The Psychological Damage of Our Authoritarian Past
Are you “normal”?
<a href="https://unsplash.com/@lensinkmitchel?utm_source=medium&utm_medium=referral">Photo by Mitchel Lensink on Unsplash</a>
The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of colour, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.
“Why can’t you just be normal?” I heard this phrase so many times in my youth that I feel onsets of nausea whenever I remember it.
I asked many questions about society, the world, and why things were the way they were. Nothing fascinated me more. Was this not everything that mattered? I soon learned that my innocent inquisitiveness was perceived as a threat by the adults in my life.
“You are too young. You cannot understand these things”, I was told.
I insisted that I could.
“What is the difference if I have this opinion when I am 12 or if I say the same thing when I am 30? Why would that change anything about what I just said?”
I could not understand how the validity of my arguments was dismissed based on my age without engaging, discussing, or refuting my actual arguments.
Soon I learned that it was never about discourse in the first place. My relentless questions and quest for understanding the world around me threatened a fragile micro-structure that was based on authority. It thrived on the suppression of dissent and the discouragement of questioning.
I was profoundly confused.
“Did everybody not want this world to thrive?” I thought to myself often. “Did everybody not want to continuously improve society and help it to actualize its highest potentials?” What could have possibly been wrong about that?
School was a strange place, hardly a place of intellectual inquiry or knowledge acquisition. It was a loud and messy social battleground. I was constantly on edge, expecting to be attacked. Being disapproved of by authority figures was the default.
I learned that I could buy myself some moments of relief of scolding by earning good grades. It was a fascinating mechanism that equated the state of being with punishment and the achievement of goals, dictated by others, with reward. Psychological imprints at this young age can last a lifetime.
Not only did I associate my being with punishment, but also my inborn curiosity and my drive for self-expression. It was a dangerous environment and I had to become the person that I believed others wanted me to be. Any rebellions to this circumstance were quickly squashed by the omnipotent force of “authority”.
My ensuing school experience was all about traversing the polarities of defying authority and securing my freedom, which in my mind was equated with safety. Knowledge transfer and learning critical thinking did not seem to be the priorities of school. It was a social domestication program, and my rebellion was a self-defeating rebellion.
I knew I did not wanted to be treated like dirt, but I did not know what I wanted instead. It took me the better part of my early adulthood to dismantle the imprints, patterns and belief structures which were force-fed to me at this age.
Authoritarian patterns are often very subtle and hard to recognize because they are deeply interwoven into the very fabrics of cultural identities, habits, traditions, and even the vocabulary and language.
Many ex-cult members report that they did not even know that they were part of a cult, until they slowly but painstakingly discovered cracks in the facade that was presented to them. Likewise, society, institutions and any form of social organization can operate on authoritarian principles, without the participants being aware of it, because it’s “normal”.
Ex-Cult members share their stories and dismantle the patterns they were subject to. Source: Jubilee.
As I grew older, I fought back to maintain my self-hood amidst the onslaughts of trying to negate me as an individual person. Labels like “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” were the expectable consequence of not passively going along with psychological abuse. The engines of domination work more effectively by pathologizing and discouraging the drives of survival, self-hood, and self-preservation.
“You don’t respect authority”, was an accusation I head of many times, as if the act of self-preservation was an unforgivable offense. I almost believed it, but responded at my young age: “Show me an authentic authority and I am more than willing to listen, but I don’t see any.”
The desired outcome of school was to make us “normal”, a word that historically originated from carpentry and mathematics. There was one right formula, one approved set of thoughts, feelings and behaviors to have. A prescribed template and agenda of what a ”normal” person should be like had little regard for the individual child. The child was a means to an end of a particular vision for society, not an end in itself.
It was unfathomable to me that “authority figures” demanded genuine respect for creating environments of perpetual scolding, castigation, and domination in which I was on the receiving end. Abusive structures are only preferable to the beneficiaries of the same who will go great lengths to promote them at the expense of others.
If the logic of the structure is incoherent and illogical, then thinking and questioning has to be ridiculed, dismissed and even outlawed. Some religious groups reframe questioning as “temptations by the devil”. Some social collectives celebrate “normal”, and create a culture of Us versus Them.
“Them” being those who fall out of line. They are typically attacked ad hominem, which means that their arguments are ignored and instead their identity is attacked. The list of identity labels is infinite, especially in times of identity politics. The method is the same. The vilification of “the other” keeps the herd together.
Old habits and historical patterns are hard to break…
“How normal are you?”
I realized I did not have the inner tools to live a life on my own, outside of structures. I lacked self-discipline and organization. I was not capable of setting goals for myself and reliably achieving them, and I was also not willing to subdue to another destructive structure. Given my options, I decided I had to learn these skills on my own. If I were to use structures, then only as learning platforms.
My first instinct was to look towards religion, so I spent my school vacations in a monastery. After a few years of intense religious immersion, I eventually emancipated from it again. Replacing authoritarian social structures for an authoritarian God, who embodied similar qualities, was not the road to freedom.
I abandoned the abusive elements of religion so I could keep my relationship with a God who would support and guide me empathetically, instead of making up excuses or pretexts like original sin to justify punishing me.
My religious experience taught me that the patterns of my childhood would always find a different outlet in my life, because I had already internalized them.
I learned how deeper psychological mechanisms were embedded in both social and religious institutions. Both were driven by similar paradigms and influenced and borrowed from each other as they developed over the centuries.
Despite not having been hit or physically abused, the experiences of an authoritarian God and an authoritarian society left psychological scars. The vagueness and intangibility of these psychological imprints makes them difficult to identify and dismantle.
Their effects and consequences literally govern our lives from the shadows of our subconscious mind which can be profoundly disempowering.
The society I grew up in experienced long historical periods of authoritarianism. While I was born into a democracy with a commitment to freedom of speech, pluralism, and liberal values, there was something profoundly disturbing about the education system.
“The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators, but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions.” — John Taylor Gatto in Dumbing Us Down
The shadows of the past were still lurking below the surface.
Generally, I believe that people have good intentions, even if their behavior can appears outlandish. They act to the best of their knowledge and based on the understanding that is available to them. Sometimes they rationalize themselves into all kinds of ideas and behaviors that could not withstand a mere second of critical thought.
If these ideas and behaviors remain unchallenged and unquestioned by others, then it can easily happen that they become elevated to norms, virtues, or even culture.
This is also the reason why censorship rarely works. Neither does it work when the authority censors legitimate criticism. Nor does it work when the critics censor opinions that promote authority, even abusive ones.
Stopping people from expressing their thoughts does not stop them from thinking them. They will just end up expressing them at later point, when the circumstances are more opportune.
Engagement, active listening, dialogue, discussion and debate are more effective in defusing toxic ideologies.
Authoritarianism cannot allow these, because it does not have any arguments. Its very nature is the suppression of individual thought, feeling and action. It stands on very weak foundations itself.
It is a system in constant survival and overreaction mode that caters to frightened, fearful, and fragile egos who are imposing their social survival strategies on others, because the system works only with the buy-in of a critical mass of victims and perpetrators.
It is almost like a mind virus that takes possession of the participants to play out all potential role constellations among the spectrum of oppressors, and oppressed with terrible consequences for real-world human beings.
The lines between victim and perpetrator can in some cases even become blurry, when the former victim starts to take on the perpetrators worldviews and imposes it on others.
My religious and schooling experiences were relatively harmless compared to the atrocities that can spring from the authoritarian worldview in other circumstances and timelines. I felt some echoes of the past, hoping they would stay there for good.
It fascinates me that the very thought seeds of authoritarianism still operate within current social systems without having been effectively uprooted, given the historical warnings of the 20th century.
Why would anyone in the 21st century insist on being ”normal” as if their survival hinged on it?
Because it does, on deeper psychological and emotional levels.
Being “normal”, playing small and being mediocre was an effective coping mechanism to survive in political environments in which too much attention to oneself would cause a severe backlash. Elevating “normal” to a virtue makes only sense if “normal” is being translated to not being disapproved of, nor abducted, tortured or murdered for standing out.
Standing out was dangerous in societies that operated on scarcity paradigms and ruthless competition for resources. Success was better not to be displayed to deflect envy, jealousy, and physical attacks. One man’s gain was another man’s loss in such environments.
Whatever outcome or ideologies it pursues, authoritarianism is always driven by fear.
Some people make the point that every single human relationship is about asserting power and authority over others. I believe that if you see the world through this lens, then this will be a self-fulfilling prophecy for your world.
You will not only selectively filter your environment for evidence, but you will also instigate reactions from others that will create the very situations of power, struggle, and submission that correspond with your deeply held beliefs.
The receiving end of toxic paradigms is dangerous territory, because it not only leaves scars of hurt, but also seeds of potential multiplication.
This seed is the paradigm that the other person held when performing the hurtful action. Somebody might attack or hurt me, operating from the paradigm of “the world is a nasty place and full of conflict. I need to get my way at the expense of others”.
It would be tempting to reciprocate in the same way, but what that would do is multiplying the toxic paradigm via “copy and paste”. Deflecting the attack of an aggressor includes deflecting their way of thinking.
Self-defense, boundary-setting and boundary-enforcement can come from a place of self-respect and empathy without having to buy into the toxic paradigms of the aggressors. There is a reason that we speak of “taking the high road”.
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” — Friedrich Nietzsche in “Beyond Good and Evil”
Authority, leadership, and direction are not negative in themselves. They become negative when they are being weaponized and abused.
Authoritarianism has a strong incentive to suppress dissent because dissent allows the toxic paradigms to be questioned and to be reprogrammed. The fragile authoritarian leader can only maintain his power structure if enough people buy into his paradigms.
This buy-in is sometimes designed and manufactured. Dan Fosters’ excellent article on spiritual abuse highlights such patterns in the context of religion, though the same mechanisms can be recognized across the board in national, cultural, political, and even family ideologies.
Questioning, reasoning, and poking holes at incoherent justifications of abusive power are the very things that threaten it the most.
Discouraging children from speaking their minds and punishing them for feeling what they feel, while teaching them to blindly accept abusive authorities, normalizes the abuse of power on all levels of society. Instilling the authoritarian worldview in young people might be convenient in the short-term.
The downside is the long-term.
What happens if a mind is prepared to blindly follow authority and trained to receive punishment for asserting itself?
An obedient, non-critical mind is a weak and passive mind. It can be conquered and claimed by anyone. A mindset fashioned by authoritarian paradigms is fertile ground for extremist ideologies and easy prey for demagogues and manipulators of all sorts.
The seducers and recruiters of toxic ideologies stand patiently in line to pick up our young people where the reach of culture ends.
“I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress genius because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.” — John Taylor Gatto in Weapons of Mass Instruction
I am still bewildered that the emotional needs of fragile, abusive individuals in leadership roles are prioritized over collective progress, human welfare, and dignity of individuals. We allow the paradigms and worldviews of utterly broken individuals to set the tone for entire nations and willingly tolerate the far reaching consequences, even to our own detriment.
We are taught that stability is more important than evolution. Peace is more important than justice — the peace of mind of the abusive leader is meant though. Those at the receiving end would not describe their experience as very peaceful.
The patterns of abuse can be so normalized and embedded in our psyches that they are barely visible, especially when individuals are schooled and trained to distrust their own minds, their own feelings and their own reasoning. Questioning, reasoning, and especially dissenting are essential though to identify and call out abusive power.
If you don’t dare to dissent anymore, then you are officially under the thumb of some form of authoritarian power that is being used against you. Your situation might not be as bad at the moment, but like the frog that sits in the boiling pot you might only notice what is going on, when it is too late.
It is definitely too late when abusive power causes severe damage to you, your loved ones or when it asks you to cause severe damage to others in the name of some ideology, institution or abstract construct.
Religion, society, institutions, organizations, companies, groups and their likes can provide enormous value and benefits to individuals. There is something good in there, that is worth preserving and this preserving includes rejecting any elements of psychological, emotional, physical, financial, sexual or any other form of abuse.
It all starts and ends in our minds and with our worldviews. Knowing what we don’t want is as important as having a clear vision of what we do want instead.
Don’t let others tell you what to think, what to believe or whom to hate.
Dissenting and saying No are your first and last lines of defense.
Reclaim your mind. Your soul will thank you.