Monday, April 2, 2018

Two Posts from the Handbasket

The tabs are getting unmanageable again, but for today I can only manage two because they both overwhelm me.

The first is a piece from Pacific Standard that I read yesterday, called Authoritarianism: the terrifying trait that Trump triggers. Karen Stenner, a psychology researcher and leading expert on authoritarianism, was interviewed about recent research. The key point — and it's super-depressing to hear this — is that "Western liberal democracies have now exceeded many people's capacity to tolerate them."

Research finds that about a "third of white responders across 29 liberal democracies proved to be authoritarian to some degree," with that number based on responses to a series of questions about child-rearing. The whole article is worth reading, but here are some key parts: do you define authoritarianism? Authoritarianism is a deep-seated, relatively enduring psychological predisposition to prefer—indeed, to demand—obedience and conformity, or what I call "oneness and sameness," over freedom and diversity. Authoritarianism is substantially heritable—about 50 percent heritable, according to empirical studies of identical twins reared together and apart, a standard technique for separating out the influence of nature vs. nurture....

The conditions that significantly activate authoritarians, and greatly exacerbate the expression of their authoritarianism in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors, are what I call "normative threats," (which are) threats to "oneness and sameness." In diverse, complex, modern societies not sharing a single racial/ethnic identity, the things that make "us" an "us"—that make us one and the same—are common authority, and shared values.

So the classic conditions that typically activate and aggravate authoritarians—rendering them more racially, morally, and politically intolerant—tend to be perceived loss of respect for/confidence in/obedience to leaders, authorities and institutions, or perceived value conflict and loss of societal consensus/shared beliefs, and/or erosion of racial/cultural/group identity. This is sometimes expressed as a loss of "who we are"/"our way of life."...

It is important to recognize that authoritarian predisposition is another way of being human and not intrinsically/necessarily evil. It is a natural variation in human "political character," largely heritable and relatively immutable, and, most importantly, pretty much immune to—and, in fact, more likely to be aggravated by—democratic experiences/socialization and the promotion of multiculturalism.

The most fundamental point is that a true democracy cannot just demean and dismiss a third of its citizens, and simply fail to take any account of (even allow the free expression of) their preferences. It is better that they should be openly expressed, and seriously considered, and managed within mainstream political processes, than suppressed and ultimately driven to extremes/to the lawless fringe. This is much more dangerous in the long run....
(Emphasis added.)

Stenner doesn't offer a lot in the way of solutions. She primarily calls for an "abundance of common and unifying rituals, institutions, and processes." Those would help, but at this point, it's hard to imagine what those unifiers would be that wouldn't also become polarized (the 4th of July? NASCAR? professional sports? all militarized and politicized by the Right, making them unpalatable to progressives).

If we could find a way to encourage media (both Right and mainstream) to inflame fears less, that would be helpful as well. But the economic base of media works against that possibility because terrified people watch more ads.

Research shows that making conservatives feel safe pushes their opinions in decidedly liberal directions, so maybe we could come up with a way to do that. (Back to the idea of putting the lithium in the drinking water, yet again.) But as long as they're watching Fox and listening to Alex Jones, there doesn't seem to be much hope of making them feel safer.

The second piece is today's featured post on Doug Muder's The Weekly Sift, called Why does the Right hate victims? Muder starts it off with this cartoon:

I've written before about the Sandy Hook truthers (I still can't believe there is such a thing, but after the swift-boating of John Kerry anything is in the realm of possibility). Now we have the Parkland truthers with their Photoshopped images of Emma Gonzalez and stories about David Hogg. It's hard to keep up with these stupidities.

It's notable that this is something that happens only on the Right. For instance, no one attacked the families Republicans parade around, whose loved ones died because of an action by an undocumented immigrant. We may say we feel sorry for them because they're being taken advantage of. But no one says their kid didn't die, or didn't exist in the first place, or that they're "crisis actors," right?

After laying out the situation and some history of attacks from the Right, Muder concludes with this cogent analysis:
Why is attacking victims such an important part of conservative rhetoric that when it’s taken away (by victims who are simultaneously too sympathetic and too skilled), they feel that they’re being silenced?

It’s simple: At its root, conservative policy is about giving the powerful even more power. So, by its nature, conservatism is constantly producing victims: When guns are everywhere, people get shot. When you take away health insurance, people die. When you rev up deportations, families get ripped apart. When you restrict food stamps, people go hungry. When you defund food inspectors, people get food poisoning. When you stop policing polluters, people get cancer.

Real people. Innocent people who are just trying to live their lives. People you would sympathize with if you met them.

To be a conservative at all, you have to live in denial of all this: There are no victims. Cuts in government spending don’t impact real people, they just prevent more money from swirling down a drain somewhere. There are no transgender soldiers who just want to serve their country. There are no committed same-sex couples who just want to get married like everybody else. There are no young black men getting shot by police for no reason.

When you deny something, and then somebody tries to make you see it, you get angry. That’s how people are: I was happy in my denial, and then these victims came along and screwed everything up for me. How dare they!

When people get angry, they want to strike back. They want to make the victims go away, or at least to make them stop showing up on TV where they’re hard to ignore.

The basic pattern — denial leads to anger leads to striking back at victims — is human. You can find examples of it across the political spectrum. But denial is much more central to conservatism than to liberalism. So victim-bashing has to be at the center of nearly every issue. 
Emphasis added to the part that was the biggest epiphany for me. They don't really believe there are victims. That's it.


Going through the other tabs, I just found this older piece from Pacific Standard that fits with the more recent one: Inside the minds of hardcore Trump supporters. It identifies different types of authoritarian mindsets, and declares Mulligan's acolytes are of the "authoritarian aggressive" type. "So the very things a majority of Americans find disconcerting, if not disqualifying, about Trump—his need to dominate, his thinly veiled white supremacism, and his blunt, bullying language—is precisely what appeals to his hardcore fans." Grrrreat.

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