January 03, 2008
Authoritarian Personalities and Garbage Email

Our friend Neddie over at BNJ put up another fine post last week, “An Atheist at Christmas”. Acknowledging and bewailing the manifold sins and wickednesses of the mass emailing lists of friends, he finds particular excess in a recent one.

In sum, the item forwarded to me was simple intellectual pollution, more goddamned dumbness that cloaks itself as folksy wisdom and makes its forwarder feel virtuous for having passed it on.

Besides the slanders and the untruths, and the profoundly irritating conflation of the concepts of "secular" and "atheist," what was most off-putting about the thing was its general aggrieved tone, as though its author were part of some put-upon minority, an underclass of the righteous who loathe the idea that many people don’t take their religion quite as seriously as the righteous think they ought.

If you’ve been reading John Dean recently, you might have encountered the work of Bob Altemeyer, a research psychologist at the University of Manitoba who studies authoritarian personality types. He’s got decades’ worth of survey information and results; other researchers have both added data and extended the ideas.

Authoritarians include followers as well as the power-hungry. Altemeyer defines authoritarianism as the covariation of three attitudes: conventionality, authoritarian submission, and authoritarian aggression. Conventionality involves conforming to social conventions and believing that others ought to do the same. Authoritarian submission means believing in leaders and authority as the best means of keeping society prosperous. Authoritarian aggression indicates the subset of aggressive tendencies that is disinhibited when it’s perceived to be sanctioned by authority, or would help authority maintain its position.

Altemeyer’s Enemies of Freedom is not as famous as it should be. Admittedly it includes a lot of statistical detail, but the detail builds an argument that covers a lot of ground, makes a lot of sense, and seems to provide useful frameworks for understanding some behavior patterns that often occur among fundamentalists and social conservatives in particular.

Dean’s recent Conservatives Without Conscience brought new attention to Altemeyer’s work, and several surprising facts emerge. He’s managed to get this research done without grants, by using his own money and getting a lot of data from his own students, their parents, and their friends. He has a writing style that has you laughing in the preface, and throughout, despite the density of the numbers. Plus, you quickly begin to trust him, because he tells you so much about his thinking and experimentation: what he surveyed for, how he munged the data, how he interprets the results, where ambiguities continue to exist, and on to the next step.

Thus it’s perhaps not surprising that Enemies of Freedom isn’t so easy to find. In fact there were none at Powell’s or eBay, and I was forced to resort to Amazon. Where I discovered two used copies, one $138, the other $154.

Fortunately, as Professor Altemeyer kindly pointed out in an email, he has an updated version of the content, minus the vast majority of the statistical detail, and thus both shorter and easier to read. I’m half-way through it and I highly recommend it. Oh, and The Authoritarians is free.

Among the most interesting issues Altemeyer examines is the question of why people remain in the relatively closed world that authoritarians must inhabit if they wish to maintain their viewpoint. Many, perhaps most, tend to modify at least some of their views and behavior when they encounter new information. But they generally grow up in a heavily circumscribed world that keeps them safe and gives their lives shape and structure, so they have no reason to leave it, or to disbelieve its tenets.

Of course many people grow up in such situations and rebel, or suffer inner dichotomies, or simply lose the ability to reconcile everything and give up. Those whom Altemeyer’s scale labels High Right-Wing Authoritarians, however, feel comfortable there. (By the way, there could also be left-wing authoritarians, who instead of submitting to established authority would submit to revolutionary authority. But there aren’t nearly as many of them as there are RWAs, nor does Altemeyer’s scale directly look for them.)

After looking at several possible explanations, Altemeyer’s data led him to conclude that two factors dominate in the backgrounds of authoritarians. First, they see the world as a very dangerous place, with possibilities for disaster looming around every corner. Second, they see themselves as upholding the Good and the Right as opposed to all those folks who don’t hue to the same high standards they perceive themselves to follow.

Thus they have reason to be frightened, plus aggressive impulses against those who appear to deserve censure, which are inhibited by their strong need to conform to social convention. They need reinforcement to tell them that they’re still in the group; they get a thrill from thumbing their noses at those they figure will in some sense get Left Behind; and they’re often insufferably hypocritical.

Perhaps the most hopeful thing Altemeyer discovered, though, was how frequently such people modified their views with experience, which turned out to be the strongest factor in determining attitudes, stronger than parents and upbringing or religion. For instance, many students entering college are emerging from their parents’ world for the first time, and bring with them the attitudes that worked in that world, and predicted what would happen. They may have been taught that sex is bad, or that homosexual folks are scuzzy and evil; then they have sex, or they meet someone who’s homosexual, and discover that what they’ve been taught isn’t true.

People do change. As Bishop Tutu says, every situation is capable of transfiguration.


Posted by Chuck Dupree at January 03, 2008 02:26 AM
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All of which makes the case against home schooling and parochial schools.

Posted by: Joyful Alternative on January 3, 2008 6:49 AM

The most serious studies of authoritarianism started after WWII, primarily as an attempt to understand the mass appeal of Adolph Hitler and to try to understand and prevent another mass movement from taking over other countries, as it had done in Europe. Eric Hoffer's "True Believer" also looks at the phenomenon from a somewhat different perspective.

I find the subject of authoritarianism in regards to religion quite interesting. What caused Bolshevik Russia, ruled by Stalin, which Orwell despised, to resort to an attempt at destroying all aspects of religion throughout Russia and wiping out all the churches throughout the country? What caused the Communist Chinese to attempt to wipe out the Buddhist monasteries throughout Tibet? Authoritarianism can be a double edged sword. It cuts in both directions.

Posted by: Buck on January 3, 2008 7:32 AM

All authoritarians seem to be a bit touchy when it comes to competition, thus Stalin's and Communist China's attempt to eradicate religion. Religious leaders of the There-Is-Only-One-Almighty-God kind tend to think and act similarly.

I still think Erich Fromm's 'The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness' gives one of the best analysis of the authoritarian mind.

Posted by: Peter on January 3, 2008 8:26 AM
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