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Authoritarianism

More pertinent now than ever...

 

     The Automation Citizen (Erich Fromm, 1966) 

 

According to Aronson (1980), the Authoritarian Personality possesses the following characteristics:

  • Is predisposed toward prejudice;
  • Tends to rigid and/or obsessional in beliefs;
  • Tends to possess "conventional" beliefs;
  • Is intolerant of weakness in self and others;
  • Tends to be highly punitive;
  • Is suspicious;
  • Is respectful of authority to an unusual degree.

Erich Fromm (1941) characterized the normal or mentally healthy person as one who is able to work productively in the fashion demanded by society, and able to participate in the perpetuation of that society.  The difficulty with [any] society is that requirements it levels for normalcy often conflict with the individual's own need for growth and happiness.  Two courses of action are open as s/he tries to overcome this conflict:

S/he can progress to "positive freedom" and relate spontaneously to the world in love and work, in the genuine expression of emotional, sensuous, and intellectual capacities and can thus become one with man, nature, and self without giving up the independence and integrity of the "individual self."  The second course of action open to the individual involves the unhealthy strategy of relinquishing personal freedom completely.  Seeking to merge with, or surrender his.her identity to, the conglomerate we call society, this individual strives to "escape freedom."  Fromm distinguishes three such mechanisms of escape (authoritarianism, destructiveness, and automation conformity).

 

     Authority Song (John Mellencamp, 1984) 

 

Authoritarianism as an "Escape Mechanism" 

To attain the desired status of strength or power, the individual make seek to fuse the self with another - somebody or something lying outside of self.  In extreme form, the individual becomes submissive, passive, even masochistic. Feeling insignificant, powerless, and inferior, the individual struggling to escape his/her own freedom succeeds in the struggle when able to submit to the power of others, to provoke self-humiliation, and even to intensify worthlessness with self-belittling.

A nearly opposite authoritarian mechanism is sometimes seen in those who, rather than submit to authority, attempt to become the authority.  In place of masochism, a strong sadistic desire to obtain absolute and unrestricted p;owed over others becomes the means of escape.  Such an authoritarian may desire to have others dependent on him/her, or to exploit others ruthlessly, or to cause others direct physical suffering and pain.

Both the masochistic and sadistic forms of authoritarianism solve the problem of the burden of freedom by annihilating the individual self.  "Psychologically... [sadism and masochism] are the outcomes of one basic need, springing from the inability to bear the isolation and weakness of one's own self"  Fromm suggested the unconscious foundation of both these strategies be called symbiosis.  "Symbiosis means the union of one's self with another (or any power outside of the own self) in such a way as to make each lose the integrity of its' own self and to make them completely dependent on each other.

Thus, for both the masochist and the sadist, escape from freedom involves a flight from the self.  For the masochist, this end is accomplished when s/he is "swallowed up" by an outside force; for the sadistic personality the same end is accomplished when s/he "swallows up" others. 

 

Further Research:

J.J. Ray, Achievement motivation as a source of racism, conservatism, and authoritarianism (1984) contends that achievement motivation may be responsible for many instances of authoritarianism and that some ethnocentrism is an outcome of economic competition (i.e., people who are ambitious for material success tend to find the directing of people an integral part of what they do would like to do).

K. Leonhard's Sects, herd instincts, and limits of antiauthoritarianism (1983) discusses the character of sects in view of the "Guyana Massacre," which led to the murder or suicide of >900 people.  It is noted that members of sects tend to subordinate themselves to domineering personalities to the point of self-abnegation.  An excessively anti-authoritarian education which aims at allowing the child all possible freedom in which to develop (similar to the system now employed in German schools) may actually frustrate the child by denying a need to feel safe and secure. This denial may encourage involvement in both sects and criminal gangs.  It is concluded that rejection of reasonable authority in education is injudicious.

Behavioral Study of Obedience, the truly classic study of obedience to authority by S. Milgram (1963) is highly recommended for all individuals who work within the educational realm.  This famous study clearly illustrates the dangers of those "escaping freedom."

 

Conclusions:

Colonel Flagg has been humorously portrayed and an example of an authoritarian on the television series M.A.S.H. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North is a tragic example of a real-life authoritarian.  John and Jane Wayne are stereotypical authoritarians.  Vince Lombardi and Bobby Knight are examples from the world of sports.  Hitler was one of the most notorious.  Although some mail hail as heroes...

Teachers, parents, and others involved with the socialization of students should be aware of the phenomenon and processes of authoritarianism and it's potentially adverse effects upon the individual and society.  It seems clear from past and current research that too much authority (dictatorship/totalitarianism) or too little authority (laissez faire) can be equally disadvantageous; various other forms of leadership exist between these two extremes.  As educators (and humans), our goal should be to continue to strive toward helping the child develop toward an "individual positive freedom."

Let's project Fromm's definition to apply for students.  A mentally healthy student is one who is able to work productively in the fashion demanded by school, and able to participate in the perpetuation of that school.  

Encouraging creativity, accepting individual differences, allowing cultural diversity, and helping students gain insight into their individual strengths and weaknesses may help students toward their goal of freedom.  Acceptance of the view that punishment does not work may be the key.

 

 

 

Sources:

Fromm, Erich.  Escape from freedom.  New York:  Avon Books, 1941.

Aronson, A.  Prejudice.  In R.C. Atkinson, J. Freedman, G. Lindzey, & R.F. Thompson (Eds.), The Social Animal (pp. 213-215).  San Francisco:  W.H. Freeman & Co. 

 

Notes:

I first authored this brief work as a position paper while an undergraduate psychology student at Eastern Montana College in Billings.  Authoritarianism seemed a very important topic to me then - it seems even more important now. Erich Fromm and Thomas Szasz appear to be about the only two psychiatrists with whom I find myself in consistent agreement.

 

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Authoritarianism © 1984, 2015-2022.  Donald J. Asbridge, Ed.S. Bakersfield, California USA.  Some rights reserved.

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