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Armchair philosopher

Authoritarianism and the Individual

The struggle for power between individual will and authority

"The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself."
—Friedrich Nietzsche

On New Year’s Day, 1791 in Coventry, England, an angry mob gathered outside the home of a man named Thomas Paine. In their possession was an effigy of Paine with a plaque pinned to its chest. The mob threw the effigy onto a cart and paraded it through to the town square, where they proceeded to hang it by its neck. Once they were satisfied with the symbolic execution, they set the effigy ablaze and, as it burned to ashes, chanted in unison the song “God save the King”.

Paine's crime was to write a book that described a new, fairer standard of governance that would reflect what he considered the "natural rights of man”—including civil rights, social welfare, education, and pensions for the elderly—rights that did not exist at the time, but many of us now take for granted. He wanted a fairer, and more fulfilling life for the very people who were persecuting him. The plaque pinned to the effigy read “Rights of Man”.

As similar scenes took place up and down England later that year, the English government sponsored mass anti-Paine gatherings, book-burnings, and punished bookstore owners who would dare to stock his book. Despite this, Rights of Man became the biggest selling book in British history, after the Bible.

The Authoritarians

In psychology, the term “authoritarianism” describes a tendency for individuals to readily submit themselves to a recognised authority, either directly, or by going along with the crowd and shunning or reviling others who don’t do the same. While everyone is prone to this to some degree, a significant portion of us is highly prone to this way of thinking. They are the Authoritarians.

Bob Altemeyer is a retired professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba who spent over forty years of his life studying authoritarians and authoritarianism. In his career, Altemeyer and his colleagues have conducted countless experiments to study and better understand the different ways and reasons people submit to authority. From this work, Altemeyer defined a standardised scale as a measure of a person’s authoritarian tendencies. Curious to know where you would land on the scale? Consider how you react to the following statements sampled from Altemeyer’s 22 point survey:

  1. The only way our country can get through the crisis ahead is to get back to our traditional values, put some tough leaders in power, and silence the troublemakers spreading bad ideas.
  2. Everyone should have their own lifestyle, religious beliefs, and sexual preferences, even if it makes them different from everyone else.
  3. Our country needs free thinkers who have the courage to defy traditional ways, even if this upsets many people.
  4. There are many radical, immoral people in our country today, who are trying to ruin it for their own godless purposes, whom the authorities should put out of action.

If you strongly agreed with statements 2 and 3, and strongly disagreed with statements 1 and 4, then you’re likely to be score quite low on the authoritarianism scale—and that’s probably a good thing.

How to spot an authoritarian

According to Altemeyer, high authoritarians are characterised by the three following traits:

A high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society

Authoritarians tend to believe, more so than most, that the established authorities of their social groups—whether politicians, religious clerics, college deans, corporate bosses, or parents—should be respected, heeded, and obeyed without question. They trust their authority figures implicitly, even when external signs suggest that they shouldn't, and they are sometimes willing to believe, say, or do stupid or atrocious things because an authority figure has told them to do so.

High levels of aggression in the name of their authorities

Authoritarians tend to fear the "outside world" more so than most, and can often react aggressively to those they feel even slightly threatened by. For example, 30% of Americans polled by the PPP supported the (presumed legitimate) bombing of Agrabah, the fictional middle-eastern city from the movie Aladdin. Authoritarian aggression doesn’t have to be overt physical aggression, though, and is more often characterised by a desire to punish or purge wrongdoers, by endorsing heavy prison sentences and capital punishment, or by ostracising nonconformists.

A high level of conventionalism

Authoritarians tend to prefer sticking to the tradition and customs of their society and have a strong desire to be perceived as normal, and not an as outsider. If you ask a group of people to fill in a survey, then tell them beforehand what the “average” answers from previous groups were, high authoritarians are far more likely than low authoritarians to change their own answers to fit the average. Because of this insecurity, high authoritarians are far more likely to adjust their own views and behaviour, to fit in with what everyone else appears to be doing, even when there’s no good reason for doing it.

Looking back at the case of Thomas Paine, those three authoritarian attributes should be quite apparent in the mobs who hanged and burned Paine's effigies (aggression) in honour of their King (submission), because the ideas he proposed challenged the status quo of British society (conventionalism).

High authoritarians are present in every walk of life. In art, science, business, and politics. At your work, in your schools and Universities, probably in your friend circle, definitely in your churches, and voting in your elections. And since authoritarianism is not going to go away anytime soon, it's a phenomenon you should be aware of around you.

Put simply, they are the individuals who believe that there is only one correct worldview—theirs, that their authorities know best, and that it's better to fit in with the in-crowd if you want to be on the winning side.

Authoritarianism and the Individual

On an individual level, submitting too much, or too readily to authority is often directly at odds with one's own personal growth, specifically, because it requires you to surrender your own agency to others. Every one of us has within ourselves our own internal guidance system—our intuitive apparatus for understanding and navigating the world around us. This sense is a natural and innate part of each person, and like all senses, we become more attuned to it through use, or less attuned through disuse.

But instead of looking within themselves for guidance and answers, authoritarians tend to look outwith themselves for external cues for how they should think and behave, and so their internal guidance system is diminished, or never really develops in the first place.

Over time, this disuse can become a habit that limits individual development, and even brain function. For example, children raised in authoritarian environments are typically poor performers academically (Dornbusch et al 1987), and tend to lack creativity (Mehrinejad et al 2015)—which isn’t really surprising, since most of them have been trained to abandon their own internal reasoning faculties their whole lives.

Carl Rogers, one of the fathers of humanist psychology, believed that every human being has an innate drive toward self-actualisation, and if people act upon this drive, there is a strong likelihood that they will live more fulfilling lives, and express their full potential. Many of Rogers' ideas were not popular at the time, and he found many authoritarian scientists around him were aggressively opposed to his ideas:

"All of my professional life I have been going in directions which others thought were foolish, and about which I have had many doubts myself. But I have never regretted moving in directions which "felt right," even though I have often felt lonely or foolish at the time. I have found that when I have trusted some inner non-intellectual sensing, I have discovered wisdom in the move. In fact, I have found that when I have followed one of these unconventional paths because it felt right or true, then in five or ten years many of my colleagues have joined me, and I no longer need to feel alone in it."

This drive towards self-actualisation is intertwined with an organism’s innate sense of curiosity, and its desire to satisfy this curiosity. We should therefore aim to foster curiosity in ourselves and others, even if it leads us down unconventional paths.

By trusting your own intuition, rekindling your curiosity, and developing a healthy habit of questioning preconceived notions, you can move to a point where your behaviour and thinking becomes more self-directed, and a truer representation of yourself, rather than of the people around you. This will undoubtedly lead to some growing pains, and might even lead to you feeling like an outsider on occasion, but these are an inevitable part of becoming a more self-directed individual.

Thomas Paine followed his own internal guidance system and, as a result, has been immortalised in history as one of the Founding Fathers of the USA. Where will your internal guidance system guide you?

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