In the 1960s and ‘70s, Northern Ireland was a nation at war with itself. Loyalist Protestants, seeking integration into the United Kingdom, took up arms against the Catholic republican majority. There were car bombings, gun battles, and random acts of butchery. Demagogues like the Reverend Ian Paisley fueled the fires of resentment.
The song “There Were Roses” by folk singer Tommy Sands tells the true story of a tragic thing that happened to him. Growing up in the townland of Ryan, his two best friends were Allan Bell, a Protestant, and Sean O’Malley, a Catholic. Allan loved to dance; Sean loved a girl named Agnes. Some nights they would stay up late playing music. When the noise of guns disturbed the tranquil peace of the countryside, they swore their faiths would never come between them.
But the conflict grew steadily worse. One night Tommy and Sean got the awful news that someone had been killed just outside the town of Newry, near where they lived. It was their friend; it was Allan. He had been murdered by a Catholic paramilitary group.
In retaliation for Allan’s death, the Protestants decided to abduct and murder a Catholic. Late one night a car came prowling along Ryan Road. Sean was kidnapped. Tommy describes what happened next:
“But Allan was my friend,” he cried
He begged them with his fear
But centuries of hatred have ears that cannot hear
An eye for an eye, it was all that filled their minds
And another eye for another eye
Until everyone is blind
Allan died that night. Tommy was left alone, friendless and devastated. But the Irish soldiers on both sides of the conflict felt no stirrings of conscience. For them, the killings had been a sacred act. Allan and Sean were both victims of communal scapegoating, where an innocent victim is sacrificed for the perceived good of a community.
Ironically, in their willingness to kill, the two groups had become basically indistinguishable. Morally they were mirror images of one another. But they were unable to see it. They could no longer see anything but hatred.
Authoritarianism: The Land of the Blind
In the last decade sociologists have studied a phenomenon they call right-wing authoritarianism (RWA). “Right-wing” doesn’t mean your beliefs are on the right end of the political spectrum, but that you tend to follow established norms and authorities in society.
Canadian-American psychologist Bob Altemeyer developed the RWA scale to register levels of authoritarianism in individuals. Based on the results of an extensive series of surveys, he found that right-wing authoritarians score high numbers in each of these three categories:
(1) They blindly follow established religious and political authorities
(2) They will act aggressively and (if necessary) with violence to defend those authorities
(3) And they are deeply conventional. Not only do they believe in following “traditional” norms and customs, they believe everyone else should be made to as well. They seek to increase the amount of conformity and minimize the amount of diversity within society.
By some estimates, RWAs comprise about 25 percent of the American population. They tend to be members of fundamentalist religions: if there was a Venn diagram with one circle representing American RWAs and another circle representing fundamentalist Christians, the two circles would largely overlap.
Authoritarians tend to agree with the statement that the modern world is diseased and corrupt, that we need a strong leader who will cleanse our nation of things that are “depraved” and “abnormal.” Authoritarians feel their hostility is encouraged by established authorities and will attack those who are unable to defend themselves. Strangely, they often feel morally superior to those they attack. “They relish being ‘the arm of the Lord,’” according to Altemeyer, but will show leniency towards someone who attacks a member of a hated minority.
The Unbreakable Authoritarian Bubble
For those with high levels of authoritarian thinking, devotion to a group is a moral absolute. It overwhelms the instinct for compassion by looking with suspicion (and in some cases hostility) towards anyone who is not a member of the “righteous” tribe and any facts that might challenge the tribe’s superiority.
Because those within the group can do no wrong and those outside the group can do no right, authoritarians typically suffer extreme levels of cognitive dissonance in order to maintain their fantasy about being morally superior. They are unlikely to “hear” any evidence that does not already align with their core beliefs, although they will eagerly seize on evidence that appears to confirm them. (President Bush’s Republican base continued to believe he had never said he would “stay the course” in Iraq even though he had said it over and over.) In observing the comments sections of extreme fundamentalist websites like CharismaNews.com, I found that Christians would leap on any alleged scientific findings, no matter how dubious, that portrayed gay people as immoral, disease-ridden degenerates. However, any information to the contrary was dismissed as “liberal” propaganda.
Equally disturbing, it can be virtually impossible to convince an authoritarian that their behavior is wrong and does not align with the teachings of their chosen religion. When a popular Evangelical writer wrote an article, “How Liberalism Violates All Ten Commandments,” I pointed out that conservative policies had led to the deaths of an estimated 100,000 people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Someone replied, “Liberals always throw out these huge numbers like 100,000 with little or no evidence to back it up.” When challenged to explain how he reconciled the deaths of women and children with the teachings of Jesus, he said that whatever deaths might have happened had been necessary collateral damage in a war against evil.
This inability to accept basic facts about reality, combined with a strange insistence that they alone are “truly” following their faith no matter how much that faith contradicts their beliefs and actions, may be the most disconcerting aspect of authoritarianism. Altemeyer writes, “Despite all the things in scriptures about loving others, forgiving others, leaving punishment to God, and so on, authoritarian followers feel empowered to isolate and segregate, to humiliate, to persecute, to beat, and to kill in the middle of the night, because in their heads they can almost hear the loudspeakers announcing, ‘Now batting for God’s team.’” Actually following the tenets of their religion is not as important as defending the team against perceived attacks from hostile outsiders. In a study done at the University of Michigan, fundamentalist students evaluating the war in Iraq rejected a set of statements based on the Sermon on the Mount. Sincere Christians who insist on defending Jesus’ teachings on love and nonviolence may be shunned as “heretics” and “nonbelievers.”
If an authoritarian wishes to commit an act of violence, appeals to faith and morality will prove useless against him. In his nine-part documentary on the Troubles, “Provosts, Loyalists, and Brits,” journalist Peter Taylor interviewed some of the perpetrators of the most horrific violence committed during the Northern Irish conflict. With chilling equanimity one person after another confesses to gruesome acts of bloodshed. When Taylor asks them if they feel sorry for what they did, even after a distance of some twenty or thirty years, they tell him, No, of course not. And I would do it again if I had to.
In the 2013 documentary The Act of Killing, two filmmakers traveled to Indonesia and met the leaders of a 1965 paramilitary uprising that overthrew the Indonesian government and massacred over a million suspected communists. Some of those responsible for the worst killings appeared on camera and cheerfully reenacted the murders in the form of a musical, a Western, and a film noir. “It was like we were killing happily,” says an old man who would watch Elvis movies as he prepared to strangle hundreds of people with barbed wire. His hatred of the alleged communists trumped all other moral considerations.