J. Brad Hicks (bradhicks) wrote,
J. Brad Hicks

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Centipede's Dilemma

A while ago I mentioned one of my trivial personal mutant super-powers: my mobile "permission field." If you missed it or you don't remember, what I was saying was that I have this weird effect on people where, if there's something harmless that they'd like to do but they don't have the nerve for some stupid reason or other, I seem to give them permission to act it out just by being there. And once I'd brought it up, nancylebov asked the entirely reasonable question, "So how does that work?"

The centipede, they tell us, never successfully walked again.

So after admitting to myself, despite much reflection, that I had no idea how I do this, I ended up out to dinner with kukla_tko42 and some other friends. Kukla knows me better than anybody else on this planet, so I asked her. She replied, "I have no i... Wait, I do know." And she chose to relate it to, of all things, Stanley Milgram, which was fresh in her mind because I'd just brought it up the other day. She reminded me that one of Milgram's famous 18 variables was "tacit permission." That there came a point in his famous "obedience experiment" where the real subjects tended to realize that they were seriously hurting the other (fake) subjects, and nearly all of them would look up at the experimenter briefly. Milgram discovered that the experimenter didn't need to say anything to get them to go on, that he just needed to stand there. Her interpretation is that Milgram's subjects were thinking, "Is this OK? Surely if this wasn't okay, this guy wouldn't let me do it." So her interpretation is that to at least half of our friends, I'm that kind of authority figure.

This caused me tremendous distress. I flirted briefly with wanting to be an authority figure (specifically, a Big Name Pagan) back in the mid 1980s, and quickly learned just how little I wanted to be an authority figure. So I asked alienne. She told me that yeah, Kukla was probably right, I am an authority figure. Gah.

So I asked becka_kitty, hoping for a reprieve. And got one, and I think between my personal think tankers we've got the answer. It's not so much that they recognize me as an authority figure. After all, as Becka caught that Adrienne and Kukla didn't, none of these people has ever obeyed any order or any suggestion that I've ever given. What they're recognizing me as is someone with two specific traits that they need. First of all, I am (as I often joke) a Trained Professional Debaucher. ("This debauchery was performed by a trained professional. Kids, don't try this at home.") My friends know that after 46 years of the kind of life that I've lived, if anybody knows how far is too far, it's me. I've spent a lifetime hanging out with people who race directly up to the edge of Going Too Far. I've read extensively on the subject, sources like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Lipstick Traces and Bohemian Paris and Woodstock: An Oral History and even a smuggled first rough draft of Kerry Thornley's autobiography and many more, and paid close attention to at what point people who were racing towards the edge of Going Too Far's brakes didn't catch them in time. And the other useful trait is one that I mentioned the other day, when I objected so strenuously to being called "heroic." I have no particular fear of any consequences from being the person who says to someone, "Dude, knock it off, you're going to get us all in trouble." Other people are afraid of social ostracism for disagreeing with the group and/or for being perceived as a wet blanket. Other people are sometimes afraid of getting beat up by a drunk or a stoner if they tell them to knock it off. There are things that I'm afraid of, but neither of those things make the list.

So the sense in which Kukla is right is that, at certain points where people naturally look around to see if anyone's going to stop them, I don't. (More likely, if I think the reason they're even hesitating is a stupid reason, I egg them on.) They trust me not because I'm in charge, but because I've demonstrated good judgment on the subject, because the number of people who've screwed up their lives for doing things that I encouraged or allowed asymptotically approaches zero. And they know they can count on me to stop them if, in my judgment, I think I need to, because I'm rudely or stupidly or bravely or obliviously willing to do so, and so inclined.
Tags: personal

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