So far I’ve mentioned two New Year’s Resolutions: my main one, phrased as the question “Why deny myself the pleasure?” about not letting small annoyances spoil my enjoyment, and my desire to read more books in the place of online articles. In pursuit of that second resolution I’ve gotten s little over a quarter of the way through The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left by Yuval Levin, a serious, serious conservative intellectual who writes for National Review sometimes and who made an appearance on Jonah Goldberg’s podcast “The Remnant” recently. (I think I’ve just broken my own record for the number of links in a paragraph. Feel free to ignore them, but I would, as a sidenote, recommend the podcast. Be aware that Jonah does a fair amount of umming and what I can only describe as giggling, which can get a little annoying. I’ll be sharing more insights and books from his program; once you get past his mannerisms he’s very worthwhile.)
Ho-kay. I’ve managed to write an entire first paragraph without mentioning any of the ideas in the title of this post, a fault of mine that drives my SEO analysis plugin crazy. So let’s get to it: what does it mean to be assertive, and how is that different from being bossy, or, to use the more intellectual word in deference to Dr. Levin, “aggressive”? The wimpy/assertive distinction is pretty clear.
I think a fair amount about the whole idea of respect, and why some people are respected and listened to and others (including me, at least sometimes) not. I wrote a post back in 2016 titled “It Is Not Enough to Be Right. You Must Prevail,” in which I made a stab at this idea. If you state your opinions/thoughts/principles in such a way that you persuade no one, why bother stating them in the first place? My conclusions about gaining respect center on the idea of being assertive. Here are some thoughts on how the process works:
1. Don’t get angry. I think it’s a Chinese proverb that the person who gets angry first loses the argument. I’m a very irritable person, but it’s never a good idea to let that irritability show. Passion, yes. Strong conviction, yes. Anger can and indeed sometimes should fuel one’s principles, but it can’t persuade. I can be angry at an injustice but make my points calmly.
2. Don’t be contemptuous. Oh boy, is this my besetting sin or what? I wonder if there’s some kind of surgery that can make it impossible for me to roll my eyes. Probably not. I’m going to have to overcome this terrible habit myself. Contemptuousness is simply pride, since you’re looking down on someone else. All I’m doing with my eye rolls and sighs is making my audience feel insulted. And insulted people don’t listen.
3. Don’t make knee-jerk statements. It has finally occurred to me that I do this sort of thing whenever I get into political arguments. Sigh. It’s so much fun to fly off the handle! But I’ve realized that it just makes my audience resentful. And, as above, resentful people don’t listen.
4. Don’t, in the end, treat others disrespectfully if you want to be respected yourself. Assertiveness states a position calmly, with a factual basis, and with a willingness to at least listen to the other side and respond. Assertiveness stands upon a strong foundation. Wimpiness falls off the foundation. Aggressiveness, bossiness, authoritarianism—whatever you want to call it—covers up its lack of a foundation by shouting loudly. (My husband is fond of the joke about the preacher’s sermon notes: “Weak point here—shout and pound pulpit.”)
I recently read the first couple of chapters in The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany that had been recommended on a website I follow. Although I decided that I just couldn’t spend that many hours of my life re-hashing that terrible period in history and so didn’t go on in the book, I found the description of Adolf Hitler’s early life to be profoundly compelling. I hadn’t quite realized how much of a failure he really was before coming to power and how weird his ideas were even then. He was able to go off on endless tirades, usually driving people away. Eventually, of course, he was able to gain enough adherents so that he could take over, but you couldn’t say that he was respected. More that he was able to light fires in other aggressive people like himself, which isn’t at all the same thing. Underneath aggressiveness there always lurks insecurity. Thoughtful discourse from a position of strength never comes from aggression.
Indeed, as I write this I have two images in mind. The first is a photograph of Hitler and his uppity-ups, as he’s showing them a scale model of the museum he planned to build in his hometown of Linz, Austria. It was going to be a huge place, mostly in his honor, and filled with the looted artworks that the Nazis had collected from all across Europe. I couldn’t help wondering as I looked at that picture what was going on in the minds of the men surrounding the monster. (The picture I remember showed the faces of those men, but I couldn’t find that shot.) Surely, surely most of them knew that the whole idea was delusional, indeed laughable. But they were either cowed or in it for themselves. How many of them really believed Hitler’s dangerous, psychotic schtick? He was simply evil aggression run amok.
The other image I had is of Ronald Reagan, this time a verbal description of his coming into meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev and throwing a list of Russian political prisoners on the conference table. His action would emphasize that he was not going to ignore the USSR’s human rights abuses. In looking to see if perhaps there was a photo of him doing this, I ran across this quotation in TIME magazone:
But Reagan managed to touch the hearts and minds of those who mattered: the rebels behind the Iron Curtain who ultimately brought it down. Nathan Sharansky read Reagan’s speech in a cell in Siberia. Knocking on walls and talking through toilets, he spread the word to other prisoners in the Gulag. “The dissidents were ecstatic,” Sharansky wrote. “Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth — a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us.” (from the April 23, 2015 issue–”This Is the Ronald Reagan Speech that Just Showed Up on “The Americans”)
Assertiveness indeed! Well, I can’t attain that level, I’m sure, but I can hold that ideal in mind.
How can you assert yourself without being aggressive?
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