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07/14/97

The Dark Side of Dilbert

Note: This article originally appeared on Blender about a year and a half ago. But since it's not archived there, I'm putting it up here. And if you didn't read it then, then it's new to you!

A man for whom the corporate ladder has somehow turned into the corporate StairMaster, Dilbert is the patron saint of cubicle workers everywhere. Anyone who's endured the ritual inanities of workplace protocol can identify with the "pudgy, bespectacled computer specialist." So what if he's a "meek geek no one takes seriously." At least he's "a pretty nice guy" trying to "plod his way to a better future."

And, still, one wonders: Does evil lurk beneath the nice-guy facade?

Indeed, Dilbert seems harmless enough in daily increments, but over time, disturbing patterns emerge. In fact, the quotes above were initially aimed not at Dilbert, but rather, Richard Farley, a real-life Silicon Valley programmer whose obsession with a former co-worker named Laura Black led to a workplace rampage wherein Farley wounded Black and killed seven others. (This case was dramatized in "Stalking Laura," a 1993 TV movie starring Brooke Shields and Richard Thomas.)

And it's not just physical appearance and job type that link the unlikely pair; they they share many other traits as well:

A Sketchy Past
In the days following Farley's murderous outburst, reporters scrambled to limn the background of this nondescript killer. Except for the most generic details - he was born in Texas, he was a Navy vet - they didn't uncover much. For the most part, what he was doing before he began to appear in newspapers in 1988 remains a mystery.

Dilbert's past, of course, is quite literally sketchy. While he and his pet do resemble a grown-up Charlie Brown and Snoopy (or perhaps, a grown-up Sherman and Peabody), no biological or circumstantial evidence actually connects them to these cartoon precursors. For the most part, what they were doing before they began to appear in newspapers in 1989 remains a mystery.

Romantic Delusions
Farley imagined that he and Black went out on dates and even spent a ski vacation in Vail together. In reality, she consistently rebuffed his invitations, and ultimately obtained a restraining order against him.

Following rejection from 400 women in one year, even the most thick-skinned lounge lizard would reassess his pickup technique (or at least his cologne). Dilbert, however, simply concludes that there are "not enough quality women."

Antisocial personality
Farley lived by himself in a "ramshackle bungalow," where his main contact with neighbors consisted of paranoid allegations regarding mysteriously damaged shrubbery. He had no close friends, or even anyone who knew him well enough to take his threats of deadly violence seriously.

Dilbert lives with Dogbert, a "talking" dog--this is hardly a substitute for human companionship. In fact, Dilbert uses Dogbert mostly as a kind of evil proxy; through this superficially cuddly sidekick, Dilbert realizes his most antisocial desires: bludgeoning co-workers, tripping strangers, issuing death threats.

A "machine-like" approach to people
In explaining his "courtship" process with Black, Farley sounds like he's outlining a sub-routine for a client-server program: "I had the right to ask her out. She had the right to refuse. When she did not refuse in a cordial way, I felt I had the right to bother her."

In attempting to find a girlfriend, Dilbert proceeds by writing a long list of highly detailed specs, as if embarking on a particularly complicated engineering project. Also, Dilbert longs for the day when virtual reality (and thus, virtual crotch-surfing) is cheaper than dating actual women.

Unhealthy Preoccupation with Guns
Farley owned a .38 automatic, a .357 Magnum, a .22 rifle, two shotguns, and various other weapons. Guns gave him a sense of power and control he otherwise lacked.

Dogbert owns a ping pong ball gun and Dilbert has, from time to time, shown an interest in guns. Dilbert also frequently feels a lack of power and control--will he too eventually buy a gun to rectify this?

Slowly building anger
Most mass murderers imagine, plot, and even openly discuss their violent fantasies before actually acting them out. Farley expressed his anger first by sending threatening letters, then by stalking Black in parking lots and aerobics classes, and finally by committing mass murder.

Currently, Dilbert expresses his anger by sprouting menacing eyebrows on his usually expressionless face. Such negligible catharsis won't work forever, unfortunately. One more petty humiliation at the hands of his boss...and we might see the kind of cartoon carnage normally reserved for comics like the X-Men.

-- G. Beato




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