I’ve always been taken with Samuel Clemens (1835-1910) who is best known by his pen name, Mark Twain. He was a prolific writer, but he was also a pioneering observational humorist. No one else thought to comment on the hilarities of everyday life. He was to his era what, say, Jerry Seinfeld or George Carlin have been to ours. Or perhaps Steven Wright who’s observed:
- “You can’t have everything… where would you put it?”
- “If at first you don’t succeed, then skydiving definitely isn’t for you.”
He’s also wondered:
- “If you melt dry ice, can you swim without getting wet?”
- “If you’re in a vehicle going the speed of light and you turn on the headlights, will they do anything?”
I’ve been writing and lecturing on the topic of Drama People for years now and I’ll occasionally come across observations made about this group by Mark Twain. He could say in a few words what I typically take many words to convey. Like a suitcase nuclear weapon, he could pack volumes of thought into a single, powerful phrase.
I’d like to mention three of Mark Twain’s pithy observations about Drama People. I should probably just give them to you and sign off—that would certainly be enough. But allow me to make a few remarks about each of them in my wordy, less-effective manner.
“Never try to teach a pig to sing.
You waste your time and you annoy the pig.”
I can only assume that Twain had previously tried and failed at something common to us all—reasoning with unreasonable people. He discovered, no doubt, that this couldn’t be done.
To shift metaphors, maybe he was familiar with Thomas Paine’s famous remark: “Attempting to reason with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.”
In my seminar on manipulators, I talk about this exercise in futility:
A client described a phone conversation with a controlling manipulator. Predictably, every attempt to reason with this unreasonable person failed. After several minutes of being trapped on this exhausting treadmill, the manipulator hung up—angrily. Two weeks later, the client was driving to work and had this realization:
“I was gripping the steering wheel so hard, I was about to pull it off the shaft. Then it dawned on me. For the last 15 miles, I’d been having a conversation with that person over and over inside my head. It was the same conversation we had on the phone two weeks earlier. Only this time, I thought, “If only I’d said that” or “If he ever says that to me again, I’ll say this to him”, etc. I was exhausted and got no further with him in the virtual conversation than I did in the real one.”
You can’t teach pigs to sing nor do they want to learn.
“Never argue with a fool.
Onlookers might not be able to tell the difference.”
If you try to reason with an unreasonable person, you’ll fail; and the exasperation you exhibit will be used to pull you into the drama. Again, from my seminar:
Rudyard Kipling must have known some cantankerous manipulators. He said, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you… ” (Kipling, 1909). The manipulator desperately needs you to react, to lose your head, so your reactions can be used as evidence that you’re crazy and they’re not.
Figuratively speaking, he or she takes “snapshots” of your reactions and uses those images to build the case—to themself and others—that you’re bad and they’re good. “Photo albums,” displaying pictures of your bad behavior, are eagerly shown around.
To use a different illustration, it’s as though they have an emotional “remote control” that they use to push your buttons. If they get a reaction out of you, they’re gratified. But if they don’t get the reaction desired, they’re frustrated and will continue to push your buttons until the hoped-for reaction occurs.
Notice the verbiage Twain used to describe Drama People in the two previous statements—pigs and fools.
“It’s easier to fool people than
to convince them that they have been fooled.”
Sometimes, fools fool us. We become unwitting participants in the fool’s drama or, as I discussed last week, we willingly participate for some supposed gain. This is the family member who convinces himself or herself that Dad’s womanizing and drunken outrages are not that bad after all. “He works so hard and he’s doing so much better.” By accepting, minimizing, or rationalizing the fool’s behavior, we risk becoming fools ourselves.
Twain observed that once a person buys into a fool’s foolishness, they resist being told that what they purchased is fool’s gold. “I can’t or don’t want to believe it,” the thinking goes. That resistance is very difficult to overcome.
Perhaps nothing strengthens one’s resistance to fool-recognition like group reinforcement. Crowds can be a force for good (think, Civil Rights Movement) or a force for collective blindness. “Giving in to the passion of the crowd,” writes Jonah Goldberg, “is inherently corrupting because it seeks no higher authority than itself and says you have righteous entitlement to act on your gut.”
Try pulling some folks aside at a Klan rally and explaining why their ideas are wrong-headed. See how that goes. That’s the sort of thing Twain was observing.
Till next week.