It’s good to question authority. Accepting someone’s right to tell you what to do without question is an abdication of your rights and your responsibility as a good citizen. There are often unspoken reasons behind someone in authority wanting you to behave in a certain way, and trying to figure those reasons out illuminates the policy in question, giving it either legitimacy or exposing it as nonsense.
This doesn’t mean that “question authority” automatically means “don’t follow any rules,” though. Many laws are needed to maintain an orderly society, to keep us from robbing and cheating and assaulting each other. Personal freedom has limits, often defined by the line where my actions begin to have an effect on you. But we do willingly give up – or at least grudgingly accept that we must give up – some of our individual freedom in exchange for living relatively safe lives in communities full of other human beings.
Those in authority sometimes have the maintenance or even expansion of their authority as a motivating factor when proposing new rules. The current attempt by Republican politicians around the U.S. to pass restrictive voting laws is primarily motivated by the fear that, left to their own devices, voters would elect people who would make decisions that would cause the existing authority to lose power. So asking “why?” is not just worthwhile, it’s critical.
But we also need to ask “why?” even when laws or rules or policies that we initially agree with are proposed. Why is this person suggesting that? What do they hope to gain by putting this in place? Is it as simple as they say, or are there unspoken costs? The answers to those questions may reinforce your support for their idea, or it may expose underlying issues that may make you less interested in seeing the policy implemented. But the questions need to be raised.
Historically, much of the work of asking those questions has been done by journalists. Unfortunately, journalism – especially at the local level – has been diminished over the past few decades as digital technology has replaced print and that model has proven difficult to support financially. It’s also possible that some media companies benefit politically from less intensive coverage; if they are allied with a particular political point-of-view, less rigorous investigation into the activities of that group are likely to produce a more favorable result.
While “question authority” is a good starting point when making informed decisions about what your government/employer/church/social group is asking you to accept, there’s someone else you should be questioning.
Yourself. Especially if you’re in a position of authority. Especially if you’re someone who by their gender, age, skin color, economic status, or other factors have some automatic authority. Are you making decisions based on the facts of a specific situation or simply reacting with the same old answers, using traditional or “that’s just the way it is” as your reasoning? Instead of immediately going into defensive mode, questioning ourselves is crucial to understanding why those we lead are upset and moving from a selfish use of authority to one that provides a broader benefit.
It’s tempting to just follow along, because it’s so much easier. But “questioning authority” is an essential part of a healthy democratic system. Ask some questions today.