The sociologist Jonathan Haidt identifies authority as one of the values that separate liberal and conservative mindsets, with those on the right placing higher priority on obeying tradition and respecting authority. In a similar way, conservatives (especially religious conservatives) are commonly portrayed as committed to authority at extreme levels - with the word "authoritarian" often used pejoratively to convey this belief in a conservative-specific pattern of being easily led by those in authority.
On closer view, the picture is more complicated than a simple left-right divide - especially since an authoritarian is typically willing to give a large degree of control over their life to whatever forms of authority they believe to be legitimate. They also tend to believe other people should do the same. With that definition in mind, it is possible, even easy, to find authoritarians on the left - that is, people who respect and obey government authority as much as conservatives respect and obey traditional or religious authority. While the counter-cultural slogan "Question Authority" comes from the left, “Don’t Tread on Me” and “Hands Off My Gun” ably match it on the right.
A meaningful contrast with the word “authoritarian” can be found in the word “libertarian” - someone unwilling to give a large degree of control to anyone or anything, because they consider most forms of authority to be illegitimate. Thus some argue that the authoritarian-libertarian distinction has nothing at all to do with liberalism and conservatism. In fact, some political models (such as the Political Compass) add an authoritarian-libertarian dimension to the familiar left-right divide, marking out a two-dimensional landscape of political opinion - and effectively expanding our view to include libertarian conservatives and authoritarian liberals.
QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:
- Are you an authoritarian? After you’ve answered that question, list some sources of authority you respect - people or groups who stand out as important in your life. Church, family, science, community, academia, history, accomplishment, heroism. To what extent are you willing to give each of those sources control over your life? What would you do for them? Now answer the first question again.
- Ask your friends or family members if you are an authoritarian. Then ask them why they answered the way they did.
- Think of an authority for which you feel yourself justly proud of your respect. Then try to think of a situation in which that authority did something you do not respect. Next try the reverse: think of a time when an authority you don’t respect did something you admire. How do these comparisons change your landscape of authority?
Cynthia Kurtz, Jacob Hess
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