The Roots of Authoritarianism in the 21st Century – Part 2

by Peter Prontzos


We are the most social of all animals, and our individual consciousness is primarily shaped by our society in general, and by our culture and family in particular. Children need to be seen to feel safe and to be soothed when they are distressed so that healthy attachment can develop. Children with unhealthy attachments are vulnerable to a wide assortment of dysfunctions. “The most important aspect of early attachment relationships”, psychologist Louis Cozolino notes, “is the establishment of a sense of safety.”

Healthy relationships create secure attachments between infants and caregivers, which also helps children to learn emotional self-regulation, reducing the tendency to overreact to negative situations.

Daniel Goleman describes the neuroplasticity of our brains in his book, Social Intelligence, as: “…repeated experiences sculpt the shape, size, and number of our neurons and their synaptic connections…. Our key relationships can gradually mold certain neural circuitry. This openness to our social environment means that the kind of person that we eventually become is, to a very significant extent, the result of the quality of our relationships in the early years.”

Social practices and cultural beliefs of modern life are preventing healthy brain and emotional development in children, according to Darcia Narvaez, Notre Dame professor of psychology who specializes in moral development in children and how early life experiences can influence brain development. She explains:“Studies show that responding to a baby’s needs (not letting a baby “cry it out”) has been shown to influence the development of conscience; positive touch affects stress reactivity, impulse control and empathy; free play in nature influences social capacities and aggression; and a set of supportive caregivers (beyond the mother alone) predicts IQ and ego resilience as well as empathy.  The United States has been on a downward trajectory on all of these care characteristics….”  A nourishing environment, Narvaez adds, leads to “communal imagination,” which includes love, “sympathetic action”, and “egalitarian respect” for others.

Moreover, “…secure mother-child attachment patterns lead to a personality type characterized by a greater sense of fairness to others, cooperation, flexibility in thought, emotional stability, tolerance to novelty, and higher “social intelligence.” Children with less secure or negative attachments develop personalities and cognitive patterns based on fear, danger and adherence to rules and authority. Flexibility is sacrificed as these individuals retreat into a world characterized by ideological stability, adherence to tradition, and distrust of others beyond the immediate social units of family, church, and political party. On the other hand, research shows that conservatives are more organized.” (Bruce Wilson)

When children do not get the love that they need, what are some of the potential negative consequences?

George Lakoff holds that the parenting styles to which children are exposed have a very powerful effect on the unconscious metaphors which help shape their political (and other) views. He has shown that political socialization begins in the home: parents who follow a “Nurturant Parent” model have children who tend to be more liberal – empathetic, open-minded, and more responsible – than those parents who practice the traditional “Strict Father” method. Children raised in that model tend to be more conservative, individualistic, patriarchal, and to see morality as based on obedience to authority; so their political attitudes and “common sense” often reflect their particular family experiences.

For instance, males with high punishment backgrounds were significantly more conservative than low punishment males. Feelings of hurt, rage, and alienation provide a fertile soil for anti-social behavior such as aggression and mindless obedience. Indeed, both neglect and harsh physical punishment of children are associated with increased levels of personal aggression.

Cozolino argues that: “the radical individualism of the West is one reason why we experience a higher incidence of psychological distress, drug addiction, and violence.” Social pain (isolation, rejection, and so on) is far from a trivial matter. People who act out unconsciously out of fear, anger and other buried feelings are more susceptible to authoritarian policies.

Robert Altemeyer defines Right-Wing Authoritarians (RWAs) as those who have “a high degree of submission to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate”. This phenomenon is an example of “false consciousness” – ideologies that serve to perpetuate the rule of elites. Such beliefs are especially powerful if they seem to provide meaning and help to cope with the increasing stresses of daily life.

One of the worst of these ideologies is that of “toxic masculinity” which not only damages boys and men emotionally, but then tells them that they must be “manly” and not ask for help – while the pain and the anger builds to sometimes dangerous levels, such as the “Incel Rebellion.” One probable example is Alex Minassian, who drove a truck into pedestrians in Toronto, killing ten people – mostly women. Simon Cottee writes that:“…much of Mr. Minassian’s trouble seems to have been fueled or exacerbated by the frustration and shame that accompanied his lack of sexual contact with women. This would have made him feel unfulfilled and indignant, and also weak and unmanly. The sense of shame…may be a key to understanding his murderous rage….It may also be another thread connecting him to other violent actors whose ideology is different from his own, yet whose actions are similar. It is not difficult to spot parallels with the world of jihadism, where women and sex are similarly fixated on to an extraordinary degree.”

An often-overlooked problem is the way in which children are treated in our educational systems. From an early age, most children are placed in a regimented, competitive situation, where they are forced to sit still, be quiet, and learn subjects in which they may have no interest. Far too often, what children learn is obedience, to suppress their playful spirits. What’s more, those who can’t perform well enough may feel discouraged, inadequate, and carry a negative feeling about education throughout their lives.

One’s anger, resentment, and other mostly unconscious emotions may, for instance, be projected onto others (women, liberals, Muslims, foreigners). This “attribution error” underlies much of the hostility to “the Other” and provides fertile ground for demagogues to manipulate repressed feelings of fear and anger. It also serves to keep the focus of the person “out there”, thus serving as a defense against the true source of painful feelings.

Einstein wrote that: “This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism…”Jost, et al did a meta-analysis of 88 samples from 12 countries, and found that, inter alia:

  • dogmatism correlates consistently with authoritarianism, political-economic conservatism, and the holding of right-wing opinions;
  • a strong connection between intolerance of ambiguity…and political conservatism;
  • in the United States and Australia, people who hold politically conservative attitudes are generally less open to new and stimulating experiences;
  • conservatives are more susceptible to fear.

As conservative U.S. pundit George F. Will explained: “Conservatives know the world is a dark and forbidding place, where most new knowledge is false, most improvements are for the worse.”

The differences in character play out in a host of other aspects of life:

“Liberals are messier than conservatives, their rooms have more clutter and more color…Conservatives are neater, and their rooms are cleaner, better organized, more brightly lit…Liberals have more books, and their books cover a greater variety of topics…liberals are more optimistic. Conservatives are more likely to be religious. Liberals are more likely to like classical music and jazz, conservatives, country music. Liberals are more likely to enjoy abstract art. Conservative men are more likely than liberal men to prefer conventional forms of entertainment like TV and talk radio. Liberal men like romantic comedies more than conservative men. Liberal women are more likely than conservative women to enjoy books, poetry, writing in a diary, acting, and playing musical instruments.

In general, “liberals are more open-minded, creative, curious, and novelty seeking, whereas conservatives are more orderly, conventional, and better organized.”

What studies such as these show is that, most of the time, it’s the experiences that one has in one’s early life, starting in the womb, that best explain the kind of person that we become. While nature – our DNA – does establish our “vulnerabilities and potentials,” the most powerful force that shapes us are our social experiences.



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The The Roots of Authoritarianism in the 21st Century – Part 2 by The Primal Mind, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.

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