A few issues back I wrote about “dipshit theory,” a theory people commonly employ to explain frustrating behavior as simply as possible.
Q: Why would he do that?!
A: Because he’s a dipshit.
I argued that exploiting dipshit theory is both effective and dangerous. Its simplicity makes it effective for stopping the unfruitful mental churning involved in attempts to explain someone’s behavior more charitably: “Look, Cathy. You’ve spent the last six months trying to understand what went wrong with you and Brad. It’s time to move on. Brad was simply a dipshit. You should leave it at that.”
Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup
Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup
It’s dangerous because by design, it’s an escape hatch on empathy, a way to disconnect from our fellow humans anytime we feel like it. Cruelty, oppression, war, bigotry, evil—they’re all fueled by extreme forms of dipshit theory: “We should kill them because they’re dipshits.”
Despite its dangers, dipshit theory in subtle forms is everywhere. Gossiping about the clueless has profound appeal. The stories that fascinate us in any medium are full of dipshits—the buffoons that populate comedy, the villains that populate drama. We fill our thoughts with people we are glad we’re not anything like.
And even if we weren’t inclined to think so much about unpleasant people, we’d still have unpleasant people thrust upon us. Many of us actively work to avoid being like our parents, our siblings, or other negative role models whose unpleasant company we didn’t ask for in the first place. When we get stuck with people whose behavior we can’t stand, it’s understandable that we limit our empathy for them, both to avoid being used and abused by them and also to avoid empathizing with them so much we risk becoming like them.
This argues for another benefit of employing dipshit theory that I think is generally undervalued. The time we spend thinking about people we don’t want to become is time spent becoming what we want to become. Negative role models are as important as positive ones for inspiring us to grow.
My father, may he rest in peace, was for the most part, a positive role model. He was smart and witty and wise.
As an adult, whenever I hear myself sounding smart, witty, and wise, I get ecstatic, in part because I spent so many years yearning for skills my father had but I didn’t. Talking smart, I get all choked up with delight. It’s my favorite high. I get downright giddy when I’m talking fast, full of allusions to big ideas, full of clever turns of phrase and wordplay.
Many people tell me my writing is getting better, clearer, simpler and more direct—less self-serving and more audience-serving. A lot of people tried to tell me over the years that my writing was “too clever by half,” or that it called distracting attention to me and what I know. It took a while for their feedback to sink in, and I’m sure it could still sink in further.
I attribute some of the vanity that would show up in my writing to my desire to be smart, witty, and wise like my dad. I attribute my increasing success at constraining that vanity to the cultivation of a negative role model to counterbalance my father. I needed a patron saint of what-not-to-do, a designated demon whose appearance alerts my self-discipline.
My negative role model is the Cat in the Hat. Remember him showing off to the kids when he first met them?
“I can balance a fish on the top of a ball, but that is not all, no, no that is not all. . .”
“Look at me, look at me, look at me now, it’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how. . .”
When my writing veers toward the excessive, the Cat in the Hat, drunk on his own prowess, comes to mind—and in response I tone it down.
I don’t hate the Cat in the Hat, but somehow, my mild aversion to the thought that I could be like him seems to work. While it’s fun to have fun, you have to know how, and he didn’t. Everything he juggled crashed to the floor. Reading between the lines of my overly filigreed writing, I hear, “Look at me, look at me, look at me now. . . . ” It’s just enough to make me willing to let get go of a clause or two.
Negative role models are as powerful and useful (and dangerous) as positive ones. Yet people sometimes posit rules of conduct based on the assumption that one shouldn’t be negative, that looking down on negative role models can’t or shouldn’t push you up into virtue, that only by looking up to strong, positive role models can you pull yourself into virtue.
Nobody follows such rules. Practically speaking, they’re unfollowable. I’ve never met anyone who liked everyone. Some people get good at keeping their opinions to themselves, but all have their opinions.
Such rules are as counterproductive as they are impossible to live by. They’re counterproductive because they distract us with concerns about virtuous methods of growth, when the more important question is what to grow toward. Trying to follow such rules we get lost in guilt about being negative when the real questions is which people to hold in negative and positive regard so as to grow ourselves in the right direction.
The only means we have for moving anything are pushes and pulls of varying strengths. We can’t move much when our pushing hands are tied behind our backs. An aspiring gymnast must learn where and how much to push and pull. A gymnastics coach who said that pushing was naughty or cheating would be, well . . . a dipshit.
I’m arguing here for the benefits of actively choosing negative role models. Next time you want to shape your behavior, find yourself an impressively negative role model, someone whose image will pop into your head when you’re slipping again, making you shudder and say, “Yuck, that’s not me, is it?”
Just don’t go too far. . . . Watch for the next in this series, on the dangers of negative role models: “Barking yourself into a corner.”