Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Tag: Jon Ronson

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

How to Win My Vote

south-park-vote

My first presidential vote was in 2008 for Barack Obama. It’s a vote I will never regret, despite the mixed results of the Obama administration. But in 2012 I didn’t vote to re-elect Obama, despite being generally supportive of his presidency and against the prospect of Mitt Romney. I voted for the libertarian candidate Gary Johnson—largely for the reasons Conor Friedersdorf laid down at the time—and wrote-in my deceased grandfather for some of the smaller offices.

All this to say: winning my vote in 2016 has become an uphill battle for the major parties. The specter of Hillary Clinton from the Democrats and (vomits) Donald Trump from the Republicans has further galvanized my already enhanced reluctance to vote for either corrupt, craven, duplicitous party.

Being a resident of a solid-blue state, my vote won’t count for much come November. But here are my (non-exhaustive) conditions for each party if they want it. I await their thoughtful reconsideration of misguided priorities having to pick between a douche and a turd.

Republicans

Stop clinging to your guns. I’m a hunter; I get it. I’ve shot and killed deer and ducks, and felt the awesome power of a gun’s blast. To a certain type of person it’s intoxicating. But saying “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” completely misses the point, which is that people are dying needlessly and at a historical rate because of them. Your Baracknophobic obsession with owning guns and proselytizing for them has become pathological. You’ve lost touch with reality, which is that literally the only purpose of a gun is destruction. This reality supersedes the cultic devotion you’ve imbued in the Constitution, which believe it or not has not existed forever and was not chiseled into stone on Mount Sinai. Besides, the Second Amendment is a gun-control amendment.

And religion. America is not a Christian nation. I say that having been a Christian all my life, one who’s frustrated with the corporatization of religion and unjust wielding of power from the pulpit. You’re not helping people of faith by crying martyr and holding hands with Kim Davis. And you actively hurt people of other faiths or no faith at all, who are citizens deserving just as much representation as you do. I strongly support religious liberty and gladly practice it, while at the same time acknowledging that other religious people around the world experience actual life-threatening religious discrimination.

Start actually, you know, conserving. Treating the earth like a garbage dump is not conservatism. Laughing at climate science is not conservatism. Bowing down to the Koch brothers is not conservatism. How about let’s just work on those three things before moving on to advanced concepts like “Oil is not a renewable resource” and “Snow does not prove global warming is a hoax.”

Acknowledge that black lives matter. “But all lives matter!” Yeah, no. Maybe in your utopian dreams. In reality, where deeds matter a whole lot more than words, black lives have been enslaved, oppressed, incarcerated, ignored, and killed a whole lot more than others. The first step to changing this is admitting that’s a problem.

Don’t nominate Donald Trump. Which is a sentence that in saner times would seem self-evident, but alas. I started writing this post in the summer of 2015, when the campaign was still young and uncertain and when Trump seemed like a fad scripted by late-night comedy shows that would eventually burn out. Now here we are in March and Trump has the Republicans by their Grand Old Parts. Part of me wants him to get the nod, just so he can push the red button on the GOP implosion and hopefully begin the process of restoring the party to something resembling respectable. But if we’re looking at the big picture, having a short-fingered vulgarian in the Oval Office would most decidedly not make America great again.

Democrats

At least pretend like abortions are bad. Because they are. Regardless of the circumstances that lead to the pregnancy, abortion is the gruesome slaying of a nascent life. Trying to defund Planned Parenthood is a stupid, short-sighted gambit by the Republicans, but the spirit behind it isn’t. Stop treating abortion as if it’s like ordering a latte and maybe its opponents won’t have to make such desperate, futile, attention-seeking ploys to stop it altogether.

Stop treating religious people like they’re all Sarah Palin. Because they aren’t. Dan Savage likes to call quiet, non-polemic religious folk NALTs, as in “Not All Like That”—like the Palins and Cruzes and Santorums of the world, who lack any discernible shade of grey in their worldview. To the skeptical outsider, a global religion like Christianity may look like one big blurry ball of bigoted buffoons; but anyone who assumes that, and can’t or won’t see the spectrum within, isn’t qualified to say so.

Put down your pitchforks. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a great primer on the internet’s outrage-industrial complex and the irony of low tolerance among well-intentioned liberals who preach tolerance themselves. However sympathetic I am to historically oppressed people getting a voice, I cannot get behind any ideology prone to stridency and self-seriousness. Take a breath, and stop tar-and-feathering technocrats and small-town pizzerias.

Acknowledge that police lives matter. I wouldn’t want to be a cop; would you? Every one of those police shooting videos sickens me, and I almost always sympathize with whoever was the victim of overreaching power. But I never forget how fraught with danger the lives of law enforcement are, that they chose to be the person called when something bad could be happening. Please: let’s get the bad ones off the street and restrict their use of deadly force, but never forget their humanity.

Don’t nominate Hillary Clinton. I’d love to vote for a female president. Just not this female. Sure, she’s qualified and acts the part: like everyone, I loved watching her own the Republicans during the Benghazi circus of cynicism hearings and imagine we’d see a lot of that Hillary during her presidency. But that’s the problem: I prefer presidents whose lives aren’t telenovela-level public dramas, and have at least a few core beliefs they stick with even when it’s inconvenient. To paraphrase the musical Hamilton: when all is said and all is done, Sanders has beliefs; Clinton has none. (And no, I don’t “feel the Bern”… I just don’t want to climb the Hill.)

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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