One of my early ones occurred in a locker room when I was 12 years old. Our basketball team was losing badly to a team we were supposed to beat, and our coach ‘lost it’ once the half time locker room doors were closed. He berated us all in a screaming, beseeching, humiliation-inducing manner. Sound familiar?
Our team was suitably intimidated. I remember the increase in my perspiration, heart rate, shaking, and rise of my ‘fight or flight’ syndrome. Our goal hadn’t changed from winning the game, but it was now secondary. The main goal now was to appease our coach and make sure these tantrums never again were visited upon us. Even as 12 year olds, we knew he’d be running the show once the game was over. We knew we had to return to 5-a-week practices for 2+ hours after school, with him in charge.
Intimidation is a powerful tool. Its capacity for short term persuasion is so often utilized because its capacity to cut through the daily trance of living faster and more incisively than anything else is unmatched. It jolts us into action. The question is, action towards what? How real is the emergency? Why do processes that might examine what’s happening in a reasoned way have to be curtailed? Most importantly: what happens to long term power dynamics between people when 'emergencies' are continually declared and immediate, often irreversible, action is taken? Action that completely overwhelms deliberation?
Our basketball team needed a jolt to play better in the second half (we did, but lost anyway). Something had to be done. There are lots of times when jolts are just the thing to awaken people from their slumber and draw out their abilities. In a simple context of a sporting event, with clearly defined boundaries and goals, the tactic of intimidation works because any honest person can be appropriately shamed into recognizing he can make a greater effort towards a predetermined goal that’s important to him.
Even then, however, the question about power dynamics raises grave concerns. If the intimidator insults his audience, threatens them, and preys on any sense of self-loathing they might have, the short term results are not the primary outcome with which we need to be concerned. What really matters is how the power gap between the intimidator and his audience has been widened: to a point where future situations where the two parties are together is characterized by an incessantly nervous edge, a feeling that the fuse is still lit and can go off again at any point. This is what the intimidator is counting on to claim ongoing authority. This is what matters far more to him than any honorable, ethical outcome. He may shroud his intimidation verbiage in the language of such outcomes, but that’s just talk. Exerting power over others is the game. At its worst, it’s bullying followed by violence.
In Quiet Horizon, I pointed out that this tactic only works in an environment where narcissism has been normalized to such an extent that people fail to see alternatives to it. The narcissism of the intimidator is to blow so hard, so fast and so aggressively that the inherent slowness of a reasoned, rational response is overwhelmed by the resulting emotional tsunami. It is a rare sight indeed to find a person with a solid enough identity and sufficient emotional intelligence to recognize that the psychodrama exploding in front of him is, 99% of the time, devoid of of any real substance.
But that’s only half the story. Our susceptibility to emotional tsunamis spewing out the mouths of authorities demanding our compliance lies in our own relationship to narcissim. Normalization doesn’t just mean that these outbursts have become everyday occurrences. It means that we have tacitly agreed to this being the case.
Our responses to narcissism must be grounded in the soil of our own self-knowledge. Psychological self-knowledge. Self-knowledge that includes the capacity to build and sustain emotional intelligence, to find ways to stand firmly in the eye of the hurricanes swirling all around us. If our life is too bent on seeking approval from others, if our response to shame is to regress into a whirlpool of self-loathing rather than to experience genuine regret about a wrong we may have done and then calmly correct it, and if we find ourselves nursing hatred as our primary means of resisting power, we will have normalized narcissism inside ourselves just as thoroughly as the bloviators stomping on evidence, truth, and honor. We may temporarily arrest the hurricane from reaching landfall using the same techniques as those we resist, but at the cost of compromising ourselves and long-term progress.
This is not to say that resistance isn’t required - it's essential right now. In the months to come, we’ll all have opportunities to resist things we know are wrong. But let’s do it for the long term, in ways that empower the honorable, the ethical, and the connection we all share with each other…including those we may see as our ‘enemies’.