The Drama Review (Sept. 1, 2017)

Dear watching-tragic-dramas-unfold readers,

Make-believe dramas are fun to watch but the ones from real life usually aren’t.  Last week, many of us got to watch a real-life drama in which the moon covered the sun. That was fun. But this week’s drama in which rising waters covered houses . . . that’s been agonizing.  Our hearts go out to the residents of Houston who’ll be dealing with their real-life drama for many months and probably many years to come.

But back to our national drama—the gift that keeps on giving. Increasingly, people these days seem more interested in scoring points than making points. Drama people provoke without persuading. Their hearers are more likely to change channels before they change their minds. Drama people even use tragedies like Harvey as opportunities to score cheap political points.

But not all the news is bad. In his column from this week, “Harvey Awakens a Divided America’s Better Angels,” Jonah Goldberg highlights stories of good being done in Houston and contrasts the magnanimity of human kindness with the maliciousness of our politics:

By comparison, despite the terrible plight of its victims, Harvey was the happy story, at least in one narrow respect. Politics is becoming a substitute for identity, even religion, for millions of Americans. How you vote, what team you root for on the cable shout shows, is becoming a signifier of who you are. The media fuel this attitude, in large ways and small, by turning the news into “narratives” of good people and bad people. This is an unhealthy development, regardless of which ideological uniform you wear.

I’d like to make the case in this letter that drama people are lousy influencers and by opting for provocation over persuasion, they get less of what they want, not more. They may win some battles but fail to win hearts.

This is terribly over-simplified, I realize. But let’s say the chart below represents where citizens fall on the political continuum.

Unreasonable  (Drama) Unreasonable (Drama)

On either side (left or right), we find normal, reasonable people along with drama people—those who are unreasonable. In the middle are politically neutral folks. Maybe they’ve got no interest in politics, they’re fed up with politics, or they’re pre-occupied with non-political aspects of life.

Reasonable (normal) people can get along with the reasonables on the other side and may even persuade some neutrals to join them. Unreasonable (drama) people get along with no one but fellow tribe members. Neutrals, therefore, are dissuaded from joining them and, as a result, are more likely to move toward the other end.

Drama people seem addicted to the short-term gratification of sticking it to their political opponents while seeming oblivious the long-term consequences that such actions bring. 

What follows are five features of drama people with regards to political persuasion. At the end, there’s a hopefully-helpful table summarizing my thoughts.

They use more vinegar than honey

“You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” the saying goes. Drama people take pride in mowing down political opponents with high pressure vinegar hoses.  Standing atop the strewn bodies, they convince themselves they’ve won something. But they haven’t, any more than Bull Conner won the battle of public opinion by mowing down civil rights marchers in Birmingham with high pressure hoses. Sure, he dispersed the crowd but in doing so, he invigorated a movement.

“A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still,” is another saying. Drama people, no matter where they reside on the political continuum, become enamored with the idea that power trumps persuasion. Gaining the upper hand is more important than winning people’s hearts. But they’re amnesiacs who fail to remember that, sooner or later, their opponents will have the upper hand.

They focus on delivery more than receptivity

A couple of year ago, I learned a new term: schadenfreude. Its simplest definition is—taking pleasure at someone’s misfortune. We see a lot of that these days. If someone on a political “team” delivers a stinging zinger to a political opponent, the resulting fist-pumping and ball-spiking is called schadenfreude. It’s really satisfying to see the other guy get really got.

Not that long ago, one public figure expressed the glee experienced from watching how “splodley heads keep sploding”—a childish reference to the displeasure experienced by political opponents.  Such references may jack up team members but turn off rivals. No one is persuaded. Choirs have been preached to but no one’s been reached. They don’t win friends and influence people; they lose friends and influence no one.  In response to their methods, views aren’t softened; resolve is stiffened.

Clive Cook, columnist for the Financial Times, recently observed:

”Democracies that work make space for disagreement. You can disagree with somebody in the strongest terms, believing your opponents to be profoundly or even dangerously mistaken. But that doesn’t oblige you to ignore them, scorn them, or pity them. Deeming somebody’s opinions illegitimate should be a last resort, not a first resort. Refusing to engage, except to mock and condescend, is both anti-democratic and tactically counterproductive.”

They appeal to emotions more than intellect

Many of the 20th Century “isms” (Communism, National Socialism, Fascism) gained traction through emotional appeals. The particular ideas, doctrines, and defining principles were less important than the propagated “myths” stirring the masses out of complacency and into action.

As we’ve said before, drama people place allegiance to tribe over allegiance to truth.  Inconsistencies, contradictions, and hypocrisies are of little consequence compared to the larger value of winning.  We saw this happen in the 60’s when radicals talked about “lying for justice” or the odd concept of using violence to promote peace.

Normal people, on the other hand, make intellectual arguments for their positions. Emotional appeals may produce momentary beliefs that change along with the inevitable emotional shifts. But intellectual appeals produce resilient convictions that are likely to remain stable when everything else keeps shifting. Unlike drama people, normal people know what they believe and why they believe it.

They lay aside virtue to in order to “win”

“Don’t use someone else’s bad behavior,” Andy Stanley admonishes us, “as an excuse to behave badly.”

Drama people do that. They immerse themselves in self-justification for behaving in the very ways they condemn in others, often falling back on cliched chestnuts like “fighting fire with fire.” They purchase victory by selling their souls.

Here’s a good question that deserves a good answer. How can you later argue for the importance of virtue if you previously sacrificed it in order to win? Drama people might respond by saying, “Yeah, but have you thought about what would happen if the other side won?” That response leaves the question unanswered. But normal people might respond by saying, “Sacrificing virtue to win precludes you from ever again appealing to virtue’s importance with any credibility. Therefore, I won’t.”

They emphasize rightness more than relationship

I see lots of couples in my practice and, sometimes, the impetus for coming is child-raising. You know, raising kids is an acquired ability; it doesn’t come naturally. It requires an ongoing series of judgment call determinations about what to do. I’ve always liked the phrase “good-enough parenting” as the goal to which parents should aspire. No one does it perfectly and that’s OK as long as we strive to balance love and limits and correct the inevitable errors made in achieving that balance.

I sometimes tell parents to keep another balance in mind—the one between rules and relationship. If you emphasize rules to the exclusion of relationship, you’ll lose the relationship and your kids will be disinclined to follow your rules. But if you place more emphasis on the relationship, you’ll keep it and they’ll more likely follow your rules.

A similar principle exists in the political realm. For drama people, being right is more important than relational considerations. “If I lose the relationship because that &$@*# can’t see how right I am, then so be it,” the thinking goes. But the stance of the normal person is, “We disagree about what’s right but that doesn’t have to blow up our relationship. We can agree to disagree and still get along.” Guess which group has the higher persuasion potential. Go ahead, just guess.

Here’s my hopefully-helpful chart summarizing the distinctions between drama people and normal people when it comes to persuasion.

Drama People Normal People
Repel with vinegar Attract with honey
Focus on delivery Focus on receptivity
Appeal to emotions Appeal to intellect
Make virtue secondary Make virtue primary
Emphasize rightness Emphasize relationship

Well, just talking about this stuff makes my splodey head just keep on sploding. So, I should probably stop here.