Gray Mirror’s sudden “face turn” to a relationship blog, greeted though it has been with wild, tumultuous applause, shouldn’t fool anyone. This site is and will remain a stern and uncompromising bastion of hardcore, right-wing reaction. And as anyone would expect, my views on the modern relationship are somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan—if Genghis Khan had grown up in the ‘80s as an international Jew.
Readers sent all kinds of useful feedback. One note that I particularly appreciated:
Thanks for this essay. I am studying to become a psychotherapist, and your description of the problems of “circling” reminded me very much of some of the silliness I've seen encouraged by many mental health professionals. There is a difference between illuminating personal sharing that fosters genuine self-knowledge and hyper-performative, delusional, self-flattering “authenticity,” a difference that sadly gets missed by a lot of therapists and clients.
I’m sure “circling” has at least some of both. But more of the latter, I fear. These “authentic” conversations are some of the least sincere content I’ve ever heard—yes, you will get pretty darn high if a roomful of people flatters you like Kim Jong-Un at a Politburo meeting. No need to bring your MDMA.
I also heard from an old colleague and friend who has done all of this cult stuff—circling, Landmark, the whole business. Michael, as I’ll call him, even knows Guy Sengstock, the circling founder—the bald guy in the video with the pedo-busdriver grooming voice—and told me a story Guy told him involving Landmark and acid.
Michael was like: when I first did Landmark I was in high school and it felt exactly like doing MDMA. I had noticed this as well (from the outside). What I find amazing about this platonic-orgy effect is that you can induce it from either emotional direction. Landmark/est is a struggle session with lovebomb elements; circling is a lovebomb with struggle-session elements. But both create exactly the same mood of intimacy.
Then again, so does MDMA. MDMA can probably be used to help build deep, lasting human relationships and durable social structures. But it’s not mostly used that way. In some ways, as a right-winger, I prefer the more culty cults—Landmark is much more culty than circling—because they are closer to being complete social structures, like actual religions. Even Stanford GSB has a version of the system, which is alas probably the best one—Stanford, like it or not, is a functioning institution.
Michael said something interesting yet obvious: he said the process, whatever it is, works when people reveal their vulnerabilities—the things they are uncomfortable about talking and thinking about, sometimes even to themselves.
Of course! But this is equivalent to saying: the process is for damaged and immature human beings. Or rather, human beings in late adolescence, which in today’s world means your 20s—which is why it works out so well at Stanford.
Group bonding in adolescence is a tremendous prosocial force. But what is the group you are bonding? Is the purpose of bonding just—bonding? Is this, like everything else in your adolescent life, just done for fun? Skip the cult and just do MDMA. And once your adolescence is over—vulnerabilities?
I told this culty ex-girlfriend, once, that my late wife didn’t really have anything she was uncomfortable talking about. This wasn’t quite true—you really could not talk to her about how she rode the clutch, causing REPEATED UNNECESSARY VEHICLE REPAIRS. But if your worst relationship problem can be solved by an automatic transmission, you have a pretty good relationship. Naturally, my ex concluded from this that my wife was “masking her feelings” and she was a saint who let me abuse her.
No, actually, we were just grownups. Even healthy 20-somethings have vulnerabilities like: who am I, really? What kind of person am I trying to become? Everyone asks and stresses over these questions, as I certainly did as well. I’m sure it feels great to get together and probe these together, although every intimacy you create hardens you emotionally—which is why platonic orgies have some of the downsides of real orgies.
But healthy 40-somethings have vulnerabilities like: will my colon ever really work properly again? Will I ever be able to look at my bathroom floor without seeing my wife’s body on it? Is that just some kind of weird pediatric nevus I’ve never seen or heard of before, or does my daughter have skin cancer? Is that soccer coach going to call me back, or did he google me and cancel my son from playing his sport? (All the answers are no—except maybe the last.)
In middle age your identity-forming, character-forming process is over, or should be. “Vulnerabilities” are disparities between who you think you are and who you want to be. Once you know who you are, what is there to explore? As I told this ex, I wasn’t “insecure” or “masking my feelings”—I just didn’t appreciate it when she pissed down my neck and told me it was raining. “That’s not nonviolent communication,” she said.
“Fine,” I said, “I feel like my neck smells like piss.” This is a paraphrase—but accurate. As for Michael, I fear—but perhaps this is what is right for him—he did not come out of the journey, but went further in. Circling—even Landmark, with its full-on struggle sessions—is too basic for him now, like a crackhead contemplating a puff of ditchweed. He was like: I do wish you’d talked to me about this post, but unfortunately I was on a two-week retreat collectively masturbating with white American Indians on a quest to expose our auric selves. Or something like that. Well… he’s in his 30s. Best of luck!
I think it is worth digging a little deeper into this way of relating, both because I think it says something about the modern condition, and because I think it damages a lot of people’s abilities to have non-dysfunctional relationships—including my ex. Someone sent me a little piece of Powerpoint motivational propaganda that read:
Stages of Emotional Liberation:
1. We believe we are responsible for the feelings of others (keep everyone happy)
2. We no longer want to be responsible for the feelings of others (anger at our own unmet needs)
3. We take responsibility for our actions, respond to the needs of others out of compassion
This handy little pocket card will indeed “liberate” you from any and all relationships. The connection to the universal acid of leftism is obvious. This ideology is so deadly that not only does it attack the family, here you see it attacking the entire idea of love. Marriage is just another domino that needs to fall on the way to making it impossible to even have boyfriends and girlfriends.
This is a manual for treating love like friendship. Indeed you are not responsible for the feelings of your friends—when your friends get weird, or you perceive them as getting weird, it’s completely normal and healthy to just disengage from them a bit. Or if they have “needs,” you may “respond” to them out of “compassion”—for the same reason you’d give a bum a five-dollar bill.
Protip: if you sleep with someone, and you do not feel responsible for and attentive to their feelings, you are not actually in a relationship. You are just friends who fuck. Maybe you can move in together, at which point you become roommates who fuck. Poly even makes sense—if you have a big house, why just one roommate?
What this handy list is doing is giving you an excuse for not doing the hard work of actual relationship-building, which involves integrating two souls so that they see the world together. Yes—there is less tension in the relationship when communication is limited to sharing each person’s perspective, rather than trying to integrate. But what you have then is two people not relating to each other, but past each other.
When they talk in these circles, T-groups, Quaker meetings, etc, they are talking to themselves—because the listeners are trained to accept the speaker’s perspective and enter into it, not to challenge and contrast it with their own. They are explicitly coached not to offer any kind of reality-check or model of the other, obviously an inhibitory response.
Of course everyone comes out of the room feeling like they’re on MDMA! They are talking to themselves, and hearing themselves echoed off everyone in the room. Listeners do enter the headspace of the speaker, but only to share it with them and reflect their own perspective back—never to integrate the two perspectives, never to show the speaker himself as others see him. In short: communication is easier and more pleasant when its primary function is removed. It doesn’t work as well, though.
And in a real relationship the most important point to integrate on is precisely your model of your partner. Again, you have a model of your partner or you don't have a relationship. If you have a model which you think predicts your partner better than their own expressed model of themselves, you have a serious relationship problem which needs to be explored. Converging models in this way, but only sharing feelings and not models, is like trying to fuck with a rubber fishing-boot on your dick.
What happens when everyone is walking around in this thick layer of latex, to protect their sensitive new-age feelings (you would hope that one of the effects of sharing your vulnerabilities is to get rid of them, but it doesn’t seem to work like that), is that real conflicts occur anyway. People who are very serious about this cult of feelings quickly learn various smarmy, passive-aggressive techniques for “nonviolent violence,” and in the best-case scenario the difficult conversation works out, only in stilted language.
The entire project reeks of the 20th century in so many ways—both the reinvention of human nature, and the dogmatic individualism. Turning true love into a pair of free and independent atoms, who understand each others’ feelings as friends do, who add the extra warmth of “with benefits,” and who only have to work out certain roommate-tier details like how to keep the fridge clean, is so last-century I can’t even.
And how does this work out? I dated a woman who believed in human nature for twenty years, and a woman who believed in “nonviolent communication” for two months. The amount of conflict and stress in the second relationship was greater.
And when relationships get gnarly and dangerous, the rubber-boot effect is especially damaging. As I told a friend:
I don't want anyone to respond to my need not to be kicked out of their compassion. Like, you've kicked me in the head three times—now you're not going to kick me again, out of compassion? For my “unmet need” to not be kicked?
I need to know that you understand that it hurts that you kicked me, that you feel bad about having kicked me, and hear that you get it and will at least try not to kick me again. None of this has anything to do with WHY you kicked me—even if it was just by accident.
I know! You were just swinging your leg around, again! It was my choice to feel hurt! I hear you! If I can't get these assurances, I'm in a pathological relationship and need to leave.
And the TWO times I arguably “kicked” X—that is, I spoke to her frankly and uncomfortably—I gave her all these things. Unfortunately my power position was that it was very hard to speak to her frankly about this, except in an uncomfortable situation. I did apologize for speaking uncomfortably (wit, etc)—I did not and could not apologize for speaking frankly. Again, that would be pathological.
This is why couples fight in a benign way: a little discomfort should lead to a calmdown; a bunch of frank, then palliative, then soothing discourse should ensue, and the problem is resolved by reintegrating the perspectives of the partners. If worst comes to worst, they can agree to disagree, hopefully just on the unimportant.
Conflict in a relationship should always lead to a full and frank conversation—to which any amount of ritualized latex can only be an impediment. And it is always better to have this conversation than to not have it.
Like I said in the post, the next stage after basic consideration is shared perspective. The NVC dogma is that if I know how you feel (or say you feel), and you know how I feel (or say I feel), everything is fine. Try applying that to any kind of abusive relationship and you'll see exactly how universal the NVC principle is.
Until you have had an argument with a lovely and intelligent person who is telling you that basic consideration in a relationship—ie, caring about the other person’s feelings—is not just a bad practice but verges on an abusive practice, from which everyone must become “emotionally liberated,” you haven’t really felt the cold hand of the undead 20th century reaching into your pants. I mean, wow—just, wow.
But what is the alternative? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you—the New York Times, or one of their most emailed articles ever.
The reason it works to treat your lover like an exotic animal is, of course, that humans are exotic animals. They are beautiful and frightening and you can never completely understand or control them. They have a nature that you can know, unlike a killer whale—but a trainer has a model of their killer whale—but, just as this model is never and can never be perfect, the same is true of your model of your lover.
A relationship is the construction of a shared perspective of each other and the world. This perspective can differ here or there—you don’t always have to like all the same movies or books or music. But even if you don’t, you should talk about it. Talk, talk, talk! All communication is good communication. And, as the article says:
The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don’t.
“Ignore” is not right when dealing with humans, not killer whales. With humans, the right way to deal with behavior you don’t like is to talk about it, another time—or at least, with some kind of context switch. That prevents the natural conflict response in which the human, nagged, digs in and persists in the behavior as a point of honor, or even just a way of getting attention. Exotic animals like attention too.
And killer whales, unlike humans, do not reciprocate the training. When both sides of a relationship are training each other, and consciously learning to cease behavior that is ignored and recognize behavior that is being rewarded, and can even step outside the moment to resolve larger, longer-term conflicts of preference and direction, you have a marriage that works.
Ultimately the desire to atomize even the bond of love in this way—the contractual vision of marriage having long since fallen away—is consistent with the general eleutheromania of leftism, which demands the abolition of all ties between humans.
Historically, marriage is the opposite of freedom—marriage, in fact, is mutual slavery. You do carry that burden of responsibility! You can carry it! You never have to put it down. And you never can—even though my wife is dead, I still worry about what she thinks of me. (Perhaps not much, after this!) And that’s wonderful.
Even these kinds of ecstatic cult experiences are absolutely appropriate in the context of a religion—of a permanent structure to which you are indissolubly tied, and which is reinforced by the ecstasy of the ritual. You are building something. But if the only thing you get out of the workshop is more workshop—it really is exactly like a drug.
The use of natural urges and emotions, like intimacy and sex, either to create social bonds that are not useful or durable, or purely for their own pleasure, is one of the hallmarks of the 20th-century attempt to reinvent humanity. Everywhere you see one of these hallmarks, recognize it and consider the traditional alternative as well.
These tropes should be respected, because everyone has to try to respect the world they live in—or the woman they’re dating. As an unserious person I would have tried to ignore and/or humor her “cult”—as a serious, respectful grownup, I had to take it seriously. And this is my general attitude to all 20th-century crazy.