Sunday, June 26, 2016

What It Means To Be Mean

Whence Evil: Normalizing Hatred
(Originally published on The Progressive Playbook website, Sept. 16, 2013

The path toward becoming either a Progressive/Liberal person or a Regressive/Conservative person winds through a measurable combination of environmental factors and intrinsic brain function. Recent studies of brain function and psychological makeup have revealed that varying degrees of political outlook are rooted in organic, biological brain function as well as variable exposure to ambient social attitudes throughout life. That is, it’s a combination of nature and nurture. The studies suggest some people may not be able to control their attitude and outlook. Other people go with the flow and may ultimately choose, or not, to think differently from their parents, peers and surrounding society.

Let’s first examine the effects of either mindset. According to Moral Foundations Theory, promoted by a collaboration among psychology professionals and social scientists specializing in morality and politics, morality is widely variable among cultures yet repeats itself thematically in universally similar ways. Each culture exhibits a discreet, array of instinctive ethical conventions which informs and confines its members’ behavior. These rules are the scaffold around which that society builds a series of social boundaries that define the hierarchy among its members, attributing color and flavor that delineates the unique shape and timbre of that society’s culture.

According to Moral Foundations Theory, every culture exhibits a combination among these ethical categories:
1)      Care/harm – This classification describes how well we relate with others in terms of intuiting others’ pain or suffering. It is attached to kindness, tenderness and how effectively we cherish or care for others. This is one side of empathy.
2)      Fairness/cheating – Altruism is thought to be an evolutionary adaptation promoting survival of the tribe, group or family. Justice, individual rights and autonomy altruistically delivered to others applies. It’s another side of empathy.
3)      Liberty/oppression – Domination from without creates tension eliciting umbrage and corrective reactions in opposition to, most often, defined authority. Images of peaceful demonstrators being bullied and injured by uniformed authority swelling the ranks of subsequent protest actions is a good example.
4)      Loyalty/betrayal – Social animals, including humans, form coalitions of mutual support and common cause. Patriotism, self sacrifice for the common good
5)      Authority/subversion – This order and hierarchical configuration expresses social interactions in terms of leadership, how one follows, qualification of legitimate authority and tradition-defined behaviour.
6)      Sanctity/degradation – Underlying, but not limited to, religious concepts of raising existence above the sensually indulgent, animal, lustful, fleshly, worldly or basely human, into an elevated, spiritual sphere. Sanctity and degradation treat the notion that the body is a fragile shrine easily desecrated by immoral acts or toxic contaminants.

Societies combine these ideas in variable proportion as a matter of self definition. Rebellious population segments may act to further refine proportions of Moral Foundation Theory aspects within the society to elicit change or eventually die out. Conflicting priorities that arise among an evolving culture make for a divided society. Conservatives rely on all six of the ethical departments, and the culture wars of the last thirty years rage over the Right’s greater reliance upon Authority, Loyalty. Additionally,   perhaps especially, the application of Sanctity and conflict over legitimacy of its pseudo- or fundamentally religious authority weighs heavily. Conversely, Liberals and Progressives bestow greater proportional weight upon Care/harm criteria with heavy support from the areas of Fairness/cheating and Liberty/oppression.

What are the pressures that bring some in society to revere the group or its leaders so highly that individuals are less valuable or even expendable? How do individuals come to regard those who are not members of their group, however it may be defined, as not deserving of the advantages of their core members?

Simon Cohen-Baron, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology in the Departments of Psychiatry andPsychology at theUniversity of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. has been studying empathy for three decades. His work is wide ranging and comprehensive. He has led in the development of what he calls the Empathy Quotient to quantify individuals’ empathy. With multiple combinations of colleagues, Professor Cohen-Baron has examined the effects of testosterone on Empathy, taken hundreds of brain scans pinpointing Empathy Center activity in the brain and how those functions reflect in  behavior. Amniotic fluid and adult blood samples measured isolated protein compounds’ effects on gestational development. Subsequent examination of amniotic fluid compounds’ effects on brain Empathy Center acuity have yielded much evidence on how differently fully developed brains function. These examinations, combined with analysis utilizing an extensive range of investigative sciences, reveal whether the application of empathy results from a systemic empathy function compared to some degree of social or other biological determinants The analysis from such a wide array of disciplines, such as social neuroscience, genetics, tomography techniques, psychosis quantification -- among many others, pinpoints why some people are capable of and even prone to cruelty while others are not..

In Professor Baron-Cohen’s book, The Science of Evil, he redefines the mystical, emotionally laden term evil toward empathy, or the lack of empathy, establishing a quantifiable emotion upon which to base and test his theory. Among many factors, it turns out there’s an effect from testosterone levels during gestation and after puberty. But, that’s just the beginning. The greater population of “empathy normal” individuals exhibit a range of observable brain “empathy center” function. Among the individuals who exhibit reduced or diminished empathy center activity are categorized in three types, Borderline, Narcissist and Psychopathic. Measurable trends indicate a range of genetic predisposition from reduced empathy to a status of no measurable empathy at all: “Empathy Zero, Negative.” There is significantly less empathy center activity in the brains of individuals who measure in the Empathy Zero, Negative population. Gestational and environmental aspects are also indicated representing all three factors – Borderline, Narcissist and Psychopathic - in the nature v. nurture realm of personality traits.

In other words, some people are just born that way, though there do appear to be some avenues of therapy that can help ameliorate the final outcome of some who exhibit Zero, Negative personality characteristics. That’s not to say that everybody who descends from a family sprinkled with Empathy Zero, Negative ancestors will become Zero Negative, or even exhibit reduced empathy. That is because there is a large number of environmental factors in the stew that effect the individual’s personality as well. That is to say, just as one may be genetically predisposed to exhibiting reduced or Zero Negative empathy, one who has neither familial history nor genetic markers of zero-negative orientations may also be affected by multiple environmental factors, such as childhood neglect or abuse, as well as the general public zeitgeist on issues of empathy, to swing an individual disposition one way or the other.

In recent decades, there have been well organized private, public and government sponsored policy shifts institutionalizing gravitation away from an empathetic society to one of evermore reduced empathy. America is currently verging on operating as a zero-negative personality would toward those who are vulnerable or who cannot fend for themselves due to political and socio-economic factors. It began with Ronald Reagan’s exhortation that government is not the solution, but that government is the problem. Reagan failed to define, however, to whom government is the problem. His and his followers’ implication is that governmental influence is a universal threat to its citizenry. At the same time, religion arose as a political issue, blurring the Constitutionally drawn line separating Church and State, which introduced a host of cultural issues with a revived mantle of supernatural authority only suggested previously, and heretofore easily relegated its Constitutionally appropriate place.

Enter the so-called Culture War. The Culture War is based on largely theocracy justified policies(see: Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity-degradation above) coupled with corporate elite pressure toward dispensation from civic responsibility. The resulting philosophy created a systemic rejection of empathy in secular policy and law. The Right leaning political forces had strength in numbers among Religionists and the financial strength of corporate interests that include, among other characteristics, diverting monies previously used to maintain society to further finance the erosion of governmenalt protections for the poor and needy as well as protection of the general population against corporate greed and abuse.

Removal of the Fairness Doctrine by President Clinton under Republican pressure removed any semblance of public media balance offered to the public by televangelists, news outlets, and paved the way for the likes of Fox News. Under the mantle of corporate personhood, special interest themes designed to overshadow reasonable discourse, fortified as speech protected by the First Amendment, continues to systematically deceive the public toward control of public opinion without consequence. Reaching the logical conclusion of corporate personhood, the Republican nominated Supreme Court majority has handed Corporations carte blanche to overwhelm the airwaves with opinion posing as self evident truth and conviction substituting for facts.

A series of systematic exemptions for specific classes of financial market transactions seeded the ground for widespread fraud creating an illusory bubble of prosperity, the collapse of which nearly ruined the world economy. Corporate influence over government has let the perpetrators escape significant penalty; avoid restitution, compensation, or even consolation for losses engineered on vast numbers of the unwary public. That same influence over government and control of broadcast content has continued to advance the very same policies that caused the barely averted global depression as if it were the solution to fix their effects.

These are but a few in a cascade of events that could arguably be described as rational within the context of the market bubbles inhabited by the debacle’s perpetrators. Each, however, lacks any consideration of fairness and consequence, relying on reflexive authority, loyalty to caste, and a distorted sense of government oppression. And greed, without any consideration to the harm inflicted. That’s Empathy Zero, Negative type psychopathic behaviour. Recurrent. Systemic. Endemic. Chronic. Zero empathy.

As a society, we’re left with a significant number of people who are attracted to authority. Once authority is acquired, they wield their power ostensibly for their group, family or tribe but ultimately for themselves. They notably embrace the indisputable authority of money and types of assumed authority such as that conferred ipso facto to tradition or a deity. Authoritarians, by nature, use whatever authority they can muster to bludgeon and minimize dissent and resistance. They especially focus their disdain on the vulnerable. In various displays of empathy rejection, we’re treated with themes like Newt Gingrich extolling "why the African-American community should demand pay checks and not be satisfied with food stamps," and how Hispanic immigrants “should learn English and not use the ‘language of the ghetto.’ ” An Arizona sheriff, while running for Congress as a Republican, and having appeared with then presidential candidate John McCain in an anti-immigration political ad, “Build the dang fence,” was revealed by his purported undocumented ex-boyfriend of being threatened into silence with deportation. Revelations included explicit photos of the boyfriend posted on a gay dating site, and demands for non-disclosure about their relationship. Mitt Romney extolled, “I’m not concerned with the very poor” and “I like being able to fire people who offer me services.” According to Dr. Ron Paul and others, only women who have been victim of an ‘honest’ rape would qualify for a post-assault estrogen injection, because, well, that’ll have to do.

Other firebrands of the Right, such as Rick Santorum, cite culture war friction as a spiritual war, and would limit others’ behaviour and liberties on sole authority of their preferred brand of faith. His arc of hyperbole includes assertions such as the President’s support of universal education is merely a ploy to get kids into college to indoctrinate them into left wing ideology. All that work during preadolescence in Sunday School, all those confirmation courses, and countless Sunday sermons during young adulthood would be laid waste. And, reality-based news reportage has a liberal bias. This is a man who admonished a voter on the campaign trail that government must not support her gay son’s “unhealthy lifestyle” such as marrying and raising a family. He also claimed that rape victims should be denied any chance of an abortion and instead should make the best out of a bad situation. Fairness and harmful consequences don’t figure at all.

Marginalization of the vulnerable has taken many turns. School boards institutionalize isolation and vulnerability among gay teens by regulating out of existence the acknowledgement of gay bashing and bullying among  students, teachers and administrators under threat of dismissal. State legislators propose statutes that would protect gay bullying and physical gay bashing as long as it’s motivated by religious sentiment. When called out on abuse and abdication of civic duty, these blame-the-victim authoritarians claim persecution to deflect criticism and avoid responsibility. An apropos illustration is a celebrated case of Illionois’s Catholic Charities that claimed they were discriminated against by being denied their claimed right to discriminate against same sex couples to whom they’d deny adoption services, all the while insisting on still receiving state tax payer subsidies to fund those services. Authority, Loyalty, Sanctity, Oppression, with little or no observation of Care/harm or Fairness/Cheating.

The effect on individuals has been variable, but in many cases it’s been catastrophic. Women’s choice is regulated by statute out of existence and by withheld funding for all services, not just birth control for which government funds of any kind are already prohibited. House Oversight Committee Chairman Daryll Issa (R-CA) convened a hearing about controlling contraception while actively barring women’s testimony. Republican controlled state legislatures are effectively restricting abortion rights to the point of making illegal not only contraception itself, but some fertility techniques. Further, some forms of natural miscarriage could be charged as manslaughter unless the woman involved could prove it not to have been artificially induced. Workers’ collective bargaining, a thorn in the side of big business and a huge target for elimination by Corporate America, is being assaulted in states controlled by Republican legislatures and governors. Authority, Loyalty to clique, Liberty to control others indiscriminately,  Sanctity of their cause. But, where’s the Fairness and care for consequences?

Republicans in Congress are pushing for privatization of social programs to eventually divert substantial proportions of funds that now buy beneficiaries’ food, clothing, heat in Winter, medicine, general to specialized doctors’ care, and utility bills to instead line the pockets of private investors fortunate enough to have the resources to “buy” into the attendant agencies – often as a reward of whatever political connection they have or political contribution they’ve made, including any manner of elite resources they enjoy at the expense of the general public.

States adjacent to those exhibiting the worst Zero Empathy, Negative behavior, have simultaneously passed marriage equality bills, some signed into law while another was stonewalled with a veto accompanied by a provision directing the legislature to put government acknowledgement of citizens’ rights before the public for a vote.

It’s not just the government under controlling pressure from Corporate America, aided and abetted by the Religious Right’s force of numbers, that’s at issue. Corporations and Religionists have created a formidable phalanx of entities, mostly tax exempt religion-inspired foundations and political action committees, to create new beach heads of assault on the rights and freedoms of those who act according to Fairness, Consequences and Liberty while all but dismissing Authority and Loyalty. Evidence has arisen that LDS and Knights of Columbus allegedly colluded to fund and pass anti-equality referenda and state constitutional amendments in California and elsewhere claiming that marriage equality threatens their concept of marriage and the existence of marriage equality threatens their Freedom of Religion. Regarding provision of women’s healthcare, Catholic bishops push against businesses founded by religious orders having to play by the same rules as any other business in the public marketplace. The Family Research Center, certified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group, headed by Tony Perkins, claims the Left is trying to create a Theocracy and marriage equality is tyranny that promotes incest, bestiality, and polygamy. At the National Organization for Marriage, another SPLC-certified hate group, former leader Maggie Gallagher labelled  homosexuality an “unfortunate thing,” and “at least, a sexual dysfunction similar to impotence or infertility,” as well as “a sexual disability preventing certain individuals from participating in the normal reproductive patterns of the human species.” She also claimed that gays “can always control their behavior,” and even admonished the incumbent President to give more funding to scientifically rejected “ex-gay” research. Gallagher even denied on MSNBC “Up with Chris Hayes” that she’s never done any of those things. Bryan Fischer, Director of Issues Analysis for the American Family Association and host of the American Family Radio program, “Focal Point,” rails preposterously on a daily basis with themes such as 98% of gays are drug users, have up to 1,000 sex partners (In a lifetime? Annually? Weekly? We just don’t know!), the HIV link to AIDS is a scam, people living with AIDS reap what they sow.

These are but a few among an extensive roster of gay bashers, and but a scant taste of their pejorative litany levelled at gay people. Others, such as Michele Bachman, Rick Perry, Matt Barber, Victoria Jackson, Liz Trotta, Kelly Yanta, Rev. Kenneth Hutcherson, John Eastman, and Allen West to name only a few, cast their unsupportable aspersions with tedious alacrity. They make stuff up, never have to prove anything and never bother about the suffering they inflict directly, or inspire the weak and gullible to inflict. Any calls for responsibility, restitution, accountability, compensation or even consolation are met with cries of intolerance, First Amendment injuries and any other manner of glib rejection of  accountability one can imagine. It’s all about Authority, real or imagined, Loyalty to their authority and the family or tribe that agrees with it, Sanctity of the message and group cause, their Liberty to express it without regard to others’ rights to be free of that message

Ideologues are infiltrating and influencing otherwise politically neutral organizations, too. A failed, former candidate for governor who had run on a platform of reversing abortion rights succeeded in denying private charitable funds to Planned Parenthood shortly after being hired as an administrator at the funding institution. When news of the changes hit the media, the charity claimed that current funding, which had not been affected by the administrator’s change, was subsequently restored when it was actually only future funding that is to be denied. The tactic has successfully mislead critics and diverted criticism as if some permanent correction in policy had been made. Planned Parenthood still loses future funding which effects all its programs without any concern on the overall damage inflicted on the truly needy by an ideologue in a position of power in a private charity.

There are so many more readily available examples of how people in positions of power exhibit diminished to nonexistent empathy, spread inane projections on innocent citizens. Many instances of religious harassment and political aggression had been, until very recently, subsumed into a vaneer of civility, kept in check by more universal public morals and ethics. But, since the 1980s’ symbiosis between regressive politics and politically empowered conservative evangelicals, – and more recently the black-is-white rhetoric enabling John-Bircher-cum-Tea Partiers –  the lid has been lifted off the simmering antipathy among elder, European descendant, mostly male voters (and their apologists). Seeming as from nowhere, anachronistic, ostensibly long settled political issues have been newly foisted into the foreground, forcing already overburdened Americans, straining under the immense pressures of an economic breakdown borne of prolonged stress under regressive political policies, to shoulder “culture war” issues for the second and sometimes third time in our lives.

One has to wonder to what end. What sense is there to the subterfuge, the mendacity that enables it, and the sheer lunacy of the fit – or lack of it – in it all? Perhaps that’s the large and the small of it: there is no point. It’s just more chaos, a cyclical crescendo of background noise foreshadowing  or forewarning for the more aware, astute or merely attentive, what’s in store if we don’t snap to and get our act together.

The bigger question focuses on what a reasonable person -- be they moderate-to-liberal, or moderate faithful, or secular (sceptic/skeptic, humanist, atheist, agnostic, non-faithful, etc.) or the electorally crucial, independently minded individual who can only sit back in dumbstruck awe – may do in reaction to what passes for conservatism these days in American politics. What’s to do about this fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into? Of course, we must make our voice heard on election day. We must also make our voice heard – loudly, clearly and in a sustained manner – in our capitols and in Washington through letters, email, phone calls, rallies, protests and in response to regressive, empathy bereft positions in water cooler conversations, Thanksgiving dinner-like exchanges and in response to online articles at every opportunity. Lobbyist and SuperPAC influence hits their targets daily. That influence must be countered similarly by an overwhelming voice of individuals in every venue possible. Only our mass resistance to radical regressive backtracking will counter the onslaught we endure.

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