Dear drama watchers,
I’ve been writing recently about the ways in which manipulators rent space in your brain and become difficult to evict once residence has been established. Here are three disorienting effects.
Some adolescents emerge into adulthood having never developed an ability to think for themselves. They get their ideas from someone else—an authority figure who does their thinking for them. Their ideas are second-hand to themselves. James Marcia calls that place of underdevelopment foreclosure.
The manipulator gladly assumes the role of first-hand source. “I’ll do your thinking for you,” is the unspoken relational set-up. Resistance is castigated but acquiescence is reinforced. The drama participant exchanges independence of thought for the security of tyranny—a tyranny of the brain not recognized as tyrannical but purchased, nonetheless, at the price of his soul.
Chronological adults with foreclosure-stuck identities pay a price in at least three soul-sacrificing ways.
The danger of follower corruption. A theological expression of this notion is, “You become like whom you worship.” You increasingly take on the attributes of the one capturing your admiration. A non-theological application was articulated by English writer and historian, John Dalberg-Acton. “Power tends to corrupt,” said Lord Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As Jonah Goldberg deftly observes, the most common interpretation of this oft-quoted expression is that when leaders acquire more power, they tend to become more corrupt.
But the context of Lord Acton’s quote suggests a different interpretation. That is, the more power a corrupt leader acquires, the greater the corruption of the followers. His observation was a warning less about leader corruption and more about the corrupting influence on those doing the following. If you’ve turned off your brain and turned over your power, you’ll eventually take on the unsavory characteristics of the one being followed.
The danger of reductionism. For the most part, we favor simplicity and spurn complexity. We’re always looking for ways to reduce something that’s complex down to something that’s simple. A shoe box labeled “Family Pictures” creates less of a mental stir than a messy pile of pictures. Now, this reductionism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing, a necessary thing. The ability to create mental categories is what keeps us from getting overwhelmed by the myriad of life’s moving parts.
But the danger comes from over-categorization. That is, reducing complexity down so far that important distinctions get lost. It’s a long-standing human tendency to stick messy piles of people into boxes and then slap labels on the boxes. Once done, you can substitute label management for the more arduous task of considering the individual stories of those inhabiting the boxes. Reductionism forms the basis for racism and other forms of discriminatory stereotyping.
The danger of pre-determined conclusions. Once complexity of thought is sacrificed in favor of simplistic categorizations, a perception distortion sets in. The pre-determined conclusions become a filter through which all new information gets passed. And once it reaches the other side of the filter, it looks like the pre-determined conclusions. If you’ve pre-concluded that Bill is stupid, then anything Bill now says or does confirms his stupidity, even if Bill is demonstrably smart.
Perception now trumps reality.
A word that’s recently become predominant in the public lexicon 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 (see chart on p. 6). 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?
Judy Wu Dominick has this to say about tribalism:
Tribalism in turn chokes out nuance by creating rigid dichotomies. Our tribe is loyal; theirs is seditious. We are complex; they are simple-minded. Our camp is orthodox; theirs is heretical. We are good; they are evil.
Tribal enthusiasts are likely to hold that those in the other tribe don’t just have bad ideas, they’re bad people. Our politics has become increasingly tribal. 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.
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.
Pre-dating the word tribalism was “groupthink.” People congregate only with those inside their informational silos. Their only “news” sources are those considered to be tribe-friendly. They aggregate their Twitter feeds to include only those of fellow tribe members. Eventually, individual ideas morph into collective conclusions.
Tribes value power over persuasion. They don’t try to win over non-tribe members with the strength of their ideas. They try to shame them into submission. Or to destroy the reputations or income-making potential of anyone who dares to resist. In one of my previous seminars, I described the dangers of resisting drama participation with some manipulators.
It’s important to note that the danger need not be only physical. Sometimes, a person may be threatened with the loss of a job or the ability to make a living—a dangerous situation indeed. Or the danger may lie in the besmirching of one’s reputation (Godwin, 2014).
“Politics ain’t bean bag,” the saying goes. True, but tribal battles are fought with flame throwers. Politicians are acclaimed these days less for their statesmanship and more for their pugilistic talents. But if you’ve convinced yourself that life as we know it will come an end if the other tribe gains power, why would you not use any means necessary to destroy the other side?
The examples set by those at the top are then emulated by those who observe and in today’s cable-TV and social-media climate, observation is effortless. This 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.”
Far too often, the behaviors of groups take on the characteristics of individual manipulators:
- I’m right, you’re wrong; end of discussion
- I only see where I’m right
- If I’m wrong, so what”
- I’m only bothered when you hurt me
- I’ll not change because I’m not wrong