Is “low trust” in government a good sign?

If the government is not trustworthy, I believe it is.

A recent poll of 18-29 year-olds found historically low levels of trust in the US government and its main institutions—the presidency, the military, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the federal government as a whole.

The poll and an article about it can be found here: Harvard Poll Shows Millennials Have ‘Historically Low’ Levels Of Trust In Government.

I suppose many readers will have more trust in the poll due to the word “Harvard” in the title. For me, even those days are gone. The following is a long article, but it is worth reading in full: The Myth of American Meritocracy: How corrupt are Ivy League admissions? The answer to that question is quite corrupt.

It is better to recognize a problem than to have it and not recognize it. So, I take low trust in government among young people to be a good sign in the midst of bad times. We do have bad government and you really cannot trust anything they say or do.

I am sure the problem results from a mix of the fracturing of society due to multicultural policies, the inevitable ossification of institutions, the inevitable growth of oligarchic practices in all large institutions, the almost inevitable takeover of the US economy by financial institutions, government captured by corporate and special interests, population growth, and so on.

I am not hopeful of anything positive happening soon, but with such large numbers of realists among the young, maybe.


Bundy ranch: a good example of battling over semiotics

The Bundy ranch issue in Nevada is characterized by a battle over semiotics.

The other day, the New York Times used an edited video of Bundy that makes him look and sound like a racist.

This link compares the NYT video with a fuller version of Bundy’s remarks.

And here is another link where former U.N. Ambassador Alan Keyes, identified as a “black leader,“ defends Bundy, saying:

He wasn’t talking so much about black folks, but about the harm and damage that the leftist socialism has done to blacks.

What I see and hear in the longer version of the video is an unsophisticated man using ordinary language to express a legitimate idea. The way he puts his ideas and his use of the word “negro,” especially in the shorter version of the video, creates a bad impression which Harry Reid has been quick to exploit.

Reid has called Bundy a “hateful racist” and urged Republicans and other to “condemn Bundy” for his “hateful, dangerous extremism.”

Notice how your own feelings can go back and forth on this issue and how Bundy’s comments are probably going to destroy most of his support. In the realm of political semiotics, he was like an untrained boxer stepping into the ring with a pro. All Reid had to do was wait for Bundy to make a bad move and pounce, as he has done.

Whatever you may think about Bundy or this issue it is illustrative of how unsophisticated language can create a semiotic that is devastating to a political position.

Bundy rose to prominence on the semiotics of freedom, cowboys, and anti-federal government. He may well fall on the semiotics of unintended “racism.”

As with so many other complex issues, the Budy ranch standoff is being judged on small aspects of the whole, as the main weight of American political and media forces line up against him.

When that same political/media weight lines up in favor of “nice” semiotics—such as the Patriot Act or the Clean Air Act or the War on Terrorism—it wins the day time and again. The combination of sophisticated semiotics and media control almost always decides the course of American politics.

A co-author of a recent scholarly study on the American “oligarchy” has this to say about American politics:

I’d say that contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence. Government policy-making over the last few decades reflects the preferences of those groups — of economic elites and of organized interests. (Source, with other links)

We are now living in a “Semiotic Age” or an “Age of Signals.” The Modern era is gone. In this current age, we have to be ever mindful of how semiotics are manipulated and used to further the interests of powerful groups that have control of media, government, and the US economy. I do not believe there is a humble person anywhere in the USA that can stand up to those forces and win.


Edit: Readers may also want to notice that the short video version of Bundy’s comments was edited by Media Matters for America, a well-funded group that claims it is “dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.” This group, and others, will very likely continue to use Bundy’s “racism” to slur what they will call Bundy’s “ultra right-wing” supporters, many of whom will make semiotic mistakes as bad or worse than Bundy’s. An individual going up against Media Matters, Harry Reid, the New York Times, or the Democratic Party is like a Baltic peasant going up against the Teutonic knights in the Middle Ages. They don’t have a prayer.

As a nation, I believe there is no hope for rational dialog on anything, but as individuals, we can understand our predicament.


Update 4/26: Black Soldiers: Cliven Bundy Is Not Racist.

Public semiotics: how they are used and controlled

Public semiotics are semiotics known to many people, semiotics that many people within a society or culture will respond to in similar ways.

Some examples of public semiotics are conventions in literature, film, news, customs, clothing, language use, courtship styles, and so on.

In film and literature, most viewers recognize the semiotic difference between first- and third-person narratives as well as typical plot-lines such as “the individual against the group,” “the individual who overcomes a tragedy,” or simply “good versus bad.”

Viewers responses are controlled by these narratives through expectation, emotion, and habit. Due to their short lengths, most popular films rely very heavily on a single strong emotion for narrative effect, while serious literature generally deals with more complex themes.

A recent scholarly study of US politics came to some conclusions about public semiotics and our perceptions of them that are not likely to surprise readers of this site.

The study and an interview with one of its authors can be found here: Scholar Behind Viral ‘Oligarchy’ Study Tells You What It Means.

In the interview co-author Gilens has this to say about the study:

I’d say that contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence. Government policy-making over the last few decades reflects the preferences of those groups — of economic elites and of organized interests. (Source: same as above. This source has the study as well as the interview.)

What this study says about public semiotics is the public does not control them. Rather, the public is controlled by them.

Interestingly, the study left out some of the main ways that public semiotics are controlled by elites. Public semiotics are not just controlled by interest groups and lobbies influencing legislation, they are also greatly controlled by:

  • elite control of the media
  • elite control of which topics the media covers
  • elite control of presidential debates by the Democratic and Republican parties through the Commission on Presidential Debates
  • elite control of members of congress by the parties they “represent”

In the linked interview, which is well-worth reading, Gilens mentions non-business lobbying groups, but does not say who they are.

If we do not understand that our public semiotics come from somewhere—that many of them are created and maintained by special interest groups—we will fail to understand how we are manipulated by them.

As this study shows, voting for a very limited selection of candidates who rarely, if ever, fulfill their very limited campaign promises is an exercise in public hypnosis. It is a complex semiotic that fosters the illusion of participation where there is none.

I do not think any of this will change. But I do think it is important for individuals, and especially FIML partners, to understand where the semiotics that jostle around in their heads are coming from. As individuals, we can have great control over what we believe, value, do, and understand about human life, and need not be controlled by the self-serving agendas of others.

It is important to understand that much of what is construed as “public life” is actually a complex mix of semiotics consciously controlled by people who work to create and maintain illusions of plots and themes in the world in much the same ways that plots and themes are created and maintained in film.

Personality as persona

The word persona comes from Latin, where it originally meant a “theatrical mask.” In everyday usage today, we normally mean it to indicate a “social role” that, to some extent, most of us play consciously.

Carl Jung used the concept of persona to indicate the deep sense in which a person employs conscious and subconscious methods to present a social face, or mask, to the world.

Jung said of his use of the word persona that it is “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual.” (C. G. Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology London 1953 p. 190)

My understanding of Jung’s psychology is that he took the persona to be something more substantial—more real—than it need be. In my view, when we take our persona(s) too seriously, we reify them, even fetishize them.

Once fetishized or reified, the persona in Jungian psychology takes on almost supernatural qualities, eventually requiring “disintegration” followed after some time by “restoration” as a more conscious and reasonable thing that can serve both personal and social needs without painful contradictions.

I believe this Jungian sense of the term persona has had a considerable influence on our ordinary sense of what a personality is.

In this light, I would contend that what we commonly refer to as personality is a ghostly generalization that obscures both inner-private and outer-social reality.

Belief in “personality” removes analysis of interpersonal-being-in-this-world from actual specifics to nebulous generalities.

If you have a conflict or misunderstanding with a friend and either of you believes it is due to “personality differences,” you will tend to avoid the problem rather than fix it. You will avoid it because it is all but impossible to fix anything with such a vague notion as personalty.

Assuming the two friends just mentioned are close friends, they would do much better to identify the specific moment their misunderstanding occurred and work with that.

People today do not normally do this for two reasons: 1) almost everyone believes in something like “personality” and in so believing makes it impossible to fix even small moments of discord, and 2) very few people know how to fix those sorts of problems even if they do realize that more is going on than two ghostly persona clashing in a mystical realm.

I agree that people need personas to negotiate many social and professional environments. And I agree that most people have a few traits that often remain sort of constant over time and in similar contexts.

What I do not agree with is everything else we normally attribute to personalities. In place of all that, I would substitute the idea that humans are semiotic entities and that we communicate with each other and within ourselves by using semiotics and semiotic networks.

Our interests and training lead us to emphasize some parts of these networks over others, but this does not constitute a “personality” as the word is normally used.

Suffering arises when we experience bad communication. Belief in personalities masks (ironically) the true nature of communication problems. Belief in personalities causes us to generalize when we should be looking very closely at the specific moment during communication that the semiotic networks of the two (or more) communicators began to diverge.

That is the point at which their interpretations began to differ and nothing will explain why they began to differ except close analysis of that precise moment.

People do not analyze the precise moment their interpretations of each other began to differ because they do not know how. In place of analysis, people almost always generate strong emotions and within seconds make it impossible to analyze anything.

It is not your personality or theirs that does this. It is, rather, our lousy abilities to communicate, a problem everyone in the world has. We are like monkeys in a high-powered automobile all but doomed to crash, or go nowhere.

How to drive that car? How can we catch the specific moment interpersonal interpretations diverge? And how can we analyze that moment? Only FIML practice or something very much like it will allow us to do that.

Wasting time analyzing your personality or constructing an even better one will get you nothing more than a theatrical mask, a persona, that will be useful in some social situations but a disaster in all close interpersonal relationships.

Standoff in Nevada resolved nonviolently


This short clip is a great lesson in semiotics. Readers can make of it what they want. So many American elements are there—land rights, grazing rights, gun rights, civil rights, individual freedom, heavy-handed federal agents, and peaceful resolution following courageous citizen action.

My understanding is the situation is far more complex than Bundy simply not paying grazing fees, but I am not an expert so please make up your own mind (after doing some research).

The discussion at 1:24 is priceless.

As a Buddhist, I am not at all ashamed to say I support full Second Amendment rights and, for me, this video shows an important reason why.

Second Amendment rights are “fundamental rights” that “…exist philosophically and legally at the individual level and are not dependent upon the existence of government.” (Source)

Notice that by having and exercising their fundamental rights to protest and carry weapons, the people in the video resolved a potentially dangerous conflict nonviolently.


Update (4/15/14): Below are a few more pieces of recent news on the Bundy ranch issue. I am not completely sure of the veracity of these videos, but am providing them for readers who are interested. As mentioned above, this issue is replete with American semiotics. It even has cows, horses, cowboys, and a quintessential American plot-line—big bad guys messing with little people’s land.

To be clear, I support the BLM managing public lands for long-term environmental and wild animal protection, and even support more of it, but that should never be a cover for political corruption and cronyism, which may very well be what is happening at Bundy’s. Politics and semiotics are complex, almost always.

Exclusive: Sources Inside The BLM and Las Vegas Metro Say Feds Are Planning A Raid On Bundy Home

Bundy Ranch – What You’re Not Being Told

Sen. Reid on Cattle Battle: “It’s not over”

Fetishized semiotics part two

In a previous post, we discussed how semiotics can become fetishized and why that matters. In today’s post, I want to continue that discussion.

A fetishized semiotic(s) provides symbolic focus to the person who entertains it. It provides coherence within their semiotic networks of thought and communication.

Fetishized semiotics also generate or provide motivation for those who entertain them.

Since semiotics are fundamental to all communication, fetishized semiotics often serve to bond people into easily understood groups.

A person with a fetish for prostitutes, for example, will generally find it easy to get what they want while also bonding with others who have similar desires.

The same can be said for people who want a lot of money or status. Ethnic groups and religions often fetishize the semiotics of their cultures and histories.

A scientist might fetishize the semiotics of being a scientist.

A human ego, in most senses of the word and certainly in the Buddhist sense, can be described as the “fetishized semiotic(s) of ‘self’.” Or more precisely, as the “fetishized agglomeration of the semiotics of ‘self’ of an entity that lives in this world primarily within semiotic networks.”

When small “selves” (small in the Buddhist sense) become fetishized egos, or big selves, the entity in question will often feel that life has a focus or energy it did not have before. This is especially true if the person is part of a group that communicates about that ego and supports it through ceremonies, shared beliefs, values, etc.

Big selves, or egos, supported by groups are usually semiotically quite simple. This is a place where we can see the value of thinking in terms of semiotics.

The big self is simple—it wants one or two things and will marshal all of its (often considerable) mental powers to attain it. Other behaviors surrounding the core of the big self may be complex, but the basic big self is usually pretty simple. It wants respect, or power, or some ideal that often is a pretense for getting respect and power.

The formula can be different, but basically that is how it is.

Early communists in Russia and China, for example, all professed high ideals, and some of them meant it, but in both countries the revolutions were seized by the most ruthless actors and the high ideals were replaced with mass murder.

I am convinced that many of those most ruthless communists—who definitely had fetishized what they were doing—actually believed that their high ideals might one day come to be. But that first it was necessary to liquidate millions of “bad elements” and terrorize the remaining population into complete submission.

This all too human mix of idealism deferred to the future blended with extreme cruelty in the present illustrates another aspect of the fetishized self, or fetishized semiotics—the big self diminishes others, even becomes blind to them.

The fetishized ego sees itself with its own peculiar clarity and also it completely fails to see others except as aspects of its own fetish. Thus Bolsheviks and Red Guards murdered and terrorized tens of millions of people, often with very little feeling and always with massive self-delusion.

Semiotic valence

In a previous post, I introduced the concept of semiotic wells. A semiotic well is like a space-time “gravitational well” within a semiotic network. By this, I mean that part of the semiotic network has some heavy things in it—primary semiotics that pull other nodes within the network toward them.

For example, someone with the view that they have some sort of personality will tend to associate many of their perceptions and thoughts with the features of that personality. Their belief in their personality type will tend to make them see and understand the world in those terms.

I doubt that “having” a personality is all that much different from having a hobby. And I bet most people can move from one personality type to another about as easily as they can move from one hobby to another.

Of course there are constraints and limitations in the development of hobbies just as there are in the development of personalities.

We can gain profitable understanding of the mind by conceiving of it as a network of semiotic units. It is a network because the semiotic elements of the mind are all interconnected. It does not take much imagination to connect any semiotic element in your mind to any other. Apple-red-communism. Or apple-pie-American.

By association we can connect anything in this way.

Every semiotic element in the mind has a valence. In different contexts, the valences for any element will differ, and oftentimes they are neutral, but they are there. A semiotic well organizes valences as well as meaning, intention, belief, value.

For some people, speech is used to socialize, to make friends, to gain and keep access to other people. The valence of major parts of their semiotic network is aimed at socializing with others. People of this type are pleasantly excited when others compliment or reciprocate their social valences.

In contrast, for some other people, speech is used to share ideas, to analyze, to teach and to learn. The valences of their semiotic networks are primarily aimed at sharing ideas. People of this type are pleasantly excited when others reciprocate these valences.

Many semiotic wells and semiotic valences are formed accidentally, randomly, arbitrarily. Once we take on any bit of meaning, even if only slightly, there is always a chance that it will snowball into a significant semiotic well.

The Beatles alluded to this when they sang Had it been another day/ I might have looked the other way/ And I’d have never been aware/ But as it is I dream of her tonight.

This doesn’t just happen with love but with many of our other interests. We form semiotic wells—sometimes very quickly—for what are often very trivial reasons or no reason at all.

Much of what we are comes about through accident or chance. This happens because semiotics and the ways valences become attached to them are frequently very simple. Once a semiotic well begins forming it often grows, and as it does it pulls in or rearranges elements from other parts of our semiotic network.

Once a well is formed or given to us, it can greatly determine how we perceive the world and what we value in it.

This is why propaganda succeeds so well, and is sort of easy to do if you have a lot of money and access to important public forums. All a propagandist has to do is start your mind in one direction and then add more information and more valence. Most people see the world in terms of simple dichotomies, so all the propagandist needs to do is decide what they want and contrast it favorably against what they don’t want.

Want war? Make the public perceive the enemy you want as an enemy, then add info while increasing valence. Columnists will write many thousands of words about the desired war, but the basic sociology of it for the general public is always very simple.

Of course sometimes the trick fails. With Syria the basic formula—terrorists/poison gas/war—failed, probably because the public had been fooled too many times before with similar formulas (Sadam/WMD/war).

If you can see past words and feelings to the core of the semiotic well, you will see that many things in this world are quite simple. It is no accident that people communicate largely in very simple terms.

Semiotic networks and semiotic wells

Semiotics are the signs and symbols of communication.

Words, images, sounds, gestures, phrases, whole sentences, books, fields of study, and so on are all semiotics.

Within any one mind, semiotics are interconnected in a network. I am pretty sure we can speak of a single network in most, if not all, individual minds, but if you want to think of there being several distinct networks in a single mind, that would be fine.

Of course, the semiotic network within any one mind will have sub-networks and, most assuredly, many weird connections among its parts, its semiotic units and/or sub-networks.

When humans conceptualize space-time, we often use the notion of “gravity wells” or “gravitational wells.” Our sun sits in the center of and causes a gravitational well that is a description of the “bending” of space-time.

I want to borrow that sense of “gravitational wells” and use it to describe something called “semiotic wells.”

A semiotic well is like a solar system or galaxy in that it constitutes a system of semiotic elements that are all held together by the “weight” of some of its members. A “semiotic well” is a gravitational bending within a semiotic network.

For example, a trained botanist will have a semiotic well about plants and another well within that well about their particular specialty within the field of botany. To that botanist, many perceptions and events will circle in and around that semiotic well. They will know things about plants and see things in the world that those of us who are not trained in botany will not see.

The same can be said for any profession.Doctors, lawyers, therapists, translators, carpenters, plumbers, farmers, and so on; each will have a semiotic well, or wells, associated with their profession. All of us also have semiotic wells associated with our hobbies and main interests, and many other things.

One of my best friends is a janitor and he knows and see things about human messes and how to clean them that I would never have appreciated without his input. He also has a good sense of humor about his work.

And sadly, he also feels bad about his work sometimes. Though his friends and I know he is a sterling character and have great respect for him, he can’t escape knowing that he is working a low-status job and that very few people appreciate him for what he does.

This brings in another semiotic well, or an aspect of his basic janitorial semiotic well, that is emotional. My wonderful friend sometimes feels bad about what he is doing and finds it very hard to climb out of those feelings. It really is as if he has fallen into a well and can’t get out; he can’t escape the “gravitational well,” the semiotic well, of how he thinks most people in society see him.

He is caught at the same time in both a cultural semiotic well and a subjective semiotic well. His subjective well is very complex but a big part of it is his view of what others think of him.

Now, I think the same is true for all of us. Our professions create one kind of semiotic well, while the way we think society perceives our profession creates another well. Many of the semiotic elements of these wells are highly subjective and depend greatly on idiosyncratic perceptions and assessments.

What I want to do now is largely replace the concept of “personality” with that of semiotic wells.

The advantage of doing this is that we replace an ambiguous term with one that has discrete elements that can be discovered, changed, and moved around.

The gravitational “sun” at the center of my friend’s occasional depression is not his “personality” but his job, the drudgery of it, and, probably most importantly, how he thinks others see him as someone doing that job.

This describes a semiotic well that sometimes is so strong it pulls in his perceptions of many other things not connected to his work at all. And then all of that creates more wells that involve his wife, children, and friends. He can become a semiotic well to them.

But it is not just janitors who can feel that way. Doctors can get depressed because everyone they see feels bad. All day long, they have to deal with people at their worst. And sometimes they make mistakes that cause terrible feelings of guilt or helplessness.

The examples above are clear, I hope, because they are concrete and involve things we all know about.

Some other examples of semiotic wells are our fears, doubts, neuroses, memories, conceits, shame, pride, intentions, and so on. If we conceive of these sorts of subjective items as being aspects of our “personalities,” we won’t analyze them, or we won’t analyze them profitably. We will dwell on them instead.

If we think of them as semiotic wells, we will be more likely to see that they are networks of meaning that are made up of real things—the signs and symbols of communication. Communication happens within the mind as well as between minds.

My friend’s mind is infected with the signs and symbols of having a low-status job. In much the same way, but less concretely, all of us are infected by the signs and symbols of our semiotic wells, both subjective and external semiotic wells.

Our memories, fears, doubts, biases, and much more can become semiotic wells. And what we think others think of our jobs and our “selves” and deeds can also become semiotic wells. And what others really do think can become semiotic wells.

The terrible thing about this is we cannot discuss it with most people. But we can discuss it with some people and, given the right circumstances, we can analyze any semiotic well you can think of. We can discover what their parts are, how they interconnect, and which elements are “heaviest” and why.

Through analyses like that, we can reconfigure our semiotic networks and wells. By calling them into consciousness, especially with the help of a partner, we can fully understand them as we recontextualize or reconfigure them. Oftentimes, we will discover that an element that seems to have great weight, need not have so much weight. We might discover that some elements are false, especially if those elements are how we imagine what others are thinking.

If my friend, for example, could see what I really think of him—and not confuse my mind with what he thinks society sees—he would probably be amazed because I think he is a very clever and dignified person who does difficult work selflessly, mostly for the good of others. I have taken him as a model of human behavior at its best in many things. I have told him this, but he doesn’t seem to believe me because the force of his semiotic well about it is too strong.

Forming semiotic wells seems to me to be a primitive aspect of thought and communication. Transforming them through analysis seems to be a way to generate the escape velocity needed to free ourselves from them.

Not all semiotic wells are bad, but many of them tend to become bad even if they started out good. This happens because they can quickly ossify, or become static. Once you see yourself as “having such-and-such personality,” you will tend to turn the rich network of your mind into a simple semiotic well. Or once you see your friend as having this-or-that trait, you will tend to turn the rich network of their mind into a semiotic well.

Worst of all, most of us do this to each other constantly. Members of small groups, companies, work stations, towns, or churches tend to nickle-and-dime each other to death over static semiotic wells that can be generated from even the shallowest of ambiguities.

Some ineteresting links on semiotics and thought-control

This study illustrates how jeering or ridicule can control the thoughts and behaviors of third-party observers: Jeer Pressure: The Behavioral Effects of Observing Ridicule of Others. The study is modest, but I find the conclusions quite credible. It should also be said that sometimes ridicule can inspire others to fight back or press forward with their ideas more vigorously, though people of this stripe tend always to be in the minority, almost by definition. If they ever do get in the majority then, of course, the jeering will be directed at others, not them.

The concept of salience is relevant to understanding how semiotics work and how large groups of people, as well as individuals, can be manipulated by it. Reframing, which may be a more familiar term, is always a deliberate attempt to change the salience of a semiotic or a semiotic network; sometimes the change is good and sometimes it is used to hide the truth or further the nefarious goals of those doing the reframing.

This article, The Ukrainian Pendulum, says more in-depth about the crisis in Ukraine than most news stories. I don’t know enough about Ukraine to argue whether the author is right or wrong. I do know, however, that any position other than the mainstream US position is liable to be jeered at if it is expressed publicly.

It is always difficult to decide what is right in any matter. But big-issue matters can be the hardest to figure out. The concepts of cui bono (who benefits?) and follow-the-money often serve us well when trying to see more deeply into major political or social events. Another way to analyze big issues is to ask who is manipulating the semiotics of them? Why are they doing that? Who is doing the talking and who owns the media that is reporting on that talking?

We can also ask who is jeering at what? If you feel afraid of even considering some idea or opinion because you might be jeered at, it is best to see that as a red flag. Who or what is making you feel that way?

FIML partners will surely notice that many areas of their subjective semiotic networks have been conditioned by others’ jeering, framing, or reframing the salience of important parts of them. Salience can be perceived as personally-generated or conditioned by others, depending on the topic and the analysis. For most people, the salience of their semiotic networks are defined by others in much the same way that others define the words we use. The difference between words and semiotics is semiotics can be simpler than words when stitched together into a network and thus it is easier to control the thoughts of others through the manipulation of semiotics. That this is often done by turning words themselves into salient semiotics should not confuse the issue.

Fundamentalist, conspiracy theorist, scientific, pseudo-science, libtard, right-wing, left-wing and many other simple words are frequently used to determine the salience of whole networks of ideas. When used like this, words can very effectively frame or reframe the semiotics of important discussions, while obscuring  truths that are deeper and far more important to the people being manipulated.

Psychiatry still has big problems and so does our model of the human mind

This interview with Robert Whitaker— Psychiatry Now Admits It’s Been Wrong in Big Ways – But Can It Change?—is well worth reading. Whitaker has been an influential critic of psychiatry’s misuse of antipsychotic drugs as well as its models for diagnosis and treatment.

In addition to all of the problems Whitaker describes in the linked article—failed diagnostics, failed theories, failed “disease models,” failed treatments, making matters worse for the mentally ill, and drugging children and minors without their consent—I would further submit that our generally accepted model of the human mind itself is as deeply flawed.

Rather than starting with the idea that humans have or develop personalities that do or don’t adapt well to some ambiguous social standard, we would do better to start with the idea that humans are fundamentally interactive beings, beings that communicate.

If our interactions are good, we will be well enough. If our communications with even one other person are deeply satisfying and as truthful as we are able, we will be even better than well enough.

People go crazy because their relations to no one are satisfying. In a very real sense, poor communication and shallow interaction condemn most humans to a sort of solitary confinement, where the inner network of semiotic reality cannot interface satisfactorily with the network of any other person’s semiotic reality.

For individuals who are fortunate enough to have a suitable partner, FIML practice will likely fix this problem while also fixing most emotional dissatisfaction. It accomplishes this by providing a means for people to fully engage their inner semiotic networks with each other.

The dead end of the traditional mental health model of a “personality-being-well-adapted-to-a-group-or-culture” is, sadly, best illustrated by the profession of psychiatry itself. I believe Whitaker is right in saying that

… it is going to be so hard for psychiatry to reform. Diagnosis and the prescribing of drugs constitute the main function of psychiatrists today in our society. From a guild perspective, the profession needs to maintain the public’s belief in the value of that function. So I don’t believe it will be possible for psychiatry to change unless it identifies a new function that would be marketable, so to speak. Psychiatry needs to identify a change that would be consistent with its interests as a guild.

If even psychiatry as a group needs to “identify a change… consistent with its interests as a guild,” it is clear that groups cannot be taken as a standard for wellness.

If even a group of doctors of the mind cannot get it right, how can any other group be expected to?

And if groups cannot, neither can cultures. And if none of that is right, neither is the notion of a “personality” that “adapts” to those vague standards.

This is an important point: groups can be and are just as crazy as individuals. In fact, many groups are crazier than individuals. The idea that people have “personalities” that must “adapt” in a way that is “satisfying” to an extremely dubious group standard is bankrupt and cannot be fixed. Of course individuals can adapt to laws and clearly stated mores and taboos, but adaptations based on such emotionally unsatisfying generalities will never produce wellness.

The individual can only be well when the individual can communicate their authentic semiotic reality with another, and in turn, receive similar communication from that other.

Semiotics is the right word to use here because its definition includes communicative signs and the meanings of those signs as they are variously interpreted by the individuals using them. Furthermore, the term semiotics implies, or necessarily extends to, networks of communicative signs and their inevitably differing individual interpretations.

An excellent lesson in social and political semiotics

In this short video Stephen Walt describes some of the most basic problems with US foreign policy in the Middle East and what to do about them. Whether you agree with his statements or not (I do), he describes a situation where honest public discussion has become impossible because one side has repeatedly sought to control the semiotics of that discussion.

Walt advocates the use of reason and facts, calmness and refraining from name-calling as the best methods for achieving an open discussion. He also wants people who continue to use dishonest techniques to be called out on what they are doing.

He describes a good basic formula for establishing a rational discussion in virtually any situation.

In this light, FIML partners would do well to review the semiotics of their relationships and how they approach discussions with each other.

The elephant in the room of human communication

 …if a manager at work is grimacing because they are sitting in an uncomfortable chair, a person with increased oxytocin levels may think the manager is negatively reacting to what they are saying instead, which may potentially cause issues in the workplace.

Recent research at Concordia University in Canada has concluded that giving oxytocin to “healthy young adults” may not work. See High oxytocin levels ‘trigger oversensitivity to emotions of others’ for more as well as for the source of the quote above.

I don’t particularly doubt these research findings, but do believe that a much deeper problem—the elephant in the room—is lying right next to them.

And that problem is everyone is frequently faced with puzzles like the one cited above and no one has sufficient “emotional intelligence” or “social reasoning skills” to figure many of them out. All people frequently make mistakes in situations like these.

True, some do better than others and we probably can abstract a specious bell curve for this via some sort of test. But all we will find is that the “norm” is “normal” and “normal” must be the rule, even though this is a tautology.

How do we define “oversensitivity?” Why would emotional sensitivity be a bad thing?

In the example above, it is true that most employees will never have an opportunity to ask their bosses why they are looking one way or another. But if they don’t even notice the possibility that their boss is reacting negatively, they are limiting their understanding of the world around them.

Language, facial expressions, and tone of voice in real-world communications are crude tools. There is no way around this fact. There is no “right sensitivity” or “right understanding” of any of these communicative signs that is out there somewhere. There is no stable standard for communication except in highly defined settings and contexts.

I tend to be against taking drugs for emotional “problems,” so I am not advocating supplementing your diet with oxytocin. My concern is how do you deal with communicative ambiguity? I guarantee that ambiguity is common is virtually all communicative acts.

If the ambiguity, such as the one cited above, occurs in an employment situation, should you be judged “emotionally sensitive” and in-touch with your “innate social reasoning skills” if you don’t notice it? Are you supposed to comprehend on the fly that your manager is sitting in an uncomfortable chair? How would you know that?

How could you possibly know for sure what your manager is thinking or feeling? It’s less likely but not inconceivable that your manager  is a nut who intends to attack you after work or fire you next week. There is no standard by which you can judge and be certain of what they feel or are thinking.

In intimate personal relations you can achieve certainty, or close to it, by practicing FIML with your partner.

If you and your partner do not do FIML or something like it, you will be more or less forced to cleave to some sort of “normal standard” for communication. But a “normal standard” for all communicative acts is not just elusive, it doesn’t exist.

This is the even bigger elephant in the room of psychological studies; indeed of all cultures everywhere. No standard for intimate communication exists outside of the one(s) you make for yourselves. If you leave too much to vague notions like “emotional sensitivity” or “emotional intelligence” without having the tools to actually comprehend communicative acts, you will consign yourself to many pointless misunderstandings, any one of which has the potential to snowball and disrupt your relationship.