I’ve been in several settings recently where the topic of what gives someone authority has come up. It has been quite eye opening to see what a diversity of views people have about this subject. On one end, some believe that authority comes with position — they might not want to say that outright, but that’s what they think. On the other side, there are those who believe that authority can only come through community, and no single person’s voice should carry more weight than others.
It is probably because of these conversations that this quote from Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity really grabbed me:
“When the authorities are many, they tend to cancel each other out, and the sole effective authority in the field is one who must choose between them. It is by courtesy of the chooser that a would-be authority becomes an authority. Authorities no longer command; they ingratiate themselves with the chooser; they tempt and seduce.”
Interesting stuff. With so many voices speaking, the greatest authority is the one choosing which voice to listen to. If that is true, more than ever before, what others think of you matters as much as, and perhaps more than, what you have to say.
For most, that might seem simple and obvious. We would tend to say that of course someone has to think you are credible if they are going to hear what you have to say. But I think it has to push beyond that. It is not just credibility anymore…it is image. Bottom line, people who have the largest platform to speak from are the ones that others think are cool.
Everyone loves to talk about Bono and how he has rallied so much attention, and hopefully action, toward Africa. Bono has such a voice because he has the credibility from his own work in Africa combined with the image of his work with U2. It is the blending of both that causes people to listen. A granola looking aid worked (sorry to stereotype) who has given years to Africa might be quickly dismissed by many merely because of her stringy hair. Stephen Tyler would be dismissed because his image of a rockstar (and being Liv’s dad) combines with no known action toward an actual cause.
For those who follow Jesus, this idea can be troubling. It challenges some of our notions of what it means to be a humble servant of God who just let him “shine through” us. We point out, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). And yet I wonder, is it possible to decrease your self and increase your voice at the same time? Is it possible to shape the brand of an individual or a community, and to combine it with credible action, so that those who are choosing who to listen to will listen to us?