A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Understanding, But Not Understanding, Obama (and Black America):

(The recent events in Missouri and the general naiveté of “white America” encouraged me to reprise this essay written in March 2011. Nothing has been changed from that earlier rendering, but the contextual emphasis is less on Obama and more on the nature of the Black Experience.)

There are many issues this spring leafing out on that tree!  They have to do with ambition – something that his peers fully understand and others might have hints of.  They have to do with raw talent and capacity – something beyond most of his peers, supporters and detractors.  They have to do with the gauss count of his moral compass – a very difficult quantity to measure.  And they have to do with his worldview – since this is the most difficult and ambiguous, it is one that I will write about.

Understanding of such complexities begins at home. A simple man will find it impossible to understand a complicated one (without help); a computer is not repaired with a hammer and chisel.  A good bit of the difficulty in understanding Obama arises from this fact.

In part because I grew up in a clash of cultures, in a house of secrets, in a town of secrets, in a land of secrets I became what might be called socially hypervigilant.  And it is hypervigilance [1] that I see in Obama as one of the main principles that serves up his experiences.  It becomes so natural, so ordinary, that one forgets that everyone doesn’t experience in the same way.

As I understand Obama’s history he grew up as the outsider.  An American black kid in Indonesia, a black child in a white family and a ‘regular’ black guy in American society.  While much of that history is not in my experience, I have watched, with my own version of hypervigilance, blacks in American society; paying vigilant attention at remarkably high levels is required.  As a metaphor, think of most people only needing and being able to see and respond to four colors, and most minority people being required to see a million colors and to make importantly difference responses to those colors and their various combinations.   They also learn quickly not to try to explain that world to the color blind and color challenged.

In my experience of the American south, blacks must not only be acutely aware of what is happening around them, they most also seem unaware and disinterested in exactly the right amounts.  The perceptual acuity and concentration required are enormous.  The dominant society has its 4 color prescription for the acceptable behaviors of minorities which is mindlessly and ruthlessly enforced.

Obama has to be a master of these skills.  He has always been, I would guess from his first real sentience, a seeker of the way; building a body of skills and habits within which he was safe, or safer than without them, and with which he quickly discovered he could control his world.  One price is that not one person in a thousand (or more) can see the world as he sees it. 

This makes him dangerous as the most important man in the world.  No matter what he tells us, it is not the truth; we can’t possibly see his real truth, and, possibly we “can’t handle the truth” should we see it through his eyes.  But is he more dangerous than the 4 color seers who defile him or those who would replace him?  Almost certainly not.  When Obama is not ‘telling the truth,’ it is often because what he has to say is so difficult to translate into communicable form; the others are just lying [2].

I believe that there are lots of black folks in the US who understand this, but they won’t tell – the unaware and disinterested rule, remember.

Up to this point I have been operating on the assumption that Obama is an honest man; here is where it gets dicey.   Knowing how to read and understand him would be difficult enough were he completely honest, but if he is dishonest like (almost) all the rest of the political world, then where are we?  Then we have a president who is a master at seeing the subtle hues of all the colors, understands their nuance and is willing to lie about their meaning for his own advantage.

People like McCain, Huckabee, Barbour, Bachman, Gingrich, Palin and Romney tell such transparent lies that all but their sycophantic followers are embarrassed for them.  Just a little learning and their 4 color world begins to look colorless and empty of useful solutions.  This, of course, doesn’t mean that they can’t get into positions of power and cause a lot of trouble by applying simplistic, self-serving notions to complex problems, but it does mean that we can watch in informed horror as they do it.

Obama is another story.  What seems a lie may be the truth.  What seems distance and disinterest may hide the closest attention.  What seems concern and engagement may be pro forma sidestepping.  If I am right, Rooseveltian resolve is as foreign to Obama’s deepest comprehensions of how to think and act as the rainforest is to the desert.  And yet, I think that Obama might be trying to be the more honest man.  He farms out his administration’s dishonesty to his staff and cabinet.  Roosevelt did the opposite; he could lie easily and so keep around him some number of people with moral wisdom exceeding his own.  If this is so, then we might understand the meaning of Obama’s choices for retainers in a new light.

Some people seem to disclose themselves completely in their public selves.  Others have a public persona that is accepted as fully adequate, though not exhaustive of the person.  Some seem understandable, but not especially transparent.  And yet others present a public exterior that not only hides, but is intended to hide the machinations of the person beneath.  There is a fifth category much more complex, people who deflect personal evaluation and press their designs for action onto the ‘natural’ behaviors of others.  The socially hypervigilant person often finds this a comfortable way to function; and they can, if they are smart enough, stay in control of the vast amounts of information needed – up to a point.

I have been befuddled and outraged at many of Obama’s choices of people to serve among his minions, not the least by Emanuel, Summers, Geithner and Gates.  These men are self-serving functionaries devoid of human feeling compared to a Frances Perkins or Eleanor Roosevelt, devoid of the capacity to inform a president of the order of magnitude difference between operating the levers of power and the humanity that must be vested in a leader of living, breathing men, women and children.  And I continue to be deeply troubled by adding Daley and Sperling to the mix.

But these are people that can be read like a children’s book.  They have a one dimensional presented nature; like tools: a hammer for this, a saw for that.  They are the people a hypervigilant would select.  Hilary Clinton is the most complex person in the upper reaches of the administration, though she knows how to deal with people like Obama and Bill Clinton; she was a safe choice.

There has been a great deal of confusion about Obama among the people who are his natural supporters; is he a liberal?  Is he a good man playing with bad people?  Is he a bad man playing with good people?  Is he playing chess with conservative checker players? Or my question, is he playing chess with progressive checker players?  It just might be that he is playing chess with everyone – all the time.

Ultimately, I don’t think that we can know.  I don’t think that we will ever know for sure, will not even be able to finally measure the man against the actual results of his administration.  It is almost impossible for it to have been otherwise.  The first black man elected president would almost have to be a question wrapped in an enigma.

Obama is probably the most dangerous president we have had since FDR – dangerous in the sense of being president at a time when great damage can be done to democratic governance – and is, like FDR, among the presidents most unlikely to seek to do the nation ill; his capacity to protect the nation is another matter.  But the nation will be changed dramatically and forever by the events that occur during his presidency.  And it is almost a certainty that Obama, the man, will never be clearly seen with his hand on the guiding controls of national power.  And no, this is not a good thing, but it may well be in the nature of the man to watch us all very closely and try to stay a step ahead of our actually understanding him [3].

[1] I am using the term hypervigilance in a somewhat, though not completely, different way than it is used in psychological diagnosis as part of PTSD.  I am surmising a social, systemic form of vigilance that is extreme and integrated into a complete behavioral system appropriate to circumstances; it is generally explained in the text of the essay.  Here is another example: where I grew up there were more rattlesnakes and water moccasins than almost any other place in the country.  Children learned to look very closely when walking or even opening a door to the outside since there were often rattlers on the cement porches warming in the morning sun or gathering warmth in the evening – the stories I could tell!  To this day I do not step over a log or a rock or otherwise put my foot down without checking around it.  I even notice a little twinge stepping around a blind corner inside buildings.  To some extent my minor obsession with visual pattern recognition might be related to the adaptive ‘hypervigilance’ appropriate to walking around on the central Florida Gulf coast palmetto fields and mangrove swamps.

[2] 4 color seers, of course, cannot recognize the difference.  Complexity for them is always a lie and the inherent dishonesty of simplicity is their truth.  This is a deep problem for the species as we find ourselves confronting a complex reality and needing understanding beyond our present habits of adequacy.

[3] Check my essay Obama Is No Country Song written right after he was elected.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Populations in States of Strategic Fear

(Please, read the previous essay, Fear as Adaptive Device…, before reading this one.)

While our experience of life in the present world says otherwise, human societies are very unnatural structures.  We talk of nations, religions, mega-corporations and other vast collectives as though they have substantial existence and understandable definition; they do not.  In another of the many paradoxes that attend our present “realities”, the bigger and more complex the structures of our organization, the simpler, more primal and less generally adaptive must be the principles holding those organizations together – the less full human expression and experience can be manifest in them. These large collectives are organized around single emotional/behavioral states like greed, fear, and illusory wellbeing; whole societies can be characterized by the primary emotion of their structure. [1]

It would seem that this should make social collectives understandable and give them substance, but no; each individual unit, the human animal, that makes them up has all the complexities of the evolved species and, thus, is both diminished by the acts that fit them to their society and floundering in their struggles with the unavoidable demands of their biological complexity.  Ultimately, a huge collective must adapt to being organized around some powerful biological/emotional element that has predictable consequences on the collective’s participants: that emotion is almost always fear; just as, it was said, ‘all roads lead to Rome,’ all large-scale social organizations have adopted fear as the central principle.

This has been going on for a very long time, for as long as human social collectives have been numbered in the thousands or more.  Fear-based social organization is so ubiquitous, and our projection of fear-based processes onto the world beyond the social is so complete, that it is almost impossible to realize another option.

Wellbeing is the other option, but because wellbeing is based in a gestalt of needs satisfied, the structural principles are diametrically antithetical to fear-based societies; there is no paradigm of transition from fear to wellbeing in the structure of large collectives even though these two conditions are (were) completely mutually supporting in their origins.  How to deconstruct, then reconstruct those relationships and apply them to larger social organizations than the tribal communities of our origins will be the measure of our future as a species.

First, fear-based societies: How is a fear-based society recognized? It is simple; make a list of what you are afraid of.  Here is a sample: crime, being cheated, losing a job, being slandered, being devalued, the power of authority, police, taxing agencies, other drivers on the road, the anger (really the fear) of others, disease, costs of medical and legal services, lack of accurate information, strangers, the “enemy,” loss of freedom, economic or social collapse, people who believe differently, people who don’t like you, environmental collapse, random violence, sexual perversions, God’s wrath, the elderly, the young, the future and all the specifics and variations that can be made of these. 

Such societies tend to have a fear du jour.  The habit of fear makes this a simple process.  In fact, without a fear of the day the free-floating fear state would not have a ready reference, and could become dangerous to the economic and political elites that use fear as a controlling principle since the focus of ‘national’ anxiety might turn on the, actually, easily observable, dangerous actions of the elites.

Now make a list of how society supports your sense of wellbeing.  This is a more difficult list; don’t let it be only a list of how fears are limited or relieved (see the footnotes).  Here is a hypothetical example: my neighbors and I share resources so that no one is forced to face dangers alone; I can express my ideas and concerns freely knowing that I will be heard with respect; the principles and forces of social order are designed to respond to my interests, not to enforce my obedience to some arbitrary standards:  Since we live in a fear-based society, these are more wishes than statements of our condition!

I leave it to the reader to fill in specific examples of how the fence lines and corrals of fear control daily movements and actions, for both themselves and for the sub-communities of which they are a part.  But these will most likely involve money, credit, social prestige, loss of material standards of living, militarized authority and an amorphous physical fear of the desires and powers attributed to “others” beyond our immediate experience. The sense of wellbeing will come from close association with trusted friends and from illusions of protection supplied by religious and related pathologies. [2]
* * * 
In modern societies only human action seems significant; biophysical processes are seen (if they are realized at all) as substrate conditions upon which “real life” occurs or inconveniences to be overcome.  This is amplified by the fact that many real dangers do come from the effects of our human numbers, the design of our economics and vast influences of our technologies. But, even though these dangers are certainly real, the use of strategic fear by economic and political elites has been to increase them rather to diminish them.  In other words, the fears of the general society are used to make societies more dangerous rather than less.

This last has been, until now, very difficult to see from the position of the so-called middle class societies of North America and Europe.  These centers of illusory wellbeing were organized around the relief of fear, not genuine wellbeing; and we are beginning to see how easily the transition is made to the direct use of fear in those societies as the power elites move to globalized control of populations and resources.  

There are primarily two real dangers to fear, and to act on in the natural pattern of this essential emotion: (1) the disruption of the biophysical systems that allow complex life to exist and (2) the insanity of a power elite that works assiduously to maintain their authority and their incredible excesses of resource use.  The plethora of dangers we are told to fear – the fears du jour – focus our attentions in the wrong direction, with purpose.  We must find our sense of real wellbeing in supportive community, refuse the strategic fears delivered to control us and realize the real dangers from the power elite and the destruction of environment (the two are closely connected).

The redirecting of fear is itself frightening – changing old habits of such great consequence – but it is beginning; one need only look to the real attitudes of your neighbors and friends.  And since the refocusing of attention is beginning we can expect the quality of the dangers served up to us to increase, both in illusion and reality.  But, the nakedness of the attempts to control societies by fear will only become more and more obvious as the dangers are made more and more real.

[1] Fear and wellbeing are primal motivational (emotional) states; temporary relief from fear is not wellbeing, though it has come to be seen so.  The full emotional state of wellbeing has become rare.  Greed is the infantilization of the normal developmental process, an emotional neotony.

[2] Religious behavior has not always been pathological, though it has always been illusory.  When humans lived in intimate contact with biophysical reality, the details of which were beyond their understanding, adaptive processes adjusted behaviors to function effectively.  Explanations for the behaviors were most often fantastical, both because detailed understanding wasn’t possible from the existing knowledge base and because the fantastic could have poetic power.  In today’s world, religions are madness driven by biological impulses with only circular self-referencing as guide; they are a perfect vehicle for the delivery of illusory fear and illusory wellbeing – the very essence of strategic fear.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Fear as Adaptive Device and Political Instrument

Preamble: In today’s world we identify a variety of “primary” emotions, and many shades of the primary ones.  We even lay out an emotion wheel like a color wheel and sometimes bend the wheel into a cone to model both the quality and quantity of emotion.  But like the color wheel there are basically two forms of emotion just as there are warm and cool colors: the emotions of approach/attraction and the emotions of avoidance/rejection – this is how we live, how life functions; we try to move toward objects and situations that benefit the living condition and try to move away from (or remove) objects and situations that endanger the living condition: the rest is enigmatic detail.  The primary emotion of approach is a feeling of wellbeing.  The primary emotion of avoidance is fear.  And just as successfully negotiating an approach can morph into whole varieties of related feelings, situations that first and foremost begin with fear tumble through a number of related states depending on how events progress.

Human bodies do not bring the whole profusion of emotional states into the world, rather we bring relatively simple patterns of motivated approach and motivated avoidance to the new complexities of “modern” life; it is these complexities that organize our basic emotional simplicities into the apparent patterns of emotional expression exhibited today.  Emotions have always been the interaction of a few physiological states with a variety of environmental events; the formation of emotional states without immediate and clear environmental referents is, at base, destructive and pathological.

There is slow fear and there is fast fear.  There is unforeseen fear and there is strategic fear.  Yet, all move in the body and mind similarly, through the basic design of this physiological ‘emotional’ state.  Fear is simply the organizing force and design of the body, mental processes and (for social animals) community for response to potential damage.  Danger that has no premonition only has consequences: a floor collapses from under you and you control your fall as best you can; “fear” comes later.

Slow fear and fast fear are part of our evolutionary history.  Dangerous animals, plants and situations are in the world – dangerous meaning that animals and plants are either adept at protecting themselves or are adept as predators, and that physical forces, like gravity or lightening, can create harmful situations. Slow fear mediated caution and fast fear organized immediate personal and social action, importantly, (almost always) in response to real dangers.

Unforeseen fear and strategic fear are largely new, meaning that these origins of physiological fear states were not a significant part of the evolution of the fear response. Having a deep and intimate knowledge of one’s environment and the highly probable patterns of life obviates unforeseen fear, and the “all for one and one for all” adaptive structure of hominin tribal communities greatly limited strategic fear as a social device.

The balance of reality based fears, formed from recognizable environmental sources, to undefined fears has been turned on its head.  There are few occasions today of environmentally perceived slow fears organizing caution within a community, rather amorphous states of fear predominate for which no meaningful action is generally recognized as effective.  Fast fears have few predicable sources and few appropriate responses – often the most effective response is to be unafraid; not an especially natural response.  “All we have to fear is fear itself,” is a recognition of the existence of strategic fear.

A major consequence of this is that fear has gotten a bad name.  Environmentally based slow and fast fears are perfectly fine emotions, tuned to the conditions and occasions of ‘normal’ life.  This is so true that many people would not even call much of what is motivated by fear in these originating forms as fear at all.  More and more today the idea of and word fear is restricted to the “unnatural” fears, unforeseen and strategic; we are afraid of what we do not know, what we cannot see coming and what we are told to be afraid of.  Just how unhealthy this is for individuals and societies is increasingly clear.

Physiologically, fear is not designed to be a constant condition, but rather a transitional state that motivates action and, thus, dissipates the fear response through adaptive behaviors.  Two examples: (1) Slow fear: I learned as a small child to walk in the swamps and palmetto/pine barrens of central Florida with great caution; there be dangerous snakes in remarkable abundance! And yet, I, and my friends, walked and played there with ease.  A tiny rush of cautionary fear would color the moment if the ground could not be seen ahead of the next step forward, and immediately and completely dissipated when a palm leaf was moved or other action was taken to disclose the area around the advancing footfall. (2) Fast fear: I once surprised a sleeping mountain lion in the New Mexico wilds, both of us on foot. The quality of my attention and speed of thought was pushed up at least an order of magnitude for the ½ an hour or so that the lion and I played primal tag through the juniper/piñon woodlands.  By the time it quit following me – when the ground cover became more open – I was spent; all that was left was exhilaration, and I had never felt any emotion that I had previously known by the name of fear.

Unforeseen fears are things like the random acts of “violence” for which no meaningful precautions can be taken; it is especially these fears that are useful strategically.

The essence of strategic fear is not that nothing can be done, but that ‘you’ can do nothing while some ‘other’ can mitigate the danger.  This is a most unnatural condition; living things have always had the tools to take on environmental realities, individually or as social collectives and, when as social collectives, individuals were full partners in the responses to the dangers.  This is obvious from the simple fact that living things exist as individual phenotypic representatives of their genotype (think it through)!  Unforeseen and strategic fear pervert this 4 billion year old reality.

The essence, therefore, of strategic fear is the separation of individuals from the information needed to evaluate and prepare for dangers.  This allows two options to those who position themselves to use the fear response of others for their advantage (the nature of strategic fear).  The first is to control information about real situations and the second is to manufacture dangers that do not exist in reality.

There is simply no natural reason that the realities of the situations that we face cannot be made clear to all the participants in society – the only reason is that strategic fear is so useful to a select few.  If the people cannot act individually and as communities on the actual slow and fast dangers that face us, as individuals and communities, then there will be no future.

(The next essay soon to come: populations in states of strategic fear vs. populations in states of wellbeing.)