2016-10-11

Defensive Posturing

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

People have a tendency to adopt whatever posture will present themselves in the best possible light. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is inauthentic, and hence disingenuous. Confident authenticity, by contrast, would involve presenting oneself in an unassuming way, with no particular pre-determined posture, and allowing the situation to dictate how one needs to communicate to make oneself understood.

Usually, defensive posturing is forgivable. Why not make a good first impression? When meeting new people or dealing with strangers, it’s typically a good thing to smile, speak with kind, open language, be polite, and so on, so that other people can feel comfortable interacting with you. It helps build trust and ease social interaction for everyone involved. True, one might not be a ray of sunlight all the time, friendly and polite in every circumstance, and so adopting a friendly posture sometimes might be a little disingenuous in that it doesn’t accurately reflect one’s disposition at all times. But, as I said, this is forgivable since it’s done for a good purpose that everyone can appreciate. Frankly, it would be a little odd to present the full spectrum of your personality to all people in all situations.

Note, however, that these kinds of exceptions tend to involve new people, new situations, and casual interaction. In these instances, people don’t demand much from each other in the way of philosophical consistency or intellectual honesty. There aren’t many dishonest answers to questions like, “How’s this weather treating you?” As the intellectual demands of a situation rise, however, presenting oneself as authentically as possible becomes ever-more important. This is one of the reasons why formal speeches often being with an “ice-breaker,” a funny quip or engaging story that reveals the social personality of the speaker before many social graces must be set aside for an exploration of the speech’s true subject matter.

Here’s where things get interesting.

A conversation about politics, for example, requires a great deal more than social grace; it requires some knowledge of current events, relevant history, political philosophy, civics, economics, and so on. Having some knowledge in any one of these areas – let alone all of them – is enough to push the conversation into less chit-chatty territory. Politics is notoriously difficult to talk about in social circumstances precisely for this reason. One’s friends might find it inconvenient to know, for example, that minimum wage laws cause unemployment. This is a bald, empirical fact that may rub some people the wrong way, depending on their political leanings. It’s tricky to mention this fact in a way that keeps friends receptive to the point you’re making.

I know a few people who like to talk about politics, but whose dedication to social graces is strong that they can’t bring themselves to pronounce an “offending” remark such as the minimum wage statement I just mentioned. Some might goad another friend into making the statement instead, and this is a real problem, in my opinion. Instead of taking the risk of offending someone upon themselves, they out-source the job to a friend whose role in the situation is to be the patsy, the one who must offend others because the first person is too cowardly to speak his mind. It’s fair enough to think better than to speak your mind, but to make a third party bear the risk of offending solely because you yourself don’t have the guts, well, that’s pretty unseemly.

There is another, more abstract, level to this. Sometimes people will construct elaborate intellectual frameworks that look like coherent philosophy on first brush, but which later reveal themselves to be little more than claptrap designed to justify a contentious belief. Suppose, for example, that I was only able to acknowledge that minimum wages cause unemployment if I went the extra step to suggest that keeping those wages high ensures that enough tax revenue can be generated to pay social welfare to the job losers. Of course, economic theory has a response to that, as well, but then the discussion has already become more complicated. The more complicated the discussion, the easier it is to find small points of contention that provide some plausible deniability to the person who needs it.


In this way, people are able to maintain many silly, wrong, or dangerous beliefs by invoking a posture. This posture is “defensive” in that its real function is to defend the psyche against change. But it might not appear to be defensive to others. In fact, it works best when it doesn’t look defensive. People will say it looks smart, or moderate, or balanced, or well-meaning, or curious. All the while, the posturer is really just engaged in a crafty subconscious defense.