Help Me Reach 12 on the Manly Scale of Absolute Gender

If you like the patriotic work we're doing, please consider donating a few dollars. We could use it. (if asked for my email, use "")

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Authoritarian Personality vs. Authoritarian Worldview

Authoritarian Personality vs. Authoritarian Worldview
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: National Archives
Click for full-sized Image

The term "authoritarian" gets thrown around quite frequently in connection to the Bush administration and the Republican Party without it being clear that it can refer to more than one related issue. I'm guilty of this as well, so I'd like to correct that failure here. When we talk about "authoritarians," we might be referring either to those with an authoritarian personality or those with an authoritarian worldview. On a purely linguistic level it sounds like the two should overlap, but sociologically speaking we should keep them separate.

A person with an "authoritarian personality" is not one of those seeking to command and give orders, but rather someone who is looking for orders to follow, a social structure that narrowly defines all their options, and the comfort of a rigid hierarchy where ambiguity has been eliminated. An authoritarian personality is the person who does what they are told and who makes an authoritarian system function.

An authoritarian worldview, in contrast, is that promoted by those who are looking to lead, to give commands, and to set up an authoritarian system for those willing to follow orders. In some cases they may simply be cynical manipulators of others' fears for the purpose of amassing personal power; in other cases they may sincerely believe in the need for such a rigid system for the sake of order, safety, and civilization. In either event, they do not expect or intend to be limited in the same ways that everyone else will be.

In real life there will of course be some overlap, especially among the true believers, but on the whole a person can't simultaneously be an authoritarian leader and an authoritarian follower. In an authoritarian system, however, not many leaders are needed — just a small number at the top plus a few "intellectuals" along the margins who provide philosophical, ideological, and/or theological legitimacy for the system. Many neoconservative writers can probably be classified as having an authoritarian outlook rather than an authoritarian personality.

In his book Becoming Evil, James Waller lists the behavioral and personality elements which Theodor Adorno and his colleagues found to be associated with the authoritarian personality:

Conventionalism: Rigid adherence to conventional, middle-class values.

Authoritarian Submission: Submissive, uncritical attitude toward idealized moral authorities of the ingroup.

Authoritarian Aggression: Tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values.

Anti-intraception: Opposition to the subjective, the imaginative, the tender-minded.

Superstition and Stereotypy: The belief in mystical determinants of the individual's fate; the disposition to think in rigid categories.

Power and "Toughness": Preoccupation with the dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension; identification with power figures; overemphasis upon the conventionalized attributes of the ego; exaggerated assertion of strength and toughness.

Destructiveness and Cynicism: Generalized hostility, vilification of the enemy.

Projectivity: The disposition to believe that wild and dangerous things go on in the world; the projection outwards of unconscious emotional impulses.

Sex: Exaggerated concern with sexual "goings-on."

Most of this seems very unremarkable as signs of someone who desires the cocoon of an authoritarian system, but the inclusion of "conventionalism" is something I find very interesting. Conventionalism appears to be what lies behind all forms of bigotry, discrimination, and exclusion. As Thedoro Adonrno wrote in his book The Authoritarian Personality:

When it was discovered that the anti-Semitic individual objects to Jews on the ground that they violate conventional moral values, one interpretation was that this individual had a particularly strong and rigid adherence to conventional values, and that this general disposition in his personality provided some of the motivational basis for anti-Semitism.

How often are other minorities tarred first and foremost with the accusation that they fail to live by the same traditional values as the white Christian majority? This is an important point to ponder, especially when you consider that the Jews in Europe who were targeted by the Nazis were not exactly having interracial orgies in the streets in front of Christian churches. True, their close association with modernism, socialism, and political liberalism made them easy political targets, but the average Jewish family lived a fairly conventional and even conservative lifestyle. That was especially true of orthodox Jewish families who were among the first and most easily targeted by anti-Semites.

Thus it's not an absence of "conventional values" in a group that makes them a target, but the fact that one's commitment to "conventionalism" is so powerful than successfully tarring a group as unconventional places them outside one's moral tribe regardless of what the facts may be. In other words, no group can count themselves safe and no amount of effort to conform to conventional values will likely matter. Trying to fit in may seem like an obvious defense, but in the long run the best defense may be to work to expand notions of what qualifies as "conventional," or better yet to undermine any ideological commitment to conventionalism in the first place.

Unfortunately, we are talking about a "personality type" here and thus insofar as this sort of classification is legitimate, it means that ideological, philosophical, moral, and reality-based arguments won't have much impact. These are basic predispositions a person has and which have their impact prior to conscious, reasoned deliberation over arguments, evidence, etc. You might be able to have a productive ideological disagreement with someone promoting an authoritarian worldview, but how can you have such a disagreement with someone who has an authoritarian personality? Indeed, what counters exist at all for authoritarian personality types, tendencies, and attitudes?

This was originally a German World War II poster which demanded that Germans choose between "Victory" and "Bolshevism."

No comments:

Post a Comment

We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.