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Strongman's weakness

By Michael Bergmann

Humanity has been ruled by tyrants and bullies for most of history. In our modern and, as we had believed until a while ago, enlightened age however, it seemed ridiculous to analyze social and political power in biological terms. But the question comes to mind now again: How actually does the "alpha male" dominate his tribe, pack or gang?

The biological analogies went even further, not just describing the recent fight for the U.S. presidency. Not only did the team of the incumbent president drop any pretense to a civilized campaign to promote their discriminatory policies. Not only did they try to exploit perceived personal insecurities in the heat-up to the first debate and then live on stage, picking out the opponent's age, his slightly limited voice volume and the personal tragedies of his life. But when all those publicly displayed bullying strategies failed and started to backfire, like-minded commentators came out to seriously celebrate their leader for acting as "the apex predator," "the lion king" and "the shark in the ocean."

It might be a predatory species indeed which such an alpha male wants to dominate, considering the combination of social and environmental exploitation. But even more obvious is the observation that at least the human alpha male's power is based much more on the sheer willingness of his followers to fight for him than on any personal qualities or abilities.

"Beta males" seek to minimize their risk in the fight by staying in the second division ― and by cowardly calculating which alpha male might assemble a majority from their own ranks. That's why they have the discriminatory impulse to look out for collective identity markers and to define a majority by excluding minorities. The bully doesn't need to be in any way superior to his victims individually, as long as he can be sure that most will follow him because of their shared interests, background, appearance and cultural codes.

There are two threats, however, to the dominance of the alpha bully: bad luck and human progress. A winner who has never fought for anything but himself and his power has nothing left once he loses. And since humanity invented liberal civilization, many boys and girls have learned that the difference of being strong or weak means little to those going their own ways and that social conflicts can be settled rationally.

Though I am optimistic, I am still scared. I can't forget the frightening history of my home country (Germany 1929-45) which unleashed the worst terror on the world at a moment when its modernization, democratization and liberalization had seemed unstoppable. The old hatred against ethnic or religious minorities converged with a disdain for the new liberalism. The outstanding success of some of those minorities in a free, equal and civilized society triggered, instead of hope and inspiration, vindictive resentment.


The author (bergmann2473@yahoo.de) is a teacher in Seoul.


By Michael Bergmann

Humanity has been ruled by tyrants and bullies for most of history. In our modern and, as we had believed until a while ago, enlightened age however, it seemed ridiculous to analyze social and political power in biological terms. But the question comes to mind now again: How actually does the "alpha male" dominate his tribe, pack or gang?

The biological analogies went even further, not just describing the recent fight for the U.S. presidency. Not only did the team of the incumbent president drop any pretense to a civilized campaign to promote their discriminatory policies. Not only did they try to exploit perceived personal insecurities in the heat-up to the first debate and then live on stage, picking out the opponent's age, his slightly limited voice volume and the personal tragedies of his life. But when all those publicly displayed bullying strategies failed and started to backfire, like-minded commentators came out to seriously celebrate their leader for acting as "the apex predator," "the lion king" and "the shark in the ocean."

It might be a predatory species indeed which such an alpha male wants to dominate, considering the combination of social and environmental exploitation. But even more obvious is the observation that at least the human alpha male's power is based much more on the sheer willingness of his followers to fight for him than on any personal qualities or abilities.

"Beta males" seek to minimize their risk in the fight by staying in the second division ― and by cowardly calculating which alpha male might assemble a majority from their own ranks. That's why they have the discriminatory impulse to look out for collective identity markers and to define a majority by excluding minorities. The bully doesn't need to be in any way superior to his victims individually, as long as he can be sure that most will follow him because of their shared interests, background, appearance and cultural codes.

There are two threats, however, to the dominance of the alpha bully: bad luck and human progress. A winner who has never fought for anything but himself and his power has nothing left once he loses. And since humanity invented liberal civilization, many boys and girls have learned that the difference of being strong or weak means little to those going their own ways and that social conflicts can be settled rationally.

Though I am optimistic, I am still scared. I can't forget the frightening history of my home country (Germany 1929-45) which unleashed the worst terror on the world at a moment when its modernization, democratization and liberalization had seemed unstoppable. The old hatred against ethnic or religious minorities converged with a disdain for the new liberalism. The outstanding success of some of those minorities in a free, equal and civilized society triggered, instead of hope and inspiration, vindictive resentment.


The author (bergmann2473@yahoo.de) is a teacher in Seoul.




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