08:50 am
27 October 2016

Can Society Exist Without Authoritarianism?

Michael Aaron, Ph.D.

In 1950, sociologist Theodor Adorno and his associates published a book, The Authoritarian Personality, detailing a large-scale study they initiated to try to understand how the Nazi regime came to power. Adorno developed what he called the “F-scale” (F for fascist), a questionnaire that would fetter out 9 key dimensions of individuals that were predisposed to authoritarianism. Psychologist Bob Altemeyer later narrowed it down even further to the following three categories:


1) a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society; 2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and 3) a high level of conventionalism. (You can read his entire book here for free.)

This subject of the authoritarian personality has been back in the headlines with the candidacy of Donald Trump, and rightly so, as can be seen in these pieces in Politico andVox. What the media coverage, and the scholarly work of Bob Altemeyer, have in common is a focus on right-wing conservative authoritarianism. However, another surprising undercurrent has emerged and gained traction in the media—the evolution of left-wing authoritarianism. (See pieces in the New York Times about “shame culture” and “Will the Left Survive the Millennials?“)

In “The Shame Culture,” David Brooks warns, “Many people carefully guard their words, afraid they might transgress one of the norms that have come into existence. Those accused of incorrect thought face ruinous consequences. When a moral crusade spreads across campus, many students feel compelled to post in support of it on Facebook within minutes. If they do not post, they will be noticed and condemned.” In “Will the Left Survive the Millennials?” Lionel Shriver wearily laments:

“In an era of weaponized sensitivity, participation in public discourse is growing so perilous, so fraught with the danger of being caught out for using the wrong word or failing to uphold the latest orthodoxy in relation to disability, sexual orientation, economic class, race or ethnicity, that many are apt to bow out. Perhaps intimidating their elders into silence is the intention of theidentitypolitics cabal—and maybe my generation should retreat to our living rooms and let the young people tear one another apart over who seemed to imply that Asians are good at math.”

It’s not only mainstream dinosaurs getting in on the act. In a thoughtful piece, “What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic,” Asam Ahmad, a Toronto-based writer and coordinator of a body positivity group started by queer people of color, argues:

“It isn’t an exaggeration to say that there is a mild totalitarian undercurrent not just in call-out culture but also in how progressive communities police and define the bounds of who’s in and who’s out. More often than not, this boundary is constructed through the use of appropriate language and terminology—a language and terminology that are forever shifting and almost impossible to keep up with.”

In this poignant piece, an anonymous life-long liberal professor who has become disenchanted with political correctness compares the resistance to the authoritarianism of PC to other momentous occasions of historical resistance:

“I would truly say it’s equivalent to Stonewall for the Gay Rights movement, I equate it to the fall of the Berlin Wall—for real—I equate it to the Arab Spring but bigger. I would actually argue that what’s happened in 2014 is bigger than the Arab Spring.”

These are just a few examples. There are many more. What has happened to our culture and why is this of significance to me (and to you)? In my view, my role of psychotherapist (and part-time activist) is to battle against the forces of authoritarianism, both on the micro (individual) and macro (societal) level. It’s not a partisan issue of left vs right or Democrat vs. Republican, but rather authoritarian vs libertarian (culturally, not politically). It’s a battle of harsh judgment, condemnation. and shaming vs acceptance, understanding, andcompassion.

When same-sex marriage became a Constitutional right in June 2015, I thought society had finally progressed to a point where equality and egalitarianism would be after-thoughts. So how is it that “shaming,” “call-out,” and “toxic” culture has become worse than ever? I would argue, that authoritarianism can and does exist both within the left as well as the right. While we on the front-lines have worked hard for social justice, I am uncertain that a true vision of justice also has the constraints of authoritarianism running alongside it. If this is progress, I am unsure we are on the right track. Despite all of the work toward progress, authoritarianism appears to be alive and well.

So how do we move away from an authoritarian mindset? In many ways, it is unfortunately part of how our society is formed. In my forthcoming book, Modern Sexuality, I devote a chapter to group dynamics—specifically, how groups form around authority figures and consolidate over defining differences between the in and out-group. Sociologist Howard Becker believed that identifying “deviance” is a necessary aspect of group survival. Indeed, it is this authoritarianism that has been instrumental in suppressingsexuality throughout history.

Can society (a large-scale group comprised of smaller groups) exist without these types of divisive authoritarian tactics? Putting group dynamics aside, research on identical twins indicates that authoritarianism is at least partially inherited (48%, according to this study). Another research study found that up to30% of Americans have authoritarian traits. If these characteristics are so heritable and prevalent in society, how can we possibly imagine a society withoutauthoritarianism, regardless how much social progress occurs?

Published in 1705 by Bernard Mandeville,The Fable of the Bees presents in poem form a vision of the world in which society would crumble without problems. The judges, the prisons, the doctors—all would be out of business without problems. Indeed, my own profession would be out of business and would have to invent new problems (such as sex addiction) in order to survive. Perhaps our world cannot survive without the primal instinct of authoritarianism as a driver of forward momentum to clean up the problems created by destructive authority. I know that this is certainly bleak, but we need to honestly ask ourselves as a society by first looking inward and asking ourselves, “Can we exist without authoritarianism?”

This article first appeared in Psychology Today