In the 21st Century authority appears to have become “an elusive force”. While the issue and contestation of authority has been a central concern throughout human history, today the very idea of authority seems to be viewed in an almost entirely negative light. While every contemporary scandal or crisis creates a demand for authoritative solutions, this aspiration for authoritative answers seems to coincide with a cultural sensibility that is profoundly suspicious of the exercise of authority. In fact, it appears that we have become far more comfortable questioning authority than with affirming it.
But is today’s constant questioning of authority really such a bad thing? After all modernity was born in revolt against authority, manifest in church and state. And it was through the questioning of traditional authority and moral norms that people gained greater freedom and autonomy over their own lives. So today when powerful institutions and individuals are constantly “exposed”, or their motives constantly questioned, isn’t this just a positive continuation of past struggles against the corrupt and arbitrary use of power?
Yet while historically the questioning of authority was always linked with a desire for freedom, the current demise of the status of authority has not been paralleled by a greater cultural affirmation for freedom or for the autonomous individual. Instead the opposite seems to have occurred. As western elites struggle to appear authoritative and gain public trust, they have created more laws and bureaucratic rules to regulate everyday life. However, does this regulation actually exacerbate the problems of authority, as well as undermine the freedom and autonomy we have traditionally fought against those in power for? And what is the relationship between freedom and authority anyway: are they antithetical, or is the erosion of authority and autonomy mutually reinforcing?