The dangers of adulation and sycophants

January 29, 2024 22:42

A specter is haunting global politics – the specter of adulation and sycophants.

This is an era when Taylor Swift deepfakes proliferate, and where AI-generated misinformation on the war in Gaza has become part and parcel. This is also an era when there are truths that cannot be taught, lest they draw the ire of those who would react with wrath and protest vociferously; where mis-truths are equated with dogma, and dogma with facts and reality.

From Trump supporters ardently singing the praises of the Orange Buffoon, to those who tiptoe around the Kremlin in fear that they would incur the anger from those who are unabashedly unrepentant over a foolhardy and hubristic war fought in vain and with blood on their hands… from those who glamourise and gloss over the casualties and deaths – numbering thousands, tens of thousands – in Palestine, to those who pretend that the post-Brexit Britain is ‘great’ in virtue of its ostensible independence… the world we live in is eerie, uncomfortable, and often downright absurd. We live in an era where those who adulate, who practise unctuous sycophancy, have become the primary driving forces of political and ‘uncivil’ discourse around the world. Praise has become par for the course, whilst criticism is rarely welcome, if ever.

Sycophancy – as defined by many as the tendency to insincerely praise individuals in position of power or influence, usually with the intention of deriving some advantage or goods from so doing. Insincerity here could play out in two forms – saying something that one knows to be untrue, or offering judgments that one does not truly believe in; the former may involve explicit falsities (e.g. “The Earth is flat.”), whilst the latter is more subtler and thus harder to detect (e.g. addressing someone as “very beautiful” when one does not in fact hold this judgment – though who is to say what beauty in fact is?).

Praise plays out not only in direct interpersonal interactions, but also through repeated incantations and enunciations in non-directed, general settings. Influence and power are related though are not necessarily the same – those who can influence, possess the capacity to make individuals believe in particular claims, or at least act according to such seeming beliefs; power, on the other hand, is far more enveloping and can be more naked, more brute-force, and more forthright. In other words, those who can influence possess power, but those with power can resort to violence, coercion, or deliberate agenda-setting – falling well short of influencing.

Finally, such advantages may or may not be directly bestowed by the subject of praise. In the case of Empress Cixi, for instance, she lavished rewards and goods upon those who wholeheartedly and ardently backed her. In the case of those who decided to side with Trump in denying the objectively valid results of the 2020 Presidential Election, they were offered all sorts of positions, opportunities, and windfalls, political or otherwise, by those who had sought to curry favour with the likeliest contender in the upcoming 2024 race. In short, sycophants benefit, but not necessarily via or from those whom they are praising, for their undying loyalty and willingness to pledge and express such thoughts.

Why do sycophants engage in adulation? Some would say, it’s strictly transactional – A offers some insincere platitudes about B, B rewards A in exchange for more platitudes: a simple incentive exercise. Others would say, it’s more about advancing certain long-term goals (e.g. promotion or pay raise) – the more one performs signifiers of one’s loyalty and positive recognition (or shall we say, veneration) of particular figures, the more one is to be viewed and appraised as meriting and deserving of further opportunities. Take Rudy Giuliani and his comeback, as a key linchpin of the Trump machinery. Or Tim Scott, and the possibility that his flattery of Trump (over Haley) could well land him a VP nomination (I do think it’s unlikely, somewhat). Indeed, in environments where getting the job done and fulfilling expected requirements is all but impossible, sycophancy becomes a readily available mechanism and tool through which individuals can signal three things: i) that one is not a threat; ii) that one is willing to cooperate, and do so in ways that override or trump competing considerations, and iii) above all, that one is willing to imbue and leverage one’s social credibility to bolster and advance the agenda of somebody else, whomever that may be. Hence sycophancy is not only utile for the individual who is being flattered, but also fundamentally self-serving for those engaging in it. There is an innate logic, and some twisted, ersatz beauty to the entire activity.

Why is adulation and sycophancy bad? This is a great question. The obvious answer is that it distorts the truth. It forces those involved to point to oxen and call them rabbits (to paraphrase and borrow from a different Chinese epithet). It compels individuals to jettison their truly critical and vigorous minds, in exchange for some semblance of solace and material rewards – thereby denaturing the vital active that Arendt has attributed to the human condition. Yet as we have established, in this post-truth era, it is not so much mere truth, or the dissipation of it, that ought to draw our particular attention.

The real issue rests with the opportunity costs. The alternative good that could have been done. The transformations to social structures that urgently require implementation, and yet are thwarted for sycophants have clogged up and taken up all the resources that are available. Modi’s rule in India is fascinating – the BJP has established a broad system of governance that is astutely capable of mobilising the people, cutting through the red tape, challenging bureaucracies, and taking on long-vested interests. I have my fair share of reservations about India’s ruling party, but it is towards its Opposition that I must direct my criticism here. For the past decade and a half, India’s Opposition has lacked a coherent, ideologically resonant, and fundamentally inclusive broad-church platform that enables a genuine counterproposition to Modi’s offering. The Indian people deserve better than a series of Opposition parties – fragmented at the union level – that are excessively attached to particular political personalities (often families of them), and their ensuing cults of personalities. There needs to be a more secular, more accommodationist, more religiously and civically vibrant and plural opposition in India that can transcend the bonds of interpersonal loyalty and fealty, and truly instill confidence in its people. Could this be done?

I do not know. What I do know, is that any electoral polity that lacks a salubrious and proactive opposition, is unlikely to flourish as a democracy for long. It does not imply that it cannot succeed as a whole – after all, infra-party critique and debate can be robust and constructive.

Assistant Professor, HKU