America, Iran & The Obedient Mind

Reading Maziar Bahari’s article about his ordeal in Iran reminded me very much of the novel 1984 and all the other descriptions of “interrogations” I have read. Thinking about this, I began to suspect that there is a core authoritarian mindset that remains the same across a wide variety of ideologies. In the case of Maziar Bahari’s horrible ordeal in Iran, he faced this mind in the form of Mr. Rosewater-his primary tormentor. While Mr. Rosewater is an individual, he is token of a type-that of the authoritarian mind.

The first, and most obvious, quality of this mind is that it is obedient to authority. While Milgram‘s famous experiment showed that most people seem to be naturally obedient, the authoritarian mind takes this obedience to a greater extreme. While the obedience does come in degrees, the truly authoritarian mind reaches a state of almost unquestioning obedience. This sort of obedience is, of course, critical to rulers everywhere-without such “dogs” (as per Animal Farm) they would lack an essential tool of their power. These “dogs” are the people who tortured Bahari, the people who ran the Nazi camps, and those folks who tortured in the name of defending freedom and democracy.

The second quality of this mind is a self-fulfilling paranoia. This sort of person sees any disagreement as the mark of an enemy, thus often forcing such people to become enemies in fact. Hobbes, of course, took this sort of view in the Leviathan when he noted that people see a failure to agree as the mark of disagreement and that people react with hostility to such things. Of course, the authoritarian mind takes this to a greater extreme than normal and tends to be willing to take violent action against those who disagree.

The third quality of this mind is a distrust and fear of the freedom of thought and expression. As such, these people tend to regard intellectuals and journalists as natural enemies. After all, people who think tend not to obey unquestionably and they often raise difficult moral concerns by failing to see the world as those in power wish it to be seen. Journalists, at least those not owned by the state, have a tendency to report unpleasant truths rather than the official “truths” of those in power.

Interestingly enough, both the hardliners in Iran and those in the United States have very similar views about the intellectuals and the media. In both countries, these folks blame the media for creating dissent, undermining the state, and encouraging immorality. The intellectuals and elites are also criticized and regarded as enemies. After all, these people are out of touch with “the people” and are not part of the true America/Iran.  Needless to say, it was interesting to learn that Mr. Rosewater’s view of the media is the same as that of Sarah Palin.

Of course, the dislike of the authoritarians for folks who think and talk is ancient. The sort of people who killed Socrates are the same sort of people who tortured Bahari.

The fourth quality is a flexible moral absolutism. In general, authoritarian folks believe that their cause or side is absolutely right. They also tend to hold to an absolute moral view of pure good and evil: the enemy is pure evil while they are pure good. This is often associate with a religion (for example, Islam in Iran and Christianity in the US).

What makes their absolutism flexible is that although they see the world in absolutes, they accept that they can do terrible things in service to their cause. For example, Mr. Rosewater worked very hard trying to paint Bahari as a morally evil man. Meanwhile, Mr. Rosewater was beating Bahari, subjecting him to mental torment and keeping him locked away for no legitimate reason. That is, Mr. Rosewater was evil and doing evil things. Likewise, in the United States people advocated using torture and imprisonment without trial and justified this by claiming that America is good and hence must be protected.

But, perhaps the authoritarians are not really flexible absolutists. Perhaps they just have two absolute principles: “my cause is right, so anything done its defense is also right” and “my enemies are wrong, so anything they do is wrong.” These two principles do seem to nicely capture the authoritarian mind.

A fifth quality of the authoritarian mind is a lack of concern about truth. In the case of Mr. Rosewater, his goal was not to find out the truth about reality (that Bahari was just a journalist and not a spy or agent). Rather, his goal was to impose a “truth” upon reality. For the authoritarian mind, “truth” is not something that one finds by objective investigation. The “truth” is provided by those above and it is “confirmed” by the use of force and torture. For example, if the authorities say that Bahari is a spy, then Mr. Rosewater would torture him to get him to say that he is a spy, thus “confirming” the “truth.” In contrast, real journalists and “intellectuals” investigate reality to see what the truth is-yet another reason why authoritarians hate intellectuals and journalists they do not control.

Authoritarians might also think that other people do what they do in this regard and this might also help explain this hostility. After all, if they think that the intellectuals and media people are trying to impose “truth” on the world, they would see these people as competitors to their “truth” and hence enemies. Perhaps the idea of objective truth is foreign to the authoritarian mind (as nicely illustrated in 1984).

Not surprisingly, authoritarians are terribly dangerous and help make small and great evils possible. Unfortunately, criticism of them generally tends to reinforce their paranoia as they see any criticism as an attack (especially if it is true). For example, criticism of Iran tends to simply make the hardliners take an ever harder line as they see more and more “evidence” that their paranoia is correct.

They also tend to be immune to reason and moral appeals-they are, after all, confident in their own moral goodness and regard reason as an attempt to create dissent.

So, then, how do we deal with such people? In some cases, they can be reached-after all, they are still human. For example, Bahari’s article reveals a great deal about Mr. Rosewater, such as the fact that he seems to truly love his wife. In some cases, these people cannot be reached and then it comes down to what they understand quite well-force.

Perhaps the best way to deal with this sort of person is by increasing the numbers of people who are not them. While authoritarians are very dangerous because of their willingness to obey and do terrible things, they are obviously not superhuman. As such, their power can be countered by numbers of people who are willing to resist them and the evils that they defend.

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  1. Adorno et al, The Authoritarian Personality lists 9 variables:

    1. Conventionalism

    2. Authoritarian submission (uncritical attitude toward idealized moral authority).

    3. Authoritarian aggression (towards those who violate conventional values).

    4. Anti-intraception (opposition to the subjective, the imaginative, the tender-minded).

    5. Superstition and stereotypy (the disposition to think in rigid categories).

    6. Power and toughness (preoccupation with dominance-submission, identification with power figures).

    7. Destructiveness and cynicism (
    generalized hostility).

    8. Projectivity (the projection outward of unconscious emotional impulses).

    9. Sex (exaggerated concern with sexual goings-on).

  2. That seems to perfectly match Mr. Rosewater in the article.

  3. Mike:
    There will be time enough in 2012 to deal with Sarah Palin if she’s around. Right now it’s Obama that is keeping Gitmo open, continuing rendition, escalating the use of drones, increasing troops to the ‘real war’, presiding over the world’s no.1 incarceration programme which targets blacks disproportionately etc, etc.

    Just like Momma said – ‘pick up your own yard first’ Sarah and Rosewater are a distraction. But maybe that’s the point.

  4. For what it’s worth, a test for measuring authoritarian personality traits. I scored 2.1, that is, a hopeless wimp.

    http://www.anesi.com/fscale.htm

  5. Re Amos’ F score:
    I scored 3.16 recurring. Comments were “You are disciplined but tolerant; a true American”
    USA here I come!

  6. Don: At home they accuse me of being a dictator because of my emphasis on rules and punctuality.
    The test is set up in a way that a philosopher would tend to score in the middle of the scale, since philosophical skepticism finds it hard to disagree or agree completely with most ethical propositions and thus, the philosopher would generally mark that he or she “disagrees or agrees somewhat”.

  7. Amos. Yes, you are bang on there.

    “There is only one thing a philosopher can be relied upon to do, and that is to contradict other philosophers.”
    William James

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