Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

How to Avoid Being a Petty Tyrant

by Fred E. Foldvary

A “petty tyrant” can be a person who causes distress by imposing his will on others using psychological pressure rather than physical force. Many people are petty tyrants without realizing it. The beginning of a new year is a good time to examine whether you are a petty tyrant, and if so, to stop being a psychological bully.

We can recognize petty tyranny when the perpetrators keep repeating their imperial mantras such as: “I told you so!” “You idiot!” “This is sick.” “Why don’t you ever listen to me?” “What’s wrong with you?” “You can’t do that!” “Don’t you know what this is going to do to you?” “You’re going to go straight to hell!” “What were you thinking?”

Petty tyrants get their power by exploiting relationships which their victims cannot avoid at the time. Relatives, especially parents, sisters and brothers, are relationships that cannot easily be escaped. Husbands and wives have bilateral monopolies that give each partner psychological clout.

There are also institutional relationships which do not let the victims escape the petty tyranny. Compulsory schooling forces children to be in a classroom where the teacher has great psychological power that she can exploit. Some workers are in jobs in which quitting would involve great hardships, so they may have to endure exploitation by a petty tyrant boss.

The petty tyrant feels she may impose her will because she is a superior being. She feels she should be the master either because she has a position of authority, such as being a mother or teacher or boss, or else she thinks she has superior knowledge. She feels she is helping her target by pressuring him to pursue some action, for his own good. For example, she might try to get her husband or sibling to quit smoking, eat a better diet, become better organized, or stop some “bad” habit.

These may well be worthy goals, but the tyrant applies psychological pressure rather than engage in a reasoned dialog. She repeats over and over again how bad the habit is and what bad consequences will result. She nags, harangues, yells, and says he is lazy, silly, foolish, or mentally ill. She may threaten to report him to the authorities or tell others about his badness.

The petty tyrant loves to dig into the past and resurrect past faults. The victim is trapped because he can’t change the past. The tyrant goes over past mistakes or failings over and over and over again, wearing out the victim.

The tyrant parent forces the child to do things that go beyond his fair contribution to the household. The parental tyrant pressures the child into studies, occupations, jobs, hobbies, and lessons that the child detests. The tyrant parent brushes aside the child’s objections, because the parent thinks she has superior knowledge and thinks this will be good for the child in the long run.

Tyrants are often overconfident about their power to make other people change. The reaction of their victims is often to hate the tyrant and seek to avoid her. The victims may refuse to comply and go underground. They will smoke when nobody is looking, hide their cigarettes, and tell the tyrant what she wishes to hear. Tyrants create liars, rebels, and delinquents.

The victims of petty tyrants sometimes escape, or become resentful slaves, or else they fight back and themselves become tyrants. The relationship deteriorates into mutual tyranny, with constant fighting, yelling, name-calling, and violence.

We can avoid being petty tyrants by following these guidelines:

1) Never dredge up unpleasant events from the past, and never say “I told you so.”

2) Avoid using foul language or negative labels such as: stupid, fool, idiot, crazy, ugly.

3) Recognize that values are subjective, and what seems good to you may not seem good to others. If you think someone you care about could behave better, use facts and logic to persuade him, rather than threats or value judgments. Say how it affects you rather than calling the person a fool. For example, say “When you eat bacon, it makes me feel bad because I fear this will ruin your health” rather than, “Are you crazy? Why are you so self-destructive?” If he keeps eating it, then either tolerate it or avoid being with him when he does it.

4) Before you speak, think about how your statement will make the other person feel. If you truly care about him, you will not want to make him feel bad.

5) Unless it involves a contractual or moral obligation, if the person does not want to change, don’t keep trying to change him. After making a suggestion, don’t bring it up again. Once is enough. Repetition makes you a petty tyrant.

This article first appeared in the Progress Report, www.progress.org. Reprinted with permission.

Dr. Fred Foldvary teaches economics at Santa Clara University and is the author of several books: The Soul of Liberty, Public Goods and Private Communities, and the Dictionary of Free-Market Economics.