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F for Fascist

October 17, 2017

Those familiar with the ADF litigation on behalf of Jonathan Lopez know that his speech class professor (among other delinquencies) nominated Jonathan a “fascist bastard” because he announced in class his support for the definition of marriage found in the dictionary.  Of several questions we might ask about this episode, let us consider one:  Why “fascist”?

It is a commonplace of contemporary political and cultural discourse for those on the left to label conservatives as fascists.  As an analytical matter, the description is inapt.  But the infelicity of the charge has not obstructed its widespread use.  How did this familiar practice initiate?

Theodor Adorno was a prominent theorist among the neo-Marxists associated with the Institute for Social Research (commonly referred to as the Frankfurt School).  Adorno and three colleagues authored The Authoritarian Personality, published in 1950.  They therein unveiled the “F scale” by which one’s fascist potential is measured.  This ostensibly scientific system involved politically-loaded classifications posturing as psychological analysis, in which the “fascist type” was discerned from various opinions held by the person subject to scrutiny.  Conservative attitudes in religion, culture, and politics were equated with racism and deep-seated authoritarianism.

Adorno’s biographer Lorenz Jäger explains:

[I]n other words, even political attitudes within the framework of the American constitution could be interpreted as mental disorders. . . .  Freud’s theory was used to interpret certain opinions as involuntary symptoms analogous to Freudian slips and dreams—with the underlying idea that they would reveal a hidden meaning to the expert.  Psychoanalysis became an apparently scientific means of saying something about the normatively desirable and the pathological in politics.  In future, people were not only to be simply reactionary but were also to have mental problems.  The result was a kind of twentieth-century Inquisition.

The Authoritarian Personality may be seen as an attempt to gain cultural power by defining the enemy.  And the enemy was the social middle ground that was now suspected of pathological tendencies.  From now on, the patriotic and anti-Communist average American was to be regarded as a potential fascist.

While its theoretical and methodological foundations were thoroughly discredited in short order, the book was immensely popular in intellectual circles.  Its thesis became embedded so firmly and widely as to suggest a community awaiting the appearance of a mechanism through which to shroud its prejudices in scientific pretense.  The book’s influence in creating a societal habit of discourse is impressive.

The special utility of the Adorno theory is that the arguments offered by persons contesting their authoritarian diagnosis on the F scale are rendered irrelevant.  Since the diagnosis purports to reveal the unconscious motivations of the diagnosed persons, it neutralizes their publicly offered rebuttals, which derive from their afflicted condition—not independent merit.  There is thus no need to consider their reasoning before consigning them to outer darkness.

We’re all only too familiar with this tactic, though lately its employ—being detached from conscious association with its origins (the next stage in social development)—has diminished in surface sophistication while expanding the categories of easy judgment: racism, sexism, classicism, homophobia, among others.  These are the default terms of critical discourse on the university campus.

Ingrained cultural habit does not dislodge easily.  Especially the sort discussed here, when considering a society such as ours that too often prefers dismissive aphorism and stigmatization to reasoned discourse.  Ad hominem is easy; short-form quips are how we do social theorizing.  We’ll not be rid of Adorno's theory and its progeny any time soon.

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