June 14, 2024

observations are deeply personal

on outrage on the Internet

I saw a LinkedIn rant today from someone who was responding to a post about Dan Price, the CEO who supposedly took a pay cut in 2015 in order to give his employees a raise. The writer was responding to a screenshot of a June 4 Facebook post quoting Price on the (positive) results of that decision. There are no sources.1

What the post did not mention is that Price has been accused of multiple cases of physical and sexual assault, was sued by own brother/shareholder and resigned from the company to focus on legal battles, which is what the LinkedIn poster was calling out. The specifics are irrelevant to what I want to talk about, so start with Wikipedia if you want to learn more. The point is, it’s promoting ever more Internet gushing over white male founders, presenting them as messianic, while completely ignoring the unsavory details about their personal lives (then giving them a pass or denying their relevance when confronted about it).

While scanning the comments, I was thinking about the difference in how people view both the original positive post, and the writer’s negative response to it.

At first, this seems like another case of human inability to see nuance. Especially in the current polarized climate, the average American seems capable of only understanding things in black and white terms. All good, or all bad, as if anything is that simple. Whether they truly believe that or not, the average person seems to behave as if this is how things are.

For example: consider two kinds of Trump supporters from 20172. The first believes everything negative reported about him is a “smear campaign”, and he has “integrity” because he does one specific thing they like. The second person acknowledges that his own words and actions make it clear he’s an immoral person, but they agree with his policies on X because of their knowledge about its positive impact on that particular industry. The first person is in a cult; the second understands nuance.

Steve Jobs was an amazing visionary who changed the world with Apple AND based on the little I know about him personally, he was probably an asshole and horrible to work with. Two things can be true at the same time. What changes your perspective is not just what angle you’re looking at, but how you look at it.

What I believe is happening in the comments of any post discussing “X lauded public figure is actually terrible” is that different people see different things. Or said another way, what people see is dependent on who they are and their life experiences.

I suspect that those of us with strong reactions to stories like this have seen narcissists up close.

Let’s say someone has a narcissist family member, and they saw how that person abused and gaslit members of their family. Their reaction to seeing parallels in this publicly praised CEO will be visceral. When they read about accusations of him beating his wife, they will imagine their mom, or their aunt. They will remember the disgust at discovering this family member was adored in certain public spaces, knowing what a monster he was behind closed doors. They will understand that what people see is not always the truth, and on a much deeper level than someone who grew up without that dysfunction.

People only have their own experiences to work from, and often they don’t realize how different they are from others–or that they affect their viewpoints at all. There are whole Reddit threads of people learning that something about their childhood wasn’t normal only because they jokingly mentioned it in a group of friends and were met with horror.

This frequently happens in religious settings, as they’re a magnet for attracting narcissists. Every takedown of an abusive pastor and the ensuing cover-up will be met with glee from people who have been denied justice and drug through the mud for reporting their own abuse. If you attended a church with healthy leaders, you might find that hard to understand.

Many of us have personal experiences with narcissists in business. Imagine the employee of a narcissist boss, who remembers what it felt like to constantly be belittled in front of the entire team. Or someone who initially looked up to a popular local founder before discovering it was all an act.

It’s pretty common, unfortunately, and this constant media portrayal of “the overnight success” or the VC-backed unicorn really doesn’t help things. Because journalists are human, and they often fall into that same trap of black and white thinking. Look at Going Infinite, the book Michael Lewis wrote about Sam Bankman-Fried. Lewis was in the room when things started going down, meaning he had an opportunity to write the insider story of a lifetime. Yet by all accounts, he was completely taken by SBF: the book is not the expose one would expect. Or so I hear: I haven’t read the book. Google it.

Those of us who have encountered narcissists will see a man like Dan Price more clearly than others, especially if we have done business with someone like them. We understand that people like this are dangerous precisely because they are so good at hiding who they really are.

They come in different flavors: Elon Musk is clearly attempting to be a right-wing darling so he claims he’s a “free speech absolutist” while blocking anything he doesn’t like. But what people might not understand is that he probably genuinely believes that is a free speech absolutist. Narcissists are delusional; they seem to actually believe everything they say. It’s what makes them so convincing.

It’s even more dangerous when a narcissist does “good”, because people assume that they must have ethical motivations.

They don’t. They’ll sell you on it, very convincingly. But they cannot be trusted. And to understand why, I need to define what I mean by narcissist. From Psychiatry.org:

Narcissistic personality disorder involves a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy. Those with narcissistic personality disorder may:
Have a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents).

- Be preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- Believe that they are “special” and can only be understood by other special or high-status people.
- Require excessive admiration.
- Have a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment).
- Take advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
- Lack empathy: or is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of them.
- Show arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

Source: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, Text Revision. 2022 APA Publishing

To be clear, this is a definition of NPD: D as in “Disorder,” meaning an official diagnosis. I don’t necessarily mean NPD when I refer to narcissism. I think about it being on a spectrum like anything else. I’ve known people with some or all these tendencies, and I wonder if people on the lower end of the spectrum do have some self-awareness of how they’re using people. I have no idea – I’m not a psychiatrist. I just know what I’ve observed and experienced, so if I see the pattern of behavior above over a consistent period of time, that’s going to clue me in that something deeper is going on here.

In my experience, this core need for admiration drives absolutely EVERYTHING this person does, which is why they can’t be trusted. They’ll give you all the right reasons, but it’s like method acting. Everything is filtered through this lens of “will this make me look good?”

This is why, when I read that writer’s reaction to the free positive PR about Dan Price, I understood the anger. But I also understood the measured comment by the guy who pointed out that the dude’s personal life doesn’t really negate any positive results of a business decision. That guy perhaps is fortunate to have never seen this kind of thing up close, because what some of us know is that everything that Price claimed to have done in his business could very well be faked. If the driving motivation for all things is “will this make me look good” it supersedes all ethics, meaning negative reports are covered up, gifts are faked, lies are told, etc. It calls everything else into question, but since most people are not narcissists, they’re more likely to take statements at face value. Until you see it up close, it’s hard to believe anyone can live at a certain level of dishonesty.

I’m also not presuming to say Dan Price is a narcissist – talk to people who worked for him to find that out. When his pay cut declaration blew up on Twitter (RIP) back in the day, I vaguely remember reading enough to know he was getting positive publicity while probably also being a tool. I really don’t care. Guys like him are a dime a dozen, and I’m simultaneously tired of reading about them while also definitely reading books about the aftermath (WeWork, anyone?)

The point of this thought exercise is to explain how important it is to think about why we (or other people) react strongly to things.

This is why real empathy is so important.

You do not need to be a Black woman to empathize when they say how stressful it is to deal with constant micro-aggressions at work. You do not need to mansplain when any woman expresses frustration about being taken less seriously than her male colleagues.

Maybe they can’t imagine how stressful it was if you had an abusive, alcoholic father and were constantly on edge, but I bet you’d appreciate some empathy for what you went through as a child. If you don’t understand where someone is coming from, try to find a parallel in your own life, but you don’t have to. You just need to believe them.

Sometimes, when people react strongly to something on the Internet (especially women3), it’s because they’ve gone through deeply painful life experiences and they see things differently. That’s ok. There are other people who’ve never even had to think about those kinds of things, or perhaps they’re a little farther along on this life journey and can hold things more loosely. For some of us, things are still too raw. Please remember that when you comment online.


Footnotes:

  1. Google did not help, and ChatGPT reported: “I can’t provide live links, but you can find the original source by searching for “Dan Price $70k minimum wage decision” or similar keywords. It was widely covered by various news outlets and social media platforms when the decision was announced and later when the positive outcomes were reported. You may find articles, interviews, or posts directly from Dan Price or Gravity Payments’ official channels discussing the decision and its impact.” My search led to a Gravity Payments article that’s been updated since the Facebook post and did not contain the original quote. ↩︎
  2. I say 2017 because I don’t believe it is possible, in 2024, to support Trump and not be in a cult (or be part of the grift). At this point, he has said everything you need to know about who he is, and anyone who says otherwise can’t hear it from their echo chamber, chooses not to believe it, or has never read a history book. ↩︎
  3. For women in America right now, pent-up anger is at the boiling point, and if you’re paying attention it should be easy to see why. Imagine the kid’s shock in Princess Bride when confronted with the idea the bad guy might get away with it (“Who kills Humperdinck?!!”). Now multiply that by every high profile man in America who continues to escape consequences for abusing women, while the legal system is being weaponized to take away women’s rights. After the shock comes the anger. ↩︎

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