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Right-Wing Authoritarianism--The Mindset Behind Religious Extremists

by Paul H.Rosenberg Sunday, Oct. 28, 2001 at 6:58 AM
rad@gte.net

There is a universal authoritarian trait which predisposes some people toward a greater willingness to thoughtlessly follow authoritarian leaders in attacking enemies identified by those leaders. This trait is generally associated with religiosity, and produces mirror-image behavior between the most belligerent people on both sides of any given conflict. It illuminates similarities in attitude of hardline religious fanatics, no matter what their religion.

errorCanadian researcher Robert Altemeyer has spent three decades studying the psychology of authoritarianism, surveying thousands of students, parents, politicians and others. Continuing earlier work that began with *The Authoritarian Personality* (Theodore Adorno, et. al., 1950), but abandoning the superstructure of Freudian theory and building upward carefully from the empirical data he collected, Alremeyer developed the model of right-wing authoritarianism composed of three co-factors:

1. Authoritarian submission-a high degree of submission to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate in the society in which one lives.
2. Authoritarian aggression-a general aggressiveness, directed against various persons, that is perceived to be sanctioned by established authorities.
3. Conventionalism-a high degree of adherence to the social conventions that are perceived to be endorsed by society and its established authorities.

Altemeyer refers to those who test in the top of a group using a scale measuring these factors as "right-wing authoritarians" or RWAs for short. (Altemeyer also calls them high-RWAs.) "Right-wing" in this context is a socio-political term. The authoritarian in question could be capitalist, communist, Christian, Muslim or Jewish-it makes no difference. In fact, Altemeyer reports research comparing attitudes in the US and the USSR, which found RWAs in both countries to be mirror-images of one another.

(Altemeyer also tried to see if there was such a thing as "left-wing authoritarianism." Basically, he struck out. There is some tendency for people to follow anti-establishment authorities, but no one scores very high on the scale developed for this purpose, and many of those who score at the top of this scale score *much* higher on the RWA scale, giving rise to a category Altemeyer calls "wild-card authoritarians." Many of this latter group are anti-Semites who identify the establishment as Jewish.)

There is a strong correlation between RWA and religiosity. Altemeyer found that RWAs were more likely to (1) Use religion to erase guilt over their acts and to maintain their self-righteousness. (2) Be "fundamentalists" and the most prejudiced members of whatever religion they belong to. (3) Be dogmatic. (4) Be zealots. Interestingly, he also found that RWAs were significantly more likely to harbor secret doubts about the existence of God. Thus, it seems likely that RWA fanatics driven to the point of religious violence are driven in part by their desire to kill their own doubts by killing others who embody those doubts.

It's important to note that Altemeyer does not portray RWAs as radically different from everyone else. It's a matter of degree. "They are not 'them' while the rest of the world is 'us,'" Altemeyer writes, "Instead, I think they have just gotten an extra helping of some very common human weaknesses." Intense situational factors can easily overshadow differences between most high- and low-RWAs-as has been repeatedly shown in experiments on obedience by Stanley Milgram and others following him. Yet the differences are quite real, Altemeyer explains, "High RWAs stand about ten steps closer to the panic button than the rest of the population. They see the world as a more dangerous place than most others do, with civilization on the verge of collapse and the world of Mad Max looming just beyond."

The real danger comes from the fact that RWAs' attitudes can create situations where the paranoid world they envision becomes a reality for everyone. We have plenty examples of that from our history, but we also have the results of a chilling simulation that Altemeyer reports on. It's called the Global Change Game, and it involves a group of players symbolically representing ten major population blocks on Earth, each lead by an elite leader, living out a scenario of several decades, with a pre-programmed ozone-layer crisis thrown in to challenge them. This simulation game has been run many times, but Altemeyer reports on two special occassions, when groups of high- and low-RWAs toook turns running the world.

With the low-RWAs, the number of armies dropped. "No wars occurred during the simulation and no threats of war were ever made (although the North American Elite proposed the idea to his compatriots, I later discovered)," Altemeyer reports. They met the ozone-layer crisis with cooperation, and cooperated on other occasions as well, but still lost 400 million people along the way to starvation and disease. Still, they ended up with 8.7 billion people-virtually all were cared for. "The Lows pulled off this remarkable feat by a considerable amount of interregional cooperation, by demilitarizing, by developing sustainable economic programs, and because their Elites diverted only 9 world bucks to their personal wealth. But the 'fat' regions still remained much better off than the rest." The number who died was less than 5% of the total population at the end.

In contrast, the high-RWAs produced disaster-twice! First, they managed to blow themselves up in a nuclear holocaust by 2006. They were given a second chance, with clock turned back to 2004. This time, they managed to avoid total destruction, but they still had considerable conflict. By the end of the game, 1.7 billion were dead from starvation and disease-nearly all in the Third World. Another 400 million had died in war. Their world was less crowded (6.7 billion), but this was achieved through starvation, disease, and war. The number who died was over 30% of the total population at the end. And the first time around everyone died and no one was left at the end.

These two different scenarios illustrate how profoundly this mindset can effect our future. But what's really scary is that things could be much worse. Ossama Bin Laden has warned us that there are many Muslims thirsting for death the way that Americans thirst for life. But millions of American Christians thirst for death as well, as explained by Grace Halsell in her book "Forcing God's Hand: Why Millions Pray for a Quick Rapture--And Destruction of Planet Earth," reviewed in two other articles on the newswire. People who actively relish destruction represent a growing threat to humanity's future. They are still a minority, but they exist within the United States as well as Afghanistan. They are not simply right-wing authoritarians, but understanding right-wing authoritarianism can help us understand how people can gradually be lead to this extreme.

For a summary listing of Altemeyer's findings about right-wing authoritarians, click on the link below.
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Let's get BEYOND perpetual dichotomisms! rabble guy Sunday, Oct. 28, 2001 at 3:14 PM
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