Friday, April 13, 2012

The ideology of Dilbert

So apparently people are still leaving comments on that post about Dilbert from half a decade ago. The latest calls me a pointy-haired boss (this is a little funny because I've never been a manager; on the other hand you could make the case that PHB-ness is a state of mind rather than a job title). I've been arguing with people on the Internet for so long, and am consequently so thick-skinned, that insults as mild as that one barely even register; but anyway the ping prompted me to think even more about how Dilbert sucks.

Aside from failures in basic craftsmanship, which I discussed in my previous post, Dilbert cultivates a poisonous worldview. Here are a few lessons that you will learn by reading Dilbert strips:

  • Your boss, co-workers, and clients are not human beings, but objects to be ridiculed.
  • You are never at fault for anything; it is always your stupid boss, stupid co-workers, and stupid clients.
  • There is no possibility of change. Every attempt at change will be thwarted by the system.
  • There is no possibility of escape. Everywhere else you go will be equally bad.

Would you want to be friends with someone who believes these things? Do you want to become a person who believes these things? Then why would you read Dilbert?

As a corollary of the above lessons, here are a couple of plots that you will never see on Dilbert, even though I think they make sense in the context of a dysfunctional workplace, and could be funny.

Plot: Dilbert runs a job interview with a smart, capable young college graduate, who passes all his questions with flying colors. Dilbert takes him aside and whispers in his ear, "Run. Run now, while you still can."

Reasons you will never see this: (1) Dilbert never shows any compassion for another human being. (2) Nobody on Dilbert is ever competent at anything except Dilbert himself. (3) It would raise the uncomfortable question of why Dilbert himself does not leave.

Plot: In a long-running arc, Dilbert leaves his office to found his own startup, small business, or consultancy. He makes all kinds of hilarious mistakes, of the type which founders inevitably make, thus bringing his business to the brink of failure. He finds that he can only be rescued by dogged persistence and the help of mentors and allies.

Reasons you will never see this: (1) Dilbert can never be shown to be at fault for anything. (2) Other people can never be seen as a force for good. (3) The root causes of problems in the workplace can never be shown to arise from the inherent difficulty of making anything work well; it must always be rank stupidity, arrogance, or some other venial human flaw. (4) Scott Adams has no idea how to draw any setting besides a cube farm.

The latter of these is particularly telling, because Adams obviously left his job to found his own business as a cartoonist (and as a result became quite wealthy). But the fantasy he sells to his audience is not one of struggling to change the objectively terrible conditions of their lives, just like he did; it is one of complacently remaining in place while cultivating a smug sense of superiority and alienation. The relationship between Adams and his audience is therefore one of condescension and contempt.

Long ago, Paul Graham ran an ad for his seed capital fund titled Larry and Sergey Won't Respect You In The Morning; Graham was articulating a disdain for large corporate workplaces that is a distant cousin of Adams's, and yet there is a crucial difference. Graham is (admittedly for self-serving reasons) trying to channel his audience's discontent into an urge to follow their dreams and change the world. What would a similar ad for Adams's work look like? Oddly enough, it would be something like this: "I, Scott Adams, won't respect you in the morning. I left my job to build something of my own. Now sit there and read my comics like the powerless peon you are, and were always meant to be. Ha ha!"


  1. Hmmm. I've never read that much into Dilbert. I see it more as a bit of comic relief that riffs on aspects of corporate culture with which we're all familiar, while at the same time prompting me to say "Thank goodness it's this little cartoon guy and not me."

    Then again, I'd never dig on you for not liking it. De gustibus non est disputandum, and all that.

  2. Alice is also competent (I think...don't read it regularly any more).

    You have a somewhat naive view of the function of fiction and especially comedy. Do you really think reading Dilbert makes you more like Dilbert? Does watching Seinfeld (which has a similar flat, cartoonish world filled with unpleasant people who don't learn or change) make you act like the characters? Do people read/watch because they want to be like that, or because they want to be warned against being like that?

  3. It behooves me to point out that bullet points three and four apply equally to the works of Franz Kafka.