Let’s Talk About Name Calling: Special Snowflake Edition

Snowflake EdgeOne of the favorite rhetorical strategies of the radical right is name calling. Like, they have a whole set of names that they’ve created in order to wage rhetorical war against the rest of us: Libraturd, Feminazi, Thug, Cuck, Special Snowflake, Hysterical, Unhinged, etc, etc, etc. It’s apparently one of their favorite things.

The left may not be much more respectful towards the far right, but making up names to call people isn’t particularly their thing. Nor should it be. There’s a time and a place for everything and some well placed, creative name calling towards someone in a dominant position can be a legitimate part of fighting back from a position of weakness. But I think it’s a good thing that liberals don’t have a nasty name for conservatives that acts as the equivalent to “libraturd”. And I’m certainly not going to suggest that anyone come up with one. But, as I pointed out earlier today, if we want to start defending ourselves against the radical right, turning their own tactics against them is as good a way as any for the average person to start.

As with most radical right rhetoric the name calling they engage in is, more often than not, projection. Which means that they are very vulnerable to having their own language turned against them. So once someone has demonstrated that they are simply being belligerent and have no real interest in engaging in actual dialogue I’ll use any expression of outrage or protest as an excuse to call them a special snowflake. Radical right aren’t used to being on the receiving end of that and typically don’t like it.

If they object to being called a special snowflake, I’ll follow up by asking if they’re triggered and need a safe space. When they accuse you of being a jerk, you can simply respond that you thought that they didn’t go for that politically correct bullshit, but if they’re going to come unhinged and start policing your tone, you can just end the conversation there. Then end it. Walk away, block, ignore, continue calling them special snowflakes or move on to some other favorite radical right term until they get pissed off and disgusted enough to leave.

Now, it should go without saying that you shouldn’t start treating any old conservative like this. If someone is able and willing to engage in actual discourse and you have time, it’s probably best to attempt discourse. But at the point that you realize someone is using discourse and language as a weapon of domination, this kind of tactic can be a good way of pushing back and disengaging before you stress yourself out or waste any more time.

Remember: discourse with someone who is only interested in establishing their dominance is pointless. You are not obligated to play your assigned role in their little game. And don’t worry that you’re going to hurt the person you’re talking to. They aren’t actually listening to a damn thing you say anyways. Besides they are (presumably) grown adults who need to develop the ability to absorb a blow without melting down (something that the people who they typically accuse of being “special snowflakes” do all the time with grace, btw). This is their game and turn about’s fair play after all. If they don’t like the way that works for them, they are always welcome to reform their ways and begin engaging with people in legitimate discourse which seeks to understand rather than dominate.

Now, a couple of cautions for anyone who wants to try turning the language of the radical right back on them. First, these people have come up with some really nasty insults. They’re not just rude, but are often racist, sexist and punching down. We are better than that and should avoid using language which is, in and of itself, insulting or demeaning to people who are vulnerable to abuse or oppression. You’ll notice that I use the libraturd to exemplify the rude, immature name calling that the right engages in. There are many variations on the term, including the popular “libratard”. Which I will not use because it’s built on the word retard which is an insult to people with learning  and developmental issues. I also refrain from using insults that refer to an immutable trait of the person such as race, sexual orientation, weight or attractiveness. My goal is to shock them with my poor behavior and demonstrate an unwillingness to play my part in their game, not actually wound. Just because we’re engaged in a fight doesn’t mean that we’re free to throw our values out the window. Be judicious.

Also, do feel free to throw the abusive language of the radical right in their face. Refer to yourself as a libraturd before they have the chance. Put a face to the abusive language that they throw around unthinkingly. I will often mention the fact that people in the Steve Bannon branch of the radical right refer to my children as mongrels. Point out when they are ridiculing the weak and the vulnerable with their language. Don’t be afraid to be provocative. A lot of these people will play nice in public, but all you have to do is scratch their ego and all kinds of nastiness comes pouring out. That shit needs to be brought out into the open where everyone can see it and they can’t deny it.

Again, the point of all of this from our perspective isn’t to “win” or dominate. It’s to make it so the rhetorical game doesn’t work for them anymore. To make what has heretofore been a strength and an effective tactic into a weakness that blows up in their faces instead. My personal goal is to make every radical right winger who encounters me curse the jackass who came up with the phrase “special snowflake” and regret handing me this nasty language to use against them. I want to make it an albatross around their neck that must be reckoned with before we move forward (hopefully together). They aren’t going to stop with the name calling because we ask or because they have an attack of conscience. But if they decide that such behavior no longer works for them and is relentlessly turned against them they may well decide to discipline themselves to behave better.

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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.

 

Why Discussion and Reasoning Have Failed

Want to know why communicating with people on the other side has become so difficult? Well, everyone focuses on the outrageous things Rush Limbaugh says, but if you listen to his show, you can see that underneath all the nonsense, what he’s doing is teaching people the dirty tricks of rhetoric and debate. He’s been showing his listeners how to trip people up with manufactured double binds, sentences crafted to allow you to believe something other than what is being communicated, gaslighting, diversion, red flags and other tactics which are used to turn communication into a weapon for dominance.

Which leads us to the core conflict that many people seem to have missed. The issue is that Trump supporters and the radical right are playing a power game, pure and simple. The rest of us are out here talking about issues, right and wrong, what’s best for the country, etc and can’t figure out why things like facts, morality and reality don’t mean anything to these people. Well, that’s because they are concerned with dominance, period, amen, end of story. Their dominance has been threatened by the rest of us and they want it back. There’s really nothing more to it than that.

Obviously, this is a big problem that we’re going to be working to change for a while, but in the meantime I for one am done playing this game where I try to reason with people whose only real concern is maintaining the dominant position. Aren’t you tired of playing the game? What’s going on in the world is not a game. We aren’t moving chess pieces on a board to determine who gets to be dominant. It’s bullshit.

If you’re tired too, just stop playing. Stop explaining every freaking thing you say, answering every objection and taking the bait for every diversionary red flag. Refuse to engage unless they are willing to do in a genuine way and not just with an eye towards domination. Because ultimately, this is how we beat their stupid, pathetic, childish game: you stop playing it with them.

Why Donald Trump Talks the Way He Does – and Why It Works

Back in college, I made some halfway decent money selling high end knives in people’s homes. One of the perks of the job was that the company provided us with some pretty high quality training in sales, time management, motivation and the like. The managers were big fans of people like Tony Robbins, Dale Carnegie and Steven Covey and took turns giving talks sharing what they were learning from them with us. While the company’s business model was actually kind of bullshit, the training has served me well over the years.

Like at one of our training events, a manager explained that human beings have these things called mirror cells in our brains. And these mirror cells cause us to instinctively imitate each other. This is why small children imitate the people around them and why we are so susceptible to peer pressure – our brains are programmed and have special cells dedicated to the task of imitation. Further, these mirror cells are closely associated with empathy which in turn leads to bonding and a sense of closeness with another human being.

And then he explained a little trick which we could use to exploit this feature of human neurology/psychology in order to gain control of a situation with another person. If you match a person’s emotional energy levels, this tends to activate their mirror neurons. Because you’re mirroring their energy. Once you’ve done this, you have activated the brain’s automatic impulse to imitate and can actually lead the person into the emotional state you want them to be in. So if a person comes in panicking and you initial response is to match their state of panic, you can then gently de-escalate your own emotional energy to a calmer state and the person will usually instinctively follow your lead and calm down much more quickly than if you try to calm them down directly. It’s a nifty trick if you’re a decent person simply looking to help someone in distress, encourage someone or otherwise positively influence them.

Or you can, as my manager explained, use this trick to sell people knives. All you have to do is match their emotional energy and they will instinctively respond positively to you and more easily follow your lead. Nod when they nod, smile when they smile, mirror back their body language and everything in their instinctive brain will be telling them to like and trust you. The trick is particularly helpful when dealing with objections since you start by agreeing with the objection which is unexpected so any defense they have prepared will be sidestepped while the mirror reaction is activate. Then you can often lead them from that point of resistance to the point of saying yes.

Like I said, nifty trick. Unless you don’t actually want or can’t afford high end knives. Then you might think it’s a dirty trick. But probably not. People really hate to admit when they’ve been manipulated into acting against their best interests. So more often than not, customers who bought knives they didn’t actually want or couldn’t afford will set about justifying their decision to purchase knives to themselves and anyone who attempts to chastise them. They will recall the times they meant to start cooking more and decide that the knives are perfect for making that happen. They will admire the various features I pointed out to them and repeat the benefits I showed them to themselves while using them. In fact, everyone in the house will know why the handle is shaped the way it is because the person who bought them will tell anyone who will listen about it. They will push away any thoughts of the expense by reminding themselves that these knives are a once in a lifetime investment that they will use everyday if they actually start cooking like they always meant to. And they will remember all the items they wanted but didn’t purchase to assure themselves that they were actually quite restrained and frugal when in fact I had just sold a $70 knife to people who literally didn’t own furniture.

So what does this have to do with the way Donald Trump talks and why it works? Well, the thing is the dynamic I describe above is well known to most sociopaths. In fact, it’s a tactic that the most skilled of them uses at all times. People who have spent time close to or studied sociopaths often note that they seem to be acting all the time. The reason is that these people habitually mirror the emotional states of people around them in order to maintain their control over their interactions with them. Because there is literally nothing more important to a sociopath than being in control. Nothing. So they use this little hack to influence the people around them, except because they are sociopaths, they don’t really care if they are using it for good or ill. Their only objective is to cultivate their influence over others. Which will sometimes line up with what is actually good for the people around them and sometimes not. It doesn’t particularly matter to someone like Trump, just so long as he gets what he wants which is control.

Donald Trump talks the way he does because the point of his speech isn’t to convey information or make an argument. On occasion he may flirt with doing those things, but the real purpose of their speech is to activate those mirror neurons. He basically made a bet that he could use this strategy to gain the support of a particular type of person (what my husband calls the NASCAR nation – relatively affluent, proud redneck or wanna be redneck types who revel in being defiant). Yes, he’s telling them things they want to hear, but even more he’s reflecting their emotional state back at them and then manipulating it for his own purposes. Basically, the purpose of his speech is to create an emotional experience in the people he is speaking to.

The thing is that when we are “in our emotions”, our hippo-campus isn’t fully engaged. Our bullshit meter goes offline. Same thing with our problem solving skills. Our short term memory is altered, as is the process for creating long term memories. We are literally in an altered mental state at that point. So by basically pushing the buttons to put people into their emotions and then rambling in a way that makes it hard for his audience’s hippo-campus to find something to latch onto, he’s using a classic conman’s trick to gain control over his audience without them even realizing what happened.

And lest you think I’m exaggerating, making things up and attributing ill will to harmless behavior, I can personally testify to this effect. I’ve inadvertently done it myself with public speaking and training where have I caught myself momentarily rambling and not making sense and nobody even noticed. I would catch myself spewing out gibberish, talking in circles and look out into the audience and realize that no one looked confused or doubtful. And if I actually stopped and corrected myself, very few people would even remember the details of any of the rubbish I had just spouted. They were just on the emotional roller coaster I was creating for them.

Anyways, I think Trump has been practicing this form of manipulation for his own ends forever. Not everyone is prone to falling for it, but many people are. Those who are prone to falling for it think he’s a good guy because he makes them feel good. Those who aren’t think he’s a lunatic because he’s clearly talking gibberish. But those who are falling for it are in the same position that the people who didn’t actually want and couldn’t afford fancy knives were. They’re not going to admit that they’ve been emotionally manipulated. They’re busy shoring up their own evidence and justifications for what is the political equivalent of buying a $70 dollar knife while living in a house with no furniture.

And, it must be said that often the difference between those who are vulnerable to this kind of manipulation and those who aren’t lie in the types of buttons being pushed. One person is vulnerable to flattery and another is vulnerable to tough guy talk. Sociopaths are very good at recognizing the difference so they can push the right buttons with the right person. Trump went for easy targets whose foibles he understands quite well, but don’t be so sure that if he had decided that some other audience – possibly one that you belong to – would give him what he wanted, he wouldn’t have been able to do the same thing to them (or you).

So, how do you protect yourself from being manipulated by a sociopath (or a sales person) like Trump? First, you take signs that there’s something shady going on seriously rather than writing them off. Plausible deniability is the last refuge of the sociopath. They count on you ignoring red flags because you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt. So be sparing with the benefit of the doubt. People who genuinely deserve the benefit of the doubt are quite willing to provide evidence to support their claim to it. People who are trying to manipulate you will behave as if they are entitled to the benefit of the doubt. They will accuse you of being a bad person or uncharitable if you attempt to withhold it from them. Again, this is markedly different from how people who actually deserve the benefit of the doubt typically behave.

Second, get your own boundaries really clear in your head and don’t let yourself make excuses for walking past them. Be stubborn up front rather than on the back end after you’ve already fallen for some bull. For example, if you believe in equality, remain committed to equality even in the face of evidence which can be interpreted in such a way that it undermines equality. Trust that there is a better explanation for what you see than one which undermines equality. Give yourself credit and trust what your own judgment says when you’re not in the presence of someone who is trying to influence you. Which leads to my 3rd tip . . .

Don’t just tell yourself that you won’t fall for someone’s influence – you will. We are all susceptible at some level to influence. It’s part of our design – remember the mirror neurons? And it’s not a bad thing that we are able to be influenced by others. But get really clear on your own beliefs, values and principles so that once the thrall has worn off, you have a baseline you can return to. Once you’re back at your baseline, you can consider the arguments that made sense to you and adjust if appropriate. But you want to do that when you’re not “in your emotions” and your hippo-campus is fully engaged. (Interestingly, people who focus on social justice are less emotional in their thinking than people who are unmoved by injustice. So if you want to be sure you’re not just “in your emotions”, focus on helping those down the ladder from you. It will snap you out of it.)

As to what to do about those who have fallen for Trump’s mind games, well, they are likely beyond our influence, much less our control at this point. I’ll explain more on that later. They’re just not playing the same game that we are, so to speak. You can try the nifty trick of matching their emotions on them. It’s not fool proof. And everyone’s busy re-assuring themselves that they really did make a very good decision that they totally do not regret. But it does tap into something pretty innate in us. So it will likely work as well as anything else, although it does take some practice to do well.

“I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” ~ Matthew 10:16