The Pleasures of Dominance
Sshhh don't tell anyone but I have been known to engage in what kids these days call "mate-guarding". Romantic jealousy? Yes darling, we are on intimate terms. Professional envy, on the other hand, is not one of my indulgences. When my colleagues and peers and people I admire are on the rise, I thrill. I celebrate. I love seeing you flourish. It gets me high.
While I don't get jealous (much), I am NOT above gossip. When we lived in Trinidad, my sister-in-law used to come over, settle in, and say, "I've come to mako". Mako means gossip, so that was my cue to drop everything and go sit by her fire. Her announcement always, always, alwaysthat meant that a salacious and delightfully petty conversation was IMMINENT.
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Side note: Elaine Liu aka Lainey Gossip makes a great case for the cultural importance of so-called "gossip". Gossip can be a norm-maker and culture-maker.
And even though gossip is one of the ways we learn social norms, and despite the fact that I often crave a good public mako about all things Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand (FLEB) -- omg the dirt I've collected and the delicious stories I could plate for you -- I restrain myself.
It's one of the rules I made for myself before I wrote my first FLEB essay.
I make rules for myself about how I'm going to act, before situations arise. That way, in fraught situations, I have pre-defined ethics I can default to.
My "rules" for myself aren't the bad kind -- they're not about self-oppression or people-pleasing. Instead, they're boundaries that keep me out of my own shadow. In Chani Nicholas' book, You Were Born For This, she does something similar but phrases it much better. She asks readers to make 3 agreements with themselves. "Agreements" is more appealing than rules so let's use that. We get to choose our responses and the boundaries for our own behaviour. I think it's a good idea to thing forward and predefine our rules and self-agreements; it's how we draw a map for ourselves and keep ourselves honest. It's also a way of seeing around the corner and preventing ourselves from accidentally causing reactive harm -- the kind we can cause when we're caught off-guard and inadvertently default to our oppressive conditioning.
My rules/agreements for myself when I'm critiquing: I don't critique people's personal lives or make inferences about their character; having personal beef or simply not liking someone is not a reason for critique (WOMEN ARE ALLOWED TO BE UNLIKABLE); I only critique publicly available objects, work and practices. I rarely name people directly because I don't want us to focus on them; instead I want us to look in the mirror, zero in on OUR practices and change those. That's where our real power resides: in our businesses, in our media, in our platforms. We have absolute control over those things.
That's why, even though I could and even though it's sometimes wildly tempting, I don't write petty exposes on particular FLEBs. I don't talk about their personal lives and I don't out people for the egregious correspondence I've received from their lawyer or their racist, sexist, litigious husband. Oops. I'm undermining myself. MY POINT: one of my rules for myself is that I keep the focus on THE BUSINESS PRACTICES. That means I restrain myself from being petty. Self-rule for The Cause!
My restraint is a rule AND a power move.
And that's why I ADORE the commentators and comedians who get paid for being petty.
They get to say all the things I won't let myself say and it is delicious. (Again: I restrain myself not because I lost my voice but because I'm committed to a different focus and a longer game.)
Dear Reader, I get a little high off their petty supply.
I tell you all of this to draw a parallel: relishing someone's professional rise and relishing someone's professionally petty commentary both feel like a win to me. Both scenarios initiate a little dopamine storm in my brain. It's pleasure. Literally.
It's not just emotional; it's physiological. I get high off the vicarious wins of people I identify with.
Coal-rolling. Have you heard of it? Dudes -- and lo, they are the dude-bro-i'est of dudes -- alter their pick-up trucks so that at the press of a button, they can belch thick black smoke out their exhaust pipes at other cars. It's a peculiar and expensive form of self-expression. Coal-rolling requires significant pre-meditation and vehicular modification in order to create opportunities for a coal-roller to tell certain people that he doesn't like them.
Recently, my black partner and I and our bi-racial kids were at a suburban stoplight when a big ol' coal-rolling truck pulled up beside us. The driver looked hard at us. When the light turned green, he peeled off, cut over into our lane, and expelled a massive cloud of black smoke. Naturally, his truck was adorned with a confederate flag bumper sticker.
To him, coal-rolling us was a statement of dominance. Unsurprisingly, coal-rollers aim their noxious statements at brown people, women, and interracial families like mine. And, oh yes, electric cars. On the road and in online forums, the Prius and the Tesla are particular objects of contempt for coal-rollers who invest major time and money into becoming a minor irritant.
It's tough to interpret coal-rolling as an indicator of real power. At best, it's a crude expression of imaginary dominance. So what's the point?
One of my former clients is a non-violent dog-trainer. She doesn't use any physically violent or coercive tactics with the dogs she works with. We were talking about her training philosophically and segued from talking about dominance over animals to dominance, generally. I said it boggled my mind. I couldn't grasp the appeal of dominance.
"That's the thing," she said, "Dominance feels good. It's a neurochemical reality. We don't talk about the pleasures of dominance enough. That's why we keep failing to understand expressions of it, even though we see it all the time."
When my partner was a driller, many of the white guys he worked with were coal rollers in their personal lives. At work, on their way to remote worksites, they carried sling shots so they could shoot at deer and elk out of car windows on rural roads; swerved to try to hit animals on highways; littered; constantly engaged in talking shit to each other; and even deliberately violated environmental and safety regulations. Just because they could. Their mini-cycles of destruction-and-impunity were expressions of dominance over the natural world -- and often, each other.
I saw something similar in the the reality TV series, 90-Day Fiance. An absolute wreck of a white man -- a decade ago, he went to jail for drug-dealing; more currently, he has charges pending for domestic violence -- traveled to Russia to meet his modern-day mail-order bride (who, of course, was way too good for him). When he returned to the US, he brought back Russian memorabilia for his 20-something sons. His sons presented as awkward, entitled, unattractive, largely uncommunicative white boys -- textbook incels, really -- but the Russian memorabilia brought them to life. These previously sullen creatures now waxed effusive. It was a fleeting moment in the 2-hour episode -- a blip with no editorial commentary -- but I noticed it and I knew what it was about: Putin. For ineffectual white boys who feel their star is on the wane, Putin is a symbol of dominance and impunity. Like coal-rollers, that's what these underachieving young men craved:expressions of dominance and the experience of impunity. That's why Trump is fascinated with Putin, too.
It's what mainstream media analysts and pundits -- even the petty ones I love so much -- failed to grasp about the source Trump's political traction. It was not about savvy; it was not about strategy; it was not about issues, ideology, or ideological consistency. It was not about beliefs, vision, oratory skills or even about being "presidential"; that's why his incompetence and failings in all of these domains didn't matter and never stick. Trump's appeal is entirely rooted in his expressions of dominance and impunity. The more moral norms he flouts, the more dominant he appears.
Neither dominance nor immunity require subtlety or refinement, so the more crudely Trump expresses them, the better. Over and over again, he delivers the pleasures of dominance to the people who identify with him. That's why, when all the respectable news outlets and media publications declared that Trump lost a presidential debate, they absolutely got it wrong. Through the lens of dominance, which is the primary political good he's distributing to his consumers, he won. He blustered, he interrupted, he badgered, he bullied. He dominated. And when he dominates, they dominate. That's why he's even more appealing to many of his white supporters when he goes full-racist; what is white supremacy, after all, but the crudest expression of dominance? Ditto, misogyny. "Grab 'em by the pussy" is an expression of gendered sexual dominance -- something many men (and all incels) feel is slipping from their grasp. That's why the NY Times meticulously-researched expose suggesting that Trump lied about his assets in order to underpay his taxes didn't hurt him, either. It's yet another expression of Trump's dominance: he pwned the infamous IRS. Even Trump's Covid-19 diagnosis is a political asset, not a liability. When Trump got diagnosed with Covid-19, think-pieces immediately suggested that now, finally, his base would see his hypocrisy and recklessness; now they would punish him at the polls. But Trump getting and surviving Covid-19 only burnished his legend with the supporters. He won! He trumped the corona virus! What a man. What an expression of dominance.
Let the dopamine storms commence.
And lest I get a little altitude sick from the height of my horse...I do the same thing. We already talked about this. I get high off the vicarious wins of people I identify with, too.
I'm not alone. The desire to stop feeling like shit and start winning at life is the crux of the women's empowerment industry, too. The root of empowerment is power and that's what women are after even if it's not acceptable for them claim the word without all the padding. Women want to feel efficacious and capable. We want to make an impact. We want to win, especially in a context where we're set up to lose; especially after losing so much, for so long.
This isn't a left or right thing or a gendered thing; this is a human thing. A neurochemical one. Winning feels good.
We all want to flourish.
Unfortunately, for some people, the fleeting pleasures of dominance -- even imaginary dominance -- feels like flourishing. That's why they -- we -- keep chasing that dopamine hit. I get mine from seeing you rise. Coal-rollers and incels and proponents of white supremacy get theirs by witnessing Trump behave badly, with no consequence. Tomato, tahmato.
And that's why, until recently, political analysts, pundits and commentators are had such a hard time navigating and undermining Trump. Their lens is politics and norms and rules and how things are supposed to work. Through that lens, Trump should be failing, waning and should never have gotten traction in the first place. Their lens literally cannot see him or his path to power accurately. Because it's not about politics. It's about dominance and dopamine. He's like heroin to his followers. Even if he's no good for them, even if he's literally killing them -- 400,000 dead of Covid in 10 months! -- he makes them feel good. Powerful.For those who identify with him, he delivers the pleasures of dominance, over and over again.
But through the lens of dominance, we-the-culture-makers can accurately see OUR path forward. Now we have tactics. Guardrails. Gas. A map.
So, as deliberate culture-makers playing the long game, how do we mitigate -- or prevent -- the corrosive social impact of illegitimate, non-consensual dominance and deactivate its toxic pleasures?
1. We observe it, out loud.
Now that we know what the Wannabe Dominant wants, it's really easy to frustrate.
As soon as we name the attempt at dominance out loud, the spell is broken. Verbalizing what is supposed to be an unspoken power move instantly disarms what is supposed to operate imperceptibly. That's why, in group spaces, saying something like "I can't help but notice everyone in the panel is white" instantly interrupts a white supremacy power dynamic: it makes it visible. Now it has to be addressed, and the the dominators end up on the back foot. That's also why the phrase "Ok Boomer", for example, is so wildly effective. You can almost hear the air hissing as someone's privilege deflates. Naming when mansplaining is in the room has the same effect. Before I heard the word mansplaining, when a man talked over me, I wondered what about me was telegraphing insecurity and tried to fix my confidence and body language. I immediately assumed I was the problem. After I learned the word mansplaining, those same situations no longer unmoored me. Instead, I could name mansplaining to myself -- or, even better, out loud -- and INSTANTLY shift the power dynamic. Observing something and naming it is a power tool that instantly reveals or shifts invisible power dynamics. Now we know what we're navigating; no more falling in holes or traps. And now the would-be dominator just lost the upper hand aka the ability to dominate. No dopamine for them! And it there's no pay-off and no immunity, consistently, then non-consensual dominance will become way less appealing. Remove the win can make a person wonder: why play the game?
2. We change the context around the wannabe dominators.
In the book Shrill, by Lindy West, she writes about how intensely fatphobic the online world and even her workplace (including her famous boss, Dan Savage) were in the early 2000s. She contrasts that time, when she was writing at The Stranger, to her experience at Jezebel, to now, and concludes that in the last ten years, something has definitively and dramatically changed. Of course, there's still fatphobia. It's widespread. But in the meantime, there have been more and more fat acceptance bloggers writing prolifically about the damages of diet culture and documenting the dynamics of size/weight-based discrimination in all areas of our culture and they are popular. And so, as West writes, “the idea has taken root that fat people are people”.
How did that happen?
Because we made it happen.
We, the audience, shared the fat-acceptance and body positive posts on Facebook and on Twitter. We commented. We bought books. Podcasts were created, and Instagram accounts, and reality TV shows and Netflix and Hulu series because we had an appetite for them. *We* shared the ideas we were learning everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.
Proliferation and the diffusion of new ideas is a significant part of culture making.
That happens because of us. Audiences are culture-makers. We are the vector.
As a result, it's now highly likely that if someone fat-shames or concern-trolls, other people will push back on it. Presto! Impunity is vaporized.
We, the body-positive/fat-acceptance/anti-diet audience changed the context around people, and when we do that, it either changes them or it changes the consequences to them. Sometimes it even introduces a new group of people to the spectre of consequences -- often for the very first time.
Changing the context -- which is to say, changing norms and consequences -- evaporatesimpunity and dominance cannot flourish without impunity. When we change the context, we change everything.
Our aim as a a culture-making audience is proliferation. Sharing and circulating ideas that we want to become norms is how we change the context around would-be dominators and make it impossible for them to get those dopamine hits. No win, no game -- so why play?
3. We make things.
Your imperfect output, right now, is the acorn that grows into an oak tree. Back to Lindy West: Lindy started off with 300 Twitter followers a decade or so ago, wrote some words on a screen, got brave and pressed publish, and starting shifting our culture (along with the thousands of fat acceptance bloggers and HAES practitioners out there, THANK YOU). She went from out writing articles for a Seattle weekly called The Stranger, which turned into the online writing gig at Jezebel, which turned into the book Shrill, which turned into a 6 episode TV series you can now stream on Hulu.
All this to say, again: We are the culture makers. Literally. We can and do change our culture with the things we make.
Your art matters. Your baby massage school matters. Your non-violent dog-training practice matters. Your journal writing class is a contribution. Your work with system-change entrepreneurs is ESSENTIAL. Keep making your thing because as you do it, you're making a new culture.
The more we make things, the more new norms we create. This is how we help shift the context and change the game...so that toxic dominators can't win at the one they prefer.
Making things remakes norms. #WeAreTheCultureMakers
4. We mock clumsy, crude attempts at dominance. We laugh at imagined superiority.
Like a nail in a tire, comedy and caricature deflates dominance. Withering sarcasm punctures the illusion of power. You can't dominate and bully when people are laughing at you. Nothing flummoxes a bully like not being taken seriously. This is where professionally petty people are doing God's work; they're destabilizing dominance one shady comment at a time. So let's delight in the words and work of our petty pundits and jesters; they're culture-makers and we need them. We also just plain need to laugh.
And, while we're laughing -- and gossiping; yes, let's have a good private mako -- we continue working to promote human flourishing.
In other words: we grow the new world. The one we're dreaming of. The one we deserve. We make it happen, no matter what. No matter which way the US election goes, and no matter how out-of-control our world feels, stay rooted in what you can do and your ability to contribute to change using your skills, your talents, your voice, your platform, your resources.
That means defining your place at the wall, doubling down on your culture-making work, and taking your work more seriously.
Do right by your work. Build it out. Keep building the new world -- the one in which we all flourish. Eventually we're going to look up and be living in it. #WeAreTheCultureMakers
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