Chad Comello

books, movies, libraries, typewriters

Tag: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

How to ‘Win Bigly’? Have no shame

Until about two years ago I knew Scott Adams only as the Dilbert guy. But once he started accurately predicting Donald Trump’s unconventional political path using the lenses of persuasion and hypnotism, gaining critics along the way but scoring on predictions over and over when most everyone else was aghast at Trump’s successes, I figured his new book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter was worth the read.

Turns out it was worth it, if only for an understanding of some of the concepts undergirding the chaos that Trump inspires. He calls Trump a “Master Persuader” using “weapons-grade” techniques to flummox opponents and win admirers. Whether it’s his constant Twitter attacks—”It tells people that being his friend is better than being his critic,” says Adams—or his bombastic hyperbole about The Wall—being intentionally inaccurate but “directionally” true will win supporters and fluster opponents—Adams detects and explains what he sees as the method behind the madness. (The “Persuasion Tips” peppered throughout the book are applicable far beyond politics.)

He repeatedly claims his interest in this subject stems not from his politics but from his lifelong interest in persuasion techniques. (His other chief interest? Scott Adams.) It seems true to an extent, but Adams loses some of that nonpartisan credibility by the end of the book when he’s openly cheering for a Trump win.

Despite his compelling arguments, I knew there was another key element to the Trump story. I couldn’t pinpoint it until I recalled a passage from Jon Ronson’s excellent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about Max Mosley, a race car driver and son of a prominent British Nazi who was outed by a tabloid for his seemingly Nazi-themed sex party. Ronson’s book is about the people whose lives were upended when their behavior went viral. But Mosley survived his scandal relatively unscathed. Why?

Like me, [Mosley had] been thinking a lot about what it was about him that had helped him to stave off even the most modest public shaming. And now, he wrote, he thought he had the answer. It was simply that he had refused to feel ashamed. “As soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed,” he said, “the whole thing crumbles.”

A-ha, I thought. That’s it: no shame. That’s the key to Trump not only surviving scandal after scandal, but surviving all the way to the presidency. A normal politician running for president probably wouldn’t have lasted long after insulting John McCain’s war record or calling Mexican immigrants rapists. But he thrived.

(This also explains the vociferous #Resistance to all things Trump. He doesn’t conform to the commonly held assumptions about political behavior, so like a new viral strain or zombie he just refuses to (politically) die. That makes him particularly vexing and infuriating as an opponent.)

Adams basically confirms this shame theory: “I don’t feel shame or embarrassment like normal people. I wasn’t always this way. It’s a learned skill.” No wonder he understands Trump so well! Beyond their persuasion prowess, both men are rich New Yorkers with robust egos but no inner filters. Such a skill set helped build the Trump brand in the business world, and it’s now reshaping politics, the presidency, and the world.

Though reliving the 2016 election through this book won’t sound fun for most people, I recommend it. Adams has written a kind of Rosetta Stone for a less examined aspect of The Trumpening, and I think that’s very valuable and illuminating regardless of your political beliefs.

Notes & Quotes

  • Political commentators without business experience were at a disadvantage when trying to interpret Trump
  • Encourages readers to remain skeptical of his book
  • Trump’s hyperbole “weapons-grade persuasion”: i.e. large opening offer
  • Trump matches emotional state and priorities of supporters
  • Not factually true but emotionally and directionally true
  • Campaign policies are “more persuasion than policy”
  • “When Trump’s critics accused him of laziness, ignorance, and cruel intentions, I saw a skilled persuader who knew what mattered and what didn’t.”
  • Adams has a similar “talent stack” as Trump: hypnotist, New Yorker, rich, doesn’t feel shame: “I don’t feel shame or embarrassment like normal people. I wasn’t always this way. It’s a learned skill.”
  • “Intentional wrongness” paired with something that’s “directionally accurate”, like Trump’s Wall, is powerful persuasion
  • Errors suck up attention and energy
  • Persuasion tip #4: “The things that you think about the most will irrationally rise in importance in your mind.”
  • “A good general rule is that people are more influenced by visual persuasion, emotion, repetition, and simplicity than they are by details and facts.”
  • Persuasion tip #8: “People are more influenced by the direction of things than the current state of things.”
  • Trump is actually thick-skinned, having endured a lifetime of criticism
  • Trump’s constant counterattacking is good persuasion: “It tells people that being his friend is better than being his critic.”
  • A good response to someone’s poor action or words: “Is that the person you want to be?” Higher-Ground Maneuver
  • Says “Fairness is an argument for idiots and children.” [WTF?]
  • Trump’s slogans, branding, nicknames were successful because they were “sticky”, simple, and unusual for politics

Make Yourselves Whole Again: On ‘Dataclysm’ and ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’

In a sloppy but understandable attempt at satire, Justine Sacco tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Then she got on a long plane ride to South Africa. During the flight her tweet went viral, enraging the easily enraged bastions of social media and catapulting the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet around the world. When she landed in Johannesburg she was out of a job and in the throes of a scorching, unmerciful online public shaming.

I was on Twitter the day #HasJustineLandedYet was in progress. When I figured out what it was about, I probably chuckled, thought “Sucks to be her…” and clicked elsewhere. But Justine, freshly captive prey of the collective shaming committee that is the Internet, wasn’t allowed to move on. The invisible, crushing weight of public opinion had pinned her to her momentary mistake. Jon Ronson interviewed her about this experience for his new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, an eye-opening panorama of the dark, menacing, deceptively fleeting phenomenon of online shaming. His dissection of these digital witch hunts led him on a listening tour of other recent victims like Jonah Lehrer, Lindsay Stone, and Adria Richards, who were, months or years after their respective ordeals, still haunted by a modern twist on PTSD. Call it Post Traumatic Shaming Disorder.

Before her Twitstorm, Sacco was director of communications at IAC, the parent company of OkCupid, whose co-founder Christian Rudder wrote another fascinating book recently released called Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking). I read Dataclysm right after So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which was fortuitous not only because both books feature the Justine Sacco saga, but because Rudder’s deep dive into the data about our online selves—dating site profiles and otherwise—weaved perfectly with Ronson’s closely observed stories of public shaming. And the joint conclusion we can make doesn’t look good.

The “when we think no one’s looking” part of Rudder’s title is key here. Dataclysm focuses on OkCupid users, but he might as well be writing about Us. “So much of what makes the Internet useful for communication—asynchrony, anonymity, escapism, a lack of central authority—also makes it frightening,” he writes. Nearly everything we do online we do when no one’s looking. Even if a real name and picture is attached to a Twitter profile viciously trolling the Justine Saccos of the web, the ramifications are few. Kill that account, another will pop up.

The really interesting stuff, then, is what lies beneath the cultivated online personas, the stuff we don’t have incentive to lie about or craft for a particular purpose. What if your Google searches were made public? (Because they basically are.) Our searches would paint a much finer (though not prettier) portrait of ourselves than our Facebook posts, try as we might to convince ourselves otherwise.

Compared to Facebook, Rudder writes, which is “compulsively networked” and rich with interconnected data, dating sites like OkCupid pull people away from their inner circle and into an intentional solitude: “Your experience is just you and the people you choose to be with; and what you do is secret. Often the very fact that you have an account—let alone what you do with it—is unknown to your friends. So people can act on attitudes and desires relatively free from social pressure.”

OkCupid users are prompted to answer questions the site’s algorithms use to find other compatible users. The answers are confidential, so like Google searches they tell a more nuanced story about the user than whatever they write in their OkCupid self-summary. And yet there persists a wide discrepancy between what people say they believe—what they tell the algorithm—and how they actually behave on the site. The stats on who they chat with, for how long, and whether an in-person date occurs end up revealing more about a user’s preferences than their expressed beliefs.

Does the same apply to the hordes of people behind #HasJustineLandedYet? They might not be quite as evil and sadistic in real life as they seem online, but they can afford to play-act in whatever persona they’re cultivating because they’re protected by distance: abstractly, the virtual world being a different, cloudier dimension than the physical one; but also concretely, in that the odds of bumping into your shaming victim on the street is practically nil.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and Dataclysm travel on the same track, but start out in opposite directions. Both concern themselves with the real-life implications of desire, how it’s wielded and to what end. Desiring companionship, love, or sex, OkCupid users seek opportunities to encounter whatever it is they’re looking for, personal fulfillment usually being the ultimate goal. Ronson’s case studies, heading the other way, illustrate the deviousness of desire—when on the road to euphoria we carelessly or even intentionally run down whoever gets in our way. “There is strength in collective guilt,” Rudder writes, “and guilt is diffused in the sharing. Extirpate the Other and make yourselves whole again.”

Yet neither book is as depressing as I’ve portrayed them. Dataclysm wades into a bevy of interesting data-driven topics, like the most common and uncommon words used in OkCupid profiles based on race and gender, how beauty gives people a quantifiable edge, and the emergence of digital communities. And Ronson’s journey leads to a host of stories, historical and contemporary, that lend depth and nuance to a social phenomenon desperately in need of them.

Above all, these books should make us think twice before hitting Send. “If you’re reading a popular science book about Big Data and all its portents,” writes Rudder, “rest assured the data in it is you.” Whether we’re chirping into a stupid hashtag or perusing profile pics in search of The One, someone is always watching.

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