. . . in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.*
I just read a mildly controversial book about the Obama family. To the shock and horror of the commenting classes, it turns out that Mrs Obama may not be a doormat person stuck in a 1950s time-warp. She has, apparently, ideas of her own, and sometimes expresses them. This, it appears, makes her both frightening and angry. And again I find myself hurling another socking great double standard across the room.
But my point is not so much about the brilliant Mrs O. but about a journalist, whose name I stupidly forgot, who was asked about President Obama’s first term: “Why do you think he has been a bit of, well, a disappointment?”
First of all, the journalist did not pause to challenge the premise. I am quite keen on challenging the premise and think people should do it more often, especially on news programmes. In fact, she seemed quite delighted to be asked, as if this were the crux of the matter. She had obviously given the thing some thought, because she did not pause or ponder; she came right out with it. “Of course,” she said, conclusively, “he’s the most introverted president we’ve ever had.”
At which point, I literally shook my head, like a baffled horse. I practically snorted and pawed the ground. What? You take the myriad, convoluted, labyrinthine complications of running a country as eclectic and mysterious as America, and boil it down to the fact the president is an introvert? And, and, you blatantly imply that this is a bad thing, a terrible drawback, a defining weakness. I do not understand.
It’s not actually the politics of this that interests me, for once. I think it is a miracle that he can govern the country at all, since America seems more profoundly divided now than I have ever seen it. It’s not just left and right, there are furious fissures within the ideological camps. Have you been watching the Republican camp? There is a massive fight going on between the religious right and the fiscal conservatives, the almost extinct Rockefeller Republicans and the neophyte Tea Partiers, the biblical literalists and the radical libertarians, and all points in between.
The Dems are slightly less fractious, but the coloured bit of the Venn diagram where centrists once met seems to be smaller and smaller, so there are terrible, pointless, childish rows and stand-offs in both House and Senate, where bills are thrown out because of tribalism, Republicans vote against things they once supported, and filibusters grow like mushrooms after rain. Sometimes, when I watch the implacable dislike and mistrust that seems to obtain between the two sides, I wonder that America can be governed at all.
Yet, Obama stopped the economy sailing off the cliff, got the jobs graph to start crawling up instead of plunging down as it had under George W, put through a healthcare bill which at least contained the idea of universal coverage, pulled out of Iraq, tracked down Osama Bin Laden with his supersecret powers, and repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, all against the howls and tantrums of an obstructionist Congress. He has not been perfect, but, in an awful situation, he has not been bad. And he can sing Al Green songs.
But that is not the point. (Turns out I had to say it, because it makes me so cross when people suck their teeth and say he has done nothing.) The point is that his perceived disappointment is being blamed on being an introvert.
The only inference I can draw from this odd statement is that if he had been a good ol’ boy, yakking it up, and slapping backs, and twinkling and winkling, then somehow everything would have been fine.
Introvert = taciturn and shy and anti-social; that is not its meaning at all. It simply means that the inner world of thoughts and ideas is more real than the external world of events. For the extrovert, it is the exact opposite. The extrovert’s greatest terror is being left entirely alone; the introvert fears the collapse of his/her internal world.
Introversion is a bit like handedness. One can go out and dance and sing and talk and laugh; one can be social and make conversation perfectly well. It’s just it’s a bit like writing with your left hand when you are naturally right-handed. It requires a bit of effort.
The difference is that extroverts thrive on people; big groups, social occasions are like fuel in the tank for them. Introverts, on the other hand, are exhausted by going out, however much it might be a pleasure.
I always used to think that introversion and extroversion were evenly mixed. Apparently not. Someone worked out it’s more like 30-70. This explains why people react with disdain; it’s the old minority thing. It’s other.
Because extroverts, the majority, the normal ones, cannot imagine feeling like this, they take it as an insult. The conclusion is: the introvert does not like people, rejects company, is somehow superior or disdainful, is horridly chilly and distant.
Introverts might not always have the easy ability to beam their charm and magnetism at a group, as Bill Clinton or Sarah Palin. This concentration on the inner world may well be a drawback in strict political terms. What they do have is the capacity to sit in a room and think. I would like my leaders to be sitting and thinking as much as they can damn well bear.
The world is swerving into waters where there are no charts. It is the contemplation of introversion rather than the instant action of extroversion that is needed now. I bet you anything all those bloody credit default cowboys were extroverted up to their eyebrows. And look how well that turned out.
One of the complaints about Obama is that he is too cool. He does not connect, apparently. I think you can ask the wrong things of a politician. I’m not sure I want hail fellow well met; I want brain the size of Poland. I’m pleased that the President is a thoughtful man; I admire his dignity and grace. I don’t want to have a beer with him I want him to make good decisions, because what happens to America affects us all.
But most of all, can people stop drawing intellectually lazy, psychologically inaccurate conclusions; could they stop conflating two different things and making baseless accusations? Could they just leave the introverts alone? They are not freaks. They do not hate or fear people, just because they are not doing karaoke every night. They just come at the world from a slightly different angle. Surely that is allowed?
*Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain