Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Rethinking Beliefs, Thoughts, and Actions

This could also be titled: "Guilt and Shame," but I'm trying to escape the dichotomy between those two and get to a more accurate discussion of what people mean when they say that either guilt or shame is bad, or analyze whether a culture is shame or guilt based.

There seems to be a pendulum swing with guilt and shame. Every few generations, one or the other is declared to be "bad" while the other is declared to be "good" and everyone is encouraged to try to change their language while the underlying architecture of human interaction is left unchanged. It's like the shifts in taboo language - so long as the underlying interactions are harmful to the participants, new words will pop up to take advantage of the underlying assumptions and prejudices of the people involved.

I believe the struggle with language about guilt and shame is that we 1) need a means to police and control human behavior and 2) people police and control human behavior both in ways which try to minimize harm and in ways which try to inflict harm. Harm here is being defined as anything which injures a person, physically or emotionally, and denies their basic importance as a unique person (This is a working definition, so expect to see modifications in the future). Axiomic to this discussion is that harm is "bad" and minimizing harm is "good".

Analyzing this system is made more difficult with language because language is designed to minimize or disguise our mistaken desire for inflicting harm within the language of minimizing harm. We often even think in terms of this language - the entire idea of "tough love" or "let that be a lesson to you" is about how the harmed person deserves the harm due to their own actions, and if they only changed their actions then they would not deserve harm and thus would not be harmed. I believe the basis of victim blaming is here, in our internalization of shame/guilt and the magical thinking inherent in the belief that we have a 100% causal relationship to everything in our lives and nothing is correlational (at a later point I want to tackle the problems with "The Secret" and other "you create your universe" POVs, but not today; for the moment, please accept as axiomic that we do not cause every event in our lives). The substitution of minimizing harm language in inflicting harm circumstances is also in a response to our views of ourselves as people who do not actually want to harm others (we'll leave the people who want to harm others out for the moment, if you don't mind).

Most people have a set of half-conscious characteristics of "proper behavior" (often with sub-categories based on race, gender, socio-economic level, degree of able bodied and mind-ness, etc...) which are an amalgam of what they were taught and what they observed throughout their life. Keep in mind, there's fairly solid evidence that children learn much more from observation and interaction than from explicit and conscious teaching; this is how unconscious biases transmit themselves through the generations - a powerful positive feature of our psyches with some negative side effects which do not respond to conscious, reasoned argument. 

Instead, from a young age, parents use guilt/shame to control their children and socialize them.

It begins, often, with physical violence. The use of spanking, slapping, the belt, the paddle, etc... to discipline a child has an emotional component as well in communicating that someone is a "bad person" and "should be punished". I remember a conversation with a co-worker once where she failed a math test and her father took his belt to her. She explained very urgently that she had to have the secondary physical punishment (in addition to the social punishment of a bad grade) in order to "teach her a lesson" (paraphrased), and she valued much lower in her memory the actual teaching her grandmother did to show her how to do the math she clearly didn't understand.

That is - the actual cure for the failure/ignorance was valued less in her memory that punishment for having failed, and she believed the latter demanded the presence of the former despite them coming from completely different sources, and despite saying to me that she thought she would have paid attention when her grandmother taught her without being beaten. Indeed, that question (about whether she could have learned form her grandmother without being beaten for failure by her father) ended our conversation, as she suddenly became very upset and changed the subject.

What I'm trying to point at here is that our defense of guilt/shame being used against us (and by definition everyone) is a very basic aspect of most of our minds - including mine. It is pre-verbal and tied into our primary relationships with our caregivers (caregivers here is much broader than most people seem to use it - I actually would include my friend's father and grandmother under the category caregivers even though her mother was in the picture as well, and even though her father was violent and not "care-giving". One could argue his version of care was violence - and I think this is an important part of my point, that caregiving can include violence and neglect). For whatever reason, children seem particularly susceptible to the perception that they directly cause all aspects of their lives; this includes within it a need to reform punishments and harm to the child as being caused by the child - as in the prior example, my friend needed to be beaten because she was beaten, so therefore she must have needed to be beaten. The logic is circular, and thus carries both the illusion of reasonableness (that is: it seems as if it has been reasoned into despite actually being axiomic) and a resistance to being reasoned out of. My friend's response to even the gentlest questioning that she needed to be beaten with extreme anxiety and a topic change, which clearly indicates to me how powerful it is within out minds (yes, I'm generalizing from a single example - but I am trying to use this in more of a parable sense than a data sense; that is, I'm counting on you, the reader, being able to apply a similar situation to yourself in your defensiveness about how your parents raised you, whether it involved beatings or not).

Hopefully this has established not only that our early experiences of caregiving have a powerful effect on our minds, but also that these points of view have not been reasoned into but often carry the patina of reasonableness and "common sense". I also want to put up a reminder that the language around inflicting harm versus minimizing harm is muddled due to how often language of the latter is used to cover up the former. Next post I want to get into the positive roll guilt/shame plays in terms of community building and ethical individualization.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


I have become a huge fan of TED - Technology, Entertainment, and Design. It's a series of lectures and talks on topics of interest to people, usually liberal and often odd.

Here are some of my favorites.

Erinaceously delicious about the dictionary and how a lexicographer views language.

On Being Wrong about how we behave and feel when we're making mistakes.

What Adults can Learn from Kids which is a really entertaining talk about age discrimination.

On Vulnerability about the thing which brings the most incandescent joy is being open to and vulnerable for pain.

Clocking the Fastest Animals abot... just what it sonds like. Fast animals.

How Bacteria Communicate on a way for group communication without leaders.

A search for dark energy, which is a fascinating look at dark energy and dark matter.

The Talk is about... jsut what it sounds like - introducing a child to the idea of sex through frogs.

Social Media and the End of Gender about how interests are beginning to be central to identity instead of gender and age.

Transplant Cells instead of Organs about the possibility of transplanting cells for organs instead of whole organs, which would open wide doors for multiple transplants and change the face of health in the world.

The Rise of Personal Robots about the possibilities for robots which respond to human social cues

On being a woman about changes of women in politics

Gift of Play from Bonobo Apes about the sexually active, friendly, loving culture of bonobos.

The Birth of a Word is about complex datamining efforts which can connect together social interactions with discrete items, like a media source or a word.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cycles of Uncertainty

I wake up in a soft bed to the sound of the radio. My cat is curled up next to me, miowing every time I move to hit the snooze button – resettling when I lie back and tuck the covers more closely around me. My arm is cold, curled above the covers around him, feeling his soft fur against my skin.

In the car, I fret about filling my gas tank before the day starts too far. I put five dollars in yesterday, but it needs to be completely filled – I have at least sixty miles to drive today, only half of them covered by mileage.

Sonali Kohakar is on the radio, her words not penetrating my fogged brain as I drive to the first stop, but I know her voice as she signs off for the morning. I feel vaguely guilty – I never manage to get up in the morning to listen to her show unless I have to, and I always forget to listen to the podcast in the evening.

I wake up my first client of the day, rush through reminders, chant ‘gas gas gas’ in my mind so I don’t miss my stop. The gas station, thirteen cents cheaper than the one katty corner to it, is a game of tetris with cars. I wave to the attendants I know; I’m there so often.

The radio is covering the demonstrations in Cairo, Egypt. There’s a young woman, she sounds younger than me – her voice clear and sweet and full of laughter despite her situation. “I’m staying until it’s done,” she says. “I don’t think there’s anything for me if Mubarak stays in power. They recorded me saying, ‘Down with Mubarak’.”

I wonder what it would take for me to be recorded saying, “Down with…” anyone. Would I do it if I knew I could be killed for it? My own cowardice is bitter.

Things don’t go well at my second stop, and I wonder how much of it is me, tight and guilty and stressed. What do I bring in to cause failure? How can I ultimately tell; the variables are so numerous that any sort of sensible analysis seems hopeless. I’m caught up again in a cycle of thoughts which have been increasingly bothering me – how much of my analysis of what “should” be worked on, be the focus, valid? Obviously, keeping basics like food and shelter, but there’s pressure for more, to shape people into “citizens” in some way which has an army of unspoken assumptions about what a person should be.

How can I serve my clients and be an agent for the state?

Supposed supporters of Mumbarak are now approaching the demonstrations – demonstrations which are being described as peaceful, clean, celebratory. Violence is breaking out, they say. I know elsewhere, on other radio stations, the language will be of violence “breaking out” in the “riot” in Cairo. I believe what I listen to, others believe what they listen to – and I wonder how we can determine the veracity of our sources of information. I’m biased toward the underdog, the citizens, the people who just want a peaceful world without fear; language about them will always draw my sympathy.

I stop at Starbucks, which has signs on the wall advertizing their word for a better world. To illustrate this, brown people work on coffee plantations in de-saturated photographs. What would it be like if those people were white?

Out better world, built by the labor of the brown.

My favorite discussion board has gotten into get another debate about Palestine and Israel, one without many insults. I feel ignorant, despite hearing about the issue a lot, it seems too often be talked about vaguely, idealistically, politically, with the moments of specific events standing out starkly – the image of three teenage girls dead, and one blinded in one eye. A doctor frantically trying to get help for children bombed in his very own home, calling a friend on television. This doctor preaches peace now, when he speaks, even after the death of so many dear to him. His preaching seems to fall far short of those who could bring about peace.

I wonder what would take me out on the streets.

I had once said something like the Japanese interment camps might have, but looking at the detention of undocumented people … I’m not so sure. It didn’t take me onto the streets, after all.

Would I have hidden Jews in my home in Germany?

I return to the radio with my drink, driving and listening as the radio followed the lead of the blog I read, to Palestine and Israel. In my mind the two conversations are confused, tangled up like a hairball. I’m not sure what I think anymore, except I’m tired of people getting hurt and dying. I’m tired of suffering.

How much do I contribute to that suffering, unseen to me?

Another client, trying to make peace in a smaller place – and another thread of thought intrudes; how do we deal peacefully with aggression? How can aggression be contained without either matching aggression or concession?

What role does being “weak” play into it?

I remember a conference I was at, years ago. People began to speak of their Utopias – no cars, no Starbucks, everyone wearing sandals and walking to a spiritual center. What about the people who need cars, who can’t walk down paths, who don’t want to be spiritual, I wanted to rail at them. Who are the people your Utopia excludes without you seeing?

Who are the people my Utopia excludes without me seeing?

When I wish for peace, for an end to violence and suffering, what is the cost there? Who has to pay it?

I imagine myself there, in Cairo, linking arm and arm with others to protect a library, to protect a square, from “thugs” and “pro-Mumbarak” forces.

But I’m not there. I’m here with my Starbucks and my clients.

I could leave, abandon my things and everything comfortable, use my last paycheck to fly to Cairo and link arms. Maybe.

Who would take my clients shopping? Who would listen to them?

Do I listen to them?