September 14, 2018

Dear Drama Observers,

Years ago, I had a friend who read a book which dogmatically asserted that all humans fall into one of four personality categories. Let’s just call the categories A, B, C, and D.

Though I disagree entirely with the book’s premise, I have fewer problems with the categories than what my friend did with them. Somebody would come up in our conversation and she’d say, “Well… what do you expect? He’s a B.” Or, “That doesn’t surprise me about her at all. She’s a C.” For my friend, the categories became less a means of understanding people and more a rationale for the reductionistic dismissal of people she didn’t like.

Most of us don’t use the term “reductionism” in everyday conversation and yet we unwittingly practice it. Reductionism is a way of reducing complexity down to simplicity since our minds strain to handle the complexities all at once. It enables us to develop mental shorthands so we don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. Reductionism can serve a useful function and isn’t a bad thing in and of itself.

But it becomes a terribly bad thing when individual differences disappear into the reductionistic blender. It’s the basis for all types of racism and prejudice. If you met a stupid Southerner—I can use this illustration since I’m from the South—and assumed, therefore, that all Southerners are stupid, that would be reductionistic thinking. You’d be making assumptions about the whole based on your experience with a part.

I bring up the topic of reductionism because of its relevance to our discussion of Drama People. It’s germane in two ways.

First, we can be reductionistic when it comes to Drama People. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone refer to a friend—or someone else in his or her life—as a Narcissist. Perhaps they read a grocery store magazine article on Narcissism and the list of descriptors fits their friend to a tee. But a closer look reveals that the friend doesn’t actually meet the diagnostic criteria of NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder.) He is quite obnoxious, however, which means that the diagnosis of OPD (Obnoxious Personality Disorder) might be more appropriate if such a thing existed. But the determination of Narcissism has already been made, so Narcissism it is—case closed. Reductionism locks the friend into an interpretive box from which he or she will never be allowed to escape.

Second, Drama People are reductionistic when it comes to other people. They lack the humility to say, “I could be wrong, you could be right, let’s talk.” Instead, the stance taken is, “I’m right, you’re wrong, end of discussion.” They are incapable of seeing themselves or others as mixtures of good and bad, so all of their relationships reflect this black-or-white split, manifesting itself in the following ways:

  • I’m right; you’re wrong.
  • I’m good; you’re bad.
  • I win; you lose.
  • You’re either for me or against me.

As you read this, you may be thinking of a personal encounter in which a Drama Person placed you on the other side of the good-bad split.

I had another “friend” once who took an inadvertent remark of mine as having a sinister meaning, but I didn’t mean it the way he took it. No matter what I said, he refused to be dissuaded. “Oh, I heard what you said and understood perfectly what you meant.” He had convinced himself that, not only was my remark out of line, I was now lying about what I meant—just to cover my… well, you know.

Around the 56th attempt, I realized I was endeavoring the impossible—reasoning with an unreasonable person. I also realized that the only way we could ever “get along” would be for me to fess up and apologize. Ironic, isn’t it? The only way I could demonstrate my truthfulness would be to lie. I wasn’t willing to do that, and our friendship ended as a result. Oh, I’ll see him out and around and we’re very cordial. But I always get the sense that he’s thinking, “He just couldn’t handle the truth.”

Reductionism is found in personal dramas but also shows up in the collective dramas of tribalism. Tribal black-or-white splits manifest themselves in these ways:

  • We’re right; you’re wrong.
  • We’re good; you’re bad.
  • We win; you lose.
  • You’re either for us or against us.

The other tribe is seen as an enemy to be defeated, not as fellow citizens to be persuaded. Moreover, if “others” are truly the enemy, then all means of fighting them are justified. Demonizing, demeaning, and destroying are seen as heroic, not horrific.

In discussing the foundational principles upon which our nation was founded, author Jonah Goldberg notes:

A critical mass of institutions, and a balance of power among them, forced elites—i.e. nobles and the king—to forgo using violence against each other to settle political disputes. This required creating not only political and social space for disagreement but psychological acceptance of the idea that people had the right to be wrong.

Two parts of the highlighted phrase are worth noting.

First, people have a right to be wrong. In centuries past, governments would never tolerate such a thing and used various forms of coercion to squelch disagreement—i.e. “We’re right, you’re wrong, end of discussion.” Such is still the case with some governments in our day as well.

Second, psychological acceptance of that idea leads to a well-functioning civil society. It enables us to get along with others despite deeply held differences and settle our disputes through civil conversations. These conversations are governed by the principle: “You could be right, I could be wrong, let’s talk.”

Drama People, whether as individuals or tribes, have no such psychological acceptance. To them, all dramas are zero-sum games in which one side wins and the other loses.

“Well… what do you expect? He’s a B.”

Till next week.

6 replies
  1. Adele
    Adele says:

    Good points. I agree.

    I used to hate it when someone was labeled a “Borderline”. It was supposed to explain everything yet nothing was really understood about the particular patient. It was often used in a derogatory fashion.

  2. B. B. Cragon
    B. B. Cragon says:

    This is one of your best. I saw a sign in a bar that read, “Pay for two beers and the second is free!” I guess they were “right” and “Z” personalities.

  3. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    Interesting topic given our current political climate. Same tactic has been used by many dictators everywhere in the world!!

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Agreed! Reductionism is one of many ways to cheat in the war of ideas. Once you’ve placed someone into a negative box, you’re no longer obligated to listen to what they have to say, the thought being, “Why would I waste my time arguing with a (fill-in-the-blank). The argument is over but you’ve sidestepped having to make your argument.

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