Question Authority

Thanks in part to Steve Bannon and my fondness for double entendres, the slogan of my youth has become my new job title: Jay Gordon Cone, Question Authority. For the purpose of my job title, “question” is a noun.

I had been resisting business cards for my new venture, Unstuck Minds. I never know what to do with the business cards I receive. The whole idea of business cards seems outdated to me. After all, Unstuck Minds is a company devoted to helping people recognize and avoid thinking traps by asking better questions. Traditional business cards represent a kind of conformity to standard organizational structures that can sometimes be a source of thinking traps.

However, I recently had an opportunity to team up with colleagues to facilitate a practicum session on Unstuck Minds at the 2018 Conscious Capitalism Conference in Dallas. People I respect urged me to have business cards printed so I could hand them out to conference attendees. I relented and got in touch with Jonathan, my talented graphic designer. We quickly agreed on a very simple design for the front of the card. We decided that each card should feature a different question on the back taken from the Unstuck Minds conversation card deck, a minor twist that satisfied my need to be unconventional. Now that we had the design of the card, Jonathan wanted to know what title I wanted under my name. The question touched a nerve and I told him that I would get back to him with an answer. Given the printing deadline, I settled for, “Founder.” I’ve had the cards for almost a month and I’m still not happy with the title, “Founder.”

Last night I watched Fareed Zakaria interview Steve Bannon on CNN. Apart from the substance of the discussion, I was intrigued by the mismatch in communication styles between Zakaria and Bannon. Zakaria wanted to understand and explore. Bannon wanted to confront and persuade. When one person in a conversation seeks the truth and one person in a conversation feels they know the truth, you get a one-sided conversation. Whatever you may think of Steve Bannon or the opinions he holds, he speaks with authority.

Lately, I’ve been paying attention to the role of authority in today’s political discourse. Arguments about the appropriate role of authority have been with us since the time humans formed societies. The philosophical tension between faith in evidence and faith in authority came to a head in the Age of Enlightenment. More recently, the topic of “authority” has been studied from the perspectives of cognitive and social psychology. After watching the CNN interview with Bannon, two research programs that shed light on our relationship to authority came to mind.

George Lakoff, the former Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, writes extensively about the central metaphors that distinguish conservative and liberal thought. Lakoff refers to the origins of conservative thought as, “Strict Father Morality.” In strict father morality, the world is a dangerous place; obedience to strict rules is required and the exercise of authority is not just prudent, it’s moral. From the perspective of “Strict Father Morality,” we can begin to understand the rationale for disregarding facts. If the world is threatening, we’re better off putting our faith in those who speak with comforting authority than putting our faith in a world that keeps changing the rules on us.

Arie W. Kruglanski, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland touches on the role of authority through his extensive research on the psychology of closed mindedness. Kruglanski and his colleagues have repeatedly demonstrated that specific traits and specific conditions can heighten our need for closure. Kruglanski defines our need for closure (on topics that don’t have a specific resolution) as a “desire for a definite answer to a question, any firm answer, rather than uncertainty, confusion, or ambiguity” (Kruglanski, 1989). Conditions that create stress or psychological traits that dispose people to feel threatened by too much confusion or ambiguity increase the desire for an answer; again, under certain conditions or for some people authority is comforting.

I’m not interested in passing judgment on people’s relationship to authority. I am interested in how our relationship to authority influences the way we recognize and avoid thinking traps in service of getting unstuck. The next time someone is simplifying a complex problem by framing the situation as a binary choice between opposing views, ask them, “What if we did both, or neither?” The next time someone appeals to authority or states an opinion as the truth, ask them “How did you reach that conclusion?”

How do I know I’m right about this? You can trust me, I’m a question authority.

 

Kruglanski, A. W. (1989). Lay epistemics and human knowledge: Cognitive and motivational bases. New York: Plenum
Lakoff, G. (1996). Moral politics: How liberals and conservatives think. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

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