How societies get sucked into authoritarianism

I’ve been thinking lately about one of the eye-opening experiences of my university life, and what it tells us about today’s world.

Academic values demand that the INTRUDER must be UTTERLY DESTROYED!
Academic values demand that ANY WHO DISAGREE with what WE DEMAND must be UTTERLY DESTROYED!

In 1981 I arrived at Victoria University of Wellington as a bright-eyed eighteen year old, filled with the idea that university was the place where people could express their intellectual ideas constructively.

I was wrong. The mood on campus was one of affronted anger, driven by a small but noisy part of the student community. Their indignance was directed at the world in general; but in practise their rage was always vented on the people in front of them. They were relentlessly ‘against’, never ‘for’. Alas, the causes they chose to ‘fight back’ against were social trends, so they had about as much chance of succeeding as of holding back the tide with a toothpick. That only made them angrier, particularly because they believed their views made them morally superior.  In truth it was rage at their own sense of insecurity, which they assuaged by externalising their anger against all around them.

Not all students were like this, but the ones that were drove a vicious bully culture. A lot of the causes they professed to champion were well worthwhile. The problem was the intellectualised polemic around which the students wrapped their expression of it, coupled with their demands for utter conformity to their views. Anybody who didn’t expound their particular approach, who even tried to discuss the issues, was liable to be treated as an advocate of whatever issue they demonised, whether that was true or not. Almost anything served to trigger them. Even pronouncing words differently from the prescribed ‘correct’ way was proof of advocating what they had defined as their enemy. Anybody who didn’t toe their ‘party line’ was decried as ‘arrogant’, dismissed as ‘from the right’, or labelled (wait for it) a Nazi.

The fact that it was possible to agree with the causes these self-righteous little hypocrites had latched on to – but without buying into their authoritarian subculture – was lost on them. Dunning-Kruger ruled. Lampooning their thin-skinned priggishness (which I did in the student newspaper, for which I was writing) was easier than catching fish in a barrel. It was also asking to be treated like a war criminal – they had no sense of self-deprecation or hyperbole. But, really, who cared?

I suppose some of them grew up and got jobs.

The problem was that the students doing this were able to drive a very nasty culture on campus, which leaked into academic life – certainly in the history department, which also had its own brand of this thinking.

Now, I thought this was merely a symptom of half-educated, deeply insecure youth. Except – e-e-e-x-c-e-p-t it’s back. Maybe it never went away.

Artwork by Plognark Creative Commons license
Artwork by Plognark Creative Commons license

Not the same people. Not the same place. Not even the same country. It’s in humanity generally, worldwide. These days I see that same combination of self-righteous anger, polemic, and asserted truths buoyed not by reasoned argument, but by unproven factoids, false-premise assertions, even blatant lies. Sorry, ‘alternative facts’.

What gives? In many respects that long-gone student community was a microcosm of the human condition. The way a sub-culture emerged on that campus showed how societies can be twisted by a minority, how the majority find themselves having to conform or suffer, and how that majority then start behaving like the minority leading them. It showed how the tactics of authoritarianism play out. And it showed how authoritarianism is linked with intolerance.

That was certainly the issue at Victoria University, where late-teenaged students made others suffer as they raged at their powerlessness before a real world they neither understood nor could control. Campus life created an arbitrary structure that facilitated the bully culture. But really, the behaviours that drive such toxicity happen all the time in any society – it’s part of the human condition. And many of the institutional structures we build, from large to small, are vulnerable to being hijacked.

The lesson, to me, seems clear: we must have faith in ourselves, as individuals. Only then can we have the strength to tolerate others – other views, other ideas – with which we may not agree. But that’s OK. People are entitled to their opinions. What difference does their opinion make to our own sense of place? The question is ‘what threat is that person’s belief to me?’ And the answer should be ‘none, because I am secure in my own beliefs’. Once we we accept that point, it becomes possible to genuinely care for others – to recognise that they, too, are human; that they, too, feel love, hurt, and that they care.

Getting there is the harder road. It is too easy to simply get angry and hurl self-justifying assertions at others. But that path does not lead to anything constructive or useful, merely to more anger, more opposition, and war.

We need to take the harder road, the better road – the road of tolerance, reason and care, if we are to survive as a species. It’s time.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017



12 thoughts on “How societies get sucked into authoritarianism

  1. Oh my. 1981? I suppose it’s probably always been this way. I don’t know that I felt it as keenly as an undergraduate in biological sciences in the late 90’s, but then I was probably oblivious to much outside of my own admittedly very small world at the time. I felt very keenly the truth of this a few years later as a grad student in literature. And, of course, I see it playing out all around me now. But you know, I’ve never thought of it in terms of insecurity before. I spend a great deal of time trying to teach my children that the opinions and choices of others (like a brother who just called him an idiot) only matter if you choose to believe the claim has merit. But that really should be a more widely applicable lesson, shouldn’t it? Huh. Thanks for making me think!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts! It took me ages to work out that much of it was due to insecurity – and suddenly everything ‘clicked’. It’s definitely a general lesson, and there’s a lot of it about today.

      As far as universities go, I think it varied. When I was at Victoria University in the early 1980s the place was deeply toxic – but I spent a bit of time at Otago University where the mood was properly collegial, and later completed my thesis at Massey University where, again, the culture was nicer (I went there because I’d had a gutsful of the open warfare between staff in the VUW history department). I don’t have experience of overseas universities – a few years back I was urged to apply for a lecturing position at Birkbeck, but I’ve long since decided that an active career in academia isn’t really my thing.

  2. You and I started college as 18 year old the same year!

    Not that this is relevant to this discussion. Just interesting. I’ll come back and post more in depth in reply when I have a chance.

    1981. Scary thing is, it doesn’t seem that long ago.

        1. Actually, the odd thing is that 1981 was 36 years ago, I remember stuff well before then (and have the certificates to prove it, like the high school science prize I won in 1978 for a theoretical presentation on black holes, and another in 1979 for an interferometry experiment) and yet I myself am not a day over 29… 🙂

  3. A German film called The Wave illustrates the kind of setting your describing. It takes place over several weeks of an elective project in a school in which the tutor demonstrates to his class how easy it is for authoritarianism to take hold. (The Wave, die welt, is the sign they make to each other whenever they meet up!)

  4. ” The question is ‘what threat is that person’s belief to me?’ And the answer should be ‘none, because I am secure in my own beliefs’.”
    Except, you know, that people tend to act on their beliefs.

    Racism is a threat to minorities. Homophobia is a threat to gay people. Hatred toward immigrants is a threat to immigrants. How is any of this in dispute?

    Or if you’re talking about other kinds of beliefs, politicized religion tends to lead to the above, anti-medical conspiracy theories lead to lower vaccination rates, and belief in faith healing literally kills children.

    1. Good points, but I’m not discussing any of those issues in this particular post – the point I am making here (noting that to keep them within bounds, blog posts need to be fairly closely focussed) is that if people feel secure they won’t feel threatened by others. It’s referring to self-esteem and self-worth and how those who lack it are easily threatened by others’ beliefs. A lot of what you’re describing is behaviour I associate with people who feel threatened, and their belief-system is often used as a device to assuage their feelings of low self-esteem. In general this style of thinking is one of the mechanisms by which authoritarianism gains ground. It’s worth further discussion for sure, and I’ll likely post on it another time.

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