Brain Rot: Non-Authoritarian Persuasion

I suppose this is the first of the brain rot series, though I had a different post planned for that. But as such, let’s start with a definition of brain rot before we get into the persuasion bits.

Brain rot

Brain rot is a bit of an aggressive term, but I mean it mostly with affection and humor. The idea behind “brain rot” is that there are certain skills and practices that are necessary for a functioning society that don’t get taught or are actively discouraged or we kind of just forget about. But my personal opinion is that all of the things I call “brain rot” are pretty easy to learn once you become aware of it. I also, absolutely, suffer from these “brain rots” myself, especially the one in this essay.

Usually in this series, I’ll say “something-induced” brain rot, to call out specifically who benefits from this particular lack. For example, today’s example is authoritarian-induced brain rot.

Authoritarian persuasion

We live in a pretty culturally-authoritarian society here in the US. I’ll allow others to debate how authoritarian our government is, but our culture is definitely authoritarian as heck. Our employers, our schools, even our families and friends, are structured around an authority figure, and success and happiness in those domains are often tied into how well that authority figure’s requests or demands are met.

As a consequence, when we find ourselves trying to persuade someone to do something, the first thing that comes to mind present yourself as an authority. For example, say you see someone deliberately drop a wrapper instead of throwing it away. My instinct, and maybe yours, would be to say something like

“Hey! Don’t litter!” 

Which, if you think about it, is pretty loaded with authority. Giving commands is what authorities do, and usually they’re obeyed, which is the desired outcome here. Here’s a softer example, trying to persuade someone to pick a non-dairy milk.

“You should drink soy milk instead of cow milk. It’s 
better for the environment.”

It’s definitely not as order-like as the first example, but it’s still trying to prescribe someone else’s behavior. And the reason why the persuadee might be compelled to listen is because the person saying it is presenting themselves as an authority on milk and its environmental impacts.

Why authoritarian persuasion doesn’t work

The problem with authoritarian persuasion is 1) nobody likes to be bossed around and 2) it immediately opens you up to a pretty straightforward rebuttal: you’re not actually an authority. For example, say someone makes a post on social media “Excited to buy [garbage product] by [garbage person]!” There’s a temptation to say something like:

“Don’t buy it! [garbage person] is garbage!”

Or maybe:

“Hey, you shouldn’t buy [garbage product], it supports 
[garbage person] who [did garbage things].”

Unfortunately, the immediate reaction of that person is probably “Who are you to tell me what to do?” And they’re right, you don’t actually have any authority over them. So even if you have a lot of good reasons why nobody should buy [garbage product], you’re already arguing from the backfoot, because first you have to answer “why should I do what you say?”

Non-authoritarian persuasion

It’s completely possible to attempt to persuade people without positioning yourself as an authority, and I suspect that it would be way more effective. In the garbage person example:

“Excited to buy [garbage product]!” 

“Hey, I really don’t like [garbage person] because 
of [garbage things they did].  It would mean a 
lot to me if you didn’t buy [garbage product].”

For one, you’re not telling anyone what to do anymore, which removes the part of the conversation of “are you actually an authority on this subject/me”--you’re letting them make their own decisions, and if they do decide to change their behavior, odds are they’ll do it again in the future.

And secondly, if they want to rebut you, well, there’s only one thing they can rebut. Which is that the things that are important to you aren’t important to them. And for some people, that will be true, and they won’t change their behavior. But it forces them to confront the feeling that yes, getting [garbage product] is more important to them than you. And if you’re close to them and important to them, that can be really compelling.

Non-authoritarian persuasion is all over the place

I’m not really saying anything new here. This flavor of communication is everywhere already. For example, in relationships, saying “I was hurt when you did [x]” instead “You did [x] to hurt me” is a pretty well established best practice. It respects the other person’s agency and intent and positions you and your partner against the problem, instead of against each other.

I’ve also seen this a lot when I’ve done writing critiques. When you try to position yourself as an authority over someone else’s work, things get hairy. People get defensive, feelings get hurt. It’s much more effective to say “I didn’t like this character because [x]” than “This character is unlikeable because [x]”, even though the information transmitted is basically identical.

But it’s also hard

The hilarious irony of this essay is that I’m using authoritarian phrases all over the place. Because our culture is so authoritarian, without things to “soften” the blow, authoritarian is the default interpretation. And people tell you that good, effective writing doesn’t have any of these softeners, like “really”, “like”, “or something”, etc. There’s a parenthetical “I think” before everything that I say, but if I actually put those in there, the repetition would drive you (and me) bonkers. Really we need some sort of grammatical construct or something to convey this without interrupting the flow of the conversation, like a new tense or something, but I’ll keep the con-lang-ing to a minimum here.

The other interesting thing about this phenomenon is that I feel like it’s way more acceptable online than in person. Like, imagine you went grocery shopping with your friend and they were about to buy cow’s milk and you wanted to convince them to try something else. You’d never say “Buy the soy milk, cow milk kills the planet” in real life. You’d probably go for something like “Have you thought about buying soy milk” or “I heard that soy milk has a third the carbon footprint of cow milk” or something. But because of how algorithms reward “engagement”--whether it’s positive from the people who already agree with you, or negative from the people who don’t--communicating like this has somehow become the norm. Which sucks, because as much as a good takedown gets cheers from our own side, I suspect it does very little to sway the people we’re trying to sway.


As with all brain rots, I don’t blame anyone for engaging with this behavior. Again, I do it myself all the time. I’m really glad you came and read all the way down to the end. Hopefully this has planted a little seed for another method of communication which might be effective in building bridges and making the world a better place.

brainrot communication social longform authoritarianism