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Karen Stenner on Authoritarians

Dr Karen Stenner | University of Surrey


  1. Authoritarians don’t like difference, complexity and diversity, which is associated with space
  2. Conservatives don’t like change, which is measured over time

And Stenner thinks it is insane to exclude the one third of the population that does not like complexity and diversity, the potential authoritarians, from political discourse.

For many people modern life overwhelms: one third of humanity does not like change, diversity, variety, multiple ethnicities and religions, it is a largely heritable condition, and cannot be eradicated by education and propaganda. Liberal democracy has exceeded the capacity of a large segment of people to tolerate, says Stenner. 

Loss of a sense of shared values is the bugaboo of authoritarians. Reminding them constantly about diversity drives them up the wall. Patriotism unites, diversity divides. Deal with it.


Trumpophobia 3

3. Differentism versus inclusivism

By far the most interesting cause of people voting for Trump is explained by reference to one of the enduring divisions of the human species, writes Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic Monthly.

Of the several views of why people choose Trump over his opponents, one is the important discovery that some people do not like or react well to differences. As Friedersdorf explains the research, this has less to do with racism as such than with ‘differentism‘, of which race-ism, tribal-ism, national-ism are examples, but which do not exhaust the categories of differences.

In one sense this is a big obvi-ism. As Jonathan Haidt explained better and more generously in The Righteous Mind, people differ along several axes. Psychological research has identified six such axes, of which procedural fairness and equality of outcome are the two that most engage the ‘liberal’ mind. Group cohesion/treason and the sacred versus the profane are two other such differences, and naturally conservatives score higher in concern for the sacred and for group cohesion.

The author on whom Friedersdorf relies is Karen Stenner, who wrote “The Authoritarian Dynamic“. The treatment accorded the more conservative personality type by Stenner is far less generous that Haidt’s. Stenner seeks to pathologize the syndromes. From the Amazon book blurb:

” This book addresses that question by developing a universal theory of what determines intolerance of difference in general, which includes racism, political intolerance, moral intolerance and punitiveness. It demonstrates that all these seemingly disparate attitudes are principally caused by just two factors: individuals’ innate psychological predispositions to intolerance (“authoritarianism”) interacting with changing conditions of societal threat. The threatening conditions, particularly resonant in the present political climate, that exacerbate authoritarian attitudes include, most critically, great dissension in public opinion and general loss of confidence in political leaders.”

Friedersdorf describes Stenner’s methodology as follows:

” Stenner began her research with a questionnaire that probed the attitudes of her subjects toward child-rearing. Their answers indicated the extent to which they think that it’s more important for kids to obey their parents, have good manners, be neat and clean, and follow the rules—or alternatively, that it’s more important that they are responsible for their own actions, and creative, curious, independent thinkers who follow their own conscience and show good judgment. Designed to provide an unobtrusive, bare-bones measure of each subject’s fundamental stances toward conformity and difference, the child-rearing questionnaires were scored and the subjects arrayed from most libertarian to most authoritarian.”

It is entirely natural that child-rearing has a huge impact on how personalities develop. It is also evident that there is continuum between rule obeying behaviour and independence, and moreover, that there is no inherent superiority whereby the curious and independent minded are to be placed above the obedient and conformist, though liberals might like to think so. Or do they confess to believing in a cognitive and moral superiority to people like themselves? Of course they do.

Stenner observed that “fears regarding immorality and crime, claims about the critical need to reestablish some normative order, and elaboration of plans for accomplishing this” occupied the bulk of “their psychic space,” consuming a hugely disproportionate share of their time and energy.”

Who defines hugely disproportionate?

“Ultimately,” Stenner contended, “much of what we think of as racism, likewise political and moral intolerance, is more helpfully understood as ‘difference-ism,’” defined as “a fundamental and overwhelming desire to establish and defend some collective order of oneness and sameness.”

Both Stenner and the coverage of her book by Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic Monthly constantly insinuate that concern for a normative order is, in some real fashion, an aberration, a morally inferior position, and that it connotes political “authoritarianism”, a political doctrine, rather than “communitarianism”, which has a much more agreeable sound. If you read a conservative thinker like Thomas Sowell or the British philosopher Roger Scruton, you would gain an entirely more generous perspective on concern for a normative order. Concern for the general state of society, for community and for public and private order is not the exclusive concern of the anxious, the ill-educated, or the authoritarian. People who raise their children to analyze and make intelligent choices are not simultaneously without concern for the state of society.

Indeed, I call the current obsession with diversity and inclusion “inclusivism”. It is a doctrine that holds, for instance, that the student body of a cognitively elite institution should be constituted by racial or ethnic groups in proportion to their presence in the general population; that differences in incarceration rates or rates of being shot by police cannot justifiably be different according to race or ethnicity, but must be uniform across society as a whole. The failure or inability to make relevant and justifiable discriminations is the bane of modern society.

Stenner describes the phenomenon as “innate psychological dispensations to intolerance” and calls it “authoritarianism“. This is a dreadful failure to analyze properly and a gross insult to some of the attitudes that have elevated us from living in caves. Some people are intolerant of dirt and disorder, of rodents in the basement, of shit in drinking water. What is tolerated or not tolerated lies on a spectrum. Some people think there needs to be a decision in any given society to drive either on the right or the left, but not both. Some people are rule enforcers, some rule breakers. When to obey and what rules not to obey is a matter of the most careful judgment. Personalities differ in their propensities to conform or break rules, and these propensities are to some extent capable of being different according to political or religious regimes.

The pathologization of political difference begins in Stenner’s characterization of those who want a rules-based order as “authoritarian”. Her analysis, and that of Friedersdorf reporting on it are no more than another form of snobbish condescension towards those whose anxieties for a sense of community are greater than their own.

At the root of all such characterizations of Trump supporters lies the firm belief that those who do not like him are cognitively and morally superior.