Dominant Leaders

By devin, 2 March, 2014

I just saw a documentary about a sushi maker. You might think I was focussed on the sushi, but what really struck me was some of the ways Japanese culture works, and the universality of dominance with humans. We defer to leaders, time and again. I'm going to reflect on that, but the focus in my mind is not this particular sushi chef. The focus is dominant leaders and their followers.

The classic example of the kind of relationship I want to talk about is when teenagers start to disagree with their parents. It happens right about the time they're sexually mature and ready to move out. Suddenly they aren't willing to defer to their parents anymore.

On the internet, when everything I read is a breathless blog post, things are either amazing or outrageous (as in, making the writer outraged). So for this sushi maker, either people are breathlessly saying he's the best sushi maker ever, or they're furious with his presumption to be a great sushi maker and his character flaws. It could really be either one, every time someone writes about someone who's really good at something. When kids love their parents they're the greatest ever. When they decide to start disagreeing, suddenly their parents are unreasonable and awful.

The documentary maker chose to be breathlessly adoring for this sushi guy. I was less impressed. Everyone you could see in the documentary deferred to the sushi chef. Even when he wasn't around they were talking him up and building his legend. His "rice dealer" would only sell rice to this chef; because the chef was successful and chose this rice dealer, the rice dealer could inflate his own sense of self worth by selling only to the sushi chef.

Throughout the documentary, the chef showed that he had a huge sense of self worth (which is not a bad thing, necessarily) and was fairly self-righteous about his ideas. For instance, he pushed one of his sons to go and start his own restaurant, and wasn't super gentle about it. Because people were happy with him and liked his sushi, this was hailed as a great idea. If people were mad at him, they would be furiously decrying his mistreatment of his son or calling him overbearing or controlling. I find it hard to judge it either way.

The point of this whole post is that dominance works when people are deferring to the leader. Everyone involved will feel good about it. The people who defer to this sushi chef (the other cooks, the fishmongers who sell him fish, etc) love deferring - it's a bunch of fun to be part of this shared cultish inner circle. I'd even say humans are built for deference (or dominance, as the case may be).

And when someone doesn't like the person on top, all they can really do is write breathless blog posts while outraged about something the dominant leader did. Maybe they'll say the leader was acting like a cult leader - it's a great rhetorical device that hasn't been used as much as comparisons to Hitler so it's still useful.

And who's to say who's right? It's almost impossible to tell the difference between a cult leader and a visionary because I'm thinking the difference is only in hindsight. The only thing I can be sure of is that I need to put less trust in what I read in blog posts and articles, and also repeat it less. And you should too.

Or maybe I should go join a cult.

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