If we’re going to talk to racists, it would be helpful to know about more about some of them. I think it’s important to start this post with the assertion that every Anglophone society is structurally racist. We’ve all been indoctrinated with racism from a very young age. There is no way to get through that without absorbing some racist thoughts and ideas. I’m going to say some things that will sound very us vs them, but this is only for convenience sake. The traits I’m going to describe are not binary, but are on a scale. Everyone posses many of these traits in greater or lesser degrees. This is not a look at how good people can reach bad people, but rather how people who are participating in a bad situation can help each other withdraw support from it.

A researcher named Bob Altemeyer has dedicated his career studying how/why people participate in authoritarian systems. He has written a free e-book about this. I re-read it last night to see if it could offer insight into reaching pro-police racists.

Authoritarianism is a set of personality traits that correlates very strongly with racism and being pro-police state. This is also a dangerous type of racist. If they are on juries, etc, they have strong double standards and are more likely to convict people from vulnerable groups and give harsher sentences. They love cops and law and order. And they reliably vote. Furthermore, they have a tendency to bully people different from them, especially if they feel they have the upper hand. They dig victim blaming. This is the kind of person who says that murdered black people shouldn’t have resisted arrest.

Altemeyer confirms things we already knew about these people – namely you can’t argue with them. (p 93) (p 237) Authoritarians are self-righteous, but also full of fear. They have many self-contradictory beliefs, yet feel they have a monopoly on the truth. This is, essentially, an intellectually precarious position and thus I would expect they’d be very prone to white fragility. Also, although they think all kinds of racist things, they’re also aware that overt racism is bad. (p 100) Again, there is no way to win an argument – they come out of defeat feeling more dogmatic and sure of themselves then they did beforehand. (p 93)

However, there is hope. As might be expected of people with no coherent inner life, they are highly dependent on group consensus to shape their views. (p 89) Indeed, they tend to have very little interaction with people who disagree with them, and use this as a way to maintain their beliefs. (p 88) Unfriending them on facebook, therefore, just makes the problem worse. Posting alternative viewpoints at least breaks up the racist consensus in which they’ve surrounded themselves.

Authoritarian followers really want to be normal. They will moderate their bigotry heavily, if it makes them fit in with the norm. (p 35) Therefore, a good way to engage with them is bandwagon technique. If you can pass along polls that show most people thinking the police are overly aggressive or racist, they will moderate their beliefs to conform with the majority. This is how the US went so quickly from gay people being a political wedge issue to gay marriage having majority support. It also really really helps if the authoritarian actually knows someone who is an alien other, but even exposure to any nice people outside of their belief system can help.

Authoritarianism is also really driven by fear. Everyone who is afraid tends to become more authoritarian. This is also what causes people to lash out in general and drives victim blaming. (If victims had it coming, then I’m safe because I’m good.) Reducing fear is a good way to help people chill out and think more rationally. Alas, I don’t have ideas of how to do this, aside from banishing all Fox News from a person’s life, which is easier said than done.

Finally, obviously, authoritarians are not going to come to your White People Getting Over Racism Event, no matter how many cookies are served there. Other connections must be leveraged to make contact. But you’re not just stuck with people who are already frustrating you on social media. Authoritarians are found in large numbers in fundamentalist / evangelical religious groups. If you are also a Christian, you may be able to reach them through pan-Christian initiatives. Again, exposure to people different than themselves helps them become more comfortable with all kinds of others. Also, authoritarians are not necessarily on the wrong side of every issue. Many have concern about the environment – even if there is disagreement on global warming, they are somewhat more likely than most to sign for local community efforts to do things like clean up streams. If you start showing up to help pick up litter, you’re likely to have an opportunity to befriend people with high authoritarian tendencies and expose them to non-authoritarian ideas. Because you will have bonded by working together for a common cause, you’ll be more receptive to each other’s ideas.

In summary, facebook arguments are not going to help with intractable proto-facists, but will just frustrate you and make them feel more sure of themselves. Instead, the way to reach them is by showing their consensus is not universal, exposing them to alternative viewpoints, and working with them on a common cause unrelated to fighting bigotry.

All of this is a lot easier said than done, but at least gives an idea of where to start with some kinds of social contacts.

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Charles Céleste Hutchins

Supercolliding since 2003

One thought on “Authoritarians”

  1. Wow! That was really useful – many thanks. It really has the ‘ring of truth’. I think it will help me understand these people better and I found it quite encouraging. You seem to say if reasoned, temperate discussion is maintained and spread then these guys will begin to follow on behind (albeit at a distance). Would be interested in evidence though. Chimes in well with stuff by Kahneman and Haidt.

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