Teflon Tyranny: The Hidden Cost of Self-Defense
Studying politics and history, one character keeps popping up and making trouble. Here are his essential characteristics:
1. He believes he knows what everyone should do.
2. He believes it is his mission to get everyone to do it.
3. He is 100% confident in this belief and mission.
4. He is also 100% confident that he has internalized his belief and mission in his gut.
Combine these and you’ve got someone who has granted himself complete license to follow his gut impulses way up into everyone else’s business. Such people can be quite charismatic. And disastrous. Many tyrants past and present have had these qualifications.
I’ve been asking psychiatrists if there’s a diagnostic category that covers this suite of characteristics. They can talk about related concepts: psychopathy (no remorse for hurting others, but not driven by a sense of a moral imperative), schizophrenia (voices to obey, but not typically on a moral crusade), narcissism (self-centered but not necessarily a campaign to get others to behave differently). None of these quite cover it. Megalomania is not a diagnostic category.
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One hundred percent confidence in your gut makes you feel like a saint among sinners. Is that pathological? One psychiatrist told me, “Using language that devalues your opponents and idealizes yourself is not a sign of psychopathology—it is quite normal and nonpathological, and in fact almost universal.”
This is a telling point. People often deflect feedback and criticism. They-we-do it so often that we forgive each other this common and natural human foible. We humor each other. We withhold feedback, knowing that it’s usually not worth the trouble. If you give it, they’ll deflect it, so it ends up making no difference anyway. Or they’ll retaliate, and (being a little self-defensive ourselves) why would we want that?
Or, as some say, “Never wrestle with a pig-the pig likes it and you get dirty.” No, it’s safer and kinder to just give people space. Besides, what’s the cost of cutting people this much slack?
Actually there is a hidden cost. To illustrate, imagine that our credibility, status, and power depends on how we each do on written tests we take once a week. The fewer the errors, the higher our status, credibility, and power.
I take these tests, and when I get them back some of my answers are marked wrong. When I see a red X on my test, I wince at the loss of status, credibility, and power. I hate wincing, but of course wincing inspires practice and practice makes for improvements.
Still, maybe there’s something much easier than practicing-maybe there’s a way to rationalize the results so I can stop wincing at those red X’s on the tests. Maybe they shouldn’t bother me because they’re really OK. Maybe the test grader made a mistake. Maybe the test grader is biased.
Or maybe X’s themselves are bad. After all, they can be discouraging. We need to think positive thoughts about our behavior. It’s cruel for graders to attack us when we’re trying.
Actually, I don’t like to hear myself rationalize, either. With a little effort I might be able to convince myself that the red X’s aren’t there. That would be better still. I get my tests back and I just don’t see any X’s. I’m doing better now.
Yup, every week, I get feedback that I’m doing great. With the power of rationalization (and a mind loose enough to tolerate it) I can get to where when I get a 70 on a test I count it as really an 80 or 85. Or even better. Through some combination of wince-proofing practices I can get to where I believe I’m scoring 100%.
Between withheld, deflected, and ignored negative feedback, I can convince myself my record is flawless. And I don’t even have to study. I just follow my gut. My test results show that it always knows what’s right.
Do I deserve credibility, status, and power? You bet. According to my calculations 100% is the highest score possible, and that’s what I keep getting. I see others around me getting much lower scores. Either they’re not trying, or they’re just stupid. They deserve my help. Actually, it would be more practical if I just took over their lives for them. Like that biased test grader over there. He needs my help. Anyone in fact who keeps yammering at me about who-knows-what-some whiny gibberish about someone insulting and hurting people. What do they know? I tell you if they don’t stop soon, I’m going to give ‘em what they deserve. These people, they’re not just stupid, they’re evil. I’d better straighten them out. The world doesn’t have time for losers.
You get the picture.
For local, national, and international security, give and take a little feedback. Our futures depend upon it.
Here’s a great New Yorker essay on the role of colleges in imposing a little humbling feedback.