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'Likability' Is Socially Manipulative Middle School Bullsh*t And Everyone Should Shut Up About It Forever

2020 presidential election

As we head into the 2020 primaries, the word on the tip of every asshole's tongue is likability. "Who is likable?" they wonder. Beto is likable because he "looks like a Kennedy" (because he's Irish? I guess?) and skateboards. Elizabeth Warren is not likable ... I assume because of the whole "having a vagina" thing. Never mind the fact that for two years straight every single thing the woman said went viral. She'd say "pass the salt" and it would be the number one thing on Reddit for three days straight. But sure! She's not likable. According to some dudes. For reasons. Vague reasons that no one ever has to actually explain.

It's the kind of criticism people love to do, because it requires no proof of anything whatsoever. It's the kind of thing people love to go along with because "Well gee, they have to be likable if they're going to be elected, right?" Somehow, it never occurs to anyone that perhaps we might want to wait on deciding what people find "likable" until people actually vote. That seems like a pretty good way of finding that out! Certainly, it is a better metric than one random person's personal speculations.

Now, when people do this, they like to present it as a thing they are sincerely concerned about for the good of us all. That is not what this is. And if you don't know that, then I sincerely question whether or not you ever attended middle school.


What it is is a way of trying to make other people not like the person you don't like when you don't want to admit that you have no specific criticism of that person. Or that you are an asshole.

Imagine, for a second, you and I are hanging out with a bunch of people at a bar. Someone else that I know and you don't comes up to our table to say hello. She seems perfectly nice to you, but when she leaves, I look to you and whisper one of the following things:

  • "I don't know... she just like, rubs me the wrong way. I can't put my finger on it."
  • "She's just like, a really bad person. I can't say why, but just trust me on this."
  • "Ugh, no one likes her. She's such a bitch."
  • "I just get like, a bad vibe from her?"

Now, your personal experience with that person was fine! You may have even liked her! But the seed is planted. You question your own judgment. The next time you see her, you wonder what it is she does that is so incredibly off-putting. You fill in the blanks yourself. You scan her more harshly than you might have if I said, "Oh my gosh, she's the nicest person and I love her!" You look for flaws, for things that you might find annoying. If you're a certain kind of person, you might report back to me, with news of some otherwise innocuous thing she did that validated the "feeling" I had.

Meanwhile, the reason for my personal hate-on might be something incredibly stupid. It might be jealousy, it might be a thing that I know would sound cruel if I said it out loud, it could be that I'm sexist or racist or anti-Semitic but don't want you to think I am, it could be any number of things. Or she could be a serial killer! You don't know! But probably, if she were a serial killer, I would just say, "Hey, that girl is a serial killer, and if you hang out with her she will make you a skin suit." LIKE NORMAL.

These are very much imaginary versions of "You" and "I." In real life, not only would I never do this, I am absolutely the asshole who will demand to know exactly what that person did, and say "Well, she was perfectly nice to me" until provided with something concrete. (If it turns out she did, in fact, punch your baby in the face, I will be more than happy to join you on your vendetta.)

Being the person to deny someone else's very special intuitive gut feelings or vague assertions is a hard thing to do -- it's awkward as hell, and very often that person will then get mad at me. But I do it because I've been on the other side of it and it sucks. I've also just never been one to let anyone else tell me whom I do and do not like.

The thing is, no one can defend themselves against vague, subjective bullshit like that. If someone were to say I'm unlikable, what am I supposed to do to defend myself? Say "Actually, I am extremely charming" or "Here is a list of people who like me"?

It's a trap. The people who do this know it's a trap and that's why they do it. They're also savvy enough to know that most people are basically lazy when it comes to forming opinions about other people and will usually just go along with that kind of shit because it's easier, it saves them time, and they hate not feeling included. Because people will question specifics a lot more easily than they will question the feeling in someone's gut. It's what you do when you want to be vicious but also want people to think you are nice.

There is an upside to people's laziness about forming opinions on other people, by the way. As I always say, "I act like I am fantastic and 90% of the time people just go along with me." It sounds like a joke, but I swear to you it works. If you act like anything is great, most of the time most people will just go along with you. This is also why it goes right up my ass when people act like liberal policies are gross vegetables that we must disguise as Vegetti or whatever because they are good for people but also "people" won't like them. Screw that! And screw Vegetti! Sometimes things are both good for you and delicious. Like how my gin and tonics prevent me from getting malaria. Which is more convincing? "Hey! Won't it be awesome when you don't have to worry that you might lose your house because you got sick?" or "Sure, I think universal health care is great, too, but the people will never go for it"?

Take it from me, a lady who has spent a lot of time observing people and also used to sell people $600 belts as a real bargain by talking about "cost per wear."

Here is what I will be doing during the primaries. If someone has a policy I like, I will say, "I like this policy and here is why!" If they have a policy I do not like, I will say "I do not like this policy and here is why!" Same if they've done something in the past I like or do not like. I will not be saying things like "this person is likable" or "this person is unlikable" because who the hell am I to speak for anyone else and who they like? Maybe we have different taste in human beings! I'm not going to talk about my "gut feelings" because I am not psychic and neither are you.

None of this is that hard! And if we do things this way, if we stick to specifics, if we don't do any magical thinking, we will have an altogether kinder, less gross and less sexist 2020 primary season. Do not play anyone else's reindeer games. Except mine, because I am a beautiful genius and you love me.

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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Previously, she was a Senior Staff Writer at Death & Taxes, and Assistant Editor at The Frisky (RIP). Currently, she writes for Wonkette, Friendly Atheist, Quartz and other sites. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse

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