In a fascinating and insightful article in the current issue of the Spectator (UK), "The Age of Unreason," Frank Furedi points out that people today willingly turn over increasing amounts of authority to other individuals, a group of lifestyle gurus who teach us how to do everyhing from cooking to raising our children to how to shop:
To this day I am astonished when I hear that sensible, biologically mature adults allow themselves to be treated as if they were incompetent dimwits by a new army of professional surrogate parents. In days of old, traditional authority figures, like priests, instructed us how to behave in public and told us which rules to observe. Today’s experts are even freer with their advice. They do not simply tell us what to do and think, but also how to feel. A new army of life coaches, lifestyle gurus, professional celebrities, parenting coaches, super-nannies, makeover experts, healers, facilitators, mentors and guides regularly lecture us about the most intimate details of our existence. They are not simply interested in monitoring public behaviour but in colonising our internal life.
Furedi does not mention that religious bodies have long told people what to feel, but I think that this observation actually strengthens his argument:
Deference to the authority of the celebrity, makeover guru or healer is underwritten by the decline in the influence of conventional forms of authority. That is why the frequently asserted claim that we live in an age characterised by the ‘death of deference’ bears little relationship to reality. Yes, it has become fashionable to treat traditional forms of authority — monarchy, church, parliament — with derision. Criticism of traditional institutions has become so prevalent that it bears all the hallmarks of classical conformism. Scientists, doctors and other professionals have also experienced an erosion of authority. But the diminishing influence of conventional authority has been paralleled by the rise of a new ‘alternative’ one. We don’t trust politicians but we have faith in the pronouncements of celebrities. We are suspicious of medical doctors but we feel comfortable with healers who mumble on about being ‘holistic’ and ‘natural’. We certainly don’t trust scientists working for the pharmaceutical industry but we are happy to listen to the disinterested opinion of a herbalist. And, of course, alternative food and other consumer products gain our confidence because . . . they are alternative.
Furedi argues that the current rise of unreason involves a rejection of science in addition to a loss of traditional religion. Thus Furedi confirms G. K. Chesterton's observation that people who stop believing in God don't believe in nothing, they believe anything:
The cultural valuation of superstition over reason and the revival of ancient forms of mysticism testify to a profound crisis of meaning in contemporary society. . . . So how do we account for the ascendancy of the authority of the life expert and the mystical guru? Some argue that the rise of this authority is a response to the decline of religion and the rise of secularism. It is claimed that without clearly formulated moral signposts people are likely to be attracted to esoteric fads and therapies. However, it is important to remember that secularism and science have been around for a long time. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries society experienced phases of moral confusion. Nevertheless, people often gained a sense of direction from the guidance they received through secular and scientific authority. So it is not just the decline of religion but also of conventional forms of modern authority that distinguishes our times. In previous eras a loss of faith in religion was sometimes compensated for by the plausibility of science, a political ideology or the capacity of a public authority to act in the interests of all.
Furedi does not mention it, but the leveling of social authority probably has at least some roots in technological change. It strongly resembles the phenomenon of leveling of heirarchies in the workplace, where layers of management and authority are breaking down as technology makes it possible for individuals to manage their own work with increasing efficiency and effectiveness, without layers and layers of bosses in place to ensure that everyone does what they are needed to do. One sees a similar pattern in the media: in television, there were once three major voices, whereas now there are literally hundreds of choices. Each major city once had a few big newspapers, which fell to just one or two in most place in the past couple of decades, but with the internet as with cable and satellite TV, there are now a multitude of choices.
This leveling of authorities and media access allows people to rise quickly to public prominence, and those with charismatic personalities can easily spread plausible but wrong ideas widely and rapidly. That is the big danger in this great leveling, and the rise of the lifestyle guru is a powerful reminder that people do need authorities, and that when tried and tested authorities are undone, others will arise. In an antiauthoritarian society, however, these new authorities will have adherence but not legitimacy. Hence, people will continue to search for new authorities when these fail them, but the public will have to do so without sound principles to guide them in their quest:
A civilised and enlightened society requires institutions of legitimate authority, and public respect for them. That is why the attitude of the anti-authoritarian seldom conveys the spirit of critical thought. It is not criticism but uncritical criticism that motivates the current temper of cultural cynicism. The authority cultivated through human experience allows people to gain a measure of control over their destiny. Without such institutions to guide us people have no choice but to defer to Fate and its earthly representatives in the makeover industry.
There are many interesting and enlightening details in Furedi's article, and I encourage you to read it.