Authorities, such as parents, teachers, bosses, and police, tend to have both dominance and prestige. Their dominance is usually clear: they can hit you, fire you, or send you to your room. Their prestige tends to be less clear, as that is an informal social consensus on their relevant ability and legitimacy. They have to earn prestige in the eyes of subordinates, and subordinates talk with each other to form a consensus on that. I’ve suggested that we often choose bosses primarily for their prestige indicators, as that allows subordinates to more easily submit to dominance without shame.
There’s a classic scene in fiction where an authority goes too far to squash defiance. (E.g., see video above.) Yes, authorities must respond to overt defiance that interferes with key functions, like a child refusing to come home or a student refusing to stop disrupting class. But usually authorities prefer to suggest actions, rather than to give direct orders. And often subordinates try to use covert signals to tell each other they are less than fully impressed by authority. They might roll their eyes, smirk, slouch, let their attention wander, etc. And sometimes authorities take visible offense at such signs, punishing offenders severely. In extreme cases they may demand not only that everyone seem to be enthusiastically positive in public, they may also plant spies and monitor private talk to punish anyone who says anything remotely negative in private.
This is the scenario of extreme totalitarian dominance, a picture that groups often try to paint about opponents. It is the rationale in the ancient world for why we have good kings but they have evil tyrants, and why we’d be doing them a favor to replace their leaders with ours. More recently, it is the story that the west told on Nazism and Communism. It is even the typical depiction today of historical slavery; it isn’t enough to describe slaves as poor, over-worked, and with few freedoms, they are also shown as also having mean tyrannical owners.
The key problem for authorities is that repressing dissent has the direct effect of discouraging rebellion, but the indirect effect of looking bad. It looks weak to try to stop subordinates from talking frankly about the prestige they think you deserve. Doing this suggests that you don’t think they will estimate your prestige highly. Much better to present the image that most everyone accepts your authority due to your high prestige, and it is only a few malcontent troublemakers who defy you. So most authorities allow subordinate eye-rolls, smirks, negative gossip, etc. as long as they are not too overtly a direct commonly-visible challenge to their authority. They visibly repress overt defiance by one low prestige person or small group, but are wary of simply crushing large respected groups, or hindering their covert gossip. Trying that makes you seem insecure and weak.
In the world of cultural elites today, like arts, journalism, civil service, law, and academia, there’s a dominant culture, and it punishes deviations from its core tenets. But its supporters should be worried about going too far toward totalitarian dominance. They should want to project the image that they don’t need to repress dissent much, as their culture is so obviously prestigious. If the good people are pretty unified in their respect for it, it should be sufficient to punish those who most openly and directly defy it. They shouldn’t seem to feel much threatened by others rolling their eyes.
It is in this context that I think we should worry about the recent obsession with gaslighting and dog-whistles. I’ve posted some controversial tweets recently, and in response others have then publicly attributed to me extreme and culturally-defiant views. (Such as I’m sexist, pro-rape, anti-reporting-of-rape, and seem likely to rape.) When I’ve pointed out that I’ve said no such things and often said the opposite, they often respond with dog-whistle concerns.
That is, they say that there are all these people out there who pretend to submit to culturally dominant views, but who actually harbor sympathy with opposing views. They hide in the shadows communicating with each other covertly, using anonymous internet accounts and secret hand signals. It is so important to crush these rebels that we can’t afford to give anyone the benefit of the doubt to only criticize them for the views they actually say. We must aggressively punish people for even seeming to some people like they might be the sort to secret harbor rebel sympathies. And once everyone knows that we are in a strong repression regime, there’s no excuse for not lying low in abject submission, avoiding any possible hint of forbidden views. If you even touch such topics, you only have yourself to blame for what happens to you.
I hope you can see the problem. Worlds of strong repression are not secure stable worlds. Since everyone knows that authorities are making it hard for others to share opinions on authority prestige, they presume low levels of prestige. So if there’s ever an opening for a rebellion, they expect to see that rebellion. If the boot ever lets up just a bit in stomping the face, it may never get a second change.
Let us instead revert back to the traditional intellectual standard: respond most to what people say, and don’t stretch too hard to infer what you think they mean in scattered hints of what they’ve said and done. Let them roll their eyes and feel each other out for how much they respect the dominant authorities, be that people or culture. As they say:
If you love something set it free. If it comes back it’s yours. If not, it was never meant to be.