American social scientist Willis Harman addresses the issue of legitimacy and its role in major social changes, and further explains the enormous power we yield as members of the society that bestows this legitimacy. He writes: “Some of these changes have amounted to profound transformations—for instance the transition from the Roman Empire to Medieval Europe, or from the Middle Ages to modern times. Others have been more specific, such as the constitution of democratic governments in England and America, or the termination of slavery as an accepted institution. In the latter cases, it is largely a matter of people recalling that no matter how powerful the economic or political or even military institution it persists because it has legitimacy, and that legitimacy comes from the perceptions of people.”
Harman’s main point on this: “People give legitimacy and they can take it away.” Any challenge to the established legitimacy is likely to be the “most powerful force for change to be found in history.” Harman then adds another principle to go with the previous one: “By deliberately changing the internal image of reality, people can change the world. Perhaps the only limits to the human mind are those we believe in.”
History abounds with examples of how we hold on to old ideas and how slow many of us are to embrace new ones, preferring the acceptable familiar to the not-yet-acceptable unfamiliar, even when the unfamiliar is the truth. One example of this was the quashing of the miasmatic theory, a belief held in some parts of the world that epidemics were caused by odors emanating from rotting organic matter. The theory gained credence as early as the first century AD and remained the conventional wisdom until the mid nineteenth century! Among the theory’s proponents was Florence Nightingale, who came to prominence while serving as a nurse during the Crimean War.
According to miasmatic theory the way to cure disease and plague was to eliminate anything that smelled bad, including halitosis. Millions had already died before the miasmatic theory was finally disproved by John Snow following a cholera epidemic in the central London district of Soho in 1854. The Italians however clung to miasmatic theory as the prevailing wisdom until the bacteria was rediscovered thirty years later; only then did they adopt a more enlightened thinking on disease and its prevention, and discard the old thinking as outmoded.
Other examples of legitimacy being the fuel for a new paradigm included the fall of the Berlin Wall; the advent of the personal computer; and early church dogma which held that the sun revolved around the earth, giving way to the inarguable science that proved the opposite. Sometimes public legitimacy takes a mere day or two to switch, as with the fall of the Berlin Wall; sometimes it takes a couple of centuries, as with Copernicus’ scientifically proven theory trumping church dogma; and, as with the debunking of the miasma myth, sometimes it can take millennia.
As William James reminds us: “We have to live today by what truth we can get today and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.”