Friday, December 22, 2017


Yes, this article is about assertiveness.  But it will be a little different.  You see, I suspect that society uses the concept of assertiveness to cancel out certain other behaviours it doesn't like.  So I am going to suggest we subvert the concept of assertiveness for our own ends.  Just for fun, you understand.

Assertiveness has the word assert in it.  To assert something is to state it clearly; but also to insist that others take it seriously.  In that sense, it means to apply explicit respect to something or someone.  So if you have self-respect, you may choose to insist that others take your presence seriously, and respect it.  That would be assertive behaviour.  Equally, if you have a rule which you stand by, you might assert it, or be assertive about it, because you feel like insisting it is respected.

This is slightly different from the fashionable definitions of assertiveness.  These often place assertiveness between timidness at one end, and anger or violence at the other end.  So, the thinking goes, many mental disorders are borne of being either too reticent or too aggressive.  Learning to be assertive, goes the common wisdom, is learning to state one's case calmly and assuredly, without apologising for oneself, and without being overly violent to another.

The reason I have chosen the 'asking to be taken seriously' definition, rather than the 'finding a happy medium' definition, is because I think sometimes we need to be allowed to be extreme.

Sometimes, perhaps, it is OK to be assertively violent.  Many martial arts are based on such a concept.  That one can, with complete mastery over oneself, effect violence on other people in certain contexts.

Equally, perhaps, it is sometimes OK to be assertively meek.  Many religions have a huge investment in such a concept.  That one can, with complete mastery over oneself, allow others to effect violence on one's self in certain contexts.

So, I am arguing, the fashionable definition of assertiveness is simply a call for moderation.  I suggest a better way of seeing assertiveness is as a kind of confidence or seriousness in the good fit of one's behaviour to the context.  Thus, the same person might look in one moment aggressive, in the next over-meek; but, if they are in each context being wise, then both extremes might reasonably be called assertive.

I am suggesting that society has a vested interest in seeking moderation from all its citizens.  Thus, when a child is growing up, they are discouraged from being shy ('Don't be shy!), and discouraged from using force ('Don't hit your brother/sister!'); and encouraged to be moderate ('There's a good boy/girl.')  This stops the resulting adults from understanding that they can use reticence and aggression in appropriate situations.  Instead, they bottle the extremes up, in a quest to be appropriately obedient to society's wish that they do nothing unmanageable.

As evidence, I would offer that mass street protest, for example, has become almost completely ineffective.  We are all unconsciously supporting a demand that we make no difference in the world.  And then we're surprised that government gets such an easy ride.  We have been convinced that revolution, for example, is a failure of assertiveness.  Well, if we define assertiveness as moderation, then yes.  But if we define assertiveness as 'being wise to the context', then revolution might sometimes be perfectly in order!

Equally, society requires us to be economically active, in order to keep the wheel of commerce turning.  It does not suit it that some of us are so economically inactive, or meek, that its needs are not served.  So it constructs a plethora of advertising material encouraging us to get active  and contribute to this myth of wealth creation.  Again, government gets an easy ride.  We have been convinced that non-participation in an economy is a failure of assertiveness.  Again, if we define assertiveness as moderation, then yes.  But if we define assertiveness as being 'wise to the context', then non-participation might sometimes be perfectly in order!

How might we be assertive in this new way?

Well, old-style assertiveness looks like this: everyone who wants the extremes of revolution or non-participation is categorised as ill, and sent on mindfulness courses until they 'wake up', and become obedient members of a society that is leading us all towards unsustainable extinction.

New-style assertiveness might do things differently.  We might choose not to participate in activities which we think are not sustainable in the long term.  And equally, we might choose to participate in revolutions which change, by force, those aspects of society which are unsustainable in the long term.

This new-style assertiveness might help support individuals and groups in making changes which are much needed, taking into account our context on this planet.  Instead of being categorised as ill, people who display dissatisfaction with society as it is might be encouraged to use their energy to take society in new directions.  They, not the moderate, might be our saviours, after all.

To be assertive, have a big think about the world, try to make yourself wise about what you see, and then relate with the world in a way that seems to you wise to the context.  If this means non-participation in certain contexts, then don't participate.  If this means violence in certain contexts, then be violent.

A fashionable definition of assertiveness effectively boils down to moderation in doing what society requires.  A fertile new definition may be the ability to encompass both moderation and extremes of behaviour in response to the context.  The old kind of assertiveness is simply supporting current society in perpetuating unsustainable ways of life.  The new kind might change society for the better before it is too late.

So, next time a psychological practitioner advocates some kind of moderation as being healthy, and discounts extremes of reticence or aggression as being disorderly or unhealthy, perhaps respond differently.  Try saying 'actually, I disagree.  You're simply encouraging everyone to be moderate.  How will we ever change society for the better unless we're allowed to use extremes of behaviour sometimes, when it's appropriate to the context?'

I am suggesting we celebrate a full range of human behaviour, rather than cherry picking the behaviour that fulfils the perpetuation of society's current aims.

I would like to nickname this 'broadband assertiveness'.  It is, perhaps, richer than the narrowly-defined assertiveness which is simply ineffectual moderation in disguise.

Just a thought-provoker.  Obviously don't take me seriously ;)