Lay Down Your Weapons
‘Ssup, y’all? Are you flooded? Freezing? Flu-ridden? It’ll soon be Spring and our inefficient brain will begin the laborious process of expunging the worst of Winter out of our brains and over-gilding (not over-gelding) how sweet the hot chocolates were and how great the Christmas parties were. You know, the more I read, the more I become convinced that if we were to perform brain surgery at birth (where brain surgery would consist of replacing the brain with an Intel processor and a decent-sized hard disk), the human race might actually advance a lot further…but enough about my questionable ethics and crazed Frankenstein complex. Let’s move on to talk about the lesson of the day: summarised neatly by Famous Séamus: whatever you say, say nothing.
Today, liebchen, I want to issue a call for us all to stamp out and stamp on defensiveness. Long the bane of my life (one of the many banes…), I have been trying recently to understand why it rankles so. Is there an evolutionary perspective? Is there an argument that once defensiveness kept us away from the campfire and pushed us to the edges where Grendel and his ma lurked, waiting hopefully for somebody to become separated from the flock.
Google failed me, y’all. And like any wannabe researcher, when Google got nothing and Wikipedia is empty, it’s time to make up your own hypothesis and look for evidence to defend (uh oh) it. So, here we go: defensiveness is like the life support machine for the system that constructs your reality. Holler!
We all bustle our way through the world with our brains misleading us by constructing a narrative that helps us explain la realité and allows us to cast ourselves as the lead actors in the movie. Everything happens either because of us or to us. You can deny it all you want but my embrace of cognitive bias allows me to know why you are wrong and I am right. Then some bit part extra comes along and questions what we’ve just said or done and the myth begins to unravel. Until Defensoman comes to the rescue. Quickly…so quickly that your brain has no time to think about how daft the whole thing is…Defensoman reframes the whole narrative so that it makes perfect sense to you and you feel compelled to explain your actions to the minor casting extra who happened to be the one to question you.
But wait…it turns out that Minor Casting Extra has also been hoodwinked into thinking that they have exclusive access to the script and that they are the star of the show! I know! Right? And they are feeling mightily aggrieved that you -a jobbing Extra from Acme Agency- are pooping all over the script. All over their script. You are now denying them that Oscar that they so richly deserve.
And so defensiveness riles people because defensiveness denies them the right to interpret the world in the way that they know is correct. I know the word count isn’t enough to submit this theory for my doctoral dissertation, but I am going to look through a thesaurus and see what can be done about it. For now, let’s move on.
I know of a manager who was once given feedback by his managees (he is now getting treatment after thinking that he received feedback from his manatees…get well soon, bro. We loves ya!). They said lots of nice things which he liked. One person also said that they thought he could do with being less defensive Which he didn’t. In a classic case of irony, his response to this was to explain why he might sometimes come across as defensive! He didn’t know what defensive really meant, but he squared that all by deciding that it was one of those empty words that people use when they want to sound scientific in their unjust criticism of the Great and the Good.
Directors of Study are susceptible to defensiveness because they sometimes feel obliged to proffer an explanation for a decision that they have taken or an action they have done. Teachers are wont to exhibit defensiveness to explain the same sort of thing. Students don’t really seem to be overly defensive, I have to say. At least round my way. Defensiveness is a waste of everybody’s time and is a sign of weakness. Stop it now!
We are all adults (apart from anyone who is aged under 18 and still entirely dependent upon the Bank of Parents…you are still children and need to listen to the Old Ones. Don’t ask why. Don’t think you know better. Assume that they think they are right and humour them. Then do your own thing anyway, like that was ever not an option). We are all solely responsible for our actions. We are all answerable for our actions. Whenever we do something, we are the ones who decided to do it. Unless you have Jack Nicholson’s voice growling at you inside your head and pushing you onwards to commit foul felonies, anything you do is your responsibility.
Sometimes, unless you are Messiah Redux or entirely deluded (allowing for the possibility that the two options are really one and the same), your actions are going to piss somebody off. You will want to explain why you did what you did. STOP! STOP NOW! YOU ARE ONLY GOING TO MAKE MATTERS WORSE! You don’t owe anybody an explanation just yet. Let the Angry Person demand an explanation, if this is what they want. Otherwise, assume that it isn’t. Angry People, the corollary to this is that you should only ever ask for an explanation if you really need one to help you sleep at night. Never ask for an explanation as some sort of rhetorical stepladder that will allow you to rise above the miscreant who shat on your script.
When somebody tells you that you did wrong, your choice is now binary, fam. You can either say, “Right! OK. No problem. I’ll bear that in mind. Apologies.” This is the Preferred Option. You have just saved somebody’s reality. Which pretty much puts you up there with Peter Capaldi, Matt Smith, David Tennant and Christopher Eccleston. [I could go on, but prefer that you picture me as a quirky thirty-something].
Or you can say, “F*ck you, Miss Daisy.” And go about things the way that You Think Is Better. Please note that this is not the Recommended Option and may have Unintended Consequences. Nevertheless, at times it can be the honourable option and should never be automatically discarded.
The key thing is that you should never feel compelled to offer an explanation until somebody asks for one. You will know that they are asking for one because they will employ one of the Wh- question words in a semantic construction not dissimilar to the following exemplars:
- Why did you do that?
- What on earth were you thinking?
- Who told you that this would be a good idea?
- When did you decide that you needed to do this?
- How in heaven’s name did you ever come up with a plan like this?
- Where do you think you get off?
*please note that some of these may be employed in a rhetorical fashion and you are likely to make matters much worse if you try to come up with an answer. As ever, children can sometimes provide a good role model: if in doubt, plead the fifth and wait until the Wh- construction gets shouted at you with ever-increasing urgency. This is usually a good indicator that the question is not rhetorical. DO NOT FEEL TEMPTED TO SAY, “I’M SORRY. I THOUGHT YOU WERE BEING RHETORICAL.” This is defensiveness and we are trying to stamp it out, remember?
Sometimes this feels very counterintuitive. Somebody is berating you for something that you know was the right thing to do. You need to make them understand why they are wrong and you are right. Put this way, can you see why this is akin to trying to douse a fire with Super Unleaded Economy Plus? Shut yo’ mouth! Shut it! Shut! Sh! Tchuh! Binary, bro’. Either “I get it,” or “FYMD”. That’s your mantra. There is no other way.
Be clear about this. You might be aghast. Devils, you think, I don’t have to be so rude and aggressive! I can merely point out that I am not in agreement with this individual and that I did what I did because XYZ. Try it and see…you think you are being guarded and polite, but the words that come out of your mouth will phonetically transmute and your interlocutor will hear, FUR CUE YOU, MISS DAISY! WITH A BIG ASS SWORDFISH! YOU WAN CUR! This is never good and, in the art of rhetoric, it is known as Fighting Talk. You should only employ this approach when you are ready to Talk The Talk and Walk The Walk.
I hear ya. You’re there saying, But this means that I have to roll over and give in to every whimsy that other people might have. Damn it, Janet, sometimes I’m right! To which I refer you to the wise words of the Buddha: Nobody likes a smart arse (this being a compound noun, not a modified noun: lots of people like arses which are smart. This latter being a synonym for bang tidy: people who are confronted with sentient and intelligent posteriors are likely to be terrified.) Just because you are right does not mean that you need to explain this. It is enough to know that you were right and that you did the right thing. A simple, “I get it. I hear you. I will,” is all that you need. This way peace reigns in the world. Most times, when other people are wrong, they are not wrong about major things. They are wrong about small things. You can listen to their wrongness. Accept that their wrongness is rightness for them. Affirm that you are no threat to their reality. And then get on with your life doing what you think is right. If they call you on it again in the future, you repeat until they ask you for an explanation. At which point you should offer your view of how Things Really Are. If you survive the encounter, life goes on. If you do not survive the encounter, life still goes on, but Things Will Have Changed.
One last thing: if you have resolved to live your life by this mantra, good for you. You now owe nobody any explanations (unless they ask for one). Be vigilant though. People will continue to feel the need to offer you explanations. You need to stop them. Politely say, “You don’t need to explain yourself to me. I know that what you did, you did for all of the right reasons. I am just telling you that in a similar situation in the future, I don’t want you to do it that way; I want you to do it this way. Is that OK?” If all is well, they will say, “Yes. OK. I get it. I hear you. It’s done.” In any other circumstance, resist the temptation to ask, “Who is Miss Daisy?” They are being rhetorical and they don’t want to be in your movie.
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