Quitters and Righteous Anger

July 29, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

On an episode of Survivor many seasons ago, one of the cast told the others in his tribe that when it came to choosing the person to be removed in that round, it would make their decision much easier and his life less unpleasant if they just made him the one. It was fairly early in the game, but he had already endured enough and had no desire for the increasing hardships that lay ahead.

At the tribal council, the final ritual of each episode where the big reveal is the identity of that week’s outcast, the host Jeff Probst kept his self-control, but you could tell that he was really  pissed off at the dropout.

What reminded me of angry Jeff were some of the reactions to Simone Biles’s decision not to compete at the Olympics. She was concerned for her mental health. She had not performed well in the early rounds, and she felt that the extraordinary pressure she faced would do her further psychological damage. Physical damage too, since gymnastics at that level is a high-risk sport. A lapse in concentration can result in a broken neck.

Many people sympathized with her emotional plight. But some on the political right erupted with anger. “Quitter,” “selfish psychopath,” “very selfish ... immature ... a shame to the country,” “selfish, childish, national embarrassment.” Jason Whitlock at The Blaze wrote about “felonious act of quitting.”

To Charles Sykes writing at Politico (here) these attacks are all about the culture of “toughness,” the  pre-occupation with strength and weakness that pervades the MAGA-verse. In a post early in the pandemic on the people who were saying masks are for pussies,* I used the term counterphobic to describe this reaction. These anti-maskers turn the fear of Covid into its opposite, a blend of denial and bravura.

But as the Survivor incident shows, even when that problem is not framed as strength vs. weakness, the quitter poses a problem to the group. I’m drawing here on Philip Slater’s 1963 American Sociological Revie article “On Social Regression.” Slater argues that any social group requires energy from its members, but individuals may sometimes feel that these demands are burdensome and want to withdraw that energy back to themselves. Slater uses the Freudian language of libido — sexual energy — but the idea is the same if we use “emotional energy.” Even in everyday speech, people will say that they don’t have the “energy” for another relationship, or that their job is demanding too much of their “energy.” Or when we get sick, we may feel that we should withdraw our “energy” from work and relationships. Groups allow that kind of temporary withdrawal. . . as long as it’s temporary. Then by rejoining the group the individual confirms that the whole enterprise is worthwhile.

The quitter offers a different and threatening idea of the group. The threat is not that her withdrawal reduces the group’s numbers by one. The group still has all its other members. But the quitter is pointing out something that others do not want to see — that the group may not be worth the sacrifices that individuals must make. That thought is dangerous because it offers a tempting alternative. If others gave in in to that temptation, the group would dissolve. That’s why the reaction to the quitter is so strong. She must be condemned, and her withdrawal must be explained as a matter of personal perfidy or pathology (“a selfish psychopath”) rather than as a reaction to demands the group has placed upon her.

These reactions to the quitter are not inevitable. Briles’s teammates as well as many fans across the political spectrum were supportive and sympathetic. They understood her situation. And Briles did not really quit the team. She merely chose not to perform in the Olympics. So the anger and vilification from her critics stands as an even clearer illustration of Slater’s ideas about reactions to withdrawal.

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* As I was writing this my news feed popped up with a Daily Beast story with this headline: Trump: Jan. 6 Cops Who Spoke to Congress Are ‘Pussies’

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