Newsletter #72: Why You Shouldn't Play the Heel
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Peter Thiel gave a very interesting lecture at Stanford recently. Here’s a video of it.
One story he told early in the presentation was ancillary to the theme of his talk, but profound in its own right. It’s the story of how Thiel helped propel Rigoberta Menchu to the Nobel Peace Prize. He says:
I’ve been involved in the campus wars, culture war debates for something like 35 years since we started the Stanford Review. I’ll just recount one story from around 35 or so years ago. Around the time that we started the Stanford Review in 1987 the live debate was was about Western Culture, the freshman core curriculum program. It was going to be phased out. The ’88-89 school year was going to be the first year the new experimental Culture, Ideas and Values program that would replace Western Culture. It was framed as multi-cultural, and I thought we should do an exposé on the first class. It was taught by a tendentious Marxist professor. It wasn’t even about multiculturalism. It was all various anti-Western writers of one form or another. I went to the Stanford bookstore and started reading through the books. I was a man with a hammer searching for nails. I was just trying to find the most tendentious things.
Then I finally stumbled on one that was the perfect book that encapsulated everything that was preposterous about it: I, Rigoberta Menchu. It was a set of interviews with this kind of Guatemalan peasant Indian woman who had been oppressed in every vector of oppression. It was like a perfect pastiche. She was opposed as poor. There was racial [oppression]. There was a war. She was an orphan. And on and on down the line. Then there were these chapters: Rigoberta Renounces Marriage and Motherhood. Rigoberta Makes Plans for the May Day Parade. So it had a somewhat communist undercurrent.
The Western Culture debate was somehow at one level important. It was about this freshman level course and one elite university, Stanford. But then in some sense it was a debate about our whole culture, and it sort of kicked up all these bigger thing. As a 20 year old senior I somehow convinced the editors of the Wall Street Journal to reprint some of these excerpts. They did a long excerpt on this class. When Dinesh D’Souza wrote his book on illiberal education in 1991, the Stanford chapter was entitled “Travels with Rigoberta.” So it got this iconic framing.
Then fast forward to the fall of 1992. I’m clerking for a judge in Atlanta. I’m driving to the office in the morning. I have my radio on. [The announcer says,] “There was someone selected for the Nobel Peace Prize. No one’s ever heard of this woman. It’s Rigoberta Menchu.”
There is legal distinction between “proximate” causing - I punch you or something - versus “but for” causation. I was not the proximate cause of her getting the Nobel Peach Prize, but I was the but for cause. But for me, she would not have gotten the Nobel Peace Prize.
The scales fell off my eyes at that point. I had thought I was fighting in some sort of cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil, and what I had really been doing is that I was just some two-bit actor in a left-wing psychodrama where I completed her victimization. The one group she had not been victimized by were white, conservative Republicans in the United States. I completed her victimization and guaranteed her Nobel Peace Prize. [lightly edited for clarity - emphasis added]
Thiel’s anecdote is a great illustration of why it’s typically a bad idea to play the heel. Peter Thiel ended up boosting the career and the cause of the person he criticized.
In professional wrestling story lines, the main characters are the “face” and the “heel.” The face is the good guy or hero, and the heel is the bad buy or villain. The heel is not necessarily an all evil person, but the audience is supposed to boo him and root against him and for the face. According to the Wikipedia page for heel:
To gain heat (with boos and jeers from the audience), heels are often portrayed as behaving in an immoral manner by breaking rules or otherwise taking advantage of their opponents outside the bounds of the standards of the match. Others do not (or rarely) break rules, but instead exhibit unlikeable, appalling, and deliberately offensive and demoralizing personality traits such as arrogance, cowardice, or contempt for the audience. Many heels do both, cheating as well as behaving nastily. No matter the type of heel, the most important role is that of the antagonist, as heels exist to provide a foil to the face wrestlers.
Not all criticism, conflict, etc. is heel behavior. What makes someone a heel is in doing things like breaking rules or norms, boorish or unseemly behavior, or otherwise cultivating some kind of negative personality type.
Heels are important to drama. It’s hard to build drama, or cause the audience to identify with the hero, if he doesn’t have a rival, if there’s not a conflict or challenge for him to overcome.
The same storylines play out in real life too. In our society of mass media and heavily staged managed social media platforms, political, social, and cultural events are portrayed similarly to a pro wrestling storyline. These powerful institutions are able to write the story of how events are to be understood. This lets them create the drama, and critically to define which people are faces and which are heels.
As we know, the media is overwhelmingly establishment leftist in orientation. Thus they are almost always going to portray the person on the left as the good guy and the person on the right at the bad guy.
The conservative heel plays a key role in this drama, undertaking the actions that cause the average person, or the “normie,” and the major institutions of society to actively side with the left hero in the story.
We see an example of this with the way the media covers protests. Left wing protests are generally covered with very favorable images and stories. The most attractive, more sympathetic, most normal people are the ones they put on TV. The kooks and extremists are never shown. Whereas with conservative protests the wackiest people and most unflattering images are chosen. For example, coverage of heated school board meetings often features the clip of the most angry conservative mom saying the most harsh thing the media can find. It’s also no surprise that the so-called Q-Anon Shaman was the most common image of January 6.
The media don’t have god-like powers to turn lead into gold. They tried to label the George Floyd riots as “mostly peaceful protests,” for example, but that was a complete failure. The reality was too powerful to suppress. And, notably, there was no conservative heel handy for them to brand as the bad guy.
But if you give them material to work with, they can do a lot with it. When you voluntarily play the heel role, you are often actually furthering the narrative the media wants to create. Without a villain, their story has no drama, and the hero they want you to support isn’t going to be viewed as strongly a sympathetic victim. Without you stepping in to act the heel, they would have to invent one, which is less effective than when you voluntarily play the role for them.
In Peter Thiel’s story, he unintentionally played the heel by attacking Rigoberta Menchu (the media’s desired face and notably not a political public figures that our norms deem an acceptable target of attack) through ridicule, amplified by the major media and later books. The media was then able to leverage this to advance their storyline with Menchu.
When Peter Thiel said, “I was just some two-bit actor in a left-wing psychodrama,” this is identical to the description of the heel as “existing to provide a foil to the face wrestlers.”
Heels Can Have Great Careers
Being a heel can actually be a great career move. It can get someone into the spotlight in the WWE. Or it can renew interest in a flagging career. Even Hulk Hogan once made a “heel turn.”
It’s also the case that some people by nature are simply suited to operating in a heel type mode. They are low in agreeableness, thrive on conflict, have a rebel attitude or provocative style.
Because the media wants conservative bad guys, they will often elevate and give the spotlight to people who play that role. In one infamous and extreme case, the alt-right personality Richard Spencer leaned into the characterization of him as a white nationalist. At an event where he had invited many members of the media, Spencer gave a Nazi salute and said, “Hail, Trump! Hail, victory!” Later he appeared on CNN with the title “white nationalist.” This may have gotten Spencer the attention he wanted, but certainly didn’t make society more favorable to his cause.
But even fully respectable people like Thiel can inadvertently end up advancing their opponents’ cause by playing the heel. They do this because the media reward structure favors people who do this, just as social media rewards people with extreme takes and high conflict personalities. Being a heel on social media gets double rewards.
But again, just because individuals and their personal organizations can personally profit from being a heel doesn’t mean that this helps advance their nominal cause. Quite often, it just provides the media the villain they need to advance their narrative and benefit the people and causes that the heel opposes.
Being a Heel Can Work - For Some People
Playing the heel is not always a strategic failure. Some people can succeed in both using heel mode to benefit themselves, and having some strategic success as well.
The big example is Donald Trump. The party system, political finance structure, and media apparatus made it essentially impossible for any fundamental changes to or questioning of the system to gain traction. Trump, in a judo type move, was able to use the media’s desire for a conservative heel to draw immense media attention that catapulted him to the presidency. Most of the time, he was able to successfully parry media attacks using some variation of heel tactics.
Not only that, his candidacy and presidency shook up the system in a way that I don’t recall ever happening since the Reagan era. While ultimately it might be completely suppressed - every major institution in society, including the Republican Party establishment, is aligned with making that suppression happen - he certainly made an impact. And that would not have happened without using heel tactics.
Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump has not only spent decades in the media spotlight, he’s also in the pro wrestling hall of fame. He has a deep understanding of how these dynamics work and how to deploy them successfully.
But even in the case of Trump, his heel approach only worked for a short window of time. Today, the magic is gone. With every “truth” he puts out, he loses more and more support.
Rush Limbaugh was another person who made it work. He used to label feminists “feminazis” and the like, which is heel like behavior. One reason Rush was so successful is that he was first and foremost a great entertainer. There always seemed to be a twinkle in his eye as he pontificated on various subjects. This put Rush in a class by himself versus the angry style of too many talk radio personalities.
So the heel mode is a tool that any movement needs to have in its tool chest. Sometimes it’s the right tool for the moment. However, just as I’ve noted that the “MAGA” movement is extremely overweight e-celebrities, conservatism generally in the US, in its various manifestations, is also overweight in people engaging in heel type tactics.
For Most People and Movements Heel Behavior Is Often Counter-Productive
Again, not all criticism and conflict is heel behavior. Also, just because someone does make heel type tweets from time to time, or something of that nature, doesn’t necessarily make someone a proper heel personality.
Also, I would not advocate that people become chumps by buying into our current system, following all the rules and norms that are regularly ignored by elites, or being a “good little boy” as defined by the media.
As I’ve said many times, despite the decline in trust in our institutions, they are still far too trusted relative to the amount of trust they deserve. I want to help build up people and institutions that do deserve trust, and to drain the legitimacy from those that don’t.
The question is how to do that. I think very often heel behavior actually strengthens the system and marginalizes people who engage in it. Or, perhaps more often, creates a ceiling on the amount of influence they can have.
Again, you can build a great career by being a heel. The question is, what is your actual goal? If your goal is your career, great. But if your goals are more expansive, then you need to evaluate your tactics in light of how they advance or work against that goal as well.
For me personally, I want to be willing to use heel behavior at select times. I think it’s critical for people today to be willing to publicly defy the elite consensus in some way that could be socially costly. If I’m 100% system compliant, then I’m not a serious or credible person.
On the other hand, I don’t want to become a troll or heel for clicks and subscriptions either. I aspire to be able to move the needle in helping conservative American Christians successfully shift and adapt to the 21st century negative world.
This means I need to have some level of “normie” appeal. So I need to be thoughtful of what I engage on and how I’m communicating. That’s absolutely appropriate to do. Because it doesn’t matter how truthful what I’m saying is if nobody will listen to me when I say it.
Now, by nature I am a contrarian, but also conflict averse. So for me, personal growth and strategic effectiveness probably means being willing to lean more into being a heel in some cases.
But for a lot of conservatives, the opposite is the case.
To illustrate what I’m talking about, let me give an example of conservative heel behavior that is counter-productive. It was the reaction some of them had to the death of Rep. John Lewis. Here’s an article in Front Page Mag just three days after he died. Or here’s a tweet.
There’s a well-established norm about not speaking ill of the recently departed. Yes, people on the left can get away with this. Yes, people like John McCain exploited the grace normally shown to the dying and the dead to score political points. Yes, this norm, like many other decent, civilized behaviors that once ruled our land, is now in decline.
Nevertheless, as a conservative, if you throw stones at a leftist who recently passed away, it is going to be portrayed negatively by the press and turn off the average normie.
It’s not necessary to dogpile every single thing in anger. If we do this in the wrong context, or make an excessive pattern of it, then there’s a good chance it might be tactically effective but strategically counter-productive.
I’m not telling you to never play the heel role. As I said, it can work for some people who have the right skills and personality for it. It can also be a useful tool for everyone to use at certain times.
But I would encourage you to think seriously before playing the heel as to whether it is a prudent way to engage. Is it helping to accomplish your long term objectives? Or is it long term counterproductive?
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Fast Food Tour
In addition to cultural analysis and critique, I like to present as many practical tips to readers as I can. One of my principles is to build up as well as criticize, and to give as many practical tools as I can to help you navigate today’s world.
There’s a been a significant separation of the folkways of the upper middle class and affluent from those of the American mainstream. The top 20% of America in terms of socio-economic status are now heavily geographically, as well as socially and culturally segregated from the rest of America. Charles Murray’s famous “bubble quiz” is a great tool to help upper middle class and affluent people understand the way that they may be isolated this this upscale milieu. He asks questions like “Have you ever been on a factor floor?” for example.
One of his question is to ask how many times you have eaten at the following restaurants in the last year: Applebee’s, Waffle House, Denny’s, IHOP, Chili’s, Outback Steakhouse, Ruby Tuesday, T.G.I Friday’s, and Ponderosa Steakhouse.
Suffice it to say, these restaurants, along with most fast food chains, are not frequented by the elite, especially in urban areas.
A woman here in Indianapolis who fits the bill of being an urban, progressive professional in that top 20% posted on social media that she was taking her kids on a fast food tour. That is, she wanted to make sure her kids experienced eating at all the major fast food chains.
I thought this was a great idea. For those of you who are in that top 20% socio-economic status, making sure to take your kids to the major fast food chains, as well as the major sit down restaurant chains Murray listed, is a great way to make sure they don’t grow up in a bubble, and understand something of how the American mainstream lives. I can imagine all sorts of similar activities you could choose to undertake.
I like local, artisanal, independent, etc. type businesses as much as anybody. But making sure our children don’t grow up culturally estranged from the majority of the people in the country where they live - especially for those who consider themselves conservatives and thus want to identify with the traditional American mainstream - is something worth thinking about intentionally.
How oddly situated a man is apt to find himself at age thirty-eight! His youth belongs to the distant past. Yet the period of memory beginning with the end of youth and extending to the present has left him not a single vivid impression. And therefore he persists in feeling that nothing more than a fragile barrier separates him from his youth. He is forever hearing with the utmost clarity the sounds of this neighboring domain, but there is no way to penetrate the barrier.
But as a man grows older the memory of his youth begins to act as nothing less than an immunization against further experience. And he was thirty-eight. It was an age when one felt strangely unready to say that one had lived and yet reluctant to acknowledge the death of youth. An age when the savor of one’s experiences turned ever so slightly sour, and when, day by day, one took less pleasure in new things. An age when the charm of every diverting foolishness quickly faded.
- Yukio Mishima, Runaway Horses
I was wondering about the origin of that term, playing the heel.
I see the wrestling component, and maybe it is an original term for that.
But it certainly brought to mind Jacob's name in the Old Testament. Jacob/James means "He takes by the heel, or he cheats" which became an idiom for a trickster or deception. He was grabbing his brother's heel when he was born, and his life of deception (stealing the inheritance) earned him that moniker.
And certainly it appears in Genesis 3 when the promised Messiah will be stuck in the heel by the deceiver, but then crush his head with that heel. In any case, you don't want to be associated with the heel, even Achilles will tell you that.
I think (like with your follow up about Tony Dungy), people need to realize that they can be as upstanding as possible, but people will call you the most horrible of things if you believe the Bible. So don't think not playing the heel itself will lead to a peaceful life.