I came of age during the late 60s and early 70s, when youth rebellion against authority exerted a profound influence on the entire culture. Parent-child relationships, marriage and family life, music, television, politics and, of course, the war in Viet Nam — in just about every sphere, my generation rebelled against the status quo. So much good came out of this revolution, with enlarged rights for women and minorities, greater freedom from repressive attitudes toward sex, and a government more responsive to the voice of its people. Without rebellion against established authority, progress would never occur. Just take a look at the regime in North Korea if you want an example of what happens when authority forbids any challenge to its position.
Given how profoundly rebellion against authority has shaped our culture since the 1960s — how it has become an accepted norm, in many ways, especially within politically liberal circles — it’s easy to forget that authority also has a social value. Without authority to curb our anti-social tendencies, for instance, anarchy would prevail. If everyone did whatever he or she wanted, without regard to restrictions imposed by the social order, civilization could not exist. Another kind of authority comes with the accumulation of experience: in its best expression, authority tries to pass along the lessons of experience so that the next generation doesn’t have to start from scratch and learn everything all over again. This is a large part of parenting: we teach our children what our own parents taught us, as well as what we may have learned in our own lifetimes — about how to navigate the challenges and frustrations of existence, to manage ourselves and our relationships, to work, play and find meaning in our lives.
A large part of parenting involves the word No. No, you cannot pull the cat’s tail — she will scratch you. No, you cannot run into the street — a car might run you down. No, you cannot stick that paper clip into the electrical socket. Children, especially very small ones, have no idea about the dangers of the world; by exerting their authority to curb dangerous impulses, parents teach their children about those dangers. By imposing other limitations such as bedtimes, homework-before-play rules and good eating habits, parents also help their kids learn how to take care of themselves. Thoughtful rules, imposed with concern, encourage the development of self-control and self-discipline. In these ways, proper authority is enormously useful. Imagine a child growing up without it. Parents also pass along values they have absorbed from their culture which (optimally) have helped make their own lives more meaningful — values such as monogamy, devotion to family, the importance of community and meaningful work, etc. This is a best case scenario, of course.
Some people who rebelled against authority during the 60s and 70s threw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. They rejected just about every aspect of the status quo, as if it had zero value; they believed they could create a new social order from scratch, free of all the “hang-ups” of their parents’ generation and every other one that preceded it, unrestrained by any kind of authority. Monogamy, family life, career — for some of my generation, these were contemptible “bourgeois” values which must be rejected. While the idealism of my generation led to so many worthwhile changes, the confused rejection of all forms of authority led many people to waste years pursuing impossible dreams. One couple I know “dropped out” and went to live on a commune for ten years; only after experience taught them some painful lessons did they return to society-at-large and find a way to express their idealism within the “real” world. They tell few people about their experience on that commune and acknowledge feeling a great deal of shame about it. In rejecting society and the bourgeois lifestyle of their parents, this couple at the same time rejected the meaningful aspects of that society, the useful role of authority and the positive aspects of the lives their parents had led.
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