Tag Archives: bullying

Offensive and Random Discharges

If traditional rhetoric has rules and assumed courtesies, a verbal spew just happens.  Rhetoric is the product of adaptation and thought.  But spew never passes near the centers of intelligence.

I had a classmate who could empty the contents of his stomach on cue.  On a moment’s notice he could produce  a gross  barrage of undigested material that was never meant to pass a person’s lips. It didn’t matter that this childish gesture could be inconvenient to demonstrate on your mother’s new living room carpet. He didn’t have much sense about when to pick his moment. It was part of the unfortunate grade school freak-show that he had perfected.

This chunky kid was one of several characters at my hardscrabble school located a few blocks from runway 17R at Denver’s old Stapleton Airport. Planes would scream over all day. if the noise or cement playground didn’t nick you up, there were classmates who could do the trick. Happily, most later re-joined the human race in high school.

This kid reminds me of the President. I think of Donald Trump as just a larger hulk of gracelessness: a screamer of sorts, to be sure, but mostly a person who disgorges undigested gut reactions with no apparent shame.  Had he known him, Mark Twain would have gladly written about this curious figure, bloated by self importance and clueless about the rules of civil discourse. I suspect Twain would have tired of him, preferring his presence to be confined to the pages of his satire on manners.

All of this is made worse, of course, by others who work for Trump or his party. Like many unsteady grade-schoolers, they pretend not to notice  bully who could turn on them.

Our most damaging cultural rhetoric now appears at both the top and bottom of our national discourse.

My memory of this kid came to mind a few months back after seeing one of many tweeted insults from the President, this one referring to “a third rate reporter named Maggie Haberman, known as a Crooked H flunkie who I don’t speak to and have nothing to do with. . .”  Never mind that Haberman knows how to use language with precision, and that she shares a Pulitzer Prize in Reporting with several of her colleagues at the New York Times. By his standards, this was hardly the worst of nearly 600  insults that have come from the President since taking office.  But the ad hominem attacks continue to pile up. Against Trump, no insult comic could ever stand a chance.

Traditional rhetoric has rules.  Verbal spew just happens.  Effective public rhetoric is the product of careful adaptation and thought, even when coming from people we might otherwise disagree with.  In every case we have a right to expect a speaker has has at least some capacity to measure the effects of their words.

The presence of this continual vitriol has softened us.  We’ve grown accustomed to graceless verbal gestures.  Indeed, Twitter has perfected them.  We are getting used to putting our nation’s presidency alongside the trolls and dystopians who populate the fringes of the internet. It means our most damaging cultural rhetoric now appears at both the top and bottom of our national discourse. And like adolescents trying to fit in, we mostly marvel to the spectacle in silence, knowing that the nation’s chief executive seems incapable of much more than mimicking the kind of coarseness not seen since our days in grade school.

Is Mentoring Out of Fashion?

Mentor definitionTelevision’s Shark Tank is less like being in the presence of really smart people than being the new kid at a tough junior high.

I’m struck with the apparent popularity of CNBC’s hit reality show, Shark Tank.  The series features four or five investors who listen to proposals from mostly novice entrepreneurs asking for cash investments in exchange for a share of their new businesses. The product may be some odd form of ice cream, or a redesigned coffee mug that won’t leave a mark on a wood table.  In truth, the new ideas that are pitched are less important than the reactions to them from the mostly male “sharks.”  Their responses range from respectful doubt to over-the-top scorn.  And, of course, its the bullies in shows like these that we tend to remember.

What’s troubling about our fascination for the show is that some of the “sharks” pride themselves on a kind testosterone-driven frankness that borders on cruelty. A few of the investors seem to cherish a style of drill-sergeant tactlessness over more supportive mentoring. And that may not be fair to drill-sergeants.  Helping these novices seems less the point than humiliating them.

We can make too much of this as a trend.  After all, heightened conflict is the familiar and mostly toxic formula of reality television. But coming from otherwise unremarkable people who’ve made some money by having money, the argot of growing businesses suggests nothing so much as an adult variation on the kind of school-yard bluster that sometimes came from classmates who were both aggressive and scared. Shark Tank is less like being in the presence of really smart people than being the new kid at a tough junior high.  I hope it doesn’t represent a cultural trend.

This aggressive style applied to students is illustrated well in Damien Chazelle’s superb Whiplash (2014).  Actor J. K. Simmon’s Oscar-winning performance as a faux-perfectionist jazz instructor is a perfect case study of how ruthlessness can turn a mentor into a crippled tyrant.  Mentorship withers if it requires abuse of the learner. As the film suggests, the effects are likely to be more destructive than transformative.

Rhetorically, verbal taunts are often spoken to throw a listener off the scent of a phony.  This is the use of language as “mystification;” It dares the listener to respond as an equal. Instead of help there is condescension.  Instead of questions there are demands. Representative responses to individuals who want to franchise an idea often ring hollow as ostensible signs of true expertise:  We know the language:  “You’re nothing but dead meat to me,” “You’re not as smart as I thought you were.”  “Grow up; you’re playing in the big leagues now.”  One of the sharks in particular favors wearing the persona of a brilliant “money man.” He mistakes crassness for wisdom, and he prefers certainty over a true mentor’s acceptance of degrees of interpretation.  Worst yet, the information-poor responses from these supposed wise men give off an unmistakable impression of some unjustified self-regard. “I have to tell you, my friend, that this is the worst idea I’ve ever heard.  You don’t have a clue about how to set up a business or market a product.”  After an evening of statements like this, it’s a surprise the money man’s suits still fit.

Another show on the same network features to restaurateurs who likewise spout clichés that were stale 50 years ago. “You’re an old dog and I’m here to tell you that you can’t learn new tricks.”  This, after some predictable snafus in trying to build and open a  restaurant in just two days. This can’t really be how we teach business acumen.  What is lacking in all of these shows is the kind of compassion any person should expect when seeking help in reorganizing a small business.

All of this bullying is reminiscent of the stale harangues of men who have sublimated their dreams into a single soul-destroying passion to make money.  Watching these shows is like sitting through David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross far too many times.  On first viewing there is something bracing about seeing a kind of feral Lord of the Flies survivalism transferred to a modern sales office. But there is finally something disheartening about observing supplicants ridiculed rather than mentored.  Perhaps a current trend needs to be reversed.  It might be helpful to see fewer business people who have miscast themselves as teachers.  They could be replaced by qualified teachers who could humanize the process of helping new entrepreneurs.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu