The Intolerant/Polarizing Personality, and How to Spot It

by Adam Garfinkle

It’s a scene that repeats itself over and over again. Someone perpetrates a hate crime or, God forbid, a political murder or even a terrorist attack. Then the journalists come around to interview neighbors and friends. And the neighbors always say that they had no idea that such-and-such a person could do such a thing. “He/she/they seemed pretty ordinary”, they might say. And the friends might say, “Yes, he/she/they seemed to have become more religious lately, but there was no sign that he/she/they would do anything like this!”

Actually, there are signs, if we know how to see them, and the signs are pretty much universal. Yes, cultures differ, so that strident emotional expression is given more public space in some societies than in others. Yes, some societies, for historical reasons, protect chauvinistic bias more than others, and that cultural envelope, in turn, is more permissive of individual intolerance.

All true. But radical intolerance exists even in relatively tolerant societies, just as tolerant people exist in relatively chauvinistic cultures. The reality is that no society is free from the scourge of intolerance, although how we name the problem differs from place to place. In America these days we speak little of intolerance but a great deal about polarization. Yet the two have much in common. The underlying psychology of the “intolerant Saudi”, for example, is not significantly different from that of, say, the “polarizing rightwing American.”

So what are the signs of the intolerant or polarizing personality, when that personality edges toward such an extreme as to be capable of violent acts? There are seven such signs, and they are, not surprisingly, logically connected to each other.

First, the intolerant or polarizing personality is sharply dualistic. The world divides into stark good and evil, into the ritually pure and the ritually stained, into black and white with no shades of gray in between. There is no third way, there is no overlap between the in-group and all out-groups. The intolerant, polarizing personality, by being unable to count higher than two, is Manichean, and by so being, incidentally, denies the Abrahamic insistence on the unity of God. The intolerant/polarizing personality simplifies the problem of evil in the world by denying the complex reality of genuine moral struggle.

Second, therefore, all those with whom the radical intolerant/polarizing personality disagrees must be in league with one another. This gives rise to the systematic generation of conspiracy theories. Also very telling, this personality trait inevitably leads the radical intolerant/polarizing personality to assert mutually contradictory arguments simultaneously. So somehow the enemy is all-powerful and weakly sniveling at the same time; the enemy is manipulating such-and-such an actor and is being manipulated by that actor at the same time; the defeat of the enemy is inevitable but the (permanent) crisis of the moment portends that all may be lost simultaneously; and so on.

Third, the radical intolerant/polarizing personality cannot accept criticism from within the group, or self-criticism within himself. All doubt is weakness, and all open debate amounts to heresy. Hence the abiding characteristic of the radical intolerant/polarizing personality is one of intellectual authoritarianism.

Fourth, conflict in society is for the radical intolerant/polarizing personality always between good and evil; it is never about one good being in conflict with another good. Cherished ideals can never be in conflict, although in reality, of course, they often are: equality and liberty; stability and creativity; individualism and the community; opportunity and predictability; and so on. 

Fifth, the radical intolerant/polarizing personality deals in generalities and abstractions. Complications in reality give him headaches, and his urge to simplify through quick categorization is insatiable. Labels always trump complexity; principles and beliefs can never be qualified, developed, or changed in any significant way.

Sixth, the radical intolerant/polarizing personality cannot communicate effectively with anyone with whom he disagrees. He will move to silence the source of any discordant voice. This can be done by removing oneself from earshot and associating only with likeminded people; or it can be done by actively silencing those with whom he disagrees. This is the seed of violence.

And seventh, the dehumanization, demonization, and scapegoating of the supposedly monolithic enemy creates the potential for “altruistic evil,” the delusion that violence is only and always a form of self-defense, even when directed, as in cases of terrorism, against complete innocents. Violence solidifies in-group coherence too, and so has usually an unstated and often unrecognized tactical utility.

If you talk to someone long or often enough and know what to look for, one or usually more of these seven characteristics will emerge if you are in the presence of a radical intolerant/polarizing personality. Such people may seem sedate, disciplined, generous of spirit, and soft spoken on the outside, but make no mistake: They are dangerous, no matter the country they live in or the religion or ideology they espouse. Don’t be one of those neighbors or friends who gets shocked into surprise when terrible things happen. Remember what Edmund Burke said: “All that is required for evil to triumph is that good people do nothing.”

Adam Garfinkle is editor of The American Interest.