Our world has been taken over by disruptors. This is not altogether surprising; any ecological system will become vulnerable to disruptive and predatory organisms if the conditions are right. A system that is unable to mount an immune reaction to such invaders will succumb and suffer until it either dies, or is able to once again rouse itself into an effective response. The closely cooperative and sharing human world that enabled our ancestors to survive the severe challenges of the last ice age began to change with the advent of the Holocene, when benign climate ushered in an era of plenty. There are a number of theories that address what exactly happened then, and I will leave that for another time. Suffice to say that gradually, perhaps in only a handful of societies at first, a new social order was born. Or perhaps, a new disorder.
In a nutshell: the cooperative human game began to be disrupted in a few places, and the disruption infected other societies and spread over time. I consider it highly likely that our ancestors responded to the new world of plenty with greater tolerance for disruptive personalities, and even welcomed the talents that go along with them. Yet here we are — on the brink of disaster. Isn’t the key issue of the new paradigm to return to playing the cooperative game and to make sure that this time, it remains evolutionarily stable? Recognizing the disruptors is the first order of business when coming to grips with them. Who are these people who undermine trust and cooperation to such an extent that civilized societies appear seriously impaired in their capability to deal with the challenges of the 21st century? Let’s shine a light at them.
Dicks gift us with meanness. They work hard to belittle, diminish and abuse a person. I have waxed eloquent on dickery before; it consists of the endless variations on slugging the person rather than the objectionable belief, idea, behavior, or product. In verbal skirmishes, it had already been recognized by the ancients as the ad hominem: attacking the person rather than their argument. Dicks are oblivious to the damage to people and relationships they leave in their wake. They want to be right. They want to showcase their memes. They want to win.
Trolls relish sowing chaos, deception and confusion within human communities, and have been known to paralyze them. They generate emotions in others while not investing any of their own. Trolls love to yank people’s chains! They feed on the chaotic emotional energy they stir up, and on the attention paid them.
What all trolls have in common is bait: messages intended solely to upset or insult. If people “bite” by getting riled, the troll proceeds to “reel them in” and does his best to wreck the conversation and damage the good will within that community. To this end, trolls apply a wide range of havoc wreaking, noise generating methods with great success. Spurious accusations, previous statements twisted into meanings never intended, demands for proof for any and all statements made, requests for information already provided, willful contradictions, off-topic bunny trails, arbitrary word usage redefinitions, or seizing upon small mistakes to subvert the thrust of the main argument; these are just a sample of the rich trollish repertoire. They cultivate the fine art of missing the point, never answer inconvenient questions, and set people up to argue with each other by using subtly invidious language.
If one tack does not produce the desired discord, the creature will switch to another. When an otherwise peaceable community starts fighting, look for a troll loitering nearby. Still, trolls are not all bad; they can liven up a moribund discussion and interrupt groupthink. And dealing with them can foster a community’s spirit of self-governance. Unfortunately, their positive contributions are far outweighed by the pointless conflict they generate. The troll’s goal is not to win an argument but rather to provoke a futile one that runs forever.
Predators take advantage of others. Most predators are not sociopaths. They are folks whose scruples do not stop them from skimming off or plundering what they did not earn. Some are thieves and embezzlers, some are bankers and financiers. They are mobsters who run protection rackets, and government officials who scheme to bilk the citizens. They are shadowy slavers running sweatshops and brothels, and high placed economic hitmen reducing whole countries to debt peonage.
A rare variety well illustrating their anti-social nature are ‘patent trolls:’ people who sit on patents preventing others from using the invention and coming out of their cave only to sue those who may be “infringing.” They are the free riders on an economic system where restrained, accountable behavior of most of its participants is still prevalent. Predators want to fatten themselves at others’ expense. Some predators specialize in inflicting physical harm.
Aggrandizers are people who exhibit the “triple-A” personality: they are ambitious, acquisitive and aggressive. They played a key role in the shift from the stable, sharing economies of egalitarian tribes toward the increasingly intensifying economies that replaced them in larger and larger areas. These high-energy people endowed with considerable talents tend to rise readily into leadership positions. Aggrandizers promise goodies, and often deliver: they are the tireless organizers of feasts, the forgers of trade alliances, the consummate politicos, the able warriors. They have a knack for finding ways to motivate people to produce more, and using that surplus for previously unavailable benefits for the community. In the short run, they can do a lot of good. In fact, this is how they win people over.
As egalitarians the world over have understood, however, the people most eager for power may not be the best choice to bear its burdens. Non-aggrandizer leaders do not present the same threat, nor do they require constant vigilance. To put it plainly, despite their short-term benefits, aggrandizers are highly dangerous to the well-being of human communities. If their ambition is allowed to go unchecked, they turn anti-social in the long run. Lack of effective limits corrupts them into dicks, trolls and über-predators, and they end up causing massive damage to the societies they once served. They want power, wealth, prestige, and status, and they never have enough.
Disruptors are skilled stage magicians: they distract the cooperative chumps by layers of spectacle, while the real action goes on veiled, camouflaged, unnoticed. Dickery mixes abuse and unscrupulous behavior with “nice” behavior in order to disarm the dupe. Trolling creates maddening swirls of distracting trivia, confusion and strife able to cripple a community. The predators ooze an aura of charm, allure and cunning in order to take advantage. And aggrandizers offer an endlessly gratifying cornucopia of goodies, all the while subtly diverting more and more power and wealth to themselves. The world taken over by the disruptors is a world of spectacle: all the world’s a stage — to keep the chumps spellbound.
For most of us, meaningful social relations rest on the default assumption of mutual cooperation, leading us to see others as fellow cooperators even when appearances suggest otherwise. The belief in the universality of this social contract can blind us to the fundamentally uncooperative nature of disruptor behavior. Typically, we waste our energies on arguing with disruptors, nagging them and shaming them, hoping to bring them back into the fold. None of that works. They do what they do for a reason. They disrupt because they find such behavior rewarding. And until we find a way to shift those rewards, they will keep on doing it. Why wouldn’t they? The disruptors do not follow the universal social contract; they take advantage of it. Isn’t it high time for the rest of us, the predominantly cooperative ones, to get savvy and to restore the cooperative human game that has been part of our birthright as a species for most of its existence?
I am not branding the disruptors as the darkling “other,” the evil side of the human community that needs to be eradicated. Scapegoating and witch hunts are disruptor ploys. Cooperators understand that behaviors rather than persons need curtailing or eliminating, and look for strategies arising from working with each other. So how do we deal with individuals who have come to thwart the cooperative game so regularly and so profoundly that dealing with them has become something of an acute emergency for civilized societies? Together we can shift the pattern of rewards. What we feed… will grow. Withhold cooperation from the disruptors. Cooperate with the cooperators.