[Updated] The disturbed character behind ‘Listen, Listen, Listen’

[28 January 2013 Update (3.35pm) for minor language edits.]

Rickard alerts us to the presence of domineering manipulators and the dangers of being blind to their tactics.

Many of you have by now probably seen or heard about the YouTube video ‘Listen, Listen, Listen‘, wherein a student at a University Utara Malaysia forum was verbally abused by the moderator Sharifah Zohra Jabeen, president of SW1M (Suara Wanita 1 Malaysia). Almost all the responses I have seen so far have rightfully expressed (1) disgust at her behaviour towards the student Bawani; and (2) perplexity as to how someone can act so blatantly abusive and think nothing of it. So, what was it about this that triggered off everyone’s conscience and bullshit detectors? Is there something we can learn here that can be applied equally in other situations? As it turns out, there is.

When I first watched the video, I noticed that Sharifah used a number of manipulative tactics and behaviours typical of so-called ‘covert-aggressive personalities’ (the extreme version of which is known as psychopathy) that Dr. George K. Simon has written about in his seminal book on the topic ‘Character Disturbance‘. This differs from overt-aggressive behaviour in the sense that, instead of using obvious physical violence, the main method for domination and manipulation is a series of verbal and emotional manipulation tactics used extensively by Sharifah in her abrupt and bizarre interruption of Bawani’s commentary.

There's manipulation behind the madness | Source: http://bit.ly/X0ktzR

If this UUM episode was bad, her press statement commenting on the responses to this matter (which is viewable on YouTube ) is – from a pathological behaviour point of view – possibly even worse. You see, once the mask of civility drops, people demonstrating covert-aggressiveness tend to go all out in their abuse and Sharifah is no exception.

The book Character Disturbance describes 25 different manipulative tactics that a covert-aggressive person will use, and to give you some idea of what they mean, here is a part of the transcript from Sharifah’s press statement annotated with these behaviours:

Dear Malaysians, I appeal to you: listen, listen, and listen [False concessioning]. Let me explain [Playing the Servant]. Please listen and rationalize [Rationalisation]. First and foremost, I forgive the young girl in the video for whatever she said and did before, during and after the forum [Blaming the Victim]. This kind of forgiveness [Seduction] are [sic] also extended to those who have jumped into the bandwaggon [Posturing] and hold [sic] harsh words towards me without checking their grounds and getting their facts right [Guilt-tripping]. This issue was creatively spin [sic] to gather emotional support for an opposition lead [sic] divers[Diversion, Lying, Hypervigilance]. As such, I do not wish to further pounce on this for the sake of our non-governmental organisation, SW1M, in short ‘Suara Wanita 1 Malaysia’ [Playing the Servant].

In my experience, it is not uncommon at all that pathological individuals like this exhibit such manipulative tactics in every sentence they utter, when their abuse has been caught and they begin to fight to win. They will try every trick in the book to regain position, evade responsibility and make the other party look bad. Sharifah does all she can to shame Bawani with all the cultural hooks and references to her education and whatnot, when in reality it is her own behaviour that is shameful and vile.

For a full description of the above behaviours, please read the book Character Disturbance, but here is the outline of one of the most common tactics used by covert-aggressives, i.e Guilt-tripping:

Because the conscientiousness of neurotics predisposes them to easy feelings of guilt, this is another favorite tactic of disturbed characters. In fact, it’s a telltale technique with respect to identifying a person as a disturbed character or a neurotic (as is the shaming tactic). Try to shame or lay guilt upon a disordered character, and you’ll find out very quickly how futile such an endeavor is. But convince a neurotic that they’ve committted the unpardonable sin and they’ll back up, second-guess, or back down every time. The most disordered characters know well how effective shame and guilt are as manipulation tools. They know how, in stark contrast to themselves, neurotic individuals possess these qualities in abundance and regard these attributes as weaknesses that make neurotics easy to manipulate and control.

As this seemed to be a textbook case of covert-aggressive behaviour, I asked Dr. Simon about his views on the matter in order to get a professional opinion regarding her behaviour. This is what he had to say:

The moderator’s responses, during the live debate and in her subsequent television appearance (as also captured in the transcript), reflect mounds of covert-aggression and tactics of impression-management and manipulation.

For one, she feigns graciousness by ‘forgiving’ the other woman when there is clearly nothing to forgive. Such a tactic helps her seize what appears to be the moral high ground while she really seeks the dominant position and wants to both punish the other woman and pummel her social image.

The moderator is acutely aware during the discussion of the sentiments common in the audience – especially those women trained from early on to embrace submissive roles, to march in lockstep without questions to their masters, and to look with disdain upon those who act ‘uppity’ in their manner, daring to assert themselves or to put themselves on an equal footing with, or question those who would be their masters. So, she unnecessarily but purposefully repeats herself many times when she senses the audience is allying with her. This is especially true with her frequent urges to “listen, listen, listen” when the other person is clearly not interrupting or behaving in any kind of disrespectful or combative manner.

You will listen to me | Source: http://bit.ly/WZFIDw

While Sharifah’s manipulative behaviour during the forum and subsequent press statement is quite alarming, it is important to remember that it is only a problem if people listening to it believe what she says. Just like the Wizard of Oz requires that his booming voice is heard with fear in heart, so too do disturbed characters rely on the rest of us taking them seriously in the first place. And this brings us to the real problem in this affair. Dr. Simon explained further:

But the real tragedy in the whole scenario, as I see it, is in the response of the people there. There’s so much blindness to the nature of the covert attack, such tacit endorsement of the ‘justifications’ given for the attack, and so much acquiescence to years of indoctrination and programming that it’s truly frightening. It’s exactly how all of these repressive regimes come to power and retain it so long. And the ONLY reason they ever lose it is because their quest for power and dominance is so unrelenting, that they simply can’t stop themselves until they’ve so quashed those under their domination and gone to such extremes to flex their power over them that even the most well-trained and resigned ‘sheep’ simply can’t take it anymore. So, the real tragedy for me is that it always seems to have to come to that before those in certain cultures wake up.

From a psychological perspective, it’s important to remember that character pathology is not the same as mental pathology. And, as I say in my books, power itself is not a corrupting agent of otherwise decent characters. Power-oriented, dominance-seeking characters crave power, and when they secure it, they inevitably abuse it. The ‘mental’ pathology in some cultures has to do with the distorted manner in which they’ve been trained to think. This comes from years of socio-cultural-political indoctrination and religious ideology. And, as cognitive-behavioral science has proven, how we think about things translates into how we behave toward one another. But it’s really hard to change mindsets when to do so, you’d have to go against years of indoctrination coming from so many sources. That’s why it’s so easy to cast anyone who questions the dominant order as some sort of lunatic fringe person or defective character.

If people ever learned about the true nature of humankind’s natural aggressive and dominance-seeking tendencies and the myriad of ways in which these tendencies are expressed, their eyes would not only open about the character of their oppressors but also about all the cultural institutions that pave the way for oppression to deeply root itself. Hearts and minds have to change at more basic levels first, through open and honest debate about core values and the true character of the dominant institutions.

Clueless - just the way manipulators like it | Source: http://bit.ly/W6HxB8

That students at a university are so unable to see through her blatant nonsense, and instead applaud her victimisation of another, is troubling indeed. After all, aren’t students supposed to be the ones that stand up to injustice and unfairness? Another psychology researcher, Professor Bob Altemeyer, who is the world’s foremost authority on authoritarianism (pun intended), writes in his book The Authoritarians about this:

Authoritarian followers want to belong, and being part of their in-group means a lot to them. Loyalty to that group ranks among the highest virtues, and members of the group who question its leaders or beliefs can quickly be seen as traitors. Can you also sense from these items the energy, the commitment, the submission, and the zeal that authoritarian followers are ready to give to their in-groups, and the satisfaction they would get from being a part of a vast, powerful movement in which everyone thought the same way? The common metaphor for authoritarian followers is a herd of sheep, but it may be more accurate to think of them as a column of army ants on the march.

For this reason, it is so important that we all learn to see through manipulative tactics and behaviour, and that we recognise the signs of authoritarianism and its followers. We need to regain sanity into the discussions, and communicate with those who do not try to manipulate us with every word.

If there are any animals that should be remembered from this, it is that wolves in sheep’s clothing can command an army of ants, but only if their fake notions of ‘respect’ and normal human conduct are not exposed. Learning about character disturbance is the much-needed antidote to manipulative tactics, one that allows us to peek behind the curtain and see that the manipulator is just a fake.


(Featured image accompanying article on main page courtesy of Maigh, source: http://bit.ly/WZFIDw)

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Internationally renowned Swedish software developer with a passion for Systems Thinking and understanding the many facets of the human condition, and how we can move forward by understanding the past.

Posted on 28 January 2013. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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