Forget about right and wrong, and stop being so mystified and affronted that Hillbilly Elegy or Neo Neonazi don’t see things the way you do. “How can they support Trump?!?” many a well-meaning Democrat will plaintively cry.
But these judgments are labels we’ve invented — they’re purely symbolic. It’s the feelings underneath that truly produce motivation — there is a physiological reason that “our camp” and “their camp” seem so drastically different from each other. Almost as if we no longer inhabit the same reality anymore. It used to be that we routinely disagreed (and even fought bitterly) over facts — but now we disagree over whether facts have any value at all, which is a very dangerous place to be.
So we don’t necessarily need right and wrong to understand the Trump cult, and it may even get in the way. A Buddhist would offer a far more neutral perspective on the chasm dividing America today:
- What the liberal left (and a smattering of defected right) enjoyed tonight at the Democratic National Convention was pleasant to us. It felt good.
- To the Trumpkins, the DNC was unpleasant, and greatly so.
- For Trump rallies and presumably the RNC, the feelings swap: his fans pass over mere pleasant into a frenzy of malignant envy and sadism.
- For us Democrats, those events are nightmarishlyunpleasant. They give us the heebie jeebies.
For some of us, it’s just how we’re wired. Others have the nurture member of the dyad to thank, or blame. Either way: it is what it is.
Some of us will grow and stretch and change over the course of our lives. Others have fixed set points. Maybe we should be asking some additional questions beyond, “But how can they believe…” including, “what is it that some people find unpleasant about compassion and love? Is it that they feel those things to be absent in their own lives, or that they’ve been betrayed by those ideals in some way?”
Sociologist Theodor Adorno created the “F scale” in a 1950 seminal work entitled The Authoritarian Personality — to rank the level of predilection to fascism in an individual both during and shortly after World War II.
In authoritarian personality theory, the defining traits of the Platonic fascist (or the ur-Fascist as Umberto Eco would later call them) include the following:
conventionalism — following the rules; “this is how we’ve always done things”; fundamentalist thinking; dogmatic philosophy; intolerance of ambiguity (and intolerance in general)
authoritarian submission — follow the Ruler; the Ruler is always right, no matter how obvious the lie or big the myth. only ingroup authority figures matter, though.
authoritarian aggression — “send in the troops,” “when the looting starts the shooting starts,” “dominate the streets”
anti-intellectualism — distrust of experts; paranoid politics; intellectualism is unmasculine
stereotypy — racism, sexism, classism, ageism, all the isms; homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, all the phobias
power and “toughness” — obsessed with dominance and submission; rigidly pro-hierarchy; solves problems with violence; values physical strength
destructiveness — dismantle the Federal government; remove environmental regulations; pull out of international alliances; weakening America’s place in the world, abandoning the EU, and kowtowing to dictators around the world
cynicism — “both sides do it,” whataboutism, all politicians are bad, conscience (non)voters
projectivity — everything is Obama’s fault, almost literally; claims Biden is corrupt; Hillary’s email server (though they all used and continue to use private email servers, every single one of them); claim that the Clinton campaign started the birther controversy; accuse everyone else of lying
exaggerated concerns over sex — anti-abortion; homophobia; excessive taboos; excessive shame
We are seeing all of these traits today. We see it in our leadership, we see it in our communities, and we see it surging around the world.
We see it in a much larger percentage of our populace than many of us might have imagined. People of good character far outnumber the Right-Wing Authoritarians, but they can be subjugated, emotionally manipulated, strong-armed, abused, intimidated, made cynical by the RWAs. And the RWA personality is driven to actively hate outgroups in many outrageously twisted and depraved ways, from pettiness to genocide.
Right-Wing Authoritarian personality type
Refined by psychologist Bob Altemeyer in 1981, the Right-Wing Authoritarian scale (RWA) addresses some of the limitations of the F scale and exhibits more predictive power in identifying individuals exhibiting authoritarian personality.
The authoritarian personality is associated with all of the following traits, beliefs, actions, and patterns:
unquestioning respect for and submission to a chosen authority
a primary drive to achieve relief from uncertainty, even at the cost of individual freedom
Maybe we could offer up the RWA test as a “good faith” gesture, if one is interested in participating in civic discourse with credibility and authenticity. It would help us identify those individuals who are going to be unlikely to play by the rules of the game or have no intention of behaving fairly.
Although we have bot tests, we don’t really have great ways of measuring and identifying human beings with deceptive agendas. If we could screen people as authoritarians via “honorable challenge,” we could save so much time by not wasting it on the lost causes whose power trip runs so deep it can never be exposed. It could serve as a way to drag out into the light any number of intolerable, anti-democratic sentiments masquerading as “strict Constitutionalism.” We can pry open the doublespeak and arm ourselves with the secret decoder rings of understanding RWA dogwhistles.
And maybe we can finally change the conversation by more easily identifying friendlies from foes from the start, without having to wade through every minefield.
This is the dominant Manichaean struggle of our age, and perhaps every age before it: shall we structure our society with a strict hierarchical system of highs and lows, with power concentrated at the top? Or shall we have an egalitarian society where truth, justice, and fairness rule the day?
There are a lot of stories, myths, and narratives centered on this question: hierarchy or fairness? Cultural wars and actual wars have been waged — numerous times throughout history.
We are fighting a new incarnation of that war now in our nation, as civil unrest spreads following yet another extrajudicial murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin — who knelt on the neck of George Floyd for a jaw-dropping 8 minutes and 46 seconds: 2 minutes and 53 seconds beyond the point where Floyd lost consciousness and 1 minute and 54 seconds past the point fellow officers checked to confirm he had no pulse.
That is a staggeringly long time.
There is simply no credibility to the typical excuse that Chauvin somehow feared for his life — from an unarmed, handcuffed, prone, unconscious, and then lifeless George Floyd. Arrested over an allegedly counterfit $20 bill. Meanwhile Congress appropriates hundreds of billions and even trillions for big business and last I heard, no arrests had been made. Curious.
It starts in childhood
Psychologists like Alice Miller and Darcia Narvaez attribute this troubling mentality — this mentality that exhibits complete disregard for human life — as originating in our child-raising “techniques.” At one time corporal punishment for youth was the rule and not the exception; not uncoincidentally, the Hitler Youth of Germany had been largely raised under the “advice” of Daniel Gottlieb Moritz Shreber who advocated beating babies from a young age so the importance of obedience would be drilled into them early on.
It wasn’t until much later we learned that traumatized and neglected children display severe lesions affecting up to the 30 percent of the areas of the brain responsible for controlling emotions. In other words, “traditional” child-rearing in the fundamentalist religion style of “spare the rod, spoil the child” produces emotionally crippled adults — who tend to enact the revenge fantasies of their internal repressed rage as adults later in life. They simply need be provided with an “authorized” scapegoat.
Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt
Miller goes on to suggest the psychological survival mechanism of denial employed by abused children to survive their situation leads them to develop the kind of emotional blindness in adulthood that will turn the other way when witnessing violations of another person’s humanity — or may even be induced to carry them out. We’re all familiar with the Adolf Eichmann “defense” of why he should be exonerated for behaving like a robotic killer: “I was just following orders.”
Teaching children to be obedient or be emotionally abandoned — whether through physical abuse or emotional abuse or both — is the key to unlocking this mystery of the appeal of hierarchy and authoritarianism which is seeing a resurgence not just in the United States but around the world — especially in Europe as well. Miller calls it “poisonous pedagogy” — not just parents but many other forms of authority indoctrinate youth in this vicious cycle and benefit from the creation of obedient individuals by amassing and maintaining power.
The kicker is we are not supposed to recognize this process — and if we do, we most certainly are not supposed to speak up about it. We are supposed to remain unaware that our deference to authority is merely a construct; a thin veneer over the insecurity of power that hopes desperately to continue wielding absurd moral authority over the masses. This collective and complicitous denial keeps us all locked in the dance of abuser and abused — essentially pretending it isn’t happening all around us including in our own homes.
The Founders advocated fairness
For all the right wing enjoys brandishing the Constitution as fundamental law, they tend to often miss the forest for the trees — that the founding fathers wrote extensively on their views and consideration in constructing a new nation towards the end of the 18th century, and that those views were decidedly against the arbitrary rule of kings and the strict striations of class as seen in the empires of Europe. They sought to get away from the cult of personality paradigm of the divine right of kings, believing that the rule of law should hold sway and that men ought to govern themselves through a political process with enough checks and balances to ensure no single branch or individual could wield too much power over others.
James Madison especially was a big believer in the “wisdom of crowds” to arrive at a better, more morally appropriate solution to legislation and problem solving. Moreover they were extremely uncomfortable with the role of slavery at the founding of the nation, despite being simultaneously apiece with the times and not entirely living up to those professed ideals.
Nevertheless, the role of ideals is to move us forward towards better times; to continually improve our individual and collective characters to get closer to living them out. Taking the ideals of fairness and equality as the guiding north star of a new nation and falling short is, in my humble opinion, still leagues farther along than giving in to the indulgent impulse towards supremacy and hierarchy and calling it a day. It’s the essence of progressivism as a vehicle for a narrative of self-growth — as opposed to the narrative hierarchy offers, which is static; dead; inert. There can be no change, no dynamism to a system which defines a priori everyone’s place in society.
When usability pioneers have All the Feels about the nature of our creeping technological dystopia, how we got here, and what we might need to do to right the ship, it’s wise to pay attention. Don Norman’s preaching resonated with my choir, and they’ve asked me to sing a summary song of our people in bulleted list format:
What seemed like a virtuous thing at the time — building the internet with an ethos of trust and openness — has led to a travesty via lack of security, because no one took bad actors into account.
Google, Facebook, et al didn’t have the advertising business model in mind a priori, but sort of stumbled into it and got carried away giving advertisers what they wanted — more information about users — without really taking into consideration the boundary violations of appropriating people’s information. (see Shoshana Zuboff’s definitive new book on Surveillance Capitalism for a lot more on this topic)
Tech companies have mined the psychological sciences for techniques that — especially at scale — border on mass manipulation of fundamental human drives to be informed and to belong. Beyond the creepy Orwellian slant of information appropriation and emotional manipulation, the loss of productivity and mental focus from years of constant interruptions takes a toll on society at large.
We sign an interminable series of EULAs, ToS’s and other lengthy legalese-ridden agreements just to access the now basic utilities that enable our lives. Experts refer to these as “contracts of adhesion” or “click-wrap,” as a way of connoting the “obvious lack of meaningful consent.” (Zuboff)
The “bubble effect” — the internet allows one to surround oneself completely with like-minded opinions and avoid ever being exposed to alternative points of view. This has existential implications for being able to inhabit a shared reality, as well as a deleterious effect on public discourse, civility, and the democratic process itself.
The extreme commercialization of almost all of our information sources is problematic, especially in the age of the “Milton Friedman-ification” of the economic world and the skewing of values away from communities and individuals, towards a myopic view of shareholder value and all the attendant perverse incentives that accompany this philosophical business shift over the past 50 years. He notes that the original public-spiritedness of new communication technologies has historically been co-opted by corporate lobbyists via regulatory capture — a subject Tim Wu explores in-depth in his excellent 2011 book, “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.“
Is it all bleak, Don?! His answer is clear: “yes, maybe, no.” He demurs on positing a definitive answer to all of these issues, but he doesn’t really mince words about a “hunch” that it may in fact involve burning it all down and starting over again.
Pointing to evolution, Norman notes that we cannot eke radical innovation out of incremental changes — and that when radical change does happen it is often imposed unexpectedly from the outside in the form of catastrophic events. Perhaps if we can’t manage to Marie Kondo our way to a more joyful internet, we’ll have to pray for Armageddon soon…?! 😱
It’s designed to whip you up into a frenzy in order to foment cheap pageviews. Its interest is in you becoming a histrionic attention whore, such that you suck in as much clandestinely stolen user data to your platform of choice as possible.
Anger is also notably the “loophole” emotion — it’s the invisible one men get to have, while claiming for generations upon generations that “women are too emotional to be entrusted” with leadership or anything meaningful, really. Meanwhile male anger and aggression have killed hundreds of millions and wreaked destruction upon the earth many times over, as fragile masculinity is repeatably and predictably triggered over any little old thing.
… some pure, holy, unchanging thing. A perfect, Platonic form.
But there is nothing unchanging. And religion is overall fading — except at the edges; the extremes.
We want desperately to believe in something. This can make us vulnerable to hucksters, tricksters, deceivers, and all kinds of charms and fakery. The modern life condition exacerbates this, with its fractious social isolationism, vapid consumerism, and erosion of community.
May I suggest that we could find solace by cultivating belief in ourselves, and in each other? Be critical when warranted, but beat back this terrible cynicism that engulfs public discourse, filling it with day to day ennui. We don’t have to be at each other’s throats.
Considering your thought patterns and style of interacting with the world, which set of personality traits seems to characterize you more:
Believe it’s up to you to change things
Expect others to do it for you
Mentally active; love to learn things
Impulsive and reactive; take action before thinking about things, to blow off anxiety quickly
Self-reflective; learn from mistakes
Avoid self-reflection; rarely use mistakes to learn how to do better next time
Solve problems from the inside out
Assign blame to others; believe if others would only give you what you want, your problems would be solved
Sensitive; try to understand cause and effect
Insensitive; prefer to forget and move on
See life as opportunity for self-development
Firmly attached to the idea that things in the outside world need to change
Work hard to cope with reality
Struggle against reality, often by attempting to avoid it
Instinctively take responsibility for solving problems on your own
Feel that competent people owe you help; depend on external soothing
Feel guilty when displeasing others
Fear being cut off from external sources of security
Can suffer from imposter syndrome
Can have low self-confidence and/or a sense of inflated superiority
Can be overly self-sacrificing
Overly dependent on others for support and stability
While striking a healthier balance is important for both personality styles, extreme externalizers have it worse than extreme internalizers. The Internalizers’ use of self-reflection promotes psychological growth, while the Externalizers’ staunch refusal to self-examine creates a vicious cycle of self-defeating behaviors and thought patterns.
An extremely Externalizing worldview has the power to stunt psychological and emotional growth, and is often a hallmark of emotionally immature individuals.
Let’s look around us and see if we can spot any examples of emotional immaturity in American culture: in our leaders, in celebrities, in the rich, powerful, and theoretically Most Successful individuals in our society. Seen through the lens of Externalization, do some of their behaviors and statements seem to make more coherent sense?
Emotional immaturity is the core problem we face in American culture
We spend a lot of time spitballing about whether the Misbehaving Elites deserve clinical diagnoses as a way of explaining the frequently callous, antisocial nature of their words and actions (there are even professional advocates in favor of lifting the Goldwater Rule inhibiting diagnoses “from afar”), but the fact is — as with intimate romantic relationships — it’s dangerous to sit around and wait for a professional diagnosis that is unlikely to be forthcoming. We don’t need an expert opinion to inform us about how their actions make us feel. We don’t need to defer to any central authority to determine if the outcome of their actions is damaging, or morally inappropriate.
We have the tools of evaluation already in our possession, each and every one of us. Whether behavior can be construed as pathological or within the ever-shifting spectrum of cultural normality (a sort of social psychological version of the Overton window), we can evaluate its effects on our psyche, our moral compass, and — as best we can — its objectively measured effects on the world.
Emotionally immature acts are net destructive (although they may greatly benefit the actor, particularly in the short term). They are the hallmark of the “easy way out,” the lazy “I shouldn’t have to lift a finger” worldview, the “effort is for other people” belief system, the EZ button mentality.
In a culture no longer wholly preoccupied with meeting basic material needs, we remain curiously obsessed with materialism, external validations of success, and hoarding wealth. Meanwhile, we completely devalue our emotional and psychological lives, inner states, self-reflection, and all the “icky, squishy” stuff of human nature — interactions that are not transactions, that cannot be measured, traded, or indexed, that are not profitable to someone, are predominantly seen as worthless. We are told that we need to become “more efficient,” which is techno-utopian speak for “able to generate more profit for America’s economic winners” who already have far more than any person legitimately needs, yet still feel curiously empty and unfilfilled (i.e. the Utility Monsters).
If we do not check this tendency; if we do not put a stop to the relentless devaluation and eradication of our inner lives; if we continue to look the other way while EZ buttons are continuously offered and implemented in lieu of deep effort — then it is probable that the inexorable march of capital’s power will continue to squeeze out anything truly sacred, altruistic, whimsical, unprofitable, and non-transactional in the world. Certainly most of our dystopias have imagined this possibility.
Reclaiming emotional maturity as a value
Emotionally immature Externalizers impulsively act out to distract themselves from their immediate problems, instead of working to solve them. Does this feel at all familiar? Does the grand political game of Kick The Can feel perilously like the kind of group denial that snowballs into much larger problems down the line?
Yes, it does. And we Internalizers should stop feeling guilty and uncertain about calling out examples of emotional immaturity when we see them — for fear of lacking a diagnosis, power, authority, social support, or other inhibition thanks to our perhaps overly-developed good nature.
We should call it like it is: there are a frightening number of Adult-Shaped Children in positions of power. And when the de facto leader of the free world has a finger on the most powerful nuclear EZ button of all, emotional immaturity has swiftly become the greatest, most urgent threat to humanity in our time.
I’m surprised the internalizer / externalizer framework does not seem to be more widely known, as it feels very descriptive of much of what ails us here in modern society. I got it from this most excellent book, that’s a great one to read in general if you think you might have grown up in — or are growing up in — an emotional immature household and want to know more about what “side effects” that may have produced:
The creator of the also excellent Century of the Self film series released his latest film in October, 2016. Dubbed HyperNormalisation, it offers both a history lesson of the complicated relationship between the West, the Middle East, and Russia, as well as an unflinching look at the roles played by technology, surveillance, and the media on our modern condition of general confusion, destabilization, and surrealism.