Challenging Authority

I usually don’t do this style of post but I after much pondering I thought this would make for some thought provoking writing.

Last night I was going through a list of the most challenged books in public libraries/school libraries. The list also featured why each book was usually challenged. Very few books featured this reason, but I came across one or two that had reasons like “encourages disobedience” and “challenging authority”. The question immediately popped into my mind as to why that would necessarily be a bad thing.

It’s interesting to note that very few books actually broach the topic at all of challenging or disobeying authority, and those that do are usually depicted in a less than savory light. That’s probably because (especially in the case of children) disobedience or undermining authority is considered it’s own kind of heresy. Challenging authority is not presented as a healthy or ideal thing to do, but rather as something that ultimately seeks to dismantle and erode social norms/institutions. A child who disobeys or challenges their parent’s authority is unruly and needs to be disciplined. A child who disobeys or challenges a teacher in school is hampering the teacher and causing problems for the school.

Ironically, despite such depictions, we can easily concoct scenarios where obedience would not be desirable at all. For example if a parent or teacher asked a child to do something deeply unethical or illegal most people would sensibly not want them to obey. Why is it then that more often than not challenging authority is seen as such a bad thing?

Personally I think it’s because such actions (regardless of the age of the people involved) are depicted in black and white. Often times of course invoking the black white fallacy. It’s either you believe in strict authority for people to follow or you believe in absolute chaos and anarchy where no one obeys anything at all. This type of logic though is complete nonsense. Just like there are plenty of points between fascism and anarchism in the traditional left to right political spectrum, disobedience does not tantamount to the complete disarray of any given institution whether it’s families, schools, or businesses.

If a parent asked a child to steal something for them, if a teacher instructed a student to physically assault another student for speaking out of turn, or if an employer ordered an employee to break the law to financially benefit the employer’s business, most people sensibly would hope that they would refuse.

Challenging authority is not always done for the right reasons but it is fundamentally wrong to assume that all challenges to authority are unfounded. Much of the major changes in American history have come from people who disobeyed or dissented from those in power, and ironically, despite being reviled in the moment, they are often applauded for their actions in the future.

The general consensus should not be complete obedience but rather to ponder which authorities should be obeyed, when they should they be obeyed, and why.

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