Chomsky, Seldon and authority

Anthony Seldon

Anthony Seldon

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

Last Tuesday night’s Night Waves, Radio Three’s intellectual discussion program was unusually good. Philip Dodd spoke separately to the philosopher Noam Chomsky then the biographer of Blair and Thatcher and Public School Headmaster, Anthony Sheldon. The theme in both cases was authority. What is it? Can it be a force for good? How can its abuse be prevented? The stance of the two interviewees made a very nice contrast and this made up for Dodd’s occasionally irritating interviewing style.

Chomsky, now an old man, has spent his life trying to lay bare abuses of authority, especially American authority. As political philosopher, cognitive scientist, master of linguistics, historian, activist and exposer of  the corruption of political discourse,  he has singular achievements. However, as a polemicist on this kind of media platform he did not seem to be in his element. Perhaps he was having an off day, and Dodd was a bit obtuse at times to be sure. But Chomsky did not really get his teeth into the wider philosophical issues of authority that one would have hoped for from such a distinguished thinker. Apart from his usual denunciations of Western foreign policy, on the subject in general he would only admit (staying true to his socialist / libertarian and anarchist political roots) that some limited kinds of authority were useful. The example he gave, of  pulling his granddaughter back from being run over on the highway, presumably stood for the rule of law checking obviously harmful actions like theft and domestic violence. But beyond this, he asserted, authority must be constantly called to account. Sheldon on the other hand, considered that such constant calling to account would make it impossible to uphold order – in a school, for example, the pupils would never let off questioning anything they were told to do and chaos would prevail. For society to work at all we must give judicious trust to authorities – unless there is strong evidence to suggest that we should not – when those in power have access to more experience and information than we do. But equally Sheldon insisted that those in power need to earn that respect, and always seek to persuade rationally of the reasons for decisions. He highly recommended a school education with strong ethical values, ‘character education’ as he calls it, as a means to produce better leaders and for that matter better participants in democracy. Also that all leaders should spend at least ten minutes a day in quiet reflection, so as to be clearer about the real motives for their actions. Buddhists, Quakers and many others would surely approve of this idea and wish it may be so.

I must admit I preferred Sheldon’s measured arguments to Chomsky’s admonitions. Building on what he said it occurred to me that there are basically three levels of authority. 1) That which works by coercion –brute power – sadly necessary in most societies but hopefully controlled by law. 2) That which works by means of humanity’s innate tendency to defer to authority, to fear and respect it, and go along with what it tells us to do. This is surely an innate, or archetypal patterning in the brain, inherited from how troops of primates behave in the wild. Most people have a deep emotional need to rely on some authority figure, whether they admit it or not. Of course, some, but not all ‘authority figures’ abuse their archetypal position. Unless it is Stalinist in its use of force, no society can manage without a certain amount of emotionally based, respectful awe of authority in this sense. 3) Rational authority, the best and rarest kind, as put forward by Plato, in The Republic, where those in authority are simply the wisest and best equipped to rule, and this is fully recognised by those ruled. Chomsky only seems to be interested in the abuses of first kind of authority, which – as always in human society – is no doubt extremely prevalent at this time. Sheldon with his very English, measured, ethical discourse, sees the need for a broader discussion around the other two levels, about what makes a good ruler, how to establish and maintain authority that is worthy of trust, and how to educate the populace to both give respect and question authority when appropriate.

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