By Donella Meadows
–April 26, 1995–
The minute I heard about the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, I knew it was done by Americans. Maybe that was because I couldn’t imagine Middle-Easterners targeting Oklahoma City, or because I’ve heard the rabid anti-government talk on Oklahoma radio. Mainly, I think, it was because I had just finished reading Bob Altemeyer’s book Enemies of Freedom.
As I watched us indulge our national prejudice against Muslims, and then discover that we had to point the finger of blame not over our borders but at each other, and then accuse each other across our normal right-left political divide, I thought of Bob Altemeyer. He would say that the bombing arose not from liberals, not from conservatives, but from authoritarianism.
Enemies of Freedom, published in 1988, is the story of one Canadian psychology professor’s attempt to understand not the pathological Hitlers and Stalins of the world, but their followers — the regular folks who do the work of rounding up Jews, running Gulags, or packing car bombs. It is an honest, sometimes even funny account of an investigator testing theories, disproving them, coming up with more theories, and trying again.
The test instrument Altemeyer uses is an opinion poll, which he has administered to thousands of Manitoba college students, to their parents, and to politicians in Canada and the USA. The poll asks for responses (on a scale that runs from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”) to statements like these. “It is best to treat dissenters with leniency and an open mind, since new ideas are the lifeblood of progressive change.” “Some of the worst people in our country nowadays are those who do not respect our flag, our leaders, and the normal way things are supposed to be done.” “In these troubled times, laws have to be enforced without mercy.” “There is nothing immoral or sick about somebody’s being a homosexual.”
The high scorers on the test have, says Altemeyer, three characteristics: 1) a high degree of submission to whatever authorities are perceived to be legitimate, 2) an active aggressiveness toward persons disapproved by those authorities, and 3) a strong adherence to the conventions of society. Authoritarian types need someone to obey, someone to blame, and a lot of people to blend in with.
It doesn’t matter whether they obey a military commander, a corporate boss, a government head, or a communist cell leader. Their hostility can fall on the poor, the rich, reds, blacks, greens, gays, or, lately, the government. And the need to blend in makes these people fervently do whatever everyone else is doing, whether it’s rooting out Communists or protesting the Vietnam War. Authoritarians can march to any drummer.
Altemeyer finds that the average person he surveys tilts slightly toward authoritarianism. Most of us want some kind of compass telling us who’s right, who’s wrong, and how to fit in. Authoritarian tendencies tend to decrease as people become better educated. They increase as people become parents. They are high among people who are strongly religious (with many exceptions). They are low among those who know personally some of the “out” members that society condemns. Authoritarians do not always raise up authoritarian children — college students’ scores on the test don’t align particularly with their parents’ scores.
Altemeyer’s most important results have to do not with middle-level authoritarians, the solid citizens who hold society together, but with high-level ones. Their two great motivators, he found, are fear of a dangerous world and unquestioning self-righteousness. They believe that society is falling into bestiality and lawlessness and that they are just about the only decent people left.
“Social and rational inhibitions against hurting another person can be overpowered by feelings of moral superiority,” says Altemeyer. “Such persons would be quite susceptible to the flattering proposition that they are members of a master race. Once you believe that, you cock the pistol for ‘final solutions’” — or you shoot up an abortion clinic or spike trees to stop logging or drive a van loaded with explosives to Oklahoma City.
Which brings us back to the finger of blame, or better the finger of responsibility, which never points outward, but always back toward oneself. When authoritarians are released to do damage in the world, there are many layers of responsibility. Of course the people who set off the bomb are at the center. After them comes the ideological movement that whipped up their fear and gave them the moral grandiosity (and the technology) to act.
Then there are the loud, powerful people whose voices have created a general climate of fear and resentment. They deny any connection between themselves and the bombing, but if they were willing to be responsible, they would realize that Hitler did not personally press the buttons at the gas chambers, the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic did not rape or torture or kill Bosnians, and anti-abortion leaders would never shoot a doctor, but their incessant rhetoric provided justification and sanctification for their more brutal followers. All of us, in any political movement, have to be responsible for our nutty fringes.
Also responsible are media owners, advertisers, gun makers, and creators of violent films and vicious pop songs, who make enormous profits from constant outpourings of hate and fear. I wonder, especially after Oklahoma City, how they can sleep with themselves.
The rest of us are implicated in this disaster as were the Germans or Russians who were simply there as repressions and pogroms began around them. Out of our own anxiety and fear we elect and applaud authoritarian leaders. We listen to the filth on the radio. We buy the products advertised there. We do not speak out when our own fellow citizens are vilified.
If any good can come from the horror of Oklahoma City, it would be that we all take hate speech seriously. The answer to it is not censorship. The answer is more speech. President Clinton got it right for a change: “They spread hate, they leave the impression, by their very words, that violence is acceptable…. It is time we all stood up and spoke against that kind of reckless speech and behavior.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995