A Bully Tactic: Give Them Something to Deny

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If you knew me in high school, you’d know I engaged in a never-ending battle against AP English. It’s ironic, then, that my most thoughtful memories of high school come from those very classes I disdained. This story begins with one of those memories.

I don’t remember the context, but I do remember the lesson. It may have been during our review and analysis of The Scarlett Letter, where guilt is a major theme. The teacher, Mr. Polito, wrote on the board the following phrase: “Give them something to deny.”

This bewildered most of the class. He then mentioned it as an allusion to a made-for-TV movie thinly disguised to mimic the events surrounding Watergate. With Washington DC as its political backdrop, the movie’s antagonist was asked repeatedly how to defeat an opposing politician. I don’t remember the name of the movie or the actors in it, but I remember the scene vividly. It mirrored The Godfather scene where a sobbing Johnny Fontane laments losing a Hollywood role that would make him a star. Despite promises from Vito Corleone that he would make things all right, an unbelieving Johnny keeps asking “How?”  Frustrated, Don Corleone finally states with blunt certainty, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

In this made-for-TV movie my AP English teacher references, the henchmen keep pestering the antagonist on what, exactly, they need to do to “get” their goody-two-shoes opponent. The bad guy, obviously irritated his political hitmen don’t know as much as he does, blurts out, “Give him something to deny.”

Why would this bully use this tactic? Because it works.

Oddly, Mr. Polito might have chosen a more refined allusion from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” We use this line today to refer to any situation where a guilty party, in denying their guilt, only increases suspicion.

The antagonist in that post-Watergate 1970’s TV movie understood this. He knew the greatest weapon a bully has isn’t merely the physical threat (e.g., give me your lunch money, or else!”), but the mental trap. In modern warfare, we call this “Psy-Ops” (“Psychological Operations”). Unlike brainwashing, which many mistakenly believe it to be, Psy-Ops represents an aggressive attempt to influence and direct the behavior of the enemy (or, in the case of a bully, the target).

To allude to another movie – The Manchurian Candidate – brainwashing is a form of mental deceit that has similarities to Psy-Ops. In that movie, the Chinese train an American soldier under hypnosis while he is a POW during the Korean War. He becomes a weapon that is triggered when he sees the Queen of Diamonds playing card. In this example, brainwashing occurred while the POW was under hypnosis. The triggering mechanism mimics Psy-Ops, but Psy-Ops, in reality, is much easier than teaching someone to become a robot whenever they see the Queen of Diamonds.

Bullies are experts at Psy-Ops. One of the greatest weapons in this arsenal is guilt. Bullies try to trick you into confirming their world-view by accusing you of something in hopes you will deny it. The stronger you deny it, the greater your guilt becomes. Why? Because as Queen Gertrude implies during Scene II in Hamlet, anyone who “doth protest too much” must certainly be hiding something. Who hides something? Someone who is guilty.

Which brings us to the memory Mr. Polito’s lesson triggered. Yes, it reminded me of the scene of the movie he referenced – the significance of which, by the way, I didn’t realize when I watched it. No, the scene that popped up in my head as he revealed the meaning of his chalk-written phrase “Give them something to deny” took place on a rainy day in a far distant land…

Next Week: If You’re Not Guilty, Don’t Act Like It |

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