Little Volcanos of Hostility

Inauguration Day, just after Biden and Harris took their oaths of office.

I mentioned in my last post that few authoritarians are smart or well-socialized. That’s not to say they lack intelligence or charm; random distributions of each are as apt to fall their way as anyone’s. But they dismiss both as weaknesses. To explain why, I turn to retired University of Manitoba psychology professor Robert Altemeyer and his 2006 book The Authoritarians, which you can download for free, with his compliments, at this website. (It’s a scholarly but convivial read.)

Altemeyer doesn’t flat-out say authoritarians are militantly anti-intellectual, but he might as well. His dissection of authoritarian thought processes exposes seven subversions of clear thinking:

  1. Sloppy reasoning. If you present authoritarians with the syllogism “All fish live in the sea, sharks live in the sea, therefore sharks are fish,” they’ll say it’s correct because if they think a conclusion is correct, they almost always assume the prior reasoning is correct. So don’t mention whales or otters to them.
  2. High compartmentalization. It’s hard to integrate our ideas so they’re consistent. Few authoritarians even try. During a political discussion they’ll extol Americans’ right to free speech and expression, then watch a football game and vilify the athletes kneeling during the national anthem and fail to see any contradiction.
  3. Double standards. How many times over the last four years have you thought I wonder what they would have said if Obama did that? You don’t have to wonder.
  4. Hypocrisy. Seems Altemeyer could have combined this with double standards, so I’ll skip it.
  5. Lack of self-awareness. Altemeyer gave subjects who tested high for authoritarianism a list of traits extensive research has found true of authoritarians. Most subjects insisted the list didn’t describe them.
  6. Sticking to themselves. For me, one of Altemeyer’s most important findings is that authoritarian followers substitute in-group opinion for empirical fact and critical thinking: “I know I’m right because the people who agree with me say I am.”
  7. Dogmatism. What ultimately distinguishes a smart person from a not-smart person is the ability to say four words with conviction: I may be wrong. By contrast, authoritarian followers agree with the statement that “there are no discoveries or facts that could possibly make me change my mind about the things that matter most in life.”

On the socialization side, authoritarian relationships follow a dominance-submission model rather than an equality model. Authoritarian leaders heartily agree with statements like “It’s a mistake to interfere with the ‘law of the jungle.’ Some people were meant to dominate others.” Authoritarian followers feel that “What our country really needs is a strong, determined leader who will crush evil, and take us back to our true path.” When these leaders and followers find each other, the result is what we’ve been experiencing the last four years.

Altemeyer suggests that beneath whatever affable surface they may muster, “authoritarian followers have a little volcano of hostility bubbling away inside them.” Give them a rationale for acting on that hostility, such as the big lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, and you get the January 6 Capitol riot — or, from the less violent members of the mob, such love-thy-neighbor sentiments as “fuck your feelings.”

Altemeyer wrote his book 15 years ago, when the authoritarian threat came from the George W. Bush administration. Remember the good old days, when all we had to contend with were lies about weapons of mass destruction, a pointless war that killed thousands of people and cost trillions of dollars, waterboarded captives, and Congressmen who demanded we rename french fries? From my perspective, Altemeyer’s findings have held up remarkably —no, frighteningly — well. The book ends with this observation: “These highly prejudiced people appear to be performing another of their amazing mental gymnastics by seeing themselves as the victims of prejudice.” Tell me that hasn’t come to pass.

I’m going to assume that in spite of your good intentions, you’re not going to read Altemeyer’s book anytime soon, so next I’ll talk about his ideas for countering the authoritarian threat.

Mount Ngauruhoe, New Zealand.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.