I believe in the sovereignty of each individual. Except when (fill in your favorite exception).
This is how I've come to recognize my inner authoritarian. There's a part of me that wishes people would do things my way, because I'm the obvious authority. That's a laugh!
My inner authoritarian pops up when I feel unsafe because of the choices others make for their own lives. I believe their actions might harm me — a fear often accompanied by an authoritative opinion of mine they need to hear. I want them to make different choices or have different beliefs.
Behind all those machinations, I want to feel a sense of belonging.
Of course, when others voice authoritative opinions about what I should do, I am irritated. And resistant. Don't tell me what to do!
My internal struggle is one of humanity's struggles. We see it on display today in the (name your issue) debate. And so the never-ending tension between individual rights and community responsibility continues.
Enshrined in the Pledge of Allegiance are these closing words: "With liberty and justice for all." This sentiment captures our tension between individuals (freedom) and community (justice). It is our ability to navigate between individualistic and collective values that keeps the authoritarians outside of our government. Authoritarians are rigid, dogmatic and thrive by making an enemy of anyone or anything not aligned with "their way."
Governing in our democratic republic requires negotiation, compromise, acknowledgment of other's perspectives as valid — and a willingness to be uncomfortable throughout the entire process. It requires an openness to being changed by another person, too.
And yet, when we see our priorities or our way of life threatened by calls to change the status quo, we turn to the authoritarian who promises to NOT compromise. Governing becomes difficult, and then impossible, without compromise. We've lived this in real time.
Governing takes a back seat to politicking for votes. And more and more of us are rewarding authoritarian behavior with our votes.
I see authoritarian tendencies gaining power among individual rights advocates who refuse to accept any responsibility for the community. And I see these same tendencies among advocates of community responsibility when they demand compliance from all.
Given divergent ideas about how we proceed as a nation, we are all shouting at each other to wake up, get the accurate information and make the right choice. Then, we suppose, we'll all feel safe. Except we won't. We will harbor resentment and other hard feelings.
Here are some real-life statements from my friends and family that concern me:
- Everyone should be forced to get vaccinated because I'm tired of having to stay home and they are only thinking of themselves.
- When I was in the military, they just told you to line up and they vaccinated you. You didn't have a say in the matter. Why is there a discussion on this?
- I should have a choice over what happens to my body — whether it's a vaccination or an abortion.
- I hope they don't decide to take my retirement and give it to other people.
- The riots were an assault on democracy. (Offered by two different people, one talking about the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, the other about the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol.)
- No compromise with fascists is possible. (Offered by a liberal friend, but similar in tone to a conservative friend calling the Democrats tyrants.)
I offer a path out of this mess.
Let's agree to grow emotionally. To acknowledge the need for both individual rights and community responsibility. Let's acknowledge there are many conflicting facts and even more conflicting opinions. Let's act with kindness toward one another, recognizing that under most of our disputes is fear due to feeling a loss of control.
We are each the authority in our own lives, but our control stops there. The rest of life is a network of relationships, compromises and choices.
Here's my checklist to stop my inner authoritarian in its tracks:
- Accept that I can only choose for myself.
- Others can choose themselves and I don't have to agree with them.
- Call a friend who listens well; share what deeply matters to you, and why.
- Return the favor. Listen to your friend as they talk about what matters to them. Don't offer opinions or advice.
- Spend no more than 30 minutes on social media daily.
- Vote for people who work well with others.
- Stop paying attention to the conflict entrepreneurs. They are not worth your time or energy.
Our government is a reflection of our collective will. Politics are a reflection of our collective behavior. If we want anti-authoritarian people to be in office, we have to recruit them, raise money and vote for them. We need to withhold what we control — our votes and our donations — to minimize authoritarians' influence and power.
Debilyn Molineaux is co-publisher of the Fulcrum and president/CEO of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund.