|AUTHORITATIVE JUDGMENTS VS. AUTHORITARIAN
Terry D. Cooper
I AM REVEALED
Dec 27 2011
There is a huge difference between people who speak with authority and authoritarians. Authorities have knowledge,
expertise and competence. Authoritarians, on the other hand, demand to be followed on the basis of sheer power,
status and decree. Authorities do not feel personally attacked when we ask questions. Authoritarians insist on
unquestioned loyalty even when they do not make sense. Whereas authorities exemplify rationality and wisdom,
authoritarians demonstrate only power and control. As Howard Clinebell puts it:
competence in spiritual matters was self-evident. His grasp of truth was unmistakably authentic.
Authoritarian thinking involves a rigid mentality. While the content of authoritarian thinkers may differ, the underlying
pattern or type of reasoning is largely identical. In fact, authoritarianism and judgmentalism normally coexist. No group
has a monopoly on it. Authoritarians can emerge from the right or the left. And regardless of its persuasion,
authoritarian thinking is so sure it owns the truth that it feels justified in clobbering other people with it. Conversations
are turned into power struggles in which we must conquer opposing viewpoints. Authoritarianism reveals an obsessive-
compulsive mindset, an anxiety-ridden defensive mentality. Thus, authoritarianism must be seen as a dishonest attempt
to manage the frightening anxiety inherent in life, an anxiety that must be faced by every person. Authoritarian thinking
wants to be rescued from the dilemmas of humanity. It doesn't want to trust; it demands to know. And even if it does
not know, it pretends it does. In an effort to cope, it retreats into a cave of certainty and attacks all who come near.
Authoritarian thinking, by forcing all our experiences to fit into prearranged mental categories, plunges us into emotional
disturbance. When we impose inadequate interpretations on our experiences it is like walking around in shoes that are
much too small for us: we will get blisters and have problems with our feet. We cannot consistently repress, avoid and
unconsciously attempt to stamp out our experience without it eventually catching up with us. Clearly, there is a
connection between denying life experiences and psychological dysfunction. Rigid thinking produces a highly
restrictive emotional life, a psychological condition in which we can only survive through enormous denial and self-
deception. We cannot indefinitely minimize, distort and censor our actual experience when it does not fit our rigid
perception of what reality must be. This will create an enormous inner conflict, a tension that will surely manifest itself in
Unfortunately, when our authoritarian thinking is challenged, many of us simply dig in more stubbornly and deeply. We
become preoccupied in our defense. We forget C. S. Lewis' frequent statement: When we say we are defending God,
we are often defending ourselves. Insistence on being right leaves us self-absorbed and not open to insight from
others. We tell ourselves that if we question even one factor in our thinking, the entire edifice will come tumbling down.
This fear of a domino effect will keep us pretending that we remain certain in all our opinions. We may even say that all
doubt comes from a rebellious heart and not an inquiring mind. Any intellectual problem, therefore, is a disguised moral
problem. And if others disagree with us, regardless of their sincerity, we reduce it to being persecuted for the truth.
Authoritarian thinking insists that order must always take priority over further exploration. While finding a sense of order
in our world is important to most of us, anxiety can easily push toward an excessive demand for mental tidiness.
Everything must be figured out and put in its place. All the messy, unexplained facets of life must be shoved into
categories. Maintaining the old, secure way of looking at life, even when it doesn't fit our experience, is upheld over
admitting uncertainties. The way this comes across in relationships is this: Your experience must fit my
preconceptions! If your experience does not seem to match my existing interpretations, then I will twist, minimize or
change your experience so that it is compatible with my ideas about the world. Nothing is going to shake the stability or
security of my insulated worldview. No matter what your experience seems to be, I will put it in categories manageable
This may be especially tempting when we meet people whose suffering we cannot understand. Rather than recognizing
their pain and simply admitting that we don't know why this is happening to them, we frequently offer explanations or
platitudes. It becomes very clear after a while that the explanation is a frantic attempt to hold together our own views,
rather than to comfort the person in pain. In fact, our explanation for their suffering, as Harold Kushner points out so
well, may even be cruel. We may end up blaming the victims, somehow suggesting that the suffering people brought
this tragedy on themselves.
Several years ago , I lost my wife in a tragic automobile accident. This same accident nearly took my life as well. As I
was recuperating for several months in the hospital, I appreciated the manner in which so many people's hearts
reached out to me. Some people very wisely realized that interpretations as to why this had happened were simply not
satisfying or adequate. With a loving presence, they embraced my confusion and did not back away from the struggles
this raised for my own religious faith.
Others, however, were extremely uncomfortable with the questions this experience provoked. In fact, I could see their
own anxiety levels start to rise. Swiftly following this elevation of anxiety was an attempt to quickly offer explanations,
any explanation, that would restore the security of their thinking. What was abundantly clear was this: their answers
were for them, not for me. The fox of doubt had threatened the security of their henhouse. This fox must quickly be
eliminated. After all, even unsatisfying answers were better than no answers. This was certainly the conviction of Job's
friends. The security of their religious worldview must be protected at all costs. So the primary task was protecting an
old way of thinking rather than standing with me in my uncertainty.
It must be stressed that these were often very well-intentioned individuals. They were simply frightened, and this fear
led them to cling to religious ideas that minimized or downplayed the problem. They often did not realize that it was their
own fear of doubt that they were trying to fix, rather than my particular struggle. My questions and confusions had
triggered their own. Unwilling to face and explore the many unsettled mysteries within themselves, how could they
possibly hear mine? Also, in our youth, it may be difficult to grasp the deeper struggles, ambiguities and tensions in
another's comments. Cheap platitudes are offered, though well intended.
This excessive need for order is why many of us feel forced into seeing a professional counselor or psychotherapist. In
effective counseling, we have an opportunity to face our anxiety and insecurity without an immediate need to get rid of
them. The therapist is not trying to talk us out of them, tell us they're no big deal or quickly explain them in such a way
that they're no longer a problem. In helpful counseling, the focus is on our struggle and not the therapist's need to
keep his or her worldview intact.
Prepackaged answers usually sound prescribed. "This was all meant to be," or “You must not question God” are not
very helpful comments. They temporarily make life seem manageable, but they ignore the underlying anxiety we all
must deal with. They come out of shallow waters and refuse to walk with a person into greater depths. Again, they are
not designed to provide comfort. Instead, they are used to eliminate anxiety. Daniel Day Williams addresses this issue:
from suffering. In the involvements of love we seek to share life, not immunity from its pain. Identification with the
needs of the neighbor is possible only through a willingness to become vulnerable. Jesus was a man of sorrows
and acquainted with grief.
need to fully recognize and embrace the particular, concrete dilemmas of people's lives. While some troubled people
may want easy answers, precisely because it makes their pain and anxiety seem manageable and meaningful, these
platitudes don't last. It's easy to deal in the abstract. But how well do we wade through the crashing waves in another's
life, fully acknowledging the level of suffering before we offer hope? It's no problem to sit in our offices and reflect on
the human condition, but our quick answers are meaningless unless they can venture into the darkness of another's
PLURALISM, RADICAL RELATIVISM AND CONVICTION
Having pointed out some of the dangers of authoritarian thinking, it is equally important to say that some perspectives,
especially Western religious ones, are often labeled authoritarian simply because they dare to speak universally about
the human condition. By having the nerve to speak of universals, these groups are said to be authoritarians,
exclusivists, intolerant and unaffirming of other perspectives. And worse still, these perspectives are charged with not
embracing diversity. The critics quickly move from what Robert Jenson calls the social reality of pluralism to the
ideology of pluralism. Pluralism, as a social reality, simply is. We live on a diverse planet with multiple worldviews. This
social reality, in and of itself, is neutral. It is a mere description of our context.
However, many individuals want to turn this simple recognition into an ideology, a fundamental philosophy with all sorts
of metaphysical assumptions implied. Pluralism becomes elevated into a norm for evaluating all perspectives. All views
must not simply be heard and acknowledged; instead, they must be accepted as legitimate and endorsed as right for
the person holding them. Your truth, my truth and everyone else's truth should be held together under a giant canopy
of pluralism. Everyone has his or her own epistemological style in this wonderfully diverse situation. Religious, political
and ethical perspectives are more like tastes in food or clothing than positions to be compared. In fact, anyone who
does not fully embrace the legitimacy of all angles is perceived as intolerant, which once again, is the worst thing that
can ever be said about a person. For a Jewish person to actually believe that there is only one God of all people or for
a Christian to believe that God's grace is poured out for all in Christ is "narrow-minded, provincial and hopelessly
nonpluralistic," Instead, people can only bring their religious views into the arena of pluralism if they embrace the
philosophy (religion?) of pluralism itself.
What is painfully missing when pluralism becomes the new gospel is that pluralism, itself, is founded on some definite
beliefs, and it makes absolute claims about truth. Saying that "no perspective is universal" is itself a universal
statement; saying that there are no metanarratives is itself a metanarrative; claiming the futility of all absolutes is itself
an absolute conviction. Ideological pluralism moves from an is to an ought. Because there is an availability of various
perspectives, all of them ought to be endorsed. But again, when did diversity become sacred? This way of thinking
moves from a desire to hear or respect the people behind a view to approving that view. These are not the same. Yet
over and over again, individuals in our culture mistake the differences between accepting a person and endorsing a
viewpoint or behavior. Believing that people carry the image of God within them and deserve the opportunity to voice
their views does not mean we must agree with what they are saying or how they are living. The two are simply not
synonymous. Are we to lay down all of our ethical standards simply to be seen as open-minded, accepting people? In
order to flexibly embrace every idea or behavior must we denounce all notions of a norm?
The truth of the matter is that no one is a total relativist. We cannot survive without some assumptions about what is
good, valuable and even universal. Few of us would say that child molestation may be right for the perpetrator; that
stealing someone's valuables simply reveals an alternative set of values; that helping someone in trouble is no different
than passing them by. Everything we do each day is predicted by values we hold. And none of us really believes those
values are completely relative. Whatever we may hear in a classroom, we cannot live that way.
Further, if all perspectives were the same, what would be the point of education? All debate would stop; all
conversation would simply be viewed as the revealing of preferences.
Thus, it is important to say this directly: Many of us are very tired of an ideology of pluralism, which hides deeply held
philosophical assumptions behind an "innocent" demeanor. The hypocrisy, at times, can nearly be overbearing.
Pluralistic ideologues can be as dogmatic in their perspectives as the authoritarians they attack. And attack is precisely
what they do. Under the banner of inclusiveness, all are invited except those who do not wave the banner of radical
relativism. This view is not simply a threat to ethical principles; it is an assault on the whole idea of intellectual
exchange. We end up with a politically correct, bland world in which genuine convictions are forfeited for the mindless
endorsement of pluralism. And we need to be aware that when this occurs, real dialogue is both impossible and
William G. Perry Jr. of Harvard University conducted an extremely interesting longitudinal study of how college students
frequently change their mind. Perry was not interested in the content of the students' thinking; instead, he wanted to
study any changes in the pattern of their thinking process. He was particularly interested in examining how students
dealt with the diversity and pluralism at Harvard. He had personally noticed what seemed to be a consistent, sequential
pattern of reasoning with the students, and he wanted to further investigate this. Perry's research has been duplicated
in other settings and has been well received by the disciplines of psychology and education. Perry essentially found
three broad cognitive orientations out of which students think. While students can get stuck at any stage, there is a
general developmental progression through these stages.
Perry found that the initial cognitive pattern exhibited by many who began Harvard could best be described as a
"dualistic epistemology." In other words, these students approached their classes with a strong expectation to be given
the absolute truth about things. The world could be divided between black and white, good and bad, true and false.
There were no gray areas. It was the professor's job to provide this absolute truth. At this level there is a demand for
complete certainty and a denial that all perspectives involve some degree of risk. There is no need for faith. This
mental orientation can be described by what philosophers sometimes call "foundationalism," the belief that we can erect
an entire philosophy on the basis of absolutely certain building blocks. Proof must be present.
As students were introduced to a variety of perspectives, many of them recoiled in frustration wanted simply to know
who was right. Some students defensively denied any legitimacy to multiple angles. Eventually, however, most of them
went through a kind of epistemological crisis. Perry called this the "crisis of relativism." Students began to realize that
there seemed to be some validity to multiple perspectives. For some students, this became a license to think whatever
they wanted. If no one knows anyway,, then why shouldn't they simply hold their own opinions regardless of the
evidence? These students went beyond the recognition that all ideas grow out of a particular context. Instead, all ideas
are the same. There is no need to look any further because no one will ever know, anyway. All opinions are of equal
validity. And some students saw this relativism as more of a reason to despair than to celebrate. They felt
overwhelmed and saddened that the search for truth was over.
Yet Perry found that many students went through a further level of development: conviction. As they considered
relativism, they could not accept that all ideas were simply of equal value. Some, indeed, were better than others.
They were more comprehensive, explained more of the evidence available and were more coherent. They began to
realize that while their old demand for absolute certainty could never be realized, they could commit themselves
meaningfully to the ideas the made the most sense to them. Students at this stage were willing to acknowledge that all
views, whether religious or otherwise, began in a kind of faith. It is not necessary to have total proof for commitment to
occur. There is a recognized risk here. This faith is not irrational, but it may move beyond what reason can totally
settle. In short, it is an Augustinian faith-seeking-understanding model. It begins with assumptions, but then weighs
those against evidence available. It recognizes that all perspectives emerge out of social and historical locations, and
are therefore finite. However, it does not accept that all perspectives have equal value. Total relativism is a self-
contradictory and unlivable philosophy.
Many authoritarians are entrenched in Perry's first mental orientation of a dualistic epistemology. They defend their
views with fanaticism, not simply passion. There is enormous anxiety buried beneath their claims of absolute certainty.
In order to deny this uncertainty in themselves, they must squash it in others. And as H. Richard Niebuhr reminds us,
"self-defense is the most prevalent source of error in all thinking and perhaps especially in theology and ethics." This
also applies to many pluralistic ideologues who conceal the "absolute of relativity" beneath their social agenda. As
Daniel Taylor puts it, "even the most ardent pluralist...appears tolerant of many different outlooks only because they are
allowed for in his or her point of view...Most pluralists are not more tolerant of truly divergent points of view than those
they criticize for intolerance."
NONAUTHORITARIAN CONVERSATION: SOME SUGGESTIONS
All of us will encounter authoritarian thinkers. I would like to suggest a few strategies for dealing with such situations.
These suggestions make no claim to eliminate all frustration, struggle and reactivity in dealing with judgmentalism. That
will not happen. Instead, we can make progress in learning to live underneath our own skin and not allowing
authoritarians to control the way we relate to them. This is hard stuff. We will sometimes blow it. Yet our goal, as they
say in twelve-step groups, is progress, not perfection.
Don't be surprised. We need to remember the manner of authoritarian thinking. We need not be surprised by
pulverizing judgments, convenient categories and insulting labels. After all, this is the nature of authoritarian thinking.
Rigid, all-or-nothing pronouncements will be a part of the authoritarian thought world. We need not be shocked by it.
Instead, we can brace ourselves for it. This is reality. It will not help to be appalled, greatly offended or astonished that
individuals are capable of this mode of thinking. We do not live in a world free of judgmentalism. While we may not like
it, we need to recognize it as part of life.
It is easy to forget this inevitable encounter with authoritarian thinking. We may walk around with an image in our minds
of how healthy people should relate to each other. We may unconsciously expect that everyone else has this same
view of interpersonal relationships. And when we run into authoritarian thinking, we may recoil with astonishment. If we
let ourselves, we can ruminate over the encounter for the rest of the day. "They have no right to be that way!" we may
say. We may become shocked and preoccupied. Our day, if we're not careful, can be ruined by the unfortunate
experience of bumping into this type of thinking. Yet the authoritarian thinking is not causing us nearly as much trouble
as (a) our shock and outrage that there are people like this and (b) a belief that we have a right to never have to deal
with one of them! We bring unnecessary stress on ourselves as we can't seem to let go of our outrage that there are
people like this in the world.
Encounter different perspectives. Whenever we can, it's helpful to encourage authoritarian thinkers into a
situation in which they confront different viewpoints. When individuals have to face well-intentioned people of
alternative perspectives, they begin to loosen their convictions that they own the truth. When they rub shoulders with a
well-intentioned person of an opposing viewpoint, it is not so easy to write them off without some discomfort.
Take on other perspectives. Invite black-or-white thinkers to take on the perspective of others. We can ask
authoritarian thinkers how other people may have arrived at their point of view. If authoritarians start to see the context
of other people's lives and thoughts, they may begin to recognize that their own thinking, also, emerges in a particular
context and is limited. As we have already seen, authoritarians are weak on perspective-taking skills. They need
practice in placing themselves in another's frame of reference. Perhaps they will begin to see that all thought, even
ideas about ultimate matters, occurs in a specific and limited location. Indeed, we all see through a glass darkly.
Questions such as the following may be helpful in breaking through the authoritarian's judgment of another. "What do
you think this other person was feeling and experiencing when she did that?" or "How might this other person have
developed those ideas you believe are so strange?" or "If you had walked in his shoes, what do you think you would be
struggling with?" These questions are designed to get authoritarians into the worlds of other people. Once they do
this, their judgments of these people will not come so easily.
Understanding their fear. When dealing with authoritarian thinkers, it is sometimes helpful to remember that they
may be abusive because they are so anxious. We need to look for the insecurity beneath what seems like a swollen
ego. Fear often drives the bus of aggression. A craving for security can be similar to an addiction. In fact, absolute
certainty can function like a drug of choice. Authoritarians often believe that even a small cog in their grand conceptual
scheme will ruin everything. Consequently, they become hostile when questioned. They do not want to rethink their
world. Probably none of us delights in the loss of security that accompanies a challenge to our belief system. But for
authoritarians, the challenge is unbearable. Therefore, fighting overthrows discussing; conquering overshadows
sharing; and winning means more than searching. Perhaps it's helpful to silently ask ourselves in the presence of an
authoritarian thinker: "What are you afraid of?" Focusing on this underlying fear may help us be more compassionate.
Recognizing their doubt. We also need to remind ourselves that when authoritarians react to our uncertainty, this
reaction is probably based on a denial of their own uncertainty. Our doubts may be their doubts. In fact, this may be
what authoritarian thinking is fighting - the uncertainty within itself. Unable to admit this, it externalizes the doubt and
attacks it in others. What we cannot accept within ourselves we project on anyone who raises disturbing questions.
Confronting our preunderstanding. We need to realize that everyone comes from somewhere. In other words,
we need to fully grasp that our perspectives are always shaped by the unique cluster of influences that are part of our
past. We bring a history to each conversation. That history has obviously influenced our angle on life. Our angles are
indeed different. And there is no such thing as angle-less perspective, no such thing as someone who comes from
nowhere, no one who has a completely neutral mind. To have lived is to have been influenced by factors that are
unique to each of us. We are not just objective calculators; we are involved in life. We cannot have lived and
developed without forming what is often called "preunderstanding" or a unique perspective we bring to each
conversation. We don't start from scratch when we engage people. In fact, without a guiding framework from our past,
we would not even be able to understand anyone's experience.
Authoritarian thinkers often claim that they speak from a completely objective and neutral place, a no-spin zone. This is
simply impossible. We are all creatures of a particular time, place and language. We need not apologize for this social
and historical limitation, but neither should we ignore it and act as if we are speaking from a completely detached,
objective place. We don't have timeless, spaceless opinions. While we can distance ourselves from some of our
assumptions, we'll never succeed in completely removing them. They will creep back in and inform us in ways we don't
I mention this because I often hear people say, "I call it the way it is!" While I appreciate their honesty, they seem to
have no realization that their mind, like everyone else's, interprets the world through their own mental filter. This filter is
unique to them and is not everyone else's filter. Again, we all carry baggage when we enter a conversation.
Judgmentalism always forgets this and reacts to others because they do not come from our world of our taken-for-
granted assumptions. Yet, no one has a complete lock on absolute truth all the time, so we should be humbly open to
listening to other people's opinions and perspectives. While we can form convictions based on our own experience and
available information, we should remain open to new ways of thinking.
Validate others' experiences. We need to move away from the notion that "if we haven't experienced it, it must not
be real." This attitude elevates our own experience, which is always limited, to the state of a final standard for all
experience. It is helpful to regularly remind ourselves that other people have had experiences of which we know
nothing. Again, while our experiences provide us with a framework, they are not the final frame of reference for
everyone. We can use our experiences to advance understanding; however, we can overextend it to advance
Sometimes I have had no idea of what someone was talking about, only to find out later, after my own experience had
been expanded, exactly what they meant. I did not understand back then, but I certainly do now. Back then, I thought
they were strange; now I understand. Most of us have had this experience.
Focus on the true goal of conversation. While argument may emerge in a conversation, it should never occur
simply for its own sake. The argument needs to be enveloped in a deeper commitment to truth and mutual respect.
Stated differently, increasing our understanding needs to overshadow winning a debate! The joy of chasing a topic
does not need to be weighted down with a preoccupation with who's winning. Scorekeeping is unnecessary. This is not
easy because most of us are very invested in our basic convictions. Yet when we drop the necessity to outmaneuver
our "opponent" and concentrate instead on gaining insight with our conversational partner, then real advances can
Perhaps nothing comes easier than to treat an authoritarian in an authoritarian manner. But again, the ultimate goal of
life is not to crack their facade and reveal how insecure authoritarian thinkers really are. The point is not to treat the
authoritarian like a cognitive leper. The goal is instead to invite greater humanness in a dialogue enveloped by care.
We can affirm the person while disagreeing with the viewpoint. Uncaring argument does not help in the pursuit of truth.
MAKING JUDGMENTS WITHOUT BEING JUDGMENTAL, by Terry D. Cooper, Copyright 2006, InterVarsity Press.
|LIFE IN JESUS-MINISTRIES