My wife and I are long-time Law and Order junkies. Most episodes start off something like this: a couple is jogging down a NYC street and stop to catch their breath. Their conversation is light-hearted and playful although sirens blare in the background. Then, one of the joggers notices a hat covered with something that looks like ketchup laying in an alley close by. They walk slowly and wide-eyed toward the hat and discover a mutilated dead body laying behind a dumpster. Next scene: Wise-cracking Lenny and Ed arrive to conduct a crime-scene-investigation and that theme song ending with a wolf howl starts playing.
So often, either my wife or I will say, “Oh, I love this one” or “This is one of my favorites.” Most of us enjoy being captivated by well-told tales of death, duplicity, and deception. Because we’re only observers. But if we’re in those dramas, not so much. Imagine a family gathering where Granny says, “You kids get your hot chocolate and gather around. I’m gonna tell you about the time your Uncle Virgil was brutally murdered behind a dumpster in a New York City alley.” And then the kids scream with delight, “Oh, I love this one. Granny tells the best stories.” That’d be weird, right?
Here’s something we all wise up to sooner or later: observing dramas is pleasurable but participating in them is miserable.
As I said last week, drama people lack the psychological equipment to be reasonable. And when you try to reason with a person who doesn’t have reason capabilities, it’s miserable.
This week, I’m going to talk about the first of five reason muscles. These are the muscles needed to make close relationships work well. I call them “muscles” because they get stronger with use and atrophy from disuse. Drama people have atrophied reason muscles. The one we’ll discuss this week—and next week—is humility.
The stance of a normally-wired reasonable person is: you could be right, I could be wrong, let’s talk. That’s called humility. But the stance of an atrophied-humility-muscle drama person is: I’m right, you’re wrong, end of discussion. He’s not even willing to consider the possibility of personal wrongness. In fact, he’ll lie to avoid being wrong. And, in some cases, he revises truth so routinely that he comes to believe his own revisions. He convinces himself of an alternate reality and vigorously defends the alteration. I’d like to give you a personal example and then illustrate how this operates on a larger, collective level.
Years ago, I was talking with a relative and made a casual reference to a particular celebrity. She said, “That man is so old. He’s as old as my mother.” Well, I just happened to know how old this man was and how old her mother was and it wasn’t even close. When I told her the man’s exact age, she condescendingly asked, “Well, when did he go backwards?” I soon discovered that no matter what I said, she’d cling tenaciously to her misinformation. I have no doubt that she wouldn’t have changed her mind if I’d produced the man’s birth certificate. Heck, I don’t think she would’ve changed her mind if I had water boarded her—which, at the time, didn’t seem like an all-together bad idea. She couldn’t admit to wrongness. She HAD to be right. I HAD to be wrong. End of discussion.
Now, we all do that sometimes. Cling to our rightness, that is. But there’s a difference between reasonable people who do it occasionally and drama people who do it routinely. For reasonable people, truth is ultimately more important than being right. For drama people, however, rightness is the highest value even if the sacrificing of truth is required to maintain it.
I’ve recently become aware of a term I’m not sure I’d ever heard before—or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. The word is tribalism. Basically, it means that allegiance to my “tribe” takes precedence over allegiance to truth. If my tribe believes it, it must be true. And the collective stance of tribes is: we’re right, you’re wrong, end of discussion. And if that’s your stance, why would you waste time discussing anything with the member of another tribe. In fact, why give that person the time of day?
Raise your hand if what I just said about tribes brings politics to mind. OK, that’s most of you. You can put your hands down now. I have no intention in this “weekly” commentary of being partisan but I will discuss politics, if by politics we mean the way certain people groups organize themselves to advocate for positions that may be opposed by other people groups. The word “political” is often used pejoratively as in, “That home-owners association has become so political” (where the p in political is over-pronounced.) Politics is not poisonous in and of itself but it becomes so when parties divide into tribes characterized by the we’re-right-you’re-wrong-end-of-discussion stance.
Have you wondered why our politics has become so polarizing and divisive? Tribalism is at least part of the answer. Tribalism operates on a collective level the way drama operates between individuals. You can’t reason with an unreasonable person. By the same token, reasoned attempts to persuade others to consider new or opposing ideas cease when people groups morph into tribes.
Tribalism is nowhere more evident than on some political talk shows. The host says, “When we return, we’ll have a “spirited debate” between Tribe A and Tribe B over Issue X. When they come back from commercial break, the host introduces Guy, Tribe A’s spokesperson, and Gal, the spokesperson for Tribe B. The host occupies the middle section of a split screen with the two tribe representatives on either side.
The host asks Gal her opinion about some aspect of Issue X. While she’s answering, Guy laughs, shakes his head back and forth, rolls his eyes, and interrupts. Gal then interrupts his interruption and personally demeans Guy for holding such obviously stupid opinions. Guy counters Gal’s condescension by questioning her intelligence and likely sinister motivations. Gal reminds Guy of some statement he made last year about Issue X which actually supports her current position. Guy (no longer laughing) then accuses Gal of, yet once again, taking his statements out of context. Gal denies that she did so and the last 45 seconds of this “spirited debate” are spent with both representatives talking over each other. The host then thanks them for coming and they go to commercial.
Within 30 minutes (maybe 10), someone from Tribe A posts a video on Facebook and Twitter with the tag line, “Watch Guy DESTROY Gal when they discuss Issue X.” And someone from Tribe B posts, “Watch this: Gal leaves Guy SPEECHLESS.”
I hate watching those talk shows. I could be wrong about this (please note the humility) but I’m fairly certain this is the precise reason God invented the mute button.
But I actually love watching shows where differences are discussed reasonably. One side presents its position rationally and the other side listens, even though the two sides disagree. Neither side demonizes the other. Neither side preaches to its choir. They stay civil with each other despite deeply-held differences. They relate from the stance of, “I could be wrong, you could be right, let’s talk.” People with operative humility muscles can do such things. Drama people—who sometimes congregate themselves into tribes—have atrophied humility muscles and therefore can’t.
Next “week,” I’ll have more to say about the relational outcomes of humility muscle strength and humility muscle weakness. I’ll explain how drama people lie or alter reality if doing so helps them avoid personal wrongness. And I’ll say more about what happens when tribal defense takes precedence over truth exploration, where being right—or winning—is more important than being truthful.
Being in dramas is draining but so is discussing them. I’m exhausted. I should probably go home and watch a few Law and Order episodes about sociopaths, drug dealers, and serial killers. That should rejuvenate me some.