The World Keeps Turning: Should we question authority? Or everything?


Published: 07-05-2024 6:01 PM

Modified: 07-05-2024 7:45 PM

Americans spent a lot of time and emotion fighting among ourselves in 1969. We fought over the Vietnam War, the compulsory military draft, and the “counterculture” springing from it. As a youngish man (or oldish boy) nearing 20, I was happy to march behind the rallying cry, “Don’t trust anyone over 30!” Coincidentally, my personal life was turned upside down as well, and a hometown of relative safety and security changed its face seemingly overnight.

Social conflict and change seemed to be either the basis or context for most of my personal interactions, and I found it both fascinating and baffling. In college that year, I switched from the black-and-white, right-or-wrong world of a math major to the relatively new (late 19th century) social science called sociology: “the scientific study of society, including patterns of social relationships, social interaction, and culture.”

Many social systems wore the cloak of authority during the 1950s when conformity was worshiped and rewarded. But soon, many institutions proved profoundly untrustworthy. The military invented or exaggerated “body counts” for the Viet Cong, and manufactured a justification for U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Business leaders began to be exposed as liars and hypocrites because of the deadly Chevy Corvair (thanks, Ralph Nader!) and Big Tobacco’s whitewash of the surgeon general’s report establishing smoking as unhealthy. Many mainstream churches joined the crowd as they supported the war, the Jim Crow system in America’s South, and the U.S. military policy of mutually assured destruction (MAD) through nuclear bombs. In politics, Watergate and Richard Nixon destroyed all trust.

Bumper stickers and posters suggested that thoughtful people should “Question Authority.” It appeared to be a rational approach as the institutional lies and half-truths piled up.

But simply questioning authority, and finding it lacking, didn’t instruct me or anyone else on what to do next. If many “authorities” came up short, who or what could fill the void? The bumper sticker provided no direction, and Aristotle’s observation 2,000 years ago was generally correct: “Nature abhors a vacuum.” The same can be said for our minds and souls.

Sociology provided a framework to name and possibly understand some of the social changes by suggesting theories that remain relevant today. In the early 1900s, foundational French sociologist Emile Durkheim began a study of suicide, and ended up identifying a vacuum in our society that he called “anomie.” Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as a social state in which “common values and common meanings are no longer understood or accepted, and new values and meanings have not developed.”

In political discussions today, Americans lack “common values and common meanings,” leaving us shaking our collective heads, helpless, because our opponents can’t see their errors and correct them sensibly. We assume that we all share some common values and meanings, but currently, that’s not true.

A new bumper sticker recently upped the ante, suggesting that people “Question Everything.” It seems an accurate reflection of our current state of chaos, especially since we’re likely to question opponents’ ideas but not our own. But questioning authority (or possibly, everything) doesn’t necessarily lead to the security of solid answers or even a likely path to find them.

The sociologist Durkheim didn’t have the rosiest outlook on a world that was suffering through the changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution. But America has survived more than 100 years since then, celebrating outstanding cultural achievements in timeless works of literature, music, art, cinema, etc., and enduring some abysmal failures in chasing the ideals of “liberty and justice for all.”

Durkheim used “anomie” to describe a generalized social condition, but others expanded it to describe an individual psychological outlook in which people feel “community leaders are indifferent to their needs, that society is basically unpredictable and lacking order, and that goals are not being realized.” It’s an apt description of one source of the anger and despair so evident in our society today — on the left and the right.

I still believe in questioning authority, but I’m not so sure about questioning everything. Even with all the world’s knowledge (and misinformation) at our fingertips on the internet, we can’t be experts on every subject. We need to identify some trustworthy sources of information (those that are reviewed and fact-checked) and believe that they won’t lead us astray.

And if we’re searching for moral guidance, a good start is an idea shared by all major religions: Treat your neighbors, in America and elsewhere, as you would like to be treated.

Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary-era historical fiction novel “The Sword and Scabbard,” and Greenfield resident. His column appears regularly on Saturdays. Comments are welcome here or at