The Authorıtarıan Personalıty
The Authoritarian Personality
I'm not at all sure that Adorno's research belongs here, but I couldn't think of anywhere else to put it. The Authoritarian Personality arose out of research into prejudice conducted by the members of the Frankfurt School with funding from the American Jewish Committee. Adorno worked on the project with a group of psychologists from Berkeley who sent out questionnaires to over 2000 respondents. The answers were classified so that they placed individuals on a scale of A-S (anti-Semitism E (ethnocentrism), PEC (political-economic conservatism) and F (potentially fascist). This was then followed up by individuals who scored high and low on the scale. The following are the characteristics of the authoritarian personality:
Rigid adherence to conventional, middle-class values
Submissive, uncritical attitude toward idealized moral authorities of the in-group
Tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values
Opposition to the subjective, the imaginative, the tender-minded
Superstition and stereotypy
the belief in mystical determinants of the individual's fate; the disposition to think in rigid categories
Power and 'toughness'
Preoccupation with the dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension; identification with power figures; overemphasis upon the conventionalized attributes of the ego; exaggerated assertion of strength and toughness
Destructiveness and cynicism
Generalized hostility, vilification of the human
The disposition to believe that wild and dangerous things go on in the world; the projection of unconscious emotional impulses
Exaggerated concern with sexual 'goings-on'
Such are the characteristics of the potentially fascist personality, according to Adorno.
For example on F scale; subjects were asked how much they disagreed or agreed with such statements as:
"Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn." (Submissiveness.)
"Homosexuality is a particularly rotten form of delinquency and ought to be severely punished." (Aggression and sex.)
"No insult to our honor should ever go unpunished." (Toughness and aggression.)
"No matter how they act on the surface, men are interested in women for only one reason." (Sex and cynicism.)
Herbert H. Hyman and Paul B. Sheatsley, survey-research specialists, scrutinized every aspect of The Authoritarian Personality's methodology and found each wanting. Sampling was all but nonexistent. The wording of the questionnaire was flawed. The long, open-ended interviews were coded too subjectively. No method existed for determining what caused what. Whatever the subjects said about themselves could not be verified. The F scale lacked coherence.
It is true that, social science being what it is, fault can be found with any methodology. But the critique by Hyman and Sheatsley in some ways became more famous than the study it analyzed; when I attended graduate school in the 1960s, The Authoritarian Personality was treated as a social-science version of the Edsel, a case study of how to do everything wrong.
Perhaps Adorno had all that coming. Along with Max Horkheimer, who played an instrumental role in the research that went into the book, Adorno had published Dialektik der Aufklärung (Dialectic of Enlightenment) in Amsterdam in 1947. Among its other attacks on the technical rationality of advanced capitalism, that book dismissed "positivism," the effort to model the social sciences on the natural ones. The significant flaws of The Authoritarian Personality allowed quantitative social scientists to return the favor and dismiss critical theory.
Yet despite its flaws, The Authoritarian Personality deserves a re-evaluation. In many ways, it is more relevant now than it was in 1950.
Certainly the criticisms of Edward Shils seem misplaced 50 years on. Communism really did have some of the authoritarian characteristics of fascism, yet Communism is gone from the Soviet Union and without any influence in the United States . Many writers inspired by Shils, like Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, who would become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, held that totalitarian regimes, unlike authoritarian ones, were not reformable from within. Yet the Soviet Union collapsed as a result of domestic upheaval. Totalitarianism still exists in a country like North Korea , but in the U.S.S.R. it never was quite as "total" in its control over most of its populations as many postwar scholars maintained. When it collapsed, so did many of the theories that once sought to explain it.
Even more significant than the collapse of left-wing authoritarianism has been the success of right-wing authoritarianism. Perhaps the authors of The Authoritarian Personality were on to something when they made questions about sexuality in general, and homosexuality in particular, so central to diagnosing authoritarianism.
In the June 19, 2005 , issue of The New York Times Magazine, the journalist Russell Shorto interviewed activists against gay marriage and concluded that they were motivated not by a defense of traditional marriage, but by hatred of homosexuality itself. "Their passion," Shorto wrote, "comes from their conviction that homosexuality is a sin, is immoral, harms children and spreads disease. Not only that, but they see homosexuality itself as a kind of disease, one that afflicts not only individuals but also society at large and that shares one of the prominent features of a disease: It seeks to spread itself." It is not difficult to conclude where those people would have stood on the F scale.
Not all opponents of gay marriage, of course, are incipient fascists; the left, to its discredit, frequently dismisses the views of conservative opponents on, for example, abortion, church-state separation, or feminism as irrational bigotry, when the conclusions of most people who hold such views stem from deeply held, and morally reasoned, religious convictions. At the same time, many of the prominent politicians successful in today's conservative political environment adhere to a distinct style of politics that the authors of The Authoritarian Personality anticipated. Public figures, in fact, make good subjects for the kinds of analysis upon which the book relied; visible, talkative, passionate, they reveal their personalities to us, allowing us to evaluate them.
Consider the case of John R. Bolton, now our ambassador to the United Nations. While testifying about Bolton's often contentious personality, Carl Ford Jr., a former head of intelligence within the U.S. State Department, called him a "a quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy." Surely, in one pithy sentence, that perfectly summarizes the characteristics of those who identify with strength and disparage weakness. Everything Americans have learned about Bolton -- his temper tantrums, intolerance of dissent, and black-and-white view of the world -- step right out of the clinical material assembled by the authors of The Authoritarian Personality.
And Bolton is by no means alone. Sen. John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, last spring said that violent attacks on judges, who cannot be held accountable, were understandable. He might well have scored highly on his response to this item from the F scale: "There are some activities so flagrantly un-American that, when responsible officials won't take the proper steps, the wide-awake citizen should take the law into his own hands." House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is in difficulty for his close ties to lobbyists like Jack Abramoff. Would those men agree with the statement, "When you come right down to it, it's human nature never to do anything without an eye to one's own profit"?
One item on the F scale, in particular, seems to capture in just a few words the way that many Christian-right politicians view the world in an age of terror: "Too many people today are living in an unnatural, soft way; we should return to the fundamentals, to a more red-blooded, active way of life."
If one could find contemporary "authoritarians of the left" to match those on the right, the authors of The Authoritarian Personality could rightly be criticized for their exclusive focus on fascism. Yet there are few, if any, such examples; while Republicans have been moving toward the right, Democrats are shifting to the center. No liberal close to the leaders of the Democratic Party has called for the assassination of a foreign head of state; only a true authoritarian like Pat Robertson, who has helped the Republicans achieve power, has done that.
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