The Allure of Authoritarianism

Sunday, May 22, 2022
First Aired: 
Sunday, October 6, 2019

What Is It

In George Orwell’s 1984, the party’s “final, most essential command” was “to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.” Authoritarian regimes call on us to accept as fact whatever they tell us; or worse, as Hannah Arendt says, they get us to a point where we no longer know—or care about—the difference between fiction and reality. So why are so many so willing to reject the evidence of their senses and deny basic, confirmable truths? Is there something about human psychology that makes us susceptible to totalitarian propaganda? And as the appeal of authoritarian leaders grows around the world, how do we guard against such radical thought manipulation? Josh and Ken lure Michael Lynch from the University of Connecticut, author of Know-It-All Society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture.

Transcript

Comments (25)


Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, September 21, 2019 -- 12:25 PM

I'll get to this with the

I'll get to this with the question which begins: 'Is there something about human psychology...?', remaining as simple and/or elegant as the topic permits. The answer is: yes. there are several 'somethings' about human psychology. Authoritarian leaders (and those who would be such), play on such human frailties as: fear; uncertainty; intolerance; and inability to think for one's self---recall that bicameral mind, of which Julian Jaynes wrote, last century. Many of us never heard of Jaynes, but those who have still entertain the notion that he was on to something. Weakness of mind, in all of its forms, causes people to be susceptible to authoritarians and their ilk. Envy is also culpable when the have-nots see others who appear to have more, on one or more levels. We all want our societies to excel, and authoritarians are good at selling snake oil and short-cuts. People are, in the last analysis, gullible---not all, mind you, but at least a charming plurality. There would likely be some mathematical formula for this, if anyone cared to explore it---maybe someone has, I do not know. Finally, people are predictable when it comes to leaders and leadership: that which is too good to be true achieves approval, in spite of itself. You don't have to take my word for this: examine the evidence and think for yourself.

RepoMan05's picture

RepoMan05

Friday, September 27, 2019 -- 1:52 PM

The best tools to resist

The best tools to resist authority are easy to find. You just have to find what's not taught in any public school anywhere. What's that? Lists of common fallacies. You dont have to teach children what's a lie and what isnt. You just have to teach them how to recognize a lie.

1984 was a history book, not a prophecy

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lindamat

Sunday, October 6, 2019 -- 11:49 AM

1984 is not history! It is

1984 is not history! It is FICTION, extremely important fiction, author George Orwell, written in 1949. It would be good for everyone to read it! You do need to teach children what's a lie and how to identify one. And with the internet it is easy to look it up as long as a legitimate website is used. Children - and adults - need to be taught how to find legitimate websites (i.e., those from recognized legal, historical and news organizations recognized for identifying and reporting the truth).

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RepoMan05

Friday, October 11, 2019 -- 4:38 AM

Oh sure, maybe they need to

Oh sure, maybe they need to be taught how to be innanely literal and have their minds funneled into our perfect little avenue of controlled self serving biased lies while completely forgetting (yet again) to teach them about fallacies?

Or maybe thats just sarcasm?

You sure you ever read it?

"Anyone's spirit can be broken with love" ~ The Other Mother ("Coroline").

RepoMan05's picture

RepoMan05

Thursday, October 10, 2019 -- 8:47 AM

Was Animal Farm a "fiction?"

Was Animal Farm a "fiction?"

Everything ever written was a fiction.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, February 25, 2022 -- 8:36 AM

I just posted this to the

I just posted this to the blog as well. I'm not sure I can offer much more.

Authoritarianism is an -ism like all others, and I can't separate it from facts on the ground, history, or economy. Some situations call for this -ism, some call for its abolition. Sometimes it is best to leave authoritarian leaders to their worlds, and most of the time to leave authority to its path leads back to our own door.

This show took place in the Trump presidency, to which it references and alludes. Now we face an Olympics in China to which they sold no tickets, and ratings in the West, at least, were poor at best. Now we face the loss of Ukraine to the democratic world, and now the message of the show is much harsher than three years ago.

There is no way to deal with the forces at work in our world other than to gird the consequences of dealing with dictators. There will be a great deal of suffering to right this ship, and it's not human nature to choose suffering over scapegoating. We have too strong an us/them model for dealing with authoritarian regimes in real-time.

Technology and economics might address what politics and philosophy cannot, but not without some sacrifice. We have to find fellowship with the citizens of authoritarian regimes. We need to share learning and technology that allows them to liberate their lives. Allowing Russia and China to own social media, steal technology and wantonly threaten Europe (Ukraine and others) and Southeast Asia (Taiwan and others) will limit us in short order if we don’t take action to stop it now. We need to push technology to everyone and eliminate poverty without scapegoating a them that sooner or later will be an us if we don't push now and with unanimity.

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Wednesday, March 2, 2022 -- 10:56 AM

You make a bold claim here in

You make a bold claim here in the fourth paragraph about human nature for which some elaboration may be solicited with regards to how its relation to the final sentence, which indicates a theory of social relations, can be determined. The claim is that where human beings have a choice between enduring some pain or suffering, and "scapegoating" someone else, that is, blaming them for something they're not responsible for, it's "human nature" to choose the latter. How is that conclusion arrived at? All the more puzzling since, in the last sentence, you offer a remedy in theory for the scapegoating problem which humans have (by your account), which states that if "technology" (--presumably we're talking about high-technology, beyond the hammer and chisel era) is not universally distributed to the impoverished technologically illiterate while those who are technologically privileged resist the temptation, for which human nature is endowed, of scapegoating those on the other side of the so-called "digital divide" as the cause of everybody's problems, then "we" (referring to a very specific group) might become the scapegoats of someone else. Add to this the contents of the final clause that, for some unstated reason, no one can disagree with this plan of action, and a strange conclusion is reached: If we don't stop scapegoating the poor and techno-illiterate and instead give all of them lap-tops and smart phones, then we will wind up just like them, and someone else will be saying that we are the cause of all the problems, just as today is said by us about them. And if there's no unanimity, if everyone doesn't agree with you, then the plan won't work.

So let's say that in the course of the study of human nature and the human sciences it's found out that in fact it's human nature not to blame others undeservedly, and even to suffer painful consequences on refusing it, would that change the likelihood of your plan's success?

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, March 11, 2022 -- 7:16 PM

There is no bold claim here.

There is no bold claim here. If we sever relations with our fellow humans living under authoritarian regimes we lose the ability to share common ideals. There is nothing guaranteed in this approach, except history has shown it to bear strange fruit time and time again.

The Us/Them psychology is well studied and ingrained in human behavior. The hypothetical is absurd. Ed Yong has a good article on this - https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/racial-bias-weakens-our-ab... .

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, February 28, 2022 -- 6:42 AM

It is more than coincidental,

It is more than coincidental, I think, that egregious motives and behaviors reflect similar allure(s). This post expounds upon authoritarianism and those who pursue and embrace such power. An article received from a source this morning talks about faculty at a prestigious university supporting a colleague accused of sexual harassment: the exercise of a different kind of power. That being what it is, power is power, no matter the stripe. Motive tends to make people resistant to those 'better angels of our nature'. Power polishes the ego. There was a sizable number of persons attached to the defense of the man mentioned in this comment. Common knowledge and experience show he will likely be cleared---correctly, or not.

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Wednesday, March 2, 2022 -- 6:53 PM

First it's important to

First it's important to distinguish between authority and authoritarianism. There are two kinds of authority: justified, as for example a geologist would have over the study of rocks, and unjustified, as for instance someone might claim to have over how someone should dress or wear their hair. But "authoritarianism" refers to only one kind thing: a general recourse in the treatment of any social issue or problem to some kind of authority over its constituents, whether as a genuine belief in its existence or as a manufactured claim for particular purposes. As most claims of authority in social contexts are usually unjustified, they tend to be found at the manufactured end of the scale; and because inventions are rarely produced without some specific reason or need that they fulfill, the supposition can safely be made that almost all authoritarianism is reactionary in character.

It makes sense then to inquire about the causes of this kind of reaction. On what is the reaction based, and what is the means used to achieve it? To borrow a distinction made by another participant some time ago, there must be a substantial cause for its reason for being produced, and an accidental cause of its occasional and opportune form. If prior conditions of non-equitable production surplus-distribution, that is, a basic distinction between upper and lower social classes, can be presumed, then authoritarian reaction can only occur in the upper. The reason for this consists in the fear that the lower classes under conditions of sufficient organization will usurp the superior position enjoyed by the upper; which can not be an abstract fear, as Aristotle pointed out in book II of the Rhetoric, as nothing inspires genuine and concrete fear so much as the knowledge that someone to whom one has in the past done a great wrong has attained in the present enough power to do the same wrong to them. A strong centralized state is accordingly seen as needed to protect the socially privileged from being deposed by those they've oppressed. Fear, then, constitutes the substantial cause of authoritarian reaction.

And what then about the means of achieving this? What is the accidental and occasional form or forms by which elite reaction can be said to be successful? The most common is clearly what is called "populism", the exploitation of traditional animosity between distinct groups of the same class. Customary hatreds, suspicions, prejudices, can all be exploited for the purpose of diffusing social organization. Because these are produced by very different substantial causes, however, they should not be considered as characteristics of authoritarianism itself.

So this to my mind is a fair description of what authoritarianism is: an elite reaction based on fear of revolution; and the means by which it's typically achieved: exploitation of customary and supplied hatreds.

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tartarthistle's picture

tartarthistle

Wednesday, May 11, 2022 -- 9:10 PM

One thing I'm noticing lately

One thing I'm noticing lately is that we tend to speak about social power in monolithic terms. We seem incapable of acknowledging the complexity the idea of social power entails: control, influence, and force. These are three conceptually different aspects of social power, but we tend smush them all up into one thing using the language of democratic "equality," which may appear flattering to some, but actually prevents most from "seeing" their actual relationship to social control. Curious what others think...

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, May 11, 2022 -- 10:00 PM

Democracy and equality are,

Democracy and equality are, in fact, bandied to control, influence, and force U.S. citizens' behavior. I'm not sure people don't see this reality. Our standard of living is relatively better than it used to be, which breeds a bit of not "looking"? That would be my response which is almost in step with yours.

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tartarthistle's picture

tartarthistle

Wednesday, May 18, 2022 -- 4:52 PM

I think what I find very

I think what I find very troubling these days--especially after reading the news just now--is that even educated people seem incapable of discerning the logical difference between wholes (symbolic level, i.e., humans, lions, trees), parts (individual units, a human, a lion, a tree), and physical facts (Me, the lion in the SF ZOO, the tree in front of my apartment). This is a serious problem. And to refer back to Arendt's work, this problem relates to actual conditions in our social environment. When things are so unstable, so emotionally inflamed, people literally can't think. Reasoning, introspection, requires stable social/environmental conditions. We need to physically feel safe, stable, and protected. We can't think as a whole people, as in We Americans, because our social conditions are being whipped into a frenzy. The US as a whole nation might be relatively wealthy, but pick any American at random and ask them how stable their economic state is and my guess is you will find someone deeply in debt, and deeply seeking someone to blame for this. Prior to the Covid crisis nearly half of Americans had less than $400 in the bank. America is wealthy, THIS American is not. Most Americans are not. I suspect most Americans are actually poor, and self-identify as "white." The visible American oligarchs (Bezos, Gates, etc.) SEEM to have a great deal of economic power, but seeming to have economic power and actually having economic power are not the same thing. To discern the actual center of economic power requires knowing some factual information (data) and doing some actual calculations in order to come up with the mean among billionaires as a class. There is a center of economic power at any given point in time, but this center is relative and thus constantly subject to change. The occupant in this position shifts. We don't see them, cannot see them, because the facts placing them where they are within the whole system are constantly changing. This center of economic power is the Invisible "Man." They are the one that determines everyone else's value, they are the economic equivalent of the sun. They may not even know it, but they are calling the economic shots, because they have the power to decide how much to give to those sustaining them at any given point in time.

Not all social power is economic, but most people believe that it is. Most people don't reflect on the difference between natural signs (smoke is a sign of fire), an artificial sign (stop signs), and THIS stop sign at an empty intersection without any other people or cameras around right now. There's currency in general, a unit of currency, and THIS one lonely U.S. dollar in my wallet. Seems powerful and IS powerful are not the same. (Force, influence, control= truth, validity, and soundness, these are not three EQUAL things, but three logically different things, just like black, white, and gray are three different colors.)

It would be nice if our working-class was organized, because organized individuals stabilize social conditions. People feel safe when they are meaningfully connected and supported by their peers. Organized labor can function as a counter force to extremist movements by being a third social pillar/power center (the other two being government and religion). Right now, as a whole people we are seriously weakened socially because so many of us are alienated and isolated. Add toxic social media and financial crisis to the mix, and you have a highly volatile situation. Throw a match on things (stock market crash, war, natural disaster), we're toast. Organized labor is very healthy for societies--it keeps people housed, happy, fed, and feeling safe. We REALLY need to urge one another to get organized if we are serious about wanting to maintain our social freedoms and civil liberties.... And this is coming from a Russian Thistle, not a robot...

P.S. Authoritarianism, fascism, and totalitarianism are conceptually three different things. Authoritarianism involves relations of physical force, fascism involves relations between individuals in organized movements, totalitarianism involves relations of complete psychological control (ideology) at a mass level.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, May 15, 2022 -- 5:51 PM

I am having a robot light my

I am having a robot light my artificial cigarette now.

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Monday, May 16, 2022 -- 8:15 AM

Then let's test the claim.

Then let's test the claim. You're troubled by a weak capacity of the part of the educated classes to distinguish between the references of general terms and particulars. On the other hand you imply that it's not their fault on account of the fact that initial external conditions for making the distinction are such that the capacity for doing so is consistently extinguished. Further down you seem to blame the working classes for this state of affairs, as having failed to organize sufficiently for the purpose of furnishing a counter-balance to what by your consideration are the two dominant elements of social control: "government and religion", which I presume you've borrowed from the old one between spiritual and temporal authority. So let's see if a non-robot can answer a question: Is this cursory paraphrase consistent with your meaning?

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tartarthistle's picture

tartarthistle

Tuesday, May 17, 2022 -- 6:30 AM

I'm not sure. Probably not.

I'm not sure if I can clarify my point any further. Forgive me... I'm taking a break from argument for awhile. Going to write some poems...

P.S. Taras Bulba by Gogol is a good read for these times. As is Hadji Murat by Tolstoy....

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, May 17, 2022 -- 3:39 AM

Tartatthistle,

Tartarthistle,

I have been trying to post a response here, but I keep getting forwarded to this URL.

https://www.philosophytalk.org/antibot

Somehow that amuses me. I hear you and would respond on point. Maybe this apology will pass the spam filter/robot brigade.

Tim

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, May 17, 2022 -- 3:42 AM

So that worked. Hmm... not

So that worked.

Hmm... not sure what is wrong with my intended response, except it largely stretches into economics and political science.
I'm going to take the filter's guidance and move on.

You are probably the better for it. I give up. Time to take up smoking real tobacco, perhaps. :-)

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, June 2, 2022 -- 7:26 AM

tartarthistle,

tartarthistle,

Maybe this will work. Not ideal but it might get around the antibot filter. Largely this is what I wrote, and I too am not a robot - even though the site thinks I am.

1
https://www.speakpipe.com/msg/s/174998/12/n8dz9x5mr6dnp5ck
2
https://www.speakpipe.com/msg/s/174998/13/m06pit0a9giqw28c
3
https://www.speakpipe.com/msg/s/174998/14/g2lgu819dsm4iogd

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tartarthistle's picture

tartarthistle

Tuesday, May 17, 2022 -- 7:33 AM

And before going into poetic

And before going into poetic hiding, I will add one last poetic point (not strictly philosophical) to the above comment. The corollary to the invisible "man" mentioned above is our individual service to others in our everyday lives (work/labor). As individuals, we have the power to choose the physical things and beings we wish to sustain. Personally, my guide in this area is the Golden Rule. I would like to believe that at the other end of my service there is an actual living invisible "man" that's truly good and worthy of my gift of service. This is a matter of faith. I think Plato referred to such judgments as opinions, and he held that there was such a thing as a right opinion. I just hope in my own personal daily service to others that my opinions are right. Crossing fingers, writings poems, and taking a sip or two on occasion...

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Friday, May 20, 2022 -- 8:42 PM

--On the post-script- You've

--On the post-script- You've cited three points of emphasis distinguishing conceptual determinations for three separate socio-political concepts. One is physical, one sociological, and one psychological. Are these comparable? Take the example of what you're calling "authoritarianism". What kinds of "relations of physical force" are being spoken of here? If a squirrel runs onto a street into traffic and is crushed by the wheel of a moving vehicle, the relation is one between an irresistible physical force and an organic zoological object which as a result ceases to function properly. Can we say that the vehicle has authority over the squirrel? That doesn't seem to make much sense. And what about the fascism-concept as involving "organized movements" between individuals? The popular game during the decade of the 1970's called "Twister" fulfills this criterion quite well when played by three or more individuals, but that doesn't make anyone who participates in it a fascist. Your version of totalitarianism however is clear with respect to ideological control exerted on whole populations; and is similar to advertising campaigns for the sale of mass-produced products. By this third concept, then, is it accurate to say that the culture of product-advertising under market conditions is totalitarian in nature?

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Thursday, May 12, 2022 -- 6:51 PM

So let's take the analogy of

So let's take the analogy of an automobile, comparing social power to horse-power. When a car is being driven, it's being controlled. But let's say it's a teenaged boy who's driving it on his way to impress a girl who he wants to ask out on a date. That's an intent to influence. And then let's say that when he shows up at her house in his new rig she turns him down and in anger he runs over a stop sign on a nearby street corner, destroying city property and causing significant damage to the front bumper and right front quarter-panel of the vehicle. That's force. So, by your analysis, social power is like a new car being driven by a teenager who can't get a date and has no respect for city property. Do I have that about right?

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Saturday, May 14, 2022 -- 3:13 PM

O.K., maybe that analogy

O.K., maybe that analogy seems a little remote, though I think it's a good one. Because however you left your terms undefined in the description of three components belonging to the phenomenon of social power, a wider possible range became permissible which could have been narrowed down considerably by a few courteous modifiers. So let's take the relationship between social power and its misapprehension by ideological or intellectual support for democratic forms of government, described as a frequently inclining smush-tendency, obscuring its accurate accounting. This smush-tendency, you point out in the first sentence, is a tendency to see things as one big thing ("monolithic", in your terminology), instead of a lot of little things which, being closer in description to what things actually are, is by extension how the object of social power should be approached. You've broken it down into three which are undefined by any specially noteworthy features, so that until some special features are ascribed to them, they will remain uselessly obscure.

Clearly stated is the sharp distinction between discussions of democratic form as maximal distribution of governance-choice ("equality" in your terminology), and an accurate comprehension of the genuine phenomenon of social power. The former misapprehends the latter. And why is that the case? --Because of the monolith-concept instantiated by the smush-tendency. To further determine this relation, one could say that the concept is monolithic in form and smushed in content, by the tendency in one's thinking to make one thing an example of everything else. In this case it's what's equal in quantity to another thing. And because governance-representation is in fact drastically unequal in popular terms, the dissonance between monolithic equality and smushed claims of how one is or is not equal to one thing or another, obscures an accurate and therefore socially healthy and politically accurate view of the phenomenon of social power, or what it really is and, by implication, where it is.

That's as far as I can follow you in the post above. What you haven't done is distinguish between social power and public power, which holds the promise of identifying the separate components of the former, rather than a bald iteration of its labels without prior definition. Social power is the locus of ideational appeal which contains the largest sum of connections to social institutions which are derived from inherited privileges and cultural excellences. Public power on the other hand is a purely quantitative notion, based on the power of numbers in efficient relation to social aspirations and political resolution of grievances. When they're mixed together it's little wonder that it's the accurate accounting of social power which disappears, and tallying up the head-count is seen as its most representative form. And on the other side of the equation, the opportunity to manipulate collective behavior arises where public power is diffused by merely symbolic possession of social-power tokens. It might be useful to remember that "democracy", (from the Greek demos + kratia, meaning strength of the people), doesn't refer etymologically to a form of government (which would be "demarchy"), but a collective power which has to be dealt with by any government in either patent or latent capacity. Under conditions of its diffusion by making use of monolithic smushing, democratic power is harnessed by elements of social power through the tool of governance-ratification. The trick is to get the public to ratify its own oppression, which probably would be considerably more difficult if representative democratic forms were not so readily monolithized.

Control, influence, and force are therefore not sufficient. All three belong to both. Unique to social power by this account are rather uniqueness of qualification, specialized management of democratic power, and capacity of popular servitude-compulsion. Deployment of equality-monolithism by making use of smushing tendencies, would therefore be a characteristic of the first, in service to the second, resulting in the third. Is that a compatible account?

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, May 29, 2022 -- 1:57 PM

Returning to ideology for a

Returning to ideology for a moment. "Stands apart from objective truth". Does that sound so different from authoritarianism? I don't think so. Got into a tiff with some Vedic radicals today. At first, their response to my comments was measured and according to doctrine, near as I could discern. Then another response came to my email. This was disjointed, accusatory and almost wholly stochastic. Someone there got really riled and shaken. I responded in a measured half-dozen words.
Have heard no more from them since. All good. Ideologies are unreliable, making them dangerous. Like authoritarianism.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, September 12, 2022 -- 7:38 AM

Friends:

Friends:
I have a question. There was a term that seems to have come and gone: authoritarian populism. It was thrown into lexicon just days ago. Then, poof, gone with the wind. Does anyone know what happened? I never knew what it was supposed r to mean---maybe that was the point.

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