Siggy touches on his post about Atheism 101 the simultaneous utility and flaw of definition use. The problem of definition is one of those epistemological headaches that wakes me in the middle of the night with a cold sweat. “If you replaced all the parts of a boat, is it still the same boat?!?!” I scream into the stars. My partner, roused from her slumber, cocks her eyebrow from the pillow, mumbling into the fabric “Who cares?”
Credible dictionaries choose to be descriptivist–which is to say, they simply describe the way words are used. Contrast prescriptivist, which claims “this is the way a word is supposed to be used.” Ultimately a language puritan will lose in their argument but for the simple fact that once a phrase catches on, people will continue to use it, and your dictionary will rapidly be out of touch if you don’t keep up. The utility in providing a definition is to aide communication, ensuring everyone knows what we’re supposedly talking about if I suggest we debate garbledina. Misunderstanding of what definition of garbledina we’re using in a debate is typically how an argument goes south.
Following descriptivist logic, I don’t actually mean to argue the way most people use the word “authoritarian” is wrong. Rather I have found another way the word is used in a book that technically wasn’t recommended to me by Marcus Ranum, but I ended up devouring it from start to finish anyway. It’s called The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer. That link is a free PDF hosted by the author himself. I at least recommend reading the first few pages–you might get sucked in, in part because the book was written in the noughties but practically describes Trump’s rise to popularity even though it didn’t happen for another 10 years.
Let’s start with a statement, like “The Pope and Donald Trump are authoritarians.” Most people use it this way to mean they throw their weight around but don’t substantiate their arguments with pesky empirical things like evidence. You can have economic advisers speak until they’re blue in the face about the wall Trump claims he will build and how bloody asinine the idea is, he won’t care. Trump is right because Trump is great, Trump is great because Trump is right. Used this way, authoritarian approximately means “someone who claims authority illegitimately by force of character rather than through knowledge or experimentation.”
For example, we might say PZ Myers is probably an authority on zebrafish, but unless he goes around bullying other researchers, we probably would not say he is authoritarian. But because he has performed research and can even communicate (albeit with jargon) why he believes x idea is correct about zebrafish, we can not only grant him authority on subject x but also claim that his authority is legitimate. If I were to step up to the microphone and tell PZ I disagree, and that I’ve got a better study (but I refuse to link to it), and that PZ is a stinky peabrain and that his beard looks totally untrustworthy, I am also claiming authority. Empiricists in the audience would be rightly suspicious of my claim, but there are some in the audience who would–through a bombastic performance and a certain conviction of belief (no matter how absurd)–find that my authority is more legitimate, simply because PZ being the good scientist he is includes qualifiers like “usually, probably, sometimes,” while I’m blasting him with “PZ is always stinky, always wrong, always untrustworthy.”
Altemeyer describes in his work a number of characteristics that people persuaded by such a performance share in common: 1) A high degree of submission to established authorities; 2) High levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and 3) A high level of conventionalism. He acknowledges that many people use the word authoritarian to describe the bombastic, dishonest, intellectually bankrupt ringleaders, but explains that his model of the concept “authoritarianism” requires authoritarians to be the easily-persuaded followers, and not the fascistic cheetoes whipping them into a frenzy (those he calls “social dominators,” described by another set of equally abhorrent characteristics).
Perhaps what I like most about Altemeyer’s definition of “authoritarian” is that it addresses an argument I’ve made before about anti-Queer actions and organized religion. My opinion has been, for some years now, that even if we removed every religious organization and their adherents from society tomorrow, we would still have massive problems. I’m sure the Amazing Racist would be thrilled to hear that his opinions on rape are corroborated by at least one Catholic priest I’ve had the displeasure of meeting, and that if you played one of TAR’s videos alongside this priest’s sermons, you’d probably lose track of who was saying what because they blend seamlessly into one another. Both TAR and the priest would claim to rebuke the other, despite the similarity in both their opinion and in the rhetorical device those opinions are wrapped in–weight, anger, and energetic hand-talking–but they’re pushing the same odious ideas at the end of the day.
It did not follow from this observation (as the first of many such observations) that religion per se was the source of my many ails, although a correlation was not uncommon. A complete observation on who antagonizes me for my many intersections had to account for the fact that many secular individuals have been every bit as hostile as religious ones. Altemeyer gives me a hypothesis, one I could even theoretically test*: My antagonists are authoritarians, as in people scoring high in submission, conventionalism, and willingness to engage in violence–not necessarily just the religious.
Another way of putting it: Religion is sufficient to create an authoritarian; but it is not necessary.
Altemeyer does discuss that religion frequently plants the seeds of authoritarianism by emphasizing qualities such as unwavering faith, unity, unilateral respect for parents, and deference to “God” (whom is conveniently represented by priests). But, thankfully, he also discusses that these qualities have many ways to come about even without religion.
And thus I have my explanation, my word. Authoritarian. This makes much more sense to me than the arguments suggesting I ought to spurn the progressive Christians who do more for my rights than self-important dudebro atheists who decided they were smart because they got the god question right. My problem is authoritarians, who may be religious but aren’t always.
*Altemeyer has a fairly lengthy explanation for his methodology, which will probably require a few more re-reads before I’ve fully grasped it.