Mr. Putin’s war against Ukraine is – on a different scale – what we can experience in our small private lives every day: There is someone we do not like, because he or she is a bully, but we have to deal with him or her anyway to get something done. The reason for that may be that there is some kind of dependence or inter-dependence, financially, linked to our career, emotionally or in some other way. This can be very annoying and challenging in everyday life. It is the moment we do not expect when we are young and it is those moments we fear when we get older, when we’re looking back at our first failures in those critical, most irritating situations.
Distinction between “situational” and “real” arseholes
So, to start, I would like to introduce a distinction between what I call a “situational arsehole” and “real arseholes”. Each and every one of us fits the first category from time to time in the eyes of somebody else, be it in traffic, be it in a situation of a rivalry of some kind. “Real arseholes”, however, are rarer. I would like to use the word “arsehole” in this article as a technical term rather than a simple insult, in the interest of the sobriety of the argument. I choose it because it is an easily intelligible word describing a person who is lacking care for the interest of others and the social elasticity to forego their own gratification for the benefit of another person in a given situation, e. g. by way of compromise, concession, subordination or the willingness to learn something new or just to be kind. Psychological literature explains the patterns of behaviour which are not grounded in a good interpersonal touch and natural, responsive interaction with pathological developments in the respective persons’ childhoods. “Normopathy” is a term that describes behaviours which align to expected or well-known patterns of action and interaction while going contrary to natural personal inclinations. In an extreme form, one expression of this phenomenon could be an extremely hierarchical, power-oriented and reckless behaviour. The reason for the psychological deformation of a normopathy can mostly be found in different influencing factors during a person’s childhood, such as a lack of love, a lack of respect, a lack of attention, an overkill of domination or control etc. (cf. Hans Joachim Maaz, “Das falsche Leben: Ursachen und Folgen unserer normopathischen Gesellschaft“, C. H. Beck, 2017).
A tragic-comical side-effect
Quite naturally, this problem is very commonplace and what I describe as “real arseholes” is just a sample out of this larger group of “damaged personalities”. This sample is characterised by different markers, e. g. the lack of a gradual conversion towards an acceptable level of sociability, for example by corrective forces around them, such as social control, social resistance to their behaviour or also positive factors such as healing events in their lives. One might think of them entering a loving relationship or changing their perception of the world after witnessing the wonder of birth and childrearing, something trivial but humanely touching like that. If these “corrective” experiences are lacking, reinforcing mechanisms can further accentuate the “arsehole” persona , for example, people get into positions of power in their jobs or public life where the people around them do not dare to exert the kind of social control anymore which would usually be key in manoeuvring them towards an acceptable degree of social well-adjustedness. The tragic-comical side of these kinds of developments often is that the intrinsic insecurities people of that kind carry deep within them, knowing or feeling that they have lost touch with a positive, fruitful and friendly version of themselves, shines through in their words, gestures and actions. So an awkward human weakness is always observable, even and foremost in their actions that are meant to have the most powerful effect. A very good example for this is Mr. Putin’s behaviour during the interview which Austrian public television anchor-man Mr. Wolf did with him at the occasion of Mr. Putin’s latest visit to Vienna. The recording does not need much explanation. It speaks for itself and is very interesting to watch in the context of my line of thought here (cf. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77_jB4yJYaA).
Next to these more socially induced reasons for “real arsehole” behaviour, there is also the suspicion that a rather important hormonal component can play a role in the observed kind of anomaly as well, especially visible or tangible in men and probably linked to serotonin and testosterone. Psychological literature, again, points towards the archaic effect of mutual reinforcement of both the social and the biological/hormonal factor (cf. Jordan Peterson, “12 Rules for Life”, Random House, 2018, Chapter 1, Chapter 10).
Conflict-procrastination is very expensive: how to go about it instead?
Now, how do we deal with “real arseholes” in our own lives effectively, i. e. keep ourselves out of harm’s way as much as possible while at the same time exerting a healthy disciplinary power on the social ecosystem around us? The answer to this question should help to inform us about what might have been done better in political interaction with Mr. Putin by Western state leaders. I offer the following blueprint for a sensible and early course of action when faced with “real arsehole” encounters in opposition to all those commentators who have all too easily and light-heartedly welcomed the latest political initiatives for rearmament, as if those were a logical and morally acceptable path to take. They might have become a dire necessity now. That does not entail that they are – morally or economically – a reasonable choice. A responsible communication strategy in almost any kind of conflict (certainly one that develops over a longer span of time) is much different from this idea of forceful deterrence or counter-aggression. The important thing to understand here, also for our everyday lives, is to take action in a timely fashion and not let things go until only the worst possible options are left. This is hard, because taking action in a “real arsehole” encounter always means bearing a cost which, otherwise, would not have been necessary. The typical consequence of this dilemma is that taking on a cost of some kind is being deferred until the moment the conflict escalates and a reaction cannot be avoided anymore at all. At that point, it is safe to say, the cost to be borne will be multiple times higher than it would have been had the conflict been tackled at an early stage.
I am not saying that a (morally and economically) responsible strategy will always work out. And I will certainly agree that it is hard to pursue, as it most probably comes with high cost in terms of compromise towards the “real arsehole”/aggressor at a point of time where the necessity to bear this cost cannot easily be explained to oneself, others, the taxpayer or political allies or opponents. I am just saying, against the backdrop of a number of interviews I have done with a late WWII and D-Day veteran and also of current daily media coverage of the ongoing war, that the expected cost of an expensive, responsible early communication strategy will certainly be much lower than the cost of a (verbally or physically) violent or military escalation. So this is what I believe should be done in a situation of conflict with what I call here a “real arsehole”:
- Be friendly and assertive
- Say exactly what you do not like and appreciate, but in a way that is dead serious and will therefore not be taken as a mere provocation (for an example, see again Peterson, Chapter 7 – I am explicitly citing Mr. Peterson here in his capacity as a psychologist, not as “public intellectual”, as I do not share many of the conclusions he draws from his observations):
I rid myself, to the bottom of my soul, of primate-dominance motivations and moral superiority. I told him as directly and carefully as I could that I would not. I was playing no tricks. In that moment I wasn’t an educated, anglophone, fortunate, upwardly-mobile young man. He wasn’t an ex-con Quebecois biker with a blood alcohol level of .24. No, we were two men of good will trying to help each other out in our common struggle to do the right thing. I said that he had told me he was trying to quit drinking. I said that it would not be good for him if I provided him with more money. I said that he made Tammy, whom he respected, nervous when he came over so drunk and so late and tried to sell me things. He glared seriously at me without speaking for about fifteen seconds. That was plenty long enough. He was watching, I knew, for any micro-expression revealing sarcasm, deceit, contempt or self-congratulation. But I had thought it through, carefully, and I had only said things I truly meant. I had chosen my words, carefully, traversing a treacherous swamp, feeling out a partially submerged stone path. Denis turned and left. […] Our relationship, which was quite good, given the great cultural gaps between us, became even more solid.
- Be creative and try to come up with offers that are so big/important they go far beyond the realm of influence of the “real arsehole” you’re dealing with but are linked to their responsibilities at the same time. This strategy is intended to create a larger interest with the goal of sparking a dynamic of its own, involving and triggering the interest of many more people. The idea is to set a positive target and at the same time mitigate the “real arsehole’s” weight, importance and leverage in the game. In the example of Russia, Western leaders could have proposed an economic union with Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kirgistan and Turkey while making clear to the stakeholders that it would not happen under the leadership of someone they were not able to trust for reasons they would have had to explain in a very serious and dry way.
Obviously, those reasons, in the case of Mr. Putin, are in the first place instances of human misconduct of the highest degree, namely repeated murder and abuse of other human beings by the use of public means, such as the Russian secret service and public funds. Ms. Politkowskaja, Mr. Nemtsov, Mr. Litvinenko, Mr. Skripal and his daughter, Mr. Nawalny, the killing of a Chechen man in open daylight in a park in Berlin are only a few names and examples that illustrate a degree of gross civil misconduct which makes it impossible to put any trust in the man that has to be seen behind all of these deeds by any degree of logic.
Happiness and responsibility
Taking a broader perspective on happiness, life-choices and responsibilities, I might add that one’s education should ideally be compatible with one’s choice of profession. In the case of Mr. Putin, his early education as a secret service agent has certainly qualified him to technically manage and dominate a state apparatus. At the same time, it can be said with great certainty that especially this kind of education is to be seen as the least apt for taking over the leadership of a state and a nation as a moral body of human beings aspiring to a better life. Scholars in ancient Greece already suggested to only allowing philosophers as leaders of their poleis and seen the challenges they described with human and political interaction, it only seems logical that they did not choose lawyers or book keepers or secret service people for this big, unifying task. Mr. Nawalny has made transparent in his latest video, that Mr. Putin has primarily sought his own material benefit from his position of leader of the Russian state. One does not need to be a philosopher, though, to understand that this is an unbalanced and meaningless approach for every life, not only, but especially not for the life of a person with public responsibilities. Happiness cannot be acquired by material means beyond a rather modest threshold. On the contrary: it only causes other, much fiercer sorrows from a certain point onwards and should be avoided at any cost, as studies of happiness economics clearly indicate. Historians say that it could have been clear to many that Mr. Putin was going after this kind of vain targets in life early on during his career, as advisor to the Saint Petersburg city council and as vice mayor of the city. This leads to the note I would like to end this text on, namely that every one of us has the responsibility to exercise early resistance to people who seem powerful but are, essentially and recognizably, unbalanced “real arseholes”.