I will write about a handful of isolated issues before I try and find a common pattern.
Elon Musk has been universally vilified (at least on the left) as a tax-evading billionaire who has gotten rich stepping on the backs of working-class Americans. Elon, in perhaps an attempt to prove his naysayers wrong, paid the highest amount of taxes in human history last year. Whatever you might want to say about it, he didn’t have to. But he did. He also went on Saturday Night Live, spoke about his Asperger’s, and the “awesome” job that he does of sending rockets into space and building the best cars on the planet. Despite all of this, exactly 0 people on the left have now become Elon fans. He has also surely lost many fans on the right because he often comes across as “trying too hard”.
Jeff Bezos, who is also a tax-evading billionaire, and let’s face it, not as brilliant or influential as Elon, does not face the same amount of flak as Elon. Some of it has to do with the fact that he does not support issues that go against the liberal narrative (like no mask mandates, etc). However, I feel that a lot of it has to do with the fact that Bezos doesn’t apologize for his tax-evasion. He just does his own thing: minting billions, and supporting researchers at many institutions like MIT and Caltech. Note that Bezos really should be targeted more by the left; Amazon warehouse workers work in dangerous conditions for very low pay; this is as close as we can get to sweatshops in the United States. However, he just isn’t. And that’s not just because he owns the Washington Post; other competing publications are equally non-critical of him.
Like most people, I love reading “love advice” columns on the internet. A few years back, I read the following query from a girl in Singapore: she had a long-term boyfriend who would do anything for her. Whenever she casually mentioned to him over message that she was hungry, he would without fail show up at her house with a bucket of ice cream or something, even if it was 4 am. She said that she had grown tired of him, and wasn’t attracted to him anymore. The people in the comments’ section criticized her soundly. However, it was easy to “understand” why she wasn’t attracted to her boyfriend anymore.
A few years back, the Indian politician Mayawati was targeted in national newspapers for wearing a garland of currency notes. Doing so was illegal as per the Indian constitution. Now, no one expected Mayawati to get arrested, as the Indian police is often hand-in-glove with Indian politicians. However, she was at least expected to be soundly criticized in newspaper editorials. The very next day after this news broke, Mayawati called a press conference, and had someone put a garland of currency notes on her in front of everyone. She had purposefully broken the law in front of the whole world. I remember thinking that this was pretty badass. Other people must have thought the same, as the news and criticism died almost overnight (she hadn’t broken a big enough law to attract much attention from the courts).
I recently read an article by Freddie deBoer, where he talks about the TV show The Sopranos. I haven’t watched the show yet, so I didn’t get a lot of the insight he was trying to communicate. However, something that caught my attention was the following: apparently the audience wanted the show to move in a particular direction, in which the humane side of the mafia boss was shown, and this was made clear to the writers in multiple ways. However, instead of pandering to audience interests, the writers pushed back and in fact took the show in the opposite direction. This is apparently what made the show legendary. The Sopranos is in fact regularly voted to be the best TV show of all time.
Is there a common thread that binds all of these examples together?
Let’s take Elon’s case first. Had he just refused to comment on his tax-evasion altogether and kept doing what he does best, which is building amazing cars and rockets, his public image would have been much better. He is now 11 billion dollars poorer for no apparent gain. Bezos clearly knew how to handle his public image better; and I mean the guy cheated on his wife who now donates billions to charity. Bezos really should have been targeted more. In some sense, Elon is seems too needy for our collective approval, while Bezos comes across as not giving a flying…
Now we come to the girl from Singapore; she knew that her boyfriend was a nice person who was trying to make her feel special. However, it seemed that he was too hungry for her approval, and it is difficult respect anymore who you can control so easily. I do not mean to propagate an “alpha” version of masculinity in which we do not listen to our partners at all. All I’m saying is that getting respect is more complicated than just doing everything someone else tells in you in order to gain their approval.
Now we come to Mayawati. No one thinks that she is the best human being on earth, or even a very good politician. However, she comes across as someone who is not trying to get your approval. This also probably worked for Trump, who is a flaming human turd-ball in most other ways. The same goes for the writers of the Sopranos; when they felt that the audience was trying to control the story, they actively went against it. They made it clear that they did not care about the audience’s approval. And perhaps that is a major reason that they got it.
I can make the same argument about Joe Rogan, who almost mis-handled his case by apologizing every two days, and then corrected himself quickly by sticking to his initial arguments (regardless of their veracity), retaining his fans and not alienating anyone else.
Often people try to control you by giving or withholding their approval. If you do their bidding in order to try and win their approval, they’ll realize that they can easily control you, and respect you less for it. You will be caught in an infinite loop of trying to win their approval, but never quite getting it. It is only when you push back and make it clear that you cannot be controlled that you will, counter-intuitively, ever have a chance of getting their respect.