Thursday, June 07, 2007

Beware the Authoritarian Within

Altemeyer described authoritarians as thinking in terms of us versus them, ethnocentric and distrustful of outsiders, driven by fear to submit to authority, self-righteously aggressive on behalf of authority, and a general danger to democracy. In fact, the overall tone of his book gives the impression that we virtuous non-authoritarians are being menaced by evil authoritarians (defined more or less as all conservatives), and that we should fear the threat they pose to democracy and take energetic action to defend ourselves against their menacing onslaught. The problem, of course, is that that way lies you-know-what, a danger he only gets around to warning us against in Chapter 7 (the last chapter).

The danger is so strong because, in fact, the traits he so often describes as authoritarian are actually human traits that we all share to some degree. Who does not prefer the company of people with similar values and congenial views? Who does not want leaders who share their own values? Who does not support leaders from their own in-group and tend to defend them against out-groups? Who does not want to strengthen institutions they control against institutions controlled by rivals? Who does not feel the temptation to place picking the "right" leaders with the "right" values over obverving all procedural nicety. And, as Altemeyer makes clear, everyone tends to become authoritarian when fearful and feeling menaced. The difference between people with high and low authoritarian scores is, at most, one of degree. The danger here is of it becoming not even a matter of degree, but simply of which team one roots for. So how do we know whether we are actually standing up for freedom and democracy or just standing up for our in-group and identifying it with freedom and democracy?

To begin with, resist the temptation of fear. Just as we urge right-wingers be realistic about the actual threat posed by terrorists and not exaggerate it, so too we should be realistic about the threat to democracy posed by the current Administration and not exaggerate it. (Finding out what they are actually up to would help here; nothing is so frightening as the shadow-threat whose exent we don't know).

At least as importantly, resist the temptation of demonization. It can be so much fun to wallow in self-righteous indignation, congradulating ourselves on our virtues, and making our foes, whether terrorists or the Bush Administration out to be pure evil. And in this we become just like them. In order to overcome those temptations, let us engage with Administration supporters and others whose views we dislike and make some attempt at dialogue. Altemeyer and others recommend this as a way of overcoming authoritarians' tendancy to demonize liberals. But it is useful in the opposite way too, it helps curb our own temptation to demonize. (Confession: I come up badly short here).

Resist the temptation to believe that the ends justify the means. Everyone knows about this danger, but everyone is tempted by it. The means are, in effect, those tedious procedural rules of fair play it is so easy to brush aside. As I have said before, it is not natural or easy to elevate the procedural rules of fair play above all else, but it is essential if democracy is to survive. The best way to do this is probably to go firmly on record about what is and is not permissible fair play. Then someone can hold us to our own words if we break them.

Finally, resist the temptation of self-righteousness. This means maintaining a constant attitude of self-criticism and self-doubt. It means constantly examining ourselves for authoritarian tendancies and paying attention when others, including our opponents, claim to see such tendancies in us. Authoritarians are well-known for mocking liberals' propensity to self-criticism and self-doubt and dismissing it as a weakness, compared the the strength of their own self-confidence. Don't believe them. The Bush Administration is made up of people with an extraordinarily low capacity for self-criticism or self-doubt. Look where it got them.

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