the world is a dangerous place: true/false

A while ago I saw an online book linked from boingboing about the science and psychology of right wing authoritarianism. Right wing in this case doesn't mean politically, necessarily, but means something more like, "aligned with governmental and religious authorities."

I read the book, and I found it disturbing and yet irresistibly fascinating. I like to think that I have a natural skepticism for people who tell me that my political enemies are dangerous people. I really don't like that idea, it smells like racism and fear-mongering. So I continue to find this book hard to integrate, inasmuch as it casts a shadow on a lot of people.

However I think it also offers pretty compelling window into the psychology of some large political movements, in the United States and elsewhere. Consider whether you agree with this statement: "Once our government leaders and the authorities condemn the dangerous elements in our society, it will be the duty of every patriotic citizen to help stomp out the rot that is poisoning our country from within." A lot of people do agree with that statement.

What's presented in the book is a collection of academic research on authoritarian personalities that, as far as I can tell, seems legitimate and makes sense. It's an easy read. The author does have a political axe to grind, and he's up-front about that. (It didn't bother me because I basically agree with him politically.) It addresses topics like hypocrisy, mental compartmentalization, leader and follower personalities, and religious fundamentalism, and along the way it paints a picture of the people who love and follow public figures such as Sarah Palin, Lou Dobbs, and Glenn Beck.

Like I said. This book makes me really uncomfortable because it tells me that my political enemies are dangerous, irrational people. What I'm trying to do with it is, instead of closing myself off further, to try to open myself up. If I can figure out a way to use this research to understand the emotions and beliefs that drive this certain kind of thought, then maybe I can communicate better.

Sam turned me on to a blog called slacktivist, which seems to spend most of its time ranting against right wing authoritarians, taking their arguments apart, and generally trying to get inside their heads. It's a really clever and insightful blog, but as much as I might enjoy it, slacktivist is a terrible tool for convincing your uncle that he needs to lighten up on the gays, for example. I think that by understanding the basic underpinnings of the RWA personality, we can do better.

Recognize that your uncle sees the world as a dangerous place, full of moral and physical peril. Recognize that your uncle believes that his culture, his very way of life, is under attack by coordinated, godless enemies. Recognize that he longs for a strong leader to tell him what to believe so that he can help defend his tribe. Then reconsider whether you want to get into that argument with him.

Anyway if you find any of this interesting, I think you should take a look at the book I linked at the top. I'd love to talk about it with some people.


  1. Not directly related to your point but interesting about the psychology/science of political affiliations:

  2. Yeah, that is pretty interesting, and makes a lot of sense. Also I wanted to say that I definitely don't think that all conservatives fit the right wing authoritarian profile that's discussed above... I think the thing about the 5 values vs the 2 values is probably a better fit for describing conservatism itself. I can disagree with conservatism and still respect it. But I find authoritarianism alarming.