(Content warning: I talk about some hurtful things in this article, like killing and discrimination.)
If you’ve read the news over the past few years, you may have heard about authoritarianism and wondered what it is. Authoritarianism is the idea that having control is more important than meeting people’s needs, telling the truth or being fair. Authoritarianism is dangerous because it thinks that letting some people have power is more important than caring for other people. Everyone should have the power to make a difference, not just a few people. Here are some facts about authoritarianism and why it’s bad.
- Authoritarianism has been a problem throughout history. Historical authoritarian leaders include Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Nicolae Ceaușescu and Idi Amin. Some modern leaders like Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un, Bashar al-Assad and Rodrigo Duterte have also acted in authoritarian ways or have said they like authoritarian thinking.
- Authoritarians say things are right just because somebody says so. That somebody can be God, the government, their parents or themselves. Saying ‘Because I said so!’ is not proof. Anybody can say things, and sometimes those things can be wrong. For example, some people believe that God made the universe and everything in it less than ten thousand years ago. That’s wrong. Scientists have found rocks, fossils and other items that are millions of years old. If you want to say that something is a fact, you should prove it. You can prove things with research, stories and other kinds of evidence.
- Authoritarians think that it’s OK to treat people unfairly because that’s just the way things are. They don’t think that problems like racism or sexism matter, because it’s more important to have control than it is to be fair. This is dangerous. Real people are hurt by racism, sexism and other kinds of mistreatment. The world isn’t fair, but we can still make it fairer.
- Authoritarians also think that it is possible to know everything about reality. This isn’t true. We can’t know everything because the universe is always changing. Living things like plants and animals change over time to adapt to their environment. We are constantly learning new things about the universe and how it works. That’s what science is about. That’s also what being human is about. Being an intelligent species means that we can learn about the world around us and talk about what we’ve learned. We can’t know everything, but we can try to know as much as we can.
- Authoritarians think they have all the answers to everyone’s questions. People may have some answers, but nobody has all the answers.
- Some authoritarians think that you should do what they say, not what they do. This is because they think having control is more important than being fair or kind. Some politicians say that being gay hurts families, but these same politicians will cheat on their partners.
- Authoritarians think that it is OK to punish people for not agreeing with them. In the Soviet Union, Stalin killed people or sent them to jail because they didn’t agree with him or the government. Black Americans in states with Jim Crow laws could be hurt or killed because they spoke up against their states’ laws. (Jim Crow is a nickname for laws passed in the United States that banned black people from being in the same areas as white people. Keeping people separate like this is called segregation.) Martin Luther King was killed by someone who thought Jim Crow laws were good.
- Authoritarians don’t believe in civil rights. Many of them think that certain people deserve to be treated badly. Hitler killed millions of Jews and Roma because he didn’t think they were real people who deserved to live. Some people in the United States want to stop Black, Native and Latino people from voting. There are people who think that women should not have the right to vote or have jobs because they think men are smarter than women.