Column: ‘Why prefer a dictatorship to freedom?’

The second column prompted by the IJF17 panel discussion on “Reporting Emerging Authoritarianism.” Published on April 18, 2017.

As it turns out, more research exists on authoritarian followers than on authoritarian leaders. I do not know this paradox for a fact, but I believe someone who does: the psychologist who is a leading scholar on authoritarianism, Bob Altemeyer. I was led to his work by a presentation Alexa Koenig of UC Berkeley made at the International Journalism Festival two weeks ago; I have since read his “The Authoritarians,” available for free online. It makes for instructive reading. It helps explain our experience under martial law, and why we may yet again find ourselves on the road to authoritarian rule.

The paradox can be explained simply. As Altemeyer writes: “The psychological mystery has always been, why would someone prefer a dictatorship to freedom? So social scientists have focused on the followers, who are seen as the main, underlying problem.”

Altemeyer has done a lot of the focusing, conducting experiment after experiment over the years. He has also developed a revealing test he calls the Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale. “Authoritarian followers usually support the established authorities in their society, such as government officials and traditional religious leaders …. Because the submission occurs to traditional authority, I call these followers right-wing authoritarians. I’m using the word ‘right’ in one of its earliest meanings, for in Old English ‘riht’ (pronounced ‘writ’) as an adjective meant lawful, proper, correct, doing what the authorities said.”

Two necessary qualifications: “a right-wing authoritarian follower doesn’t necessarily have conservative political views. Instead he’s someone who readily submits to the established authorities in society, attacks others in their name, and is highly conventional. It’s an aspect of his personality, not a description of his politics.” And a caveat, a reminder, that Altemeyer repeats throughout the book: We should all temper “our natural tendency to overgeneralize.” What follows is based mainly on Altemeyer’s own research.

The first of three defining elements of RWA is authoritarian submission. Everyone follows both rules and rulers to some degree. “But some people go way beyond the norm and submit to authority even when it is dishonest, corrupt, unfair and evil.” Those who score high on his RWA scale “will tell you that people should submit to authority in virtually all circumstances. If you give them moral dilemmas (e.g., should one steal an absurdly expensive drug to save a life?) they’re more likely to say, ‘The law is the law and must be obeyed’ more than most people are.”

It is this psychological trait which explains the hold of “Tatay Digong” as a concept. “Authoritarian followers seem to have a ‘Daddy and mommy knows best’ attitude toward the government. They do not see laws as social standards that apply to all. Instead, they appear to think that authorities are above the law, and can decide which laws apply to them and which do not—just as parents can when one is young. But in a democracy no one is supposed to be above the law.”

The second element is authoritarian aggression. Altemeyer’s research over four decades leads him to conclude that RWAs “usually avoid anything approaching a fair fight. Instead they aggress when they believe right and might are on their side.” But the definitions are specific. “‘Right’ for them means, more than anything else, that their hostility is (in their minds) endorsed by established authority, or supports such authority. ‘Might’ means they have a high physical advantage over their target, in weaponry, say, or in numbers, as in a lynch mob.”

This psychological trait helps explain the social media strategy of the swarm, as practiced by Mocha Uson and the like.

The third element is conventionalism, “believing that everybody should have to follow the norms and customs that your authorities have decreed.” Most RWAs take their cue from their religion; “they tend to belong to fundamentalist religions that make it crystal clear what they consider correct and what they consider wrong.”

This psychological trait describes someone like Manny Pacquiao, and helps explain why his simplistic notions (e.g., supporting the death penalty because Jesus Christ died under it) can nevertheless still gain traction.

There’s much more to “The Authoritarians,” including “seven deadly shortfalls of authoritarian thinking.” It’s a necessary read.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in History, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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