The Rules of Unreason #1: Impolite Company



We need to be able to identify covert aggression if we are to deal with it effectively.

They say you should never discuss religion and politics in polite company. But why not? The obvious answer is that people get heated when talking about these topics. But why? Why do people get heated when talking about religion and politics? The answer to this question is far from obvious. And that’s part of the problem. When you get involved in a discussion about religion and politics, the onset of mutual animosity can be subtle and surprising. You often find yourself inexplicably feeling defensive, or exasperatedly trying to make yourself clear. Your temper rises the more you feel unsettled. 

I used to think religion and politics were both inherently controversial topics. But now I think otherwise; I think some people needlessly make them controversial. The penny dropped for me when I was reading one of the most eye-opening books I have ever read: In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People, by psychiatrist George K. Simon. In this unheralded masterpiece, Dr Simon describes the phenomenon of ‘covert aggression’. You’ve probably never heard of covert aggression. But I guarantee you’ve encountered it. You may even have practised it yourself – especially if you hold strong political or religious views.  

Covert aggression is when a person fights underhandedly during an exchange of opinions. The covert aggressive gives the impression of being reasonable, but in fact he artfully dismisses anything he doesn’t want to engage with or take on board. In doing so, he ruthlessly undermines the person he is interacting with; he undermines that person’s needs and concerns and interests. The victim is thrown on the defensive, even as the covert aggressive hides his malicious intentions. It’s a double whammy. The victim senses, deep down, that he is under attack, but he doesn’t know how exactly. He is unsettled by a combination of guilt and confusion, making it hard for him to defend himself. And the more he is forced to defend himself haphazardly, the less he discusses the issues he wants to discuss. Soon he may become exasperated or even angry, which diminishes him further. The covert aggressive succeeds in manipulating his victim, even as the victim looks and feels like the wrongdoer. 

In Sheep’s Clothing describes some of the strategies that covert aggressives use to throw their opponents on the defensive: lying, denial, downplaying the issues, selectively paying attention, rationalising issues away, evasion, changing the subject, making veiled threats, guilt-tripping, shaming, vilifying, charming, claiming a noble cause, claiming victimhood, scapegoating, feigning innocence, feigning confusion, and brandishing anger. These strategies I call the ‘rules of unreason’. They are the ‘rules’ by which a covert aggressive operates during a discussion, and, in turn, they define the rules that his victim must follow. Through encountering these strategies of covert aggression, the victim learns what he may – and may not – say and do and even think. 

Naturally, covert aggression is a powerful tool for those who seek to rule others not through consent but through oppression – through the imposition of conformity. Equally as naturally, covert aggression is a powerful tool for intellectuals, who tend to be adept at the kind of verbal maneuvering and responsibility-avoidance which is characteristic of covert aggression. In this series of essays, I will discuss how intellectuals use covert aggression to enforce conformity of opinion, where such conformity handsomely rewards the intellectuals in question. I believe that this practice of opinion-farming is commonly – but not exclusively, and not exhaustively – found in religion and socialism (and various associated doctrines). Those who would lead us into a Utopia of religious or political conformity often seek to do so by undermining the legitimate objections of dissenters. 

Am I being unfair by targeting religion and socialism? Don’t atheists sometimes practise covert aggression? And right wingers too? I’m sure they do – we all do. But I’m equally sure that my claim that covert aggression is especially common in religion and socialism has the ring of truth. Ask yourself: if you were at a dinner party, whose beliefs would you be warier of challenging: a religious person, or an atheist? A capitalist, or a socialist? Who would you expect to be more offended by your challenge: a religious person, or an atheist? A capitalist, or a socialist? I suspect, like me, your gut feeling would be to steer clear of giving your views on religion and socialism, for fear of upsetting someone and creating a tense atmosphere. Without explicitly realising it, you’d be afraid of covert aggression. Indeed, when people arbitrarily take offence they are exercising one of the rules of unreason.  

It is important, notes Simon, to realise that covert aggressives are not – or not solely – well-intentioned people whose hostile actions have a mitigating explanation. Sometimes the victim of covert aggression may mistakenly assume that his attacker is simply being unintentionally irrational or ill-informed. Other times the victim may mistakenly assume that his attacker is reacting defensively to his own sense of doubt or anxiety or guilt. In both scenarios, the victim may feel sympathy for his attacker. Accordingly, the victim may give in, or he may redouble his efforts to respond faithfully to the attacker’s relentless obfuscations. Unfortunately, these sympathetic reactions play into the attacker’s hands. The victim, once again, subordinates himself to the attacker’s aggressive agenda. The victim becomes a victim now of his own conscientiousness. Meanwhile, to the extent that the attacker feels any guilt, he deceives himself about it. His covert aggressive strategy becomes a tool for hiding his guilt from himself, as well as from his victim. Either way – guilt or no guilt – the attacker is not being defensive: he is mounting an attack precisely so that he doesn’t have to defend himself against, or concede, or even acknowledge, the legitimate points raised by his victim. 

We need to be able to identify covert aggression if we are to deal with it effectively. When faced with covert aggression, Simon insists, we must calmly adopt firm boundaries, offer clear statements of fact, and conduct ourselves in an assertive not reactive way. I hope these essays give some indication of how – and how not – to deal with the many covert aggressive intellectuals whose religious and political agendas are increasingly dominating Western society. There is much at stake: covert aggression can soon escalate into real aggression, especially if people react angrily not effectively to it. Dealt with in the right way, covert aggressive intellectuals – like all covert aggressives – can be politely and civilly discouraged from their bullying. Democracy depends on the success of this right way.

And, despite my better judgement, I cannot help but hope: perhaps if we understand covert aggressive intellectuals better, we can get through to them better; perhaps we can make them see sense. After all: what’s the point of being intellectuals if we can’t change each other’s minds? 

Tags: ben irvine, covert-aggression, discussion, exchange of ideas, rationality

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