The Authority of the Pen
The social sciences have demonstrated, on more than one occasion, that people tend to be highly influenced by other people, especially those who are in (perceived) positions of authority. This is an important survival skill: as social animals, we pass down our knowledge and abilities from parent to child, teacher to student, mentor to mentee, and, of course, if we didn’t run when everyone else was running, we might respond too late to save ourselves from the oncoming threat.
Despite its obvious usefulness, conformity and specifically conformity to authority has caused some disturbing problems for humankind. The infamous Milgram experiments found that most of their test subjects continued to administer electric shocks to protesting recipients even in the face of their experiencing medical distress and eventually ceasing to respond. In the Nuremberg trials, Nazi soldiers who committed atrocious war crimes and crimes against humanity tested psychiatrically sound, and argued that they were simply following orders.
What does all of this have to do with writing? It must be recognized that the written word has authority, and an authority that has been driven home by years of studying textbooks, referencing encyclopedias, and reading news articles. There is the general assumption that in order to be published, authors must be 1) appropriately qualified, and 2) reasonable in their arguments and correct in the general information they present. This has never actually been the case, but today, when anyone can write an article or publish a book, it is glaringly apparent that the (perceived) authority of written works needs to be put in check.
Does this mean that certain mediums should be avoided? Absolutely not. Though there has been an influx of fake news circulating social media sites, no medium is devoid of bias, misinformation, over-simplification, or hyperbole. It is important that people engage critically with information regardless of the form it takes or the person it comes from. This means cross-referencing, fact checking, looking for bias, following the money, analyzing statistics, and arguing with articles even if you agree with them.
There is a general consensus among experts in conformity that blind obedience to authority is bad, and that disobedience is necessary in situations where those in command are in the wrong. But the world is not so simple as “these things are wrong, and these things are right.” We must disobey in order to know when to disobey. We must resist in order to know when to resist. Without initial indiscriminate challenge, criticism, disagreement and distrust, we risk complacency.
Is it exhausting to engage, at such an intense level, with everything you read and hear? Yes. Are there worse things than being tired? Yes. Absolutely.
Rachael Heffernan recently completed a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. In the course of her academic career, she has received the Harrison Prize in Religion and The Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship. During her undergraduate degree, Rachael was published twice in The Codex: Bishop University’s Journal of Philosophy, Religion, Classics, and Liberal Arts for her work on Hittite divination and magic and philosophy of religion. Rachael has also had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig in Israel, and has spoken at a conference on Secularism at the University of Alberta on the Christian nature of contemporary Western healthcare. Her wide-ranging interests in scholarship are complemented by her eclectic extra-curricular interests: she is a personal safety instructor and lifelong martial artist who has been recognized for her leadership with a Nepean Community Sports Hero Award. She is an enthusiastic reader, writer, and learner of all things, a tireless athlete, and a passionate teacher.