Friday, March 22, 2019

Understanding Authoritarian Personalities

"A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth."

Albert Einstein got it. More people should heed his words on authoritarian followers.

Authoritarian personalities. We’re stuck with them, folks.

Fortunately they are not all white supremacists, thugs, gilded hypocritical preachers, and closed-minded narcissists. There are still many decent individuals among them. I’m not here to demonize them. I’m here to observe them. I’m even here to say we need them. They are our fellow human beings and family members. They are a part of every population, of every race, and in all nations.

But I am also here to oppose them when they abuse power, deceive, forsake decency, and spread anger and hate. In these dark times the authoritarian white nationalism of the Trump cult is poisoning our republic with fear, division, sowing rampant indecencies among us, as well as abetting crimes in high office.. The rise of anger, hate, violence and terrorism from white supremacists should be shaking us from our complacency and indifference.

In the interest of better outcomes and for the general progress of humanity, we need to recognize the role of the authoritarian personality in human nature and history. The two subgroups of authoritarian personalities are authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers.

It would also serve our democratic republic well if more Americans learned to identify and understand Right Wing Authoritarian Personalities. Two books can provide some important insight into that portion of humanity with authoritarian personalities: “The Authoritarians” by Bob Altemeyer and “Conservatives Without Conscience” by John Dean.

Dean saw the authoritarian personality in Nixon, who famously said, "Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal."

Today’s far Right authoritarian president goes the way of all totalitarians, calling journalists and the free press enemies of the people, demonizing dissent, while blaming and scapegoating minorities.

Like most demagogues, he typically plays the role of the wronged victim, and dismisses his blatant obstruction of justice as “fighting back” against a “witch hunt”. He’s also the white nationalist racist birther who praises authoritarian tyrants and thugs like Putin, Kim Jong Un, and Duterte, while smearing an ailing, and then dead, Senator McCain.

The Tangerine Tyrant is barely held in check by our Constitution and rule of law, both of which are dangerously undermined by his swaggering disregard and contempt for such institutional restraints on abuses of power.

At his website, The Authoritarians, Altemeyer offers a free download of his book, and he shares his thoughts on Trump’s authoritarianism, as well as that of his followers.

“I don’t think you can change the minds of many Trump supporters. Winning fact-driven discussions about the man and the issues will likely make them more defensive. Their connection with their leader is not rational but emotional. It’s based on fear that he fans and anger that he channels.”

As if it has not been made abundantly obvious by the rise of Trump, there are a lot of authoritarian personalities out there. Authoritarian personalities tend to comprise upwards to 25% of a human population. And since they are the most active 25% in politics and voting, they attain the greater share of power. This is when the trouble happens.

While authoritarians are the usual actors to repeat history’s treacheries and tragedies, the rest of us should at least learn from that history.

Authoritarians had, and still have, their place in a society.

Authoritarian personalities were vital to survival back when we were living in caves. Someone had to lead the hunt and protect the family, or small band of early humans. We needed someone capable of a rapid and effective response to threats.

Safety required adhesion to order, group cohesion, compliance, and conformity. These are the social standards of authoritarians, and such standards were important for the group to stay together and survive.

MRI brain scans have shown authoritarian personalities to be unique, and explains how their roles were valuable in more primitive and dangerous times.

Authoritarian personalities are distinguished from most people by their more active, and more readily activated, amygdala. This is the primitive emotion center of the brain associated with the “fight or flight” response. We all have it. It’s just more magnified with authoritarians. Liberals also have their unique MRI readings. We at the other end of the spectrum have thicker anterior cingulates, the region involved in decision making and emotional regulation. Just as we are right or left-handed, we are naturally wired into a sort of “right mind/left mind” mode.

Authoritarians have served our early evolutionary process of survival with their heightened fight or flight, fear or aggression, response.

Associated with that heightened response mechanism, authoritarians prefer to see a world of clear boundaries and lines, of threats and non-threats. They are more uncomfortable with ambiguities than most of us. More advanced and civilized cultures needed to cope through more nuance, compromise, and adaptations to new environments and living conditions.

Eventually humans evolved socially, intellectually and culturally. Fight or flight were no longer the primary default options for the well-being of groups of people. They learned to live together, cooperate, and develop agriculture and build communities. Curiosity and knowledge began to replace some of the more primitive emotional responses of fear or aggression.

The need for authoritarian dominance diminished with expanding agrarian communities. Authoritarians still remained useful participants in societies. They were contributing to the community by enforcement of civil order, security and warrior duties. The less intelligent and more extreme of them simply reverted to bullying, theft and thuggery. And they still do.

As civilization rose the requirement for authoritarians was reduced. While they found themselves no longer in control of the daily function of society at large, many have sought and gained power by political, economic, and military means.

Authoritarians still want to rule. They think they know better or are more worthy. They want to dominate their society and impose their will on the majority who are not authoritarian personalities. They are more prone to seek positions of authority, control, and power in the military, law enforcement and government.  The first two out of three aint bad. All three are very bad and democracy, peace, justice and equality have suffered the consequences of that consolidation of power. 

They tend to love a good tyranny of their minority, and reject the concept of a majority’s right to, and desire for, consent of the governed. Only they know best, remember.

But it’s still good to have them if they are decent cops and good soldiers. They are important to enforce laws and provide safety. Many become good doctors and effective lawyers, especially prosecutors. But they cannot be allowed to make the rules and decide who deserves safety or healthcare.

Authoritarians need to be kept from dominant political power if humanity is to survive and thrive. They should have a voice, but not over the majority.

The most extreme authoritarians are the leaders who start wars of aggression, suppress human rights, and impose tyranny. These leaders and their loyal followers are the far Right authoritarians. White nationalists, racists and other angry bigots are the far fringe of our authoritarian population, and they infect our world with their malevolence.

Many other authoritarian followers are very fine people. Really. They can be very kind and decent among themselves, or in church. Many want to be good Christians and try to love their neighbor. And many decent authoritarian conservatives make efforts to get along civilly with Muslims, liberals, or even members of the LGBTQ community. But it’s just easier if they share their race and culture.

This is not true of their more extreme authoritarians who tend towards deep-seated racism, xenophobia and white nationalism.   

Most authoritarian followers just happen to be more easily influenced by their authoritarian leaders’ appeal to, and manipulation of, negative emotional responses. These may be responses to real, or unreal, threats to their political/ethnic/religious/national identity or beliefs. The negative emotional response is boosted by their leaders by inculcating a sense of victimhood at the hands of others.

Most of them are not hateful racists. But when they are duped, cajoled, or agitated by them, they will vote for one. And that is the problem. They are not evil persons, but by supporting an evil person like Trump they are at minimum tolerating, if not condoning evil. They may not know any better, but the issue is they don’t want to know any better. They embrace their certainty as a form of psychological security.

And of course, they usually won’t see themselves as racists. What they “know” is they are more special than the rest of us, and should be in charge. This would apply to their own race or ethnic group as well as others. It’s often inflated ego and narcissism more than outright racism, but the “superiority complex” mixed with a smattering of xenophobia are enough to nurture bigotry and racist tendencies.

Most of them are in their bubble, believing lies and smears of the “others”, and there is little we can say or do to open their minds. We cannot open the primitive emotional center of their amygdala. As Altemeyer noted, we can’t change their minds through facts and reason. Their grounding is an emotional response, more than a reasoned position, that is telling them who to follow or trust, and who to blame and fear.

As long as they fear equality, they will fear democracy.

No wonder white nationalist extreme Right Wing Authoritarian Personalities want to take back their cave.

So what can the rest of us do about them? As I noted, first society needs to identify who they are and understand how they function.

Aldous Huxley, author of the dystopian “Brave New World”, also wrote of a utopian, sane and spiritually nurturing society in his novel “Island”.

Temperaments of children were studied early on in schools. The immature, narcissistic, or outright bullies were screened for their negative social characteristics and given classes and guidance directed toward a Buddhist-like goal of personal enlightenment, empathy and compassion. It involved redirection of their emotional impulses and energies into more constructive and healthier outlets. Read the book. It’s a beautiful and brilliant vision of human potential and possibility. And it is in no way na├»ve or over-optimistic.

Of course our culture isn’t as rationally developed or insightful as the people on the island of Pala. But we do have our MRI technology to screen for authoritarians, not that we would require it for determining if someone has an authoritarian personality.

Authoritarianism is rooted in emotion, so the Islanders nurtured positive emotional responses in their young authoritarians.

As a youth, I had authoritarian tendencies. Watching my brother go to Vietnam, and seeing the anguish in my mother’s face, gave me an emotional jolt from my authoritarian views on that war. After the shock of these deep emotions, I began to ask questions about why we were at war. As we know, questioning one's beliefs, seeking information, and questioning authority are antithetical to authoritarianism. 

Humanity’s only hope for survival and prosperity lies in our volitional evolution of consciousness and consciousness. Unless we seek enlightenment through the “better angels of our nature”, the shadow of authoritarianism will darken our path forward. We either evolve, or devolve into dark ages, anarchy, authoritarianism, or even extinction.

Are we up for this ultimate challenge for survival? That depends on our values. So far we are failing spectacularly, and regressing into old patterns of xenophobic nationalism. The con-servative revolution has been won. Now the silver lining to the cloud of Trumpism is revealing itself in a more socially and politically active counter-movement from the non-authoritarian majority.

The time has come for evolution, not revolution.

You can’t say we haven’t been cautioned:

W. B. Yeats understood in the 1930s.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
 Are full of passionate intensity.

And after WWII Bertolt Brecht warned:

Don't yet rejoice in his defeat, you men!
Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard,
The bitch that bore him is in heat again

4 comments:

Jefferson's Guardian said...

"I don’t think you can change the minds of many Trump supporters. Winning fact-driven discussions about the man and the issues will likely make them more defensive. Their connection with their leader is not rational but emotional. It’s based on fear that he fans and anger that he channels.” ~~ Excerpt from Bob Altemeyer's "The Authoritarians" (as provided by Dave Dubya)

Isn't this, precisely, the exact definition of a cult?

We've had similar conversations about your resident troll, Vern, and to a lessor degree his conservative friend, T. Paine (or "Unknown" or "Rex" or whatever pseudonym he goes by these days).

As I've mentioned on this blog previously, when I was young I used to question why, in the world, would the 1930's German people allow themselves to be hoodwinked and influenced to such a drastic and perverted degree as they were?

I now know what happened. I also know we're, as a nation, going down the same treacherous and suicidal slippery slope if we don't, collectively and quickly, wake up from this Trumpist nightmare.

Jefferson's Guardian said...

"Dogmatism comes rather naturally to people who have copied other people’s beliefs rather than figure things out for themselves. When you don’t know why your beliefs are true, you can’t defend them very well when other people or events confront them. Once you’ve run out of whatever counter-arguments your authorities have loaded into you, you’re done. But being flabbergasted doesn’t mean you change your beliefs. You can keep on believing as much as before if you want. You can even pat yourself on the back for believing when it seems clear you are wrong. Some people do this, and you know who taught them to.

That is dogmatism, and experiments show that authoritarian followers have two or three times the normal amount of it because they believe many things strongly, but don’t know why. When the evidence and arguments against their beliefs becomes irrefutable, they simply shut down. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson said, dogmatism is the last resort of overwhelmed followers. Thus they agree with the statement, 'There are no discoveries of facts that could possibly make me change my mind about the things that matter most in life.' That says it all.
" ~~ Dogmatism excerpt from Bob Altemeyer's "The Authoritarians" (bold font my own)

Sound like anybody you know? ;-)

This describes Mr. Paine to a "T". Can't answer the hard ones? Shut it down.

Dave Dubya said...

"...they believe many things strongly, but don’t know why."

Why is never a consideration for authoritarians. "Just because" is as far as it goes.

Now the authoritarians are cackling with delight that the Big MAGAt has been "totally exonerated".

Never mind this detail: "While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."

So, what? Putin's Puppet joins O.J. Simpson in being "totally exonerated", amirite?

Jefferson's Guardian said...

"Putin's Puppet joins O.J. Simpson in being 'totally exonerated', amirite?" ~~ Dave Dubya

But at least Simpson has vowed to continue searching for the killers -- until his dying day! ;-)

Of course Vern, the racist, would be in agreement with us on the incorrect outcome of the verdict in Simpson's case - whether he was tried in a court of law or not.

Vern probably felt Simpson was guilty all along -- exclusively because of his race. On the other hand, maybe Vern gave him a pass due to his athletic stardom. ;-)

You know...look the other way -- like with the mobster-in-chief?

Can you spell S.D.N.Y.? Simpson knows how. He took thousands of handoffs. LOL

But first need to bury the motherfucker in 2020...