Compassionate Authority

In 1980, I participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) sponsored seminar in at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. The seminar was held in Washington, D.C. and directed by Richard Flathman, whose work on authority I had long admired. Recently, I pulled a copy of my seminar paper out of my filing cabinet and was surprised by what I discovered in its pages. The first was how much my writing had been influenced by psychoanalytic feminist theory, a field of study that was in ascendency at the time. The second surprising discovery—or, perhaps, triggered memory is more accurate—was how early on in my writing I had taken up with the work of Hannah Arendt.

Arendt’s ideas about authority ran counter to the whole tradition of Western political thought. That tradition, in her view, tended to mistake authority for “what makes people obey.” But authority should not be confused with the practice of creating obedience, she argued; authority—from its Latin root word auctor, meaning author—is the practice of meaning-making.

I became fascinated by what Arendt had to say about authority and used her conceptualization to shape basic arguments in Compassionate Authority. At the same time, my focus was on the relationship between authority and gender. And I was influenced by psychoanalytic feminist theory. This made me deeply critical of Arendt’s failure to critique patriarchal rule—the “rule of fathers”—in the private realm.

After all, if we allow certain forms of domination to prevail in the private realm, don’t we sidestep the relationship between the formation of character at home and school and the development of a sense of autonomy and political efficacy?

Then there was the question of compassion. Arendt worried about compassion “going public” because it might deteriorate into generalized pity. By contrast, Compassionate Authority defended the idea that:

Compassion has the potential for humanizing authority. If women do not represent [symbolize] those a commanding voice, perhaps the hesitancy of this different kind of speech reveals the ambiguity, and the choices, behind all systems of rule. By reminding us of this ambiguity, the voice and gesture of compassion shocks us into a memory of what has been hidden by the ordered discourse of authority: the utter contingency of our being born and our original dependency upon the body of a woman for the possibility of our acting at all.

My shifting dialogue with Arendt continues to this day!