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Popular conception of Mind is still burdened, to a certain extent, with the cloak of Cartesian Dualism.  The notion that our brains are primarily computational/abstraction machines being transported around in a useful bags of flesh is strong heuristic model that, while providing clarity in many areas, often obfuscates our relationship with the environment, and how the environment shapes us.  Sally Davies writes eloquently about our conception of mind and how feminists can break the limitations that the current model imposes on society.

“While philosophers are inordinately fond of comparing humans to entities that are different to ‘us’ – zombies, bats, AIs, octopuses, aliens – they’ve been rather slower to show an interest in the complex lives of certain creatures who already live alongside ‘us’ day to day, who can walk and talk and describe their subjectivity, but who until recently have been shut out of the category of full and proper personhood. Feminist theory, concerned with the operation of patriarchy and the liberation of women, is a powerful tool for revealing the pernicious effects of setting women to the side – including how such exclusion might permit unexamined assumptions and questionable theories to persist.

In her classic text The Second Sex (1949), the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir performed just such a move against the bedrock of Enlightenment philosophy, the knowing human subject. ‘Man is not a natural species: he is a historical idea,’ she said, paraphrasing her fellow philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The very idea of the Human is not some universal given, de Beauvoir claimed, but a byproduct of how societies have systematically degraded women:

The devaluation of woman represents a necessary stage in the history of humanity; for she derived her prestige not from her positive value but from man’s weakness; she incarnated disturbing natural mysteries: man escapes her grasp when he frees himself from nature.Woman, in other words, is humanity’s foil. She is the ‘Other’, bearing the brand of the not-quite-Human, which lets man point at her and whisper: We know what we are, because, thank god, we are not that.

Thus when de Beauvoir makes the oft-quoted point that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, woman’, she is not just saying that women’s minds and selves are socially constructed. More trenchantly, she is arguing that women become women precisely so that men can become Human. While the Human has access to Cartesian qualities of reason, truth and clarity, the Other is linked to irrationality, emotion and vagueness; where the Human has civilisation and culture, the Other is aligned with nature and matter; and where the Human has a honed and powerful mind, the Other is at the mercy of the body. De Beauvoir writes:

Man vainly forgets that his anatomy also includes hormones and testicles. He grasps his body as a direct and normal link with the world that he believes he apprehends in all objectivity, whereas he considers the woman’s body an obstacle, a prison, burdened by everything that particularises it.The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum extends a version of de Beauvoir’s analysis in her bookPolitical Emotions (2013). Drawing on child and developmental psychology, Nussbaum says that the human condition is framed by an awareness of vulnerability on the one hand, and the desire to change and control our reality on the other. This inescapable bind creates a universal impulse towards narcissism and disgust, she says. We feel disgust at our own mortal and fleshly nature, and at any reminders of our finitude and fragility as creatures. So we subordinate others in order to project onto them all the qualities that we wish to deny in ourselves – that they are base, animal, Other – while we imagine ourselves as transcending to the realm of the mighty, truly Human.”

This is classic analysis of De Beauvoir and a great summary of how women are viewed in society. A different model of Mind, known as embodied cognition, suggests a different framework to view our interactions and behaviour in society.

“Computational thinking remains dominant within cognitive science and philosophy of mind. But new frontiers are opening up that view the body as something more than just a brain-carrying robot. In doing so, they have created the potential for alliances with feminist thinkers influenced by the likes of Fausto-Sterling. Within a broad church that can be called – not uncontentiously – embodied cognition, a growing number of psychologists, scientists and theorists are approaching mental life as something that is not just contingent on, but constituted by, the state of our bodies. In the place of a Cartesian computer, the mind becomes more like a clay pot thrown on a wheel, to use the philosopher Michael Kirchhoff’s metaphor. The wet clay spins on a rotating disk, shaping and reshaping itself under the potter’s hands, arms and muscles, which in turn respond to how the material is moving. The mind is moulded by forces operating both within it and upon it, but also linked up to the world and the body as a single, dynamic yet mostly stable system.

It takes only a small leap to see the political potential of embodied cognition for feminists seeking a path out of the quagmire of sex and gender – or indeed any other critical social theorists keen to overthrow falsely naturalised and unjust hierarchies. Embodied cognition allows us to recognise the agency of biology without ceding the significance of power or politics. In her essay ‘Throwing Like a Girl’ (1980), the American philosopher Iris Marion Young cites empirical research suggesting that women playing sport are more likely than men to perceive a ball to be coming at them, aggressively, rather than towards them; they also tend not to trust their bodies, and to experience their limbs as awkward encumbrances rather than tools to help them realise their aims. Drawing on the work of de Beauvoir, Young suggests that female bodily experience is often rooted ‘in the fact that feminine existence experiences the body as a mere thing – a fragile thing, which must be picked up and coaxed into movement, a thing that exists as looked at and acted upon.’ But Young denies that this state of affairs is in any way natural, or that it flows from something intrinsic to female biology; instead, she says, such feelings are byproducts of how women learn to live in their bodies. One therefore doesn’t need some essential definition of ‘female’ to accept that embodiment matters, and to see how it shapes and can be shaped by culture.”

Fascinating.  The pivot away from the computational model allows a more textured analysis of how deeply rooted patriarchal norms in society are.  More hopefully we can see that the roots of female oppression are not a clear cut case of strictly biological factors, but rather of social construction, and social constructs are not immutable products of nature and thus, can be changed.

These just excepts from a very meaty and interesting essay, I recommend going to Aeon Magazine and reading the whole article as it well worth your time.

 

Claiming to be having an OCD moment seems quite common, but what is OCD and how has evolution selected for this particular trait? Ms.Svoboda answers the question and provides a great deal of background information on OCD defining it through her own struggles with the psychological feature.

“In people with OCD, this threat-detection system turns hyperactive, generating what the psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has called ‘a persistent error-detection signal’. OCD, in other words, is like a tripped car alarm that won’t stop screeching even when you try to disarm it.

While no one likes the sound of a screeching car alarm, most of us are willing to install one if we’re afraid of getting robbed. Obsession could have arisen for a similar reason, evolutionarily speaking. ‘A driving anxious tension is the emotional core of obsessive character,’ writes the psychologist Steven Hertler at the College of New Rochelle in New York, and this tension, he explains, goads us to take the actions that are necessary to ensure survival. People who obsessed about potential threats – intruders, snakes, tigers – might not have been much fun to be around, but their Cassandra tendencies protected their friends and families, and improved the prospects of their offspring. ‘OCD,’ writes the German psychiatrist Martin Brüne, ‘can be understood as an extreme on a continuum of evolved harm-avoidance strategies.’”

Seems to be a fairly reasonable assumption: being hyper aware does have certain survival benefits.

“The survival advantages of a sensitive threat-detection system can explain why millions of us have ended up with threat detectors that are just a little over-tuned. While about one in 40 people have clinical OCD, about one in 10 experience obsessions and compulsions not quite severe enough to interfere with daily life.

While most of us have a hard-wired tendency to obsess, and some more than others, our current cultural milieu has encouraged and amplified that tendency. Our collective paean to the virtues of obsession has its roots in the Protestant work ethic, the concept of industriousness as a calling on the level of the sacred. ‘Such an attitude,’ wrote the German sociologist Max Weber in 1905, ‘is by no means a product of nature. It … can only be the product of a long and arduous process of education.’

Today, that process of education – the systematic way in which we reward and reinforce obsession – begins as early as primary school, when kids barely out of diapers can be rejected for not being academically ready. It persists throughout the school years, as teenagers compulsively assemble letter-perfect transcripts to capture the interest of brand-name colleges. And it continues well into adulthood as we cast our résumés onto the waters, scrambling for that indefinable something that will set us apart from the rest. In a system that prizes what Weber calls ‘economic survival of the fittest’, plum placements are scarce, differences between candidates are minute, and the economic implications of missing out are profound. No wonder our already-sensitive threat detectors are cranked up to orange alert.”

I’ve felt it.  I’m pretty sure we’ve all felt the pressure in our academic days to make the grade, a good impression, a daring splash in our chosen field.  Like many sociological features, there is an interplay between society and the individual.  We certainly are not hardwired to be OCD, but many aspects of our environment feed the expression of the traits we associate with OCD.  Does our society create people with OCD, or is that our society has been created by people with OCD and thus encode those features into the normative structure of our society?  I would postulate that it probably both, as that is how many social-dynamic features of society work.

Ms. Svoboda ends with a rather Aristotelian solution to the challenges she faces.  Finding a place of moderation and mindfulness, for her, is the solution that is currently working.  The dance between the positive and negative consequences of OCD is difficult, and like many psychological features not particularly clear cut or easy to accomplish.

“Is it because I’m an obsessive that I did well at school, that I applied to writing internships relentlessly until I got one, that I’m willing to pitch editors over and over until a story idea lands? Well, yes – and my obsessive ancestors probably reaped the same kinds of rewards, as do many of my contemporaries with and without OCD. But I’m also determined not to succumb to the paradox at the heart of OCD: that taking self-protection too far means engineering my own destruction. To put it another way, I still hold on to the red thread, but I no longer allow it to yank me around. Awareness has been a mitigating factor: I realise, more than I did before, the extent to which my obsessive tendency echoes our culture’s blaring, interminable one. That allows me to consider how, and whether, I want to go along with its dictates.

Would I cut the red thread completely if I could? I’m not sure, but it’s a moot point: I can’t. So I have to trust that it will continue to guide me through the labyrinth.”

 

The hardest ideology to examine critically is your own.  Meritocracy is a social norm in Canada and the United States, woven through the fabrics of our societies.  It is a belief that supports much of the status quo and reinforces some of the harmful myths that cause suffering in society.  Is it all bad?  Of course not, but it can lead one down a path of making moral assessments of other people’s worth based on the material or social goods that they have ‘won’ in society.  It can be easy to overlook the role luck plays in achieving and getting ahead within our social systems.

Clifton Mark, writing for Aeon Magazine writes about the place meritocratic ideology occupies in our society.  This is the juicy part, but I’d encourage you to go read the entire article.

 

“Perhaps more disturbing, simply holding meritocracy as a value seems to promote discriminatory behaviour. The management scholar Emilio Castilla at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the sociologist Stephen Benard at Indiana University studied attempts to implement meritocratic practices, such as performance-based compensation in private companies. They found that, in companies that explicitly held meritocracy as a core value, managers assigned greater rewards to male employees over female employees with identical performance evaluations. This preference disappeared where meritocracy was not explicitly adopted as a value.

This is surprising because impartiality is the core of meritocracy’s moral appeal. The ‘even playing field’ is intended to avoid unfair inequalities based on gender, race and the like. Yet Castilla and Benard found that, ironically, attempts to implement meritocracy leads to just the kinds of inequalities that it aims to eliminate. They suggest that this ‘paradox of meritocracy’ occurs because explicitly adopting meritocracy as a value convinces subjects of their own moral bona fides. Satisfied that they are just, they become less inclined to examine their own behaviour for signs of prejudice.

Meritocracy is a false and not very salutary belief. As with any ideology, part of its draw is that it justifies the status quo, explaining why people belong where they happen to be in the social order. It is a well-established psychological principle that people prefer to believe that the world is just.

However, in addition to legitimation, meritocracy also offers flattery. Where success is determined by merit, each win can be viewed as a reflection of one’s own virtue and worth. Meritocracy is the most self-congratulatory of distribution principles. Its ideological alchemy transmutes property into praise, material inequality into personal superiority. It licenses the rich and powerful to view themselves as productive geniuses. While this effect is most spectacular among the elite, nearly any accomplishment can be viewed through meritocratic eyes. Graduating from high school, artistic success or simply having money can all be seen as evidence of talent and effort. By the same token, worldly failures becomes signs of personal defects, providing a reason why those at the bottom of the social hierarchy deserve to remain there.”

It is fascinating how quickly we convert material success into also meaning good moral standing.  There is no reason for the linkage as we all are aware of people who disregard social norms and leave a trail of destruction in their quest for personal glory and achievement.

 

Watch the presentation or read the full transcript here.   Now watch what happens when we bring an empirical fact based approach to understanding why our justice system is broken when it comes to sexual assault.  So, now we have some evidence of what is happening to people who have experienced sexual assault, it is our duty to push for changing the system to move toward a more just application of the law and concomitantly a more just society.

[ed. I think this is a very important presentation, I encourage everyone to reblog, excerpt, and reproduce this or the original article]

“I want to discuss how research can inform a very longstanding problem in the criminal justice system — sexual assault case attrition. We know, of course, that not all victims report the assault to the criminal justice system, but of those that do — of the reports that are made to the police — only a small number of them are actually going to be prosecuted.

So what I want to do today is bring together research from multiple disciplines to try to understand how and why this is happening. I’m going to begin by talking about what we know from criminal justice research on the problem of sexual assault case attrition. Then I want to bring in what we know from psychology and psychiatry about victim behavior and the neurobiology of trauma. If we bring these two worlds together, do we get empirically based recommendations for how we can change practice?

So to that end let’s start off by talking about what we know from criminal justice research on the problem of sexual assault case attrition. I want to start with three simple quotes — three short quotes from qualitative research I’ve done. One quote is from law enforcement, one is from a rape victim advocate, and one is from a survivor.

So let’s start off with a quote from law enforcement. This is a very seasoned detective, 15 years in a sex crimes unit. When I asked him sort of what happens when victims come in to report an assault to the criminal justice system, this is what he said. He said: “The stuff they say makes no sense” — referring to victims — “So no I don’t always believe them and yeah I let them know that. And then they say ‘Nevermind. I don’t want to do this.’ Okay, then. Complainant refused to prosecute; case closed.”

So now let’s loop in the rape victim advocate perspective: “It’s hard trying to stop what police do to victims. They don’t believe them and they treat them so bad that the victims give up. It happens over and over again.”

So now let’s loop in the victim’s perspective. In reference to her interactions with her law enforcement officer, she said the following. She said: “He didn’t believe me and he treated me badly. It didn’t surprise me when he said there wasn’t enough to go on to do anything. It didn’t surprise me, but it still hurt.”

So what do we get from these three simple quotes? What these three quotes show us right off the bat is that sexual assault case attrition happens very early on in the criminal justice system. It’s happening in the first interactions between the victims and law enforcement. Indeed, if we take these qualitative data and look at them from a quantitative perspective, we see very similar findings.

So this is a quantitative study that my colleagues and I just finished. This was an NIJ-funded research project looking at the issue of sexual assault case attrition in six different communities: two rural communities, two mid-size communities, two large urban communities. All six of these communities had sexual assault nurse examiner programs, so there was a place in each of these six communities where victims could get a good quality medical forensic exam. So what we did with these six communities is start with the same program the patients that came in for a medical exam. We wanted to see what happens afterwards. So did they make a police report? And if they made the police report, now let’s track and see how far it goes through the criminal justice system.

So then what you see going along the side there are the different outcomes that we coded. So when a case came in, had the exam, and made a police report, what was the final outcome? Was the final outcome that it was not referred by police onto the prosecutors or if it made it to the prosecutors it wasn’t charged? Was the final outcome that it was charged by the prosecutors but was then dropped, for whatever reason? Was the final outcome that it was plea bargained? Was the final outcome that it went to trial but acquitted? Or was the final outcome that it went to trial and it was convicted?

So we looked at over 12 years of data across these six different jurisdictions, and here’s what we found.

This is the row that you want to pay attention to. This is the very first step in the criminal justice system. On average, 86 percent of the reported sexual assaults never went any further than the police. The vast majority of these cases were never referred by the police on to the prosecutors.

So let’s dig a little deeper now and try to understand what is happening in this interaction between the victim and law enforcement — that very first interaction. Well, unfortunately, the research tells us that what’s happening in that first interaction between the victim and law enforcement is what we call “secondary victimization.” Now secondary victimization refers to the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of social system personnel that victims experience as victim blaming and insensitive. It exacerbates their trauma, and it makes them feel like what they’re experiencing is a second rape — hence the term “secondary victimization.”

Now, over the course of my career I’ve had the opportunity to interview victims about secondary victimization. What behaviors, what happened in your interactions with law enforcement or doctors or nurses that led you to feel upset and re-traumatized. I’ve also had the opportunity to interview law enforcement and doctors and nurses about secondary victimization behaviors. And I asked them, “Did you do these things?” And I was actually kind of expecting the sort of not quite crossing — oh no, everybody agrees. Everybody agrees that this is happening. You ask the victim, they say “Oh yeah, I encountered this.” You ask law enforcement, he says, “Oh yeah, I did that.”

So what are they doing? Well, what I represent in this graph are some of the most common secondary victimization behaviors. Again, these are composites. This is regional data from large metropolitan surveys. This is not national work, so keep it in that context. But when a victim goes forward to law enforcement to report the assault, on average, victims and law enforcement agree that 69 percent of the time, law enforcement tells them, “Don’t do this.” They discourage the victim from making the report in the first place. On average, 51 percent of the time, law enforcement tell victims what happened to them is not serious enough to pursue through the criminal justice system. Seventy percent of the time, law enforcement ask victims about their dress or their behavior or what they might have done to provoke the assault. On average, 90 percent of victims encounter at least one secondary victimization behavior in their interactions with law enforcement during that first reporting process.

Brutal.  Systemic change is desperately required.

That’s the more theoretical point I want to make, I also want to excerpt another part of the presentation dealing with the victims of sexual assault –

“Tonic immobility is often referred to as “rape-induced paralysis.”

It is an autonomic response, meaning that it’s uncontrollable. This is not something a victim decides to do. It is a mammalian response. It is evolutionarily wired into us to protect the survival of the organism. Because sometimes the safest thing to do to protect the safety is to fight back. Sometimes the safest thing to do is to flee. Sometimes the stupidest thing to do is to flee because it will incite chase. Therefore, our bodies have been wired for a freeze response too — to play dead, to look dead, because that may be the safest thing for the survival of the organism. So it is a mammalian response that is in all of us — we can’t control it. And it happens in extremely fearful situations.

Behaviorally, it is marked by increased breathing, eye closure, but the most marked characteristic of tonic immobility is muscular paralysis. A victim in a state of tonic immobility cannot move. She cannot move her hands. She cannot move her arms. She cannot move her legs. She cannot move her torso. She cannot move her head. She is paralyzed in that state of incredible fear.

Research suggests that between 12 and 50 percent of rape victims experience tonic immobility during a sexual assault, and most data suggests that the rate is actually closer to the 50 percent than the 12 percent.

There’s also some emerging data that suggests that tonic immobility is slightly more common if a victim has a prior history of sexual assault. So if he or she had been sexually assaulted as a child and then was subsequently assaulted in adolescence or adulthood, the likelihood of experiencing tonic immobility at those later assaults tends to increase.

So what I want to do now is share with you a case example from my research on tonic immobility — again, sort of what the victim’s perspective on it is, what law enforcement’s perspective is on this.

This is a case example that I did through research at my university. This was a college student house party — a very common situation for a lot of campus-based sexual assaults. So you see the plastic chairs there, the beer cups, the Miller Lite beer boxes hanging out there.

So this was a 20-year-old woman who went to this party with her friends.

She met a guy there, flirting, liked him. He says, “Do you want to go back to one of the bedrooms?” She agrees. They’re messing around, sexual activity — not intercourse.

She doesn’t want to have sexual intercourse. She gets afraid. She’s like “No, no, no. I don’t want to do this. I don’t know you. I don’t want to do this.”

He doesn’t listen. He physically pins her upper body down with his elbow to hands, not a particularly complicated hold. That hold terrifies her enough that when the HPA axis kicks in she freezes and she goes into a state of tonic immobility during the assault. And she is completely frozen throughout the assault.

He finishes sexually assaulting her. He gets up, sees her laying there, he goes out and tells his friends at the party, “Hey, I just had sex with so-and-so and she’s still there.”

So the men lined up on the porch to take turns going in and sexually assaulting her. And she was multiply raped throughout the course of that evening by men, still lying there in a state of tonic immobility.

Now one of the friends that she was with at the party heard this. She heard the men talking about this lining up to go in and sexually assault her. So she barges in, she gets her friend out, describe — I had the opportunity to talk to the friend — she’s like, “I felt like I was lifting a dead body. I was like shaking her, trying to get her to kind of snap out of it. I had to sort of physically drag her out of there.” And then the tonic immobility state was released.

Took her to the hospital. The nurses there did a medical exam and a forensic evidence collection kit, and she filed a police report.

The police refused to pick up the kit. Because she had been sexually assaulted by multiple men at that party, they referred to it as a sloppy mess — that it would be too difficult to take apart the exam, to take apart the kit to figure out whose DNA was there.

And then they closed the case. I had the opportunity to ask the police officer why he chose to close this case, and here’s what he said. He said, “Well she just laid there, so she must have wanted it. No one wants to have a train pulled on them, so if she just laid there and took it she must have wanted it.”

Now we could have an entire discussion about this one quote. There’s things about it that are very disturbing, and there’s things about it that are very curious. You can hear the questioning in his voice. “She just laid there, so she must have wanted it.” He’s trying to make sense of this. He doesn’t understand why somebody would lay there. So the attribution is “Well, she must have wanted it” because he doesn’t know of any other explanation.

There is another explanation. He didn’t know about it. The explanation is tonic immobility. This is a documented neurobiological condition. This law enforcement had no idea what this was. I brought it up to him in the course of the interview. He literally cuts me off and he says “It’s too late now; the case is closed.” And I said, “It’s too late for this case, but here — let me give you a mini presentation on the neurobiology of trauma” and so on and so forth. And he’s like, “I didn’t know. I did not know that this could happen.”

Tonic immobility is an aspect of our survival mechanisms.  We need desperately to change our societal practices and expectations to accommodate these facts.

 

 

Fancy that, eh? Just another way the system known as patriarchy in our society expresses itself.  Women are not listened to or taken seriously, even in life and death situations.  Kinda hard to be successful in society when your words are taken, by default, as less than face value.

 

Why do people commit evil?  How does one get from being an ordinary citizen to someone who oversees the genocide of their neighbours?   What are the psychological states that premeditate acts of violence on the personal and societal level?  Noga Arikha is a historian who has looked into the research on how we foment and propagate evil institutions and evil acts.

 

“This is what the neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried at the University of California, Los Angeles did with his article ‘Syndrome E’ (1997) in The Lancet. A syndrome is a group of biological symptoms that together constitute a clinical picture. And E stands for evil. With Syndrome E, Fried identified a cluster of 10 neuropsychological symptoms that are often present when evil acts are committed – when, as he puts it, ‘groups of previously nonviolent individuals’ turn ‘into repetitive killers of defenceless members of society’. The 10 neuropsychological symptoms are:

1. Repetition: the aggression is repeated compulsively.
2. Obsessive ideation: the perpetrators are obsessed with ideas that justify their aggression and underlie missions of ethnic cleansing, for instance that all Westerners, or all Muslims, or all Jews, or all Tutsis are evil.
3. Perseveration: circumstances have no impact on the perpetrator’s behaviour, who perseveres even if the action is self-destructive.
4. Diminished affective reactivity: the perpetrator has no emotional affect.
5. Hyperarousal: the elation experienced by the perpetrator is a high induced by repetition, and a function of the number of victims.
6. Intact language, memory and problem-solving skills: the syndrome has no impact on higher cognitive abilities.
7. Rapid habituation: the perpetrator becomes desensitised to the violence.
8. Compartmentalisation: the violence can take place in parallel to an ordinary, affectionate family life.
9. Environmental dependency: the context, especially identification with a group and obedience to an authority, determines what actions are possible.
10. Group contagion: belonging to the group enables the action, each member mapping his behaviour on the other. Fried’s assumption was that all these ways of behaving had underlying neurophysiological causes that were worth investigating.Note that the syndrome applies to those previously normal individuals who become able to kill. It excludes the wartime, sanctioned killing by and of military recruits that leads many soldiers to return home (if they ever do) with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); recognised psychopathologies such as sociopathic personality disorder that can lead someone to shoot schoolchildren; and crimes of passion or the sadistic pleasure in inflicting pain. When Hannah Arendt coined her expression ‘the banality of evil’ in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), she meant that the people responsible for actions that led to mass murder can be ordinary, obeying orders for banal reasons, such as not losing their jobs. The very notion of ordinariness was tested by social psychologists. In 1971, the prison experiment by the psychologist Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University played with this notion that ‘ordinary students’ could turn into abusive mock ‘prison guards’ – though it was largely unfounded, given evidence of flaws in the never-replicated experiment. Still, those afflicted with Syndrome E are indeed ordinary insofar as that they are not affected by any evident psychopathology. The historian Christopher Browning wrote of equally ‘ordinary men’ in the 1992 book of that name (referenced by Fried) who became Nazi soldiers. The soldier who killed my grandfather was very probably an ordinary man too.

Today, biology is a powerful explanatory force for much human behaviour, though it alone cannot account for horror. Much as the neurosciences are an exciting new tool for human self-understanding, they will not explain away our brutishness. Causal accounts of the destruction that humans inflict on each other are best provided by political history – not science, nor metaphysics. The past century alone is heavy with atrocities of unfathomable scale, albeit fathomable political genesis.”

I pondered the conclusions of this essay and am reminded of the work “Ordinary Men” by (also referenced in the essay) by Christopher R. Browning that describes the psychological and sociological contagions that bring out the evil that exists in all of us.  I’m struck by, even as I write, the tendency to pathologize evil as if it were disease that somehow takes root and manifests itself on ‘good people’.  This socially sanctioned frame, looking at the literature, is shockingly incorrect as the data points to the fact that we all possess the capacity to commit heinous acts of violence, even genocide, if the conditions are right.

Arikha states that “empathy is rarely universal” and that “Family belonging and social belonging are separate. When they meet, as happened in Bosnia and Rwanda when families turned on each other, the group identity prevails”.   Chilling statements such as these implode the ideas we carry around about common human decency and common human morality and empathy.  The story we tell ourselves, about ourselves, is bullshite and these bullshit assumptions are what we run ‘civilized’ society on.  I think this false narrative allows people to be repeated shocked and horrified when tales of wanton bloodshed and genocide hit the news – it is seen as a huge deviation from the norm.  Yet, if we look at humans, it isn’t a particular large leap from our observable behaviours.

We – ‘the good guys’ – ran a government sanctioned torture program.  Oh, certainly we had our legal pretzelese to mask and make torture palatable for the general public. Never the less, dodgy legal justifications do not nullify the social and psychological ramifications of one’s nation endorsing the institutional infliction of pain on others.  I think we are still seeing the negative effects of the torture revelations running through our western societies .

Essay’s like Arikha’s make me contemplate how much projection we engage in as a society to protect ourselves from the rather brutish reality of our societal and geo-poltical existence.

(*edited for early morning writing)

 

The need for social connection and community support for the people of our society has never been greater.  Being alone, atomized, and unable to relate to the rest of society and those inhabit it opens people up to harmful ideologies and an movemet toward totalitarian thoughts and impulses. Nabeelah Jaffer has written a thoughtful essay about the factors that can herald people into the extremist totalitarian fold.

If nothing else this essay highlights the human need for social interaction and connection.  We crave to make sense of the world and it has been demonstrated repeatedly in history that we are willing to forgo our rational critical selves to find comfort in an absolutist worldview which may indeed be terrible, but offers the warm comfort of having all answers necessary to make life understandable and comprehensible.

We pick up with our excerpt here referring as Jaffer is talking about Jeff an individual who has accepted a anti-Muslim white supremacist world, yet is still friends with the Muslim author.

“Knowing me has made little difference to Tom’s broader ideology, and to his conviction that immigrants in general and Muslims in particular are the great enemy of our time. Factual debate also makes no impact. When our mutual friends disagree at length with Tom’s extreme opinions, he hardens into polarised opposition. He is quiet but stubborn, retreating into his shell with a wounded air. Of course, all of us suffer at times from confirmation bias – a tendency to favour information that supports our existing beliefs. But Tom does not simply prefer certain facts to others – he seems almost uninterested in them. Instead, he returns repeatedly to cliché (something Arendt also noted in Eichmann). ‘Religion taking over like it always has,’ he writes in a typical post, ‘sharia will creep to power and form an Islamic State.’ This is beyond the common run of immigration-skepticism and the distaste for religion that any decided atheist might have. It drums out a single narrow account of the world – past, present and future.

There is chilly logical consistency to Tom’s ideas. If you presume that Western culture represents a single (and singularly enlightened) worldview, then it follows that non-white immigrants attached to less perfect cultures are a threat that must be stopped. If you are convinced that Islam also entails a single worldview that is coincidentally the total antithesis of the consummately enlightened Western approach, then it follows that it must be fought. If you have already decided that civilisation is all that matters in this story, then what need is there for anything else? In ‘Ideology and Terror’ (1953), Arendt suggested strict self-evident logicality was the main capacity left to those who could not engage in true thought: the fact that two and two equals four cannot be denied ‘even under the conditions of absolute loneliness’. Such logical reasoning becomes ‘the only reliable “truth” human beings can fall back upon’ once they have lost the sense of mutuality needed to know their way in a common world. (Though there might be other reasons for this correlation, it has often been noted that a disproportionately large number of violent Islamist extremists have backgrounds in engineering, science or maths.) Logic, after all, needs neither the self nor the other in order to function. Only one premise matters – and it must be allowed to race freely through mankind, executing its inherent law.

Truth is simply not as relevant as what seems to be the truth

Tom’s narrative has no need of facts. They are beside the point. Like other ideas that aspire to ‘total explanation’, the narrative pretends ‘to know beforehand everything that experience may still have in store’. Armed with omniscient knowledge of the ‘true’ cause for all events, believers are relieved of their sense of insecurity. Here, at last, is a consistent explanation for everything. Totalitarian ideas emancipate their believers from reality: their worth lies in presenting a coherent absolute narrative of the world, which, as Arendt noted in Origins, is ‘more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself’. Experience is irrelevant: there is nothing new to be learned about the situation. The idea of a Jewish world conspiracy was once made to seem more true than reality by the Nazis, who simply acted ‘as though the world were dominated by the Jews and needed a counterconspiracy to defend itself’. Truth is simply not as relevant as what seems to be the truth.

When Arendt argued that loneliness was the common ground of terror, she was not thinking of individual acts of terrorism perpetrated by those on the margins – but of the terror of authoritarian ideologies and governments being slowly embraced by society’s dominant majority. The ideal subject of these governments, she argued, was not a convinced extremist but simply an isolated individual, too insecure in himself to truly think: someone for whom the distinction between true and false was beginning to blur, and the promise of a movement was beginning to beckon.”

I see the level of atomization in our society and I am deeply concerned to the extent that extremist ideologies can (and have been) make inroads into the general populace.  The most worrisome part is that once people/populations are committed down the totalitarian road – facts simply don’t matter – and therefore rational dialogue and debate becomes irrelevant.  And there there is nothing left but bloodletting and the frenzied decent in chaos.

This is a great essay, I recommend reading it in full but also having a cheerful tonic at hand to chase back the gloomy implications for our society.

 

 

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