Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Welcome to this New Age of Deference
The collapse of respect for authority hasn’t freed us -it’s just made us slaves to a new set of masters.

THESE DAYS we don’t take authority very seriously. Everyone, from the Pope to members of the Royal Family, needs to earn his keep and demonstrate his contribution. People no longer unquestioningly do as they are told and those who claim authority without having earned it are rightly treated with derision and contempt.

There is much to welcome in this — but at the same time no society can work unless some forms of authority are respected. Look, for example, at the demise of the authority of teachers. Report after report show how they regularly face threats and abuse in the classroom.

Low-grade disruption of lessons — challenging instructions, answering back, swearing — has become the norm. Is it any surprise, then, that individuals who are routinely abused in this way become less than effective teachers?

And it isn’t just unruly children who are responsible for the erosion of teachers’ authority. Throughout society parents and other adults have few inhibitions about calling teachers’ judgments into question — and in front of their children. Such casual cynicism towards teachers extends to other professions. Even adult authority has been called into question. It is frequently suggested that grown-ups possess no special wisdom and that “children’s rights ” should be celebrated. Notice how in almost every new film the special insight and sensitivity of children are favourably contrasted with the inflexibility of their dimwitted elders. An attempt to guide and inspire the young without the exercise of adult authority is a challenge that no society would welcome.

The erosion of authority is often celebrated by cultural commentators as a symptom of a trend towards an end to deference. Some of them even interpret the declining influence of government, of Parliament and the parliamentary parties as proof that people have become less deferential and become more critical. They welcome the loss of prestige of mainstream politics as an encouragement to the growth of more informal social movements and campaigns of the marginalised, such as the Make Poverty History campaign. Young people who can’t be bothered to vote are frequently rebranded as rebels rejecting deference.

In fact, the affirmation of anti-politics expresses a profoundly pessimistic view of the future and itself represents a new form of deference. Where once people deferred to hierarchical authority, now they are encouraged to defer to fate. But to disengage from public life is to allow others to determine your fate. Anti-politics is not a rejection of particular parties and politicians, but an expression of a deeper conviction that politics is futile.

The very idea that anybody could achieve any positive results through political action is often dismissed as naive or arrogant. But those who perceive some sort of radical imperative behind the rejection of politics ignore that the flip side of anti-politics is the acceptance of the world as it is. In other words, an acquiescence to fate.

Deference to traditional authorities is being replaced by reverence for new ones. While we doubt the word of our doctors, we turn happily to the herbalist, the New Age healer, the osteopath and a multitude of complementary therapists. Increasingly, victims are endowed with a claim to moral authority. Victims of crime are encouraged to make pronouncements on the issue of law and order. Parents of casualties in the Iraq war are treated as if they are experts in military affairs. Victims of an illness are transformed into expert cancer sufferers. And patient groups insist that their representation of their malady is the final word on the subject and that decent people have a duty not to offend them by refusing to affirm their claims.

There is, too, a growing tendency to institutionalise deference to the expert. This month the Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald, indicated that he might press for the right to use expert witnesses to help to boost the low conviction rate in trials of alleged rape. Apparently ordinary jurors are too thick to grasp how rapists and their victims behave, and need an expert psychologist to put them right.

Once pronouncements about who was evil or who had sinned were the prerogative of the priest. Now, with the end of deference to the Church, such mystical powers are bestowed on the professional expert witness. The call for ordinary jurors to ignore their intuition and subjugate themselves to the superior insight of the expert is seldom seen for what it really is — a new form of deference.

Daily we are encouraged to defer to a bewildering variety of “relationship experts”. Parenting coaches, life coaches, makeover gurus, supernannys — all of them apparently possess the authority to tell us how to live our lives. Even the Blairs deferred to a lifestyle guru. When the Prime Minister and his family employed someone to tell them how to dress, exercise, relax and eat we were witnessing the emergence of a new form of authority.

But it does not end there. When Carole Caplin went home, the political class shifted its deference to the authority of the celebrity. Like most of us, our leaders are happy to listen to Bob Geldof moralising about how to save Africans or Jamie Oliver instructing us how to rescue our children from obesity. The end of deference? You got to be kidding.

First published in The Times, 25 October 2005