Ambigamy

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Objective definition of a butthead: Lessons in personality from the Tao and Team America.

Butthead defined: Lessons in personality from the Tao and Team America

In an amazingly profound yet vulgar speech at the end of the movie "Team America" the hero defines three types of people. I can't use the names he uses, but if you've got a stomach for that sort of thing, do watch the speech on Youtube.

The first two types go by a variety of less vulgar names, the oldest perhaps are yin and yang from Taoist philosophy, originating over 2500 years ago. The yin personality is receptive, tolerant, accepting, non-judgmental, accommodating, open to anything, easy-going. The yang personality is assertive, discerning, forceful, judgmental, standard-upholding, and demanding. As with the vulgar names used in Team America, yin and yang are associated with female and male body parts respectively. Still, as the yin-yang symbol indicates, there's a bit of yin in the yang and the yang in the yin. Really, both in the Team America speech and in Taoism, these two aren't so much personality types as they are states of mind, gestures or moves one can make in the game of life.

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Sometimes we go yin, conceding a point, surrendering to someone else's approach, letting things happen as they will. Sometimes we go yang sticking to our guns, pressing an issue, digging in our heels. Sure, some of us are more yin or yang, but we all end up being a bit of both. The combination of yin and yang are what comprise the give and take of life.

The Team America speech suggests a third personality type that isn't covered by the Tao. In the movie it is exemplified by the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il. Again the speech uses a word I can't use here. My euphemism will be butthead and the implication is someone who is very stubborn, pigheaded, or assertive. Sounds like yang, right? In the speech it is argued that both yin and yang can become buttheaded and that yin and yang need each other to prevent each other from doing so. The speech sparked questions for me about the true nature of buttheadedness.

Buttheadedness has always presented a definitional problem. After all, what's the difference between being, on the one hand buttheaded, pigheaded or stubborn and on the other being principled, steadfast or committed? At heart, they define the same behavior: sticking to your belief in the face of counter-pressure. The only real difference is connotation. If I don't like the fact that you're sticking to your belief, then I'll call you buttheaded. If I like that you're sticking to your belief, then I'll call you principled. Buttheaded tends therefore to be a relative term, a term we apply to believers who get in our way. If you're steadfastly against me, you're a butthead. If you're with me you're principled.

It may be satisfying to declare people buttheads just because they disagree with us but bandying the term about like this is a primary cause of fights. I mean who's to say that you're a butthead just because you disagree with me? Maybe I'm the butthead not for agreeing with you? A lot of conflict, from the petty to the global ground down to a tie as both sides assume the other is being overly stubborn.

Butthead and terms like it (of which there are a great many, only some of which I could list here) could be nothing more than the epithets echoing around the hall of mirrors where people at an impasse, duke it out:

"I know you are but what am I?..."
"I'm like rubber, you're like glue..."

Still, inspired by insights gleaned from Team America's trichotomy, I think I can actually deliver a fully objective definition of buttheadedness, one that doesn't just amount to what we call people we think are too stubborn because they happen to disagree with us.

We all get stubborn. Stubborn is good sometimes. But there's something like absolute incorrigible formulaic stubbornness, worthy of the name buttheaded.

A butthead is someone who is beyond all influence by means of some self-proclaimed infallibility, in effect saying something like: "I am a member of the one exclusive clear-thinking club. We are the champions of truth. I am on the side of virtue against vice, and as such could never myself be tainted by vice. I am exempt from human foibles. If there is a problem the problem must be in you, not in me. It couldn't be in me because I'm foible-proof. I was baptized into purity. My faith in my convictions runs so deep that while it is sometimes amusing to debate and, of course defeat you, there really never is a debate because I've won before we start. I have a deflection for any and all possible evidence you might bring against my argument, a repost that by my standards always is valid. If you disagree, I have a deflection for that too. I am fully convinced of the validity of my arguments. Your arguments are worthless against mine."

The speech argues that since the yin or the yang can both become buttheads, they need each other. The yin need the yang to argue them down from their stubbornness. The yang need the yin to argue them down from their gullibility. And both need each other to fight against the buttheads. Buttheads must simply be defeated because they are immune to reason or debate, having given themselves the ultimate debate-proof answers to everything.

Buttheads have added layers of titanium armor to their beliefs. All of us defend our beliefs. We have confidence in them. In contrast buttheads have confidence in their confidence in their confidence. And not only that, they believe that 100% confidence is a virtue. They're sure they're sure they're sure and that being that sure is, in their cases, an absolute virtue.

"Buttheaded" is a pejorative term, but just as "principled" is a positive name for "stubborn," there are positive names for buttheaded too. The comedian Dennis Miller says, "Faith is the voice inside your head telling you to listen to the voice inside your head."

One of the most important insights from the Team America speech is that excess yin runs the risk of buttheadedness as much as excess yang does. One would think that buttheadedness is just an excess of yang, but the film argues I think correctly that one can become stubbornly receptive. Think of those who argued against global warming after more than enough evidence was in saying "let's not be hasty. We must keep open minds. You have no right to impose your beliefs on the rest of us."

On the face of it, that looks like a yin argument in favor of keeping our minds open. In practice though it is a stubborn denial of evidence. In other words, one can become yangly yin, and at the extreme, as was the case with some anti-global warming activists, it became downright buttheaded.

I've claimed to provide an objective definition of buttheadedness, but it's not that easy to apply. Sure, if someone says outright that he is infallible, you know you're dealing with a butthead. But most of the time we surmise that someone feels infallible from the way they stubbornly stick with their argument in the face of your counter-evidence. But how can you tell whether their stubbornness is based on an open-minded assessment or is based on an absolute belief in their infallibility? It's not easy I'll take that question up in another article.

 

For the blog and podcast version of these articles visit www.mindreadersdictionary.com

 

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

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