Sunday, September 09, 2007

Authoritarians

I just finished reading an online book by a psychologist in Canada about authoritarianism. I recommend that you immediately read the book at the link, it is that good.

The ebook is a collection of experiments, surveys, and observations a professor did to determine the roots of authoritarian behaviour. At first, he only used one scale, the Right-Wing Authoritarianism or RWA, to pick out what kind of people are mindless followers (sheeple) and which are a bit more independently-minded. This scale worked for a long time, but didn't quite capture all the understanding in regards to authoritarian leaders. Hence, he introduced the Social Dominance scale, SD, to see who wanted to be the one on top in any situation. Using the two together, four distinct types of personalities emerged, each having unique characteristics, often defined by life experiences, that affirms what we always suspected to be true.

In the chart below, which I spent all of three minutes making, we see 4 squares with a list of (some) attributes and an example of the type of person such attributes would create. This is not to be taken as entirely accurate in 100% of cases. Individual variation certainly allows for overlap and mixing of traits.
The examples by no means apply to all of those who bear the labels. Not all anarchists would score low on these two measures, and one can certainly be an asshole and yet not be authoritarian. But I was hoping the reader would notice that the traits seem to line up, because then it would make it far more convenient to refer to one category as "sheeple" instead of "those who have high RWA and low SD scores". I will try to describe each label so the reader gets a feel for the forces that help shape such behaviour.

Assholes

These happy people score high on RWA and SD both! They have a strong tendency to be religious, and to respect authority they deem higher than them (like God or the Pope). But if they suspect they can gain the upper hand in a situation and overthrow the current archon, they will not hesitate to act. They relish power and thoroughly enjoy controlling other people. Opposing viewpoints are brushed aside and ignored, or, if these interlopers are hindering their plans, assholes will deal with the matter above and beyond the law, as you must be aware they always were.

So what kind of person becomes an asshole? What experiences might have led them to be this way? A highly religious family that stresses obedience to authority is probably a factor. But the difference between sheeple and assholes is that the latter have had experiences that taught them they can bend, distort, or out and out break the rules to get something they want. Imagine Ted Haggard as a boy. He learns that people revere god, and respect people who do, so when he steals cookies from the cookie jar, and someone later finds out, he spouts religious claptrap and manipulates his way out of the situation. He learns that being bad and pious at the same time allows him to win more in life, especially control over other people.

Sheeple

The good ol' boys out there that keep us safe from atheists and socialists. They know who's in charge (God and GWB), what the rules are (insert religious text here), and who's gonna go straight to hell (homosexuals, various opposing religions, etc.). They are small-minded and almost constantly scared. Fear is their primary emotion in reaction to new and strange circumstances. Anyone who is too different than they are deserves narrow-eyed suspicion, at the very least.

We can well imagine the bland and stale life they must have had to keep them in their little shells. The tribe is all they know; foreigners and their customs are not welcome. These are the kind of people who want you and everyone else to be "normal". Growing up as children, these folks experience lots of church-going, lots of happy, patriarchal families, severe punishment for those who get out of line (fire and brimstone, anyone?), and receive lots of fear-mongering on Faux News and Rant Radio.

Libertarians

Some could be atheist, but more because they view god as a threat to their own authority, and religion as a crutch for the weak and stupid, than because they reject the absurdity of it. The world is theirs for the taking, sharing is for losers, and people are poor because they are lazy. In a room of two people, someone has to be on top, and it's gonna be the libertarian. They are obviously highly-competitive, and certainly not above cheating. They're the kind who curse welfare and food stamp recipients for being moochers, and chuckle in approval at corporations who yank money many times more than all the welfare moochers combined out of public coffers. The state that helps the poor is evil and horrible, but the hired goons that protect their property are perfectly acceptable.

This is from an old conversation I had online with a Randroid:

1. Morality is an individual issue, not a social issue.

2. Helping others in need is wrong.

3. Each against all is a moral and practical system.

These statements suggest a "me versus the world" mentality. This person railed against cooperation and equality, charging "the left" with bringing about universal poverty. Of course, this is only because these things challenge his authority and possible success over others. Some other things libertarians have said to me:

"Women shouldn't vote because they always vote for the wrong reasons."

"Slavery is efficient."

"The only legitimate authority is the boss [the one with the money]."

"If I was caught by the police, I would rat out all of my friends to get out."

After I described the effects of pollution on the environmental and human health, a libertarian told me:

"I don't care about these things. They don't affect me."

The prominent indifference to suffering and a desire for money and power overwhelms any agreeable rhetoric libertarians may spout. I've surmised before how and why they end up the way they do. I bring this up to show that when libertarians use words like "freedom" and "opportunity", they almost always mean it for themselves, exclusively. If they oppose power, it is only because they don't have it. Liberty is only useful if it grants them power.





This is not to be a long polemic against libertarians (ok, maybe a little). Their oft-chosen atheist position is commendable, as is their somewhat more open stance on homosexuals and other minority groups. Even their goals seem admirable, which is the reason why libertarians are dangerous: because this makes them so difficult to spot. A power-hungry asshole is obviously out to control and dominate you. A libertarian, on the other hand, will camouflage themselves in "no gummint" rhetoric, but vote for schmucks like Reagan; they say "freedom and liberty", but are not above corporations limiting these rights in others.

Anarchists

Of course, not all people who score low on both the RWA and SD measures call themselves or would be considered anarchists, but we can connect the attributes with the philosophy. These people believe each person has to find their own way in life. They see nothing wrong with someone being a transvestite, homosexual, or the author of a pretentious blog. Rather than fearful, they are curious when encountering something new. They challenge ill-gotten and ill-used authority, even at peril to themselves. Cooperation is preferred over competition, equality over wealth disparity, and diversity over cultural homogeneity.

They probably grew up in cities or places with a wide range of people, differing cultural attitudes and perspectives. The family household may have been eccentric to some extent, maybe a single mother or starving artists for parents. Having seen authority figures abuse power or otherwise be stupid, they have the important understanding that authority is fallible, and that it is often wise to question it.

Authoritarianism and Politics

And, in all things political, it is more about domineering or authoritarian behavior that determines when abuse of power occurs, not necessarily the specific views of the individual. For example, a domineering Randroid is just as likely to become a dictator like Stalin as is an asshole. But we may notice that certain beliefs tend to link with particular stances on authoritarianism. Sheeple prefer simple, emotionally-satisfying, easily repeated drivel that makes sure they are stupid and obedient. Assholes bathe themselves in this drivel, but spice it up with a bit of god-like control. Libertarians, of course, enjoy and identify with Objectivism and other such ideas that excuse exploitation and belittle the fools who share and care - lefties and religious nuts alike.

What do anarchists believe? Strangely, some of the lines libertarians spout. For example

"That government which governs least, governs best."

I agree with this, and indeed many libertarians do - on the surface. Implied in the quote is the understanding that for government to govern less, those who are governed must prevent the need for such governing by solving the problems (even those caused by the gummint) the government was created to solve. That is, to even begin to bring about such a situation, we would require people to be independent, open-minded, curious, cooperative, and empathetic, amongst similar qualities. For the libertarian, it is enough to get rich and break free from the chains of the system - you know, hitting that higher tax bracket and getting all those nice tax breaks - but will leave the other prisoners there to rot. Or, if they do it right, it will be their turn to be the jailer.

"...the proletariat class [will] never band together or overthrow the government ... because [they are] too stupid to understand what was going on"

The anarchist, on the other hand, realizes that his freedom is intrinsically tied to the freedom of others, that opportunity for her means opportunity for others, that if we're all going to the same place, there's no need to scramble over one another. They know that caring for themselves means caring for others. They understand that to be true to form, it is not just a matter of freeing oneself from the chains, but of destroying them altogether. Writers and philosophers that genuinely espouse such things are often agreeable to anarchists. My best illustration, far superior to words is:

4 Comments:

Blogger Delta said...

Good read.

I bring this up to show that when libertarians use words like "freedom" and "opportunity", they almost always mean it for themselves, exclusively. If they oppose power, it is only because they don't have it. Liberty is only useful if it grants them power

This is a good point. My soon-to-be brother-in-law is a good example here. He believes that corporations and the rich should basically have unlimited power over society. However, he believes in a small government whose only function is to protect the haves against the have-nots. And what type of degree is he getting? A business degree. Perhaps if he were going to become a politician his views would be in favor of a stronger state, but since money and corporate power is what he's after this becomes the moral 'good' in his outlook.

The family household may have been eccentric to some extent, maybe a single mother or starving artists for parents. Having seen authority figures abuse power or otherwise be stupid, they have the important understanding that authority is fallible, and that it is often wise to question it

This got me thinking about my own parents, who by most standards are pretty 'normal'. The only thing that strikes me as abnormal is that our church attendance was relatively low, maybe every other week rather than every week. My church attendance actually helped me it turns out, because it was clear that my family was going so that others could see us and that we were there. In this sense it got me opposed to being part of the herd (if not for the fact that I had to wake up early and put on a shirt with icky buttons on it in order to go to church). Also, I had perhaps the rather common experience that the pastor was an idiot. So he'd make a negative comment about race or about 'those damn scientists' and my faith in his infallibility quickly plummetted. In fact, I began to believe he was actually an asshole, not just wrong on a couple of issues and that he was actually being dishonest. Then I would see how all the people in the congregation still revered him, and it horrified me that they could submit to such a terrible authority. I guess this experience is part of why I question authority nowadays.

10 September, 2007 11:11  
Blogger Delta said...

You've been tagged with the evolution meme tag!

29 September, 2007 14:35  
Blogger breakerslion said...

Good read seconded. I don't fit neatly into any category. I guess that makes me a misanthrope. Actually, I'm too social to be a misanthrope, so I guess I'll just keep on being me.

I was raised in three alternating settings: Manhattan suburbia, rural, and a mixed but fixed community of people from all settings showing up at the same family camp every summer. I quickly learned to take people as I found them, and nod politely no matter how bizarre I thought their world view was.

I think separating into four groups is not sufficient. Your assholes, for example, are what I would call "class A manipulators". All right, I call them assholes too, but that's less precise. One can be an asshole without the will to dominate or control. One can be a fearful, submissive asshole, refusing to think outside the box or go against the majority/authority opinion, even when it's a matter of self-preservation. Sort of lemming assholes.

30 September, 2007 19:41  
Anonymous cratylus22 said...

What makes the Randroids really evil is that they want to create a society that not only favors utterly selfish and amoral people, but punishes anyone who tries to be considerate and decent. They want to force everyone else to be as greedy and myopic as they are by means of competition. That's my take on it anyway.

11 January, 2008 16:05  

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