You know the feeling, maybe from an infuriating debate with a self-satisfied, complacent, and condescending bureaucrat. Your temperature is rising. His is not. He finds it very amusing to see you getting so worked up. He admires his patience with you.
You asked nicely at first. He was offhandedly dismissive. Frustrated, you tried again, maybe not as nicely. That got his attention, but not to your request to which his answer is still an offhand no. Rather, to your bad attitude.
A few recent encounters like this, not with bureaucrats but with friends, acquaintances and colleagues made me want to name it: Getting smugged. It’s when a debate partner changes the subject of debate from content to your attitude problem in such a way that it makes your attitude increasingly divergent from his, thereby affirming that your attitude is really the problem. So long as the smugger can maintain the trappings of a good attitude–a nice patient sounding voice, even with shades of smug condescension, he can maintain the high moral ground and authority. Your attitude will go from good, to bad, to worse.
Of course, sometimes your attitude really is the problem. It is possible to ask for something so aggressively that it can’t be granted without, in effect surrendering to a bully. Because attitude can be a real problem, it creates an opening for smugging. In other words since monitoring for bulling is important, it is also possible to bully by means of monitoring. There’s an opening for smuggers, gentle-sounding bullies who self-servingly cultivate hypersensitivity to your attitude, and will turn the focus of their attention to it as a way of not having to deal with content:
Ann: Where were you last night? Why did you come back so late smelling of perfume?
Bob: My, aren’t you being aggressive. What’s with your attitude, dear?
Ann: I’m asking you about last night. Where were you?
Bob: What is this an interrogation? Are you the gestapo? Geez, get a grip woman.
Ann: I’m not being aggressive dammit. I’m asking a simple and reasonable question.
Bob: Well I’m not answering as long as you’re going to have a bad attitude about it.
Ann: WHERE WERE YOU?
Bob: Aw come on sweetheart I’m not yelling and you are. Don’t you think that says something about who is out of line here?
A recurrent topic in these articles is what we systems theorists call non-linear dynamics, basically how certain patterns cause accelerating escalations. Escalation happens through compounding, just like the compounding interest whereby the rich get non-linearly richer. Non-linearity occurs when the product of a process gets folded back into the process making the process more productive.
Or counter-productive, depending on what you like and don’t like. Consider this compounding effect:
Ann: I don’t think I did anything wrong.
Bob: Oh, you’re just being defensive.
Ann: I don’t think so.
Bob: See you’re even defensive about being defensive.
Ann: I swear I’m not!
Bob: Wow, I had no idea it was that bad. You’re even defensive about being defensive about being defensive.
Ann: I AM NOT!
With both of these examples, the product of each exchange (increased aggressiveness; increased defensiveness) feeds back into the process to start the next exchange. (accusations of same)
I call such exchanges Tar Babies in honor of the ever-stickier trap set by Brer Fox for Brer Rabbit in the Uncle Remus story. Brer fox crafted a doll made from tar. Brer rabbit tried to strike up a conversation with it and got angry when it didn’t respond. He hit the tar baby and his hand got stuck in it. That made him madder so he escalated, hitting with the other hand. That hand got stuck too, so he kicked the tar baby too. Soon he was all stuck, trapped as is Ann in both examples above. Every response Ann gives strengthens Bob’s smug case.
In conversation, there are lots of these tar babies. For potential smuggers, they are inviting opportunities. Here are a few classics:
Your ego is getting in the way and if you say it isn’t, that’s your ego talking.
You’re getting defensive and if you say you aren’t you’re just being more defensive.
You’re getting aggressive and if you argue you aren’t that’s further evidence than you’re getting aggressive.
We’re cracking down on communists and if you object to how we do it, that must mean your a communist.
Only believers go to heaven and if you doubt it, you’re going to hell.
We on the Right are pure, unselfish, only on a mission to save our country from the new Hitler and his socialism, and if you doubt us, you’re clearly impure, selfish, and out to destroy our country.
People should always be kind and nice and if you raise any doubts about this, you’re not being kind and nice.
I’m arguing that there’s a transcendent state and if you argue that there isn’t, I’ll remind you that there’s no arguing about it because it’s transcendent.
People who get emotionally charged about a topic are invariably projecting, and if my saying that annoys you, you’re clearly projecting.
A few Buddhists have used the last three with me lately. When I raised questions about the core assumptions they made, they smiled at me beatifically and said “Yes a lot of people think that.” They left out the word “lost” before “people” but I heard it in there.
Thats what I mean by getting smugged. And what I want to call attention to is that the smugging dynamic is the same regardless of the school of thought, or the moral principle behind it.
Buddh’s do it, Holy See’s do it, uneducated anti-commies do it.
Let’s not do it.
I don’t doubt that I do it too, and saying that doesn’t give me permission to do it anyway because at least I’m honest about it. No, I hate being smugged and so I better make sure I don’t smug anyone else either.
To name it is to tame it. If I’ve got a name for it and a clear definition of it, I’m more likely to spot it when others do it to me or when I do it to them. And by having a definition for it I don’t mean having one example of the people who annoy me doing it. I can’t say smugging is what Right wingers do. If I define it that way, I’ll only notice when the people who annoy me do it. I need a content-neutral definition that would encompass when I do it too. Or else I’ll simply ignore the ways I do it.
So here are my definitions:
Smugging: In debate, employing a Tar Baby to change the subject from substance to your opponent’s bad attitude.
Getting smugged: Being subjected to a smugging.
Oh, and not just a name and definition, a limerick too:
As the self-proclaimed spokesman for virtue,
I must calmly inform and alert you
I mean no assault
But our conflict’s your fault
There’s no way my intention’s to hurt you.
And a caveat: Sometimes it is totally appropriate to change the subject from substance to your opponent’s bad attitude. Doing so is not always an evasive technique.
But that’s how it is with all lies, tricks, manipulations, and evasions. They would never gain credibility if they weren’t situated right next to very credible honorable and appropriate behavior. If lies weren’t right next to truths, they would have no power to deceive.
So how can you tell when a behavior is appropriate and when it’s evasive? It’s hard. One rule is, if you think every time you do it it’s appropriate and every time they do it, it’s evasive, you’re probably not drawing the line fairly. I mean that sounds a little smug.