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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 7/27/18

The Authoritarian Personality

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Message Blair Gelbond

"I was just following orders"

Adolph Eichman

There is an almost gravitational pull toward putting out of mind unpleasant facts and sinking into oblivion"and that our collective ability to face threatening facts is no greater than our personal one:

"To avoid anxiety, we close off crucial portions of awareness, creating blind spots. [This] diagnosis applies both to self-deception and shared illusions"The cure"is "insight - seeing things just as they are."

Daniel Goleman


In order to begin to come to terms with "dominator social structures" it is essential to gain an understanding of how an authoritarian mindset shows up in the human psyche. After all, it is we, who (via five thousand years of authoritarian conditioning, and our daily participation in society) maintain these structures. The seminal work of Adorno and his colleagues has provided much valuable data in this regard - so much so that 40 years later it is still regarded as a landmark achievement.

Adorno's two volume work, entitled The Authoritarian Personality, was published in 1950. More recently Dyer (1980) has contributed to this knowledge-area by summarizing more than 1000 pages of in-depth research (including Adorno's) authoritarian personalities. Dyer begins by raising this issue: "Anyone who is an alert observer of society can plainly see how few people think for themselves, but some social scientists have estimated that as many as 77% of the people in our culture (Western civilization) manifest more authoritarian qualities than nonauthoritarian on a daily basis." Dyer's synopsis depicts - in simple and direct language - the characteristics that one can expect to find in a person whose basic orientation can be characterized as "authoritarian." Such people can be predicted to display a number of attributes which include, but are not limited to: intolerance of ambiguity, dichotomous thinking, rigidity of thought, punitiveness, anti-intellectualism, militaristic patriotism, conformity, and ethnocentrism.

What follows is a brief overview of some of these key characteristics:

1) INTOLERANCE OF AMBIGUITY: The typical authoritarian experiences a strong need to have things spelled out specifically. Unless there is a yes or no answer to every question, no matter how complex, they show signs of anxiety. As a result the authoritarian has little tolerance for people who are working in intrinsically ambiguous areas - philosophers, artists, social or political leaders. It might be said that authoritarians feel compelled to insist that every piece of language they hear or read "mean just one thing" "which is clear and readily identifiable.

2) DICHOTOMOUS THINKING: Authoritarians exhibit a compulsion to divide everything and everyone into mutually exclusive groups - good/bad, right/wrong, friend/enemy - without taking into account the subtleties, qualifications or even downright mistakes that may be involved. "Dichotomous thinking" can be considered an outgrowth of intolerance of ambiguity; it is a sort of "rush to judgment" which serves to provide an immediate (but illusory, and generally false) sense of certainty.

3) RIGIDITY OF THOUGHT: The rigidity in the way an authoritarian perceives the world and himself is often exhibited as a generalized unwillingness to consider perspectives that conflict with his (or her) own preconceived ideas. Dyer notes, that faced with such a situation, "the last thing [such a person] will do"is to listen, evaluate, and be prepared to change his position if it seems warranted. It is virtually impossible for him ever to [sincerely] admit having been wrong or having learned anything from anyone [with views different from himself]"You will never hear [him or her] say [and mean]: 'Well, you have a point there.' Dyer goes on to say that - with true, "dyed-in the wool" authoritarians - rational discussion [regarding emotionally laden issues]""is never a cooperative effort to reach agreement, beginning with mutual respect on each side"The most frustrating thing about authoritarians is their inaccessibility: most of the time, there is literally no way to reach them."

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I work as a psychotherapist with an emphasis on transformational learning - a blend of psychoanalytic and transpersonal approaches, and am the author of Self Actualization and Unselfish Love and co-author of Families Helping Families: Living with (more...)

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