Prevenge: "I'm like rubber; you're like screwed."

Dog Have you ever blackmailed someone? I attempted to blackmail a policeman the other evening. I was driving somewhere in my usual hurry. After I rolled through a stop sign, he trailed me and gave me a ticket.

I acted put out, sullen, unfriendly. He remained cheerful. After he gave me the ticket, he said, “Drive safely!” But I didn’t respond. I didn’t say, “OK.” I didn’t even say, “‘Bye.” I wanted to stick it to him for sticking it to me. I wanted him to feel discredited so I didn’t have to feel bad for ignoring that stop sign.

OK, so it’s not exactly blackmail, but it has features in common with it. A blackmailer says, “If you don’t cooperate, I’ll discredit you. If you go to the authorities I’ll have discredited you already, so your word will be worthless.” Similarly, I was letting the policeman know that since he didn’t cooperate with my wish to be spared a ticket, he was discredited in my eyes. Indeed, I wasn’t discrediting him for giving me a ticket; that would look defensive on my part. No, instead I took prevenge—prior revenge as though I had a preestablished policy that discredits any officer who would give me a ticket. That way I wouldn’t feel at fault. I activated the childish “I’m like rubber, you’re like glue—everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you” ploy as though it were a policy of mine, though of course I would only have activated it if my behavior was called into question. I’m not like rubber if you compliment me.

 

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The officer probably gets that kind of disrespect all the time, and worse—within the limits of the law that punishes citizens for being disrespectful to the police. Where I live, that law isn’t currently excessive.

Of course, such laws can be taken to appalling extremes. Under Stalin, if you were even slightly critical of the police, you were considered an enemy of the state and sent to the gulag. The state took protective prevenge against anyone who criticized it, discrediting citizens not in response to their criticism but through preestablished policy. It wasn’t, “If you attack us, then, in response, we’ll get mad and retaliate.” Rather, it was, “Before your criticism even lands on us, we will have determined that you’re disreputable.”

In other times here in the United States, prevenge was policy. After we entered World War I, a critical word from any citizen was taken as a sign that that citizen was a traitor. Citizens were occasionally beaten for not buying war bonds. Indeed, medical response to the Great Influenza, which killed between 10 and 100 million worldwide, was slowed because U.S. public health officials who called for quarantines were automatically dismissed as traitors.

Again, during the McCarthy era, a sure sign that you were a Communist was any expression of dissatisfaction with the way the House Committee on Un-American Activities was conducting its campaign to weed out Communists.

Prevenge is both a deterrent and a deflection. It makes the victim think twice about defying, but if the victim decides to defy anyway, the act will be preemptively discredited, rendered impotent before it has a chance to affect the prevenger.

Prevenge is among the most powerful and pervasive of all rhetorical moves. By “rhetorical,” I mean that it adds heft to any argument regardless of the argument’s intrinsic merit (see Critical Gap). It’s a general-purpose persuader, a generic influencer. To improve your chances of being persuaded by sound instead of unsound arguments, it’s worth practicing to be efficient at stripping the rhetoric away so you can see the content for what it is.

Prevenge is used frequently because it works. It works because considerate people wince at the thought that they are doing something bad, evil, immoral, unkind, or inconsiderate. The charge melts their resolve, and they become receptive to self-doubt and surrender. Their receptivity is like an irresistible handle whereby the prevenger can carry them anywhere.

Prevenge works through all sorts of gestures. Upon hearing disappointing feedback, the prevenger executes:

The Wounded (”Why do you have to be so mean?”)
The Exasperated (”Oh boy, here we go again.”)
The Preacher (”C’mon, show some respect.”)
The Weary (”Sigh. . . . “)
The Cold Shoulder (”Well, that’s YOUR opinion.”)
The Misinterpretation (”Well, if you hate me, why didn’t you just come out and say so?”)
The Strategic Adviser (”You should have told me differently, at a different time, in a different place, with a different tone.”)
The Analyst (”You’re just trying to hurt me.”)
The Upper Hand (”Oh, grow up.”)
The Well-Adjusted Humorist (”Geez, can’t you take a joke?!”)
The Mute (The silent treatment I used on the cop.)

. . . among many others.

Prevengers can get a good grip on people’s handles because the threat of their emotional response is credible. It’s credible because sometimes the proffered emotional response is the natural or justifiable one. There are situations in which every response on that list is perfectly honorable, heartfelt, and appropriate. These responses can be counterfeited for effect precisely because each of them really is sometimes legal tender.

Prevenge is not necessarily wrong, but it certainly is strong. Strong, persuasive, and inherently content-independent people use these moves to strengthen even the most indefensible demands.

To name it is to tame it. Having studied the pattern lately, I’ve gotten better at not taking it when people dish it out. And more to the point, I’m working to curtail my own prevenging moves. No more rolling stops. I aim to cut it out faster than I did with the cop.

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