Authoritarianism and “Social Justice Warriors”

(Only a short post today — bad headache).

Internet activism has a bad reputation, and it’s one I largely agree with — clicking a petition or sharing a Facebook meme does very, very little to make a difference to the world, compared to even half an hour actually doing something in the real world.

But it doesn’t make no difference, and in the case of identity politics, “raising awareness” might actually do more good than people realise.

I’ve spoken before about Robert Altemeyer’s book The Authoritarians (available to read here, for free), but basically Altermeyer has found a set of questions whose answers tend to correlate strongly — if you answer one way for one, you’ll answer the same way for the others — and cluster people according to personality type. He calls the resulting scale the Right Wing Authoritarianism scale, and the people who get high scores are more likely to want strong leadership, to dislike members of groups they regard as “other”, to want to protect “people like us” from outside influences, and so on.

There are a few things about people who get high RWA scores which are important to note. The first, and most important, is that these are the people who are most likely to commit hate crimes — they’re far, far, more likely to commit acts of violence against those in out-groups than other people are.

The second, though, is a fascinating fact that Altemeyer discovered. This is that people with low scores on the test, when told about the scale, say that they want to get low scores — that’s not especially surprising. If someone who doesn’t dislike outsider groups is asked if they’d like to dislike outsider groups, they say no.

People who get medium scores also tend to say they want to get low scores, because a basic description of low-RWAs makes them sound nicer than high-RWAs, and everyone wants to be nice.

Or almost everyone, because high-RWAs don’t want to get a low score. But here’s the odd thing — they don’t want to get a high score either. They want to get a score in the middle. They also believe that their scores are in the middle, that everyone else thinks like them, even (especially) when they’re extreme outliers.

This is because, for high-RWAs, group identity is about as powerful a motivator as it gets. They need to think that they’re “normal” — that their group is the normal, average, group, and that they’re the most normal, nondescript, member of it. They need to feel like they’re just like everyone else.

This means that high-RWAs will go along, to an enormous extent, with the stated values of the people they know. They will follow the crowd — but only when it is made explicitly, obviously, clear that the crowd is going in one particular direction. Otherwise, they’ll keep going in whatever direction they were already travelling, while thinking they’re right in the middle and going with the flow.

This means that loudly, repeatedly, vocally making it clear that some opinions are the opinions of the out-group, and not of decent good people like us, that only those bad other people have such bad opinions, and that no normal person could possibly hate LGBT+ people or black people or whatever groupand that LGBT+ people (or whoever) are in the in-group to which all good normal people belong — has a very good chance of, relatively quickly, turning those people who are most likely to physically attack those people at the moment into people whose very sense of self depends on them being defenders of that same group. It doesn’t happen overnight, but there are a large number of people who were virulent racists forty or fifty years ago who now would not dream of expressing or acting on racist opinions, because those opinions mark you as a member of the out-group.

“Social justice activism” is, in essence, just about members of marginalised groups (and, yes, sometimes groups that aren’t marginalised but like to think of themselves as being persecuted so they can feel special, but less often than the caricature would suggest) saying publicly, over and over again, “we exist. We are in your community. We are the normal people you see every day. And no good, decent, normal person would possibly want to hurt other good, decent, normal people like us.”

It might not have much effect compared to other things people can do, and it certainly does nothing to dismantle the social and legal structures that perpetuate oppression, but by helping to redefine “normal” in the minds of high-RWAs, it might actually help protect people…

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