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Meek, Weak and Bleak


In the last post we continued our discussion of the human dominance hierarchy and in this post we will examine strategies and techniques for improving our position with regard to it, or at least not allowing ourselves to be crushed by it.

ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION

Low or insecure social status is linked to anxiety and depression and these millstones do nothing to help you improve your position – quite the reverse. The self-fulfilling nature of the dominance hierarchy dynamic means that if you act like a subordinate, you will be treated like one. Anxiety and depression will make you withdrawn and reticent. You may be avoiding eye contact. Your body language may be closed, slumped, defensive, as if hunkering down in anticipation of an imminent crisis. All these behaviours signal to others that you are low status and you can expect to be treated accordingly. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to overtly push you around - that is a risky behaviour for adults that can even result in jail time, but it can mean you are overlooked and deprived of the esteem, respect and opportunities which could otherwise be your due.

I am reminded of a man I know, no more than an acquaintance, who exemplifies some of these traits. Let’s call him Jack. I see Jack frequently, sometimes every day. He looks at the ground as he walks by and conspicuously averts his gaze. He seems to go out of his way to avoid interactions with others and talks quietly when he does have to speak. He is excessively apologetic in his manner as if tacitly acknowledging that your time is far too valuable to be squandering on someone like him. There is something defeated about his posture and gait. It unmistakably telegraphs the message: ‘I am not a threat! I am not a threat!’ He is what many would call ‘a nice guy’.

This is almost a perfect description of what Nietzsche sarcastically identifies as the ‘good’ man. He who presents no threat to his neighbours is called ‘good’ by them. But he is not harmless because he restrains himself. He is harmless because he is unable to exercise any strength. He is weak as well as meek.

NICE GUYS FINISH LAST

To Nietzsche, this is the emasculated man - little more than a domesticated animal. His theory is that weak people want everyone else to be weak too, as a protective measure. This enforced weakness has become a dominant cultural force in our modern, western societies – at least on the surface. Covertly, of course, the struggles of the human dominance hierarchies continue apace, and it is a popular truism that nice guys finish last. They get walked over.

As an aside, there’s a common view that women may like nice guys as friends, but they don’t desire them sexually. Niceness does not predict reproductive success for a man. That’s a hard lesson, but there is scientific evidence to support it. Speaking generally, what women say they want in a man does not marry with the characteristics they actually select. This is not so much disingenuousness or mis-reporting, as perhaps just a lack of truly free will (as explored in a previous post). Evolution and the quest for dominance are very powerful drivers, whatever our stated, conscious intentions.

Jordan Peterson decries meekness in people too. For him, pacifism and turning the other cheek are merely abdications of our responsibility to challenge injustice. He argues convincingly that tyranny occupies precisely the space we make for it. By refusing to push back, we enable it to burgeon and propagate. The monster becomes ever more powerful if it is not contained and crushed.

Reproductive success and moral responsibility aside, being meek makes life unpleasant – perhaps even intolerable. Consciously or unconsciously, even with the best will in the world, other people will respect you less if they glean that you are lower than they are in the pecking order. And of course, it is a truism that bullies are drawn to those they see as weak and will compound their target’s low sense of self-esteem by making them victims, making everything worse.

A HOSTILE PLACE

For victims of bullying, the world becomes an ever more hostile. They are constantly braced, both physically and psychologically, to run, hide or fend off blows. This raises levels of stress hormones, which burn off energy that would be better saved for a more productive purpose. People who have been habitually abused, especially since childhood, live in a state of almost constant tension and the pathological belief that one is a victim can embed itself deeply and be very hard to dislodge once it is in place. Additionally, victims can be quick to blame themselves for their tribulations.

It is not just learned patterns of distress that can cause low status behaviour. Just one isolated experience can shock you to your core, fundamentally shaking your confidence in the stability and predictability of the world, such that your sense of personal safety and self-efficacy is shattered.

The quintessential example of such an experience is an ordeal that causes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This needn’t be as extreme as witnessing genocide, or being subjected to child abuse. Unpleasant, but relatively common experiences such as being humiliated or unexpectedly losing your job – these occurrences can destabilise one’s world too.

Even a single significant defeat can so strongly affect one’s sense of safety and control that overcoming it can be a enormous undertaking. If you have ever taken a beating, perhaps during your school days, you will recall that it can be very difficult to push yourself out of the house in the days afterwards. The ordinary world can become a frightening place in the wake of such ordeals.

PANIC!

I am reminded of a bad public speaking experience I had many years back. I had to give a talk to a group of school governors but I was feeling a little ill – not ill enough to cancel, but ill enough to not quite feel myself. To make things worse, I foolishly drank a lot of coffee and ate some sugary snacks before my presentation. Now, prior to this experience I had heard of panic attacks but had no experience of them. The truth is, I kind of thought they were a made-up thing. That was about to change. Within a few minutes of starting my presentation the combination of feeling ill, along with the caffeine and sugar coursing in my veins created an overwhelming spike of adrenaline so potent that not only did it take my breath away, I was almost hallucinating. It was immediately clear that I couldn’t continue and abruptly, to everyone’s surprise, I left the room. This was one of the most frightening and humiliating experiences I had ever had. Never had I experienced such a loss of control.

It took me days to recover from this embarrassing event, but in fact, it actually took years to overcome the instant fear of public speaking that this awful experience created. Afterwards, I would literally be shaking when I got up to give a speech. Giving presentations was part of my job, so it couldn’t be avoided. Before, public speaking was something I would look forward to. Afterwards, the prospect of it would cause me days of dread and sleepless nights in the run up to the presentation.

What had happened, of course, was my fight or flight response had been activated to an inappropriate degree. Sure, it is good to be a little nervous before giving a presentation as it gives you an edge, but this had overwhelmed me, screaming at me to get out of that room. This was the survival system malfunctioning and it instantly created a powerful programme in my psyche, warning me, even compelling me to avoid such situations again. It is a natural mechanism for preserving one’s safety, but in this case, it was very unhelpful. Though that experience was almost fifteen years ago, it embedded a powerful impression. A phobia was born. Just a single brief moment when a potent chemical signal in my central nervous system misfired and I still feel its reverberations today.

This seems a fairly trivial example. People who have been mugged, assaulted in the street or even just ridiculed in public are all in danger of developing agoraphobic tendencies, anxiety disorders or, when they try to leave the house, panic attacks. We are talking about psychological crises of the kind that are destined to initiate a downward trajectory in the human dominance hierarchy. So how do we deal with these crises? How do we prevent them from blighting our lives?

Next post: How not to take any sh*t

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