September 21, 2013

Dying for Control (II): An Exhausted Culture, Founded on Psychological Manipulation

Part I: Neurosis and Terror as National "Policy"

One of humankind's greatest tragedies is that all of us are taught to be experts at psychological and emotional manipulation. I say "all of us"; there are a few, extremely rare and blessed exceptions, perhaps one in five or ten thousand. Because the exceptions are so few in number, "all of us" captures the truth of the matter that concerns me. From the time we are infants and young children, we are taught to be constantly vigilant for signs of approval or disapproval from others -- and particularly from the authority figures in our lives. In the cases of virtually all of us, the initial authority figures are our parents. As we grow older, the crucial importance of always maintaining a keen awareness of emotional signals from others is reinforced in numerous ways: in school, then later in our work lives, and with regard to the culture generally. The lesson is an especially deadly one: we are taught not simply that we must always be on the lookout for signs of approval and disapproval, but that manipulating approval or its lack is our primary means of survival. Because this lesson becomes fundamental to our method of functioning, most personal relationships exhibit manipulation in various degrees.

For the overwhelming majority of people, the practice of manipulation is directed both at those we regard as authority figures (which, when we become adults, will include politicians and representatives of the State in general, as well as the State's enforcement arms, most notably the police and the military), and at those we regard as roughly equal to or below ourselves in the pyramid of authority. The basic mechanism is directed both upward and downward. We are particularly sensitive to signs of disapproval from those above us in that pyramid -- our boss(es), government officials, policemen, etc. And many of us find satisfaction of various kinds in manipulating those on the same level or below us in the pyramid of authority. In "Losing Control," I discussed one aspect of the television series, Mad Men, that was communicated very perceptively. (My evaluation was based on the early seasons of the series; I haven't yet seen the more recent seasons.) I wrote:
The series shows in awful detail the endless calculation, the flattery and cajoling of the bosses (and even of equals and those lower on the corporate ladder), the constant manipulation, the perpetual anxiety of wondering how others are judging us and what they'll do about their judgments. No matter where these people are in the organization, they all have these same concerns: there is always someone else who must find them pleasing and valuable, who they desperately hope will choose to help rather than harm them. The same dynamics frequently play out in the characters' personal lives. Beneath the more superficial, localized emotions they experience, on a much deeper psychological level, all these people are absolutely exhausted. Pursuing control in this way is exhausting.
The fact that all of us are taught manipulation (and, therefore, control of others to varying degrees) as a crucial means of survival helps to explain one pronounced aspect of our culture: the overwhelming sense of lethargy and passivity, where vital, spontaneous signs of life are suffocated beneath a gray ooze of unrelieved exhaustion. Sustained passion on behalf of any cause, personal or political, is all but impossible beneath the tremendous weight of perpetually being on the lookout for emotional signals from those with whom we interact, and especially being on guard for any sign of disapproval from those above us in the pyramid of authority.

Constant vigilance of this kind has another result: growing resentment, and even rage. Trying to survive by means of manipulation and control is endlessly demanding; the consequences of making errors in our calculations can be devastating. Even though we are all taught manipulation as a way of life, most of us also sense that trying to survive in this manner ought to be entirely unnecessary, that it is carries enormous emotional costs, and that it is a burden we should not be forced to carry. As a result, we feel tremendous anger that we must fulfill these ceaseless demands day after day, year after year. That growing reservoir of anger finds its outlet in many forms: in self-destructive behavior, in unhappy, sometimes tortured personal relationships and, in the political realm, in periodic outbursts about the manufactured controversy of the moment. With regard to that last item, note that the tone of such controversies is always strongly negative, with fierce condemnations of their opponents offered by all sides. Our "debates" are simultaneously devoid of meaningful content and filled with judgments of damnation. These are some of the consequences of relying on manipulation and control as tools of survival.

I explained in detail how we are taught psychological manipulation in "Creating the Next Generation." The centerpiece of that analysis is a story that a mother proudly offered as an example of her successful (in her view) childrearing practices. I chose the story precisely because it is utterly ordinary; stories like this happen millions of times every day, all over the world. But if we understand what is actually happening in the story, it is a tale of horror and terror inflicted on an innocent and defenseless victim, a young child. The story involves a commonplace occurrence: the child has been splashing in the bathtub, and he has gotten water all over the bathroom. I discussed how a parent in such a situation could begin by acknowledging that splashing water is fun. In my view, that is where the parent should begin. Splashing water is fun! Have you forgotten that? This mother obviously has. The parent could then easily explain why a very wet bathroom can be dangerous, and why it needs to be cleaned up. The child in the story appears to be around seven or eight; it is not difficult to explain these issues in terms he would understand. By pointing out the facts of the situation, the child can be led to draw the indicated conclusions himself; with a little further prompting, he will see how to adjust his behavior in the future. (If these issues are of interest to you, I strongly recommend reading the earlier entry in its entirety. This subject is a complex one, and it is profoundly distorted for most people because they have accepted and internalized these extraordinarily damaging lessons.)

The mother tells us that she realized she had a "teachable moment," so she "knelt down and spoke to" her son:
But she doesn't speak to him about any of the issues I mentioned above -- that a wet floor might be dangerous, that leaving wet walls might cause damage, that the towels and bathmat need to be replaced with dry ones -- and instead she tells this young child the following: "I told him that I was very disappointed, that I really didn't like what he did. I asked him again why he did it, and he still didn't answer. Then I asked him 'Do you know what we call people who know what they are doing is bad, but do the bad thing anyway?'"

This is the crux of the problem, and the source of profound damage. It is crucial to understand what is happening here. Note the nature of the shift that has occurred: the mother's concern is no longer with the wet floor or the wet towels and bathmat, or with the damage that might result if the water isn't cleaned up. The mother's concern -- and what she demands this young boy focus on -- is her own feelings. The mother was "very disappointed." The mother "really didn't like what he did." And "what he did" was "bad." And there is still more, and it is still worse: what the boy did was "bad," he knew it was "bad" (at least, he did according to his mother), and he did the "bad" thing anyway.


She is demanding obedience, not by discussing the inconvenience and possible dangers of failing to clean up the water (which would be damaging enough, if obedience remains the primary lesson being taught; see this essay for more on the nature of obedience), but by demanding that the child obey by adapting his behavior in accordance with his mother's needs and feelings.
The final part of my description of obedience in that last linked essay is critical for our discussion here:
Obedience is the opposite of voluntary, uncoerced agreement: the understanding and agreement of the person in the inferior position are not required, and are often not sought at all. The person in the inferior position may profoundly disagree with the reason(s) offered for the demand, if any. When the person in the inferior position obeys, he does so because of his certain knowledge that if he does not, he will be punished in some form: psychologically, legally, socially, or in some other way. Thus, the primary (although not the sole) motivation that ensures obedience is negative in nature: it is not the promise of a reward (even though certain rewards may be offered), but the assurance that he will not suffer consequences that are painful in varying degrees, i.e., that he will not be punished.
By the time most people are adults, they have internalized this mechanism completely, and it is an automatic part of their functioning. One result is that most adults will not require much or any prompting to ensure their obedience: they "know" (in an emotional sense) the price of disobeying. At the end of "Creating the Next Generation," I told a true story involving a person who had emailed me. He expressed admiration for a post I'd written and confessed that he didn't have the courage to write such a post himself, even though he thought everything I had said was true. And the reason he wouldn't write that post is that he was afraid his peer group "would regard" him as "having lost [his] mind." I noted: "So he remained silent, just as the boy in our story is learning to be silent. He was, in his own words, 'a coward.'"

It is critical to see the through line in development between the lesson being taught the young boy in the mother's story and the behavior of the adult blogger who wrote to me -- an adult who was so terrified of incurring the disapproval of the group whose acceptance he so desperately sought that he would "not even dare to write a blog post -- a blog post, mind you -- that might cause those others to view him unfavorably." Here is how I explained the pattern:
It is in this manner, among others, that a child is taught not to analyze the arguments being offered and the facts marshalled on behalf of those arguments, but to devote his primary attention to the feelings and attitudes of others. If he wishes to procure or maintain the approval of those others who are especially significant to him -- and for the young child, there is no one of greater significance than his mother (and/or other primary caregivers) -- then he must make his behavior conform to that demanded by those others. But the demands presented to the child don't concern the facts: that a wet floor is dangerous, or that wet towels must be replaced with dry ones. The demands are presented, as in this story, by means of his mother's moods and emotions. To survive, he must do everything possible to make sure his mother isn't "disappointed" or "unhappy." For the child, the most powerful signal will be any sign of his mother's disapproval; his greatest terror will be his mother's fury.

So his major concern, and very often his only concern, will be to watch with great care for signs of approval or disapproval. As the years go on, the merits of the arguments on any subject will hold less and less significance for him. The continued approval of those individuals he particularly values will be among his greatest concerns, and among his greatest sources of anxiety. His greatest fear will be the disappointment, especially the very strong disapproval and even condemnation, of those others of special significance to him.
Politics represents the nauseating rock bottom of this pattern. Even the casual observer of political debates on any subject of domestic or foreign policy knows all too well that one area is ruled almost entirely out of the bounds from the start: the relevant facts. In this connection, I was interested and amused to see two recent articles (here and here) about a new research study. What was the startling discovery that the writers found so "depressing"? Simply this: that partisanship "can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills…. [People] who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.”

I'm amused because there is nothing remotely "new" about this identification. In fact, this dynamic is as old as the human race itself and has been true for as long as there have been human families and societies -- which is to say this has been true forever. One of the earlier instances occurred when the caveman with the bigger club issued grunts to the caveman with a smaller club, who had dared to snort his disagreement about whether to cross this particular river or kill that particular animal. The first caveman waved his bigger club and emitted sounds which roughly translated to: "We're going to do what I want, you asshole, because my club is bigger and I'll bash your brains in otherwise!" At which point, the second caveman made some sounds to indicate: "Oh, of course, you're right. Don't know what I was thinking. Sorry. Please don't be mad." Funny, politics -- both domestic and foreign -- are conducted in exactly the same manner today. Perhaps "funny" isn't the word I was looking for.

Besides, there is the famous Asch experiment (among many others), which I wrote about exactly five years ago: "Studies in Conformity, Generating Consensus, and Why You Are Not Adults." And, for pity's sake, my darlings, the Asch experiment was conducted in 1951. The subjects were asked to identify which of several lines was the same in length as another line. The other "subjects" (who were actually participants in the experiment) gave what were obviously wrong answers. Many of the true subjects of the experiment denied the evidence of their own eyes -- and agreed with the wrong answers:
To Asch's surprise, 37 of the 50 subjects conformed to the majority at least once, and 14 of them conformed on more than 6 of the 12 trials. When faced with a unanimous wrong answer by the other group members, the mean subject conformed on 4 of the 12 trials. Asch was disturbed by these results: "The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black. This is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct."


Apparently, people conform for two main reasons: because they want to be liked by the group and because they believe the group is better informed than they are.
I went on to note:
The pathetic truth is that most people fear genuine independence more than they fear death itself. So desperate are they for "acceptance" and so fearful of being thought "peculiar," they will deny the evidence of their own eyes and mindlessly repeat the lies and ignorance of others. When it comes to a subject like economics or foreign policy, they think: "Oh, that's so hard! I can't understand that. I'll just listen to what the 'experts' say. They know best."

If events of the last seven years have demonstrated nothing else at all, they should have made absolutely clear that "experts" are often the very last people you should look to for guidance.
These are the lessons we are all taught, and that only a very small number of people manage to resist successfully: to throttle any sign of a genuine, vital thought or feeling of our own; to obey the authority figures in our lives without question or hesitation; and to attempt to survive by making ourselves constantly aware of even the subtlest emotional signals from others, especially those whose favor we regard as crucial to our success. For this mode of functioning -- which is the mode of functioning of most people -- the facts relevant to any particular question or controversy do not matter. What matters, what is of life and death importance in psychological terms, is the view of the group(s) with which we have allied ourselves. And if those we regard as authorities (or "experts") tell us line A is the same length as line D, even when it plainly is not, we will agree with the authorities. We will set aside the evidence of our own eyes, we will ignore what we know with absolute certainty to be true, to avoid the disapproval of those whose acceptance represents our sense of identity and self-worth, and those who are more powerful.

We have learned our lessons well, and we understand to the depths of our being what the young boy in the mother's story understood. A young child, in fact, depends on his parents for survival, for life itself. Most of us carry the lessons into adulthood unchallenged. We understand that the strong disapproval of that group with which we identify, and especially the ultimate punishment: banishment from the group, means the death of the false self we have constructed. For most people, in psychological terms, approval is life; disapproval is death. It thus follows that profound exhaustion is one of the primary hallmarks of our culture, just as it follows that most people seek to distract themselves with an endless series of activities and gadgets. To be alone, and to be still, might be to encounter an original thought, one that would perhaps call the edifice of our lives into question. Most people will do anything to avoid that possibility.

There are, of course, those who thrive on manipulating others and who become unusually expert at it. These are the people who ascend to the higher levels of "success" in business, academia, journalism, and other fields -- and these are the people who become politicians. I'll turn to this category of individual in the next installment, when we will explore some of the methods of manipulation used by those in positions of power. And then I will explain why the State can be thought of as your nightmare lover.