Essay:It is Easier to Follow than to Lead

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Why do extremist groups attract followers? This has been written about for the last 60 years, starting with Maslow, but maturing with Adorno’s publishing of The Authoritarian Personality in 1950. The horrors of WWII spurred research into why seemingly-normal people will help commit atrocities. Research done by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s and Philip Zimbardo in the early 1970s confirmed the hypothesis that “good people can be easily led to do bad things”. Robert Altemeyer further refined the concept of the authoritarian personality. According to Adorno, et al, there exists an “Authoritarian Personality” and they developed specific measures to evaluate this. One, called the “F-scale”, measured individual tendencies that the researches felt to be consistent with fascist and anti-democratic thought. Many of these have been observed by other researchers and social critics (for instance Umberto Eco). Some of these characteristics include uncritical acceptance of, and submission to, authority, intellectual hollowness, superstition (including acceptance of bunk science and ethnic stereotypes), hostility, toughness, a strong belief in outside evil, and obsession with sexual matters.

Many of these traits can be found in followers of cults, extremist politics, and conspiracy theorists. The closer one of these “authoritarian groups” adheres to normative beliefs, the more likely they are to be accepted into mainstream society. One of the benefits of American society is that ethnic diversity often dilutes the ability of any single authoritarian entity to dominate. Some authoritarian groups, such as white-supremecist movements, use their exclusivity to promote their beliefs. Given that whites are a majority in American, they can easily claim followers from a vast pool of dissatisfied Americans. Certain people are inherently excluded by their ethnicity, and provide a convenient “other” to hate. One cannot convert to “whiteness” and thereby gain group membership. Since American society tends to frown upon their beliefs, however, these groups tend to stay small.

Other groups open their membership more widely, allowing for a greater number of followers. Given that anyone can (theoretically) join, those who choose not to must be somehow deficient or evil. Religion gives a very useful framework on which to hang these beliefs. Christianity welcomes converts, and those who are not “true believers” can be labeled as having rejected the gift of Christ. These groups are particularly dangerous, as they can grow much larger than ethnically exclusive groups, and their stated philosophy is “mainstream” (that is, to be a Christian is certainly more acceptable than to be a racist).

Fascist groups will always exist. When ethnic hatred inspires it, genocide can occur. When motivated by religion and the conversion experience, the danger is more insidious, as the group’s influence can “creep” into the mainstream political structures. As has been said, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Some have argued that to publicly counter racist groups simply legitimizes them. Others argue that it is necessary to counter all racism to prevent it from flowering. In order to prevent the proliferation of groups such as are represented by the American far right, it is necessary to actively speak out, vote, and educate. Because these groups abhor intellectualism, independent thought, and diversity, these are the exact weapons that must be brought to bear.

From the White Coat Underground