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13 April 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

I’m not very authoritarian. But I might feel otherwise if I’d missed breakfast

Classifying people according on a scale such as authoritarian-liberal is a morally limiting method that overlooks our glorious mash-up of traits.

By Amol Rajan

Come on then, dear New Statesman reader, out with it: just how authoritarian are you? I’m sure you’ve often wondered, and now there’s a handy quiz to help you find out. It comes in Remaking Partisan Politics through Authoritarian Sorting, by three American political scientists, cited in a recent Thomas B Edsall column for the New York Times.

These chaps have come up with four questions to parents, about the kind of traits they’d like to see in their child. Please choose one option from each of the following: independence, or respect for elders? Curiosity or good manners? Self-reliance or obedience? Being considerate or well-behaved?

Those of you who go for the second option in all instances have authoritarian instincts. You prize social order and cohesion more than personal autonomy and independence. Those of you who go for the first option are more liberal.

I’m not very authoritarian, alas. If I had to choose, I’d prefer my son Winston to have respect for elders, curiosity, self-reliance and be considerate.

On another day, though, perhaps when I’d been burgled, or missed breakfast, I’d go for “obedience” over “self-reliance”, which puts me bang in the middle of the spectrum. There’s a lot of weight in those words, “If I had to choose”, because most of those characteristics are desirable, and wholly compatible. By setting them up as a choice, the authors can justify their thesis that there is a sliding scale of authoritarian instincts, which happen to be in ascendance in much of the world right now, from Washington to Budapest, Manila and Moscow.

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But people change. And classifying them according to where they sit on a scale such as authoritarian-liberal is a morally limiting and yet politically irresistible method that overlooks the glorious mash-up of traits in each of us.

We live in a horribly polarised culture. One reason for this is the lure of false dichotomies in politics. Left vs right, liberal vs conservative, open vs closed, Somewhere vs Anywhere, Leave vs Remain.

Democratic politics advances by argument, which inevitably requires a degree of antagonism. The physical structures of our political institutions – think of parliament’s green benches – enshrine this opposition. And the notion that progress involves synthesising competing views long predates the dialectical materialism that Marx and the Young Hegelians championed.

For those involved in politics, tribalism provides a sense of purpose. In the real world, this heated antagonism is an impediment to common sense. Most people have sympathy with both sides of many political arguments. This is anathema to the political pro, whose task is to demolish the other side by all means necessary.

I am a rootless London Anywhere, born of immigrants, who spends much of his time travelling. But I am often happiest with my family in the very Somewhere place called Exeter occupied by my in-laws. One reason referendums are potentially dangerous is that they reduce complex issues to binary questions. You wouldn’t think it from coverage of Brexit, but most of the public can see the arguments for both Leave and Remain.

On holiday last week, I checked Twitter, which is very much not the real world. The heat, fury and polarisation were awful to watch. So I went back to my books, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which has the answer to most of our problems.

Aristotle lauds the idea of the golden mean. Moral behaviour is a happy juncture between two extremes, one of excess, the other deficiency. For him, moderation isn’t, as tribalists contend, a kind of cowardice – it is a recognition that wisdom is giving weight to all sides of an argument.

This is not about a new Third Way, or indeed a new centrist party. But given where our culture is heading, we must revive the idea that the mean is a moral as well as mathematical concept – and that life is golden there. 

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This article appears in the 11 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war