Friday, March 02, 2007

Focus on: The Reality Challenged

I just finished reading Bob Altemeyer's extraordinary online book, The Authoritarians. He's a soon-to-be-retired Professor of Psychology from the University of Manitoba, and in this work he sums up the most pertinent findings of his career-long interest in Authoritarianism.

What is Authoritarianism? My own take on the subject is that it measures one's vulnerability to accepting authority over reality. Thus, those who score highly on the Authoritarianism scale, (People With Authoritarian Tendencies, or PWAT,) despite any other traits they may have, are those who most successfully ignore reality. They are most likely to be prejudiced and blindly obedient, and least likely to think for themselves and adjust their conceptions to new information.

They have chosen understanding via what they are told instead of through their own thoughts and experiences.

One of the most interesting sections is chapter 3: "How Authoritarian Followers Think." This thinking processes is characterized by:

Illogic-deficiences in logical reasoning; if PWAT's like the conclusion, they ignore any logical fallacies in the steps that got there.

Highly Compartmentalized Minds-a conclusion reached in one area does not affect another area; PWAT's ideas do not form an overall structure, but rather a series of "files."

Double Standards-a natural consequence of rigid compartmentalization; PWAT's don't see the hypocrisy in their views because the conclusions occupy different "realms."

Hypocrisy-the inevitable conclusion of such compartments; a PWAT can demand a rigid moral code yet support leaders who do not follow it.

Blindness to Themselves-PWAT's have little self-understanding and cannot see the contradictions in their thinking.

Profound Ethnocentrism-PWAT's motto is "With Us or Against Us," with no middle ground.

Dogmatism-accepting what you are told without question or flexibility; ably summed up by the author as "You don't know why the things you believe are true." Thus, it is difficult for PWAT's to defend their beliefs without parroting defenses they have been told, and have no ability to counter an unexpected challenge. Their beliefs have to be defended with the same blind obedience by which they were absorbed, since they were never subjected to thinking in the first place.

Of course, we all have these tendencies in ourselves. We can be blind to our own contradictions, unable to explain why we think a certain way, and have certain files that rarely rub against other files. PWAT's, though, have them everywhere. This is their response to everything. This explains a lot about the rigid, dogmatic individuals we all know, and probably, avoid: their imperviousness to logic, their unthinking prejudices, their complacency about contradictions, and their angry reaction to any reality that challenges these tendencies.

To further contemplate just how dangerous this kind of citizen can be to the still unspooling story of the Enlightment (yes, we are still in it, and yes, it's still in danger of getting derailed) one can read John Dean's book, below, which drew heavily on Dr. Altemeyer's research.

It is nice to be certain about things. That's why we all strive for it. But certainty should be as rigorously challenged as any other aspect of reality. If not, it isn't really certainty, is it?

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