Scott Adams, bullying and power

Scott Adams, the creator of the cartoon Dilbert, has been a fascinating and disturbing person to read throughout this election cycle. His posts last year where he picked Trump to win the Republican nomination were interesting to me to see what persuasion techniques he observed Trump using. However, his more recent posts where he is having a complete meltdown at the idea that a woman might become president are disturbing.

A recent post where he accuses all of Clinton’s supporters to be bullies is what prompted me to finally write about the election. It’s fascinating in an ugly way because he’s so transparently projecting his own behaviors onto others – he has been a bully, pushing people around to get his way, using his privilege as a rich white man. Now that he’s getting called on his behavior, he perceives it as being bullied, rather than proper boundaries being enforced.

It reminds me of this fantastic post I read a few months ago which does a great job of using a child to illustrate this sort of behavior. Kyle, the kid, kicks his father, and is told:

“Kyle, you kicked dad, come back and say sorry and make it right.”
Kyle comes back to his mum, crying, and says very intensely, his cute six-year-old face expressive and utterly for real:
“You said I kicked dad! You’re saying I’m bad! That hurts my feelings! You have to say sorry!”

Kyle, as a child, is unable to differentiate between actual harm being done (kicking his father) and having his feelings hurt. It’s a great post (go read the whole thing!), but later in the post the author asks what happens when kids like Kyle grow up with nobody calling them on that behavior. She asks the pointed question: “How do we get here, with adult men unable to differentiate narcissistic injury from actual harm?”

And that’s what I see with Scott Adams. He’s a guy that is now accustomed to getting what he wants, and now that he’s getting called on his unthinking and abusive behavior, he doesn’t like it and perceives it as being bullied. By conflating his feelings being hurt with the actual harm of bullying (physical damage, as well as the ongoing emotional damage of feeling helpless), he is showing his immaturity and self-centeredness. Unlike victims of bullying, he has power. He can retaliate by lashing out using his publishing platform among other channels (it wouldn’t surprise me if he is consulting his lawyers).

This is an important consideration that I’ve been learning – power differentials matter. Bullying is “punching down” – beating up on people who have less power than you. Speaking truth to power is “punching up”. For somebody like Scott Adams to say he’s a victim of bullying is to have a fundamental lack of understanding of these power differentials. As a rich, white man, he is always “punching down” when he lashes out, unless he were to go after Trump or other powerful leaders. Instead he kowtows to Trump by rationalizing and defending all of Trump’s outbursts and lies and discrimination, because power must be respected (the strict father model outlined by George Lakoff). Adams similarly expects his power to be respected, and when that power is questioned, he experiences it as bullying, but it’s just his feelings being hurt (as with Kyle above). If Adams were more compassionate or curious, he might use the opportunity of getting criticized to explore what other people’s experiences are, and discover that most people without privilege get bullied on a daily basis…and they can’t do anything about it because they need the job, or they might get raped or beaten if they don’t put up with it. That’s bullying – not having your feelings hurt.

Obama being president and Clinton being a candidate has been great in a way for the country in forcing unconscious bias into the open to be discussed. Between Obama, Black Lives Matter, and the gendered criticism of Clinton as a candidate, it’s shown clearly who’s on which side, and forced us as a society to have these difficult conversations. And watching white privileged men like Scott Adams (and Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump) totally lose their minds at the idea of Clinton being President (Adams wrote another recent post where he blamed women for everything that’s happening with this election, similar to how Trump is somehow blaming Hillary for the last 30 years of political decisions despite the 95+% of men who made those decisions) brings these sort of unconscious biases out to where we can all see them and discuss.

P.S. I’m still learning how to see how privilege and power differentials permeate society, so please correct me – I want to learn.

5 thoughts on “Scott Adams, bullying and power

  1. Since I haven’t (and am not going to) read the post you link to, I’m curious–is it his feelings being hurt by people telling him he’s bad (a la Kyle) or is it that they’re challenging his right to define The Truth, thereby taking away his power?

    1. It’s both. People are saying that he’s racist and misogynist (he’s calling them #HilBullies on Twitter) which makes him feel bad. It’s also pointing out all the inaccuracies he writes in support of Trump e.g. he has been saying that Trump isn’t racist, and liberals are just over-reacting. When challenged on Trump’s record, he dismisses everybody who disagrees with him as experiencing cognitive dissonance, because he’s the only one thinking clearly – it’s a textbook case of gaslighting. It was so over the top that it finally pushed me to write as I can’t let it go unchallenged (not that he’d even acknowledge me).

  2. I think the analogy with the kid’s interesting, and definitely reflects my experience with my kids. Telling them they shouldn’t do X to their brother can elicit as bad (or worse!) a reaction than them doing whatever it was. And to me, one of the tricky things to navigate is to say, “Look, I understand it feels bad, but you don’t get to be upset by this,” and then *not* comforting them until they’ve worked through those feelings. I’m sure there are a bunch of different ways to work through that with kids, and my best guess as to how to do it is sort of rooted in my experience as a game designer.

    Be careful to not reward the behavior you don’t want.

    I see this happen all the time with parents. Don’t throw a tantrum, Timmy! Stop shouting! Here’s a candy, will you be quiet?

    Sure, that works. It also means that the next time, Timmy will *absolutely not stop shouting* until they get a candy. Or a toy. Or whatever. They’re getting the behavior they want in the short term, but completely sabotaging the long term.

    For me, I’m not providing comfort in the moment, because I’m trying to reward the *passing* of those feelings of injustice, because they’re *not actual injustice*. In moments of actual injustice, I want to provide comfort in the moment.

    Is that right? I dunno. It’s probably wrong in a billion ways, the way every parenting thing is wrong in a billion ways and will lead to all kinds of adult trauma. 😛

  3. But also, fuck Scott Adams. We can explain his behavior, and try to understand it, which is great, but at some point he’s being a petulant baby, enabled by his power and wealth, and the right thing to do is just *fucking ignore him and his work*.

    1. I’ve been ignoring him (and trying to ignore the election) so far, but that’s not enough – we need to make sure this bullshit is challenged. As another friend told me today, “if no white men say, “Dude, you’re fucking insane for feeling bullied”, only minorities/women say it and people then devalue it. you’re not changing minds; you’re taking up the cause.”

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