Discussions about authoritarianism are not merely about the use of authority figures to take away the civil rights of others. They are also about the personal characteristics of individuals who support oppressive regimes. One of the qualities linked to those individuals is vindictiveness. Individuals high in right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) have a willingness to punish those who do not adhere to conventional ideals and lifestyles. It is that willingness to punish others that theoretically allows oppressive leaders of those with RWA to take away the rights of others.
When I first read about RWA and vindictiveness I questioned whether RWA was a reliable source of vindictiveness. I had such questions because of the actions and attitudes I had seen among those who should not, according to the theory of RWA, have vindictiveness. For example, do you remember the Duke Lacrosse rape case? Do you remember that 88 of the faculty members, largely from the humanities such as Women’s Studies, African-American Studies and Cultural Anthropology, signed a controversial advertisement two weeks after the alleged event that strongly implied that the students were guilty? They wanted the students to be punished even before those students were given their day in court. This is the sort of vindictiveness that often is linked with RWA, but such faculty members are unlikely to be the type of political/religious conservative that RWA is typically linked to.
So I decided to test to see if those high in Christian dehumanization (to see how I measured dehumanization look at my first post in this series) also show vindictive attitudes. I used two different methods to do this. First, I used a question I adapted from Robert Altermeyer. He used the following question with a sample of Canadian students.
Suppose the Canadian government, sometime in the future, passes a law outlawing the Communist party in Canada. Government officials then stated that the law would only be effective if it were vigorously enforced at the local level and appealed to every Canadian to aid in the fight against communism.
He then gave the students a nine point scale for the following statements so that the students could either agree or disagree that each of the six following statements is true of them.
1. I would tell my friends and neighbors it was a good law.
2. I would tell the police about any Communist I knew.
3. If asked by the police, I would help hunt down and arrest Communist.
4. I would participate in attacks on Communist headquarters organized by proper authorities.
5. I would support the use of physical force to make Communists reveal the identity of other Communists.
6. I would support the execution of Communist leaders if the government insisted it was necessary to protect Canada.
I adjusted the question for my American sample. Instead of communist party, I used four versions of this question with religious cults, communist activists, protestors at abortion clinics and pastors who preach against same-sex romantic relationships. Initially I found similar results to other researchers in that those high in RWA were more likely to support oppressive measures against religious cultists, communists and abortion protestors but not the pastors. Those high in Christian dehumanization exhibited such support when it came to oppression against protestors and pastors. I figured that part of this difference may be due to choices 5 and 6 in the questions. Indeed those high in RWA are more supportive of use of the death penalty than other individuals. When I tested these results with a shortened scale that eliminated those final two choices, I found what I expected in that those high in RWA are more likely to oppress cultists and communist but not the other two groups while the results were reversed for those high in Christian dehumanization. With the context of capital punishment taken into account those who dehumanize Christians, who as we saw in my last blog entry are likely to be religious/political progressives, act in a similar manner as those who score high in RWA.
My second test is even more illuminating. I constructed two scenarios. In the first scenario I wrote about a case where a man is accused of robbing another man at gunpoint. The respondent was asked to assess a punishment for this individual or to decide that he was not guilty. It is the same scenario that has been used before to show that those high in RWA have vindictive attitudes and are eager to punish those seen as deviant. In the second scenario I wrote about a couple accused of discriminating against a same-sex couple as it concerned renting out their room. The respondent was asked to assess a level of fine for the couple or to decide that they were not guilty.
The results were surprising considering previous research on RWA. Those with high levels of RWA were surprisingly less willing to punish the couple (r = -.484: p < .001), but they were not significantly more likely to punish mugger (r = .075: ns). While not significant my respondents did show some willingness to punish the mugger and considering previous research suggesting that those high in RWA are more punitive in punishing criminals, I accept that RWA is linked to a tendency to punish criminal deviants. But the level of vindictiveness may not be as strong as I had been led to believe.
I found that those who dehumanize Christians are very willing to punish the couple (r = .425: p < .001) but did not care nearly as much about punishing the mugger (r = -.058: ns). Those who dehumanize Christians are not automatically vindictive as they do not go out of their way to punish a man who likely is a robber. But their desire to punish the conservative Christians is so great that 48.3% of those who scored in the upper 25% of the Christian dehumanization scale assessed the maximum fine of $10,000 on that Christian couple. Clearly, a desire to punish social out-groups is not limited to those with high levels of RWA.
A reasonable person may believe that the couple should be heavily punished. But a reasonable person may also believe that a mugger should be heavily punished. However, a willingness to vindictively punish others is not tied to measures of authoritarianism, but rather it depends on who is being punished. This is indicative of the reality that the characteristics (In my book Dehumanizing Christians I also illustrate how lack of an ability to critically think, another attribute tied to RWA, is linked to attitudes of Christian dehumanization) tied to RWA are not unique to those deemed to be authoritarians. These characteristics are not tied to individuals with certain religious and/or political beliefs. We must be careful to look for the characteristics of authoritarianism in all religious and political groups.
Given my research, I find many of the assertions tied to RWA unconvincing. This is not to say that the RWA scales do not measure something. The multiple times the scales have shown themselves to be statistically reliable indicates that there is some dynamic being assessed here. What I doubt is the assertion of researchers that they are assessing RWA. I do not think they are assessing some unique quality more likely to be found among those who have conventional beliefs. They have found a characteristic that is more universal and can be found in all, or almost all, social groups. They did not see how it applied to those with unconventional beliefs due to using references groups that were not relevant to political and religious progressives. My use of conservative Christians as the reference group has allowed me to document the universal nature of what has been called RWA. In my final entry to the blog series I will discuss what I consider a superior explanation and some implications of that explanation.