Years ago, when I was an obnoxious and in-your-face teen, I attempted to write poetry. I had some of it published in my school’s literary magazine, but on later reflection, I realized it was pretty awful. Sometime in my 20’s, I purged all of it, so as not to embarrass future generations with my whiny-ass Emo drivel. However, there was one poem whose subject matter still resonates. I wrote a poem about conformity in which I questioned why we had to listen to authority.
Now, mind you, I was ALL ABOUT questioning and bucking authority. There wasn’t a loophole in my school’s rule book for which I couldn’t find a work-around. In fact, by the time I left the school, they had made some adjustments to be far more specific about hair color, ear piercings, and how many buttons students could place on the school’s vaunted uniform blazers. I even had a wonderful chat one day with the school’s dean of discipline who threatened to suspend me for (queue gasp) dying my hair a lovely shade of burgundy. This all seems completely inane and trivial now as intense hair color, piercings, tattoos, etc. are pretty commonplace, but, I assure you, that was NOT the case if you lived in the burbs during the 1980s!
So why all the ramblings about conformity and authority now? Truthfully, the subject is rarely far from my mind. I’m always questioning, always suspicious, always cynical, especially when those with “authority” demand that I pay attention to them. 9 times out of 10, I ignore the messaging and move on with my day. But, the recent dust-up between Spotify and Neil Young intrigued me.
Now, let me state at the outset—I don’t listen to Joe Rogan’s podcast. I’m generally not a fan of podcasts or YouTube videos where people wax poetic. I’m usually bored with the presentation within thirty seconds. And those videos with slow-moving and scrolling information reveals—KILL ME NOW!! Give me a book, a journal article, even a decent website or blog over podcasts and videos any day. So, I truly don’t care what Joe Rogan has to say.
But, the minute the ban hammer, the swarming shill posts, and the calls for cancellation begin in earnest, I’m inclined to offer at least tacit support to whoever is being vilified by the “authorities,” if for nothing else to stick it to those same “authorities.” You can take the girl out of the Punk scene, but you cannot take the Punk out of the girl and all that.
As the rhetoric about Joe Rogan spreading “disinformation” and “misinformation” caught fire, my interest in the matter perked up precisely because “disinformation” and “misinformation” are such lovely, weak, weasel words. They mean whatever the “authorities” want them to mean—their flexibility undoubtedly providing so many golden opportunities for those who work in the Ministry of Truth. Orwell would be so proud!
Moreover, the irony of septuagenarian Neil Young, whose music fueled the counter-culture movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, forcefully demanding that Spotify censure Rogan is beyond hilarious. What happened to “never trust anyone over thirty” and all that? I guess that lasted until those bright-eyed, rebellious youths became the “authorities.”
And when Spotify refused to comply, Young demanded all of his music be pulled from the platform. Other musicians like Joni Mitchell soon followed and “news” reports about Spotfiy’s revenue losses came thereafter. Conform or else you’re really going to be sorry! How dare you cretins go against us, the “authorities!”
This whole sorry situation quickly resembled the PMRC debacle of the late 1980s after which songs and albums were forced to carry warning labels. God forbid someone heard an f’bomb, or some saucy lyrics, or even worse, political ramblings which questioned the prevailing “authorities.” Nope, “you cannot think for yourself. We have to mold you so that when you’re older, you can think for yourself,” as the dean of discipline informed me in the infamous burgundy hair episode. Obviously, I committed that little gem to the long-term memory banks. . .
However, I shouldn’t be surprised at all of this. Not because of our currently fractured socio-political environment, but, rather, because this whole demand that we conform to “authority” is most likely as old as human civilization itself. The ruling elite tends to insist that the slovenly masses pay attention to whatever they’re saying no matter how insane, ludicrous, or injurious.
As proof, I offer a fantastic literary example courtesy of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. The Wife is a bold and imposing character with her ridiculously large head covering, her scarlet-red stockings, and the knowledge that “Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve / Withouten oother compaignye in youthe,”1
But one of the more interesting things about the Wife is the argument she makes about “auctoritee” in the prologue to her tale. But first, we need a little background about The Canterbury Tales. The frame for the entire piece is that a disparate group of individuals, reflecting the various estates of medieval society, meet at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, just outside of the City of London, to journey together on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. The host, Harry Bailey, suggests that the pilgrims each tell tales with the winner of the best tale receiving a free meal at the inn upon the completion of the pilgrimage.
The narrator, Chaucer the pilgrim, acts like a sideline reporter, describing the pilgrims for us and letting us know how the pilgrims interact with each other. Various pilgrims try to one-up each other with their tales; they also actively squabble with each other. The Wife’s lengthy discourse about marriage in her prologue may very well have resulted from one of those squabbles although we do not have clear indication of that from the extant manuscript. What we do have is her spirited defense of her many marriages in the prologue and the fact that the Friar and the Summoner decide to voice their opinions of her prologue at its conclusion.
It’s precisely that defense which gives rise to the question of “auctoritee.” She begins by stating that “experience, though noon auctoritee / Were in this world, is right ynogh for me.” 2 She claims that she doesn’t need authority—experience is enough for her. But then she takes great pains, citing chapter and verse, from various “auctoritees” including Saint Paul and God himself to refute Saint Jerome’s position (in Adversus Jovinianum) that marriage is less valuable than virginity or perpetual continence. Thus, she is brilliantly able to counter the “authority” of Jerome’s claim by offering some “authorities” of her own.
What the Wife proves and what political leaders, tastemakers, and popular figures always want to forget is that there is rarely consensus on any subject no matter how “settled” that subject might appear to be. For every appeal to “authority” to justify a position, you can be certain that someone else has a completely different “authority” to back an opposing position. And, that’s precisely why we should never be afraid to start asking questions or be suspicious and cynical whenever “authority” is touted.
1. Geoffrey Chaucer. “The General Prologue,” in The Canterbury Tales, ed. F.N. Robinson (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1961), 21.
2. Geoffrey Chaucer. “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” in The Canterbury Tales, ed. F.N. Robinson ( Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1961), 76.