Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Resonance through Reference to Religion/Invoking Authority

There are many ways to use references to religion for resonance. Poetry and literature often gain it through epigraphs. They also often gain it through Biblical allusions or through allusions to other famous words. Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory and Evan Hunter's Vespers both derive resonance from the religious reference in their titles. Actions like murder that take place at the same time (and perhaps even in the same place) as a religious ritual can thunder for you.

Big names and religious references resonate mainly by invoking authority.

You can make characters more authentic by invoking authority. But before we see how to do that, let's first see what invoking authority is.

It's best explained by a famous example.

We are told that Jesus of Nazareth was unique in that he didn't quote scripture or cite scriptural authorities as the reason people should believe what he said. Instead, he based his teaching on logic. He demonstrated the truth of his teachings in parables. Usually the parable made an everyday-life analogy to some moral issue. The punchline was, "Now, what would you do? So, what do you expect God to do?" In other words, Jesus appealed to logic: people were to see for themselves that he was correct. In this, he contrasted with other preachers, who gave no reason for what they told people to do, except that "the Bible says so" or that some famous scriptural authority said so. In other words, their argument was an appeal to authority.

You can imagine where science would be if appeals to authority were viewed as valid reason to believe anything: Einstein would have been wrong because Newton had said otherwise; Newton would have been wrong because Aristotle had said otherwise; and so on. An appeal to authority is the only argument available to people who don't have facts, reason, and logic on their side. That includes people like novelists, because they are telling fiction.

Invalid though they are, appeals to authority are potent. Show me any absurdity that was ever widely believed, and I will show you an idea backed by nothing but appeal to authority. That's what made burning people alive "the Christian thing to do," for example. Yet, invoking authority works as well today as ever. Commercial advertisers thrive on it. That's why they have a famous person endorse their product. We are to conclude that the product is good, not because of any legitimate evidence, but just because this authority figure says so. How does a TV star become an authority on motor oil? By nothing but subliminal suggestion.

The authority invoked needn't be a famous person. It can be an institution, a document, a book, or the majority. Here are some examples:
  • A Famous Person: A presidential candidate would be the better president because some actor says so.
  • An Institution: Galileo was wrong, and the earth is the center of the universe, because the Catholic Church said so.
  • A Document: Christian doctrine is the fundamental law of the land because the Declaration of Independence mentions "the Creator" and the Constitution mentions God (in the date at the end, given in the customary form of anno domini, now abbreviated as A.D.).
  • A Book: Homosexuality is evil because the Bible says so. Islamism (i.e., the rule of Islamic law) and Islamist terrorism are good because the Koran says so.
  • The Majority: America/Americans are hateful because the whole world says so.
The voice of authority resonates in the ringing ears of the "common man." Reason cannot prevail against it. It's so effective that people judge a deed, not by what it is, but rather by whodunit. They believe a thing is true/good or false/evil just because some authority figure says so. No matter how anti-logical and contrary to observation that belief is. Hence we deem an authority credible despite evidence that it's illegitimate and despite even recent dishonest conduct that destroys its credibility.

That's how powerful invoking authority is. Which is why it's the propagandist's favorite trick. So, what does a nice person like you want to use it for?

We'll see next time.

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