Empathy’s evil twin and our need to understand it

Empathy literally means the capacity to recognize the emotions being experienced by another sentient being.

It is almost always bound up with sympathy and compassion. Empathy as we normally think of it is a good thing, a liberal thing, a Buddhist thing, a kindly thing. But is that a good thing?

William Blake wrote the wonderful book of poems Songs of Innocence and of Experience. When I first read Blake in my late teens, I adored the poems and illustrations of the Songs of Innocence and largely disliked or ignored the Songs of Experience. I liked the joy, innocence, and passion of the Songs of Innocence but not the sober truths of the Songs of Experience.

Culturally, as far as I can tell, America is infatuated with the innocence of empathy, but not the sober truths that should go hand in hand with it.

If all people were nice and kind and never did bad things, it would be good to be innocent about empathy. But not all people are good. Indeed, most of us are only good sometimes and some of us are really bad a lot of the time.

Do you have the capacity to recognize the emotions being experienced by a person intent on doing harm? Doesn’t our current sense of what empathy entails leave out empathy’s evil twin, the bad emotions and intentions of other sentient beings?

I don’t know if it is still true today, but Japanese tourists visiting the USA used to get mugged and raped at levels well above their percentage of the population. The reason was, and maybe still is, they were too innocent and could not perceive the evil intent of their new “friend” or the cool dude asking them for the time.

This happened because Japan has less violent crime than the USA and because Japanese tourists were not able to imagine or read American situational exchanges. And this shows that empathy for evil is based both on expectation and culture, which are close in nature.

The Buddha said that we can only really know another human being after long association. Even he cautioned about being innocent and empathizing only with the good we see in others while failing to recognize the bad.

Psychedelics and life/Buddhism

As mass fear of psychedelics subsides and more researchers dare to study them (used to be a career-ending move to even show an interest), more good things are discovered about them.

This recent article from the Washington Post describes, without even hinting that the researchers might be crazy, why psychedelic mushrooms might be good for you: Psychedelic mushrooms put your brain in a “waking dream,” study finds.

The article notes that the mushrooms can make people happier and more optimistic, while also curing depression and anxiety. It further claims that psilocybin produces brain “activity that could help unlock permanent shifts in perspective.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” a chorus of old hippies intones.

More on the study can be found here: New study discovers biological basis for magic mushroom ‘mind expansion’.

I have written several times about the fifth precept of Buddhism, which says: “I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented and distilled intoxicants which are the basis for heedlessness.” (See Are We Misunderstanding The Fifth Precept? for more.)

I have gotten a fair amount of grief from some Buddhists for pointing out that the Buddha, who was an exceptionally careful speaker, mentions only booze in the fifth. Conspicuously absent from the five precepts, which are guidelines for lay followers, is any mention of psychedelics, which definitely were available in the Buddha’s day.

Many of those same Buddhists accept the use of dubious psychoactive drugs if they have been prescribed by a medical doctor. So, will they change their tunes when doctors start prescribing psychedelics?

My interest in this subject is not to encourage the use of psychedelics or any other drug. I just want us to be clear about what the Buddha actually said and meant. Should our understanding of the Dharma be based on one of the most reliable and widely agreed upon texts we have or regressive drug laws and timid science?

Morality in groups versus individuals

When people strongly identify with a group, they will also tend to strongly base their moral decisions on the norms of that group.

In this respect, group identity can dull moral sensibilities. At its worst, this sort of moral deference to group norms can take the form of “my country right or wrong” or “whatever is best for us is the right thing to do.”

When people do not strongly identify with a group but rather view themselves as autonomous individuals, they will tend to be more responsible and thorough when making moral decisions, assuming they are concerned with morality at all.

By providing general, ready-made answers to moral questions, groups remove the need for their members to think for themselves. Indeed, most groups stifle conversations and thoughts that go beyond group norms.

Most Americans, for example, do not question the sources of their news or the biases of the people presenting it to them. Similarly, most conversations in so-called polite society do not stray far from established values and interpretations.

When change happens in groups it usually comes from the top down or is due to a concerted efforts of single-issue activists. Both sorts of change reveal the hierarchical nature of virtually all groups. Top-down change is by definition hierarchical, while activist change generally always succeeds because it threatens a hierarchy or forces it to accept a new moral idea.

Gay marriage is an example of this phenomenon as activism caused the hierarchy of standard US moral culture to change and much of that change was also brought about by changes at the top of the hierarchy.

Of course, all people need groups. We learn from them and they support us in matters we don’t know much about. But groups also hinder us after we have learned what they have to teach us. This is especially true of large groups with many members who do not know each other personally.

Standard American culture, even with its many subgroups, is such a group. So is Christianity, academia, rural culture, etc. When we cede moral decision-making to the group(s) we identify with, we weaken our moral sense, and in weakening that we also weaken our intellectual and emotional responsiveness to the world around us.

In traditional Chinese Buddhism, most monks were expected to spend their formative years studying at one monastery until they were ordained at around the age of twenty. Then they were expected to travel alone or in pairs to see the world, teach, learn, and visit other monasteries. Sometimes they stayed for long periods of time in a particular monastery and sometimes they traveled for years, sojourning in a variety of temples. The underlying idea was to not become attached to a single group’s view of the world, but rather to explore and learn to rely on one’s own senses and sensibilities for the moral and intellectual decisions that lead to mental clarity and enlightenment.

Some depressing thoughts about the evolution of human intelligence

Firstly, human evolution is typically not survival of the fittest, but rather survival of the average. Outliers are misunderstood, envied, feared, killed or harmed. This happens to the less intelligent as well as the more intelligent.

The reason this happens to the intelligent is humans are envious and violent and prone to misunderstanding people who are smarter than them. This leads to violence toward, obstruction of, or not helping those who seem more intelligent.

It’s hard to escape a black ghetto because you will be perceived as “acting white” and attacked for that. It’s not very different in white “rural ghettos” (or urban) where intelligence is perceived as a threat. In many societies, average people cannot or will not lend support to their more intelligent members because they know, or imagine, that such behaviors will eventually lead to them being “lorded over” by the person(s) they helped.

Just a few generations ago, Italian American communities were famous for discouraging higher education among their children because it threatened the social structure if sons, let alone daughters, attained better careers than their fathers.

I am sure there are many other subcultures within the USA and throughout the world that have similar attitudes. Siblings often envy and decline helping each other, to say the least.

In the more distant past, violent death at the hands of other humans was a very common way for people to leave this vale of tears. Today the killing is less, but I doubt the harming is all that much less. Nowadays people use rumors, lies, poison, and many sorts of hindrance to prevent intelligent people from rising above them.

In a gruesome but very realistic way, this all makes sense because, evolutionarily, why should an individual help a genotype that is different from their own? This is probably why so much extant human intelligence, such that it is, is devoted to deceiving other humans, outsmarting them, out-competing them, getting ahead of them. Humans do better in a capitalist system because capitalism allows them to compete by virtually any means they can get away with.

Some strongly hierarchical societies, like China, do tend to help intelligent people if they are well-connected or have already risen to the top of a hierarchy. On the way to the top, though, the internecine fighting can be as bitter as anywhere else in the world.

In times of war or perceived threat, many groups will help the smarter ones of their own, but compensate by harming other groups even more viciously that usual. You can see this behavior in some cults, cliques, and secret societies within the USA today. Sometimes they help their genotype and sometimes they help their ideological types by that sort of behavior. In a sense, groups like that are just acting like individuals on a larger stage; they are selfish and violent as a group, but not too bad to themselves.

Having spent so much time with FIML practice and its considerable social and psychological implications, I don’t feel sanguine about the statements above. Isaac Newton helped the whole human race because somehow he was both left alone and helped. Had he spent time in public houses just being himself, he probably would have been beaten, and thus returned through brain damage to the common lot. Had he not been helped, he probably would have done nothing, and certainly much less. My guess is England probably had hundreds of potential Newtons, but just that one survived to produce great science.

Archimedes was murdered by a Roman soldier. Socrates was poisoned. Newton survived. These are the few we know about. I am sure there are many thousands more who were destroyed before they ever did anything to cause us to know about them.

My guess is the Buddha meant something like the above when he described the Four Noble Truths. Notice, that his formula provides no way for societies (large groups) to escape suffering en masse, but only a way for individuals or small groups.

Large groups can become more comfortable but, it seems, always at the expensive of even larger groups that are exploited by them. Maybe computers and machines will fix this problem in the future, but there doesn’t seem to be much hope today. Multiculturalism will very likely make things even worse, except for the few groups that dominate the others. Not much different, except in scale, from a normal bad neighborhood today.

Cultural semiotics – whatever works is the rule

Cultures are made of and held together by semiotics. They are formed and exist within self-referential semiotic networks or matrices.

Semiotic cultural matrices exist solely because they work. This is why virtually all of the world’s cultures are based on falsehoods.

It doesn’t matter if something is right or wrong as long as the people within a culture keep buying the story. Once they stop buying it, the culture disintegrates or changes.

Disintegration has been the fate of almost every culture that ever existed and there is little or no chance that any culture in existence today will survive for long.

Some culture can reasonably claim contiguity with an ancestral culture dating back thousands of years, but the two are never the same. In that sense, all of us can claim contiguity with “our” cultural pasts, just as we can claim genetic contiguity with the past. It is unlikely, though, that you would recognize any of the cultures of your distant ancestors, let alone want to be part of them or even like them.

The simplicity and falsity of culture can be seen in almost anything that communicates to large numbers of people, but especially when the thing being communicated is emotional.

An example in today’s USA might be the use of the word “offense” or “offended,” as in “I am offended by what you just said.”

If the speaker said something clearly offensive, like cussing out your mother, most of us would dismiss them as drunken fools and be done with it. Some of us might want to fight, but I bet no one would say, “I am offended by what you just said!”

Being “offended” is a semiotic that carries a special meaning and a special charge. It usually comes as a surprise to the speaker, causing them to hesitate and wonder what they have done wrong. It almost always seems to require an apology and the admission that the “offended” party stands on higher ground.

But how can you “offend” without doing so knowingly? I might not like it when you stepped on my toes, but I would be a fool to feel offended if you did it accidentally.

The truth is when most people claim to be “offended” they don’t really mean it. What they mean is “you failed to show me respect in the way I demand.”

That is a very different semiotic. It often works like an ambush or a trump card that gives the listener control of what has happened and will happen next. Reason should prevail in these instances, but it rarely does because the “offended” thing works better.

Rather than “offend” anyone by illustrating this point with some recent examples from the news, please recall your own. Imagine occasions when you have heard or read about someone claiming to be “offended” by what someone else said or did. Short of direct insults, which are rare, the “offense” will almost always reduce to “failure to show respect” for some code of speech or behavior that the speaker did not know.

Being “offended” is a powerful charge that amply reveals the tackiness of cultural bonds, for it works even among people who otherwise think of themselves as reasonable.

 

Humans are fractals of their societies

The microcosm of the individual human is made of the same stuff as the macrocosm of the society to which it belongs. The two are a fractal set displaying similar patterns.

This makes sense since both individuals and their societies use the same networks of semiotics to communicate.

In many ways, societies are less complex than individuals. In the sense that a society is an assemblage of many individuals, society is more complex. But in the sense that a society is held together by a network of communicable ideas, or semiotics, society is frequently less complex than many of the individuals living within it.

For example, most societies have very simple “biographies” (their always slanted histories), while many individuals have nuanced biographies that encompass change, growth, and contradiction.

A recent study of people’s attitudes towards atrocities points to this truth by showing that “…the way people’s memories are shaped by selective discussions of atrocities depends on group-membership status.” (Source)

In-groups forget bad things they have done—or “morally disengage” from them—while clearly remembering bad things that out-groups have done. This is a major element of all group stories.

I bet you cannot name a single society that has anything even approaching a fully nuanced view of itself on almost any matter, let alone its history. Individuals often “morally disengage” from their past acts, but it is not common for them to do so to the same extent as the societies they live in.

It hardly matters, though, if the social story is about atrocities or trivia. I have actually witnessed fairly heated arguments over who first invented pasta, the Chinese or the Italians. And another one on who first invented dumplings, Poles, Jews, or Chinese. Beer is another subject that can get people going.

It makes sense that societies’ stories about themselves be as simple as they are false because they serve as lowest-common-denominator social bonds. Indeed, it probably even helps that these stories be knowingly false as the bond will then require an even deeper level of commitment.

Of course, some of the energy for falsification and simplification comes from one group’s story needing to counter another group’s story. Yes, we did that to you, but you did this to us first.

In that, societies further resemble individuals because that’s what we do as individuals, too. Only individuals who are very well disposed toward each other and who try hard ever overcome the need for false stories between them.

FIML practice provides individuals with a means to observe the smallest fractal details of their individual stories and correct them where they are wrong. FIML partners would do well to take what they have learned as individuals and apply it to the stories told by the society in which they live. You will surely find a macrocosm of yourself in the absurdities of whichever group you “identify” with.

Maybe people in the future will be better able to see how ridiculous our stories are and better able to deal with the complexities that lie beyond them. For now, maybe we can at least start getting a fuller, truer view of what is happening in and around us.

I doubt we can do this on a societal level any time soon because the LCD stories will always reassert, but as individuals with a good partner I believe we can. This is probably a main reason that monastic and reclusive traditions have been practiced all over the world. Groups are ignorant, violent, and crazy. Individuals simply have a better chance at going beyond their simple patterns by acting on their own.

The fractal of the individual is generated by society but it is prone to being trapped by it as well.

_______________

Edit 6/13: When good people do bad things. We all know that people in groups can behave badly. This article is about a study that uses a plausible fMRI method to measure some of the basic processes underlying immoral behavior. In my view, the situation is not much different when the group is a large culture, rather than a small number of participants in a laboratory experiment. Cultures not only permit bad behavior toward out-groups, but they also numb us to what our in-group is doing.

Guns, white males, and false public semiotics

I hope I have not been misleading in my use of the term “public semiotic,” which I probably coined.

By public semiotic, I mean a semiotic or bundle of semiotics that most people within a culture recognize. A meme is a narrowly focused public semiotic. The reason I use the term public semiotic is there are many sorts of public semiotics that are broader or vaguer than sharply focused memes.

One of them is “white males commit a disproportionate number of rampage killings,” as Michael Moore implied shortly after the Rodger rampage killing in California. A simple check of rampage statistics in the USA reveals that “white males” commit rampage killings at slightly less than or about the same as their percentage of the US population.

Another false public semiotic is that “guns cause America’s high murder rate.” Moore implied that one, too. Why do people who have a loud public voice not even bother to check with the science before speaking? Here is a short, recent study by eminent criminologists that refutes Moore’s claims about guns causing violence: Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?

The answer is no. Surely Moore can read studies like this one (and there are many of them) that refute his emotionally charged errors before pontificating yet again on this subject.

If it were only Moore who made mistakes like this, I might not have bothered to write this post. But Mayor Bloomberg himself, arch foe of gun ownership, actually makes two major mistakes in this short video: Bloomberg Doesnt Know SemiAuto from Auto.

The Mayor is wrong about how semi-automatics work and he is wrong about the meme that legally owning a gun makes it “statistically 22 times more likely” that a family member or friend will be shot with that gun. Read the study above for a complete refutation of that falsehood.

How can two of the most prominent anti-gun spokespeople (don’t get me started on Dianne Feinstein) persist in making such elementary mistakes in their oft repeated comments? Is it any wonder the public does not trust them and hardly listens anymore?

False public semiotics are usually deliberately employed emotional statements that sound convincing because they are frequently repeated.

Fortunately, the American public is better informed than Moore or Bloomberg on guns. But there are so many issues it is hard to keep up. Notice how often emotional public semiotics are at the forefront of the side that is lying, whether it be to start a war in Iraq, reduce internet freedom, permit violations of the Fourth Amendement, and so on.

Imaginary communication

Normal socially-defined communication—business, school, professional, etc.—operates within known limits and terminologies. Skill is largely defined as understanding how to use the system without exceeding its limits, how to play the game.

Many other forms of communication must be imagined. That is, I have to imagine what you mean and you have to imagine what I mean. This is so because the rules of  communication are not well-defined.

In many cases of this type I will imagine that you are normal to the extent that I am able to imagine what normal is. And I will imagine that you imagine me to be normal. As I imagine you I will probably assume that your sense of what is normal is more or less the same as mine. This is probably what the central part of the bell curve of imagined communication looks like. People in this group are capable of imagining and cleaving to normal communication standards. If you reciprocate, we will probably get along fine.

If my imagination is better than normal, I will be able to imagine more than the normal person or given to imagining more. If this is the case, I will tend to want to find a way to communicate more than the norm to you. If you reciprocate, we might do well communicating. If you don’t, I might appear eccentric to you or distracted.

If my imagination is worse than normal, I will have trouble imagining or understanding normal communication. I won’t have a good sense of the cartoons we are required to make of each other and will probably appear awkward or scatterbrained to most people. If you reciprocate, we might do well communicating and find comfort in each other.

Normal communication, even when imagined, is based on something like cartoons. I see myself as a cartoon acting in relation to the cartoon I imagine for you. If my cartoon fits you well enough that you like it and if your cartoon of me fits well enough that I like it, we have a good chance of becoming friends.

A great deal of normal imagined communication is cartoon-like, and being normal, will take the bulk of its cartoons from mass media—movies, TV, radio, and, to a lesser extent today, books and other art forms.

People still read and learn from books and art, but normal communication has come to rely heavily on the powerful cartoons of mass media.

The big problem with our systems of imagined communication is they are highly idiosyncratic, messy, and ambiguous. We have to spend a lot of time fixing problems and explaining what we really mean.

It’s good to have idiosyncratic communication, but we have to find ways to understand each other on those terms.

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.

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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.