Saturday, February 7, 2015

Developing Bias is What Brains Do


© Charles D. Hayes 

A primary function of the human brain is to record an accurate snapshot of reality so as to improve the odds that the rest of the organism will have an opportunity to reproduce. Our brains work 24/7 to keep us safe from danger and free from surprise and embarrassment. Although genetics research suggests our species may be continuing to evolve, we have the same physical hardware that we had when we were on the menu of large predators. Because surprise can spell danger, our brains are hyperaware, still making lightning-fast assumptions based on very little information.

These days most of us no longer have to worry that the snapping of a twig means we are about to be pounced upon by a hungry beast. But our brains still mimic paranoia in their need to nail reality quickly. A mistaken assumption about an approaching stranger or a new hire at our business can prove costly. The stranger might be a mugger and the new employee might be a thief.

In a nutshell, we all have biases about all sorts of subjects and circumstances, and it’s a good thing because we couldn’t live without them. We rely on having an enormous record of seemingly accurate snap-judgment assumptions archived beneath our consciousness and available instantaneously, convictions about every possible kind of cause and effect, especially about people: how they behave, who can be believed and trusted, who can’t and why. For our sentinel awareness, our observations seem to represent straight-up reality. In other words, that’s how it looks and how it seems, so that’s how it must be.

As we grow up, our brains pay careful attention to millions of things deemed significant but unworthy of being called into our conscious awareness. Just because we aren’t knowingly aware of everything going on around us, however, doesn’t for a minute mean that our gray matter is not focused on keeping meticulous records of anything and everything that might prove helpful in the future.

Bias can be positive or negative and as simple as if you see that, it means this. So, if we are raised in a culture where a demonstrable negative bias directed toward a minority is a common experience, if the bias expressed stigmatizes the minority as being lawbreakers or untrustworthy in general, the brain is keeping this as a deep-seated record for reference to avoid unsatisfactory encounters in the future.

If when we are children the adults in our presence bear a racial prejudice toward a minority, even if they try to hide it, we will read their body language. We will record the looks on their faces, their eye-rolling gestures, the tone of their remarks. We will internalize the imprint of a social bias when the adults think we aren’t paying attention to their tacitly shared assumptions about stereotypes.

Our brains strive persistently to read our peripheral social interactions, soaking up sentiment as effectively as dry sponges absorb water. Internalization of the culture we observe as children is confirmed by research studies in which young black children show a more positive attitude toward white dolls than black dolls. Their views have been ever so subtly formed by internalizing the prevalent bias of media and their social environment.              

Regardless of our conscious opinions about equality and justice, most of us will feel an intuitive tug toward our internalized record of life experience when confronted with the need to make a decision. If we’re interviewing applicants for employment, for example, or asked to approve of a person who wants to date our son, daughter, or other family member, our subconscious take on reality will likely weigh heavily in our decision making.

We are all masters of a form of rationalization referred to in academia as confirmation bias. If the family member’s potential date is of the wrong ethnicity or social class according to our internal database, but saying as much would be considered publically offensive, no problem. We can easily come up with ingenious alternative reasons to show why this person is still not suitable. Racial bias becomes especially suspect when we come down hard on a reason for disqualification with more aggressive emphasis than we would apply in similar situations with persons of our own ethnicity or social status.

Our unconscious emotional self is so formidable that psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant to capture its dominant nature. The rider on the elephant represents the relatively limited power of our conscious reasoning self in comparison. When in conversation or reading text, recall how quickly your elephant is apt to jump to conclusions that amount to instantaneous emotional validation before you’ve had a chance to fully digest the subject at hand. Our elephant never sleeps.       

Unfortunately we pay too much attention to formal education and too little to the experiential learning that shapes our worldview for life. If we are oblivious to the subtle nature of bias, then our elephant rules. Whatever we come up with as a rationale, regardless of how prejudicial our judgment might be, we will still perceive ourselves as being completely fair and impartial, even as our bias masquerading as intuition will cause us to offer cautious rationalizations that carefully conceal our deepest and most morally incorrect feelings.

Our justifications may very well result in our not hiring a minority applicant or not giving our approval for someone to date a person we’ve subconsciously stigmatized, while we still remain absolutely convinced of our total objectivity. There are mountains of irrefutable employment data showing statistical proof of an employment bias and of persistent racial profiling in law enforcement in America that very few people who manage these processes will admit is occurring.

It is impractical and counterproductive to ask people if they harbor a racial bias. We can’t expect an honest answer because we don’t have direct access to the subconscious record with its millions of bits of data any more than we have access to the neurological programming that enables us to tell up from down, left from right, and hot from cold.

Biased information based on years of subtle observations will be fed to us consciously as intuitive feelings or explicit knowledge, and these inclinations will require very few visible or audible cues to enable us to instantaneously match and confirm our internalized data, all the while maintaining that we don’t have a prejudiced bone in our body.  

Now, if the notion of racial bias and negative stereotyping were not complicated enough, we also have to contend with the fact that we human beings are a tribal species. We have an innate sense of fairness which can easily translate to an aversion to people who do not work to pull their own weight. We are always on the lookout for enemies and cheaters. In a nutshell, we are evolutionarily rigged for an in-group versus out-group worldview. Ironically, as anthropologist Jack Weatherford points out, “The communications industry has retribalized the world.”

We seek the shelter of group consensus, and our group identity is reinforced and reassured when we can collectively identify those who qualify as being outsiders. A divisive delineation of us and them is literally in our genes, and today’s exponential increase in diversity makes us hyperaware of otherness. The tribal instinct is how we construct an us, while the ability to readily identify a them helps us bond.   

We are innately wary of outsiders and strange customs, and yet, at the same time, we are profoundly social creatures, eager to form groups based on similarities and appearances. People given different colored hats on entering a room will show signs of bonding by color in a matter of minutes. Just consider our propensity to take sides in professional team sports, where the players aren’t even from the regions they represent.

My point is that all over the country we have people swearing that racial prejudice is a thing of the past, and yet we have myriad statistics that show racial bias is very much alive and firmly established in the present. Everywhere people sincerely believe that because they don’t harbor a conscious negative racial bias, they obviously don’t have one.

Until we truly understand the deep-seated nature of racial bias and the fact that it takes enormous intellectual and emotional effort to overcome it, we are doomed to failed social interactions and the resulting communal strife. One of life’s most underappreciated and underutilized lessons is that, more often than not, things are not as they appear, and we pay an enormous social price for not constantly heeding such wisdom.

I don’t know if a lifetime of subconscious assumptions can ever be completely overwritten, but I do know from personal experience that a strong effort to deconstruct one’s own racial bias can be psychologically transforming. To me it’s clear that the future of human relations depends upon a sincere effort to overcome our ignorant assumptions based on our biological predispositions for misunderstanding one another.

It’s very important, however, not to underestimate how much determination is required to objectively understand the nature and debilitating social effects of racial prejudice. Moreover, it’s crucial to understand that when children grow up internalizing prejudicial views that are not successfully challenged, their bigotry can be prevalent and socially corrosive for most of a century.  

American demographics are changing at the fastest pace in our history. In the near future, white Americans will become a minority, and signs of discontent lamenting this reality are already being heard. There is deep-seated irony in the fact that the overturned tables of racial discrimination are making a truism of the old notion that what goes around comes around.

If as a culture we were resolve to wage war on ignorant assumptions and learn en masse what is already well known about the nature of bias, we might have an opportunity to inspire enough empathy and goodwill to set some of our negative tribalistic inclinations aside, or at least mitigate them, long enough to behave politically like enlightened adults. We could expand the membership of our tribe without incurring so much angst.

You may have heard a warning to senior citizens that if you had chicken pox as a child, then you have a one-in-three chance of getting shingles. Similarly, if you internalized a racial bias growing up, the odds are much higher that the bias still exists. Even people dedicated to equal rights are often shocked to discover they still bear a hidden bias.

Numerous psychological test instruments in cyberspace can help you check to see whether you harbor a hidden racial bias. Simply Google testing for racial bias, consider the reputations of the psychologists who authored the test, and proceed. Harvard University and the University of Virginia both offer tests online. Many people report being able to detect their own hidden biases as they answer the questions. This kind of experience can result in an enhanced sense of mindfulness. The only thing you have to lose by taking such a test is your illusions.  

We have evidence that our species has continued to evolve since our days as hunter-gatherers, and it’s clear that nothing like our present society has ever existed. There is, however, some similarity between our current situation and the period in which the danger of being eaten alive was ever present. The threat today consists in being under constant assault in, by, and through the media and electronic communications that make our lives easier while simultaneously subjecting us to every conceivable kind of scam that the criminals and cheaters in our midst can dream up.

Danger in a cyber-mediated world simply replaces the snapping of a twig and the threat of being eaten with the clicking of a communication device and chance of being scammed. The level of distrust generated by cybercrime aggravates our tribal tendencies for paranoia and bias based on very little information.

In a world driven by hypermedia, a viable future requires that we acknowledge our shortsighted tribalistic dispositions and compensate with the intelligence required to put an end to the curse of human conflict that has plagued us for eons because of egregious social misperceptions and ignorant assumptions.

In other words, our default neurological bias hardware requires an emotional and intellectual software patch for dealing with unprecedented change. We’ll need to apply the patch ourselves until evolution sees fit to adjust for our hypermediated lifestyles, if we want to increase the likelihood that our species will survive.

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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Not the Country I Grew Up In


© Charles D. Hayes 

Now in my eighth decade, I find that my confidence in America’s future no longer resembles the enthusiasm I grew up experiencing in the 1940s and ’50s. My first job in 1956 was a paper route delivering the Dallas Morning News. My district manager’s name was John Galt. He was an affable man who seemed to work hard, but he was not without faults that were obvious, even to a teenager. The very next year, Ayn Rand would publish Atlas Shrugged, featuring a flawless fictional capitalist character also named John Galt. I didn’t get the irony until years later.

More than two decades would pass before I read Atlas Shrugged, but one thing became immediately clear when I did: there are no such persons with the virtue Rand attributed to John Galt, her ideal man. There are, however, plenty of wannabes, and America is increasingly a greed-based plutocracy that reeks of the ethos of selfishness, while the growing disparity between the super-rich and the middle class is rapidly becoming grotesque.

In the first three years after the 2008 economic downturn, 95 percent of income went to the top one percent of the population, while the gap today between executive compensation and the hourly pay of blue-collar workers makes a mockery of the very idea of fairness. The current state of inequality brings to mind an observation by former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “We can have a democratic society or we can have great concentrated wealth in the hands of a few. We cannot have both.”

In the 1950s, income tax rates were extraordinarily high, over 90 percent, but few people actually paid the top rates. Business owners avoided the high tax rate by reinvesting heavily in their enterprises. America’s high wages and rapidly growing middle class were the envy of the world. Working for one company and receiving a gold watch upon retirement was accepted as being doable if that was your goal. Career expectations for people willing to apply themselves and work hard were wildly optimistic.     

America was making huge infrastructural investments in the 1950s with an interstate highway system, rural electrification, the GI Bill, and the FHA for home mortgages. There was an explosive increase in affordable housing and a boom in manufacturing. In the arena of science and engineering we were on the threshold of going to the moon.

At the same time, though, our society in the ’40s and ’50s was sexist and overtly racist. We saw segregated housing, residential redlining, and egregiously unfair employment opportunities for women and minorities. Voting rights for minorities were threatened by poll taxes and excessive difficulties in registering.

In those days, we were not commonly aware of a psychologically devious self-deception at work in our own minds, and we failed to take into account the fact we see mostly what we want to see and what we expect to see. We didn’t understand the psychological dynamics of bias. We thought what we were experiencing was straight-up reality. Sadly, even now, many people still don’t get it.

In the decades since that time, lifespans have increased and medical miracles are now taken for granted. We have Dick Tracy communication abilities and are one click away from more information than was ever thought possible. Technologies make our lives easier than our ancestors could have dreamed.

And yet, today, the expectation of long-term employment is history. Unions are dying off. Good-paying factory jobs are going the way of the buffalo. There is a resurgent threat to voting rights in what we now call red states. Working conditions have improved, but women and minorities still do not receive equal treatment in employment.

Automation is decimating the job market. Low-wage jobs are growing like weeds, and taxpayers are having to supplement wages for workers in some of the biggest and most profitable companies in America. It’s not unusual for people to juggle several part-time jobs because they can’t find full-time employment, while major employers are allowed to set reduced hours specifically to avoid paying additional benefits for full-time workers.

Productivity is going up as wages stagnate or go down. Individuals making $10,000 an hour are crying crocodile tears because working people are asking for $10 per hour. Corporate executives whine incessantly about America having high tax rates, even though most corporations pay nothing close to the maximum rate because of loopholes legislated by paid lobbyists. Many create headquarters in a foreign county to escape taxes altogether.

A cracker-box house in many of our big cites will cost from $700k to over $1 million, while a 30-year mortgage is a bigger risk than ever before. Even among families with health insurance, a serious disease will likely bankrupt most because of the necessary copay. Homelessness is a growth enterprise, as are tent-shack encampments, itinerant shelters, food pantries, soup kitchens, gated communities, and private security companies.

The financial sector is increasingly parasitic. Whereas it used to specialize in lending money for startups, it now just siphons off the investment cream with supercomputers. Ideologues cheer them on as if they have something to do with the idiotic notion of excellence. The credit card industry is increasingly predatory, while the payday loan industry could teach the mob a thing or two.

Our infrastructure is crumbling. Regardless of the fact that we are nearly $3 trillion behind in required maintenance, those on the extreme right of the GOP are looking for ways to lower taxes. This, in my view, makes these folks the biggest something-for-nothing crowd ever.

Meanwhile, even though the basic social employment contract has been gutted, voices on the Right still whine about a deficit of moral virtue, as if all people have to do is just start acting responsible. They seem to think if that were to happen, then tomorrow the old jobs would be back and everything would be just fine. Not so. They won’t admit that the playing field has changed beyond recognition.

For a fraction of what we spend on a bloated military, college education could be free and we could have a social safety net that, instead of being punitive, could actually reward initiative. But to do such things remains beyond our reach with so many of our citizens living in mortal fear that some poor fool is going to get something at their expense.

All the while, corporate executives are hauling off money by the wheelbarrow load with a thumb up for success. Wannabes genuflect in approval as they dream of getting their own wheelbarrow load and joining the club.

The economic statistics over the past half-century tell the story of what has happened to America in a clinical sense, but if you want to get a personal feel for the troubling conditions we find ourselves in, Bob Herbert’s Losing Our Way is a brilliant account in terms of the human cost of growing inequality.       

To me, the most disturbing aspect of this whole scenario is that it took me so long to see this hypocrisy and pretention for what they amount to, namely tribalism. We’re witnessing tribalism on steroids as groups try to prove their superiority over everyone else. Because of what they believe is stellar behavior, they deem their kind to be worthy while others aren’t. It’s that simple.

Reversing our escalating inequality, however, is anything but simple. Instead of paying attention to the politics that directly affect their lives, millions of our citizens cling to clichéd versions of an American Dream mythology that have been sold short by Wall Street interests.

The people with the power to rig the system own the politicians of both parties and the major media sources that influence the general public. The richest one percent now own almost half of the world’s wealth, and their rate of ownership increases annually.  

To wrest power away from those who have spent the last three decades purchasing favorable legislation and who have now been given the ability to buy elections by none other than the United States Supreme Court, at times seems impossible. Let’s hope it’s not too late to recreate a more equitable society.

Both liberals and conservatives are likely to agree that the economic trajectory we are currently on is not sustainable and that rising inequality shows no signs of abating. The shame of the matter is that while solutions may not be simple, all it would take to solve most of our economic problems is for people on all sides of the political divide to care more about solutions than whose side gets credit.

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Friday, October 24, 2014

The Internet & Lynch Mob Politics


© Charles D. Hayes

A great strength of the Internet is its ability to bring people together, and this, ironically is also a great weakness— a weakness that is dangerous if not commonly understood. By enabling identity-based ideology to trump geography, the Internet is the perfect device for the retribalization of the world. Bear with me as I explain.

In the 1960s, when I was a police officer in Texas, I was involved in a disturbance in the West Dallas Projects that escalated into a riot. The experience was unforgettable, and I think about it often, especially when I consider the notion of ideological amplification. This is the academic term for what happens when likeminded people come together politically and venture further in the ideological direction in which they were headed than they would have if left on their own.

Elsewhere I have written extensively about the subject of ideological amplification because I find the phenomenon not only fascinating but also critical to understanding politics and political polarization in particular. A riot is ideological amplification on steroids, on fast-forward and out-of-control, when the actions of one individual spur others to up the ante, until a simple gathering of people morphs into an emotional cyclone and the minds of the individuals involved are lost to the mob. The ensuing insanity trumps any chance of returning to reason as a means of calming people down and restoring order without force.

In the incident in Dallas, a small child was seriously injured when her parents were simply driving through the neighborhood and a bottle came through their car window. It hit their daughter in the head, blinding her.

My point here is to show that our tribal propensity to toughen our political stance as a means of bringing our group closer together presents a clear and present danger to society if we remain blind to this ubiquitous behavior and how easily it gets out of hand. The danger in ideology run amok is that groups of people become so emotionally aggressive in their limited world view that any and all information that doesn’t affirm and support their view is taken as a threat. Thus, the truth of the matter at hand is deemed much less important than whose side one is on. In time, groups become bonded and fully vested in sustaining and maintaining a state of ignorance while arrogance intensifies the discourse.

Just think about the intellectual price to be paid when any group of citizens assumes that they have a vested interest in protecting themselves from learning things that they would simply prefer not to know because they are fearful of enlarging their worldview. In such instances, identity becomes not only a barrier against learning, it also takes an aggressive posture, overly sensitive to taking exception to the acts of people whose beliefs about the world clash with theirs. On the one hand, the Internet is a powerful tool for learning, but it is equally powerful for leaning—political leaning and ethnocentric hostility.

Internet email is an incredible means of staying in touch and sharing information, yet it also represents a raging river of contempt with a constant stream of out-group ridicule intended to bring in-groups closer together. Social media offer the same opportunities with graphics. I think an appropriate new word for what happens in cyberspace might be twittercule as a means of expressing ridicule in 140 characters or less. 

Ridiculing the opposition may bring a group closer together, but, more often than not, it also represents a missed opportunity for broadening one’s knowledge and understanding in a manner that might foster common ground, offering a win to all concerned. What’s more likely, as already noted, is that shared derision will inspire increased levels of contempt, as little acts of disrespect lead to greater and greater acts of aggression that, if pressed far enough, will result in physical violence.     

One of the most destructive aspects of political polarization is the temptation to guess the motivation of one’s opposition and to make such outlandish statements as “liberals never met a tax they didn’t like,” or “conservatives never met a war they didn’t like,” etc. Both the Left and Right are guilty, and all of us cross the line occasionally. This kind of dogma is precisely the kind of information that in-groups share to further alienate out-groups.

There is, however, an avalanche of research data that makes it clear that most of us don’t have a clue as to the nature of our own motivation, let alone anyone else’s. If this revelation is news to you and if you’ve never made a serious attempt to gain insight using what has been learned in the past couple of decades about how our minds work, then it is highly likely that you are as easily manipulated politically as if you were a string-bound puppet.

If we don’t know why we do the things we do, then we don’t know what prompts us to do as we do, and thus we can’t guard against being manipulated by people who are better acquainted with the research than we are.

Recent studies in psychology and neuroscience challenge conventional wisdom about our understanding of the functioning of what we call character. We assume ourselves to be consistent with regard to how we will act in particular circumstances, based on the persons we believe ourselves to be. But extensive psychological research reveals that changing the context of the circumstances we find ourselves in can dramatically alter how we will respond and that our actions, while predictable, will not be consistent with the way we would have thought we would act.

If we’re given a number, for example, and then asked to offer an estimate for an unrelated problem requiring a number for an answer, we are very likely to be influenced by the number first given that had nothing to do with question at hand. If we’re reminded of our mortality and then asked a question requiring judgment, our response will likely be much harsher than it would have been if we had not been reminded of our own death.

The number of instances in which our response to circumstance can be altered by changing the context is mindboggling and equally disturbing because it leaves us open to manipulation to sales and political strategies that we are unaware of. 

Now for the hard part. What complicates and exacerbates our ability to achieve consensus is the natural difference in the degree to which liberals and conservatives are open to experience, in the way they relate to change and novelty, and in their relationship with and to authority.         

Research in moral psychology shows that conservatives are more tribalistic than liberals, less open to new experience and change, and more apt to revere and respect authority. Conservatives often think liberals are disrespectful to authority, while liberals view conservatives as being too submissive and too eager to conform. Some liberals are not only open to change, they actually prefer a kaleidoscopic reorganization of ideas because of the endorphin rush it provides, while conservatives find this baffling and unnerving. Even so, both liberal and conservative approaches to governance are absolutely necessary for the democratic process to work, because venturing too far in either direction is a recipe for disaster.  

In a nutshell, if we don’t appreciate the full spectrum of human disposition as being necessary to form an equitable and respectful society, then it is likely that, although the Internet and social media can be used as constructive tools, they will also be used just as often as weapons.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Primate Passion vs. Law and Order

© Charles D. Hayes

Futurist John Naisbitt once equated high tech with high touch. These days high touch is eclipsed by high surveillance. Not only has video technology made us much more aware of police brutality and the use of excessive force, it also offers us the security of policing the police and witnessing disputed situations on behalf of the police.

To put law enforcement in perspective, we first have to have a better understanding of our human behavioral predispositions and the troublesome clash that arises when duty puts peace officers at odds with their biological inclinations. We also have to take into account the self-protective organizational hierarchies law enforcement officers belong to that circle the wagons when there are complaints about police behavior. I’ve experienced both firsthand.

When the name Rodney King comes up, most people who were adults in 1991 have images of a man lying on the ground being beaten by police officers. Then there was the confrontation with Professor Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police department, which garnered national attention in 2009, when the professor was arrested as a result of having been reported as a suspicious person at his own residence.

Fast forward to more recent times, and it’s hard to forget the video of a California highway patrolman sitting on top of a woman while he pummels her face with his fists. In another situation, we watched a police officer walking in front of a row of people seated calmly on the ground in handcuffs as he pepper sprays them like someone applying garden fertilizer. And now we have the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the rioting that followed.

What is happening when we witness an officer beating on someone who is clearly no longer resisting is that emotion has taken over and the incident is running on instincts being driven by hormones. Thoughtfulness and control at this point have been overridden by biological impulse, and when more than one police officer is involved, they begin to take their cues from one another as the emotion takes on a life of its own.

Biology makes clear that we human beings are primates, and without sufficient self-awareness of this fact or open acknowledgment of its reality, we can be depended upon to act instinctively in ways very similar to our simian cousins.     

All primates are subconsciously hyperaware of hierarchy and dominance. We may not dwell on these things consciously, but we sense intuitively who is and is not dominant in all social situations. This is easily demonstrable by randomly examining body language in group settings. And, as Erich Fromm observed many years ago, it’s when we deny our animal nature that it can manifest in its worst forms.

Between our ears is a virtual bias-generating machine that works 24/7 to protect us from harm and surprise. It pays careful attention to our sense of identity and the dynamics of our in-group-out-group relationships. Our gray matter notices most everything, and it makes big assumptions on scant observations, keeping meticulous records beneath our awareness. Claiming that one is not biased is to deny one’s brain its fundamental function. Bias is what we rely on to confirm the perceptions we live by. The form of bias in need of remedy is an assumed prejudice that has congealed into a stereotype and is socially harmful to others.

Our subconscious is home to a vast repository of learned assumptions based on clichéd evidence. When occasions arise that trigger them, we intuit the associated biased emotions as representing straight-up reality. The result is known as confirmation bias.     

Asking people if they are racially prejudiced is a senseless thing to do, since our conscious selves don’t have direct intellectual access to the enormous emotional database in our subconscious. Not many people will admit to being racist, but statistics prove without a shadow of a doubt that racism is still very much alive in the present.

By any objective standards, our demographics show that the American criminal justice system’s egregiously disproportional harsh treatment of minorities is a national disgrace. As such it makes a mockery of our country’s founding principles about being born equal. If you have the slightest doubt about the veracity of this statement, read Michelle Alexander’s stunning exposé The New Jim Crow.

Overcoming racial bias is an incredibly difficult thing to do because the emotional coding that establishes racial bias takes place beneath our conscious awareness. For law enforcement officers, overcoming racial bias is an extraordinary challenge that requires constant mindfulness, continuous effort, introspection, counseling, and resolute supervision.

It’s critical to understand that when officers work in neighborhoods with large ethnic minority populations, the fact that their interactions with the residents are often negative will reinforce whatever prejudice they have already learned or will set the stage for implanting prejudice in the future. Thus, the seeds for racial profiling are sown in a rich mixture of emotional experience that in time will set up like concrete.

This is not rocket science, but it may as well be because we’re not benefitting as we should from knowledge gained through unrelenting research in neuroscience, human psychology, primatology, and anthropology. We like to consider ourselves to be far above behaving with animalistic inclinations, and so we prefer to ignore any reminders that we have them. But by no stretch of the imagination are we exempt from primate behavior, and we pay a heavy price for not facing the truth. 

We are territorial and tribalistic creatures. We take things like home, country, personal space, and group identity very seriously. And to be able to adapt to all of the behavioral situations we are likely to encounter, our inherent physiological processes enable us to gear up and rise to the social occasions we find before us.

When our primate cousins encounter social hierarchy, their hormones adjust accordingly. So do ours. For example, when a low-ranking male ape suddenly finds himself in an alpha male role, his levels of testosterone will shoot up accordingly. Put a uniform, a badge, and a gun on a man or a woman, and precisely the same thing happens. I know this is true from personal experience and extensive observation.

When police officers and citizens come together, a brain chemical reaction occurs in all present. Those who view the officer as someone to trust are likely to experience increased levels of oxytocin—sometimes called the moral molecule. Those who see the officer as a threat will experience an increase in adrenaline and a spike of testosterone.

As primates we are wired for the potential of conflict escalation, and because of repeated exposure to extreme social situations, police officers are apt to suffer the consequences of their wiring working all too well. In my view, it is not an exaggeration to say that law enforcement officers are chemically conditioned to turn on their internal aggression switch and get an instant response. But the very fact that our hormones can induce behavior ranging from subservience to alpha-dominance, according to circumstance, suggests we can also be flexible and therefore trainable.

Police officers’ duties require them to be assertive, and they become accustomed to surging levels of adrenaline and higher than normal levels of testosterone. When incidents occur that call on them to rise to the occasion, thus causing elevated hormone levels, the result can be an automatic stance of privilege. This sense of entitlement can easily become corrosive—an alpha male or female feeling that dominance is always one’s prerogative by nature of one’s identity. It’s a kind of situational arrogance that comes after multiple incidents in which one is required to be the dominant individual simply in order to do one’s job as expected.

Put another way, a primate posture works better if one’s authority is so obvious that it will be clear to others from the outset that insubordination will not be tolerated. And thus, the act of appearing dominant is chemically self-reinforcing.

Fortunately there is another side to the brain chemical rewards associated with police work, namely, the ability to derive pleasure from empathy and altruism. The opportunities to experience both are ever-present in law enforcement. In point of fact, these rewards reinforce the stated goal of most law enforcement agencies, which is to protect and serve. This is the reason that some people are drawn to become peace officers and why they can’t imagine ever doing anything else.

Self-assurance and self-confidence is a best-case example of the use of authority in the performance of a policeman’s duties, but for some officers, their positional power begins to manifest as hair-trigger resentment when their orders are not followed immediately or when the actions of others are experienced as acts of disrespect. Especially when an officer’s unconscious bias machine has already imperceptibly identified the person encountered as someone assumed to be of a lower class, someone unworthy of respect, or someone whose insults would seem socially intolerable, an explosive injection of hormones is stimulated simply to regain one’s sense of official superiority.

Before I go any further, let me clarify that it is not my intent here to disparage, discredit, or defame police officers, nor am I defending or excusing abusive behavior on their part because of their biological predisposition. What I hope to show instead is that in many of the situations where police officers find themselves, their instincts are egregiously at odds with what they are expected to do. Without extensive training, disciplined self-awareness, and relentless oversight, they will likely become overly aggressive simply because they are acting in sync with their primate biology.

At the same time, because of the sensitive nature of their duties, we have to hold officers of the law accountable, even when—or especially when—they cross the line from being of service to citizens to abusing citizens, subverting the very reason for their existence. In my view, police officers who manage to control themselves in dire situations and perform their duties as expected are exemplary human beings and should be appreciated as such.

Police work is sometimes described as hours and hours of boredom interrupted by moments of stark terror. Having experienced this feeling many times, I would describe it differently: it’s an endorphin rush that one not only gets used to but very likely learns to crave, seeking the feeling at every opportunity. Four decades have passed since I served as a police officer, and yet I still miss the excitement that occurs at a slot-machine frequency.

In large metropolitan areas emergency calls can be considered a routine part of police work. It seems fair to ask that law enforcement officers and their management be on alert for the possibility that the desire for a rush of adrenaline on the part of people conditioned to seek excitement can bring about an unconscious effort among officers to up the ante of events for the benefit of what amounts to an addictive experience.

In every occupation, we find people who do not belong and whose behavior damages the reputation of their organization. Unfortunately, although the qualification requirements for peace officers are very high, we are not yet experts at weeding out people who don’t have the temperament for police work. 

All hierarchal organizations have a tendency to close ranks with self-protective measures when threated. Law enforcement organizations, by nature of their dangerous and difficult role in society, are bound emotionally in loyalty to one another, and it would be unnatural, even disappointing, if they weren’t.

The dark side of loyalty in law enforcement, however, is where the most dangerous and malfunctioning inclinations of our animalistic behavior come into play. It begins when officers become accustomed to using excessive force with management’s approval or indifference. In Rise of the Warrior Cop, Radley Balko writes, “Cops who rat out other cops tend not to remain cops for very long. Lying and exaggerating in police reports and on the witness stand isn’t just common, it’s routine and expected. It’s a part of the job.” Under these conditions, the cure can be worse than the disease. 
   
This is when technology can come into play. We know without question that people behave differently when they’re aware someone is watching. Even a happy face on the wall in a break room is likely to increase donations in a voluntary coffee fund.

In some ways, the growing paranoia in America about living in a surveillance society can be justified. But when it comes to law enforcement, justice can’t be blind and still be just if we human beings have a biological predisposition that threatens our impartiality when we are under stress. To achieve objectivity in law enforcement, oversight is a necessity. We have the technology to protect both police officers and citizens, and the expense of doing so pales in comparison to the social anguish that can be avoided.

In every case where police officers have begun to wear cameras, complaints of abuse have dropped dramatically. This happens because officers are not as apt to lose control of their emotions when their actions are being recorded. Likewise, the people they encounter or place under arrest are less inclined to resist, act out, or become belligerent when they are aware that proof of their actions will be documented.

I know from my own experience that there are times when police officers have to act angry even when they’re not, simply to quell a disturbance. Repeated frequently enough, however, this kind of experience can easily lead to increased adrenaline and testosterone conditioning for instantaneous aggression, just as working out with weights increases muscle strength.       

Think of it this way. When actors and actresses perform under the vigilant eye of a movie camera, they learn to bring forth on cue and express the full range of human emotions while being in complete control every step of the way. Surely, with extensive training, we can expect peace officers to play their parts in society and act as we need them to act without losing complete control of their emotions.     

Cameras are not a panacea. Their use requires strict standards and allowances for civil rights and privacy issues. Moreover, tolerance for glitches and blackouts occurring during critical incidents is both unacceptable and intolerable. An electronic eye on one’s shoulder is a constant reminder that justice is the expected objective in every public encounter. Having been a police officer myself, I would have no qualms, whatsoever, about wearing a camera. I would consider it proof of my intentions, and I would feel it was for my protection as well as a public benefit.

Regardless of race, creed, or color, every citizen in this country is due the respect afforded every other citizen. Police organizations have a duty and a moral obligation to protect and serve, and the best way for management to meet that obligation is to serve the public interest as intended with recognition of our basic human tendencies and acceptance of visual and audio scrutiny of actions by police as a way to better protect both the officers and the public.


While this is not rocket science, we should pretend that it’s equally important. Until we do so, we aren’t likely to achieve a truly just society.    

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Education: An Existential Crisis

© Charles D. Hayes

I’ve always thought that America’s Founding Fathers made a mistake by focusing on the pursuit of happiness. If, instead, they had prized the pursuit of wisdom, we would likely have many more reasons to be happy.

Just about everything we create comes with an owner’s manual. Everything, that is, except us humans. For nearly four decades, I have been in pursuit of self-education with a goal of learning, to the best of my ability, the value of having been afforded the life of a human being. The older I get, the more I think I understand what is wrong with our educational system.

The core of the problem lies in our belief that it’s okay to leave the study of human behavior to professionals. The specialization of knowledge has resulted in what cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker called “a general imbecility.”

Deep down in the primeval recesses of our brains is a condition analogous to a software program containing malware. This innate disorder exists because we human beings are unique in the animal world. We alone become aware early on in our lives that we are going to die, and this sets us up for a subconscious emotional roller coaster ride. The reality of our mortality stalks us throughout our lives, making shadowy appearances in all manner of disguises like change, uncertainty, and especially otherness—metaphorical cousins of death that are subtle reminders of our inevitable nonexistence.

The essence of what I characterize as an existential education is achieving a level of knowledge equilibrium that offers us maximum coping capability with the emotional angst that comes with the human condition, an intellectual ability for anxiety dissipation that enables us to live without the need for distractions from our mortality by scapegoating those whose very existence reminds us that we are going to die.

One has only to examine the condition of planetary human relations to understand that the core educational components missing in our species worldwide are Human Behavior 101, a course of humanities representing the acquired wisdom of our global culture, and enough knowledge of anthropology to put one’s tribe in meaningful perspective with the rest of the planet’s occupants.

Addressing this civilizational short circuit was supposed to be the goal of a liberal education, but its advocates never seemed able to get enough people to agree on the value of liberal arts or how incredibly important it is to be able to cope with uncertainty and not feel threated by the existence of people whose beliefs and customs appear strange or foreign.

To accept the premise that the known fundamentals about our species form a body of specialized knowledge suitable only for experts undermines the long-term sustainability of civilization. We have achieved the technological capability of wizards, while the nature of our social and political relations ranges from narcissistic adolescence to Stone Age tribalism. 
       
The history of human conflict is steeped in ignorant assumptions and misunderstandings based on superficial observations, uninformed gossip, and conspiratorial paranoia about other people, whose differences are perceived as threatening because they serve as reminders of our mortality.

Pointing out differences and making fun of unfamiliar customs is a bonding ritual in which in-groups alienate out-groups. The process of bonding through the alienation of others offers a false curtain of security in which genuine knowledge of the other becomes verboten in order to keep the curtain closed and to maintain one’s sense of patriotism.

Our educational deficit is readily observable by focusing on those whose lives are sheltered by a narrow sense of identity, a regional, local, or tribal view simplified by relating to all of those outside their group in terms of us and them. All that should be required of a thinking person who views a tribe or clannish group with a restricted worldview is to ask if one’s own outlook is thus similarly constructed and constrained.

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of rider and elephant to describe our reasoning ability, with reason being the former and our emotional subconscious the latter. I am not suggesting that an existential education will enable our rider to boss its elephant around. But if we are to have any chance of taming the elephant, we have to be able to dispel the fears born of ignorance that naturally occurs at the borders and dividing lines where the differences of our respective national and tribal associations are celebrated, exaggerated, and reviled. A better understanding of human behavior doesn’t trump our fears about mortality, but it can help dissipate the angst associated with otherness which so often serves as a preferable distraction to reality. 

The essence of an existential education is a learned predisposition for getting beyond ignorant assumptions and for refusing to go along with the vitriol of tribalistic small-mindedness. When we are young, we are totally dependent upon family and local culture in developing our sense of reality. As we grow older and mature, our exposure to other cultures is bound to grow as well, unless our respective cultures restrict our access or discourages our pursuit of knowledge outside our borders, real or imaginary.

There is a fork in the road on the path to adulthood: One path leads to one’s local culture and the shelter of identifying oneself as a member of the association that offers a form of protection that will trump all threats. In other words, the truths or arguments of enemies do not really count in closed associations because one’s culture is assumed to be ideologically correct by nature of its identity. Moreover, clinging to group identification reduces the need for critical analysis and self-reflection about the problems one’s society faces. All one has to do is choose sides, go about one’s business, and substitute loyalty for thinking.    

The other path is respective of group identity but it’s also a posture of being open to experience, the pursuit of knowledge, affection for ideas and for achieving a critical mass of education in which learning becomes its own reward with the knowledge that the world is not made worse by getter closer to truths previously perceived as being inconvenient. To the contrary, life gets better as we get closer to an objective reality because our existential fears are diminished and we can make room for those who view the world differently without feeling threatened.


If we do not pursue a vigorous existential education for the pleasure of learning that follows and for an increased ability to deal with one’s own inevitable creature anxiety, we wind up as a species identifiable by the alarming fact that if the neural patterns in our heads don’t match, we will turn on one another. So far, this kind of learning has not been our priority. To see how well the alternative has worked for us, observe the news of the day.

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