The Water Spirit by Carl Schweninger the Elder (1990)

Thinking for yourself is a continuous struggle, a quality that must be nourished and championed within the self because we’re under constant coercion, even self-coercion that urges us to default to someone else’s way of thinking. It’s a great relief when we can trust and follow someone’s advice because it provides security. Often this can “work”, but the times it doesn’t can prove disastrous, and this is why the development of self-reliance is a vital feature of emotional intelligence, because it provides genuine, robust security against dangers, as opposed to the illusory, fragile security of the submission to authority.

Intraception, coined by psychologist Henry Alexander Murray, is the process of understanding the world through how it makes us feel inside and seems to be a prominent feature of individualists. Repression doesn’t come naturally to an intraceptor and it’s almost impossible for them to tolerate cultish or authoritarian attitudes, because the body warns the intraceptor of its dangers, through the sensations of disgust, revulsion, and contempt. It’s principally by this cognitive trait that the individualist contrasts against the authoritarian.

Psychologist Bob Altemeyer spent his career studying the authoritarian personality, which is characterized by two subtypes: the authoritarian follower and the social dominator (Altemeyer, 2004). 

When it comes to forgoing independent thought, authoritarian followers are more susceptible, the extreme ones going so far as to base their entire lives around it. They’re characterized by traits like conventionalism, superstition, stereotyping, prejudice (Stones, et al., 2006), anti-intraception, aggression towards eccentrics (those who violate the value system), and projection. These all have in common the neglect of the self, the internal guidance system, focusing exclusively on the external. Since they haven’t developed inner worlds, or at least stopped theirs developing at the infantile stage, they’re able to repress and delude themselves without much dissonance, or even with dissonance, they are emotionally clouded enough to stifle it whenever it crops up. That’s why so many people who do so much wrong can believe they’ve done right and continue living with themselves. Conversely, a deeply attuned intraceptor has to cultivate virtue, or character, because they couldn’t live with themselves otherwise. Repression and delusion are smokescreens that make all of reality opaque.

To an authoritarian follower, the very existence of an “odd” person is evidence that their thinking is different, and therefore wrong, because if their thinking was “correct”, then they wouldn’t be different. Whatever doctrine the authoritarian was raised with, or subscribed to later in life, is the one that everyone needs to follow, because it’s the only right way to live. They think all knowledge is already known and that their Powers That Be have already figured out all universal truths, so they see the idea of intellectual pursuit as not only stupid, but also arrogant and disrespectful. So, eccentricity is seen as a threat by authoritarians, instead of something to be celebrated: “We have all already been taught what to think, so who are you to be thinking differently? And how dare you!”

Social dominators resemble the sociopath because their inner worlds are at least more tangible, and they’re able to think for themselves, but they’re inclined to be immoral, narcissistic, cruel, conniving, and domineering. That is, they understand when they do wrong; they just don’t care. They embody the Neo-Darwinist morality that “Might is Right”, and subscribe to the value system that the only thing that matters is the acquirement of more power, at all costs. To them, all victims are weak, and so deserve whatever punishment they get from the strong.

The Third of May, 1808 by Francisco Goya (1814)

The authoritarian followers synergize with the social dominators like a plug meets a socket: dogmatic herds being manipulated by and then elevating and worshiping tyrannical leaders. Since social dominators can introspect on a mechanical level, meaning they have cognitive empathy but no affective empathy, they can calculate how to influence people. They can paint violence and mayhem as justice, and they do, since the authoritarian followers need to believe they’re righteous. This is how cults, ideologies, fascists, and police-states succeed, and that’s why authoritarians generally hate artists, eccentrics, and rebels. They dehumanize them as morally corrupt (“sinful”), and frame themselves as righteous defenders of their cause, so they don’t feel bad when harming them, in interpersonal settings, or with literal bloodshed. 

It’s important to point out that Altemeyer’s research focused on right-wing authoritarianism because it was most prominent at the time, but it’s clear that authoritarianism is non-partisan and manifests itself in whatever ideology that’s opportune. The idea of left-wing authoritarianism used to be mocked and was “debunked”, but the more recent research is finding it to be just as prevalent as right-wing authoritarianism was during Altemeyer’s career (Regt, et al., 2011; Conway, et al., 2017). What’s dangerous is that social dominators can and have disguised tyrannical behavior and influence as very admirable tenets of true liberalism. Altemeyer himself acknowledged the non-partisan nature of authoritarianism, and validated the existence of “left-wing authoritarian followers…who support a revolutionary leader who wants to overthrow the establishment. I knew a few in the 1970s, Marxist university students who constantly spouted their chosen authorities, Lenin or Trotsky or Chairman Mao. Happily they spent most of their time fighting with each other…” (Altemeyer, The Authoritarians, pg. 10).

“I’ve always called it right-wing authoritarianism rather than simply authoritarianism in acknowledgment that left-wing authoritarianism also exists. An authoritarian follower submits excessively to some authorities, aggresses in their name, and insists on everyone following their rules. If these authorities are the established authorities in society, that’s right-wing authoritarianism. If one submits to authorities who want to overthrow the establishment, that’s left-wing authoritarianism, as I define things.”
—Bob Altemeyer, The Authoritarians, pg. 35

Previously, I wrote about Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments and resisting authoritarianism in my article Authoritarianism, Obedience, & Awareness. To recap, Milgram’s experiments found that just the facade of an expert in a white coat ordering people to electrocute a person, possibly to death, just because it’s “the instructions”, was enough for 37 out 40 of subjects to obey completely. An important variable was when Milgram added an actor to lead by example, refusing to follow orders and walking out of the experiment. When this preceded the experiment, 36 out of 40 real subjects also defied orders and walked out.

“Obedience of authority is one of the ‘strong forces’ in life, but so also is conformity to one’s peers. How people acted depended very little on what kind of people they were, and very greatly on the situation they were in—particularly on what their peers did.”
—Bob Altemeyer, The Authoritarians, pg. 230

What does this tell us regarding self-reliance? To trust your gut. To be skeptical of consensus. To lead by example. To speak up when you know you should. To never be complicit in injustice or abuse. To stand up for those who can’t. Even if you’re in the minority of one. In this way we can honor and defend the freedom of the individual, never submitting to those who would gleefully have us renounce our identities, or have us killed for our insolence.

“…the difference between low and high authoritarians is one of degree, I repeat, not kind. To put a coda on this section: with enough direct pressure from above and subtle pressure from around us, Milgram has shown, most of us cave in.”
—Bob Altemeyer, The Authoritarians, pg. 231

Akin to Jung’s concept of the shadow, there is some of the authoritarian follower and some of the social dominator in all of us. Of course, this acknowledgment is an inevitable part of the self-actualization process. Once we understand we can be just like the worst of them, we can utilize that awareness and transmute it into something socially positive, instead of it manifesting in some unconscious and horrific way.

Most recently, the importance of positively influencing others simply by example became clearer to me. I try not to compel anyone because I don’t like or accept other people doing it to me. Almost always, when my behavior has a positive impact on someone, it’s because I didn’t directly intend it to.

“The attempt to steer a person can make it hard for them to move, because it inactivates their own guidance system.”
—Ray Peat, “How do you know? Students, patients, and discovery, 2007

Merely by focusing on your development and passions, striving to build character, and working on projects that brighten you, people will confide that to witness it has inspired them in this or that way, or ask for input about their circumstances because they see similarities in yours. This isn’t specific to anyone; it’s a universal behavior. To manifest your potential is to show people that they can too, and the brightness you exude encourages them to grow, so they can cultivate their own brightness. 

The antithesis of influencing-by-example is unsolicited advice, and the extreme version of unsolicited advice is authoritarian coercion. The authoritarian feels threatened by the joy of diverse creation and looks to depose the confidence of others in an attempt to stifle that creation. The distant possibility in their minds, that there is more to existence than they could ever possibly imagine, is so terrifying that they must, for their own safety, perceive novelty as heresy. The arrogant imposition of the unsolicited advisor betrays their insecurities and it doesn’t even work because it leads to defiance-reactions in the people they’re coercing (Fitzsimons and Lehmann, 2004). The coercer isn’t motivated by altruism, but instead to satisfy their need to dominate, control, and reassure themselves.

“Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.”
—C.G. Jung, On the Psychology of the Unconscious, The Problem of the Attitude-Type, [78]

When we maintain self-reliance, there is no need to exert power over others, because we’re nourishing and mastering ourselves, and in that way nourishing a collaborative world.

The Herring Net by Winslow Homer
The Herring Net by Winslow Homer (1885)

Works Cited

Altemeyer, Bob. “Highly Dominating, Highly Authoritarian Personalities.” The Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 144, no. 4, 2004, pp. 421–448., doi:10.3200/socp.144.4.421-448.

Altemeyer, Bob. The Authoritarians. The Author, 2006.

Conway, Lucian Gideon, et al. “Finding the Loch Ness Monster: Left-Wing Authoritarianism in the United States.” Political Psychology, vol. 39, no. 5, 2017, pp. 1049–1067., doi:10.1111/pops.12470.

Fitzsimons, Gavan J., and Donald R. Lehmann. “Reactance to Recommendations: When Unsolicited Advice Yields Contrary Responses.” Marketing Science, vol. 23, no. 1, 2004, pp. 82–94., doi:10.1287/mksc.1030.0033.

Jung, C. G. Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 7: Two Essays in Analytical Psychology. Princeton University Press, 2014.

Regt, Sabrina De, et al. “Left-Wing Authoritarianism Is Not a Myth, but a Worrisome Reality. Evidence from 13 Eastern European Countries.” Communist and Post-Communist Studies, vol. 44, no. 4, 2011, pp. 299–308., doi:10.1016/j.postcomstud.2011.10.006.

Stones, Christopher R. “Antigay Prejudice Among Heterosexual Males: Right-Wing Authoritarianism As A Stronger Predictor Than Social-Dominance Orientation And Heterosexual Identity.” Social Behavior and Personality: an International Journal, vol. 34, no. 9, 2006, pp. 1137–1150., doi:10.2224/sbp.2006.34.9.1137.

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