Shutterstock Image

How the Domination Mindset is Killing America

Emma Lindsay


I recently blogged about being annoyed in a twitch chat when a fellow twitcher wrote he would like nuke California, and one of my blog readers responded to me by telling me how silly I seemed coming up with a response to this guy later and putting it up on the internet.

I was actually a bit confused by her reply before it dawned on me what her perception of the situation probably was. She probably thought the guy had “won” by upsetting me, and now I was trying to “get my own” back by railing him on the internet. Presumably, I was too stupid to come up with a “witty” reply in the moment, and so had to have my own little hollow victory after the fact.

I will not contest my being potentially stupid and un-witty; rather, I would like to bring my focus back to what counts as “winning” nowadays. The “nuke CA” twitcher had “won” because he hurt me, and I “lost” because I failed to hurt him adequately in response. And where we are in America right now, this seems to be the goal in most interpersonal exchanges. Not, actually, in my personal life because my friends are generally kind to me (I hope this is the case for most people although I suspect it may not be) but at work, in the larger internet sphere, often when meeting strangers, etc this seems to hold.

And, interestingly, this comes up often when dating. In fact, the existence of the “domination mindset” was really brought home to me when I was reading about emotional abuse. Whenever I date, I keep getting stuck on the question why do the people who say they love me act like they hate me?

In Patricia Evans’ book The Verbally Abusive Relationship she discusses a relationship between “Jack” and “Jill” where Jack would constantly blame and accuse Jill of misdeeds in their relationship, and Jill was left confused because she usually hadn’t done the things Jack was blaming her for. Jill contacts Evans describing an experience she had calling Jack out:

When, as was his custom, he entered my room with his blaming and accusing, I, armed with new knowledge and self-assurance, simply said to him, “Cut it out, Jack. Leave me alone.”

A look of sudden shock immobilized him in the doorway. For the first time he was stopped from his verbal abuse.

He left the room only to come back later in a very strange mood. “When you told me that, it was like you called me on my game,” he said.

I did not show what I was thinking inside, but I was shocked. I thought to myself, “What! We’ve been married eleven years and all that time you’ve been playing a game with me?! Our whole marriage has been nothing but a power-over game to you! You weren’t the innocent victim unintentionally passing on the same abuse you’d been given, you were deliberately trying to gain control over me!?”

The Verbally Abusive Relationship, Patricia Evans, p208

When I first read this, it was deeply impactful on me (in fact, I think I may have quoted it before?) because I’ve had that exact same feeling in relationship before. My relationships often feel — in a way — like a communal project with another person; I’m trying to work with them to figure out a nice place to live, go on vacation, have a good Friday night, etc. Whatever it is, I perceive my partner and myself as — well — partners, and have always assumed that my partner is working under the same mindset.

But often they’re not. Often, what they really want, is to grapple for the “superior” position in the relationship. What is a “superior” position? Well, a superior position is the one held by the person who has more power or control; this person gets a disproportionate say in things like, what the budget should be, where to live, how time should be spent, etc.

Eventually I realized, I was often happier alone than in relationships because I wasn’t having to fight someone who was constantly trying to dominate me all the time. Often, for instance, when I’m in a relationship, I feel worse about how I look because the majority of people I date people take digs at my appearance, or subtly talk up other women they find “more” attractive and things like that. Ironically, as I get older (and presumably less conventionally attractive) this actually happens less. It also happens less if I date people who are secure with how they look; thing is often people insult your appearance if they secretly think you’re too hot for them. They feel insecure because they think you could leave the relationship more easily than they could, so they try to reduce your power by convincing you that you’re not attractive enough to do better.

Problem is, if someone insults me enough, it doesn’t matter if I could do better, because I’d be happier alone. Someone who is obsessed with being the most “in power” person in an intimate relationship will eventually destroy the very relationship they are trying to control because most people eventually come to the same conclusion as me and leave. At the extreme, you can see male partners who are willing to kill their wives and girlfriends rather than give up a little bit of control for an equitable relationship.

But, it’s not just intimate relationships where this happens — and it’s not just men who do this. I remember a particularly annoying incident at work, where I was trying to get sign off on a database design with a group of non-programmers, and one of the women kept shooting down my ideas. Let’s say this woman was the “visual designer” on the project (though actually she had a different profession but I don’t want her to be identifiable from this post.)

Anyway, she was so difficult that I had a discussion with her afterwards. She was extremely insulting towards me for about ten minutes, before she finally came out and said (of a particular database design decision the team had been happy with) “that wasn’t your idea, it was everyone’s idea.”

Eventually it dawned on me, she was jealous because people were happy with my work and had been trying to block it because of this. It was so frustrating for many reasons, because — for one — the particular database decision had actually been by idea, but also because I was the only fucking programmer in the room. It was my job to know how to design databases. I wasn’t smarter or more creative than anyone else there, I had just designed around one hundred databases in my career, and they’d all designed zero. Designing databases is an integral part of my job; I was hired because I had this specialty, everyone else was hired for a different specialty.

If it had been a design discussion, then clearly she would have been the authoritative voice. As it happens, she was actually an extremely talented designer, but instead of being able to work with her, I ended up in competition with her. Every time I did my job well, she would try to cut me down publicly so my reputation wouldn’t overshadow hers. Eventually, she ended up getting fired because she was gumming up the works so much, and it was a tragedy of sorts because if she had wanted to cooperate with me instead of dominate me, I think we could have made something really amazing. (If I had to guess, I would wager part of this was a defensiveness at her being dominated by male engineers over the years, and so she had developed a very aggressive exterior to survive in her profession.)

But, it was one of those situations where I eventually realized I was trying to cooperate with someone who was trying to dominate, and in situations like that it is extremely hard to get work done because you doing your job well is a threat to the other person’s status.

To go back to Patricia Evans’ findings on abusive relationships, one of the keys she gives you for identifying abusive situations is when it is impossible to plan anything with your partner. One of the signs that this designer was trying to dominate me, was that I found it damn near impossible to work effectively for her. If, for instance, one of her designs was hard to implement and I explained why, this was seen as my trying to usurp her authority, not a legitimate implementation issue. Consequently, it ended up taking me forever to build her work (and she would make public jabs about how other developers she’d worked with had been faster in the past.)

It actually kind of got in my head a bit, until we hired a contractor to build some of her designs and the contractor came back to me and said he was going to double his initial estimate, because her refusal to follow some UI conventions required lots of time consuming small scale tweaking. And it was then I realized, oh, this woman isn’t open to feedback like other designers I’ve worked with, and this is why development is taking so long.

Often, an inability to get something done as a team (or, if you are feeling like “I would have such an easier time getting this done by myself”) is because you are working with someone who cares more about dominating you than they care about the output of the project. With a “partner” this project might be making plans for the house, or a trip, or something like that; at work, it’s probably your work output that’s getting slowed down. But, for some people, they legitimately believe that what is most important is that they remain in control at all costs, even the cost of what you’re trying to accomplish.

I have seen startup after startup literally go under because a substantial number of the employees preferred personal domination to the success of the startup. Frankly, my perception is, most people in America actually operate like this. Even I do sometimes, but I always feel guilty afterwards.

I never feel like I’ve “won” if I hurt someone. For instance, a few times, I’ve gotten pissed off at people in my comments and snapped at them rather than maintaining my patience and I view that as a personal failing. Because, if we think back to the designer lady who was trying to dominate me, she was probably doing this because she had suffered substantially in her life. She had existed in a sexist industry that beat her down, and she saw a chance for escape and was desperately taking it. Similarly, people who leave me snarky comments usually do so out of some kind of their own pain.

One common theme, is people will tell me I’m an idiot (often due to grammarrrr and spellingzzzzz) and if I’m in a bad mood, I’ll imply they’re an idiot right back. The thing is, deep down they probably already thought they were stupid so I’m actually making the problem worse if I succeed. If I get a really sick burn off and make them feel stupid, then they will double down on this toxic behavior that is caused by insecurity and I will have made the world a worse place.

But also, why do those insults even get to me in the first place?

Because I am insecure about my grammar and spelling. If you’re a regular reader and have been wondering “does Emma know she can’t spell?” the answer is yes, yes I know. Look, I’m a programmer, not a professional words-maker-person, and if I devoted time to getting my stuff to read like the words of a professional word person it would take me forever to get a post out. So, sorry if it’s distracting — but, it’s not like I get paid for this. However, if you want to piss me off, you can take a poke at my grammar and spelling, and yes it will upset me and you can leave feeling you “won” the exchange. Of course, if you piss me off enough, I might end up taking it out on someone else and then you will have made the world a worse place too.

The heart of dominating other people is making them feel bad so you can feel better and, culturally, we do this everywhere. Everywhere. It is so hard to escape, and if you look for it, you will see a significant number of interactions revolve around this dynamic. It just makes everyone less and less happy, and the world becomes more and more miserable, but more importantly, it blocks communal working towards a better world.

One place this has become particularly noxious is in conservative areas; consider the entire Trump election fiasco. Despite tons of evidence, many republicans would rather surrender democracy before “letting” the democrats win. This is consistent with domination strategy; people would rather let something be destroyed if they cannot control it.

However, this is even worse than it initially seems because the democrats have actually done terrible things to our country, and republicans aren’t offering viable alternatives because they are obsessed with “winning” interpersonal confrontations. For various reasons that are too long to detail here, I actually believe democrats are the more responsible party for the destruction of wealth equality in the US, because they were the ones who allied with big tech and allowed the oligarchs unprecedented control over the population.

And the republicans are so obsessed with hurting the democrats that they’ve been unable to actually see the real harm the democrats have done; they just want to score ideological wins like overturning Roe v Wade (hit ’em where it hurts!) rather than actually working to substantially improve the material wellbeing of their working class constituents.

So, as it, our country is hella fucked until we get people in power who are willing to work with other people, and work towards larger goals as opposed to just trying to poke the other where it hurts. But, the reason we have politicians like that, is because we have a culture that rewards this behavior.

If you scroll back up and take a look at my original image, you’ll see a man in an MMA ring striking a triumphant pose; this is held up as the American ideal, the victor, the winner. What is not shown in the top image is the vanquished loser and what the human cost of that might be. It looks more like the image below, with blood everywhere and one man choking another man out:

Photo by Daniel Lloyd Blunk-Fernández on Unsplash

And, don’t get me wrong I like sports (I even like MMA) but we should confine this ideology to appropriate arenas where people have consented to fight. An obsession with “winning” is not appropriate for partnerships, it is not appropriate for work, and it certainly isn’t appropriate for governing. It’s a terrible ideology to be the default standard in the US.

I would encourage seeking out people, behaviors, and ideology that encourages cooperation. We’re in a huge fucking mess, all stuck on one planet together, and we’re not going to find a way out of it if we care more about being the winner than we do about our communal survival.