I wish you had said something that I might disagree with, here, rwood, but you haven't; nor do I think you've said anything that you would find Sullivan disagreeing with, either. Sullivan is a poor writer but a very subtle thinker.
We are all too easily pushed around by the complaints and compliments of others, and we are, unless we are to be socially dazzled by the glamours and deceits of the manipulative, wise to be skeptical of them and on occasion of the more automatic behavior we ourselves may find ourselves prone to display. We too have been trained by experts. We too may be prone to be less than attentive to our social contributions.
Your skepticism of this sort of thing is well observed and well grounded. Your cautionary note is wise. Sullivan would join you. I know I do as well.
Sullivan is talking about something a bit different here, and the difference is worth thinking about.
What he is trying to say is that within every statement that passes between two people (or more than two people, for that matter), along with what the identified content of what the statement is about (the grocery list? the way the car is running today? the nature of our current administration? what college would be a good college for little Kelly to attend?) there is an additional list of unvoiced assertions that person one is making about person two and the relationship that the two of them have together. The replies that the first person gets will be not simply to the overt content (college, groceries, car, politics) but as much and often more to the attempts to define the nature of the relationship.
About groceries, for example. Person A is shopping and is getting person B's requests for inclusion. Included in the exchange is Person B's comment, "I'm sorry, I only have a minute, and I'm a bit rushed, but I'd like it if you'd pick up some. . . ."
Person A responds, "that's okay, I'll wait till you come back. I want to make sure I get down everything you want. . . ."
If we had more time and more space ourselves, we would be able to see that the two people are touching base around an ongoing discussion and disagreement they have about their relationship and which person is the most deferential, and the most polite. Both are uncomfortable asserting themselves, and this is the way they wage this argument. Each says, I am more polite than you are and they scarp with each other for this place in the relationship hierarchy. It is an ongoing discomfort, and neither of them is quite clear where it comes from, but there it is.
Sometimes arguments like this, each attributing qualities to the other, the other accepting some and rejecting others, can get quite violent, neither person quite knowing where they come from. There needs to be somebody who is trained to listen to what's actually being said to untangle these things. It's not on the level of awareness that rwood suggests that it is. Would that it were.
Sometimes the problem can appear to be about a car. Person A says they brought the car in for another checkup and that the cost of the checkup was X dollars. Person B says, That's outrageous! You ought to sell that car! You've had it for 20 years! Voices get louder, charts come out, doors slam.
Discussions about who has the right to be the designated expert, and who is the person to make the decisions about the disposition of a piece of property in a relationship are certainly common enough. During discussions of this sort, however, the discussion sounds as though it were about the property, and not about the distribution of power and control in the relationship. Each is asserting they have the right to make the decision because of superior knowledge, gender, power, whatever, without actually coming out and saying that is what they are struggling to define. Each tries to define the other at the same time as having some different qualities.
The struggle, then, is a struggle to define each other.
In these struggles, there is usually no clear cut winner. Usually each person accepts some small shift in how they see themselves in relationship to the other and in relationship to the world.
rwood has raised a very interesting point when she talks about the person whom we present to others and the person whom we feel ourselves to be. This point comes up repeatedly in this conversational thread. We have spoken about personna as a description of this public self, but there are other ways of looking at it. And there is certainly the matter of how alien the "inner" self feels from the self that that we show to the world. With some of us, the difference can be enormous.