DANNY: I can’t remember which of us suggested publishing more truculent/malicious how-to guides, but I think it’s a very good idea. Highly precise and explicit instructions for getting something done are almost always to do with specific, necessary tasks (like taking care of your call or installing a window A/C unit) or self-improvement. How to learn a new language, become a better conversationalist, spend less time on your phone, attract new friends, that sort of thing. But surely antipathy, hostility, small-mindedness, and personal deterioration merit at least as much careful attention! What are the finest ways to become degraded? The most efficient forms of petty meanness? Which is the best vent for spleen?
And when it comes to one’s social circles, what could be more important than filtering out new candidates with plausible deniability? You can rarely do so openly; to come out and say “I reject this one” will get you in all sorts of trouble, first for disapproving where your friends approve, and second for appointing yourself both judge and sentry of other people’s personal relationships. No, as in the book of Matthew, you must become as cunning as serpents and gentle as doves. You must be like a chimpanzee in the zoo, who pretends to like a new chimpanzee and offers it fruit when the other chimpanzees are watching. Only when the other chimpanzees are looking at something else can you step on the fruit, spoiling it for everyone, and smearing a plum skin on the new chimpanzee’s foot. But you must be sure to wash the plum skins from your own chimpanzee foot, lest the other chimpanzees recognize your subterfuge and turn against you, killing you with rocks and teeth and so on. Tools and deceit are what separate primates from all the other animals out there.
Possibly there are some non-primate animal species that practice deceit. Cuckoos and what have you, but this does not concern us. It’s not the same kind of deceit; a cuckoo bumps off another birds’ eggs in order that its own egg should survive. This kind of deceit has nothing to do with survival and everything to do with having one’s own way without getting dinged for trying to boss anyone else around. I wonder if the first step in this procedure is Identifying The Threat, or if you think there’s another step that precedes it?
JO: This is a very interesting proposition. Let me think. To undermine…I think you have to let the candidate undermine themselves. Like how the tunnelers in World War I would get the other side to dig themselves into getting blown up (let me recommend here Eye-Deep in Hell by John Ellis).
DANNY: An uncharacteristically aristocratic sentiment from Jo! “Just make the other fellow blow himself up.”
JO: Not to be confused with the general term “digger” for apparently an Australian or New Zealand soldier. I mean the guys like from Peaky Blinders who would busy themselves underneath the enemy and lay charges, guess where they would dig, so that the enemy would literally just shove a big blade hard into an explosive device. These valuable lads conducted themselves in warfare exactly as the most evil and capable of social entities do in society, in my experience, which is never ever to appear to act. As in, never take any particular action. “Oh, did you blow yourself up? Gosh, how clever.”
Of course, you blew him up. But nobody saw you do it. If you had been seen, you would have also been seen to care. And that’s fatal to the project of undermining and escaping from being blown up yourself in war.
DANNY: Entirely fatal, I agree. This is why garden-variety tactics of social hostility, which might work perfectly well in other contexts, absolutely have to be avoided here, because presumably everybody else in your social circle likes this new candidate (who is almost certainly a better person than you are); otherwise you wouldn’t have to undermine them. Then you could just join the growing consensus of people who don’t like them either. In a situation like this, you have to set them up to fail, like the Hudsucker Proxy or the 9/11 Commission Report, but can in no way appear to be biased against them.
JO: Right, right. You need to leave people wondering in twenty years whether the group took the security angle or…the other fake binary reason for the war in Iraq, I can't remember. Just like the Axis of Good that presumably exists by dint of not being the Evil one—just as the default becomes nothingness when there is no contrast against it—just as when the ash tree falls from the mountain and drags with great groaning from the ridges with it the catastrophe of Troy foretold to you in this dream—you’re not there at all. The way to become incontestable reality is to be incontestable reality. I tend towards extreme passivity in those situations, so that this person, whom I dislike presumably for a reason, will inevitably say or do something that I will simply also not react to. The crunch is made out of nothingness too.
Let me interrupt myself here to say that I have done this maybe twice in my adult life because it is astoundingly cruel as well as easily done once practiced. Don’t underestimate its effect. But if you need it…well.
DANNY: Yes, I have never done anything of the kind myself. I think of this as a sort of shared social opera, an expansion on certain primal themes that have dwelt in my heart and that I've occasionally seen reflected in some novels. Once in high school I mistakenly believed a new acquaintance was someone who had offended another friend of mine, and I pretended not to remember her name a few times in a row, but that’s about as powerful as my machinations have ever gotten. Also it turns out I was mistaken, and had been thinking of a different Katie, and we ended up becoming quite good friends. This is a pleasurable fiction, like imagining that we are going to stop Rasputin on the strength of our interpersonal skills.
JO: I had a funny acquaintance disaster a few weeks ago that turned out kind of educational. I met this person whose work I like a lot, and I was uncharacteristically enthusiastic. Then, turning back to my original group in the bar back yard and explaining, my friend was like, isn’t that person X in Y dramatic situation? I was confused until my other friend was like, “No. Must be a different person.” Now, it turns out they were totally the same person. But it also turns out I didn’t need to know that, because I feel no animus and hope to see them again. But if I had been prepared to dig? I would have dug. Probably. I don’t know. We need sometimes to be protected from our inner Rasputin-hunter.
Thinking about it, my advice to you earlier was basically just to blank someone a bit. Not all the time, like 30% blank. But in the situation at the bar I reverse-blanked.
Sorry for having overcomplicated the initial premise, I guess I have only responded to your original question by issuing a Delphic warning against brushing too kindly against true evil’s cheek. I found out yesterday that there was a punitive treaty against France drawn up after the Franco-Prussian War at Versailles, which makes me think that somebody probably blanked somebody at Versailles fifty years earlier, and so on back to the original punch-up outside the village well.
DANNY: I think the protective compensatory fantasy inherent in “I’m going to undermine someone socially without detection” is the idea of being watched! I mean, ordinarily if I meet someone I don’t really like, I just avoid them, and my problem is solved. I don’t know many people who only have one social circle, anyhow. Lots of my friends don’t know each other, so even if a friend of mine were to become quite close with someone I considered my Mozart, I would just see my friend separately. But in this fantasy, we are part of a social fabric that’s so tightly and carefully knit together that we cannot avoid someone we dislike, and our own behavior is so important to group cohesion we are being watched at all times. So it’s a fantasy of having a lot of very crucial, very interwoven friendships and being incredibly personally important at the same time. Which is a very nice fantasy indeed! And that leads nicely into a further power fantasy where one imagines oneself not only surrounded by a lot of very close friends, and being watched by a great many admirers and hangers-on, but also as a master of subterfuge and secret dealings, of wheels within wheels, even more powerful than anyone else knows! Like you’re Catherine the Great, but you’re also a World-War-II-era encryption-breaking office.
JO: The political grandiosity at the heart of all jokes…the fuzz on the cheek of evil. But the thing is that I am kind of grandiose sometimes, because it lets you keep a little dignity when you get sad. So sometimes you are a King who demands their retainers be in order. Like, say I thought there was an interloper of potentially unbelievably suspicious motivation in my court. I’m really worried. This is the fate of my public we’re talking about. A little hint in my jester’s ear wouldn’t go amiss.
DANNY: “A little hint in the jester’s ear” sounds like a secret recording of Tom Lehrer B-sides. I love it. You are, I am sure, familiar with Stephen Potter’s The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (1947)?
DANNY: It’s from your people, unsurprisingly. I’ve never been able to get my hands on a copy of Ian Coster’s “Friends in Aspic,” worse luck, which was published in 1939 and (possibly) coined the term, which Stephen Potter used a few years later in Theory and Practice.
“The art of winning games by cunning against opponents with superior skill,” as Coster puts it; as Potter puts it, “There is only one rule; BREAK THE FLOW.”
JO: Oh my god.
DANNY: It’s winning without cheating, and Potter cites its origins in a tennis match where he and C.E.M. Joad were up against a couple of spry young undergraduates who were on track to beat them handily.
On returning a serve, Joad hit the ball straight into the back-netting twelve feet behind the back-line. While the opponents were preparing for the next serve, Joad "called across the net in an even tone: 'Kindly say clearly, please, whether the ball was in or out.'" Being young, polite university students, their opponents offered to replay the point, but Joad declined. Because they were young and polite, the slight suggestion by Joad that their etiquette and sportsmanship were in question was extremely off-putting, and distracted them for the rest of the contest. Potter and Joad went on to win the match.
Obviously the idea is to stop short of breaking any rules or visibly cheating, and in a social context, the idea is to stop short of acting as though butter would melt in your mouth. In this way it differs from “psyching someone out,” in part because psyching someone out assumes you both know you’re enemies, or at least rivals. In order to successfully oust a well-liked fellow chimpanzee (to return to the chimpanzee analogy), your own chimpanzee behavior must be above reproach. If the others see that you are behaving meanly, or trying to catch your opponent out, they will tear your face off with arms as strong as iron bars and leave you to drown in your own blood.
JO: Break the flow! This sounds partly like an annoyingly true maxim I should internalize in my ongoing hunt for a job or in the project of life but also in keeping with the spirit of getting somebody to blow themselves up. I’ll carve it into a piece of wood or embroider it on a pillow.
DANNY: You won’t realize this for many years yet, but the suggestion of carving an expression into a piece of wood was the beginning of your downfall. I’ve already engineered it; there’s nothing anyone can do now to stop it.
[Image via Wikimedia Commons]