WiseBites Episode 26: Forging Legitimacy

The Gnostic Heretic was eyeing up a few books the other day, and he stumbled across an interesting idea. Legitimation. This is when something or someone is given, through some process, legitimacy. As such, something goes from obscurity, to becoming a societal norm, or even an expectation. Legitimacy is often the concern of power. Everyone with a bit of clout wants to make people think that they deserve it, otherwise they would not obey that power. As such power, ideology and social practice often come together, and as a whole seek legitimacy. This is eventually accepted and becomes a group’s culture. The gradual legitimation of more ideas and the rejection of others is how a culture evolves, often changing entirely over a century or even a few decades. Join the Gnostic Heretic as he examines how legitimation occurs.

How does legitimation happen?


Everything starts with power, so that is where we will begin. Max Weber, a very smart dude claims that legitimacy is derived by the person’s station. The very fact that they hold a certain job confers a measure of authority to them. This official status acts to reinforce that person’s own legitimacy. Weber held that there is no inherent right for anyone to wield power. That right is constructed via culture. So the accumulative effect of that society’s culture often ends up deciding who will be in charge of that culture. Weber’s favorite example is that of a President. The President is recognized as a legitimate power because society as a whole recognizes and respects the office of the presidency. Another argument is when someone tries to persuade you that something is morally right, they will often appeal to societal norms and traditional arguments to backup their claims. As a result, the rightness of the proposition is accepted or rejected based on how well it fits into the culture. We can already see that culture is like the medium through which legitimation occurs.



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Modern sociology prefers to shape the argument in the context of an ‘audience.’ This audience is a group bound together by a culture. In this model, culture is conceived of a big, complicated web of social codes. Think of it like a siv. Some things can fall through it, other things will get stuck and accumulate on it. So when a new idea or a new power comes to the fore, the legitimacy is passed through this cultural filter. If the new idea meets the expectations of the audience, it is accepted, if it does not, it is rejected. As a result, ideas that are going to be successful, and as a result provide a better survival rate to those who adopt it, are going to be those that naturally fit into the pre-existing culture. It is often very difficult to predict what will and what will not be accepted because such cultural webs are very complex, but over time an unmistakable pattern forms.


How is legitimation relevant today?


A very modern problem with legitimation came with the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency. Trump of course, is a Republican. He is rich, white and a man. All of the hallmarks of your typical Republican candidate. However, he is also very very rude. Yes, indeed, although he may in every other way from policy to bank account be a standard right winger, his rudeness bashes straight into the Republican culture. Republicans often consider themselves gentlemen. They do not see themselves as hick, inbred hillbillies. They like to think they have a touch of class. Trump with his lack of decorum damages the Republican’s cultural capital. As a result, many Republicans are not happy to have Trump as a president. To them, he is illegitimate. It must be stated that this is in no way related to his policies, which directly fit in with the agenda of previous right wingers like George W. Bush, but rather it affects the way Republicans see themselves. Bush for example, was a Southern Gentleman. That is their identity they behave in a way which they believe is refined and befitting of their status. Trump’s lack of subtlety just shatters this image into tiny pieces.


Many historical figures have realised legitimation is a vital component in their success. As a result, powerful people play a hand in creating the culture in which they live to provide their authority with more legitimacy. A good example of this would be the Divine Right of Kings. This is the belief that a Monarch is chosen by God to rule the country. In a culture in which religion is central, an association with God is the perfect way for you to justify your own power. We can see this cultivation of culture occurring to this very day. The super rich rule the world. In order to keep ruling the world they control the narrative. The media. The media plays a large hand in building a culture which views rule by the rich as good and right. The most important feature is the defense of capitalism. Rational critique of the system is discouraged, and to do so makes you a communist. A communist is a bad guy in the story of the rich, as such questioning capitalism, the medium through which the rich rule, you are ostracising yourself from your own culture. So we should all go away much more aware that legitimacy is made and not inherent.


The Gnostic Heretic writing for the Apollo Institute of Reason AIR Review©


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