Thursday, October 7, 2021

Authoritarianism and Meaning

Thomas Edsall, asking about why people think Trump won the 2020 election, stumbled onto academic papers arguing that people embrace authoritarian ideas in pursuit of a more meaningful life (NY Times). Which is not a new idea; many people have offered it as an explanation of Nazism, including most recently Karl Owe Knausgaard. This is from a 2021 paper by Jake Womick and others:

Authoritarian messages influence people on two separable levels, the affective level, lowering positive and enhancing negative affect, and the existential level, enhancing meaning in life.
Definitions of “meaning in life”
include at least three components, significance, the feeling that one’s life and contributions matter to society; purpose, having one’s life driven by the pursuit of valued goals; and coherence or comprehensibility, the perception that one’s life makes sense.
In another paper the authors argue that:
It may seem ironic that authoritarianism, a belief system that entails sacrifice of personal freedom to a strong leader, would influence the experience of meaning in life through its promotion of feelings of personal significance. Yet, right wing authoritarianism does provide a person with a place in the world, as a loyal follower of a strong leader. In addition, compared to purpose and coherence, knowing with great certainty that one’s life has mattered in a lasting way may be challenging. Handing this challenge over to a strong leader and investment in societal conventions might allow a person to gain a sense of symbolic or vicarious significance. . . .

perceptions of insignificance may lead individuals to endorse relatively extreme beliefs, such as authoritarianism, and to follow authoritarian leaders as a way to gain a sense that their lives and their contributions matter. . . .
Despite its negative social implications, right wing authoritarianism serves an existential meaning function. This existential function is primarily about facilitating the sense that one’s life matters. This existential buffering function is primarily about allowing individuals to maintain a sense that they matter during difficult experiences.

The great weakness of liberalism for many people is its emptiness. It denies as a matter of principle that a nation can share much in the way of purpose or identity, or any values beyond tolerance. Rather than telling you what your life should be about, it instructs you to go find your own purpose. Instead of offering citizens simple choices – with us or against us – it asks them to understand complex questions for themselves and take part in developing equally complex responses. It leaves many people utterly cold. 

I don't personally have this problem; I can get all excited and rosy feeling about tolerance and democracy. It took me decades to understand how much like nothing this seems to many people.

I was reading recently about an Afro-Caribbean woman (Beryl Gilroy) who moved to England in the 1950s, who seems to have been genuinely baffled that so many people thought she could never be English. But an identity that someone can assume simply by crossing a border strikes many people as pure nothingness. A national identity, they feel, should imply a great deal more than a flag. It should come with a shared language and vocabulary; with a history, and pride in that history; with a shared outlook on life; with national ways of eating and drinking and talking; with cheering for the national sports teams and toasting the national heroes; with dislike toward the nation's enemies; with a deep-down belief that this nation is the best, and the things that make it distinctive are good things worth fighting for. Defending that nation against attacks of any sort, including accusations that its heroes were really murderous slavers or whatever, gives some people a sense of belonging and purpose.

I sometimes think that historical revisionists don't have any sense of what they are asking people to give up. What are you offering people to replace the strength they drew from believing in the greatness of their ancestors? If your answer is "nothing," you are in for a world of trouble.

I don't think revisionism has to work this way, certainly not in the US. I think Americans can do very well with retelling our story as the gradual expansion of freedom, the way liberals from Benjamin Franklin to Barack Obama liked to tell it. But something like the the 1619 Project is just a grenade lobbed into the debate, and it is going to work like a grenade does.


David said...

Isn't your last paragraph another adults-in-the-room argument, or maybe a tiptoeing-around-your-angry-uncle argument? Aren't you saying that the sensibilities of American nationalists are so delicate, and their tempers so volatile, that we all must be careful to say and do nothing that will upset them? Is this not a sort of political correctness in reverse? And if so, why should we be tenderer to one side than the other?

Perhaps the answer is a sort of political-correctness-all-around. That sort of self-restraint has been the basis of more than one culture in the world. And it is, arguably, the very basis of Bidenism. But the right hasn't seemed even slightly interested.

At some point, the angry uncle will make himself intolerable, no?

G. Verloren said...


It is perhaps worth noting that "political correctness" doesn't mean self restraint and self censorship for the sake of politeness and civility - it refers to intentionally disingenuous euphemistic language of the sort used by politicians to try to make an objectively bad thing sound better to their constituents.

It's not an illegal undeclared war! It's a "police action"!
It's not the illegal indiscriminate killing of civilians! It's "collateral damage"!
It's not the illegal use of barbaric torture! It's "enhanced interrogation techniques"!

"Political correctness" is the attempt to weasel out of the natural consequences of truly awful acts by making them sound far more acceptable than they actually are. It's not about protecting people's delicate feelings, it's about protecting your own ass and getting away with something you shouldn't - often in perpetuity if possible.

Of course, the reason most people don't know the actual meaning of the phrase is because of all the politicians who have intentionally worked to shift the public's understanding of the term.

What started out as a term used to condemn the act of trying to hide the uncomfortable truth got twisted into a term used to condemn the act of pointing out the uncomfortable truth.

David said...


You seem to be using political correctness to mean the same as official euphemism, with a specific reference to bureaucratic evasion of the truth. I've never seen anyone else use it in the fashion you are using it. Usually it is used to mean not using insulting language in reference to women, minorities, or other persons deemed to be disadvantaged or lacking in power.

G. Verloren said...

As I said, the popular usage has been twisted over time.

Originally, in the late 1700s, it was used quite plainly and unironically to refer to decisions that were wise from a political standpoint. But it wasn't a common phrase, and it certainly wasn't part of the mainstream popular discourse.

We have to jump to the 1960s to find it entering more common usage, promoted in part by Lyndon B. Johnson famously stating that he would enact policies "not because they are politically correct, but because they are right." This usage helped shift it from a term of praise to one of criticism, adding the implication that prioritizing politics over morality or truth is intolerable.

But in the decades since, the term has slowly shifted once again, led largely by conservative efforts to co-opt a term that was frequently used to criticize their actions and positions. These elements worked to divorce "politically correct" from either its original meaning or its ironically critical usage, and instead began using it simply as a dogwhistle to refer to topics such as multiculturalism and diversity that they sought to oppose.

The original implication of conservatives, of course, was that people who complained about how women and minorities were being treated fairly were actually just concerned with earning political points, not with promoting what is morally right - the exact opposite of the actual truth.