I have come to believe that every authoritarian system is an abusive system.
If you are not in an authoritarian system, you can agree to disagree, respect one another, and go your own way without fear of repercussion.
However, if you are not allowed to offer any critique of your spouse, your parent, your pastor, or your president for fear of holy hell raining down on your head, then you're probably in an authoritarian system that's going to turn abusive the minute you stop complying.
In fact, that threat of abuse is what keeps you compliant.
And that threat, in and of itself, is abuse.
Another thing I've come to realize is this: when you’re part of an authoritarian system, participation with the dominant narrative of that system is required to remain within the system.
Even when the dominant narrative doesn't match with reality, and you know it, you still have to parrot the narrative as your ticket to remaining in the system.
If you’re in an abusive marriage, the dominant narrative might be something like:
- He’s a great guy. He just has an anger issue.
- He’s really sorry every time he hurts me.
If you’re in an authoritarian religious system, the dominant narrative might include:
- The Bible clearly says X, Y, and Z. If you disagree, you are going to hell.
- Men are always in authority. Women must always submit to men.
- The leader is God’s representative on earth. You can’t criticize the Lord’s annointed.
- We deal with our problems within the church. Never report anything to secular authorities.
Participating in these narrative produces cognitive dissonance, which means having thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that don't match with each other.
For example, abused women will tell me events that are clearly abusive, and then repeat elements of the narrative to me, which are clearly contrary to the events they just related.
- “He stole all the cash I was saving for car repairs and disappeared for three days. I love him, and he really loves me.”
One of the things abused women will say to me, over and over, is that they are confused. Being confused means you're on the way to clarity, on the way to truth, on the way to facing reality--only reality is really hard, and we resist seeing what's right in front of our eyes.
Why is it so hard for us to face reality in situations like this?
Because reality is so terribly painful, and threatens everything about the life we’d hoped to have.
When you’re part of an authoritarian system, very often your entire social universe is a part of that system: family, friends, faith connections. Every single one of those individuals has to participate in the narrative of the system in order to remain.
When you stop participating in the narrative, you may lose every relationship you held dear.
This is exactly why families and faith communities employ ostracism, shunning, and excommunication as threats: THEY WORK.
Nobody wants to go through this, and so many, many, many of us will remain in toxic systems because our very survival is at stake.
Those who must remain make this choice for survival, and face incredible ongoing distress.
Those who need to leave make this choice for survival, and face incredible loss.
This threat to everything is also why people get so angry when you challenge their cognitive dissonance.
We've all tried this on social media. Somebody says something that's completely false, you respond with evidence to show the lie for what it is, and the person tells you to die and go to hell.
Is that person just a horrible human being? Possibly.
But more likely, they are an afraid human being. Their entire world depends upon their believing the unbelievable and holding lies up as truth. When you speak the truth, that threatens their house of cards and they lash out at you.
(Don't lash back, but don't be afraid to tell the truth and let them do their own emotional work.)
Here's what I think.
We can't always control whether we start out in an authoritarian system or not. We're born into family, religious and political systems that are bigger than us.
But when we recognize authoritarianism for what it is, that's the time to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly for ourselves, and for others being abused by those systems.
Throughout the course of our lives, we will always be required to learn and know better, to leave behind old dysfunctional ways of being and to move into healthy new ways of being.
This is the circle of life.
Those of us who leave authoritarian systems become lucky enough, as Anne Lamott says, to bear disillusion.
To face the reality of what is before us.
To rearrange everything we know about our lives.
To do the hard work of grief.
To move forward into an unknown future.
And then, someday, to find hope again.
To find community among the outcasts.
To build a new home in the wilderness, holding the light up for those coming behind us, still needing to find the way.
As the Persian poet Rumi says:
'Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder.
Help someone's soul heal.
Walk out of your house like a shepherd.'
Not an authoritarian dictator.
A good shepherd.