Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Roots of Right-Wing Authoritarianism

All of us get born with a greater or lesser tendency to be authoritarian. We know from breeding experiments that offspring can turn out increasingly dominant or increasingly submissive by controlling who mates with whom. And studies of identical and fraternal twins give some evidence that authoritarianism has hereditary roots. But, our level of authoritarianism is mostly shaped by nurture and our experiences.

Parents are one important influence of their children’s attitudes. Most parents want their children to have the same attitudes they do. They may not indoctrinate their children, but nor do they educate them either. The degree to which parents try to force their view upon their children correlate highly with the degree to which these children will still believe what their parents have learned them as adults. Thus, if they are indoctrinated, they tend to never stray from their parents religion.

Even though parents supply the genes and have a great impact on their children’s attitudes, we seldom turn out carbon copies of them. Why not? Other children may have some influence on us, but not much. Students show much greater sensitivity to their peers’ dress style than to the issues raised on the RWA scale. So where do young people get their notions? Experiences!
If a first-year university student tells me of their experiences in life thus far, I can make a pretty good prediction of how they will score on the RWA scale. Life has taught us many lessons.

For example, some of us have seen leaders abuse their powers, lie and manipulate. And, students who have had contact with lots of different kinds of people tend to realize that no one group has “the truth” or knows “the right way” to live.

A General Model

Generally, everyone was pretty authoritarian as children. But, when adolescence struck with all its desires for autonomy, some of us began to have new experiences that could shake up the early lessons. If the experiences reinforced the parents’ and clergies’ teachings, authoritarian attitudes would likely remain high. But, if the experiences indicated the teachings were wrong (e.g. “Sex isn’t bad. It’s great!”), the teen could become less authoritarian.

High RWA students tend to have missed many experiences that might have lowered their authoritarianism. They have not met many different kinds of people. Instead they had grown up in an enclosed, rather homogeneous environment – with their friends and activities controlled.

Authoritarian followers show capacity for change. For example, high RWAs who know an atheist or homosexual are much less hostile towards them in general than most authoritarians are. Getting to know an atheist or homosexual usually makes one more accepting of them as groups. Personal experiences can make a lot of difference. The problem is, most right-wing authoritarians won’t willingly exit their comfort-zone and try to meet an atheist or homosexual. They are too afraid.

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