A Treatment for Authoritarianism   Leave a comment

Image result for image of george orwellAuthoritarians – whether they lean left or right – justify their politics by arguing for particular positions on issues they care about, often passionately. And, therein lies the problem. If you hold different values, you feel that you should be able to argue for your side. But if your goal is a free and civil society, then arguing an issue on its merits with an authoritarian usually means shooting yourself in the foot. They expect you to buy into the unstated assumption that underpins all authoritarian politics:

If X is right, then it’s okay, maybe even imperative, to force people to do X.

It may well be true that X is morally right and that society would be better if we all did it, but what makes it right to force others to do X even if it is morally right? Anti-authoritarians recognize this conundrum, but authoritarians on the left and right perceive a threat in the actions of “the other” that requires they respond with authority.

If we want to fight this strain from both sides of the political divide, we need to put the moral burden back on the authoritarians. Encourage them to answer some questions:

  • What punishment do you propose for any given transgression?
  • Can you justify the extent of the punishment?
  • What harm will be done by enforcement? Not just to the person being punished, but to society as a whole?
  • How do you know it wouldn’t be worth using non-coercive methods … education or persuasion … to move society in the preferred direction?
  • How exactly does my opinion or speech harm you?
  • Do human beings have the power of emotional control and, if they do, why don’t you exercise it?
  • If you don’t have control over your emotional responses, what makes you different from me in that respect? In other words, shouldn’t you care as much about hurting me by threatening my values as I should care about hurting you by threatening yours?
  • Why are your feelings more important than mine?

Abject tyranny is achieved when not only our freedom of action is constrained by power, but our freedom of speech, and therefore thought, is constrained too.

In Orwell’s dystopia, a collectivist authoritarian regime actually created words and forced people to speak them on pain of physical punishment. The purpose was to force people to interact with each other and perceive the world in a way that conformed to the wishes of the political leaders. Orwell, the socialist, who devoted his life to equality and eliminating privilege, recognized that a philosophy of equality that seeks to treat everyone fairly and kindly can’t deliver on that promise if it must be imposed by force on people whose honest feelings and views are ignored.

 

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