Authoritarian Followers


Sometime ago, I heard a radio interview of a Harvard troglodyte named Harvey Mansfield as he discussed his absurd ideas about manliness and gender. I have since learned, thanks to an excellent column by Glenn Greenwald, that he is a right-wing extremist who believes that the prez is above the law. In that column, Greenwald makes the following remark:

I’ll leave it to Bob Altemeyer and others to dig though all of that to analyze what motivates Mansfield and his decades-long craving for strong, powerful, unchallengeable one-man masculine rule…

Well, I followed that link to Mr. Altemeyer’s study of authoritarian followers, and it is fascinating! Have you ever felt the sinking depression I feel when confronted with a rigid, dogmatic, authority-loving, robot follower who spouts slogans and seems to be impervious to simple logic? Wondered how the hell he or she can think that way? Well, Mr. Altemeyer, a professor of psychology, has, and he studied them in depth. He calls them [high scoring] RWAs for right-wing-authoritarians. In his book, which is quite funny as well, if you can believe it, I found the following passage [emphasis added by me] which knocked my socks off:

Intrigued, I gave the inferences test that Mary Wegmann had used to two large samples of students at my university. In both studies high RWAs went down in flames more than others did. They particularly had trouble figuring out that an inference or deduction was wrong. To illustrate, suppose they had gotten the following syllogism:

All fish live in the sea.
Sharks live in the sea..
Therefore, sharks are fish.

The conclusion does not follow, but high RWAs would be more likely to say the reasoning is correct than most people would. If you ask them why it seems right, they would likely tell you, “Because sharks are fish.” In other words, they thought the reasoning was sound because they agreed with the last statement. If the conclusion is right, they figure, then the reasoning must have been right. Or to put it another way, they don’t “get it” that the reasoning matters–especially on a reasoning test.

Why does this grab me? Well, I couldn’t have thought of a more pithy way of summing up the exasperation I feel when I hear some citizens or politicians talk, read columns by chattering “experts” and pundits in the paper, and, on the thankfully rare occasion, hear commentators spout forth on TV. (It’s rare because I don’t watch TV.) Yes, some people just don’t get that reason matters!

But my experience with jury duty has led me to believe that anyone can reason…if they think they have to. That is, when they realize that they won’t get out of the room until they can convince the others of their point of view, they resort, a last resort, it’s true, to reason. In that situation, they feel reason does matter. Perhaps in the rest of their lives, they have the luxury of ignoring it. It’s useless to argue with such people unless circumstances back you up, i.e., present the dogmatist with an argument he can’t shout down.


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