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The Melting of the American Mind: Internet Pop Psychology and the Authoritarian Personality

Should women be compelled to swear a loyalty oath to their future husbands? Should a “strong, determined leader” enforce “God’s laws” on abortion and homosexuality? Would the country “work a lot better” if “certain groups of troublemakers” would “just shut up”? Answering these and a dozen or so similar questions in the affirmative nudges one’s assessment toward the “authoritarian” end of the spectrum. These ideas can be found in the Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) test, which offers a series of statements that subjects must assess on a nine-point scale, with a score of −4 corresponding to “very strongly disagree” and +4 corresponding to “very strongly agree.” The higher the resulting score, the more “right-wing authoritarian” the person.

The comments to the online version of the RWA test abound with people determined to tell on themselves. Though the test’s “results” page displays only one’s own score, scrolling down reveals a Facebook plug-in where several years’ worth of political navel-gazers have reported their numbers. Some are proud of their scores, be they low or high, but others express surprise or dismay—often unintentionally confirming the test’s veracity.

A user calling themselves Paulo Vítor DaSilva Bernardo, for instance, bristled at the idea of “[seeming] like an authoritarian,” writing that despite being a “liberal,” they felt that “there is a need for a certain level of hierarchy.” “That’s just the result of human evolution,” they added, “and will form naturally.”

On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, but they might know you’re a fascist. Not because you shared a racist meme or made an edgy joke—after all, it’s at least theoretically possible to do these things “ironically”—but because you took a diagnostic personality test and chose to discuss the results on social media.

First developed in 1981 by Canadian psychologist Bob Altemeyer, the RWA test sought to refine and update the original Fascism Scale, or F-Scale, that German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903–69) and three sociologist colleagues created for a 1950 book they called The Authoritarian Personality. Had “Paulo” participated in the original study that yielded The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno and his colleagues would likely have concluded that, like many higher scorers, this person had a tendency to attribute “major social problems” to immutable structures like “human nature” rather than fungible constructs created through a combination of deliberate choice and historical contingency. This type of thinking leads to the conviction that anyone seeking to remedy injustice is “either an impractical idealist or an agitator making trouble” for profit. Rather than fall in with these foolish or venal rabble-rousers, the high scorer reasons, it’s better to preserve society as it is, avoiding large-scale changes altogether.

Three-quarters of a century after the end of the Second World War, the categories Adorno and other scholars of fascism were only beginning to invent have become commonplaces. German Nazism and its many spin-offs can continue to horrify, but no longer is the very fact of their existence likely to surprise the educated layperson. The decades of public historical debate, survivor testimony, revisionism, denialism, and so on are actually a time-saving life hack for today’s busy fascist, who can signal an entire manifesto’s worth of right-wing allegiances simply by brandishing a swastika. The agglomeration of historiographical and discursive experience since 1945 means that, unlike the original subjects of The Authoritarian Personality, the average RWA test taker today is likely to be aware of the negative implications of being deemed “authoritarian,” if only by an anonymous online test. Chances are, today’s respondents are also familiar with terms like racismmisogyny, and homophobia and understand their pejorative connotations within many mainstream communities in the West.

Because of the accumulated weight of postwar history, it is no longer possible to “disagree very strongly” with a statement like “gays and lesbians are just as healthy and moral as anybody else” without knowing where that places one politically. As the following exchange indicates, commenters to the updated RWA test have a clear sense that certain types of responses are indicative of an underlying “authoritarian” bent.

Read entire article at Public Books