Authority in crisis

Sunday 20 October, 5.15pm until 6.15pm, Cinema 1 Keynote Controversies

Today it seems authority is not a quality possessed by many. In fact, examples of its absence abound: the BBC, ‘an institution once so loved and trusted it is known as ‘auntie’, has struggled to deal with post-Savile rumour and innuendo; British parliament, stumbling from one scandal to the next, is routinely treated with scepticism and often cynicism; even the police, as their uncertain response to the 2011 riots demonstrated, are seemingly wracked by self-doubt.

But is this seeming crisis of authority, and the concomitant crisis of trust, really such a bad thing? After all, modernity itself was born of a revolt against traditional forms of authority, manifest in church and state. Thanks to the Enlightenment questioning of authority, and the challenging of extant moral codes, people began to win the freedom to make their own way in life, to dare to know for themselves. Is it not possible to see the absence of deference today, the perpetual doubting of institutions and individuals in positions of authority, in a similarly positive light? Surely the desire to unmask those in authority, to blow the whistle on state security agencies, to question the cash-led motives of MPs, is a necessary check on the untrammelled exercise of authority?

Or is there another problem here? Does today’s crisis of authority run deeper? Does it also implicate the freedom and autonomy of the individual itself, the very capacity the Enlightenment revolt against traditional forms of authority was meant to liberate? Indeed, does today’s crisis of authority stem not so much from Enlightenment notions of autonomy, reason and judgement than it does from an attack on them? Certainly, individual initiative, the freedom to exercise one’s own judgement, to be the author of one’s own actions, does appear to be have been circumscribed by rules, codes of practice and other bureaucratic mechanisms designed to reassure the public and others that individuals are not misbehaving. Has this regulation - the solution often proposed to the widespread mistrust of authority - exacerbated the problem? Has the authority of individuals been so undermined that we are deemed incapable of handling our most informal relationships and encounters without external guidelines and monitoring? Has what looks like the end of deference culminated in the termination of our own self-respect?

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, What's Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history

Toby Mundy
founding director, TMA literary agency; executive director, Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction

Elizabeth Oldfield
director, Theos, religion and society think-tank

Dr Tim Black
editor, Spiked Review

Produced by
Dr Tim Black editor, Spiked Review
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