The Decline in the Authoritative Voice

by George Hatjoullis

The authoritative voice is not the voice of authority. It is not a voice one must obey. It is the voice one chooses to acknowledge. It is the voice of the scientist, the doctor, the priest, the expert. This voice enters our thoughts through language and is internalized as a form of knowledge. It is the voice that has persuaded so many of us that the earth is experiencing a structural and potentially catastrophic change in climate, that the change is a direct consequence of human activity and that the change can be halted and possibly even reversed by ceasing certain behaviours. Few have the intellectual tools to personally examine the veracity of these propositions. Acceptance is a function of the force of the authoritative voice that is making the propositions. By and large these propositions have now been accepted though there are still ‘deniers’ or heretics from both the science community and the population that deny all or some of these propositions. In the field of vaccinations the authoritative voice has at times struggled to make itself heard, often with disastrous consequences. The general population sometimes seems rather arbitrary in the voices it chooses to acknowledge.

The variability of choice of authoritative voice may not be arbitrary. It may reflect a ‘rational’ risk assessment based on consequences. A global climate catastrophe is rather frightening and if a small change in my behaviour can help avert it, then why not change? Vaccinations create a different decision problem. There may be only a small chance of my child developing autism but the consequences terrify me. There is a large probability of my child contracting measles but the consequences seem more acceptable. In practice this assessment is seriously flawed. The link to autism is not proven and the consequences of measles, especially for other children, can be terrible, but one can see why the authoritative voice is sometimes set aside. It does not speak to my fears and anxieties. Evidently, one necessary condition for a voice to be authoritative is that it assuage anxiety. To do so it must give me ‘control’. If the idea of autism from vaccination has entered my mind the voice must remove it or lose some authority.

The authoritative voice appears to be in decline. Ironically, this is in part a direct consequences of greater knowledge, transparency and access. The result is that people are continuously bombarded with conflicting and ever-changing conclusions. Alcohol is beneficial and not beneficial. How many diet plans are out there? Alternative cancer treatments are emerging all the time. Economists never seem to agree. Whatever view you wish to hold, a quick search on google will probably provide some sort of validation. Science has also much to answer. Publication bias (where only positive results achieve publication) is now coming under some heavy scrutiny.Test methodologies for pharmaceuticals have come under severe scrutiny. If I am not experiencing any side effects then there is good chance I have the placebo pill, so double-blind may have some sight. Blogging has contributed to the decline of the authoritative voice with often powerful and reassuring, if unsubstantiated, assertions. The key seems to be reassurance.

Increasingly people seek not independent voices of authority but echos of the heart. People seem racked with anxiety and simply want it to go away. The source of this anxiety in psychodynamic theory is the unconscious mind trying to resolve all sorts of horrible conflicts within. Distraught individuals project these anxieties onto (and into) people they meet and this creates an ugly social mood. We have these anxieties and we all do it. We seek authoritative voices that can help us calm our fears. The psychotherapist is trained to accept these projections, neutralise them, and return them to us as acceptable feelings. The voices we seek are not so trained or motivated. They seek to exploit our fears for their own gain. They merely echo our fears. In the process they validate these anxieties and eliminate the guilt that we feel in having them. They tell us that what we feel about ourselves is not our fault. It is someone else’s fault and if we eliminate this ‘other’ from our lives all will be well. It will not but by the time we find this out it is usually too late.

It is against this background that we must assess recent political developments and the response to refugees and other ‘newcomers’. Expert opinion asserts that immigration is in aggregate beneficial, though the distribution of the benefits is not equal. Expert opinion tells us that membership of the EU has been beneficial, again in aggregate, but it is clear that the benefits have not been equally distributed. Expert opinion asserts, again quite correctly, that leaving the EU will incur a high price in terms of output. Along come the populist politicians. They tell us to ignore the experts because they are part of some conspiracy to keep us down. They validate our feelings about the newcomers. The guilt goes and we feel better. These populists must be right because we feel better. We do not ask what conspiracy and why does it favour the newcomers? We don’t care because we feel better about ourselves and vote in the populists. The experts try to explain that this will make us even poorer in absolute terms but we are not listening. They are just experts and they do not make us feel better about ourselves.