Thursday, December 03, 2015

Authoritarian governments and tolerance of minorities

I was entranced by the results of this study (summary here), which I found to be completely counterintuitive on first read, but then realized I should have figured it out myself on second thought.  I love it when that happens.

The study looked at how residents of countries with authoritarian governments behave compared to residents of countries with a more open democracy.  They were focused on behavior towards minorities. Were people in authoritarian countries more tolerant or less tolerant?

Before reading on, what is your guess? Does an authoritarian government make residents more or less tolerant?

Of course, the answer is that it depends.  In fact, it depends on two factors.

Factor One

Does the authoritarian government communicate (through words, acts, or laws) that they want the population to be tolerant of minorities or do they communicate intolerance?  When you think about it, it makes sense that this will make a huge difference.  If the people in power encourage me to be tolerant, wouldn’t I be more likely to be tolerant?  Or perhaps more importantly – if they encourage me to be intolerant and to claim the resources of the country for myself and my own community, wouldn’t I jump at that opportunity?

Not necessarily.  That brings us to factor two.

Factor Two

If any of you are familiar with cultural psychology, there is an attribute of any culture called hierarchy. This doesn’t refer to how hierarchical the power structure is, but rather how accepting of that hierarchy the members of the culture are.  People in a high hierarchy culture believe (on the average) that the people on top deserve to have the power and that power should be accepted.  People in a low hierarchy culture believe (on the average) that people in power are only there by consent of the people and are no better than any of the rest of us.  So their power is contingent on if they are good at wielding it.

So now, adjust your guess.  What do you think happens now?

For people in high hierarchy cultures, they trust in the statements of the power structure.  So if the government tells them that tolerance is good, they will be more tolerant.  And if the government tells them that tolerance is not necessary (or that I should be intolerant), then I will trust that too and be less tolerant.

I think this one is intuitive.  But what makes it interesting is that if you have an enlightened government that promotes tolerance (the example in the study is Singapore), they can be a powerful force for tolerance.  On the other hand, Myanmar can easily create intolerance of Rohingya and China can create intolerance of the Uighurs. 

But that brings us to the other half.  What happens with a low hierarchy culture where I don’t think that the opinions of those in power are any better than my own, but nevertheless they are telling me to be tolerant?  And they do have the power after all.  Does that influence me to be more tolerant? Or do I resist because of their invalid attempt to control me? 

It turns out we have to look back at Factor One.  For people who live in open democracies and who have high hierarchy personalities tend to be less tolerant. Their belief in hierarchy needs some outlet so if the government isn’t going to take it, they let the dominant demographic group take it – at the expense of the minority group. It didn’t matter what the government actually said about tolerance.

This last finding is the one that I wouldn’t have thought of a priori.  But after reading the results, it does make sense.  But I would still want to see some additional research before being convinced.