Imus and Cheney and Bush, Oh My!

Overpowering arrogance and dismissiveness is the elephant in the room of the Don Imus blowup.

Certain socially-skilled people learn early in life to parlay arrogance and dismissiveness into social prominence, and Imus is the poster child for these poseurs. Naked emperors all, they ply a trade even older than the so-called oldest profession (that would be “Ho”). I submit that this pose is so effective that other bullies have parlayed it into temporary dominance of the globe: Cheney and Rumsfeld and Bush, in that order. Everywhere I look in corporate America, I see this pattern of attractive arrogance and desolation of collaboration.

I have a terrific book about consulting firms, “House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time“. In it, Martin Kihn describes a personality type that pervades the consulting industry: “Their single skill is to be dismissive of others.” Whether by nature or nurture, some people learn this trick early in life and compound its excessive ROI for a lifetime. Most of us seem genetically wired to respond deferentially to those who exhibit this singular trait: confidence that they are better than you. Doc Searls has made a five year career writing about them for Linux people, called “Suit Watch“. So titled because those people must be watched so carefully.

I know what it’s like to be an old fart and to be inappropriate due to evolving standards of humor–I do it all the time. But this was different. Don Imus got caught extending his tiresome lifelong schtick with yet another demeaning throwaway line. His schtick, of course, is “I’m way cooler than you and I have the dismissiveness and entourage of toadies to prove it”. He would like us to judge his words in the tight context of his comedic schtick in a single show, rather than realize his lifelong role as an abusive bully whose daily derisiveness is calibrated to fly just below the radar of outrage. Predictably, he’s been outted by emerging technology and the “aggregatable” mindset it enables.

But it’s not just the suits. Imus has raised dismissiveness to a high art but hasn’t worn a suit in years. In the last few days, we’ve seen some pushback against the remarkably self confident “cool kids” at 37 signals. Their schtick feels similar: “Buy our $19 PDF file because, really, we’re cooler than you are.”

Tivo and Blogs: The Trick of Perspective

Every Renaissance seems to be about Perspective as a useful tool. As we come to assume a Googleable life condition, we’re more accustomed to judging people on their entire body of outrage, rather than single, ephemeral expressions of their current, carefully calibrated misanthropy. My dear friend, Diane Francis, says that “Life is High School”, that those same tiresome forces of power, intimidation, striving and dismissiveness are driving most of the energy and judgments in society and politics. This frightening truth trumps all the theories of how society and organizations work, because it’s grounded in our genetic algorithm driving our deference to the “cool kids”, who operate as bullies.

When we get an overview of a person’s body of work, the rules change. Suddenly we can sense the iceberg of vindictiveness that lurks below the bright tip of hale-fellows-well-met. In that sense, the Tivo and the blogosphere are similar aids that provide the perspective that this new renaissance is teaching us.

The Myth of Intelligent Design

Liberals and Fundamentalists are similarly deluded about Intelligent Design. Many of us know that Fundamentalists have embraced an untenable theory of how complex systems are impossible without a constant gardener. But Liberals are equally naive. They assume that Americans agree that we should work together to make conditions more equable, and that there is consensus that a rational design is universally sought, so it should form our vocabulary. Sheesh, what naiveté! Everyone secures as much status as they can, which often means money. But the deeper striving is to be perceived as more consequential than others. If you can manage that trick, the money will follow. Without it, the money rarely finds you.

This arrogance is what the most clever kids do, early and continually. It’s such a great schtick that people who are otherwise respectable have been eager to call in to Imus and hang with a guy who wouldn’t give them the time of day in Junior High. I saw the similarly equipped Letterman demolish Bill Gates in the early nineties, dismissing him as a lab-coated prop as Dave got on with his cooler guests.

It’s even worse than that. Like primates who would rather look at pictures of high-status monkeys than eat, the cable news industry has formed around our need to feel acknowledged by the cool kids. If you really don’t feel this urge, count yourself lucky. But you know that most of your fellow citizens are transfixed by the easy demeanor of the news anchors who are willing to seem to include the great unwashed in their tiny circle for the duration of the show. They practice the world’s oldest profession, like equally cynical politicians in this silly season.

Algorithms to deflate the Poseurs

From a web design standpoint, there are a few things we can do to expose and amplify the otherwise below-the-radar corrosiveness of phonies who need to sound more important than they are:

  1. Commenters must register to display their comments to others.
  2. Comments appear as a primary post on the commenter’s blog.
  3. Trackbacks are automatic and organized.
  4. Comments are not immediately visible until they are rated positively.
  5. There are no negative ratings (trolls only want attention)

For now, this ORGware-based solution is limited to single sites that offer those capabilities. But at least we can offer a laboratory to discover the benefits of owning your own sins and graces. Aggregation of our sins and graces is the essence of relationship, and an adequate remedy for the scourge of the Cool Kids’ dismissiveness of whoever chose not to master their schtick.

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