dinsdag 1 december 2009


The British sociologist Frank Furedi was in Holland lately and he spoke and wrote about authority. But his line of thought was not really clear to me, neither during his Thomas More-lecture, nor in his NRC-article.

The tenor of his contributions is mostly bleak. Furedi gets pessimistic about the fact that society today has lost something it cannot miss, namely authority. No society can survive without the presence of authoritative institutions, a form of collective authority is required. Once that authority existed in the shape of the self-confidence of professionals - teachers, judges, scientists and doctors - and the confidence that the population as a whole had in those professionals. That was something a society could build upon. Such firmness is wanting nowadays. Professionals no longer believe in themselves, they prefer to hide behind procedures and 'experts'. And people no longer trust the professionals. Hence the proliferation of rules and procedures. Those should fill the authority vacuum, but actually tend to undermine authority only further.

But at the same time Furedi points out that those expert advices have only a shaky reputation. This is apparent "from the continuously fierce debates on subjects like education, health, lifestyle". Many citizens have an aversion against the exagagerated rules and the procedural society. They prefer to believe in themselves. It is true that this causes erosion of traditional authority but if – in line with Furedi's own formulation - authority has to do with belief in yourself, then that civil empowerment may be seen as a new form of authority. Indeed, should not this observation make Furedi a bit more optimistic?

I feel encouraged in that last thought because of the fuss surrounding the Dutch vaccination campaign against the Mexican flu. According to the pessimistic view that campaign does not proceed well. There is cause for concern because the Ministry and the medical profession don’t succeed in getting large groups of people to be injected. They don’t have enough authority.

But authority, defined as the radiation of faith in yourself and getting the respect for it, is present indeed. The person who refuses injection can be considered as the self-conscious person who rejects the patronizing society and overdone legislation which Furedi detests so much. He believes in himself and from that standpoint arrives at relativizing the rules.

And our national vaccination doctor, Mr. Coutinho, and his colleagues believe in themselves no less. They stand for the message they bring and they don’t blame failing communication strategies or stupid citizens for the lack of response. From that perspective, they are no less authoritative than are the refusers. Indeed, there almost is a surplus of authority, at least when you describe authority as ‘to stand for what you believe in’.

What is clearly lacking, especially compared to earlier times, is authority in the sense of control over society as a whole. Like something which a complete collective listens to. If Furedi wants to stick to that idea of authority - he almost approvingly cites Odysseus and Plato when they argue for collective authority under a single leader - he has reason to be pessimistic. But the question is whether that’s not an outdated idea. Until halfway modernity nation states could keep themselves going with that, at the national level citizens rallied behind their leaders. That does not work any longer.

Thijs Jansen and Loet Leydesdorff (in the newspaper Trouw) think we have reached the situation that no longer the entire population of a country can be convinced of the use of for instance such a vaccination campaign. At its best that may succeed in small, overseeable communities. Differences of insight will, thanks to scientific progress, remain with us. Indeed, they say, the awareness has been firmly established that knowledge is often only provisional. In former days people were not affected by that thought.

I want to add yet another factor, that has nothing to do with science or (post-) modernity. That factor is as old as the world and consists in the possibility people have to just say No. It has been frequently shown that the contents of an actual issue is completely irrelevant when it comes to such a refusal. It may even be that people agree with the contents of a plan and still refuse to accept it. Simply because someone else created it and thought in your stead.

Also see Parrhesia