Sunday, June 03, 2007

Robert Altemeyer on Authoritarians

One of the most popular ideas among liberal commentators these days is the concept of the authoritarian personality, drawing heavily on Robert Altemeyer's book The Authoritarians (available on line). Altemeyer is a Canadian psychologist whose research on authoritarianism was known mostly to professional colleagues until John Dean (of Watergate fame) popularized it in his book, Conservatives Without Conscience. Dean also persuaded Altemeyer to write his on-line book, summarizing his research for the general public.

Chapter 1 defines authoritarian followers as people who are blindly supportive of established authority figures and willing to ignore their misdeeds, aggressive and punitive in support of authority, conformist, and insistent that everyone else also conform. Chapter 3 is an unflattering description of authoritarian thinking. Authoritarian followers care more about reaching a conclusion they like than whether it is supported by facts or logic. They can hold contradictory views simultaneously without being aware of it, and hold their views dogmatically regardless of evidence. They lack self-awareness and a capacity for self criticism. Authoritarians are strongly ethnocentric. They associate as much as possible only with their in-group, distrust outsiders, and tend to see things in terms of us versus them, and to place a high value on group loyalty and cohesiveness. But there is a flaw in this description, particularly the accusation that authoritarians hold contradictory and illogical beliefs. Most people, whether authoritarian or not, hold a multitude of values and principles and, in this messy, complex world, they often come into conflict. Apparent contradictions in such cases are often simply decisions which value has higher priority.

Consider, for instance, Chapter 4, which discusses authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism. Fundamentalists are strong defenders of the right of parents to raise their children as they see fit. Altemeyer gives the hypothetical (pp. 126-127) of a teen from a troubled home seeking advice from another family. If the child was raised as a Christian and seeks advice from atheists, fundamentalists defend the rights of parents to raise their children and belief outsiders should not try to undermine the child's Christian beliefs. But if a troubled child from an atheistic home seeks advice from Christians, most fundamentalists think they should ignore the parents' authority and seek a conversion. In another example (pp. 115-117), fundamentalists favored U.S. schools preaching Christianity despite the wishes of religious minorities. They justified this as a matter of majority rule. But they did not believe that schools in Muslim countries should preach Islam against the wishes of religious minorities, as a matter of minority rights. Altemeyer sees these as examples of a fundamentalist "double standard." But, of course fundamentalists are being perfectly consistent; they are favoring Christianity over any rival religion or non-religion. What they are really saying is that promoting Christianity trumps any consideration of parental authority, majority rule, or minority rights. And, after all, if you believe that Christians go to Heaven and everybody else goes to Hell, what can be more important that promoting Christianity at all costs?

Similar, but less obvious are political cases decribed in Chapter 3. Authoritarians are more likely than non-authoritarians to censor "dangerous" ideas, either of the left or right, including racist ideas (pp 83-84). Clearly authoritarians believe that promoting good ideas over bad ones (including racism) is more important than a value-neutral freedom of expression. More troubling (pp. 81-83) is the hypothetical of a speaker inciting a riot between pro- and anti-gay demonstrators. Authoritarians would punish the speaker more or less severely depending on whether he was giving a pro- or anti-gay speech. This can be treated as a double standard. Or it can be taken to mean that authoritarians consider violence more or less reprehensible depending on whether it is committed on behalf of a "good" or "bad" cause.

And here, I think, lies the answer to the "mystery" (Introduction, p. 2) as to why some people don't seem to want democracy. Democracy is really not as easy or natural as we have been taught to assume. It values procedure over substance. It demands obedience to leaders who are chosen by the right procedure (i.e, who win the election), regardless of how loathsome their values or policies may be to us. It expects us to treat abstract procedural details, such as federalism or separation of powers, as more important than the actual merits of what policy to adopt. It insists that we respect the rights of people we despise (sometimes deservedly). Freedom of expression makes no distinction between good and bad ideas, but expects us to give equal privilege to even the vilest ideas that surely have nothing to contribute. And, to people who believe that their religion is the sole path to Heaven, freedom of religion requires us to allow the spread of false doctrines that will condemn countless people to Hell. These are not easy rules to swallow.

And, in fact, authoritarians do not swallow these rules. They value adopting right and moral policies over any procedural rules of fair play as to how these policies are reached. They do not respect the rights of people they consider underserving. They value the promotion of good ideas over bad ones more than an abstract and value-neutral freedom of expression. They want every advantage for true religion over false. And, increasingly, they are even beginning to value having leaders like themselves, who share their outlooks and values, over electoral nicities.

In a society that did not profess an attachment to democracy, or to freedom of religion and expression, authoritarians could openly say that they favor truth over democratic rule. But in the United States today, it is utterly unacceptable to admit, even to one's self, that one opposes democracy. Thus authoritarians seem self-contradictory and hypocritical. But strip away the pretense of democracy, and authoritarian views are perfectly consistent.

I will address this further in my next post.

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Blogger Bailey Wu Xiang said...

I enjoyed you comments on Bob Altemeyer's work. I recently got into a discussion with another zennie about the use/misuse of authority via the monastic system used in Soto and Renzai Zen. In the course of our exchange I stumbled across your fine essay when I googled Altemeyer, just wanting to share his work as a resource.

In the process, I discovered other nice pieces you wrote concerning the 9-11 Truth Movement, for whom I have a lot of patriotic respect but not much positive regard for the way most of them think and jump to so many outrageous conclusions without actual evidence -- "I think (something), therefore I (am right)."

Also, I agree with you about your cautious view of Barack Obama, who I think is being manipulated by neoliberal elements toward an extended war in Afghanistan including an extended conflict with Pakistan and Somalia.

Keep up the fine work. I enjoyed reading your site.

6:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

8:27 AM  

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