TV as Creaturely Motives

Finally I’ve had a chance to catch up with television.

I was surprised at the naivete of the denial. Every channel advertises fertility (more life) and escape from death.  The ads are virtually all about food or pharmacy that builds you up (“Show more of you”) or that saves you from the Reaper. The magic pills or elixir are all washed down with sex or at least inexhaustible desire.

Humans are all sunny seductive smiles. Or they’re monsters.  Nature programs mostly feature the predatory shark or the predatory croc or the sneaky snake. Thrillers and police dramas feature predatory outlaws.  Heroes always rescue innocents from the gun,  jaws, or some other tool of the Reaper.

Politics of course also dramatizes a contest between fertility vs. death-anxiety.  The president promises to bring back utopia.  Like Zeus, he is secretly envied for his masterful sexuality: he delicately brags about getting his way with any swan he chooses.  In fact he can do anything he wants.  He commands indomitable vitality.  As the comparison shows, this is a desire to be god.  And by the way, immortal..

Naturally the Reaper is a scapegoat—at the moment, specifically immigrants who supposedly rape and kill,.  or opponents who threaten to attack you and scorn you to social death.

No wonder people are confused.  This politics isn’t about ideas or policies. It’s about survival, and it’s especially hard to deal with because of denial. If you talk about hunger for life and death-anxiety, nobody seems to know what you’re talking about.


Sticks and stones: words as weapons

”Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

As kids, we were encouraged to chant that to take the sting out of insults aimed at us. I was reminded of the chant by president Trump’s taunt to the four congresswomen: Go back to where you came from.

What struck me this time is that Mr Trump excites his supporters and his “enemies” by evoking a war that offers the thrill of survival and victory— but nobody risks actually dying.

The Trump taunt reminded me of a Christmas party in the 1970s when the Vietnam War was winding down but still killing people. A Continuing Ed student had invited my wife and me, without mentioning that the guests were executives of Smith & Wesson, the gun manufacturer.

When I realized, I heard my wife Susan deploring the war, and a young executive countering, “if you don’t like this country, you can leave it.” Meaning: Go back where you came from.

In my gut I felt a flight-or-fight reaction. My nervous system knew that his words was a form of combat. His insult was a put-down–as in putting an animal out of its misery–but the killing was social death.  Otto Rank put it right: every argument is symbolically about who lives and who dies. If you lose an argument, you lose face and self-esteem. You die a little. In a real war.  If you win an argument, you feel more alive. If your put-down is forceful enough and your opponent is intimidated, you have more freedom: more life.  In a real war, you impregnate or enslave the losers. This is one of the reasons that whites have needed blacks, especially when defeated Confederates needed scapegoats after losing the Civil War.

The problem is that words do have an impact on us.  As Robert C. Ellliot demonstrates in The Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art, for example, satire originated in the impact of the curse.

As sublimated warfare, electoral contests naturally use terms such as “attack,” “defeat,” and synonyms for “striking a blow.” Ideas may be weaponized. The underlying tactic is to arouse supporters to feel as if they’re embattled but guaranteed to survive: to enjoy the combat.

The trick is to turn flight into fight. Slogans or propaganda can boost morale, as in “Make America Great Again.” The Canetti of Crowds and Power would find chanting a way of turning flight into fight, as in “Send her [the scapegoat] back” or “Lock her up.” Chanting together is like basic training in the military. Recruits learn to overcome inhibitions about destroying another person and feel the magnified fore of the group. Chanting is also a safe way for the group to take some initiative. They’re all on the same page, overcoming their differences. And of course they don’t threaten the leader.

Why is being a supporter enjoyable? Because as in war, you survive. The leader and the Cause promise you will escape from death.

The obverse applies to the scapegoats. They’re dehumanized as apes or imagined predators. Fears that your leader may be a crook are turned against the “enemy,” as in the Hillary Clinton steals wealth and preys on kids. Immigrants are not individual persons but a predatory gang. They rob, they rape, they fake being real US citizens: being one of us. Like spies, they deserve death.

Are You One of Us? Race, gender, and mental processes

Discussions about race have been making me uneasy. Not only because hate groups have been streaking in the media, flashing their naked prejudices. Even essential arguments for fairness and tolerance have been troubling me.

The problem is cognitive.  We refer to Whites and Blacks, or Afro-Americans, or the self-consciously polite “people of color.” But no matter what term you use, naming people into a group doesn’t just identify some quality they have in common. It makes them different, separate, even alien.  You’re not Bill or Tasheka, but “White” or “Black.” It’s as if you’ve been put on a team and you’re automatically someone’s opponent.

As in a sports or other game, there’s a quality of play about the categorization. You know who the “White” or “Black” really is, but for now the reality of the game takes precedence.  The reality is provisional.  While the game is on, you can love or hate the opponent, but you needn’t take responsibility for really loving or hating them forever.

People with different complexions are all humans. Individually we’re distinctive, but otherwise we’re more or less the same. To say an individual with a particular complexion is “a Black” or “a White” makes it sound as if that’s the important thing about the person. Which is nonsense. Whoever they are, they’re humans first of all, one of us—whoever we are. The idea of calling a person who could be you “a black” or “a white” gives me the creeps.

Since blackness has problematical or negative connotations, then, the label “Black” is a stigma not unlike the yellow star Nazis used to makes Jews targets. Naturally some Blacks have tried to rehabilitate the stigma by insisting “Black is beautiful.” But the slogan still uses the label. It’s the tricky way cognition works. To avoid the problem, should the movement “Black Lives Matter” be renamed “Variously-Pigmented-People-Associated-with-Negative-or-Threatening-Traits-Matter”?

It’s the way we’re built. The brain generates our reality by categorizing its sensory input. Out of a storm of undifferentiated experience, the infant’s brain makes objects. Parents and culture teach names that substantiate the tyke’s reality and a sense of “what is right.” Among the tyke’s first categories are “Us” and “Them.” From the start, self-esteem and paranoia get into the act. Which comes first—which do you prefer—Us or Them? Could They threaten or scare Us? If we choose between them, we imagine we’re supporting what’s right and, acting as judge, superior to both groups.

If we’re surviving, then evolution says we must be doing something right. But as the ancients realized, there’s something ambivalent, even tragic, about how we’re built. Adam and Eve busily started naming everything, using the tree of knowledge to categorize good and evil. So they opened the way to Google and microbiology, but by incurring the curse of labor and death—and worries about wardrobe. And the landlord evicted them from the Garden of Eden.  That’s a pretty ambivalent outcome.

Blackness has disturbing associations for humans because we’ve evolved to depend on sight, and so black night means disorientation, predators, and the ultimate blackness of death.  Likewise, we’ve all evolved from the same primate ancestor, but self-esteem revolts at the idea. We’re made of the same stuff as other animals, and have their body plan. But we fear and despise human features such as noses or hair that remind us of our animal nature. In disgust, we call scapegoats rats, apes, pigs, dogs, and the like. We imagine we’re superior; our lives have heroic purpose, whereas mere animals eat, mate, poop, and die.

It’s the way we’re built. To call people like you or me “blacks” or “whites” is a delusion. As science puts it, “Ashley Montagu demolished the concept of “race” in his book, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (1945). Nevertheless, like many a bad idea, the notion persists that there is some useful purpose in classifying humanity into five, six or a dozen races. . . . Living humans share too recent a common ancestor for there to be many deep-seated biological differences among us. From an evolutionary standpoint, we are all Africans.” [1]

As defining traits go, complexion is as trivial as—I was about to write freckles,but then I remembered that not so long ago you could be lynched as a witch because you had a suspicious freckle indicating that your black arts could kill me. Better to burn you and your freckle as a precaution.

People get lost in the funhouse of race in part because they can’t sort out which influences are cultural and which inherited. They blame “blacks” for crime, unwed mothers, welfare, and so on. Or they congratulate themselves for being above such failings.

In the end, the problem is cognitive and existential, which is also the way we’re built. Nobody is purely white or black or anything else, because everything evolves. Every crop of newborns presents a variety of temperaments and traits.  That makes even more striking the fact that one of our built-in traits is an instinct for fairness.

Meanwhile reality is in motion. With every breath, humans create and recreate. Everything changes and sooner or later everything dies. But since we’re social animals, there’s some comfort in knowing that we’re all in this together.

  1. “Is Race Real”?

(Adapted from my essay in Psychology Today, Aug 31, 2016)