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Authoritarian Personality


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I read these articles on a blog this past weekend and found them eye opening. I see alot of authoritarianism in the evangelical Christianity so prevalent in America. I thought I'd post them here, and see what gets stirred up. Part I starts out concentrating on politics, though the points could also be carried into religion.


Cracks In The Wall, Part I: Defining the Authoritarian Personality

Thursday, August 10, 2006


by Sara Robinson



We need to stop this. We have gone on too long assuming that our right-wing opponents are, in all times and places, unchangeable and unchanging. Yes, their arguments are confoundingly short on evidence and fact. Yes, their logic loops are closed up so tight as to be frustratingly impervious to reason. Yes, they absolutely do mean to do us -- and our democracy -- grievous harm.


Here's the good news. That Great Wall that separates our little reality-based community from The Fantasyland Next Door is not a monolith. Nor are the inmates of that Otherworld necessarily locked in there for all time and eternity. There's evidence -- from scientists, from experience, from history -- that there are cracks in that wall. They are small and subtle, to be sure (that's why nobody's ever noticed them before): at this point, they are mere hairlines, faint traces that are hard to spot without a good flashlight in the hands of someone who knows where to look. But, as someone who's spent much of her life pacing one side or the other of this wall, I am here to tell you: there are places where it fails. People do cross it, and survive to tell the tale. And, rather than continue to wallow in our frustration, it's high time we mapped those cracks, find effective ways to widen them, and eventually exploit them to help both afflicted individuals and our larger culture break through the insanity.


It will be slow, thoughtful, methodical work. What I'm offering here is just an opening tour of the rockwork, an explanation of where the cracks are and why they formed. At first, actual opportunities to exploit these weaknesses will be small and fleeting. But my hope is, with time and practice, we'll get more observant, and more creative, and more adroit in taking advantage of them when they appear. That's the goal of this series.


This first installment summarizes some pertinent ideas culled from John Dean's new book, Conservatives Without Conscience. These are some of the basic ideas and definitions I'll be using as a springboard in the posts that follow.


Dean wrote this book with the express goal of using his own status as a bestselling author to popularize decades of social science research that should be -- but isn't -- common knowledge among politically-literate Americans. If I had to bet, I'd guess that grousing, joking, analyzing, and commiserating over the confounding nature of the non-reality-based community probably accounts for a quarter of all the words ever produced in Left Blogistan. For several years now, we've been trying to puzzle this riddle out on our own, with limited success. But, happily, it turns out that social psychologists have had the map to the right-wing authoritarian mindset nailed down for years. Dean wants us all to know what they know.


Research into "authoritarian personalities" began in the aftermath of WWII, as scientists tried to figure out how otherwise civilized people succumbed to the charisma of Hitler and Mussolini and allowed themselves to be willingly led into committing notorious atrocities. The inquiry continued through Milgram's famous experiments at Stanford in the early 60s; later, some of it became subsumed in the work of The Fundamentalism Project convened by Martin Marty at the University of Chicago in the 1980s and early 90s. Long story short: there is now over 50 years of good data on these people coming from every corner of the social sciences; but since almost none of this has been common knowledge outside the academy, nobody on the progressive side has really been putting it to use. Dean clearly wrote the book hoping to change all that.


The bulk of Conservatives Without Conscience is based on the research of Dr. Robert Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba, a social psychologist specializing in the psychology of authoritarianism. Altemeyer received the prestigious Association for the Advancement of Science prize for behavioral sciences for this research, and it is widely accepted in academia (though, as you might imagine, not so much among conservatives!). What follows is my brief synopsis of Dean's brief synopsis of some of Altemeyer's findings.


Leaders and Followers

Authoritarians come in two flavors: leaders and followers. The two tiers are driven by very different motivations; and understanding these differences is the first key to understanding how authoritarian social structures work.


Leaders form just a small fraction of the group. Social scientists refer to this group as having a high "social dominance orientation (SDO)" -- a set of traits that can be readily identified with psychological testing. "These are people who seize every opportunity to lead, and who enjoy having power over others," says Dean -- and they have absolutely no qualms about objectifying people and breaking rules to advance their own ambitions. High-SDO personalities tend to emerge very early in life (which suggests at least some genetic predisposition): you probably remember a few from your own sandbox days, and almost certainly have known a few who've made your adult life a living hell as well.


High-SDO people are characterized by four core traits: they are dominating, opposed to equality, committed to expanding their own personal power, and amoral. These are usually accompanied by other unsavory traits, many of which render them patently unsuitable for leadership roles in a democracy:


Typically men

Intimidating and bullying

Faintly hedonistic






Cheat to win

Highly prejudiced (racist, sexist, homophobic)




Tells others what they want to hear

Takes advantage of "suckers"

Specializes in creating false images to sell self

May or may not be religious

Usually politically and economically conservative/Republican


Dean notes: "Although these collations of characteristics…are not attractive portraits, the are nonetheless traits that authoritarians themselves acknowledge." In other words, these guys know what they are, and are often quite unabashedly proud of it.


High-SDO people are drawn to power, and will seek it ruthlessly and relentlessly, regardless of the consequences to others. Many cultures (including ours, up until a few decades ago) have found these people so dangerous that they've evolved counterweights and backstops that conspire to either keep them away from the levers of power, or mitigate the damage they can do (and I'll discuss some of those in the last installment). However, modern America seems to have lost all vestiges of this awareness. Now, we celebrate our most powerful social dominants, pay them obscene salaries, turn them into media stars, and hand over the keys to the empire to them almost gratefully. They have free rein to pursue their ambitions unchecked, with no cultural brakes on their rapacity. They will do whatever they can get away with; and we'll not only let them, but often cheer them on.


We’re now at the point where these sleek Machivellian manipulators are recognized around the world as the face of American business and governmental authority. While the bulk of "Conservatives Without Conscience" goes on to explain the ways in which various members of the Bush administration have demonstrated classic high-SDO behavior, I'd also argue that our willingness to accept high-SDO leadership also accounts for toxic bosses, incompetent business planning, crooked accounting, political graft, and many of the other dysfunctions that afflict American corporate life as well.


And yet, while these leaders are compelling, they will not be the main focus of my discussion of authoritarians. As I said: these personality traits emerge as early as three or four, and people who have them are almost always well beyond the reach of change. They have always been with us, and probably always will be. Since they represent a very small slice of the population, dealing with them effectively will, in practice, largely involve strategies to recognize them, isolate them, and prevent them from aggregating large hordes of followers.


It's those followers that we need to look at -- because they are sometimes capable of change, if you know where the leverage points are. The next two parts of this series will focus exclusively on them; for now, let's look at what Dean and Altemeyer have to say.


While the high-SDO leaders are defined by Dean as dominating, opposed to equality, desirous of personal power, and amoral, right-wing authoritarian followers have a different but very complementary set of motivations. The three core traits that define them are:


1. Submission to authority. "These people accept almost without question the statements and actions of established authorities, and comply with such instructions without further ado" writes Dean. "[They] are intolerant of criticism of their authorities, because they believe the authority is unassailably correct. Rather than feeling vulnerable in the presence of powerful authorities, they feel safer. For example, they are not troubled by government surveillance of citizens because they think only wrongdoers need to be concerned by such intrusions. Still, their submission to authority is not blind or automatic; [they] believe there are proper and improper authorities…and their decision to submit is shaped by whether a particular authority is compatible with their views."


2. Aggressive support of authority. Right-wing followers do not hesitate to inflict physical, psychological, financial, social, or other forms of harm on those they see as threatening the legitimacy of their belief system and their chosen authority figure. This includes anyone they see as being too different from their norm (like gays or racial minorities). It's also what drives their extremely punitive attitude toward discipline and justice. Notes Dean: "Authoritarian aggression is fueled by fear and encouraged by a remarkable self-righteousness, which frees aggressive impulses."


3. Conventionality. Right-wing authoritarian followers prefer to see the world in stark black-and-white. They conform closely with the rules defined for them by their authorities, and do not stray far from their own communities. This extreme, unquestioning conformity makes them insular, fearful, hostile to new information, uncritical of received wisdom, and able to accept vast contradictions without perceiving the inherent hypocrisy.


Conformity also feeds their sense of themselves as more moral and righteous than others -- a perception that's usually buttressed by the use of magical absolution techniques that they use to "evaporate guilt," in Dean's words. Because they confessed, or are saved, or were just following orders, they can commit heinous crimes and still retain a serene conscience and sense that they are "righteous people." On the other hand, when it comes to outsiders, there is no absolution. Their memory for even minor transgressions is nothing short of elephantine (as Bill Clinton knows all too well).


Dean lists other traits of right-wing authoritarian followers, most of which flow directly from the three core traits above:


Both men and women

Highly religious

Moderate to little education

Trust untrustworthy authorities

Prejudiced (particularly against homosexuals, women, and followers of religions other than their own)







Uncritical toward chosen authority


Inconsistent and contradictory

Prone to panic easily

Highly self-righteous


Strict disciplinarian

Severely punitive

Demands loyalty and returns it

Little self-awareness

Usually politically conservative/Republican


Remember this list, because these specific characteristics form the foundation of the discussion that will unfold in the next two posts. It is these traits that we will find the cracks in the wall.


As a final point: Dean's book puts to rest once and for all the right-wing shibboleth of "liberal fundamentalists" and "liberal authoritarians." Altemeyer and his colleagues have found, through decades of research, that authoritarians almost universally skew toward the far reactionary right on the political scale. This very much includes Stalinists and other "left-wing" totalitarians: though these men used socialist rhetoric to create "Communist" political orders, they're classic examples of high-SDO leaders taking control by whatever means they had at hand, and using them to create archetypal far-right authoritarian states. Dean and Altemeyer make it clear that authoritarianism is, by long-accepted definition, overwhelmingly a right-wing personality trait.


Dean is also emphatic that authoritarianism, in all its forms, is completely antithetical to both classical conservatism (he still considers himself a Goldwater conservative), and to the founding ideals of America. We must be clear: when right-wingers threaten liberals, they are directly threatening the seminal political impulse that created our nation. An operative democracy depends on having a populace that is open to new ideas, able to think for itself, confident in its abilities, willing to take risks, and capable of mutual trust. America was founded as the world's first radically liberal state. History has shown us that the nation's best moments, past and future, are created by people with a strong liberal orientation.


Authoritarians aren't merely constitutionally incapable of this kind of cultural and political openness; they are actively hostile to it, and seek to stamp it out wherever they find it. Everything in their souls drives them to dismantle the democratic impulse, and bring people under the heel of hierarchical authority -- which is why history has also shown us that the nation's worst moments, past and future, are created by people with a strong right-wing authoritarian orientation.


In my next post, I'll move away from Dean's book, and into a deeper look at the psychology of right-wing followers. We'll take a brief look at some of the reasons people are drawn into right-wing authoritarian belief systems -- and a longer look at the events that cause some of these same followers to eventually choose to abandon those systems.


It's in those reasons that we'll begin to find the cracks of daylight. See you Saturday.




Part II deals more specifically with fundamentalist religion, so may strike home hard with those of us from a fundamentalist background. I know it did with me. I found comfort in the idea that everybody follows something at sometime. It's just keeping yourself from getting carried away that's the hard part, I guess.


Cracks In The Wall, Part II: Listening to the Leavers

Saturday, August 12, 2006


by Sara Robinson


Who Follows? Everyone, Sometimes

After all these decades of research and inquiry, it can be said fairly that we're starting to get a decent handle on what makes people gravitate toward authoritarianism.


Alice Miller points to abusively authoritarian child-rearing practices, which teach the child anger and fear, and train out compassion or respect. George Lakoff points out the ways in which Strict Father conservatives try to apply this same logic to government. Emmanuel Todd points out that a nation's family structures are almost always mirrored in its political structures, as well as its tendency towards imperial ambition. Several observers, including Kevin Phillips, point to the authoritarianism inherent in certain religions, and in the regions of the country they dominate; other historians have contrasted the relative levels of social hierarchy countries that were colonized by Catholic versus Protestant countries.


Felicia Pratto and Jim Sidanius, who developed social dominance theory and the SDO scale, might tell you that, for some of us, at least, such tendencies appear so early in life that it's hard to credit nurture alone. Milgrim and Zimbardo both found that while most subjects participated more or less eagerly in their experiments, there were a few who were so offended by the scenarios that they outright refused. Nurture plays a huge role; but humans under stress have gravitated toward strong-man dictatorships since the beginning of history; and we've never been too short of would-be high-SDO strong men eager to step up and oblige us.


Taken together, this chorus seems to paraphrase the Bard: some are born authoritarian, some achieve authoritarianism, and some have authoritarianism thrust upon them. Most of us fall somewhere along a wide continuum of willingness to follow authoritarian leadership. Our place on that scale is determined by the culture and religion we grew up in, how our parents treated us, our education and life experiences, and our inherited temperament. These things conspire to make a few of us desperate to follow, and a few others obstinate in their outright refusal of all authority. The vast majority of us fall somewhere in between, open to seduction only in certain circumstances.


We know something about those circumstances, too. We know, for example, that fear can transform the behavior of otherwise rational and not particularly authoritarian people. Fear creates physiological changes that impair the brain's ability to reason, and drives people to fall in behind whatever leader presents himself without asking too many questions. Like all herd animals, we are biologically driven to close ranks tightly behind the alpha in times of trouble. Resisting that impulse sometimes means fighting our own evolutionary imperatives. And, as we are now too well aware, unscrupulous leaders will not hesitate to create, manipulate, and perpetuate fear in order to activate that instinct and keep their followers at heel.


Thus, some people who've never been natural followers sometimes get caught up in authoritarian religion and politics in the wake of deep personal losses: unemployment, divorce, a death in the family, arrest, and so on. Entire populations (or, at least, a good fraction of the whole) can take the same path when faced with large collective losses. Kevin Phillips, in American Theocracy,, points out that the South's authoritarian streak (which always ran deep) grew rigid and hard after their loss in the Civil War. Karen Armstrong, in The Battle for God, points out that fundamentalist movements commonly begin in communities that perceive themselves under economic, political, or geographic siege. The way America came together under FDR after Pearl Harbor is the stuff of national legend. And the Bush Administration has exploited this tendency shamelessly in the wake of 9/11.


Cut loose from our moorings, in over our heads, we all look for something solid to hold onto. No matter how strong we are, we've all got areas where we are brittle and vulnerable. It's hard for any of us to say for sure that we'd walk away from an authoritarian leader who promised us precisely the right kind of salvation in precisely the wrong moment. This is something to bear in mind whenever we deal with authoritarian followers: they have simply responded to an impulse that exists -- at least to some degree -- in all of us.


Pushed To The Wall

For the past five years, I've been a member of a large and busy online community of former fundamentalists. Through years of discussion, we've learned a lot from each other about how and why people become fundamentalists -- and also how and why they find themselves inspired to leave authoritarian religion behind. We've noticed patterns in the various ways people are seduced into fundamentalism; and also a predictable progression in the steps they go through in the agonizing months and years after enlightenment dawns. We've also discovered that we seem to fall into readily-identifiable subgroups, and that each of these subgroups wanders down somewhat different paths and uses different techniques as they approach the wall, determinedly hoist themselves over it, and then set about coming to terms with life here on the reality-based side.


Two or three times a week, we find new members on our doorstep. Safe in the anonymity of the Internet (and often under cover of night -- these missives are typically time-stamped in the wee hours of the morning, usually posted furtively after weeks or months of lurking) we're often the first people they've ever whispered their doubts out loud to. Their introductions are often heartbreakingly miserable: "I can't believe this any more -- but my husband will leave me if he knows." "My whole family is fundie. I can't tell my parents I've stopped going to church -- it will kill them if they ever find out." "I'm a deacon at my church. If I start asking these questions, I'll lose my whole community."


These people know that the tiny flicker of enlightenment kindling in their minds is about to set their entire lives ablaze. And yet -- with a courage that I always find astonishing -- almost all of them forge ahead anyway. Some race for the wall. Others pace back and forth for months, planning their escape. A few disappear for a while, but return again a year later, having put their lives in order and ready to go at last.


We must never, ever underestimate what it costs these people to let go of the beliefs that have sustained them. Leaving the safety of the authoritarian belief system is a three-to-five year process. Externally, it always means the loss of your community; and often the loss of jobs, homes, marriages, and blood relatives as well. Internally, it requires sifting through every assumption you've ever made about how the world works, and your place within it; and demands that you finally take the very emotional and intellectual risks that the entire edifice was designed to protect you from. You have to learn, maybe for the first time, to face down fear and live with ambiguity. On the scale of relative trauma, it's right up there with a divorce after a long marriage; and it requires about the same amount and kind of grieving.


Over the years, I've talked to scores of former fundies about the moment that the light first sparked. Through their stories, I've discerned a few patterns, most of which map very neatly onto John Dean's list of traits for authoritarian followers. What follows is far from science; it's more akin to clinical experience, or a scouting report from the front on battlefield conditions. The degree to which any of this might apply to non-religious authoritarians is open for discussion -- though my reading of Altemeyer's work is that all forms of authoritarianism come from the same deep character traits, and so it seems sensible that politically-based authoritarian followers might undergo a recognizably similar process. It's a topic for discussion, anyway.


Depending on why they became fundie in the first place, the moment of exodus generally dawns in one of the following ways:


1. Betrayal by Authority

Dean notes that authoritarian followers voluntarily choose their leaders, usually on the basis of how strongly those leaders support the follower's belief system. Cultural or political leaders who don't support the belief system (for example, federal court judges, scientists, progressive celebrities) are seen as illegitimate authorities, and become targets of followers' aggression.


We've all come up against these people, and have been totally confounded with their "my leader can do no wrong" attitude. They believe outrageous lies, and forgive all manner of sins. Democratic strategists keep trying to run campaigns that will reach these people on the basis of evidence and fact -- and are perplexed to find their attempts at education totally rebuffed. George Bush may have lied us into a war, wrecked our economy, saddled our great-grandchildren with debt, savaged the poor, and alienated the entire world; but he is Our Leader, and we will always take his word over anyone else's. We do not accept you as a legitimate authority. We don't care what you have to say, because you have no standing at all in our little world.


Mere political or cultural betrayal, no matter how destructive, does not cut through this piece of the wall. The guilt-evaporation process applies to both followers and leaders: you must forgive all wrongs committed by someone inside the fold. Our leader didn't lie; he was misunderstood, his words distorted by our enemies. Besides, he would never lie to us. Besides, he is just following orders -- or God's will, which is beyond our understanding. Besides, our own forgiveness depends on our ability to forgive, and so we will -- never mind the contradictions.


And yet, even so: There is one -- and only one -- sin so heinous that it cannot be rationalized away by the authoritarian thought process. It is this: the leader's main job is to protect his abused and terrified horde from personal harm (or, for that matter, any sudden negative change to their immediate status quo). A leader who wantonly allows one of his followers to intimately experience such harm breaks that contract. It is in that moment of betrayal that some followers come to their senses, and start looking for a reckoning.


It's important to note: the betrayal must be an intensely personal breach that has a deep, immediate, life-changing impact on the individual follower. Fundies don't think in abstracts. Big national debts, epic political prevarications, and other people's suffering (even on a global scale) do not impress them. But there are plenty of authoritarian parents across the country who proudly sent a son or daughter off to war -- and later received that precious child home under cover of darkness, in a wooden box, with minimal explanation. That's the kind of personal and profound loss I'm talking about. For many of these patriotic parents, it was also the searing moment of deep betrayal that broke the spell and shoved them off in the direction of the Wall.


Among fundies, the most common perpetrators of these betrayals are parents -- particularly fathers -- and pastors. As the most intimate authorities in their followers' lives, they're at close enough range to inflict the kind of high-impact personal damage that's necessary to create the first crack. Many of the ex-fundies I know made their break in the aftermath of sexual abuse, ruinous financial treachery, public humiliation, or power grabs that threatened their marriages or children. They saw, in devastatingly vivid color, what their leaders were capable of. Their endless loyalty was shattered, because they realized it was not being returned in kind.


Such betrayals break through because they offend several of the follower characteristics Dean lists. The betrayed follower is no longer bound to submit to or give loyalty to an unworthy authority. Nor are they bound by the rules, because the authority charged with enforcing them has broken them. (While this was forgiveable in the abstract, in this case the consequences are too personal and acute to ignore.) They are brought face-to-face with the contradictions and hypocrisies in a shocking and unforgiveable way. Having felt the sting of the leader's aggression, they may realize the true cost of aggressively defending that leader -- and thus become more acutely sensitized to intolerance, bullying, and mean-spiritedness.


Perhaps most importantly: having their own boundaries so heinously violated makes them suddenly aware (as most authoritarian followers are not) that they have their own legitimate emotional, physical, and social needs; and that they deserve to have those needs respected and met. Once that self-awareness is awakened, the soon-to-be-ex fundie can be seen making a beeline for the Wall.


2. Permission from Authority

A cute twist on the above scenario is the fundie who gets subtle or overt permission from an established authority to go over to the Wall and push on it.


These authorities aren't easy to come by. Everything in authoritarian society is set up to identify heretics and preachers of false doctrine, and eject them forcefully from the community immediately upon discovery. Still, the occasional and quiet non-authoritarian can be found in positions of leadership within a fundamentalist community -- for example, young pastors from more liberal seminaries, Christian counselors with some secular psychological training, missionaries who have returned from exotic far-away places, or church-affiliated social services people whose sense of compassion has overwhelmed their fear of church leadership.


Because these people are operating under color of Established Authority, if they suggest that it's OK to ask questions, the followers will accept that as valid permission to open their minds. One recovering fundie recalls a fateful meeting with a Christian counselor: "He told me that fundamentalist Christianity was toxic," she said. Her exodus began with that brief comment. Later, she remembers finding still more affirmation: "I told my Christian college professor that I no longer believed that there was one way to spirituality, and was now pro-choice. He applauded me." Since she accepted both these men as valid religious authorities, their encouragement gave her the freedom to approach the Wall with a clearer conscience.


Such authorities are rare birds -- both because fundies don't breed many of them, and also because they quickly banish the ones they discover in their midst. But for the brief season they are allowed to operate, they can plant the seeds of open-mindedness in hundreds of willing followers, facilitate education, bypass zealotry and dogma, promote open examination of hypocrisy and contradiction, and enhance self-awareness.


3. Life Gets Bigger

Fundamentalist parents work overtime to keep their children from "the things of this world." Your average Yuppie helicopter parent is a slacker compared to these people, who obsessively vet all incoming media, homeschool, seek out Christian colleges, chaperone all "courtship" activities, and otherwise ensure that their children receive no information about the world that doesn't support their belief system.


This willful narrow-mindedness continues on into adulthood and right through life. Church members spy on each other with the enthusiasm of Stasi informants; deacons call miscreants in for disciplinary meetings to keep the faithful on the path of righteousness. One wonders if Jesus intended them to take the metaphor of shepherd and sheep quite so literally, but they do.


This anti-intellectualism appears on Dean's list in several guises: Moderate to little education, narrow-minded, intolerant, dogmatic, uncritical, inconsistent and contradictory, prone to panic. They are precisely what you'd expect from people who've had minimal exposure to the world, and hence lack the basic skills -- including flexibility, risk-taking, and spontaneity -- that most of us rely on to deal with it.


Still, the world is big and insistent, and sometimes it comes flooding through that wall of denial despite their best efforts. The most common culprit is education -- either formal, or informal -- that allows the follower to see with clarity that the outside world is not nearly so evil as they've been told. This education can take many forms -- some obvious, some not so obvious.


Many, if not most, fundie youth who end up at secular colleges soon find themselves enjoying the view from the top of the wall. This happens so reliably that most fundie parents regard secular universities as the worst nightmare this side of hell. They know they're not gonna keep 'em down on the farm once they've seen State U.


Travel, especially outside the country, is another major eye-opener for people who have long believed that their way is the only way. We're not talking bus tours and chain hotels here -- it needs to be a style of travel that demands plenty of individual interaction with local people and their language, customs, and culture. Homestays, where the connections can become personal, are particularly potent -- which is why missionaries-gone-native feature largely on the list of permissive authorities discussed above.


Authoritarian upbringing is not designed to foster a sense of personal competence. But any kind of training that builds a creative skill -- especially one that will be valued by the secular world -- will tend to increase the follower's sense of self-worth. Even if s/he gives all the glory to God (an expected modesty among fundies), mastering one's craft imparts a sureness and independence of mind that reduces susceptibility to authoritarian logic. Knowing your stuff cold, even in one limited area, imparts confidence to call people on their bullshit in other areas.


Events that bring fundies together, one-to-one, with people from other groups in common cause can be very effective at lowering defenses. For one woman in our group, the door through the wall was an innocuous Christian women's sewing circle. She writes:


"I got involved in a small community volunteer sewing group and was around some women from different churches…It started to open my eyes to the possibility that other people might have a good thing going too…Basically it was that they were loving, caring women just wanting to reach out and touch someone's life with their sewing ability, and they weren't some evil people on the dark side like my pastor tried to tell us in sermons about those outside our church and belief system.


"When my husband wanted me to stop going because someone had seen me going to this interfaith ministry center which they graciously let us use for the sewing meetings and the pastor thought it would look bad for me to be seen there, I realized how foolish that was. Weren't we just trying to help others regardless of our religious beliefs? I also had a good talk with the woman in charge of the group and she seemed understanding about my concerns and assured me that we weren't there to discuss religious topics so it shouldn't be a problem."



Political action plays a role here, too. On the rare occasions that authoritarians make common cause with more progressive folk -- usually on non-partisan local issues such as land use and utility management (but not schools!) -- there's an opportunity to find common ground and build a foundation of trust on it.


Placing authoritarian followers in relaxing, non-threatening situations where they can safely explore the common ground they share with others can be a liberalizing experience. Most fundies are taught to keep outsiders at a discreet arm's length. They generally won't accept invitations to visit non-believers in their homes, unless they're intending to proslytize. But meetings on neutral ground, based around shared concerns and values, can lead to individual friendships that will in time increase their general trust in outsiders -- and, more importantly, put the lie to their leaders' insistence that reality-based folk are pure evil.


For some in our group, the first glimmer was the stunning realization that "the Jews" included "my friend Rachel, who I met at the gym". "The gays" included "my kids' dance teacher". "The French" included "that darling family we met on the train last summer". And those "frivolous" women who have abortions included "my neighbor, who already had four kids and a husband with no job". Through repeated exposure, these followers' superb sense of loyalty attaches itself to someone outside the circle -- and, in very short order, their awareness of the smallness of that circle becomes too stifling to endure.


4. Resolution of Fear

Once in a while, our little cyber-halfway house takes in a befuddled spouse whose wife or husband -- heretofore a sane, decent, and resolutely secular individual -- has suddenly, without warning and for no apparent reason, pitched themselves headlong off the religious deep end. These partners are usually distraught: there's a familiar body in the house, but the person who once inhabited it has vanished. In their place is someone they have never met; can no longer have a rational conversation with; and can't imagine spending another week with, let alone their entire lives. (Too often, these terrified spouses are also afraid for their children -- and watching their retirement funds disappear into church coffers at an astonishing rate.) They're looking for advice -- anything that will bring back the beloved person they knew.


On further questioning, it almost always comes out that the wayward spouse has recently (usually within the past year) sustained a loss or trauma that simply overwhelmed every resource s/he had. Afraid, alone, and often clinically depressed, this poor soul was a sitting duck for the depredations of an authoritarian religious leader.


This is hardly news, of course: it's also why cult leaders prey on college students, travelers, the inner-city poor, single mothers, prisoners, and other people under stress and cut off from their support systems. What's important to note is that this also works (at least sometimes) in reverse: identifying and addressing the stress and restoring the support system can create the conditions for the broken self to heal, and eventually perhaps usher the return to the reality-based world.


We tell the grieving spouse to identify the initial source of the loss, and do whatever it takes to help their partner address it as directly and concretely as possible. We stress that this is a five-alarm family emergency (though they usually already know that, it helps to have it affirmed) and getting appropriate help for the underlying issue needs to be the first priority -- whether this involves professional counseling, medical treatment, or moving the spouse to another town, far away from the leader and church. We stress the importance of family and social support networks, and of taking steps to protect themselves legally in case the worst should happen.


We give this advice because we've seen it work among ourselves. Most of the adult-onset fundies in our group joined up because they were in a similar place of sheer overwhelm. Leaving was not even possible until this sense of panic and loss subsided, and the sense of personal competence (already higher in people who weren't raised in authoritarian homes) began to reassert itself. When it did, those people found that it got easier to question authority, and eventually to contemplate moving on.


And it's an ongoing battle, at least for a while. That three-to-five year transitional period is full of stress-inducing unknowns; unsurprisingly, recent ex-fundies are strongly tempted to deal with unfamiliar situations by reaching for the old familiar tools. In those cases, too, we need to look for the underlying causes of our distress, and find ways to address the fear directly rather than resort to the old superstitions. Anything that ratchets down the fear factor makes it harder for authoritarianism to get and keep its hold on people's minds.


5. Turning Points

Ironically, though, even though stress is a path into authoritarianism, it can also provide a path out. A number of our members decided to make their break during these same kinds of traumatic stress events -- especially major life transitions. The death of a parent, a move, a job loss, marriage, parenthood, mid-life crises, and widowhood have all come up as key exit points for people who left. Typically, these situations dramatically illuminated the ways in which the predictable authoritarian answers were no longer working for them. They needed more help than their leaders could offer, and decided it was time to look outside the wall for it. Or a natural breaking point occurred -- their old life was past, and they quietly resolved to reach out and see what a new one might hold. In major life transitions, everything is up for grabs -- even for authoritarian followers.


Next Steps

This report from the front is admittedly incomplete: I'm looking forward to hearing from readers about various other conditions that led them (or people they knew) towards daylight. We cannot create truly effective solutions to the problem of authoritarianism until we understand not only the situation that drive followers into that system, but also the situations that open the door for them to leave it.


In my next post, coming Monday or Tuesday, I'll build on the above observations (and any others that crop up in the comments) to draft a rough outline of specific approaches we might use to begin disarming and constructively engaging the authoritarians in our personal and political lives.


Thanks again to everybody who has posted such terrific comments. Keep 'em coming: this is a mutual-education effort, the beginning of a dialogue I hope we'll all keep having until we collectively get this figured out.


Both of these posts were from Orcinus.

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I definitely agree with Sara Robinson. A piece on the op-ed page of the NY Times today made a similar point but with different twist, i.e. that there is something distinctively Republican about the depradation going on in Washington. I.e. it's not simply that all politicians are crooks; the Republican establishment uses bigotry and authoritarianism in a special way to get average people to buy into its program of enriching the very top wealthy people by making the average feel good in the midst of their fears.


Sara Robinson, are you a member of Ex-Chr? The August 12 article sounds as though it refers to our web community here.

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Thanks for posting these articles.


I'm currently reading John Dean's new book, Conservatives Without Conscience, and in it he also writes about the rise of authoritarianism in America. It's a good read. Here's a link to an interview Dean did on an NPR affiliate last month (http://www.knpr.org/son/archive/detail.cfm?programid=829 - scroll down the page until you see where it says Without Conscience?) in which he talks about authoritarian personalities - worth a listen.

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This goes along with everything that I've been thinking for a long time. Could somebody post a link to Sara Robinson's blog? I think I'd like to read more of her stuff.

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Very good analysis. I eagerly await the third post.

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Yes, good stuff.


Sara is a long-time member of a Yahoo, exit fundysm group I belong too. She has a lot of good things to say!

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Somewhat good posts from this lady. Let me be the devil's advocate here though and complain about a couple of points. :grin:


These are usually accompanied by other unsavory traits, many of which render them patently unsuitable for leadership roles in a democracy:


Typically men


Since WHEN is being a MAN an "unsavory trait"? :Hmm:


May or may not be religious


How is this specifically a trait of a High-SDO personality? This is a trait of EVERY PERSON IN THE WORLD!!! You either ARE or ARE NOT religious! How about getting over the fear of reprisal and just say "IS MOST PROBABLY RELIGIOUS!" :HaHa:


Their memory for even minor transgressions is nothing short of elephantine (as Bill Clinton knows all too well)


Come on. Bill's transgressions were FAR from minor. The man was the president of the United States, not Seymore Butts. As such, he is held to a much higher standard than the average citizen. And if you're honest, the things he did were even unacceptable in the eyes of most average citizens for an average citizen. If you're married, you don't have affairs with every woman who wants to get on your tip. You get a divorce and then have your fun.


The way America came together under FDR after Pearl Harbor is the stuff of national legend. And the Bush Administration has exploited this tendency shamelessly in the wake of 9/11.


So the way the FDR administration exploited tragedy is national legend, but the way the current administration exploited it is shameless? I'm no Bush lover and I'll be glad to see him go, but this is so much radical left-wing tripe. It's simply the pot calling the kettle black and nothing more. Do we need to stoop to the level of debasement of the opposition? What in the HELL does the handling of the aftermath of 9/11 by Bush's administration have to do with ANYTHING that's being discussed? It would have been sufficient to comment on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. reaction and FDR and leave it at that. An attack on the current administration, despite how pathetic it is, is absolutely unnecessary.


I went to the book store today to look for Conservatives Without Conscience, but when I found it, skimmed it and realized it was just a lot of political hot air, I passed. I had hoped for a little more denigration of religion and a little less politics. So instead, I picked up The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. Can't wait to go home so I can start reading. :grin:

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5. Turning Points

Ironically, though, even though stress is a path into authoritarianism, it can also provide a path out. A number of our members decided to make their break during these same kinds of traumatic stress events -- especially major life transitions. The death of a parent, a move, a job loss, marriage, parenthood, mid-life crises, and widowhood have all come up as key exit points for people who left.


Incidently, if you check the Ex-C age distribution poll you can clearly see an significant higher proportion of people in the college student or early forties bracket. Or maybe that's just due to the generation effect... anyway, that was a very interesting article, added to my bookmarks. :)

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WRT to the high-SDO personality trait: May or may not be religious:


First, conservatives, particularly controling conservatives, are usually associated with being religious in the US, if nothing else, it could cut down on the false negative rate of identification of these individuals (at least wrt interpersonal contact) in a social setting to realize that they are not necessarially religious.


Second, religion is more likely a matter of convenience to them, or at least should be, based on the rest of the profile. I guess how religious they are depends on who is polishing their knob at the moment.


WRT men:


Not sure why this is in there. I have met my share of High-SDO females. Culturally, in the US, though, it may be easier for men to be more obvious about it. If there is a high-nature component, then gender may also have a good deal to do with the development of this kind of personality (and may with any in general), more research would have to be done, though.

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WRT men:


Not sure why this is in there. I have met my share of High-SDO females. Culturally, in the US, though, it may be easier for men to be more obvious about it. If there is a high-nature component, then gender may also have a good deal to do with the development of this kind of personality (and may with any in general), more research would have to be done, though.


Yeah, it was really just a joke because according to this list, being a man is an UNSAVORY trait. :grin:

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I think Sams books are good too.....

but what I found interesting about the whole deal........as seen also here...http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2f1Idgh5KUw

is that the 'hot air' political commentator's have been saying that stuff of nearly 50 fucking years..!!! Longer...

That's a long time to be aware of this stuff.....as well as all the social research over that period.


As far as Sara's post goes......I agree, she does sound a tad 'sexist'...I don't know whether she is agreeing with the 'old' guy who has written this stuff...but she certainly doesn't question it.

or mentions that patriachy could be behind the method of 'leadership....and that males are also trapped in that system.


Gawd forbid...that a female 'cun't' be a 'leader' is beyond me...? :HaHa: Pun intended!


I wouldnt' like to assume that for a 'women' to succeed as an 'authority' she must assume 'male' traits. That's fuckedup thinking.


Yeah..its a good ol' topic but its been around for years & years.... social science is only now being 'more' recognised as a field of knowledge that has something good to say.


but then i'm biased.

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More authoritarian???? :Doh::lmao:


Western civilization has become a bunch of pussyfooting, politically correct, anti-individual bureaucrats who go screaming to Momma Government at being the slightest bit offended--which, yes, in a way is being authoritarian, taken in a completely different sense that was intended.


Translate homophobia literally (sigh) [Latin homo (man) + (Latin) -phobia (fear, aversion)], and I think you'll see what's really going on here.


(Does war whoop, dances around bonfire, makes conquest--erects totem at dawn)









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Part III can be summed up in this paragraph: "The experiences described by people who've left authoritarian religious systems point to possible ways we might convince individual authoritarians (of whatever type) to at least take a peek over onto our side of the Wall. This installment talks about some of the ways we can create the conditions that will encourage individual authoritarians to come take that look."


Cracks in the Wall, Part III: Escape Ladders

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


by Sara Robinson



Assorted polls -- usually focused around questions such as belief in evolution, strict opposition to all abortion, self-identified fundamentalism, voting patterns, and so on -- have in recent years put the number of hard-core religious and political conservatives at somewhere between a quarter and a third of American voters. Wherever the number actually falls within that range, there are certainly enough of them in the voting base to dominate our political landscape. (To put it in a historical perspective: in 1932, when Hitler was elected president of the Reichstag, the Nazi party was consistently garnering 31 to 38 percent of the German vote. That's all it takes for an organized, passionate group to take control of a country.)


I've looked in vain for hard evidence that these percentages have grown or declined in the past 30 years (and would appreciate a pointer to this kind of data if it exists). However, there's no doubt that this group carries far more clout when it comes to defining our politics, our economics, and our culture than they've had at any point in the past 80 years. Good political organizing, coupled with the fulsome noise of the Mighty Wurlitzer, have indeed added former liberal constituencies -- blue-collar workers, Catholics, and so on -- to the Republican column. Many of these former moderates were drawn into the far-right fold by targeted political messaging that played up their fears and activated (to at least some degree) the fear-and-submission response characteristic of right-wing followers, as well as expansion-oriented conservative religious groups that replaced fraying community, family, social, recreational, and personal support networks.


Which is not to say that there weren't very real reasons for increasing levels of social fear. In Wealth and Democracy, Kevin Phillips laid out the economic fact that American middle-class prosperity peaked in 1972, and has been in decline ever since. For all but the richest, the dollars (in real terms) are fewer, and they don't go as far as they used to. In the late 70s, decades of misbegotten foreign policy in the Middle East came home to roost, shattering a sense of American invulnerability that had already been severely dented by Vietnam. By the early 80s, Reagan's promise of "morning in America" sounded forced -- but a disheartened and newly fearful middle class was eager to believe. 9/11, of course, put whole new factions of the country into a fear-induced malaise. Republican messaging since the mid-70s has kept all these threats uppermost in the American imagination, creating a climate of fear that supports authoritarian thinking even in people who should know better. And, as mentioned above, Republican hostility to any kind of investment in social capital has left these people a) enraged at the foreclosure of opportunities their parents took for granted and B) left with nowhere to turn but churches.


All these issues, and others, provided ripe openings for the disciplined organizers of the authoritarian right. It's like they've slapped stick-on hot buttons onto all of us -- and now keep pushing them for all they were worth to activate a Pavolvian fear response. ("Abortion! Faggots! Affirmative action! Brown people! Flag-burning!") There has always been -- and probably always will be -- a hard core of natural authoritarian leaders and followers in any society. But their numbers have almost certainly been swelled (my non-supportable guess is that it's been at least doubled) by tens of millions of "soft-core" authoritarians who've been shanghaied onto the authoritarian bandwagon over the past three decades.


John Dean tells us that we are not likely to change the hearts of the authoritarian leaders. And their hardest-core followers may be lost causes, too: most of them grew up with that model, have lived their entire lives by it, and in many cases have been so damaged by it that getting them to accept any other way of viewing reality is likely to be futile.


However, those two factions probably don't comprise even half of the current horde that's commandeered our country. And the rest -- the "normal folks" who got swept up in the right-wing hysteria of the past three decades -- have already demonstrated a certain fluidity: many of them have crossed the Wall once already and have at least some memory of life on the other side. Not all of them will return, of course (though it's always surprising to see which ones decide to make the jump) -- but bringing a good slice of this group back may not be as hard as we've been prone to think.


The experiences described by people who've left authoritarian religious systems point to possible ways we might convince individual authoritarians (of whatever type) to at least take a peek over onto our side of the Wall. This installment talks about some of the ways we can create the conditions that will encourage individual authoritarians to come take that look.


Save Your Breath

The angry hard-core authoritarians -- especially those raised in acutely authoritarian homes, and those with a long history of active participation in authoritarian movements -- are not likely to be interested in reality-based thinking. And people with a long history of addiction may actually do better in the highly-structured, rule-bound culture of authoritarianism -- at least, until they do the hard work of resolving their core issues. Remember the old caution about pigs and singing lessons, and be realistic about your limits.


On the other hand (and as a gross generalization), there are a few groups of people who are more likely to be open to change. Women, whose worldview tends to be more nurturant and relationship-oriented, may be more open than men to liberal points of view. Even those who've spent their entire lives in authoritarian systems get frustrated at times with their lack of power and privilege, the unfairness of the men who outrank them, and the overt bullying. In addition, women are generally less conforming than men, and more likely to reject one-size-fits-all moral systems in favor of ones they see as more just and fair.


People who are under stress without a support system -- college students, single mothers, travelers, prisoners -- are often open to anyone offering ideas for how they can increase their sense of security and connectedness. While this drives many of them straight into waiting authoritarian arms, it could just as easily become an opportunity for them to learn to trust their own inner authority instead.


Those undergoing major life transitions may be similarly receptive: the newly married, new parents, the recently relocated, career or job-changers, the newly divorced or widowed, people who've just lost a parent, and the recently retired are all in positions where the old answers are up for questioning, and the prospect of the larger world outside the wall may look very welcoming. And, of course, people undergoing major self re-creations -- emerging gays and lesbians, new immigrants, and those in the midst of large-scale socioeconomic change -- are likely to be very open to new way of strengthening their confidence, and learning to navigate their brave new worlds.


Fear Is The Mind-Killer

In talking to right-wing authoritarians (RWAs) -- in any situation -- the first and greatest challenge is to reduce the level of fear and increase the level of trust. They cannot hear or see you at all until this happens. A few thoughts on how to accomplish this:


Stand on Common Ground -- Keep the conversation focused on the things you agree on. You may find more in common than you might have imagined, especially with "classical conservatives" who are outraged by the Bush Administration's spending, foreign policy blunders, and neglect of important domestic infrastructure. (Small businesspeople, in particular, can give you a real earful.) Move away from potential areas of conflict as soon as they appear, or state your position in a non-threatening way and then move right back to the safe zone. Remember, you're trying to reduce fear, not arouse it.


Avoid Ambiguity (yourself) -- The liberal penchant for seeing life in infinite shades of grey annoys the hell out of conservatives in general, and authoritarians most particularly. It's the main reason they think we don't stand for anything. "It depends" is not an answer they find comfort in, and long explanations are seen as obfuscation, not clarification.


Yet there are things we do believe in -- fervently, and with great passion. We should not be afraid to state our moral principles, especially the ones that can be fairly articulated in near-absolutes and with a certain amount of zeal. They're impressed by zeal, and are often surprised to find that we have our own share of it. If you can unambiguously and firmly state a principle that you share with the RWA (marriage, family, and community are great topics for this kind of commonality), you'll find them warming to you quickly.


Affirm Ambiguity (in them) -- Once in a while, you'll hear the RWA start to give a long, hairsplitting answer (for, in sooth, many of their odder theories of the world have no short explanation). In these moments, they're embracing exactly the kind of ambiguity they usually go way out of their way to avoid (and criticize in us). When this happens, note it: "You're so right. This world is a pretty complicated place, and the answers aren't always easy, are they?" The key here is to create a comfortable, easy, give-and-take atmosphere in which reasonable people can reason together -- and remain friends even if they don't agree on the ultimate answer.


This isn't an experience that most RWAs are used to having, even within their own precincts. Having it with someone who can be fairly classified as the enemy can be a life-changing experience, for reasons I'll discuss further below.


Appeal to "Legitimate" Authorities -- When citing authorities, try wherever possible to refer to authorities they recognize as legitimate. RWAs have far more respect for established authority than liberals do; but, at the same time, they usually don't accept our reality-based authorities (and often hold them in total contempt). The only way around this is to support your points by finding and citing authorities they accept.


You need to get creative here. An RWA may not regard Al Gore as an acceptable authority on the environment; but Richard Nixon (who passed the Endangered Species Act, and founded the EPA) might well be.


If you must quote an authority they're likely to regard as dubious, do what you can to establish that sources' bona fides. "Did you know that Bill Moyers is a Southern Baptist minister?" It won't always work among the harder core -- Moyers isn't in the SBC now, and therefore has forfeited any authority he may have had -- but for the softer core, this at least puts a little grease on the ball. If you can't find a direct source they'll respect, at least try to find a source that's been vetted and given the Seal of Approval by someone they do trust.


For religious RWAs, there's nothing more authoritative than God's own literal words. Biblical literalists are often astonished when a knowledgeable liberal starts quoting unfamiliar passages back at them. While they've usually been inoculated by their preachers with "correct" interpretations of difficult passages, the fundie reading of the Bible is highly selective, and it's not hard to find passages they're completely unaware of. They may not like it -- but they've got no choice but to accept it, at least until their pastor can "set them straight" again. If the pastor can't do that (they're only trained to respond to the most common objections), then you've undermined the pastor's omniscient authority, and set up a pattern of questioning that may not stop until the RWA is safely on the other side of the wall. (A large subset of ex-fundamentalists started their exodus just this way.)


Keep it Literal

As I mentioned in the last post, fundies (and most other flavors of authoritarian) do not think in abstracts. While they can usually summon empathy for people in their own belief communities -- people who are very much like them -- they have a very hard time imagining themselves in the shoes of people who are different. And the greater the difference, the harder this is.


This inability to empathize makes it very easy to demonize outsiders, accuse them of all manner of vile motives and outrageous actions, and eventually move toward dehumanization and eliminationism. In turn, this can come back around to feed a very active persecution complex. The fear that results from this failure of imagination is the driving force that keeps them huddled behind that Wall.


This is why it's important to keep any critiques of ideas and people as personal and literal as possible. You need to draw a clear, bright line connecting the negative personal harm that particular RWA has sustained as the direct result of a policy, and the specific leader who implemented it. As we know all too well, there's no limit to the amount or degree of abuse a determined RWA will forgive; but making people see the concrete damage their leaders are inflicting on them personally may in time re-direct their sense of persecution, and undermine the legitimacy of their accepted authorities.


Literal, personal critiques work in a wide range of situations. They're useful in getting across the effects of bad policy, the policies of bad leaders, hypocrisies and contradictions, and inaccurate information. Any time you can frame a point in terms of, "This person/policy/action has harmed you , this much and in this way," you're more likely (though still far from certain) to get your point across. If you can't say, with proof, that "Bush did this to you, you probably won't get through.


It's important to note that positive attributes can also be presented this way. "We should do this because it's fair to minorities" cuts no ice at all with RWAs. "We should do this because it's in your own self-interest" will get you a lot farther. And don’t neglect to spell out every possible benefit, as clearly and specifically as possible. Don't assume they'll make the logical leaps to see those on their own. These are very concrete thinkers: leaping isn't their strong suit.


Sometimes, keeping communication personal and literal can even short-circuit the guilt-evaporation mechanisms Dean discussed. God may have forgiven you, or you may have just been doing what you were told and following the rules, or the person who harmed you may merit forgiveness -- but the fact remains that your actions (or a third party's) have demonstrably harmed someone who matters to you, or created problems in your own life. Absolution may clear your conscience, but it doesn't clean up the mess. Associate personal actions with their direct results, and you may stand a chance of making them realize the full brunt of their behavior.


Be an Enlightened Witness

The great psychologist Alice Miller, who did seminal work on the role child abuse plays in shaping authoritarian personalities, often discussed the importance an "enlightened witness" plays in preventing an abused child from becoming an amoral or abusive adult:



"When I began to illustrate my thesis by drawing on the examples of Hitler and Stalin, when I tried to expose the social consequences of child abuse, I encountered fierce resistance. Repeatedly I was told, "I, too, was a battered child, but that didn't make me a criminal." When I asked for details about their childhood, I was always told of a person who loved them, but was unable to protect them. Yet through his or her presence, this person gave them a notion of trust, and of love.

"I call these persons helping witnesses. Dostoyevsky, for instance, had a brutal father, but a loving mother. She wasn't strong enough to protect him from his father, but she gave him a powerful conception of love, without which his novels would have been unimaginable. Many have also been lucky enough to find enlightened and courageous witnesses, people who helped them to recognize the injustices they suffered, to give vent to their feelings of rage, pain and indignation at what happened to them. These persons never became criminals."



The enlightened witness not only affirms the child's better character; s/he also models a higher standard of behavior. Dave has often discussed the importance of providing a clear, positive standard of expected community behavior as the first response to hate crime or petty terrorism. The offenders must understand, in no uncertain terms, that they are not expressing the will of the community, and that their actions are considered unacceptable. As far back as Stanley Milgram's study, it's been understood that people are far less likely to misbehave -- and far more likely to rise to the expected standard -- if someone else is there upholding a higher moral standard.


RWAs are sadly accustomed to subordinating their own needs to those of their superiors; in fact, one of the struggles we often see in recovering fundies is a complete inability to even acknowledge that they have needs of their own, let alone identify them, let alone act to meet them. They simply don't know where to begin. Also, because their own authorities use guilt and shame to control them, they've seldom been allowed to see themselves as truly good and moral people.


Giving an RWA permission to recognize, give voice to, and take action to satisfy his or her own needs is a powerful act. In affirming that they are not just allowed, but entitled (in the name of fairness) to feel their own emotions, own their own goodness, indulge a few harmless appetites, enjoy themselves, assert their boundaries, or stand up and say "no" to overweening authority, you are being an enlightened witness to their true self -- something many of them have seldom if ever had. In the process, you are also giving them a direct view over the wall. Often, it's a view that they never forget, and will keep coming back to until they're persuaded to go over it for good.


This admittedly requires a strong belief in our own best liberal ideals -- most particularly, in meeting with people where they are, and dealing with them as they are. If they believe that their goodness and strength flow from the grace of God, don't quibble. At least they're focusing on their strength, instead of leading with their fear! They have a right to whatever moral context they're comfortable with. It's the core of their moral reasoning, and often of their identity.


Focus on the Family

We need to be having much more open conversations with the RWA community about our views on family. Weird as it sounds, they honestly, literally believe that we don't care about families, don't really have them ourselves, and are out to destroy theirs as well. I know, it sounds ridiculous -- but it's true.


The best writing on this I've seen comes from Unitarian writer Doug Muder, who has taken George Lakoff's model of "strict father" versus "nurturant parent" politics one step further, and uses it to explain precisely how the right wing came to believe this preposterous notion. (Hat tip to the estimable Trefayne.) Muder asserts that, while Lakoff's right that family models are the right frame, the real dialectic is between families of "inherited obligation" versus those based on "negotiated commitment". Go read the article, then come on back. We'll be here.


Muder's thesis highlights very specifically where and why our divergent models of family lead to disagreements on everything from abortion to homosexuality (and also answers our exasperated questions about how these particular issues became such hot political potatoes in the first place). At the same time, it also points up the places in which we have strong commonalities with RWAs that they don't typically see. For example, authoritarians typically don't believe that those of us who assemble families of choice feels as committed to those families as those who are bound to their kin by blood ties and birth. And they tend to view "family" as a stage script, with set roles for mothers and fathers and grandparents. If you don't have people filling all the roles, it is, by definition, not a family.


Being aware of the way RWAs model and value their families allows us to present our own family values in ways that they can begin to understand. There is a lot of common ground here, most of which they're apparently totally unaware of. It also gives us a clear view of the ways in which progressive "negotiated commitment" families can indeed be seen as a threat to their worldview. With this understanding, we can begin to acknowledge those fears directly, address them head-on, and perhaps begin to defuse one of their biggest sources of fear and mistrust.


Make the World Bigger

Anything that gets RWAs interacting with people outside their narrow realm is a good thing. Travel, formal or informal education, community interactions with unknown and feared groups (especially those based on shared concerns, interests, and values), and activities that increase a sense of personal achievement and competence all enhance their ability to trust themselves and others, without having to rely on the rules of their system to maintain their fragile sense of safety.


If we're serious about reducing the number of authoritarians in our midst, we need to greatly increase the number and frequency of our engagements with them. As noted in Part II, are very literal thinkers, and capable of tremendous loyalty. An RWA who knows just one gay person, up close and personal, often finds that their sense of loyalty will force them to resist their leaders' generalizations of gays as evil. The more contact they have with the demonized Other, the greater the cognitive dissonance grows, and the more their accepted authorities are discredited.


We need to actively start creating ways for the authoritarians in our midst to make contact with people outside of their cocooned communities. The means and methods are many; but this is perhaps the most important work we can do. Start by committing random acts of kindness (just to mess with their assumptions, if nothing else). They need to see us as trustworthy allies, valuable contributors to their own well-being -- and perhaps, in time, friends.


Landing Zones

Finally: we need to make safe landing zones for those just arriving from the other side of the Wall.


It takes courage, time, and support to come out of an authoritarian mindset. Most RWAs are used to having people tell them what to think, where to be, what to do, and who to trust. In the reality-based world, we tend to assume that people can do this for themselves. While exiting fundies typically feel exhilarated with the freedom they feel in the first weeks after leaving; they've also got a huge new world to navigate, and acquiring the necessary skills takes time. They're often wobbly on their feet for a while until they get the hang of it.


There is the emotional work of learning to trust your own perceptions, accept your own feelings, and act on your own judgment -- something people in authoritarian systems never really learn to do. There's also the business of learning to navigate in a looser, more do-your-own-thing social structure, which can be hard for someone used to ready-made social hierarchies. There are the practical matters of telling family and friends on the other side of the Wall that you've left, and coming to terms with their reactions. There's all the work involved in sorting through all your new intellectual and moral options, and deciding for yourself which values you're going to build your new life on.


It helps tremendously to have friends and guides who understand what you're going through, and can supply guidance and hugs when it all seems overwhelming. They are far more likely to succeed if we offer them consistent (but not hovering) friendship and support -- and a bit of patience while they make their first steps into the reality-based world.


Micro to Macro

The above discussion, long as it is, is just a beginning. The more time we spend talking to soft-core authoritarian followers, the better we'll get at understanding their motivations, calming their fears, and framing our arguments in ways they can clearly understand.


However: as kum-bay-yah (and stereotypically liberal) as all this talk of "understanding" individual RWAs may be, it doesn't mean that we stop holding the authoritarians in our midst accountable for the misbehavior of their public figures and the recklessness of their policies. It doesn't mean that we stop correcting the media when it misrepresents our views, or aggressively fight for solutions that will ultimate break the cycle of right-wing authoritarianism that now dominates American politics. While the work of bringing these missing Americans back into the larger fold is gentle and slow (we may well spend a decade or more bringing the bulk of them back), the work of recovering America as we knew her requires a fierce energy that draws firm boundaries, demands an honest reckoning, and requires constant and determined assertion of our own good values.


In the fourth and final part of this series, I'll look at some of the ways authoritarians can be turned back at the community, state, and national level.




I might add, that ExChristian.net is a pretty good "landing zone"! I plan on using the info in these articles to try and establish better communication with my fundy family members. We've had a few hot exchanges, though lately things have cooled down.

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