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 youâ€™ve got someone who has granted himself complete license to follow his gut impulses way up into everyone elseâ€™s business. Such people can be quite charismatic. And disastrous. Many tyrants past and present have had these qualifications.
Iâ€™ve been asking psychiatrists if thereâ€™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.
One hundred percent confidence in your gut makes you feel like a saint among sinners. Is that pathological? One psychiatrist told me, â€œUsing language that devalues your opponents and idealizes yourself is not a sign of psychopathologyâ€”it is quite normal and nonpathological, and in fact almost universal.â€
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 itâ€™s usually not worth the trouble. If you give it, theyâ€™ll deflect it, so it ends up making no difference anyway. Or theyâ€™ll retaliate, and (being a little self-defensive ourselves) why would we want that?
Or, as some say, â€œNever wrestle with a pig-the pig likes it and you get dirty.â€ No, itâ€™s safer and kinder to just give people space. Besides, whatâ€™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 thereâ€™s something much easier than practicing-maybe thereâ€™s a way to rationalize the results so I can stop wincing at those red Xâ€™s on the tests. Maybe they shouldnâ€™t bother me because theyâ€™re really OK. Maybe the test grader made a mistake. Maybe the test grader is biased.
Or maybe Xâ€™s themselves are bad. After all, they can be discouraging. We need to think positive thoughts about our behavior. Itâ€™s cruel for graders to attack us when weâ€™re trying.
Actually, I donâ€™t like to hear myself rationalize, either. With a little effort I might be able to convince myself that the red Xâ€™s arenâ€™t there. That would be better still. I get my tests back and I just donâ€™t see any Xâ€™s. Iâ€™m doing better now.
Yup, every week, I get feedback that Iâ€™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 Iâ€™m scoring 100%.
Between withheld, deflected, and ignored negative feedback, I can convince myself my record is flawless. And I donâ€™t even have to study. I just follow my gut. My test results show that it always knows whatâ€™s right.
Do I deserve credibility, status, and power? You bet. According to my calculations 100% is the highest score possible, and thatâ€™s what I keep getting. I see others around me getting much lower scores. Either theyâ€™re not trying, or theyâ€™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 donâ€™t stop soon, Iâ€™m going to give â€˜em what they deserve. These people, theyâ€™re not just stupid, theyâ€™re evil. Iâ€™d better straighten them out. The world doesnâ€™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.
Hereâ€™s a great New Yorker essay on the role of colleges in imposing a little humbling feedback.