Monday, February 18, 2013

Platform for Postmoderns, Part Two: Establishing Authority

If you want to build a platform, you must first plant a tree . . .

Why do we listen to the people we listen to? Why do we give them our attention? Our money? Why do we make commitments to them?

Some might chalk it up to charisma--the man or woman who can win hearts can sell them anything. This seems to explain, for example, Justin Bieber. Arguably it also explains people like Adolf Hitler, but that is by no means a statement on my part about the man who gave us "Baby, Baby, Baby." (See my other caveats regarding this series of posts here.)

Such "great man" theories are part of American mythology--and they are at least partially rooted in lived experience. People like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X captivated people's imaginations and caused them to see the world dramatically differently. People like Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks launched national conversations and cultural movements through single, powerful symbolic words ("Ain't I a woman?!?") and acts (the refusal to yield a bus seat, in violation of an unjust local ordinance). I take nothing away from the vision or the accomplishments of people whose lives are so illustrious.

But to characterize these people as nothing more than a few words, a few moments, or even a charismatic presence is not only to diminish their significance; it is to disregard the much larger, much more challenging work that undergirded their public efforts and dramatically amplified their impact. Sojourner Truth confronted the incipient racism of pre-Civil-War America from the dais of a rally for women's suffrage. She was given a voice in a movement she helped to build; and her particular contribution can only be fully understood in that larger context. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were compelling public figures, yes, but they were also tireless, passionate participants in a broad, organized and strategic movement to reimagine human dignity in a supposedly free society. Rosa Parks, who was my age at the time of her arrest, did in fact make a spontaneous decision to resist, but it was an informed spontaneity; she was active in the local chapter of the NAACP, and such individual acts of nonviolent resistance were, while not yet commonplace, relatively regular occurrences. Her network made the strategic determination that her act of resistance, unlike the others, would give them the momentum to make discrimination a national conversation.

I'm an editor of Christian nonfiction books. That's what I do. I'm also an author; that's more what I'd like to do, as much as possible. I'd like steadily increasing numbers of people tuning in to what I have to say about the topics of my choosing. I want to be known as an author, which is to say that I want to be granted authority.

That's what all these folks, from Justin Bieber to Sojourner Truth, had: authority. They spoke or sang or acted; people listened, danced and were transformed. Some might argue that these folks were inherently "great men" or "great women," that the universe cooked up their strand of DNA special because the times demanded them. Others would argue that they each had a "wow" product--they had developed a sound or vision that, once shared, everyone would embrace. I would argue instead that each participated--even gave their lives to--something that in response gave them the platform needed to be heard, respected and embraced. For Bieber, that was first pop sensation Usher and then Usher's infrastructure, which eventually included Island Records and their distribution and promotional engines. For Sojourner Truth, it was the abolitionist organization NAEI, which put her in contact with such luminaries as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. For Martin Luther King it was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; for Malcolm X it was the Nation of Islam. For Adolf Hitler, tragically, it was the government of Germany.

Authority is not inherent; it is earned and organized. Gravitas, charisma and vision are, perhaps, part of the interior makeup of a person, but authority is a social contract. Such has always been the case, though we've only been conscious of it since the dawn of democracy; the U.S. Declaration of Independence codified the concept when it declared that "Governments are instituted among Men" for the sole purpose of administering and protecting fundamental human rights, and that such governmental authority is derived "from the consent of the governed."

All authority is granted authority; all authority is vested with the interests of those who sit under that authority. King, X, Truth and Parks are great in our imagination because we wanted them, because we invited them, to be great. Justin Bieber has achieved such enormous success because enough people set him on a stage and told him, "Here we are; now, entertain us."

I write all this to say that a platform is not an overnight phenomenon, nor is it the inevitable outcome of one "wow" idea. An idea is not a means to the end of a platform; a platform is a means to the end of further disseminating a wow idea.

We listen to people--we give them our time, our attention, our money--and make commitments to them because we want to, plain and simple. And we want to because we determine that what they are putting forward is good, credible, true, right. And especially in a postmodern setting, where the hubris of modernity is a matter of historical record, where egregious abuses of authority have been on display at all levels, where the consent of the governed is still forcefully contested by tyrannical regimes--especially in the world we find ourselves in, we grant people authority carefully, begrudgingly. In a postmodern setting, you simply have to earn it.

How do you earn it? You demonstrate the credibility of your proposition. You don't declare your idea to be a "wow"; you test it and refine it and ask questions of it and trash it and start over. You devote yourself to your idea, your sound, your vision, and you submit yourself to the earned authority of others. You let yourself be instructed by Usher about what sounds good, what compels the imagination of a pop music audience, because Usher has himself already devoted himself to the question. You collaborate and brainstorm with people who like you have been compelled by a similar wow idea, and you test the validity of your idea on the streets where it must survive. You give yourself to the idea, and then you ask others whether it's something that they can give themselves to as well. But whether they do or they don't, you have decided and resolved that the idea is worth what it demands of you.

You also recognize that you don't command the respect of an audience simply by having an idea. Postmodernity is a buyer's market: sovereignty lies not with those who have enough military, makeup or marketing money to force their wow idea on us; sovereignty lies with us. By offering your wow idea, your wow product, to a wider audience, you are making both a commitment and a request: "This thing that I have, I think is worth you giving yourself to. I may be wrong, but would you consider what it would mean for you if I'm right?"

In this respect, a postmodern platform is like a demonstration plot. In farming, new ideas are dangerous. A family farm might be put out of business forever after one bad year trying one wrong-headed idea. So new ideas in farming are tested via demonstration plots, where new seed is planted or new techniques are employed in space where other farmers can come and investigate for themselves. They can see the impact on the soil, on the surrounding land. They can taste the quality of the end product. They can touch and smell and otherwise measure the impact of the idea on display. And those farmers can decide for themselves just how "wow" the idea is.

This, then, is the new shape of authority: it is requested, not imposed; it is tested, not assumed; it is rooted in credible experience, not in divine right or cultural mythology. Authority is established over time, at the end of hard work. If you want to build a platform, you'll need to build it by the sweat of your own brow, from the wood of your own making. That means, if you want to build a platform, first you have to plant a tree.

I've written elsewhere on authority. Check it out here.

Next up, building coalitions. But till then . . .

Why do you listen to the people you listen to?

What do you need to see in order to commit yourself to an idea?

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