardener whose random musings about trees and flowers are interpreted by those around him as metaphors of great wisdom, allowing him to ascend to the highest levels of society without even knowing what he’s doing.
Chance is able to get away with this unintentional subterfuge because he dresses well, wearing the discarded clothes of his deceased employer, and speaks well, having been educated entirely by watching television and imitating its characters.
Being There is filled with comedic moments, but is ultimately a somewhat cynical commentary on how perceptions and expectations in society. Because Chance looks nice and sounds nice, people expect him to know what he’s talking about, so when he says something that doesn’t make sense, they fit it into their preconception of what he must really mean.
We may joke about Congress and the president being incompetent, but deep down most people still regard them with legitimacy and respect.
It’s absurd, but it points to a startling truth about our own world. The air of authority comes with the assumption of competence. This is the essence of representative government. We give other people power over us and trust them to use it wisely, even when they’ve given us no evidence that they know how to do so, or even want to. We perceive them as legitimate authorities because we expect them to be legitimate authorities.
Respect from Insecurity
We may joke about Congress and the president being incompetent, but deep down most people still regard them with legitimacy and respect. They still vote for their incumbent representative. Tens of millions of people still voted for the president. When there is a problem, we look to Congress to fix it, and we blame them when things aren’t the way we want them. We rely on them because they are in charge, and being in charge, they must know what they’re doing, right?
At its core, this is a form of insecurity. If we question authority, there’s the chance we might be wrong and look stupid. If, on the other hand, we go along with what the men on television say, then it’s their fault when things don’t pan out, not ours. It also prevents us from having to assume responsibility for our own lives, allowing authority figures to fill that role instead.
If ever we recognized all the politicians and bureaucrats for what they are, simpleton gardeners who are out of their depth, we wouldn’t spend so much time worrying about Congress and what the president is doing. We’d solve our own problems, take care of one another, and dismiss the grandiose proclamations we hear coming out of our televisions as the inconsequential ramblings of unimportant blowhards.
The worship of authority is antithetical to liberty, and is prone to being bound by the tyranny of high expectations, applied to those who don’t deserve them.