Authority versus Majority: Who really holds the power?

I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had [killed it] solely to avoid looking a fool.”

I recently read, in class, a short story by author George Orwell titled “Shooting an Elephant”. While we were going over the book in class the next day, my professor brought up an interesting point that I thought I should share with you. The question was in regards to whether those who are in authority really have power or if true power lies elsewhere. We were encouraged to come to our own conclusions and I realized that, although it is common belief that those who are in higher authority have power, the reality is that, when multiple people are in agreement of something and stand against an authority figure, those who once thought they had power suddenly realize that they truly do not.

“Shooting an Elephant” is the story of an imperialist soldier who, after being told of a rampaging elephant, goes on a mission to find it. Upon seeing one of the elephants’ unfortunate victims, Orwell decides that the elephant must be killed due to its murderous deed. The villagers all see that he is intent on killing the animal that took out their village and rally behind him in an attempt to slay the beast. When Orwell finally sees the elephant, he is overcome by remorse and awe over the serenity that the elephant seems to have. Orwell resolves not to shoot the elephant and only then does he realize how big the crowd that has followed him becomes. In this moment he realizes that, although he is the one with authority in this foreign land, he lacks the power to stand up to the villagers who have gathered behind him for one goal. This brings into question the real power that those who are in authority have and if those who are not in authority have more power than those who are.

After being given this question, I was reminded of an experiment by Solomon Asch that took place in the 1950’s. In this experiment Asch had a group of ten people, one of them being the participant of the study and the other nine being confederates with the researcher. The “participants” were shown four lines, two of which were obviously the same length and two that were of much shorter lengths, each line except the two that were the same length differing from each other. The researcher then asked all participants to indicate by a show of hands which two lines were similar in size, going through each combination. The confederates beforehand were all told to keep their hands down and raise them for a different, incorrect possibility. When the correct combination, the two lines that were the same, was inquired, none of the confederates raised their hand, causing, in 75 percent of cases, the participant to retrain his or her hand as well. The researcher then asked if a different line, which was clearly different in length, was closer to the line in question. When nine of the confederates raised their hand, the participant also raised his hand 75 percent of the time.

Although the participant in this experiment was not one in authority, it shows the power that the majority of a population truly has. This concept is comparable to the French revolution where, after years of living in debt and being mistreated, the citizens of France overthrew the throne and Feudalism was eventually eradicated. Those in authority did not simply allowed this to happen, but their problem was that, although they had authority, they lacked true power, causing them to ultimately lose the throne.

Another example of authority not having any real power can be seen in popular culture with the widespread fame of The Hunger Games series, by Suzanne Collins, which follows the story of a corrupt government with authority and a rebellion caused by the disadvantaged, yet more powerful, civilian population. Multiple times throughout the series the government that holds authority discovers it’s lack of power and the realization of this fact is upsetting not only to the president, but also to those who have thrived on the assumed power that the government appeared to have over it’s many citizens.

As one can easily tell from the experiment shown and both of the examples, power belongs to the majority, not those who have authority. At the end of “Shooting and Elephant”, Orwell’s character complies with the crowd and kills the elephant, against his own judgment. He gives into the people because he knew that he was powerless, he knew that he couldn’t spare the elephant, he knew that he truly had no choice in the matter. Orwell’s final words in the story confirm the notion that those in authority do not hold power when he says that, after everything, he had only killed the elephant in order to avoid looking like a fool.

Why did I use a blog post to tell you about authority versus majority? In the end we are all put into positions of authority in our lives, positions where we are asked to lead others or provide example. Machiavelli once asked whether it is better to be fear or loved and I am here to say that, whenever possible, choose to be loved because positions of authority are only as strong as the power that one holds and, in many cases, that power is not as much as one thinks.

          “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell is the story of one man who, after being told of a rampaging elephant, goes on a mission to find it. Upon seeing one of the elephants’ unfortunate victims, Orwell decides that the elephant must be killed due to its murderous deed. The villagers all see that he is intent on killing the animal that took out their village and rally behind him in an attempt to slay the beast. When Orwell finally sees the elephant, he is overcome by remorse and awe over the serenity that the elephant seems to have. Orwell resolves not to shoot the elephant and only then does he realize how big the crowd that has followed him becomes. In this moment he realizes that, although he is the one with authority in this foreign land, he lacks the power to stand up to the villagers who have gathered behind him for one goal. This brings into question the real power that those who are in authority have and if those who are not in authority have more power than those who are.

This situation is similar to an experiment performed by Solomon Asch from 1951-1956. In this experiment Asch had a group of ten people, one of them being the participant of the study and the other nine being confederates with the researcher. The “participants” were shown four lines, two of which were obviously the same length and two which were of much shorter lengths, each line except the two that were the same length differing from each other. The researcher then asked all participants to indicate by a show of hands which two lines were similar in size, going through each combination. The confederates beforehand were all told to keep their hands down and raise them for a different, incorrect possibility. When the correct combination, the two lines that were the same, was asked, none of the confederates raised their hand, causing, in 75 percent of cases, the participant to retrain his or her hand as well. The researcher then asked if a different line, which was clearly different in length, was closer to the line in question. When nine of the confederates raised their hand, the participant also raised his hand 75 percent of the time.

Although the participant in this experiment was not one in authority, it demonstrates the power that the majority of a population truly has. This concept is comparable to the French revolution where, after years of living in debt and being mistreated, the citizens of France overthrew the throne and Feudalism was eventually eradicated. Those in authority did not simply allowed this to happen, but their problem was that, although they had authority, they lacked true power, causing them to ultimately lose the throne.

Another example of authority not having any real power can be seen in popular culture with the widespread fame of The Hunger Games series, by Suzanne Collins, which follows the story of a corrupt government with authority and a rebellion caused by the disadvantaged, yet more powerful, civilian population. Multiple times throughout the series the government that holds authority discovers it’s lack of power and the realization of this fact is upsetting not only to the president, but also to those who have thrived on the assumed power that the government appeared to have over it’s many citizens.

I recently read, in class, a short story by author George Orwell titled “Shooting an Elephant”. While we were going over the book in class the next day, my professor brought up an interesting point that I thought I should share with you. The question was in regards to whether those who are in authority really have power or if true power lies elsewhere. We were encouraged to come to our own conclusions and I realized that, although it is common belief that those who are in higher authority have power, the reality is that, when multiple people are in agreement of something and stand against an authority figure, those who once thought they had power suddenly realize that they truly do not.

“Shooting an Elephant” is the story of an imperialist soldier who, after being told of a rampaging elephant, goes on a mission to find it. Upon seeing one of the elephants’ unfortunate victims, Orwell decides that the elephant must be killed due to its murderous deed. The villagers all see that he is intent on killing the animal that took out their village and rally behind him in an attempt to slay the beast. When Orwell finally sees the elephant, he is overcome by remorse and awe over the serenity that the elephant seems to have. Orwell resolves not to shoot the elephant and only then does he realize how big the crowd that has followed him becomes. In this moment he realizes that, although he is the one with authority in this foreign land, he lacks the power to stand up to the villagers who have gathered behind him for one goal. This brings into question the real power that those who are in authority have and if those who are not in authority have more power than those who are.

After being given this question, I was reminded of an experiment by Solomon Asch that took place in the 1950’s. In this experiment Asch had a group of ten people, one of them being the participant of the study and the other nine being confederates with the researcher. The “participants” were shown four lines, two of which were obviously the same length and two that were of much shorter lengths, each line except the two that were the same length differing from each other. The researcher then asked all participants to indicate by a show of hands which two lines were similar in size, going through each combination. The confederates beforehand were all told to keep their hands down and raise them for a different, incorrect possibility. When the correct combination, the two lines that were the same, was inquired, none of the confederates raised their hand, causing, in 75 percent of cases, the participant to retrain his or her hand as well. The researcher then asked if a different line, which was clearly different in length, was closer to the line in question. When nine of the confederates raised their hand, the participant also raised his hand 75 percent of the time.

Although the participant in this experiment was not one in authority, it shows the power that the majority of a population truly has. This concept is comparable to the French revolution where, after years of living in debt and being mistreated, the citizens of France overthrew the throne and Feudalism was eventually eradicated. Those in authority did not simply allowed this to happen, but their problem was that, although they had authority, they lacked true power, causing them to ultimately lose the throne.

Another example of authority not having any real power can be seen in popular culture with the widespread fame of The Hunger Games series, by Suzanne Collins, which follows the story of a corrupt government with authority and a rebellion caused by the disadvantaged, yet more powerful, civilian population. Multiple times throughout the series the government that holds authority discovers it’s lack of power and the realization of this fact is upsetting not only to the president, but also to those who have thrived on the assumed power that the government appeared to have over it’s many citizens.

As one can easily tell from the experiment shown and both of the examples, power belongs to the majority, not those who have authority. At the end of “Shooting and Elephant”, Orwell’s character complies with the crowd and kills the elephant, against his own judgment. He gives into the people because he knew that he was powerless, he knew that he couldn’t spare the elephant, he knew that he truly had no choice in the matter. Orwell’s final words in the story confirm the notion that those in authority do not hold power when he says that, after everything, he had only killed the elephant in order to avoid looking like a fool.

Why did I use a blog post to tell you about authority versus majority? In the end we are all put into positions of authority in our lives, positions where we are asked to lead others or provide example. Machiavelli once asked whether it is better to be fear or loved and I am here to say that, whenever possible, choose to be loved because positions of authority are only as strong as the power that one holds and, in many cases, that power is not as strong as one would like to think.

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