Friday, May 9, 2014


General George S. Patton, III was commander of mechanized forces in the European Theater during World War II.  “Old Blood and Guts” was a colorful figure with impolitic mannerisms.

The 1970 movie “Patton” featured George C. Scott playing the role of General Patton.  One of the classic lines from the film has General Patton outmaneuvering his opponent, the German General Erwin Rommel.  General Patton finds his tactics validated, and exclaims, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!”

It is likely that one of these individuals (or both) was an authoritarian.

The 2011 movie “The Intouchables” stars François Cluzet and Omar Sy.  It is about two individuals who form an unlikely alliance.  The film explores the relationship that develops between two people from decidedly different stations in life.  The story is intriguing because it brings together two disparate authoritarian personalities and allows us to watch them learn to coexist. 

We find it fascinating, and we are intrigued by it because we know authoritarians can create chaos.  We want to know how far they will go.  There is excitement!

But that doesn’t mean we seek to be directly involved with authoritarians.  Most of us work to minimize the influence of authoritarians in our daily lives.  Authoritarians are “high maintenance” individuals.

Each and every one of us has had to deal with authoritarians on a personal basis.  As children, we realize that we are expected to share with our siblings and classmates.  Perhaps you recall the task of making a helping of dessert “fair” by allowing one person to cut the portion while the other gets first choice.  It acknowledges the human characteristic of wishing to bring advantage to oneself before providing for others.

We see that authoritarian tendencies are normal behavior.  It’s just that they often need to be tempered.

In “normal” human interaction, we find ourselves being the authoritarian from time to time, and then allowing others to take on the role.   It is a kind of “dominant” and “deferring” behavior.  We get our way at times and then defer to others.

Look at your personal friendships.  You may take the lead in certain activities, but your friend will take the lead in others.  That “give and take” is what leads to a lasting relationship.  If the relationship becomes one-sided, it tends to be unsuccessful.  Human beings do not like being in a perpetually deferring situation.

And that leads us to the idea of authoritarian tendencies being taken to the extreme.  How do we separate the dominant and deferring behavior of a “normal” individual from the more aggressive behaviors of an authoritarian?

There are two defining characteristics:

            --An authoritarian is never wrong.

            --An authoritarian acts with impunity.

That incorporates a wide range of human behaviors, from the despotism of someone like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to the juvenile antics of a neighborhood bully.  The bully may not be in the same league as The Supreme Leader, but will still exhibit the tendencies.  The bully believes he (or she) is never wrong, and wishes to act with impunity.  The despot has absolute authority while the bully desires absolute authority.

The impact of authoritarian activities is vast and varied, yet the defining characteristics are the same across the complete spectrum of Authoritarianism.  An individual is identifiable as an authoritarian at different times throughout life, and our culture intervenes if the individual’s behavior generates adverse societal impact.

Our culture has typically works in an institutional fashion.  Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani cites his 1990s “Broken Windows” crime prevention program as reducing serious crime in New York City.  While the issue has been given a political tone, it would be interesting to see it studied from an authoritarian standpoint.  If a society is successful in correcting disruptive authoritarian behaviors at an early stage, does it result in less devastating authoritarian behaviors at a later time?

While that question deserves to be studied, our culture seems predisposed to study the opposite side of the issue.  We find greater concern for individuals who lack self esteem than for those with authoritarian tendencies.

That may simply be an issue of personal safety.  A person with low self esteem is typically not as significant a danger as a person who exhibits bullying tendencies. We may be less inclined to study people who pose a threat.

There is also the “profiling” issue.  If we label an individual as authoritarian at an early age, can he or she be rehabilitated?  If so, how does that “authoritarian” label get dropped?

Studying the subject of Authoritarianism is fraught with all the sociological dangers, but with the additional problem of being a new field of study.  Our culture has expectations, and conclusions would end up being challenged in an emotional environment by the various institutional stakeholders.  Things could get ugly!

Even so, there is too much of interest to be ignored.  Here are a few questions to consider:

            --When can authoritarian behavior be identified?  Should elementary school behaviors be off the table?

            --Can extreme authoritarian behavior be corrected?  Are there options other than incarceration?

            --Do we become more authoritarian as we age?  Should healthcare protocols be adapted?

That last question is interesting because we implicitly acknowledge authoritarian tendencies with age.  We understand “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” and that “we get set in our ways” as we get older.

Both of those characterizations attach almost exclusively to older people.  While the descriptors are less severe than “never being wrong” or “acting with impunity,” they are nonetheless on the authoritarian side of the behavior spectrum.

American culture remains uninterested in authoritarian behaviors, as we prefer to work on the “low esteem” side of things.  That seems curious.  It’s like studying high tide without studying low tide.  Shouldn’t we be interested in the complete picture?

“The Complete Picture” requires an examination of the physiological/pathological side of authoritarian behavior.  Human beings have specific physical attributes that impact our behaviors.

It has to do with the way our brains operate.

UPDATE 8/19/2014:
Bret Stephens at The Wall Street Journal brings us up to date on the "Broken Windows" crime-prevention program noted above.  He sees a connection between this month's rioting in Ferguson, Missouri and the fall of Fallujah in January, 2014.

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