The Drama Review (June 2, 2017)

Dear those of you wishing you were in the small group that understands the meaning of “covfefe”,

Like Pavlov’s dog salivating at the sound of a bell, hearing The Twilight Zone music still brings to mind warm childhood memories of Friday nights and hot chocolate. Chain-smoking Rod Serling would set up each episode and then do a voice-over at the end that always concluded with the words, “in the Twilight Zone,” as the camera panned up into the stars.  I think I had my first chill bumps on one of those Friday nights.

I realize I might’ve just lost a big chunk of my Millennial readers who are now thinking, “Dude, what are you, like a hundred? Didn’t that show come on like during the Spanish-American War or something?”

Yes, I believe it first aired during the Rutherford B. Hayes administration so, I’ll admit it, I’m really old.  Deal with it.

But what I loved about The Twilight Zone was the bait-and-switch aspect of the story lines.  They’d reel you in getting you to think something was one way only to have it turn out some eerily different way.  Like when you were led to believe that a farmer lady was being attacked by tiny space aliens only to discover that the little creatures were actually American space explorers and she was, in fact, a giant space alien. Or when nuclear holocaust survivor, Henry Bemis, finally had the time he’d always dreamed about to read books only to drop his glasses and break them, leaving him unable to read anything. Or when the lady was undergoing surgery to correct her grotesque appearance.  They removed the bandages and all the doctors and nurses exclaimed that the surgery had failed. When we finally get to see the woman’s face, she’s ravishingly beautiful.  And when we see the faces of the doctors and nurses, they all look like grotesque pigs. I could go on and on.

The reason I bring this up is that I’ve talked to so many people over the years who’ve made Twilight Zone references when describing their personal dramas. Like the one below that I referenced in my book.

It became clear to me how wacked they all were after I moved away and built healthy relationships with normal people. When I would attend one of the obligatory family gatherings, however, it was so easy for me to lose my perspective. They all truly believed that they were normal and that I was the strange and peculiar one.  I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone.

It was as though I was standing in front of a red couch commenting to a cousin about the beautiful red color. The cousin would then laugh, exclaiming that the couch was not red but green.  Other family members would chime in, laughing hilariously at my colorblindness. I’d leave the gathering thinking, “Maybe it’s not red but green like they say. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m colorblind. Maybe I’m the peculiar one.”  It would take me a while to regain my grasp on reality.

Notice what happened here.  Dad wasn’t the abusive, womanizing alcoholic who had raised her (red couch).  He was actually a caring, loving father whose daughter had unfairly misunderstood him (green couch).  “Getting along” with the family meant buying into their green couch interpretation.  It always felt to her like Rod Serling might step out of the shadows at any moment.

The purpose of dramas is to mimic reality.  Drama people lack what’s required to engage in relational problem solving—something normally-wired people can do. But drama people can’t do that.  So, they resort to a reality-mimicking method of relating—drama.  We’ll get along if I play my role and you play yours, the thinking goes.

But the drama participation does something to you.  It obligates you to buy into the drama person’s alteration of reality.  You’re required to disregard your sensibilities, to lay aside your previously-held notions, and to accept as truth what you know to be lies.

This was masterfully illustrated in the movie, Primary Colors.  A young idealist named Henry Burton joins the presidential campaign of Governor Jack Stanton.  Henry is initially blown away by Stanton’s genuineness and his ability to empathically connect with others. But throughout the campaign, Henry observes the shocking incongruence between Stanton’s public image and the private reality. Stanton looks normal from afar but he’s far from normal. He’s dishonest, womanizing, duplicitous and will break any rule or destroy any person to win.

This all troubles Henry—greatly.  But what bothers him even more is the way in which the others in Stanton’s campaign don’t seem bothered at all.  They’ve acclimated themselves to Stanton’s depravities and can’t understand why those things would bother Henry.

Things come to a head at the end of the movie when Henry tells Stanton he’s leaving the campaign—he just can’t tolerate the corruption any longer.  But Stanton gives Henry pretty much the same spiel that Senator Paine gave Jefferson Smith (from The Drama Review of May 5th)—that accomplishing the greater good sometimes requires the compromising of principles.  The viewer is led to believe that the persuasion attempt failed . . . until the end of the movie when Henry is seen celebrating at the inaugural ball. In effect, he had sold his soul to the Devil. Henry was part of a winning campaign but, in the process, he’d lost himself.

Remember, the responsibility muscle is what enables one to feel bothered by personal wrongness. But the drama person is unbothered by his flaws. And if you’re to “get along” with him, you must stop letting his flaws bother you.  He’s corrupt but if you participate in the drama, then you become corrupted.

This corruption occurs on the personal, one-to-one level but also happens on the collective, political level. Commenting on our current climate, American political analyst, Charlie Sykes recently noted:

One of the interviews that I’ve done on my public radio show that was, for me, the most interesting was Garry Kasparov, who is the former World Chess Champion and a Russian dissident who understands, I think, the role of propaganda and lies in a way that a lot of Americans don’t. His main point is that the point of lies is not to convince you of a certain policy. It wouldn’t necessarily make you believe a lie. What it is is an assault on your critical sensibilities. It is an assault on your ability or your interest in sharing what is true.

Indeed, drama people are propagandists.  They coerce you to stop thinking for yourself and buy into their alterations of reality.  Like a drone being piloted by an on-ground operator, you must turn off your frontal lobe and allow the drama person to do your thinking for you.  This leads to an unwitting groupthink arrangement where individual critical analysis gives way to collective opinion shaping.

People are increasingly prone these days to live inside informational silos.  News that doesn’t fit their preferred narrative is immediately dismissed as “fake news.”  Any fact reported by the other “side” should be swiftly disregarded because, after all, it came from the other side. In fact, it’d be a waste of your time to even consider it.

This has led to the introduction of a new term into our public lexicon—“whataboutism”—which functions as follows: “Sure, our side did it but what about when their side did it? And since their side did it, it’s OK that our side did it.”  This strikes me as the adult equivalent of “nanny-nanny-boo-boo.”

I got in trouble for that in the fifth grade.  My teacher caught me misbehaving and my defense was to say, “What about Ricky? He did it, too.” I ducked responsibility. I engaged in whataboutism before whataboutism was cool.  I distinctly remember watching Miss Parnell write the word “blaming” on my record sheet.  And I’m pretty sure that was my permanent record which, if I’m not mistaken, never gets expunged.  That probably explains why I’ve not been more successful in life.  Yeah, come to think of it, that’s what did it.  It’s Miss Parnell’s fault.

Sykes continues,

We really want things that reinforce what we already believe. The confirmation bias is really intense. They’ve actually done studies that would show that, when you hear opinions that reaffirm your life view, you get a little shot of dopamine. In other words,hyper‑partisanship is literally addictive.

Attorney and journalist David French says,

The fragmentation of media, geographic separation, and the natural unwillingness to expose ourselves to unpleasant ideas means that many of us live in bubbles, where we not only don’t truly know those who disagree but we often can’t even truly understand the facts or arguments that inform their perspective.

Political controversies are treated as battles between the forces of light and darkness rather than as what they typically are—contests between flawed people seeking many of the same goals. . . Americans often hate their political opponents so much that they’re willing to reflexively defend gadflies, conmen, and even thugs on their side.

Before our very eyes, allegiance to tribe is trumping allegiance to truth.  But then again, that’s been happening in different times and different settings for centuries.  We’re now witnessing current iterations of it—on both sides of the political spectrum.

On personal and collective levels, “getting along” in drama world obligates you to accept as truth what you know to be lies.  And that’s just the way it works

. . . in the Twilight Zone.

We’ve now looked at the reason muscles of humility, awareness, and responsibility.  Next week, we’ll look the fourth one—empathy.  The stance of a normally-wired person is, “It bothers me when I hurt you.”  But the empathy-deficient drama person’s stance is, “I’m only bothered when you hurt me.”

Till then.

Oh, and if you’re interested, here is Part Two of my interview about drama people on a local television program called Psychology Matters.