Some behaviours I find baffling, but I can understand (or at least I can rationalize) after a moment’s reflection.
For example, the other day I was taking a bus home, and noticed that all the women getting off the bus were immediately running off into the dark. I am not exaggerating. Four women got off the bus, each at a different stop. Each one ran away from the bus, presumably toward home. They ran in sneakers and in high heels alike; they ran not only when the bus stop was poorly-lit, but also when it was very well-lit.
I momentarily wondered whether it was a sort of paranoia — after all, my neighborhood is a rough one, with some nasty punks around, and some rather freakish people living there. Women I know have reported being taunted sexually by male passersby, having been fondled by middle-aged men on the escalator at the subway, and other such horrors. The women I’ve talked to about living here have agreed that our neighborhood is one with a strangely high number of jerks and weirdoes.
But certainly not all women were fleeing such dangers, real or imagined: after all, lots of women defiantly walk around the neighborhood. I couldn’t help, though, being amused by the behaviour. The first thing that crossed my mind was that some kind of very mild, rare zombie plague had struck my neighborhood. Not bad enough for people to stay home and board up the doors, just bad enough for people to run like hell whenever they were out in the open. But in the end, the behaviour was explicably by wholly mundane means.
Yes, it was only on a moment’s reflection that I figured what the real reason — the same one because of which plenty of Korean women spend much of the winter walking around saying, “아, 추워…” They were underdressed, in skirts and tiny shoes and thin coats (when they were wearing something that could actually be called a coat at all) and it was pretty chilly and windy outside. Simple, right? They were running because they were cold. Explicable! Yay!
Sycophants, though, I just don’t get it about them. I feel how most people feel when faced with an unabashed, unashamed, unrestrained cheering section for a moron: I feel derision, bewilderment, annoyance, but… well, especially bewilderment.
I’m not talking about politics, at least not in the sense we usually mean when we talk of politics — though there is a certain kind of sad sack moron who rises to the sycophantic occasion in any human organization, since every human organization involves politics; I’m not talking about artists or intellectuals, at least not except in the loosest sense.
I’m talking about the kind of people who ring themselves around the most relentlessly mediocre, viciously self-aggrandizing doofuses and chant, fists raised in the air, as if this guy (it’s usually a guy, isn’t it?) was nature’s (or heaven’s) greatest gift to humanity, someone who would lead their organization to some mythic, unimaginable victory… even when it’s some run of the mill organization, a factory or an office, or a university faculty, or a church, or a freaking school chess club. Cheer, cheer, shout and stamp their feet, making sound and fury…
…signifying nothing. They don’t seem to grasp that, even when it’s witheringly obvious, and that baffles me. This kind of behaviour has always baffled me.
It’s not hard to understand the behaviour of the doofus they’re cheering for, mind you. Doofuses are often attracted to “power” — even if it’s contingent on their giving up on a normal life, for example turning their backs forever on coitus and on the fundamental familial bonds proceeding from it, which are so necessary to experience if one wishes to understand from the inside the state of most of humanity. Doofuses see nothing with self-aggrandizing behaviours: after all, as Peter Watts pointed out in his discussion of the phenomenon of Sarah Palin, doofuses tend overwhlemingly to overestimate both their own competence and to underestimate the competence of people who are less of a doofus than they are. No, really, there’s a study from Cornell and everything.
The behaviour that baffles me, and which Watts is trying to explain, isn’t why a doofus would choose brazenly (and rather unabashedly) to pursue power, but rather why people would rally around that doofus, cheering and chanting the name of their chosen doofus, propelling the doofus to the top of their organization… or, and this is even more embarrassing, if they’re in an organization where who occupies the top is, well, dictated from the top, what propels people to gather in delusionary crowds and do the same thing.
Of course, organizations where it happens that way are power-scarce: that means that those within the system may perceive the act of rallying around whichever doofus attains the top position as a way of gaining some “in” for themselves, some small nugget of power which may be dispensed for good service.
But the question arises whether they can see what others see — that they’re ridiculous sycophants — and suppress it from their conscious minds, or whether they just simply do not see what ridiculous doofuses they themselves are being.
Maybe that’s it: maybe it’s just that doofuses are so numerous that they can attain critical mass. But for the particular organization I’m thinking of, it seems that those who dislike the dooofus, or revile him, are far more numerous than those who support and cheer and idolize him. So… the real question is, how is it that doofuses attain critical mass, when people who are less of a bunch of doofuses don’t?
The reason seems to me that the non-doofuses tend to want to keep their heads down. Evolution has trained them well, perhaps: stand up to the doofuses and they witch-hunt you. Criticize the doofus poobah and you end up exiled from the camp, in dangerous territory. Maybe human history has worked constantly under this dynamic: a period of doofus-rule supported by sycophants, followed by a period of repair headed up by those who were clever enough to shut their mouths and wait for the idiots to destroy themselves? I’m not sure, but it really doesn’t bode well for us as a species.
Lest it seem an idle question, consider that the same dynamics underlie a lot of political behaviour, wars, and genocides. Oh, and also the hobbling of national education systems. (It’s not just Korea that’s got a mess on its hands educationally.) Hell, look at the institutional response to climate change, and you wonder if the smart people shutting up and letting the doofuses run the show will work this time… or whether the mess will simply be too bad to repair.