Mastery and Masters: The Fine Line Between Substantive Debate and Power Struggle

I’ve never admitted this to you before, but twice in my life I had five years of four-day-a-week psychoanalysis, complete with the couch. The first time I was between the ages of 8 and 13; the second between 25 and 30.

It’s a cultural thing. For the Chicago Jewish upper-middle class in the early ’60s, Freudian analysis was the one option for dealing with problem children. As a child, I didn’t fit in well, so my parents found me a psychoanalyst. Though I was the only one in my family to have it as a child, all members of my family eventually had theirs. Weird, I know, but in my tribe, psychoanalysis was standard issue.

I don’t think it damaged me, but I don’t think it worked the way Freud promised it would, either. I think I’ve made good use of it, though it has made me something of an alien. I introspect more than most people because psychoanalysis gives you lots of practice. My psychoanalysts were the silent types. The 1,650 hours (!) I spent in psychoanalysis were mostly filled with me lying on the couch shamelessly introspecting while my analyst listened. Looking back, it’s an embarrassingly indulgent thing to have done in this world of need and sorrow.

Freud taught analysts that their silence made patients perceive them as blank slates. I don’t think so. Silence and the high price per session made us perceive them as high priests of wisdom. I assumed they knew everything. I deferred to them.

I remember once coming home from an intense session somewhere in the middle of the second five years, ripe with an epiphany I confessed in tears to my wife. I admitted to a peculiar mental affliction that the doctor and I had discovered through my interaction with him: I had a serious problem with deference and defiance. I either surrendered to other people’s opinions or fought against them. It was written all over my psyche. This was the secret to my uniquely disturbed mind.

Recognizing my oscillations between deference and defiance was a good insight, or at least it was a good stepping-stone on the way to other insights, chief among them that the tension between deference and defiance is central to everyone’s uniquely disturbed mind. If there’s anything that’s going to disturb a mind it’s doubt about when to surrender to other people’s preferences and demands and when to assert one’s own. Deference and defiance are two poles on the continuum of give-and-take. My life, your life, everyone’s life--indeed, all biological life plays out in terms of give-and-take dynamics.

“Give-and-take” is an interesting phrase: Technically, it’s a chiasmus implied by two contranyms. A chiasmus is an X-shaped phrase in which two words are repeated in opposite order: “Never let a kiss fool you or a fool kiss you.” Contranyms are words that have two opposite meanings. For example, “clip” means “attach to” or “cut off from.”

The words “give” and “take” are contranyms on the theme of deference and defiance. “Give” means giving a hard time (defiance), or giving in (deference). “Take” means taking it lying down (deference) or taking what you want (defiance). The ambiguity built into these two words makes “give-and-take” an implied chiasmus: something like “give in or take what you want; take it lying down or give a hard time.” In the phrase, as in real life, it’s hard to track what’s give and what’s take, which reminds me of an old limerick:

A gay man from outer Khartoum
Had a lesbian up to his room.
They argued all night
As to who had the right
To do what and with which and to whom.

Deference and defiance have to do with power, with who gets to be master. Slaves defer to masters and masters defy slaves’ preferences. In the give-and-take of life, who defers? Who defies? Who gets to do what and with which and to whom?

And furthermore, by what standard do people decide? Is all negotiation just a power struggle? Is it all about who gets to be master and who has to be slave?

“Master” is an interesting word. Master/slave relationships are bad. But mastery is a supreme virtue. My father, may he rest in peace, was a lucky man. He got to try many of life’s great amusement park rides. By the end, though, he declared the pursuit of mastery was the best ride of all, the highest virtue, the most reliable source of joy.

What is mastery? It’s a cultivated discernment, basically wisdom within a specific area of focused practice and attention. Aristotle caught this quality in his treatment of virtue, which of course is kin to the terms “virtuosity” and “virtuoso,” other words for mastery and masters. A virtuoso guitarist knows when to move her fingers and where. She’s a master, having learned through years of practice what she prefers and how to make the guitar yield it. A virtuous person, according to Aristotle, is a virtuoso of practical wisdom, knowing, for example, when to give and when to take, when to defer and when to defy.

In an ideal world, those with mastery would be masters. Not absolute masters, because slavery is vile, but still, they would earn the power to govern through their demonstration of mastery. In an ideal meritocracy, experts (those with mastery) would become authorities (the masters). Teachers with power over their students would be wise. Presidents would have mastery in statecraft. The powerful would have highly cultivated powers of discernment. After all, a lot is at stake and bosses are inevitable. Wouldn’t it be best if the bosses were wise? That’s the hope.

Sometimes the relationship between masters and mastery is flipped. It’s not those with mastery who earn the role of masters. Instead, the ones who have managed to snag the role of masters proclaim themselves masterful. “Look you, I’m right ’cuz I’m the boss, see? You wanna make something of it?” Sometimes “right” earns “might,” but sometimes, unfortunately, “might” proclaims itself “right.”

So here’s a way to look at it: When you find yourself in disagreement with someone and you can’t just walk away, there’s got to be some give-and-take. One framing is that the negotiation is a competition to decide who gets to be master. But there’s another framing that has to do with discernment--whose mastery has earned them right to say what happens next.

There are two ways to negotiate. One is negotiation by might. The other is negotiation by right. And it’s often very hard to tell which kind of negotiation you’re in. Is it about master/slave or mastery? When is it a considered choice to defer to another person and when are you just being spineless? When is yours a careful choice to disagree and when are you just in a pissing match?

In everyday life this issue comes up all the time. When people don’t go along with your plan, are they being discerning and thoughtful--or just contrary, defying you in a power struggle, without regard to what you’re requesting?

“You haven’t even considered my request. You’re not even listening to me. You’re just automatically disagreeing with me to get back at me or whatever.”

When you go along with someone else, is that because you’re employing your powers of discernment or are you just being deferential in the power struggle?

“OK, I did say yes to him but it’s not what you think. I mean, I really think he’s right. I’m not just deferring to him. If I didn’t agree with him, I wouldn’t be afraid to say it to his face.”

When people support your opinions, is it because they agree with you or because you have power over them?

“Look, I know you’re my employee but you’ve also got some expertise. I don’t just want a yes-man. I need your honest opinion here.”

When you disagree with someone, is your opinion thoughtful or are you just being contrary?

“Look, I don’t want to argue with you, and I’m not trying to pick a fight. This isn’t about you and me. I’m giving you my honest opinion because I care about the outcome.”

The ambiguity between master/slave and mastery is bedeviling. It’s terrible talking substance with someone on a power trip. It’s also terrible defending your turf with someone who’s really just trying to talk sense with you.

For years, I thought I was making considered choices to agree with my psychoanalyst, and then I realized that in a way I was just deferring to his power. Indeed, one of the psychoanalysts’ powers is the way they authoritatively interpret any conversation, substantive or otherwise, as a power struggle. If I deferred to my psychiatrist, it was really about my power struggle with my father. If I defied him, it was really about my power struggle with my father. No wonder I stayed in analysis so long. I had so much work to do on my uniquely troubled mind.

But you don’t have to do anything as esoteric as psychoanalysis for this ambiguity to become a problem. I bet at least once in the last few days you had a conversation in which the framework flickered between power and content, master and mastery, might and right.

Sometimes it’s about power; sometimes it’s about content. The wisdom to know the difference is worth pursuing. In other words, the pursuit of mastery over frame shifting itself is a supreme virtue. On this I agree with my father. And Aristotle too.

But it’s not what you think. I mean honestly, I think they’re right. I’m not just sucking up to them.

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