Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Eliminationist Minority

by Sara
Bob Altemeyer is writing a book. And, happily for those of us who have been intrigued by his ideas ever since John Dean introduced him to us in Conservatives Without Conscience, he's posting the chapters online as he gets them done.

There's a lot in the book that touches on the stuff we discuss here at Orcinus -- but the most striking discussion I found was his dissection (you'll find it in Chapter 5) of the psychology of prejudice and hate crimes within authoritarian groups. If you've read either John Dean's book or my two series (Cracks In the Wall and Tunnels And Bridges, both linked in the left margin) that riffed on it, you'll recall that authoritarians are wired differently than the rest of us; and that this wiring takes two distinct forms.

To recap: Authoritarian followers tend to be highly conforming, deeply invested in their own righteousness, absolutely trusting in their authorities, and extremely aggressive when they believe those authorities are threatened. Altemeyer developed a scale to assess people's tendency toward right-wing authoritarianism; he calls those with high scores "high RWA." There's also a very distinct -- and fortunately, much smaller -- group of authoritarians who are driven by their high need for social dominance. This group tends to be manipulative, amoral, mean, and driven by their unquenchable thirst for power. Altemeyer calls these "high-social-dominance (or "high SDO") types. And, finally, a very small percentage of the population are "double highs" -- people who manage to combine the worst traits of both. The thesis of Dean's book was that the Bush Administration is staffed, almost top to bottom, with double highs -- and that this fact has profound implications for our future as a democracy.

Altemeyer says that racial, ethnic, and gender prejudice -- and the will to act violently on these feelings -- is built right into both the high-RWA and high-SDO trait sets. But, he explains, both the roots and the expression of their eliminationist impulses are different:
[The] difference between authoritarian leaders and followers comes into view when you untangle the roots of their hostility. Social dominators show greater prejudice against minorities and women than high RWAs do, but the followers are much more hostile toward homosexuals. Why should this be the case?

…High RWAs are especially likely to aggress when they feel established authority approves of the aggression, when they are afraid, and because they are self-righteous. Since the Bible condemns homosexuality in several places, and “giving” rights to homosexuals seems to right-wing authoritarians yet another nail in the coffin of moral society, aggression against homosexuals is aroused and blessed. Similarly, high RWAs are more likely than social dominators to impose stiff sentences….and more likely to help the government persecute radicals when it’s time to round up a “posse.”

However, when it comes to racial and ethnic minorities, right-wing authoritarians will still aggress--overtly or sneakily, physically or verbally--but such attacks are less clearly supported by religious and civic authorities than they used to be. So their prejudice in these cases has dropped some. But not that of social dominators.
So authoritarian followers hate who their authorities tell them to hate; and will usually let off the brakes and act on that hatred only when their authorities give them permission to. Because they rely on external authority to guide their actions, and fear the loss of social order, social and legal sanctions are often effective at curbing their tendencies toward violence. And, left on their own, they will generally remain fairly benign.

On the other hand…
Why are social dominators hostile? Well, unlike high RWAs who fear an explosion of lawlessness, they already live in the jungle that authoritarian followers fear is coming, and they’re going to do the eating. They do not ask themselves, when they meet someone, “Is there any reason why I should try to control this person?” so much as they ask, “Is there any reason why I should not try to gain the upper hand with him right now?” Dominance is the first order of business with them in a relationship, like dogs encountering each other in a school yard, and vulnerable minorities provide easy targets for exerting power, for being mean, for domination.

….Dominators aren’t usually afraid that civilization might collapse and lawlessness ensue. Laws, they think, are not something you should necessarily obey in the first place, so much as things you should not get caught disobeying. And as for self-righteousness, it’s pretty irrelevant to people as amoral as most social dominators tend to be. They may speak of the righteousness of their cause, but that’s usually just to assure and motivate their followers. Might makes right for social dominators.

…. It doesn’t bother the social dominator that masses of people are poor. That’s their tough luck. And some racial groups are just naturally inferior to others, he says. Justice should not be applied equally to all. The rich and powerful should have advantages in court, even if that completely violates the concept of justice. Who cares if prejudice plays a role in the justice system? He certainly doesn’t. The “right people” should have more votes than everybody else in elections. And so on.

If you stare deeply into the souls of social dominators, they believe “equality” is a sucker word. Only fools believe in it, they say. And if people took equality seriously, if society did try to provide equal opportunity for all, and if the playing field really were made level so that bootstraps could be pulled up and multitudes of lives bettered, the social dominator knows he would get less. And he very much dislikes that notion. He says so.
Separately, neither group is a particular social threat. (Obnoxious and annoying, perhaps, but not a threat.) But together, Dr. Bob says, they're toxic.
[RWA's] image of themselves as the good people leaves no room for believing they are cold-blooded, ruthless, immoral manipulators after power at almost any cost. So social dominators might incite authoritarian followers to commit a hate crime, but the dominators and followers probably launch the attack for different reasons: the dominator out of meanness, as an act of intimidation and control; the follower out of fear and self-righteousness in the name of authority.

…This is now called the “lethal union” in this field of research. When social dominators are in the driver’s seat, and right-wing authoritarians stand at their beck and call, unethical things appear much more likely to happen. True, sufficiently skilled social dominators served by dedicated followers can make the trains run on time. But you have to worry about what the trains may be hauling when dominators call the shots and high RWAs do the shooting. The trains may be loaded with people crammed into boxcars heading for death camps.

And of course this lethal union is likely to develop in the real world. Authoritarian followers don’t usually try to become leaders. Instead they happily play subservient roles, and can be expected to especially enjoy working for social dominators, who will (you can bet your bottom dollar) take firm control of things, and who share many of the followers’ values and attitudes. The “connection” connects between these two opposites because they attract each other like the north and south poles of two magnets. The two can then become locked in a cyclonic death spiral that can take a whole nation down with them.
Altemeyer tested this theory by running a three-hour Risk-type global simulation game with various combinations of high and low RWAs, high and low SDOs and double highs. The results confirmed his earlier observations: double-highs will always put their own prestige and power over every other concern, even if the fate of the world is at stake. They're more interested in wheeling and dealing and driving the other guy to the wall -- fine if you're in business, but not so fine if you're trying to establish programs or institutions aimed at solving large-scale problems like overpopulation, pollution, or global warming. They're also far more interested in military might and bullying than they are in diplomacy or compromise (if you're a double high, you can't count it as a win until the other guy is writhing on the ground in front of you, begging for his life. Any other outcome is a loss.) In these simulations, their prejudices translated in a predictable ethocentrism that often blinded them to their own best interests. Predictably -- and chillingly -- putting double-highs in charge guaranteed ecological catastrophe, mass starvation, and global nuclear war.

In summary, then:

-- Yes, Virginia, there really is a "them." Most of us are genuinely not predisposed toward eliminationist violence; and even the large minority that is won't indulge in it without permission and a push. But prejudice and the use of force are foundational to the double-high character; and much of the discrimination and violence that we do see occurs at the instigation of this toxic one to two percent of the population.

-- Because they have absolutely no concept of the common good (or any good that doesn't relate to their own pursuit of power), double-high leaders are constitutionally incapable of thinking of the future in ways that any of the rest of us are likely to find acceptable. In fact, they will almost certainly try to dismantle the existing common infrastructure if they believe it threatens their own quest for glory.

-- The more of this authoritarian minority we allow in power -- particularly the double-highs -- the higher the risk of inequality, discrimination, and eliminationist violence; and the bleaker our odds of doing anything constructive about our common future. Unfortunately, these people are far and away the most likely of us all to seek out leadership positions.

We're looking ahead into a new century in humanity will, increasingly, be operating closer to the margins of our planet's carrying capacity. Whether or not we survive this transition will almost certainly depend on ability to move past prejudice and eliminationist violence, and build bonds of trust that enable us to solve our problems cooperatively.

After reading Altemeyer, it's probably not hyperbole to say that our entire human future depends on getting whole lot better at seeing these guys (and yes, they are almost exclusively guys) early on for what they are, and keeping them far, far away from the levers of power.

Update: Driftglass says pretty much the same thing, only a hell of a lot more poetically.

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