Law 36: Disdain Things You Cannot Have: Ignoring Them Is the Best Revenge (48 Laws of Power)

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Overview of Law #36: Disdain Things You Cannot Have: Ignoring Them Is the Best Revenge

Sometimes it’s better to ignore things. You’ll make small problems worse, make yourself look bad, and give your enemy attention he doesn’t deserve if you respond to a minor provocation. By not showing interest, you maintain your superiority.

Principles of Law 36

According to Law 36 of the 48 Laws of Power, When faced with an irritating, but minor offense, sometimes the best course is to ignore it. Not responding can be a demonstration of power — a message that it’s not worth your interest. 

Also, you avoid wasting time, becoming mired in someone else’s mess, or drawing attention to someone or something that will fade away on its own.

Ignoring people who thrive on your attention is an effective power tactic. You cancel them out by withdrawing your attention, which may anger them but there’s nothing they can do since you’re not dealing with them. Meanwhile, you maintain your superiority. This is why you should disdain things you cannot have.

Conversely, paying undue attention to a minor opponent gives them greater importance and makes you look petty, especially if they draw you into an extended conflict. President Kennedy helped make Fidel Castro a hero with his failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961.

When you attack a small irritant you also run the risk of creating sympathy for the offender. Again, leaving it alone can be the best policy. This also applies to mistakes or problems —  trying to fix them calls attention to them and often makes them worse.

Here’s how to execute a strategy of disdaining things you cannot have.

  • If you want something but can’t get it, don’t draw attention to it by complaining. Act as if you weren’t interested in the first place.
  • If you’re attacked by an inferior (or make a mistake yourself), act as though you didn’t notice it.
  • If you’re caught in a mistake, don’t respond defensively or you’ll make things worse. Own up to it but put a different spin on it, and it could work in your favor. 
    • When Renaissance writer Aretino was discovered to have lied about being an aristocrat, he responded that he was indeed the son of a shoemaker — but that this humble beginning made his achievements all the more impressive.

Putting Law 36 to Work

Here is an example of how not to apply Law 36 of the 48 Laws of Power: In the early 1900s President Woodrow Wilson turned a relatively small problem into a large and prolonged one when he sent a large military force into the mountains of Mexico to find and capture bandit Pancho Villa in reaction to his raid in New Mexico.

Villa played a successful cat-and-mouse game against American forces that at one point grew to 123,000, including airplanes. Villa’s popularity, which had been waning at the time of his raid, grew substantially. Eventually, U.S. forces had to withdraw in failure.

Wilson let a minor incident turn into a major, costly embarrassment. By contrast, he could have sent a smaller, more effective force; set a trap; or waited for the Mexicans to deal with Villa on their own. Instead, Wilson let it drag him down. Wilson did not follow Law 36: Disdain Things You Cannot Have, and he paid the price.

Exceptions to Law 36

Are there any exceptions to Law 36 of the 48 Laws of Power? Should you ever not disdain things you cannot have? When you use the tactic of treating someone with disdain, make sure you’re not creating feelings that will smolder until your opponent can exact revenge. When you disdain someone publicly, you may need to keep an eye on them to make sure they go away without causing further problems. But in general, follow Law 36 of the 48 Laws of Power: Disdain Things You Cannot Have.

Law 36: Disdain Things You Cannot Have: Ignoring Them Is the Best Revenge (48 Laws of Power)

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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