Authoritarianism III

I set the table for myself this time. Here is how I ended the previous post—number two in this set of three.

But by far my most vivid contact with these dilemmas has not come as a person, but as a professor. In my teaching years, I looked out over a classroom full of kids who weren’t sure what their own values were. They knew what they felt, but they weren’t sure they should honor those feelings. And they weren’t sure of the effects would be if the policies they liked best were put into effect.

Those are the right concerns to have, I think. At least, they are the ones that have meant the most to me as a teacher. In this third and final essay (Authoritarianism III) I will try to deal with them

The heart of this political dilemma, as it bears on my experience as a professor, at any rate, has to do with two principle values. These values are called a lot of things: I call them authenticity and effectiveness.  They look like this.

A and O Final JPEG

These transactions are really simple in principle. You have certain political preferences that you  may have not yet put into words. We call them “gut feelings” sometimes. And you can see that a particular action would express what you are feeling. You are angry about the immigrants who enter the U. S. illegally and you can see that a wall would keep them from doing that. [1] And the promise that the Mexican government would have to pay for it adds a little something to the proposal. Taco sauce, possibly.

You know what you feel and you can see the actions as a direct consequence—but you also know that you have feelings that you really don’t want to honor. Let’s say that you have these anti-immigrant feelings and you learn that they are properly called “ethnocentrism” and that ethnocentrism is bad. [2] Now the student knows he has a feeling and the “knows” that the feeling is wrong so he absolutely does not want that bad feeling translated into “bad” actions.  Where would he learn that?

I am defining “authentic” very narrowly in this setting. I am going to mean only that the ideas and/or the politically relevant emotions this student has get translated into action. If what he does is the direct product of how he feels and what he thinks, then the action is “authentic.”


The  leap from the action taken to the outcome sought is given the name “effective.” The kind of information I am likely to have—the kind referred to in footnote 1—comes in here. “But,” I might say in my professorly role, “That wouldn’t really change anything.” Or I might say, “Yes, it would make that change, but it would cause all these other changes as well and you need to look at ALL the consequences when you are making your choice.”

Mostly by giving the student a chance to think out loud—to voice the ideas and the feelings he has in a relatively safe [3] setting—I help the student clarify his own views and his own feelings. I can help him honor some of the feelings he has and withdraw his support from others. I can help him see that the action he is contemplating—ordinarily it is voting or campaigning for someone—is a very plausible way to express what he is feeling. That is an argument based on reason.

Let’s put a woman student on the hot seat next. She feels the same way her male colleague does and contemplates the same action, but where he is an idealist, she is a pragmatist. He might want to know only whether taking Action A truly expresses “the ideals of the movement,” whatever movement it is. She wants to know whether it will change anything. She wants to know whether her action is going to be “effective.” You notice that I have labeled the bridge between action and outcome “effectiveness.” Will Action A actually produce Outcome A? That’s what she wants to know.

I can help with that. Very seldom did a proposed political action come up in my classes that had not been tried many times before. There is a buffet table full of considerations. Here are some.

  • Yes, it would work, but no one has the authority to do that.
  • Yes, it might work, but it would cause the Senate to be turned over to the control of the other party for the foreseeable future.
  • It might work if adequate funding were available, but all such attempts have been gradually de-funded over the ten years after they were put in place.
  • Yes, it would work. However, these other things would also happen and they would exact a high price.

And of course, there is always:

  • No. That wouldn’t work at all.

I have been talking here about my own work as a professor. I have one more kind of task to describe, but before I do that, let’s look at authoritarianism as it relates to my own teaching. I have said that there are character-based authoritarians and situation-based authoritarians. If I were authoritarian myself and saw my teaching role as being an evangelist for authoritarianism, what I would do is to praise the character traits most commonly held by authoritarians. Four of them are, as you doubtless recall from the last essay: preference for ingroups, ethnocentrism, the priority of social to individual norms and a tendency to rely on agreeable information under threatening conditions.

I would say that all those traits are good and I would give them good names. I would callA and O 6 the ingroup bias, “sticking with your friends.” I would call the ethnocentrism, “American exceptionalism.” I would call the emphasis on social norms “being a team player.” I would call a reliance on friendly sources of information, trusting people “whose hearts are in the right place.” And of course, I would provide pejorative names that they could use to describe the nonauthoritarians. Traitor and coward come readily to mind.

For the situation-based authoritarians, I would argue that authoritarianism isn’t always the right approach. I would talk about my friend the school superintendent, who was not at all authoritarian himself, but who chose authoritarian principles when he needed them. [4] I would ask my students to make the case that this is one of those time. What is it about our time—don’t describe your fears to me—that justifies authoritarianism right now.

And, of course, if I were anti-authoritarian, which is pretty common among political scientists, I could just turn the values around and give good names to the nonauthoritarians and bad names to the authoritarians. But I wouldn’t want to do that. I described that role as “evangelist for (non)authoritarianism.” I don’t want to be that. I want to be someone who knows a lot—that helps with the “effectiveness” transition [5], and someone who can make the world of public discourse hold still long enough for different kinds of students to hear themselves and their fellow students air their “values.” In many cases, this was the first setting in which such statements were “allowed” or in which they were taken seriously.

I did that for many years and I was proud of it. I helped the authoritarians (and nonauthoritarians) learn what their values were and to see what political actions flowed plausibly from those values. I helped them sort through their action choices with an eye toward consistency (for the idealists) or toward effectiveness (for the pragmatists).

Getting the good seats

But there is another kind of question that often gets raised. It is frequent enough and powerful enough that I would like to clear the stage and offer it a solo performance. It is the question of scale. Heatherington and Weiler raised the question of “affirmative action” particularly and pointed out that either action that might be taken could be justified as “fair”—just fair to different settings. That is what I am calling the problem of scale.

Let me illustrate. I would draw on the board—or, in later years, hand out a graphic I had designed—that showed a classroom with only a few chairs (27) for a class that had many more students (81) than the seating would accommodate. The students responded to this situation in two ways. This happened year after year. Some students were interested in the question, “What do I have to do to get one of those desks?” That is the question that meant the most to them and nothing I did succeeded in substitution a policy question for it. Other students said, “Wait a minute. Why are there only 27 desks when there are 81 students registered?” What will we have to do to get enough desks for everybody?”

A and O 5I presented these contradictory responses as a “policy conflict,” but actually only the second response engages policy at all. The students who wanted to get the best of what there was to get did not have a policy orientation in mind at all. They took the system for granted and wanted to know how to work it. “What if we came to class an hour early?” they wondered. “Or maybe if we were among the first 27 students to register for the class. Or maybe we could get the professor to give upperclassmen first shot at those seats and seat underclassmen only if there were still room. Or maybe we could send one of “us” early and have him reserve the 27 seats for the rest of us.”

It is hard to take the dilemma seriously because it appears to be about seats in a classroom. That is its great strength, I think. Those two approaches wouldn’t have to be altered in the slightest if the good to be won were shelter or food or access to medical care. In every case the one approach—the only policy approach—is “How can we provide enough shelter or food or medical care for everyone?”

I did feel a moral obligation as a professor to present the “how can I get mine” approach as deficient and the “how can adequate supplies be found for everyone” as superior. There are people who think that my doing that constitutes imposing my moral stance on students who are there to learn from me, but I don’t think so.

I think I can make a case that a policy approach, an approach that raises the question of what action by the authority (the university in this case) will produce a distribution of goods that is better for everyone is A BETTER QUESTION. [6] I have an obligation as a teacher to prefer better questions to worse ones and to show why they are better and why they should be used.

To recap. For all my students, authoritarian and non-, I have the obligation to help them clarify their values, to learn what the action implications of those values are, and the likely effects of the actions they would choose. It is not my business to say that they should have good character or that they should love their neighbor or that they must mute their fear and their anger and always choose diplomacy over war.

I have never been at all hesitant to talk about my own policy preferences in class when asked. I think it is a good idea, for one thing, but I also cannot think why I should be the only person in the room who is immune from these questions. I start with my own political values—what I think is important and how I feel about those things. I go on to the actions I take that are based on those values. Then I describe the effects I think those policies would have if they were put in place.

I don’t characterize these as “the right answers,” even though I know some students will construe them that way no matter what I say. I don’t defend just why I have the values I have, although I would do so in the office with a student who wanted to know. I defend the authenticity of my choices. They actions I take do truly reflect the values I hold dear. I defend the effectiveness of the actions I advocate. If these policies were put in place, those would be the effects.

In other words, I run the whole system using myself as the guest of honor. I am not above it. It works in my life the same way it works in their lives. If I had a classroom full of ardent authoritarians, that is how I would treat them. And if I had a classrom full of ardent nonauthoritarians—or even ardent anti-authoritarians—that is how I would treat them. And if the values I see implicit in Mr. Trumps pronouncements and the actions he advocates seem to me to lead to disastrous results for us all, I am perfectly free to say that. “Authenticity and Effectiveness;” Authenticity and Effectiveness.

Say it with me.

[1] It wouldn’t, actually, but we are talking here about the translation of feeling to policy preference.
[2] I’m not arguing that any of that is true. I am following carefully along the path the student is trying out because that is the path I am going to be called on to clarify.
[3] I know I cannot protect the student against the eye-rolling and the negative postural feedback of his peers, but I can prevent more overt criticism of the speaker. I cannot and wouldn’t want to, prevent criticism of the ideas we are discussing.
[4] I’m sorry. I have held this off as long as I can. My superintendent friend does not have authoritarian principles, but he does hire authoritarian principals when he needs them.
[5] Being really old and remembering what happened the last four times they tried that also helps. I used to dazzle classes with my memories of playground fights between kids who said they were for Dewey and kids who said they were for Truman. That was 1948. We didn’t know who those people were, but playground fights were always fun.
[6] I admit that a student who calculates his own merit by having more than others will not be pleased by this principle. To that student, I say, “I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you distinguish yourself by the quality of your work? I award A’s to everyone who does A quality work.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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