Let’s Get This Thing Started

In any conflict, it’s important to keep up with what’s going on with the other side. But between social media and the extreme unpleasantness of dealing with the radical right, a lot of people are in a bubble where they aren’t hearing the conversations taking place among those who are on “the other side”. While I totally understand the impulse to cocoon and support it when necessary for peace of mind and mental health reasons, I do try to stay in contact with people who are on the other side of this conflict we’ve got going on between the radical right and the rest of us. Mostly so I can keep up with what they are saying and what rhetorical tools they are passing around.

Understanding the rhetoric coming from the other side is important. We are in a position in this country where a radicalized right wing minority of people who reject American values now wield enormous power and have taken over our government. One of the reasons they have been able to do this is they have mastered the art of rhetoric and manipulation in ways that decent people have a hard time responding to.

The problem, it seems to me, is that we all tend to have an unconscious assumption that other people are basically like us. So normal people assume that if we are discussing matters of politics, the person we’re talking with is concerned with facts, reason, morality, right and wrong and the like. We assume that it is normative to be seeking what is right, good, true and beneficial and that our ideas about what is right, good, true and beneficial will be supported by and adjust to reflect facts, logic and reality. Then we’re confused that we can’t get through to the radical right.

What most of us have failed to understand is that for people on the radical right, everything is based on power. The radical right is still dealing with the world through the lens of “us vs them”*. As such, for the radical right, principles, facts, reason and the like have their place, but are subordinate to the need to obtain power. For the “us vs them” mind, you either dominate or are dominated. The thinking is that as important as any particular principle involved may be, without power, those principles are just ideas and not lived reality. So obtaining power is the first, necessary precursor to securing a world in which matters of principle, morality and logic even matter. In this perspective, it is right and moral to do ensure that your people – your “us” – dominate instead of being dominated. That is how the good is secured and given room to be exercised.

To make matters worse, the radical right, like everyone else, is working from the assumption that everyone is like them. They assume that we are all attempting to gain power and dominate. Which is really, I believe, what has made conversation so impossible. We speak from the bottom of our hearts and all they hear is someone trying to establish the high ground for themselves. We point to things like research or the work of intellectuals and all they see is us attempting to leverage power against them. We’re trying to get through to someone and all they see is us trying to establish dominance over them. It makes engaging on the substance next to impossible and often incredibly painful for the person who is genuinely trying to share their heart, their concerns and their knowledge as a way of creating mutual understanding.

Obviously, I believe that we are better than simply playing games of dominance. I think that the “us vs them” mentality writ large is incredibly destructive and ultimately immoral. But let’s face it, right this moment, this is the radical right’s world. Despite holding ideas and pushing policies which by and large the majority of Americans do not support the radical right has been able to dictate our public discourse and is now in control of our government. So, while I believe that the “us vs them” mentality is inferior and destructive, that’s the game we’re playing now. And we’re going to have to learn to engage in their game, using their rules, before things get any further out of control.

Although it goes against our instincts and ideas about how things should work, once we understand this it becomes clear that engaging in their game using their rules puts us at a distinct advantage. The radical right is accustomed to their opponents taking the high road and refusing to stoop to their level, so these people aren’t used to being on the receiving end of the sort of garbage they heap out on everyone around them. They can dish it, but they can’t take it. They think that they are incredibly good at this game, and they are. But they’ve also been working without much opposition. They aren’t used to playing defense or matching wits with someone who is as good at the game as they are.

Further, the radical right is markedly dishonest. The world does not work the way they claim it does and reality does not back them up. It doesn’t matter much to them because they’ve been able to use their power games to create a pretty durable illusion of reality. Those of us who oppose them, however, don’t have to rely on illusions. We can be entirely honest while playing the power game and reality will back us up. We may need to stoop to their level in term of style – being rude, manipulative and unbending. But we do not need to stoop to their level in terms of actual issues of right and wrong, truth and lies and the like.

The thing is that the “us vs them” mentality has its basis in reality. Sometimes there are very real conflicts in which we find ourselves needing to stand in opposition to a hostile “they”. This is the situation we find ourselves in here with regards to the radical right. There are those who would criticize me for defaulting to the language and paradigm of “us vs them” while criticizing the radical right for their “us vs them” approach. However what I am proposing is that we play their game, according to the rules that they have established with the end goal of making it not work for them. Right now, the power game is working for them. But once we turn the power game against them, engaging according to our rules – the ones where reality, facts, logic, morality and the like determine our course – will become much more appealing. Because while they’re on top right this very moment, the power game isn’t actually one they can win once those of us who oppose them engage fully in it.

I’m going to be writing this afternoon about effective ways of turning some of the bullying language which the radical right has popularized against them. I’ll also be addressing various accusations that they use to marginalize, dismiss and dominate over the voices of decency going forward. And I’ll be looking at the narratives they use and explaining how to undermine and discredit them. If you have a particular tactic, narrative or issue that you’d like to see me address, you can leave a comment, send me a message on facebook or use the contact form under the About tab above to send an email and I will get to it as I am able.

* If you are interested in the topic, I published a deeper examination of the issue of “us vs them” mentality and it’s alternative – what I call “just us” – at A New Day Dawning last fall. The essay’s called The Quiet Secret to Global Revolution: Us vs Them Or Just Us.


9 thoughts on “Let’s Get This Thing Started

  1. ” the radical right, like everyone else, is working from the assumption that everyone is like them”; not quite. The radical right is working form the correct assumption that the rest of us are *not* like them; would, in some ways, that we were. They have studied left-leaning thinkers like Orwell and Lakoff, approache marketing with ethics that would bring a bliush to the cheek of a double glazing salesperson and the sophisitication of the most advanced marketing available, and deploys tactics of framing, altered reference point, distraction, immediacy, uninhibited mendacity, emotional spillover, and saliency. And they work, in part because we haven’t had the wit despite decadesof warning to understand these techniques and develop countermeasures.

    Hillary supposedly asked, back in June, “Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?” She should have insisted on an answer.

  2. George Lakoff, writing about the same phenomenon as an academic cognitive psychologist, spoke about different people [or the same people, other times] acting either from ‘nurturant-parent’ values or from ‘strict-father’ values — and concluded that their communicative disconnect is due to a failure of both groups to realize that the other group was also talking about ‘values’ [Should one euphemistically say “Differently-Valuable Values” when those values come out a wee bit ‘Ethically Challenged’, as in your examples of right-wing ethical practice?]

    I see a lot of truth in Lakoff’s take on things; but it fails to really address the fact that people do end up literally with ‘evil’ value systems (and certainly tend to think of the other side’s values as ‘evil’, whether or not I’m any more justified in my own judgement of right-wing ‘values’. )

    Maybe we should be talking about ‘mothering’ values and ‘war leader’ values? Because both roles, and people embodying them, basing their behavior on them, would have been common in the long, long prehistory of the human race, leaving us the option [in any situation] of approaching things from one of those standpoints or another.

    But since we are really _not_ at war with other members of our nation, nor do we benefit anymore from wars with anyone else, those ‘war-leader’ archetypes may have outlived their usefulness?

  3. Lakoff wouldn’t call it a “strong father model” but a “strict father model.” Someone who favored such a model would probably consider the ‘strictness’ in this ideal to be an expression of strength, but I doubt there’d be much, if any, relationship between the concepts. [Were you thinking of the “strong mayor” system of city government, or does someone actually use “strong father” in their terminology?]

    This father idolized in that model would presumably be ‘Parental’ in Eric Berne’s system [remember him?] except that of course there are a wide range of ways to be parental, not all of them Authoritarian. (I wonder how Parental-but-not-Authoritarian correlates with what’s called ‘Liberal’ politics these days, accounting perhaps for some of the Authoritarian resentment against anyone who (rightly or wrongly) claims to know more about a subject than does said Authoritarian. [Both Hitler and Mussolini filled their respective governments with cranks, who in economic policy decisions turned out to be good alternatives to candidates who believed the mainstream economics of their day — but such a characteristic resentment of knowledge, applied to matters where other people actually know better, is likely a fatal weakness.]

    Is there any good way to bring Authoritarian types around? “You and I are both concerned about values, but yours are Evil” is probably not the most tactful tack… [But doesn’t this tend to sum up the opposition between Jesus, together with Hillel’s surviving disciples — vs the more authoritarian faction that had violently seized leadership of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time? Certainly between Jesus and the Romans… ]


    1. And yes, I did mean “strict” father. In fact I came across an interview with Lakoff that I’m probably going to write about later today. I can’t think of who Eric Berne is. Believe it or not, I’m not very well studied. My familiarity with the work of most scholars comes from NYT book reviews and magazine articles at best. But I do seem to have an uncanny knack for recreating the ideas of a lot of people.

      1. Berne: Games People Play, the inspiration for the better known but less good I’m ok, you’re ok. A personality and interaction model involving parent (either nurturing or critical), adult, and child. Echoes of Freud’s superego, ego, id.

  4. Eric Berne had this very simple model of human interaction depending on which of three modes were being expressed: “Adult,” “Child”, or “Parent” (in the bad sense.) “Adult” was the making-sense mode. “Child” could be anywhere from innocently playful to manipulating-like-a-sonbitch, was usually setting things up for a bit of irresponsible fun plus an opportunity to go Parental on someone…

    I doubt there was as much long-term planning involved in such processes (“Games”) as he imagined; but there’s an undeniable human talent for repeatedly bringing about the “right” disaster to push one’s most familiar, most accustomed buttons yet again.

    1. The main point was to somehow collect “strokes”, aka ‘any sort of intense emotional reaction,’ drama, etc., to keep each person feeling recognized (even if rejected), part of things, and on familiar ground (even if not a pleasant place to be.)

      I suspect it’s more about re-activating old familiar tangles of networked neurons so they don’t start dying from lack of fuss. [A major element, I’m guessing, in what brings people to watch movies, read novels, etc. — what Aristotle called ‘catharsis’, though I’m not as sure as he was that it’s healthy… ]

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