Trashing Authority Isn’t Just a Good Time

By Graham Peterson

We love to topple celebrities in America, seemingly only because . . . they’re celebrities.  But it is not just people whose fame derives in their fame.  We’ll rip apart, with gossip and criticism, just about anyone in any setting who is perceived to be at the top of a hierarchy.

I noticed this rather viscerally on Economics Job Market Rumors, where economics graduate students mock and lambast senior and famous economists for their ethics, their work, their personalities, and so on.  I had always thought that only crappy and immature restaurant employees (like me!) talked a lot of shit about the boss.  So online academic behavior looked shocking to me because of the Ideal Type of academics as dignified gentlemen in smoking coats, stewarding the heights of human reason.

Ripping authority is a general phenomena — not just an academic one, nor bar employee one, nor a Hollywood one.  It is also political.  Taking down politicians and their behavior is a large portion of what we do in the news media.  It is local.  We take apart leaders of our churches, and the staff at our children’s school.

We in America (and probably elsewhere) love to savage authority figures, and with naked, screaming abandon.

A friend of mine suggested that it’s because of the false consciousness of social mobility in America.  Since we like to believe in the American Dream of social mobility, but because it doesn’t actually exist in material fact, we pretend, like seven year olds playing games at recess, that mobility exists by dressing down celebrity, fame, and authority in spirit.  It’s just a pageantry and opiate that makes us feel good and keeps us all oppressed.

I suggest not.  There are very real consequences to public relations — indeed there is an entire industry built around it, several in fact if you include marketing and other less explicit forms of public relations.  People lose their jobs.  People don’t get called for movie roles, and stop getting invited to dinner parties.  Simply put — even fractionally rational people would not spend such incredible energy gossiping and tearing down people who they feel are performing authority poorly, if it did not result in actual damage to that person, and actual warnings to others of what is and is not acceptable in such roles.

What is more, I suggest that this is an especially unique part of modernity.  Martin Luther, for instance, was not behaving in a routine manner when nailing grievances to a church door, like laughing at Miley Cyrus on TMZ is now.  Incinerating authority is as routine as taking out the trash now — which is why we take it for granted and think it not remarkable.  It is remarkable.

I suggest that not only does our culture, where informal and public monitoring of authority is completely acceptable and encouraged, topple poor performers, it also maintains the fluidity of social mobility by preserving the informal rights of people to engage in active criticism of the institutions that surround them.  Engaging in this way is a first rung on a (often times admittedly long) ladder to the top — whichever top it is — of the many tops there are in a culturally and organizationally diverse society like ours.  Many times when grievances are bad enough — entirely new organizations form, like Luther’s followers did.

What we get in this bargain is an enormous amount of social fluidity and mobility, both laterally and vertically.  We get new organizations forming all the time.  We get people voting with their mouths and feet.  We get entirely new social roles and expectations.

The task seems to be, then, to figure out how to preserve this largely functional and desirable cultural mechanism, yet reduce the number of its casualties.  Trashing public figures for their weight, ethics, or skin color on the internet, say, in unmitigated witch hunts, seems to be an instance of getting too much of a good thing.

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