Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Right Man And The Fear Of Losing Face

These excerpts are from Colin Wilson's A Criminal History Of Mankind (1984).

Here Wilson discusses the interesting psychological concept of the "Right Man", which might in other uses also be called the "Dominant Male" or the "Alpha Male", though we are, of course, speaking here about the negative extremes in behaviour of this human type, not just ordinary dominance or leadership.

The "Right Men" can be domestic household tyrants terrorizing their families but they can be found in all fields of life: in business, politics, art, culture. Everyone must have encountered one: a dominating boss, school headmaster or teacher, army officer, father, son, boyfriend, bully.

Essential here is that the "Right Man" must always have his way and is afraid of losing face above all ("How dare you talk to me this way?"): anything that might be an indication of his infallibility or erroneous ways, something that he can never admit.

And if things don't exactly go his way, he may scare people into submission by breaking into outbursts of rage or downright violence. He may demand absolute faithfulness from his woman but "play around" himself, since as a God-like "Right Man" this is his divine prerogative (he thinks). Colin Wilson also points out that there are "Right Women" too, so this is not exclusively male behaviour.


"The notion of 'losing face' suggests an interesting alternative line of thought. It is obviously connected, for example, with the cruelty of Himmler and Stalin when their absolute authority was questioned. They were both men with a touchy sense of self-esteem, so that their response to any suspected insult was vindictive rage. Another characteristic of both men was a conviction they they were always right, and a total inability to admit that they might ever be wrong."

"Himmlers and Stalins are, fortunately, rare; but the type is surprisingly common. The credit for recognising this goes to A.E. Van Vogt who is also the author of a number of brilliant psychological studies. Van Vogt's concept of the 'Right Man' or 'violent man' is so important to the understanding of criminality that it deserves to be considered at length..."

[...]

"In 1954, Van Vogt began work on a war novel called The Violent Man, which was set in a Chinese prison camp. The commandant of the camp is one of those savagely authoritarian figures who would instantly, and without hesitation, order the execution of anyone who challenges his authority. Van Vogt was creating the type from observation of men like Hitler and Stalin. And, as he thought about the murderous behaviour of the commandant, he found himself wondering: 'What could motivate a man like that?' Why is it that some men believe that anyone who contradicts them is either dishonest or downright wicked? Do they really believe, in their heart of hearts, that they are gods who are incapable of being fallible? If so are, are they in some sense insane, like a man who thinks he is Julius Caesar?"

"Looking around for examples, it struck Van Vogt that male authoritarian behaviour is far too commonplace to be regarded as insanity. [...] [For example,] marriage seems to bring out the 'authoritarian' personality in many males, according to Van Vogt's observation."

[...]

"... 'the violent man' or the 'Right Man' [...] is a man driven by a manic need for self-esteem -- to feel he is a 'somebody'. He is obsessed by the question of 'losing face', so will never, under any circumstances, admit that he might be in the wrong."

[...]

"Equally interesting is the wild, insane jealousy. Most of us are subject to jealousy, since the notion that someone we care about prefers someone else is an assault on our amour propre. But the Right Man, whose self-esteem is like a constantly festering sore spot, fliers into a frenzy at the thought, and becomes capable of murder."

"Van Vogt points out that the Right Man is an 'idealist' -- that is, he lives in his own mental world and does his best to ignore aspects of reality that conflict with it. Like the Communists' rewriting of history, reality can always be 'adjusted' later to fit his glorified picture of himself. In his mental world, women are delightful, adoring, faithful creatures who wait patiently for the right man -- in both senses of the word -- before they surrender their virginity. He is living in a world of adolescent fantasy. No doubt there was something gentle and submissive about the nurse that made her seem the ideal person to bolster his self-esteem, the permanent wife and mother who is waiting in a clean apron when he get back from a weekend with mistress..."

"Perhaps Van Vogt's most intriguing insight into the Right Man was his discovery that he can be destroyed if 'the worm turns' -- that is, if his wife or some dependant leaves him. Under such circumstances, he may beg and plead, promising to behave better in the future. If that fails, there may be alcoholism, drug addiction, even suicide. She has kicked out the foundations of his sandcastle. For when a Right Man finds a woman who seems submissive and admiring, it deepens his self-confidence, fills him with a sense of his own worth. (We can see the mechanism in operation with Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.) No matter how badly he treats her, he has to keep on believing that, in the last analysis, she recognises him as the most remarkable man she will ever meet. She is the guarantee of his 'primacy', his uniqueness; now it doesn't matter what the rest of the world thinks. He may desert her and his children; that only proves how 'strong' he is, how indifferent to the usual sentimentality. But if she deserts him, he has been pushed back to square one: the helpless child in a hostile universe. 'Most violent men are failures', says Van Vogt; so to desert them is to hand them over to their own worst suspicions about themselves. It is this recognition that leads Van Vogt to write: 'Realise that most Right Men deserve some sympathy, for they are struggling with an unbelievable inner horror; however, if they give way to the impulse to hit or choke, they are losing the battle, are on the the way to the ultimate disaster... of their subjective universe of self-justification."

"And what happens when the Right Man is not a failure, when his 'uniqueness' is acknowledged by the world? Oddly enough, it makes little or no difference. His problem is lack of emotional control and a deep-seated sense of inferiority; so success cannot reach the parts of the mind that are the root of the problem."

[...]

"The Right Man hates losing face; if he suspects that his threats are not being taken seriously, he is capable of carrying them out, purely for the sake of appearances."

"Van Vogt makes the basic observation that the central characteristic of the Right Man is the 'decision to be out of control, in some particular area'. We all have to learn self-control to deal with the real world and other people. But with some particular person -- a mother, a wife, a child -- we may decide that this effort is not necessary and allow ourselves to explode. But -- and here we come to the very heart of the matter -- this decision creates, so to speak, a permanent weakpoint in the boiler, the point at which it always bursts."

[...]

"He feels he [is] justified in exploding, like an angry god. [...] he feels he is inflicting just punishment."

"What is so interesting here is the way the Right Man's violent emotion reinforces his sense of being justified, and his sense of justification increases his rage. He is locked into a kind of vicious spiral, and he cannot escape until he has spent his fury. [...] The Right Man feels that his rage is a storm that has to be allowed to blow itself out, no matter what damage it causes. But this also means that he is the slave of an impulse he cannot control; his property, even the lives of those that he loves, are at the mercy of his emotions. This is part of the 'unbelievable inner horror' that Van Vogt talks about."

[...]

"This is 'magical thinking' -- allowing a desire or emotion to convince you of something your reason tells you to be untrue. [...] Magical thinking provides a key to the Right Man."

"What causes 'right mannishness'? Van Vogt suggest that it is because the world has always been dominated by males."

[...]

"But then, this explanation implies that there is no such thing as a Right Woman -- in fact, Van Vogt says as much. This is untrue." [...] the central characteristic of the Right Woman is the same as that of the Right Man: that she is convinced that having her own way is a law of nature, and that anyone who opposes this deserves the harshest possible treatment. It is the god (or goddess) syndrome."

[...]

"... the one thingthat becomes obvious in all cases of Right Men is that their attacks are not somehow inevitable'; some of their worst misdemeanours are carefully planned and calculated, and determinedly carried out. The Right Man does these things because he thinks they will help him to achieve his own way, which is what interests him."

"And this in turn makes it plain that the Right Man problem is a problem of highly dominant people. Dominance is a subject of enormous interest to biologists and zoologists because the percentage of dominant animals -- or human beings -- seems to be amazingly constant. [...] biological studies have confirmed [... that ...] for some odd reason, precisely five per cent -- one in twenty -- of any animal group are dominant -- have leadership qualities."

[...]

"The 'average' member of the dominant five per cent sees no reason why he should not be rich and famous too. He experiences anger and frustration at his lack of 'primacy', and is willing to consider unorthodox methods of elbowing his way to the fore. This clearly explains a great deal about the rising levels of crime and violence in our society."

[...]

"We can also see how large numbers of these dominant individuals develop into 'Right Men'. In every school with five hundred pupils there are about twnety-five dominant ones struggling for primacy. Some of these have natural advantages: they are good athletes, good scholars, good debaters. (And there are, of course plenty of non-dominant pupils who are gifted enough to carry away some of the prizes.) Inevitably, a percentage of the dominant pupils have no particular talent or gift; some may be downright stupid. How is such a person to satisfy his urge to primacy? He will, inevitably, choose to express his dominance in any ways that are possible. If he has good looks or charm, he may be satisfied with the admiration of female pupils. If he has some specific talent which is not regarded as important by his schoolmasters -- a good ear for music, a natural gift of observation, a vivid imagination -- he may become a lonely 'outsider', living in his own private world. (Such individuals may develop into Schuberts, Darwins, Balzacs.) But it is just as likely that he will try to take short-cuts to prominence and become a bully, a cheat or a delinquent."

"The main problem of these ungifted 'outsiders' is that they are bound to feel that the world has treated them unfairly. And the normal human reaction to a sense of unfairness is an upsurge of self-pity. Self-pity and the sense of injustice make them vulnerable and unstable. And we have only to observe such people to see that they are usually their own worst enemies. Their moods alternate between aggressiveness and sulkiness, both of which alienate those who might otherwise be glad to help them. If they possess some degree of charm or intelligence, they may succeed in making themselves acceptable to other people; but sooner or later the resentment and self-pity break through, and lead to mistrust and rejection."

"The very essence of their problem is the question of self-discipline. Dominant human beings are more impatient than others, because they have more vital energy. Impatience leads them to look for short-cuts. [...] Civilisation, as Freud pointed out, demands self-discipline on the part of its members. No one can be licenced to threaten people with carving knives."

[...]

"When the Right Man explodes into violence, all the energy is wasted. Worse still, it destroys the banks of the canal. So in permitting himself free expression of his negative emotions he is indulging in a process of slow but sure self-erosion -- the emotional counterpart of physical incontinence. Without proper 'drainage', his inner being turns into a kind of swamp or sewage farm. This is why most of the violent men of history, from Alexander the Great to Stalin, have ended up as psychotics. Without the power to control their negative emotions, they become incapable of any state of sustained well-being."


See also:
Colin Wilson interview, August 2005