Bullies, Full Frontal Shock & Awe And The Suffocation of Rationalism

A second post for the post-truth era. There’s a minor edit regarding Trump though this was written for other reasons – mostly frustration. Shock and Awe may just be what Trump supporters wanted. The difficulty is we all know how it worked out last time.  

It’s supposed to be a conversation however it doesn’t feel like it anymore. You’re being overwhelmed and it’s bullying. It becomes clear the person wants to appear tough-minded (the softer version), if not just tough (the harder version). They are so confident of their opinions they leave no handle for doubt. In the ‘soft version’ the person may suggest they are a ‘straight talker’ or perhaps claim they are speaking ‘common sense’. They can be populist and even charismatic. It’s like meeting a radio shock-jock in person. Regardless, they don’t want to hear what you think or know, they just want your approval, for you to recognise their dominance or authority.  And in some cases your capitulation and compliance. They ask no questions unless rhetorical. They prefer your silence and surprise. While their confidence can be engaging, here the problem is that you are aware the person is so shatteringly, eye-watering uninformed, misrepresenting or wrong that you can barely make out where to begin. And here’s the important bit … they’re already onto the next opinion. There is no opportunity for rational discussion or information. Any pretense of rationalism is suffocated! You know they are full of BS, however you are unlikely to get the opportunity to make them aware of it. To engage is both futile and to invite conflict. You are being bulldozed and bullied and you know it. If you do respond in a rational way by explaining then you will be labelled and dismissed as nitpicking, nerdy, even weak and socially … boring. (One person I know like this will smugly ask you what you think of their opinion only to dismiss you mid-sentence as ‘wrong’ and continue. Another, a senior manager in a client organisation was so gobsmackingly bold, it was a clear demonstration of dominance and contempt for both psychology and consultants. Regardless, it will feel personal though their behaviour is not isolated to you. They will be like this with other people. The exceptions can be when someone they perceive to be higher status or of utility to them.

Curiously, the person will make these judgements/statements on topics that they know you have significantly more expertise in. This is both part of their boldness and their provocation. It is also an insight into their worldview. Interactions will somewhere be defined as wins and losses and establishing a pecking order. As a form of argument the person can move from one topic to another so fast that you never get to deal with any of it. Think of the way Trump just moves from one topic to another so fast that the press and the political opposition can’t keep up. They simply overwhelm with ‘firepower’. The ‘target’ never gets to prosecute a case, let alone one that can stick. There is not enough oxygen to breath life into a more rational approach. The rational is suffocated under the weight of the BS and the show of dominance.

Depending on the topic, eventually the BS is found out. One hopes the damage done is not too bad however the reality is it can be devastating to individuals, organisations and when it reaches into the public sphere. Consider the Stalin years effect on Russia or the Nazi years on the world. BS can go viral and create a lot of very serious problems. There’s a whole lot of people creating mischief generating seductive ‘memes’ for the internet that influence vulnerable minds everywhere and play to populist sentiments. Trolls are another incarnation of the form.

On occasion, I have met managers who are this way inclined. It is usually the first meeting and the person is aiming to assert dominance. It is always a bad sign for the job. If the person is the primary customer then you are better off without the work. If the person is compelled to be part of the project then sabotage is their preferred response. This is not cynicism as most cynics are somewhat intellectually engaged and can be open to evidence.

So our person never has to validate their position and they continue. At a personal level, it is tempting to say “just move on, you don’t need them”. But what if you can’t move on and you have to deal with them for some period of time. That’s really hard! Calling their behaviour out has the risk of upping the bullying and others can be reluctant to support you for fear they will be next. That’s how bullying works.

Asking questions is the best strategy. It can make you appear interested but also the hope is that the person will start to see the flaws in their own thinking. This can help in the less serious cases.

Bringing in someone higher status than ‘the bully’ into the mix can help if your invitation is not taken as a bypassing move that leaves you vulnerable later. In softer cases letting the person know you have access to such people and expertise can help a bit. 

Some personal factors that seem to make the encounters worse:

1. A more Closed personality. Open and Closed personality characteristics are amongst the Big Five Personality traits (Open/Closed, Neuroticism, Extroversion/Introversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness). Closed personalities are less likely to seek or accept new ideas or experiences and seek to validate their existing positions. Becoming more closed can be a response to stress.

2. Low Agreeableness can be associated with arrogance, narcissism, quarrelsome and self-interest. The person is more likely to be Machiavellian also plays an important role.

2. A strongly held worldview that differs from yours. Particularly if the person’s worldview is becoming less functional and remains rigid and rejecting of other worldviews that are more complex. The person becomes more persistent and even repetitive in these circumstances.

3. ‘Authoritarian’ personality traits can also come into play. These are in part captured above by the Closed and Low Agreeableness however it also brings in heirarchical factors and the exercise of power.

Two social factors that could be contributing to an increase in these interactions.

1. More people with an (emerging) egotistical worldview.

2. The internet and alternative news sites providing and reinforcing the person’s views (both left and right). The rise of ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’ and a decline in journalistic standards. Knowing there are others who share the same views can make the person feel bolder and justified.

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