Monday, July 25, 2016

Boxed Up in Political Polarities? Or Watching the Show from Outside the Box?

Escape Hatches from Mediated Normalization to "This" or "That"

The age of polarization may have begun at the dawn of civil-ization and the need to get the volk marching in the same direction for whatever purposes. If people can see the manipulation for what it is, they can make choices in their actual self-interests. But if they can't see the cynical use of dichotomism, they can be lead down a primrose path to the complete opposite.

The paradigm of "hypnotic" mass socialization was a very hot topic among early social scientists like Cooley, Hegel, Kant, Le Bon, Machiavelli, McDougall, Rousseau, and Trotter, well before Freud described it in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego*. Freud saw the paradigm of mass socialization to one set of beliefs -- one frame (or "box" or paradigm) of reality -- as the result of family dynamics leading to unconscious acceptance of go-along-to-get-along group norms.

(*And for decades thereafter, see the following in the References section: Adorno, Alport, Altemeyer, Arendt, Arterburn, Asch, Berger & Luckman, Bernays, Berreby, Biderman, Bloom, Burrow, Cialdini, Deikman, Ellul, Ewen, Gay, Hedges, Henry, Herman, Hoffer, Hook, Huxley, Jaspers, Kramer, Krishnamurti, Laing, Lears, Lifton, Lippmann, McGilchrist, Meerloo, Milgram, Neumann, Packard, Peck, Phillips, Postman, Ries & Trout, Rokeach, Schaef, Singer, Skinner, Sproule, Tart, Taylor, Tye, Watts, Weber, Woodward & Denton. A selection of some of the titles you'll run into should make it clear where I'm headed here: The Authoritarian Personality, The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Effects of Group Pressure on the Modification and Distortion of Judgments, Crystallizing Public Opinion, Us & Them, The Manipulation of Human Behavior, The Closing of the American Mind, The Social Construction of Reality, The Social Basis of Consciousness, Influence: Science & Practice, Human Nature and the Social Order, Civilization and Its Discontents, and Culture Against Man.) 

The first half of the 20th century was, after all, an age of mass misperception as well as unquestioning and rigid belief in whatever the authorities were handing out, leading to some very dire consequences, including two astonishingly bloody world wars and the worst, worldwide economic upheaval in several centuries. In the 1970s, psychologist Charles Tart began to call the cause of those three calamities, "consensus consciousness" or even the "consensus trance."  

Tart did not select the word without giving credit where it was due. Freud (and the rest of the above-named) had presented case after case for such conditioning to unconscious habituationsocialization, normalization and institutionalization as the result of the dynamics of mass hypnotism on pages 73-77 (of the 1989, W. W. Norton & Company edition). But outside the lecture halls and faculty dining rooms of a few dozen universities in Russia, Europe and America, no one gave the concept much thought. If they had, according to Tuchman in The Guns of August as well as Jenkins in The Great & Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, it's at least arguable that the mass annihilation of millions from the steppes of central Asia to the fields of Flanders might have been avoided.

As simply as I can distill it, Freud observed (as per the first of the 10 StEPs of Emotion Processing) that parental interaction with children conditions them (as per Watson and Skinner) to unconscious habituation, accustomization, socialization, normalization and institutionalization of their parents' beliefs. Such beliefs -- including those that are interpersonal, social, cultural, racial and political -- are, after all, presented and repeated by the most powerful and influential figures in children's lives. In Freud's (as well as most of the people listed below) view, most children introject (mostly unconsciously) most of one or both of their parents' beliefs, values, ideas, ideals, assumptions, presumptions, convictions, orientations, prejudices, rules, requirements, musts, shoulds, oughts and have-to's.

Further, children do so on the basis of unconsciously perceived empowerment and supposed competence of the parent(s) as the result of having and acting upon such beliefs, values, ideas, etc. If the parent is seen as competent, effective and secure, most children will emulate the parent's beliefs and behaviors... even when such beliefs or behaviors appear to a detached, outside observer to be at odds with the children's own interests. (Children may chafe at parental limitation of their stimulus- and immediate-gratification-seeking, but widely respected observers like Berger & Thompson, Black, Bowen, Bowlby, Dacey & Travers, Erikson, Forward, Friday, Friel & Friel, Ginott, Gibson, Golomb, Kohlberg, Mellody, Piaget, Sroufe, and Winnicott have reported the strong tendency toward long-term emulation of parental belief and behavior for more than a half century.)   

Most parents are consciously or unconsciously given more to "tradition" and instructed belief and the following of popular and/or authoritarian opinion than empirical observation and examination of what is actually so in reality. And when that is the case, their children are more likely to spend the first decade and more of their young lives being conditioned, socialized, habituated, accustomed and at least normalized -- if not institutionalized -- to very same way of seeing the world. Conversely, egalitarian parents who demonstrate verbally and behaviorally that it is useful to observe to notice to recognize to acknowledge to accept to own to appreciate to understand what is going on in the environment tend to raise children who do likewise. Parents who demonstrate dependence upon tradition and instructed belief, and who see the world according to the influence of others seen as "opinion leaders" and "authorities" (think "politicians" and "media figures") (or even "spin meisters") tend to raise children who do likewise.

Dichotomism, or polarized, down-in-the-box, all-or-nothing, all-good-or-all-bad, either/or thinking is the way the children of the latter group of parents tend to reason, regardless of political orientation, and even regardless of cognitive capacity. (According to the research-tested views of the widely acclaimed Jean Piaget, many children who fail to make it past "concrete operational processing" to "formal operational processing" in adolescence are unlikely to ever learn how to theorize about what they perceive and then test their their theories; they simply accept the most widely socially approved explanation.) 

But cognitive development alone is no guaranty of accurate judgment: In just-published research, Brandt & Crawford said, "In our prior work we found that people high and low in the personality trait of openness to experience show very consistent links between seeing a group as 'different from us' and expressing prejudice towards that group. The same appears to be true for cognitive ability. People with low cognitive ability tended to express prejudice towards groups perceived as liberal and unconventional (e.g., atheists, gays and lesbians), as well as groups of people perceived as having low choice over group membership (e.g., ethnic minorities). People with high cognitive ability... tended to express prejudice towards groups perceived as conservative and conventional (e.g., Christians, the military, big business)."

Some children do -- at least for a time, and usually as adolescents -- reject their parents' ways of perceiving, appraising and dealing with the world. But long-term ("longitudinal") research makes it clear that over time, the vast majority will demonstrate attitudes and behaviors similar to their parents' (see Fraley et al, Friel & Friel, Gibson, Ginott & Ginott, Mellody, Milgram, Peck, and Rokeach). A case and point with respect to the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant "baby boomer" children of typically conservative parents who tended to be socially and politically liberal (even radical) in the 1960s and '70s: Most have become far more moderate and even conservative in the millennial era. And their "generation x" children and "millennial" grandchildren have tended to grow up thus and remained that way; see Howe & Strauss.   

Howe & Strauss also observed in the early 1990s that the weight of political polarization was -- once again -- swinging from the compassionate and well-intended but often under-considered, progressive humanism and radical disestablishmentarianism of the 1960s in two Generations towards the equally well-intended but under-considered traditionalism and authoritarianism of the present day. Such swings sometimes occur much more quickly, as was the case in the decade following the extreme violence of the French Revolution of the late 1780s, as well as after the equally extreme violence of the America Civil War in the decade that followed the conclusion of it (1865-1875). But in most cases, the passage of two generations -- or about 40 to 60 years -- is the norm, as Howe & Strauss demonstrated in their 1992 best seller. The reason why is, one hopes, at least partially described in the preceding paragraphs.

For those who haven't jumped ahead yet to connecting some of the dots, here's the problem: Parental (and societal) polarization of actual -- "just as it is" -- reality into either well-intended, but belief-based, often (unconsciously) emotional, over-idealistic, humanistic liberalism or well-intended, but overly traditional, too often (unconsciously) emotional, overly authoritarian, rule-and-requirement-binding conservatism has produced a polity of "true believers" (see Eric Hoffer, who had a remarkable grasp of the psychology of ideology) on two increasingly distant ends of a widely polarized political spectrum. And these "true believers" are far too UN-consciously caught up in mutually unacceptable ideologies to be able to have functional, useful and productive discourse with each other... because neither group can relate to the beliefs, opinions, values, ideals, assumptions and convictions that underpin the appraisals, interpretations, evaluations, assessments, judgments and convictions of pseudo-reality held by the true believers at the other end of the spectrum. 

Conditioned, socialized, habituated and normalized by the behavioral modeling of adult authority figures who are dichotomizing (either/or-thinking) traditionalists produces an hypnosis-like programming to the consensus trance and consensus consciousness. Most children become "true believing" adults of one sort or another. They tend to see the world around them through the same filters of belief, assumption, packaging of perception, idealization and requirement to which they were exposed during their formative years. Their minds are (mostly) locked into frames, conceptual cages, boxes of belief, or paradigms of which they are largely unconscious and unaware. And because 1) they will remain unaware of the concept of paradigms, and 2) most of the people they'll ever know think pretty much the same way, they will take it for granted that they see the world as it is rather than through such filters, conceptual cages, frames or paradigms. 

One can expect to pay a price for so doing. Because anxiety and depression are strongly correlated to inaccurate beliefs, logical fallacies and emotional thinking. Korsybski, Hayakawa, Chomsky (before he became radicalized himself), Ellis, Beck, Meichenbaum and Dyer pointed the way in the 1960s and '70s. Thousands of clinicians and hundreds of thousands of patients have proven them right: The reconstruction of thought from absolutistic polarism (or "splitting"), delusional projection, fantasy, idealization, wishful thinking, intellectualization, rationalization and other "defense mechanisms" towards accurate observation has proven to be the single most effective and fast-acting means of pulling people out of chronic depression and anxiety. 

But it's widely estimated that only 10 to 20 percent of those who suffer from anxiety or depression as the result of irrational cognition will ever know there's a "better way," let alone ever see a therapist or even read a book like Dyer's 1977 best seller, Your Erroneous Zones or Burns's (1980) granddaddy of all do-it-yourself therapeutic workbooks, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. 

Because for them, the way they think 100% normal. 

The true believers remain stuck in Sherif's "social proof" and Berger & Luckman's "social construction of reality." They see moral correctness at only the first or second level (childlike) of six possibilities in Kohlberg's step-ladder of moral interpretation. They ignore their senses -- much as S. Block describes -- and turn to belief in the unconscious, "adult fairy tales" described by Beck, Dyer, Ellis, McKay, and Meichenbaum, that they learned from socialization by a belief-bound, observation-ignoring culture. They have little or no capacity for Ruggiero's "critical thinking." The believe in Hook's "myths." They become unconscious slaves to Adorno's and Altemeyer's concept of unseen, unconscious, unrecognized, unquestioned authority. They "foreclose" on their knee-jerk (mis-) interpretations of reality before they are adequately developed much as Erikson's protege Marcia described a half-century ago. And that foreclosure often leads to a compensatory narcissism that looks like the "self-righteous rectitude" one sometimes sees in the ultra-religious, the histrionically noisy and the pseudo-certain. 

They halt the process of accurate understanding of what is in the more intellectual and "thinky" left brain hemisphere before the more perceptual and sensory-oriented right one can review such thinking in light of empirical evidence and either confirm or deny it as McGilchrist explained it far more recently. They have no training, experience or capacity for Simon & Howe's "values  clarification." They split their views of everyone else into Berreby's Us & Them, with the result being a sort of unconscious pre-judgement or... prejudice. They become Asch's, Bernays's, Burrow's, Skinner's, Henry's, Laing's, Taylor's and Trungpa's automated robots in Pietromonoacao & Feldman's scheme of socialized, unconscious and often largely inaccurate working models of "social proof" pseudo-reality. They turn into Arendt's "totalistic" or "absolutistic" thinkers, stuck forever in false dilemmas. They become snagged in Freud's and Valliant's socialized, all-or-nothing, all-good-or-all-bad, totalistic "ego defenses." They become Bloom's and Rokeach's "closed minds." They become Peck's People of the Lie. 

And they react to what is going on around them precisely as though they were programmed to do so by cultural hypnotists.

I'm not going to take the bait and run off into lecturing about the "dire significance" of all this with respect to political policies. You can interpret it however you wish. (But, as one who takes the time to read the Resources & References below will almost surely see, I did not come to this view after a few moments of thought or after reading a magazine article or two.) My concern here is solely with trying to help people understand why slavish adherence to political ideologies has become so contentious that it is actually destroying life-time friendships and breaking up marriages and families... and what to do about it.

I would, however, like to take a trip way back in the time machine to an article published 60 years ago by Florence Kluckhohn, a (now) mostly forgotten social anthropologist at Harvard during the golden age of such stuff. In a paper that created quite a stir in 1953, Kluckhohn theorized that most Americans pendulated between ego-syntonic "dominance over nature" and ego-dystonic "subjugation to nature" in typically dichotomous fashion. In her view, they ignored a third possibility: "harmony with nature." If one thinks about it for about 15 seconds, Kluckhohn's notions are easily adaptable to the psychology of current day politics: Most of us want those we vote for to provide us with dominance over, rather than subjugation to, virtually everything that we appraise (according to our often unconscious beliefs, values, ideals and rules, regulations and requirements) to be threatening. Be such threats (for example) the "conspiracy of the one percent" (who will empty our pockets) or the "conspiracy of the welfare loafers" (who will empty our pockets). 

The problem, of course, is that we either don't know we think this way, or cannot bring ourselves to admit it. 

The existentialist view is that -- regardless of belief, idea, ideal, assumption, conviction, opinion of ideology -- things are the way they are and not the way they are not. If one takes a position, it may be on the basis of such beliefs, ideas, ideals, assumptions, convictions, opinions or ideology. Or, it may be (at least more nearly) on the basis of conceptually informed, empirical evidence derived from first-hand observation, recognition of what actually is vs. what is not, mindful acknowledgment of what is vs. what is not, acceptance of what is vs. what is not, ownership of what is and one's own reactions to it, appreciation of not only what is but the ramifications of it, and resulting "understanding" as per Batchelor, Brach, Deikman, Kramer, Krishnamurti, Levine, Tart, Trungpa, Watts and a host of others who understand the existential awareness of what is -- or "the way things are and not the way they re not" -- from the Taoist perspective.

In my experience, the 10 StEPs will get one to such "understanding" and up out of the boxes of unseen and unexamined belief, falsified frames, pandemic paradigms, social proof, adult myths and fairy tales, unconscious submission to clever manipulation and outright intimidation by authority figures, foreclosure, totalism, absolutism, dichotomism and cultural hypnosis in the consensus trance. There are other ways, of course. In the millennial era world of psychotherapy, they include REBT, CBT, MBCT, MBBT, DBT and ACT. (Each one is well worth investigating, if only for the relief of the depression, anxiety, stress and other results of trying to live one's life on the basis of belief in what is not.)

And for those who have no perceived need for psychotherapy to relieve emotional discomfort, a junior college or lower division course in critical thinking to recognize and avoid slipping under the waves of such logical fallacies as black and white, polarized, globalized, circular and catastrophic thinking.

Will those who would take steps over the next few months or years to try to prevent further movement of the cognitive pendularity described by Howe & Strauss (back toward emotionalism, traditionalism, authoritarianism, totalism and true belief) need to take a close look at the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and its further evolutions to find the tools to do so?  

References & Resources

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