Ambigamy

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Yintimidation: Wolf in She's Clothing

Yintimidation: Wolf in She's Clothing
imageBig gruff men - supersaturated with testosterone - bully people with their stentorian voices, raised hackles, and looming bulk. Wielding the yang sword of decisiveness they impose their will, and women and children scramble for safety.

The scrambling pays off in counterstrategies. When you don't have yang working for you, you make yin work instead. Centuries of co-evolving yang and yin strategies and counterstrategies have generated a daunting arsenal of very powerful meekness maneuvers.

Yintimidation generally exploits what I've called "defaulty logic": You're wrong, therefore by default I must be right; you're mean, therefore by default I must be kind.

"If you're talking loudly and I'm talking softly then you must be the bully and therefore by default I must be the innocent bullied party." As if there's a maximum occupancy of one bully per debate. As if the winner of all debates can be determined simply by voice tone.

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Loudness isn't the only way to bully. Language is multifariously manipulative. Shame, defeat, surrender, woundedness - there are hundreds of gentle, oblique ways to say, "You're in trouble, you worm."

Shame, for instance. By defaulty logic, if you did something morally dubious, I must not have. If I can shame you by depicting your actions as immoral, I capture the moral high ground from which to yintimidate you with shock and dismay at your inappropriateness. Indeed, if I can call you on your immorality first, I ascend instantly to the moral high ground from whence I can easily defend my citadel. No matter how much scrambling you do to usurp me, no matter how much you point out that I too have moral failings, I'll be able to sustain my position of superiority because I got there first. I framed the context: You as immoral; me as the judge of what is moral. All of this can be done without muscle but with yintimidation.

Yintimidation isn't gender-exclusive. There's no simple division of tactics between men and women. Men can yintimidate; women can intimidate with big, loud, scary anger. What we all have in common is the need to stand our ground sometimes, and the ingenuity to find ways to do so with what we're dealt. Any of us-male or female - are capable of using shame to push for what we want. (See Moral Fixation.) Men or women who can't threaten outright will naturally lean more toward yintimidation tactics when push comes to shove. If you can't beat 'em at their game, change the game.

Yintimidation is not any more immoral than any other tactic we use to influence each other, and influencing each other is one of life's necessities. Like any tactic it can be abused. Some yintimidators keep their partners permanently cowed, feeling as though they're only as good as their last mistake.

If one gains reliable competence at yintimadition (or any other influence technique), it's easy to fall into using it simply because one can, rather than because one needs it to defend appropriate boundaries. I've known people who seemed to take umbrage as if on automatic, any time they saw an opening, regardless of whether they really had anything to defend. This is the yintimidator equivalent to the guy who dominates anyone smaller than he is regardless of whether he has anything in particular to fight for-people who don't know their own strength, or know it but choose to ignore how self-indulgently they deploy it.

These days the game is changing, and it will be interesting to see what happens to yintimidation's potency. In some circles the moral high ground isn't working as well as it used to. Among nontraditional high schoolers, being immoral isn't such a bad thing anymore. In fact, it's cool. Young girls are having a harder time getting young men to behave themselves through yintimidation. They try to act hurt, morally superior, to shame the men into compliance, but the men ain't buying. Indeed, the girls aren't exactly buying either. I've had several female students confess in my psychology class that they're players too, ready to drop a guy if a better one comes along, easily bored and ready to move on once they've won a guy. It's harder to yintimidate when you're acting like the guy you're trying to shame.

If yintimidation is losing power, are women in trouble? Are we all in trouble if we can't summon each other to better behavior from moral high ground? Plenty would say we are. Worry about this is at the root of critiques of moral relativism in general. The much-publicized "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both" by Laura Sessions Stepp exemplifies the cautionary polemic against women conceding their power to yintimidate.

Arthur Miller's autobiographical play "After the Fall" argues that it might be better for all of us if the power to yintimidate disappeared. Miller wrote the play in 1964, shortly after he divorced Marilyn Monroe. My family owned a four-LP version of it starring Jason Robards that I listened to mesmerized over and over from the age of 13. I recently transferred it to MP3, which you can have here. Here's some denouement dialog toward the end: a fight over pills with Marylyn (Maggie) that Miller (Quentin) is recalling.

Maggie (drunk and drugged): I still hear you. Way inside. Quentin? My love? I hear you! Tell me what happened!

Quentin (through tears): Maggie, we...used one another!

Maggie: Not me, not me!

Quentin: Yes, you. And I. "To live" we cried. And "now" we cried. And loved each other's innocence, as though to love enough what was not there would cover up what was. But there is an angel, and night and day he brings back to us exactly what we want to lose. So you must love him because he keeps life in the world. You eat those pills to blind yourself, but if you could only say, "I have also been cruel," this frightening room would open. If you could say, "I have been kicked around, but I have been just as inexcusably vicious to others. I have been hurt by a long line of men but I have cooperated with my persecutors--"

Maggie (writhing in fury): Son of a bitch!

Quentin: "And I am full of hatred; I, Maggie, sweet lover of all life-I hate the world!"

Maggie: Get out of here!

Quentin: But no pill can make us innocent. Throw them in the sea, throw death in the sea and all your innocence. Do the hardest thing of all-see your own hatred and live!

I resonate particularly with "There is an angel, and night and day he brings back to us exactly what we want to lose. So you must love him because he keeps life in the world." To embrace that which summons from us ingenious competitive strategies and counterstrategies, to admit its inescapable influence on us, because there would be no life without it. And the conflict it causes within us. For yintimidation to work we must convince ourselves of our innocence. To feel more honest and virtuous we must lie to ourselves more aggressively.

I yinitimidate. I shame people and pout, and I heave weary sighs signaling loud and cunningly how long-suffering I am. But, in keeping with this confession, I also have a mantra that I hope keeps my yintimidation and other easily abused tendencies somewhat in check:

"I wouldn't put it past me"

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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