Thursday, December 25, 2014

Post No. 193: Exist with Caution – You May Not Be Who You Think You Are (or Be Seen the Way You Want Others to View You)

© 2014, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

This is Christmas Day, 2014. According to Dickens, on Christmas Eve in 1812, a young orphan by the name of Pip encountered an escaped convict. That meeting changed Pip’s life, but more importantly, his appreciation of the event evolved over the years which followed. We’re at that point where many reflect on what the year has brought us.

I considered naming this piece, “Everything is in the Eye of the Beholder.” I am often fascinated by the contortions we humans go through trying to understand other human conduct, and our seeming inability to understand why we as individuals are so frequently misunderstood.

Back in my legal days, when I interviewed and deposed hundreds, if not thousands, of witnesses under oath (who seemingly had no dog in the fight), I was struck by how honest people who witnessed the same event could testify so differently about what they saw.

To some extent, I think I may have gained a better understanding of this phenomenon when I saw a PBS program on eyesight and the brain. What I came away with was that instead of the eye and brain working together to take a snapshot or picture of an event, the brain functions more like a hard disk in a computer. Once the eyes (really the senses) transmit the image (or a message in the case of the other senses) to the brain or hard disk, the question is posed, “Where have I encountered this before?"

If it is something familiar, or that we encounter with some regularity, then we go with what we know, or as close to it as we have the time and energy to process it. For that which we don't recognize at all, we come up with an interpretation which we think ensures our continued survival.

Numerous news analysts who have ruminated about this year claim that it has been one dominated by conflict and tension at every imaginable level, and in virtually every geographic area.

Back in the early 1980s, when I used to hang out with a group of 5 fascinating and extraordinary women who called themselves the “Slut Sisters,” several of them maintained that all conflict was due to testosterone.

This year, we’ve had numerous events featured in the news, where the typical citizen was emotionally forced to take a position on one side, or the other, often without even a paltry appreciation of the facts. Reporters sought out friends of those individuals who died at the hands of police, or fugitives from justice who the authorities were pursuing. In almost every instance, the friends and neighbors related diametrically opposed perceptions of the people involved. “He is the most generous person you’d ever want to meet, and he wouldn’t harm a fly,” or “He was vile, scum who should be put to death.”

And this was during the first 2 hours of the coverage of the event, and before Nancy Grace had an opportunity to render a guilty verdict.

It causes one to wonder whether the side we choose is really not by choice, analysis, or even about our participation in the event, but rather about which group to which we can relate the most.

I previously shared my thoughts about race, which I believe is primarily driven by DNA and genetics. In my reality, it’s not a delayed conversation, or one which we keep trying to avoid, as much as it is one which we cannot have (and never will), because it is so deep within us that we cannot explain it.

Mr. Jaggers, the lawyer for both Miss Havisham and Pip’s benefactor in the 1946 film version of Great Expectations, suggests to Pip, "Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There is no better rule."

One would think that this would suffice for making decent and fair judgment calls, assuming once again that one has the time, interest, and motivation to pursue the evidence. But two other events threw a monkey wrench in my quest to understand this year’s conflict.

I started thinking about the issue of fear, and how important a factor it might be. In an earlier post, I questioned why fear was not characterized as the Eighty Deadly Sin. There is a television network by the name of TVOne. An African-American journalist and syndicated columnist, Roland S. Martin, who appears regularly on CNN, also anchors a news show on TVOne. During the frequently aired trailer for his show, he asks, “Why is America so afraid of black people?”

Then a couple of years ago, while watching C-Span2, Book TV, I heard a book discussion involving author Michael Shermer, a columnist for Scientific American, and the publisher of Skeptic Magazine. The title of the book says it all, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts to Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.”

So, what’s the take away from all of this? I must confess that I don’t know with any degree of certainty, but suggest that neither should you. However, we need to consider something different. Perhaps we could focus on the restructuring of those systems or modifying those environments where there are higher probabilities of conflict, and not focus as much on explaining conflict on an individual or even a group level. Maybe we should accept conflict on an individual or group level, as a given.

Martin Wolf is the Associate Editor and Chief Economics Commentator for the Financial Times, who recently appeared on the Charlie Rose show. He suggests that we need to urgently address some global economic issues which were also extant during the years leading up to World War II. His concern is that if we do not, we may find ourselves in another major, global conflict. In an environment where intense competition and paranoia rule, that more animal, survival-oriented part of our brain takes over.

I’m not sure if he is right. However, I’m not looking forward to another year of conflict like we had this year. And neither is Pip.

Merry Christmas to all, and remember what the O.J. trial may have revealed about us….


  1. Light comments will not be of much help here. A great new piece, but what to do?

    '..afraid of black people?' American earned this honour all by themselves. If Roland does not know the answer, what else would i listen to him about? But there are a thousand answers, ranging from 'instinctive fear without direct reason', to 'what would you expect after centuries of cruel abuse?' I used to photograph moths, molluscs, and other fascinating creatures - by the hundred. Identical moths were split into different species by examination of microscopic differences in their genitals - only. (Jim was a specialist 'moth-balls' photographer) A lot of people i see look like different species to me! And so bloody what? I am not afraid of them for that.

    But of greater difference than between extremes of colour, we have extremes of brain-power and intelligence. And this with millions of years of abuse behind the current conflict. Evidence? No shortage, but the powers have made sure that both the politically correct and the stupid cannot see the evidence - and the smart don't need to.

    Forget Dickens, read up on Darwin. It is evolution that powers the progress of a species, NOT the individual. Doctors and lawyers helped put a stop to evolution - we should be grateful - but it will take a different 'species' of leader to ensure resources last for a few centuries more. War IS sustainable IC. I have poor expectations of democracy.

    1. Welcome back, CorfuBob. I missed your unique perspective. Your continued participation in this forum, and that of Douglas, are prime motivators for me to generate new posts (along with a new computer).

      In my humble view, you hit the heads of many nails. I think that there is much to learn by observing animals, of which we are a sub-set. I agree with you that Darwin rules. You reminded me that it was my intention to include a comment about the "primitive" part of the brain taking over given the right circumstances or environment. I revised the content to include a link to the Wikipedia article on the Donner Party.

      Additionally, I was reminded of the famous English case of Her Majesty the Queen v. Tom Dudley and Edwin Stephens, which established that necessity is not a defense to a charge of murder. That case involved conscious cannibalism of an ailing shipmate following a shipwreck. The survivors were later rescued, and brought to trial. While we, in a civilized society, expect that part of the brain which functions in civil situations to always control, the reality is that it does not.

      What the solution? In my view, eliminate poverty to the greatest extent humanly possible, and create the maximum number of jobs that society can. It has long been my view that jobs, jobs, and jobs positively address many of society's ills and human complications.

    2. In order to respond to the recent comments which you and Douglas provided, I started reading the earlier comments on this thread. I was struck by something you wrote in your first comment:

      "But of greater difference than between extremes of colour, we have extremes of brain-power and intelligence." It occurred to me that there are also "extremes of opportunity." In fact, to my understand, that is the manner in which our potential presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, has chosen to frame what needs to be addressed in the coming years, as opposed to "income inequality."

  2. I suspect that there is no universal solution and that this is what thousands of years of conflict, both political and social, is about. I would like to respond in depth to your excellent article but cannot at this time. I will return so as to pontificate in great detail.

    1. Thousands of years is right, Douglas. I look forward to your thoughts. Your comment about the length of time really made me focus on our inability to address it.

  3. Here's my take. As you know I think we humans have but one instinct: survival. I also think that's not actually an instinct but no matter... From that, I believe we developed prejudices and bigotry. After all, we tend to view who look like us as potentially friends and allies and those that don't as potential foes. As we advanced evolution-wise, this became part of our DNA (or maybe it started there). All one has to do is to observe a child as he sees other children and study his behavior. Because prejudice and bigotry is, as I believe, embedded in each of us, overcoming it is not a natural thing. I don't think we can teach people out of it. Each of us must recognize it and address it at each instance. Can we teach the methods by which that can be done? Perhaps, perhaps not. These are emotional responses and they are not always recognized. We are, I think, very emotional creatures. We tend to allow them to rule our behavior. Cultural training is one way to combat emotions but that is not always successful and leaders use emotion to control us and to impel us to do things we would otherwise be averse to.
    Consider war. Cultural impetus wants us to be non-violent, to get along, so as to have a peaceful society. yet, on occasion, we need our citizens to be violent... like when we are at war. So leaders rile us up, de-humanize the enemy, and encourage an angry emotional response so that we can be turned into violent entities.
    Recently, we see this directed at the police. And what separates us from them? The uniform but little else. Instead of looking at them as potential helpers, we are being conditioned (at least temporarily) to see them as the "enemy." It seems that we can be conditioned to hate quickly and more easily than we can be conditioned to be friendly.
    My advice to those who have had bad experiences with the police is to treat them with respect and dignity. In time, you should find them to becoming more willing to respond in kind. "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you" is excellent advice, I think, and something we all could adhere to if we could control our emotions.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Douglas.

      The ventrolateral frontal cortex portion of the brain makes us uniquely human and distinguishes us from our closest animal relatives. If you click on the link here, there is some discussion about it. It also seems to come into play in connection with some activities which clearly might be characterized as "against our continued survival," such as addiction.

      However, something else occurred to me, namely that there are many people who simply are not highly motivated to survive, and who put a minimal amount of effort into it. On the other hand, I strongly suspect that given the right circumstances or environment, like that immediately following a massive earthquake or volcano blast, virtually everyone would be motivated to try to survive.

      There are many people who feel that one role of government is to "manage" or maintain control over its citizens, through any means necessary. Some feel that the police serve that function domestically, and that the interests of the rich and powerful are paramount in how the policies are implemented and enforced. I often note that if one travels to the Jewelry District of Los Angeles or New York, one will find armed guards with huge guns to protect the valuables, but that we do not have armed guards (at least not in most cities yet) to protect young children crossing streets near schools or on playgrounds. It's about what society values.

      It should come as no surprise to anyone that those who are comfortable with, or benefit from the status quo, find it "acceptable," or "tolerable," and those who feel that they do not, feel otherwise. I think that we sometimes forget that in any competitive environment, there are probably going to be more losers than winners.

    2. Douglas, you will most definitely get a kick out of this - earlier today, CSpan2 Book TV aired a book discussion featuring Professor Benjamin Ginsberg, author of The Worth of War, who spoke about the upside of war. He contends that war is a driver of human progress. Benjamin Ginsberg is a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. His books include The Value of Violence and How the Jews Defeated Hitler. It will air again later tonight (actually Monday, January 19, 2015, at 1:30 am EST).

  4. Douglas, welcome as always. I must apologize for the delay in responding to your insightful and well thought out comment. I will have to ask your indulgence and wait for my full response later, since I have some significant caregiver issues at the current time.

    However, one point you made stood out immediately in my mind, namely treating the police with respect and dignity. Even for someone who may not feel that it is the right thing to do, it will always be the smart thing to do..

    Back at you later.

  5. Douglas and IC are survivors. And survival IS 'instinctive', but knowing how to do so is not! Scorpions and cockroaches (the species) are millions of years older than primates/humans. WE are too clever to survive. May I paste a comment, hot off the keyboard?

    Those with power and fortune will protect their interests and jobs however they can. They do not understand the situation that actually exists, or care about the long-term results of their self-centred actions. Unfortunately this is in common with the rest of us! But the fact is that most of us are already living near the edge - as we see it - and do not believe that understanding the situation will help us get a better life. In this we are dead right..... Actually, the edge is further on than we think.

    It is not our fault that natural resources have been squandered to enrich the few and mollify the populations these few have to live among.

    There will always be enough resources and energy to ensure a comfortable life for the few. They are, after all, in control of them. But what YOU can do is accept the inevitable, and just trim your needs and expectations to levels you may think are inacceptable (now). WHAT TO DO?

    Leave Wall St. alone. Leave the rich to play with their toys. Leave the police and other powers of 'security' to get on with their thing. Vote or not - it makes no difference. Democracy does not and never will exist. Be prepared for the wars and disease that will decimate poor populations everywhere - you have not caused them, and cannot do anything about it. You are not a better person to revolt against injustice - you are just stupid. If you ARE stupid - be grateful for it. You don't have to be clever to put up with less, and give up the struggle for more. Here lies peace of mind, and THEN follows the calm energy to survive reality. It's reality you have to survive. You know that.

    1. You are correct that know how to survive is not instinctual... because how to survive changes with the circumstances of the threat. And you are correct that the wealthy few are no different than the rest of us in their selfishness. To be self-centered is to be human and, really, no different than any other animal. I also tend to agree that democracy is an illusion but, while I am cynical, I suspect I do not view the world as harshly as you. But my life, so far, has been one of relative freedom and reasonable comfort. Oh, I have had some bad years but, overall, life has been pretty good for me.

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    4. Many would argue that there are two inherent problems with democracy,with the first being its "governance by committee," approach, and the second being that too much money and time are spent on being re-elected, which detracts from the time available to truly govern and plan for the future. In thinking further about planning for the future, if one did so, one would run the risk of being labelled a "communist." Arguably, when there is an inordinate focus on the short-term "results" flowing from one's governance, it distracts us from the "full (both short and long term)" results, since they would be amortized over time, or delayed, and thus not obvious until years later. Of course, it would then be difficult for sometime to claim credit or take advantage for the positive results. Only the historians and academicians reviewing history will care, unfortunately. With an approach similar to that practiced by today's corporations, which are driven to increase short-term results, and not really look down the road...

  6. This is the piece that provoked the above comment.


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