BOOK REVIEW / Pride, prejudice and love-me-do little boys: The Authoritarian Personality - T W Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik and Daniel J Levinson: W W Norton

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The Independent Online
WHAT predisposes one person to become prejudiced while another does not? This is the central question addressed in The Authoritarian Personality. It is also this question that the authors see as at the heart of understanding the ineluctable appeal of fascism, in its various guises, to large sections of many modern societies. First published in 1951, and now reissued in a timely abridged version with an updated preface and foreword, the book is still important and, unfortunately, just as pertinent more than 40 years on.

Unusually for academics, the authors have written clearly and cogently about the psychological roots of what they term the 'authoritarian personality' (AP). They see such a personality type as a modern 'anthropological species', quite different from the bigot of old. Unlike his forebears, the 20th-century AP is aware of the principles of democracy and typically professes his support for them, yet, at the same time, is unwittingly undemocratic in his gut-level outlook and attitudes.

The AP, as described by the authors, is a volatile mix of opposites. He possesses enlightened ideas and skills characteristic of a highly industrialised society, while retaining certain superstitions and irrational beliefs. He prides himself on being his own person, yet deep down fears being different. He slavishly subscribes to the dominant views of the social group with which he identifies, while staunchly insisting that he thinks for himself. Oblivious to these contradictions, he is fiercely protective of his rights and 'individuality', yet submits to authority with kneejerk obedience. For the AP, power is of overriding importance. This leads him to evaluate most things in terms of 'weak' and 'strong': he is quick to align himself with the latter, because he abhors the former.

So what is the source of all this? Largely childhood experience, we are told, or, more specifically, a boy's relationship with his mother and father. At the centre is an unconscious fear of exposing his own unfulfilled emotional neediness, or 'weakness', as he perceives it. This comes from, according to the premise, a primary identification with the mother overlaid by a wish-for-love / fear relationship with a stern, often moralistic, but emotionally distant father. Typically, such a father has his own problems, most notably bitterness at not being as materially successful as he would have liked. (Since the AP studies were conducted more than four decades ago, not surprisingly they focus predominately on male development. But while such pre-liberated leanings limit the findings somewhat, they by no means vitiate them.)

It would be too reductive to simplify further the richness of this book's discussion of AP psychological development. Suffice it to say that the studies are persuasively coherent in attempting to explain how prejudice and its associated political manifestations have everything to do with an individual's psychological needs, fears, fantasies and inadequacies - and virtually nothing to do with the reality of the people against whom prejudice is directed.

The book makes the crucial point that, given such irrational roots, prejudice and its political bedfellow, fascism, cannot be combated with rational argument; trying to evoke sympathy for those on the receiving end of prejudice is likely to be equally futile. The better approach, suggest the authors, is to use blatant emotional propaganda.