Sometimes bullies respect you

I have so many things I'd like to blog about and no time at all, but somehow this one feels important.  It's a bit of mentoring I've done for peers before after figuring it out for myself.  It's a response to Clinton and Trump's second debate, and some of the confusion I've seen on Twitter about a couple of his moves.

For a number of reasons – workplace events, a conference I attended, regularities I've found in trying to explain antisocial punishment – I've been reading and working a lot on bullying in the last few years.  Bullying in adults is about splitting up a population, creating a new in group out of a larger population.  To their new ingroup the bullies tend to be charming and charismatic. Most of the out group is ignored.  A few people on the margin of the ingroup that seem like threats become victims, which helps keep the in-crowd in check.  Adult bullies tend to work two ways:
  • shutting down channels of communication
  • wasting the time of people that are potential threats.
I believe but haven't yet proven that bullying is a special case of the competitive social preference identified by van Lange et al:  they are more concerned with their relative status than their absolute status, so they are willing to pay a cost to take others down, provided the others are likely to go down further.

What I've noticed personally is that if you outmanoeuvre some competitive people, they often respond by switching from competition to collaboration.  If you are a woman and the bully is a powerful heterosexual man, they are likely to hit on you.  I used to think this was just another attempt at domination, since women are often seen as sexually subordinate, even listed as "conquests."  But this is not the only thing going on.

There is often an expectation in successful adult bullies that if you are able to pull a good manoeuvre, then you are yourself similar to the bully – intelligent, socially aware, Machiavellian.  I think the assumption is that you both have now identified someone capable of playing games on a higher level, and have already formed a relationship with each other by learning about each other's abilities.  I have noticed in this context that when the outmanoeuvred person still has a lot more power than their "up and coming" contender, they will often I think sincerely try to strengthen the new bond by offering an honest opportunity or other assistance.  I have advised friends to take such offers, though with caution and no trust of their once and probably future opponent.

Women (and many men) in this context are very likely to be repulsed and want to have nothing to do with the bully.  I was once so puzzled by a particular move I'd seen that I talked about it to a completely annoying guest speaker I'd made the mistake of allowing to come visit me in Bath.  The move I'd witnessed was this: at a UK Foresight meeting on which millions of pounds of funding depended, one of the men who had sacrificed a year's effort and many recent nights' sleep to coordinating the community seeking funding was openly criticised by an elderly elite professor in front of the government ministers come to review the project.  That is, the leader's own pet project was describe as "bunk" that "most of us don't believe."  In my own typical style, I was one of the last people to leave the room because I was making notes and packing up my laptop, and I saw the leader come over to the elderly debunker and put his arm around him and walk him out of the hall (behind everyone else but me.)  How could he even look at that guy again?

My objectionable guest speaker provided me with one (of two) of the biggest insights into power I've ever had:  "You can't understand what you saw because women won't work with people they hate."  It had never occurred to me that power wasn't about getting to stay the heck away from anything you hate.  Now suddenly all those politicians shaking hands with war criminals etc. made sense, as well as some departmental politics.  (Another friend years later also told me "That was a power move.  The leader was belittling the old professor's efforts, showing how invulnerable he was.")

I saw this kind of dynamic twice during the debate last night. (I didn't watch the whole thing – I was mostly working on an overdue review of a really important article on AI Law.  So it may have happened more times.)

First the weird thing about Trump saying "I'm a gentleman."  He knew he wasn't.  He'd leapt to be the first to answer a question it was clearly in his interest to give the second / final answer on, and in fact that was when he'd been scheduled to speak.  Clinton had initially moved to defend her rightful time in the sequence, but then caught herself and said "please, go ahead".  Both of them knew she was only being generous because he was being stupid.  So he equally played at being polite.  But she actually got to make the first move there, and his joke was at his own expense.

The second thing was his response to the question "say something good about your opponent".  I think his comment about Clinton having stamina was again absolutely a concious, intentional concession.  He had done the worst thing he could think of to do to her – try to rattle her by bringing in women who claimed to be sexually preferred by her husband – and she had only been angry and competent, not flummoxed.  So he conceded that point.  He thought she might be the kind of women who couldn't handle that kind of attack, and he was wrong.  If they were both in business together, now he'd be looking to leave her some room; if she worked for him, maybe he'd promote her.

When bullies do this to you – offer you some nice concession after you've beaten (or at least surprised) them – what should you do?  If you want to be successful, you need to hold your ground somewhere, and by now (if you've fought a bully) you have learned there are people you hate around that ground.  So I advise learning to work with people you hate.  Not closely, and you never trust them, but they become part of your landscape, and you maybe know enough about them to recognise that, when something is in their interest, they may actually do it for you.  Because honestly, you've learned that they know that opposing you has a higher cost than they originally estimated, and paying that higher cost may well be something they now prefer to avoid.