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Respect and the authoritarian personality

Aretha Franklin demanded it, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, because to get it confers authority on the person who is respected. Singing from the perspective of the blues, that is, of the oppressed, to get authority and therefore respect is a good thing.

But what happens when established authorities themselves harp on demands for respect? Or when the supporters of the powerful circle the wagons and call those who are critical “disrespectful”?

What happens when demands for respect are just a cover to protect the powerful from criticism?

That’s a question I’ve been grappling with, here on Fantasy Island (aka Victoria BC), where it’s common coin to tell those who are critical that criticism is (a) “disrespectful” and of course (b) unwise, because, after all, it’s a small town and we just can’t “afford” to piss anyone off.

Telling someone that they’re “disrespectful” is a put-down of the first order that squashes ideas (and critique). You’re essentially telling that person that they have no right to speak: you’re being a “daddy” (or perhaps a “mommy”) who’s tutoring the ignorant in manners.

That’s the way of all authoritarians, isn’t it? It’s so easy to shut people up by telling them that they’re not respectful. Add to this cop-out strategy the tendency for people to feel offended by the slightest thing, and respect becomes the currency of the realm.

It would be interesting to see The Authoritarian Personality, a (somewhat flawed) 1950 study on right-wing authoritarianism, get a rethink with an eye to our Western culture of entitlement and our prickliness about being offended.

The study has been criticized (mainly because it focuses on right-wing authoritarianism), but check out the F-Scale Test and see how many questions still resonate …even on the supposed left. Granted, none of the flaming right-wing questions would be answered in the affirmative by anyone in “proper” society these days, but it’s almost uncanny how many of the questions apply if you make slight alterations. Take the following three, for example:

[2] A person who has bad manners, habits, and breeding can hardly expect to get along with decent people. [substitute: doesn’t subscribe to “our” way of thinking, doesn’t try to fit in, isn’t “one of us”…]

[5] Science has its place, but there are many important things that can never be understood by the human mind.  (and) [6] Every person should have complete faith in some supernatural power whose decisions he obeys without question.  [group-think on eco-spiritualism / new ageism, anyone?]

Anyway, we live in interesting times when a politician (for example the City of Victoria’s mayor) can shut down debate by telling a perfectly reasonable critic that he is disrespectful – all the while totally avoiding the criticism that was leveled – or when a supporter of a politician is offended by a critic calling that politician “foolish,” offended to the point of accusing the critic of being “disrespectful.” Interesting – and definitely strange – times indeed.

As far as I can see, the authoritarian personality is alive and well, right here in Victoria.



  1. Witness Mayor Fortin criticizing those that impugn (he pronounces it “im-punge” the professional ethics of the Engineering Department. But we have heard from at least one former elected official that Engineering never told Council about the gravity of the bridge condition.

    Comment by robert randall — June 12, 2010 #

  2. In my opinion Fortin is playing to the choir when he does his oh-so-predictable smack-down of anyone who dares question anything about process or about how things are handled at city hall these days. He’s appealing to a generation that was spoon-fed the pablum of “self-esteem” via Barney-esque nursery rhymes such as “I am special, I am special, so are you, so are you” sung to the tune of Frere Jacques. In that vein, gag-reflex-inducing “lectures” about respect and democracy to Geoff Young, that old veteran of municipal political service, by the youngster Sonya Chandler are typical of a mentality of nursery school entitlement.

    Comment by Yule — June 12, 2010 #

  3. At the risk of being censored (again) i wanted to add some context to this fun story. As entertaining as it is to be the villain (or villain sidekick) the plot hits a bit of a snag when you tear down your straw man exercise. Here was the actual conversation that inspired this trip down authoritarian lane:

    YULE HEIBEL Brilliant – John Luton (City of Victoria councilor) just keeps tightening his own noose. He weighs in with a comment on JohnsonStreetBridge.ORG’s post on the CFAX interview, regurgitating the same tired story. While I posted my comment in response, Dennis Robinson nailed him on his inability to contribute anything new …to the discussion. Foolish man. Time for a big housecleaning at city hall come 2011. Mat Wright Ross Crockford Lisa Nazarko Fife Pass it on: Victoria residents need to see what our “leaders” are up to.


    Mat Wright
    One question to John Luton that I left out – where are the comments and analysis from Victoria Emergency Services? Surely the police, fire dept. and VIHA paramedics have been consulted over possible closures. Or am I naive?
    Wednesday at 11:21pm

    Adam Friesen
    All this petty personal slander surrounding Victoria politics is far from refreshing. I would think would be applauding councilor Luton for reaching out and participating with the community in a dialogue, not degrading the conversation to name calling.
    Wednesday at 11:52pm ·

    Adam Friesen
    OR maybe I am naive?
    Wednesday at 11:53pm ·

    Ross Crockford
    Mat did thank John for making a comment on the website. And I personally have a lot of respect for John: he does his research, and he’s by far the most publicly engaged of all the councillors on this issue. Passions are running pretty high. But “slander”? I know my defamation law, and what I’ve seen is fair comment. Politics ain’t no country club.
    Thursday at 12:04am

    Adam Friesen
    @Ross, i didn’t intend to come across litigious. Sub in rudeness, or contemptuous tone if its more comfortable. I’m questioning the appropriateness of “foolish man” and always making straw-men out of council, when one could alternatively take your route and extend respect while throwing around political knuckles of accountability.

    I’m familiar enough with politics to understand cheap character jabs are usually best left to the sandbox of student politics for a reason. i’m familiar enough with country clubs (having worked at one) to know they might not be the best antonym to politics s-;
    Thursday at 12:55am ·

    Ross Crockford
    Thanks for the reply, and point taken. I was going to say “ain’t no tea party” … and then I remembered The Tea Party.
    Thursday at 1:07am

    Yule Heibel
    You know, Adam Friesen, if it weren’t for the fact that your comment generated subsequent conversation, I would delete it and block you from my Facebook.

    First, nothing, absolutely nothing, in my comment on JohnsonStreetBridge.ORG constitutes “personal slander,” and nothing in that comment is “disrespectful,” either, unless you’re one of those … See Morepeople who think that voicing one’s opinions is disrespectful. I also do not need to preface my comments with perfunctory or genuine thanks to the politician(s) for participating in a conversation with us peons – that’s not necessary and it’s not my style. I take it for granted that if you’re a politician, you HAVE to talk to the people.

    Second, this entry here is my personal Facebook page, and I am not speaking “for” jsb.ORG or for anyone else. This is personal. And believe me, my actual personal feelings about Luton and most of the rest of the council and mayor go way past the innocuous term “foolish.” Spare me the condescending tone about “always making straw-men out of council” or the sniffing at “cheap character jabs.” I think the economy of word choice (“foolish man”) happens to characterize what I genuinely believe about this politician and this council far better than lengthy circumlocutions ever could, even if the latter might *appear* more “respectful” to others who may be offended by brevity.

    That’s why I made this comment so long – so none should be offended.
    Thursday at 8:35am

    Adam Friesen
    i’m afraid i may be “one of those people” that believes a disrespectful comment, be it of an opinionated nature or a “personal” facebook comment, is still a disrespectful comment. Call me old fashioned, but ad hominem attacks don’t do much to advance an issue or promote a constructive dialogue.

    Municipal politics is far more intimate than provincial or federal politics, and given the one – two degrees of Victoria relationships, doing our best to be pleasant goes a long way in keeping the issues civil. I’m not calling for puritan reformation, just the challenge for some restraint and empathy to good people working hard for our city.

    “talking to the people” rarely involves logging comments in on the blogs of what could adequately be described as the home of committed opponents. Point being, John is a pretty rare politician to be doing that and he’s earned my respect by extending his name into the debate on the public record (especially in this day and age of “gotcha journalism”).

    point taken on the second note about you not wanting to be a representative of the collective. That was not fair to Ross and others (although Mat did “like” your status).

    As for the condescending tone, i’ll partially bite my tongue here on the obvious and just note that facebook doesn’t translate tone, so it’s pretty hard to make any prescriptive comments without ruffling feathers. I think you’d agree that isn’t enough reason to not make prescriptive comments.
    Thursday at 12:27pm ·

    Comment by adam f — June 12, 2010 #

  4. Anyways, all to say i thought drawing attention to the poor taste of consistently framing criticism upon the crutch of ad hominem attacks was a pretty straightforward and innocent enough suggestion. I was by no way suggesting councilors ought to be exempt from criticism (hence you employing a straw man argument).

    My comments clearly indicate that i was applauding Ross’s more constructive approach of extending respect (read common manners) when he gets tough with his criticisms. My comments were made in the spirit of the same critical civic spirit you appear to promoting so i’m not sure why this twisted account is warranted.

    I’m of the opinion that advancing the practice of The Golden Rule is not on par with having an authoritarian personality disorder. Promoting common courtesy is not a call for shutting down debate. On the contrary it is a call for the kind of conditions that can nurture more lively and healthy debates without the distractions of mud tossing.

    Comment by adam f — June 12, 2010 #

  5. Why you should believe yourself of enough significance to star as “villain” (or “villain sidekick”) in my post is beyond me. Perhaps you have too high an opinion of yourself.
    Why you think I “censored’ you (“again”? – wtf?) is also inscrutable.
    As far as I’m concerned, however, my conversation with you is finished. Get your own blog and write there, if you want, but you’re not welcome on my comments board. Enough.

    Comment by Yule — June 12, 2010 #

  6. This council and mayor have severely exacerbated an already existing democracy deficit in the city. Your assertion that I’m presenting a “twisted account” contributes to it.

    Comment by Yule — June 12, 2010 #

  7. I’ve seen Mayor Fortin at a couple of the council meetings and his disdain for anyone voicing an opinion that runs counter to his own is obvious. It was quite surprising, because I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it in person.

    We don’t need politicians on any level of government who think they know best — that authority flows only downhill and respect flows only uphill.

    Comment by Daniel — June 13, 2010 #

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