August 13, 2006

Torture and the Authoritarian Personality

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:59 am

Godwin’s Law states that:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

Wikipedia’s entry on Godwin’s Law goes on to explain:

There is a tradition in many newsgroups and other Internet discussion forums that once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically “lost” whatever debate was in progress.

As Kevin Drum points out, the mere naming of this practice as Godwin’s Law has led to a reduction in knee-jerk Hitler comparisons.

So John Dean may seem to be on thin ice in Conservatives Without Conscience when he refers to research prompted by Nazi Germany to explain the current authoritarian strain in the Republican party. But let’s dig a little deeper.

After the horrors of the holocaust were made public following World War II, some psychology researchers wanted to understand how the German soldiers who were “just following orders” could become complicit in acts that were clearly immoral. They conducted a seminal psychology experiment that many of us learned about in Psych 101 in college. The researchers told college student volunteers that they were going to assist in a psychology experiment to improve learning. They could speak to a “student” in another room via a microphone, but couldn’t see them. They were told to administer a shock to the other student every time they gave the wrong answer to a question, thus to provide negative reinforcement. They were told to increase the strength of the shock with each wrong answer, so the “negative reinforcement” would increase over time.

While a researcher stood behind them, the students began asking questions and administering shocks to the subject in the other room. At first, the recipients mildly voiced their discomfort with the shocks, but as the strength of the shocks went up, the recipients were heard moaning, screaming, crying and even falling into a non-responsive silence. But still, many of the volunteers continued to administer increasingly strong shocks.

In actuality, the “subject” in the other room was another researcher only pretending to receive the shocks administered by the volunteer. The true objective was to see whether the student volunteers would follow directions that, as far as they could tell, were inflicting excruciating pain on another person. Many did. However, some refused to follow directions, some earlier and some later in the process.

The next question the researchers wanted to answer was this: what type of person is more likely to follow instructions from an authority figure to commit an immoral act? Questions were devised and surveys filled out, all leading to the RWA, the right wing authority scale. This scale reliably predicted who was more likely to follow authority or not based on answers to questions such as “what our country really needs is a strong, determined leader who will crush evil and take us back to our true path.” (All of this research is explained at much greater length and far more clearly by Dean in his book than I’ve done here.)

In later chapters, Dean moves from this academic research to describe the clearly visible authoritarian strains in the Bush administration and the Republican congress. This is where things get a little dicey for Dean, since he is forced to infer how public leaders would score on the RWA scale. Dean wasn’t about to get Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove or Frist to fill out the RWA questionaire, so he has to rely on their public statements and actions to extrapolate how they would score on the RWA scale. I think Dean is right in his judgements, but they are still judgements and not demonstrable facts. I assume this is the source of the “ad hominem attack” criticism Dean has received from some quarters.

But it seems to me that there is a more solid way to place public figures on the RWA scale: tolerance of torture.

It strikes me that Republicans’ attitudes in the torture debates circle us back to the genesis of this research into the authoritarian personality. The torture issue most clearly echoes the complicity of average Germans with Hitler’s despicable acts. How can anyone, and especially any Christian, condone torture? There should be a resounding roar of revulsion at the thought of torture of any kind. Every person is made in the image of God, and torture is the complete rejection of the victim’s humanity. Christians of every denomination and political stripe have called for an end to torture with no exceptions.

Despite their waffling and careful parsing, there are still many of our leaders that tacitly condone torture. Loopholes such as rendition and redefining “torture” only serve to mask the use of torture. Depriving prisoners of Geneva convention rights or access to U.S. courts is all of a piece with the support of torture.

So this is a concrete test, I believe, for whether a public figure would score high on the RWA scale: an acceptance of torture as a tool of statecraft. But this also answers the “so what” question regarding all of this research. Just as in fascist Germany or Italy, there are those in the U.S. ready to tolerate, or even assist in, clearly immoral acts just because our leaders claim they are necessary to defeat our foes. We need to recognize this moral weakness in the body politic, and once aware of it, reject it.

But what about Godwin’s Law? Hasn’t Dean just lost his argument by trotting out the Nazi/Fascist comparison? The Wikipedia entry goes on to say:

Godwin’s Law does not dispute whether, in a particular instance, a reference or comparison to Hitler or the Nazis might be apt. It is precisely because such a reference or comparison may sometimes be appropriate, Godwin argues in his book, Cyber Rights: Defending Free Speech in the Digital Age, that hyperbolic overuse of the Hitler/Nazi comparison should be avoided, as it robs the valid comparisons of their impact.

Applying research originally motivated by Nazi Germany to our present day, raising the alarm when the research clearly applies, and declaring that torture is immoral without exception is as valid a use of the Hitler analogy as it gets.


  1. I suppose one would have to ask the question:

    Who determined what constitutes the “Right Wing” and what “Right Wing” are they referring to?

    What does “Right wing” mean and when did the terminology “Right wing” come into existence?

    I know that the “conservative” political viewpoint has been around for many years and I know that
    the “liberal” political viewpoint has been around for many years. But what is unclear in your
    posting here, Bob, is how do you or the the people administering this test define “Right wing?”
    Is it the “conservative” political mentality? Is that the “conservative” political mentality of
    old or a newer version?

    My next observation would be a simple generalized “Christian” observation. As a matter of fact,
    I have been praying as I tried to go to sleep tonight and I kept considering this need of some people,
    such as John Dean and you, Bob, through the apparent acceptance of his skewed ideology and promotion
    of same. It came to my mind that God has given us a free will, a will to choose the course we
    take in our lives. We can choose to either accept Christ or deny Christ. With the acceptance of
    Christ comes certain responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is to build up or edify the
    Body of Christ…meaning all of the Body, both those who society might deem to be liberal in their
    political viewpoints and those who society might deem to be conservative in their polical viewpoints.

    I know that in the past you have been concerned about the polarization of America. Myself, what
    I find even more distressing is the polarization of the Christian community based on different
    political viewpoints. It brings us back to that old liberal Christian argument that somehow it
    is a dreadful thing for conservative Christians to disapprove of the SIN in a fellow Christian’s
    life but that it is acceptable for a liberal Christian to condemn that conservative Christian for
    disapproving of that sin in the life of another. I viewed that argument as hypocritical the first
    time I saw it and I view it as hypocritical today.

    I have ceased from arguing with liberal Christians because I realized the error of my ways and
    made the CHOICE to stop polarizing liberal and conservative Christians. I have pointed out to you
    in the past that it is a hypocritical position to demonize conservative Christians because you feel
    they are intolerant of PEOPLE, when you erroneously attribute their intolerance as being directed
    toward PEOPLE when it is, in reality, directed toward SIN.

    It is clear to me, Bob, that you are more interested in polarizing Christians than you are in
    building them up. That is okay, God gave you free will just as he gave me free will. God allows
    you to make your choices just as he allows me to make my choices. I pray that both of us make
    our choices wisely and in accordance with HIS will. We both run the risk, when we get so involved
    in political ideology that it becomes an idol which replaces God’s will in our lives. I pray that
    neither of us get so carried away with politics that politics trump God, that they replace what is to
    be our first love. The love of God, the love of Christ and the love of our neighbor, mankind.

    Comment by Jacke — August 13, 2006 @ 10:47 pm

  2. The problem with Godwin’s law is that it, in its own way, is a convenient way of shutting down debate. It is no doubt true that analogies with Nazi Germany are overused, and so the concept of Godwin’s law emerged in response to that. But just because a rhetorical tool is overused, that doesn’t mean it never applies.

    As for the problem of torture, my guess is that many of those German soldiers who tortured members of the French underground also considered themselves to be good Christians. The power of denial is strong indeed. In a modern context, I long ago gave up trying to explain or understand the “Christianity” of the religious right. I would much rather try to forge alliances with those who are commited to social justice, than those who are not.

    Comment by Mystical Seeker — August 14, 2006 @ 8:38 am

  3. So Jacke has reformed. Must have happened in the last few days because if you read her comments on previous blogs, they’re full of pith and vinegar.
    I can’t wait to see how long her oath to swear off “polarizing accusations” lasts. Good Luck, kid!

    Comment by Tony — August 15, 2006 @ 7:28 pm

  4. Interesting, Tony. I think you missed the broad point of my post. This isn’t a “reformation” it is a realizatin. If you will look at this blog entry, made back on April 4 and this blog entry, made on May 22, you’ll see it wasn’t something that happened in the “last few days.”

    I disagree with liberal politics being a conservative minded pundit. That does not mean that I must embrace the demonization of liberal Christians. It is my choice to disagree with liberal politics but treat my brothers and sisters in Christ as a part of the Body of Christ. I believe that that is what God would have us to do.

    Thank you for your well wishes.

    Comment by Jacke — August 16, 2006 @ 8:44 am

  5. “It is clear to me, Bob, that you are more interested in polarizing Christians than you are in
    building them up.”

    No… I didn’t miss the point. You are like the conservative politicians who politicize terrorism while accusing
    liberals of politicizing terrorism. Nothing has polorized this nation more than the divisive tactics of the Republican
    agenda which uses the extremeism of the Christian right with attacts like “you are either for terrorism or for the Bush
    agenda”, or “you have to choose whether you want to be a democrat or a Christian”.

    “It is my choice to disagree with liberal politics but treat my brothers and sisters in Christ as a part of the Body of Christ. I believe that that is what God would have us to do.”

    That’s very honorable. That’s great. But for me… there are some people I just don’t like. I don’t like people who are
    manipulative, I don’t like people who lie, I don’t like people who aren’t honest (both with others and with themselves)
    I don’t like people who use others for personal gain, I don’t like like people who cause pain and suffering in others.
    It’s not that I really love them… I just don’t like what they do, no… I think a persons actions are really rooted
    in who they are… I don’t like them. (I think I just discribed the current admistration)

    I like people like Bob… he’s intelligent, well read, very sensitive and caring, and very passionate concerning what
    he believes. He has a great sense of who he is, warts and all, and doesn’t try to be something he’s not. He is honest
    to a fault. He loves God and is not afraid to challenge God, because he knows how much God believes in him.

    I didn’t miss your point… I just see through it.

    Comment by Tony — August 16, 2006 @ 1:08 pm

  6. Wow.

    Comment by Jacke — August 16, 2006 @ 2:03 pm


    Comment by Jacke — August 19, 2006 @ 8:03 am

  8. […] For those who have read my past posts on John Dean’s book Conservatives Without Conscience, you’ll understand why the word Authoritarian in the description of the first conception of God jumped out at me. The explanatory power of the psychological model Dean discusses seems to have gotten some validation from a Baptist university. […]

    Pingback by I am a Christian Too » Baylor: Is Your God Authoritarian or Benevolent? — September 13, 2006 @ 9:56 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress