Surviving Steven Pinker – Abuse with an Excuse and the Blank Slate

Surviving Steven Pinker – Abuse with an Excuse and the Blank Slate

I’ve said many times that some folks could do with a better version of atheism, that the species of atheism I so often encounter online is weak and it’s the one the Church is happy to contend with. Having said that, even so, even though I thought I was already there waiting for folks to catch up, I must confess: the Blank Slate, Steven Pinker’s thorough dissection of residual spirituality in intellectual and scientific thinking, has busted me, uncovered some leftover magical thinking in me too. Specifically, I’m having to face that I was still subscribing to some version of the Ghost in the Machine (the idea that while our bodies have been shown to be physical things, subject to biology and evolution, we still imagine a soul, a spirit, or a “mind” as a magical, non-physical thing). I still wasn’t quite seeing thought and feeling, our complex inner life as resulting from the processes of the machine. I think I was denying the ghost, but I hadn’t yet re-assigned its functions to the machine – and maybe that’s the main failing Steven was addressing, maybe a lot of us go that far and no farther along that line of reasoning.

Maybe we all want to cling to that idea, spirituality. After all, life as a machine, or as a component in the Big Machine, doesn’t seem to us to fulfill all the needs our complex inner life has. It’s understandable, especially because the idea of the ghost may actually be an evolved thought, the built-in way we understand the difference between living and non-living things, between dead and only sleeping people. At some point in our evolution, that idea was probably a revolution, a new level of understanding. But all that was in a different world, the world where our development took place is not the world most of us inhabit today.

This is a strange sort of plagiarism, I’m mostly just sharing Pinker’s book with you here, getting the idea out there. I must say, though, while Pinker made a solid case, my efforts at supporting his case in the preceding paragraph are my own. He didn’t say anything about the effect of or the cause of our first inklings of the idea of the invisible spirit that we naturally think is behind the appearances of life. He simply made a case that we do tend to think in those terms, and for natural reasons. He’s making a case for genes and evolution in this book, and for the cultural effects of false, primitive ideas – but not so much the effects of them in the deep past, more just through the latest century or two.

I don’t purport to have explained The Blank Slate here, proved it or anything; for that, I strongly recommend the book. It’s probably the best non-fiction thing I ever read, I actually stayed thrilled all the way through. Learning can be fun and Nature/Nurture questions are very close to my heart – so buy your own. My copy will be kept for reference.

Moving on.

I once wrote a post or two, “Hearing What You Don’t Want to Hear,” in which I bragged that at this advanced age, almost 55, I was still willing to risk hearing opposing points of view, that I was still trying to escape the trap of Confirmation Bias.

(not crucial to this post, the point’s been made . . . )

At that time it was about a Skeptic article regarding the objective reality of the existence (or not) of Jesus, which honestly, is only a tangential pursuit of mine.

The Blank Slate appeared to threaten my main cause – a damning critique of the use of punishment in child-rearing and elsewhere – I was pretty terrified to read it. Before I even began it, I already knew how my intellect, education, and access to intellectuals stacked up against Pinker’s. If Steven invalidated me, then invalid, incorrect and irrelevant I would indeed be, in my own estimation as well as in everyone else’s. Nevertheless, fearlessly, or rather with a strong faith in my ability to rationalize anything, I read it anyway. Let the chips fall where they may; if my cause didn’t survive, then it didn’t deserve to.

Still, tough to say after being on this train of thought for some thirty years. Worryable, to use a word coined by Jagger regarding Richards’ arrest and trial in Canada. Scary.

But I read it, and while my fears weren’t calmed through most of it, the joy of learning, and learning from as bright a light as Pinker, and about my favourite subject, made it a pleasure. As it turned out, “Children” was the second last chapter, so, non-fiction it may be, but he kept me in suspense almost until the very end. With that end, I shouldn’t probably have worried. First, he let me and anyone else who worries about abuse off the hook by exempting abuse from the discussion. As regards child-rearing, the disciplines of the study of Human Nature concern themselves with personalities, with traits – not with damage.

Spoiler Alert!

It was scary, though. He spent a lot of time refuting that a child’s personality is in any way under its parents’ control. Again, it was in terms of personality, and relative intelligence, but he basically pointed out that, other than providing a safe environment or not, parents have zero influence on their kids after conception. This, from some good theoretical science and a whole lot of adoption/sibling/twin studies and analyses:

First of all, intelligence and testable traits are somewhere between 40% and 50% heritable, genetic;

Individual, random stimulus (individual, personal experience, perhaps the meme that it’s not our problems but our reaction to them that make people what they are, really, still unknown factors) accounts for 50% of traits;

Common environment –shared households and parents – show almost no effect whatsoever! Pinker suggests that he’s being generous when he allows it to claim a large part of the remaining 10% of the pie.

A big part of the explanation of the parental inability to influence children is that kids learn their values and strategies from their peers, other kids. It’s certainly fair to say that the phenomenon Pinker is debunking is epitomized by the idea of increasing your kids’ intelligence by playing Mozart to her in vitro. It must be, because he said it.

I think what he’s said is that there is no way to make your child smarter than his genes, and no way to direct our children’s interest or capacity for what we hope they’ll do.

This seems to be the upshot of combining what I thought before and what The Blank Slate makes clear: the negative power of parenting (the destructive power of abuse) has no positive correlate. There isn’t a way to ‘enhance’ our children, only a myriad of ways to damage them. And the next thought that follows is this: if we have no power to improve the next generation of people, and only the power to hurt, then maybe that kills any sort of ‘greater good’ talk used to justify punishment of children, at all. Perhaps, with no up-side to punishing, no possible improvement, what I’ve always held to be true really is: only the down-side, only the damage matters. Maybe if our only function for our kids is safety and protection, then we need to practice it against ourselves a little more.

Perhaps, just like Steven says in the book, an honest look at the facts, free of magical thinking, will actually provide real life reasons why our morality is important, and why our moral sphere tends to expand, to be more inclusive. If our myths leave our kids out of the circle, maybe science and honesty will bring them back in.

For that bit of hope, Dr. Pinker, I thank you. Seriously.

In my personal life I recently witnessed an ongoing unfolding tragedy that would seem to bear out the idea, that positive influences have only a tiny fraction of the power of negative ones – possibly due to the simple fact that positive influences can’t be beaten into us, that backing positive influences up with force turns them into negative ones. We all enjoy hearing stories where a positive influence saves a kid, of course, but those stories are that good because of their relative rarity. If that was what we all saw most days, those stories wouldn’t be quite so satisfying.

That is a sad, sad state of affairs, isn’t it?

Again, my function, what passes for my talent, is only to help see the problems, the problems as they really are, in the hopes that eventually a solution might be found. Apologies, I know this was a real quickie. The conclusions here definitely want to be expanded, looked into a lot more closely.

Of course, I hope to do that. Sometime. Of course, I’m nobody, a tradesman. If anybody smart would like to pick this up, well . . . that’d be great . . .



August 31st., 2015

Oh yeah – Five Stars, for sure!

Somebody mind telling me who beat it out for the Pulitzer?

Getting Carried Away – Punishment Psychosis

Getting Carried Away – Punishment Psychosis

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: these mass shooters are punishing their victims.

It’s NOT a new thing, and it’s not remotely anything different than what we all do, what we all approve of, violence as a response to things we don’t like.

They learned it at home.

We all agree with their basic premise: we should hurt people who do stuff we don’t like.

Because that’s supposed to straighten them out, as if our punishing stimulus is the only stimulus, as if nothing else in the world has any bearing on what people do, as if we’re all living in one of Skinner’s boxes. Manson, Brevik, probably all of these idiots, they have such an unconscious, un-formed idea of what they’re doing – those two apparently thought the spark of their violence would ignite the whole world in race violence – that it betrays a kind of blindness, a sort of blind faith in the power of violent punishment, that all they thought they had to do was begin and some sort of chain reaction was going to start the race war that cures the world of whatever they don’t like. This seems to be the fantasy of the mass shooters, one violent act of punishment and the world is changed. This is perhaps what may be referred to as Punishment Psychosis, when this fantasy takes over your life.

I repeat: we agree with this idea. Punishing what we don’t like is supposed to change the world for the better.

Yes it is, and we agree! Well – YOU do. I’ve seen through it, I’m working that poisoned insane logic out of my system, but trust me, I spend a lot of time online and in person fighting what I have determined to be a terrible scourge, the practices of punishing. Almost no-one doesn’t think we shouldn’t hurt people to make them do what we want; in positive wording, almost EVERYONE thinks hurting people to make them do what you want is the way to live.

It’s not. It’s really, really not, and we’d all agree if the only example is these mass shooters, but we’re corrupted. We get our own payoffs, we get things to go our own way in this system, so we can’t or won’t admit the connection when we see the obvious logical extreme versions of it in the news. Repeat: obvious. Really, really obvious that murder is nearly always a punishment, yet somehow that fact is irrelevant, and I find myself baffled, echoing the Aboriginal view of the environment.

How are basic truths somehow irrelevant?

How is it that the basic, obvious motive for the mass shooters – punishment – somehow not a part of our attempt to solve the issue? It’s because punishment is ubiquitous, invisible. It’s something we do, actively, it’s not something that happens by itself, yet we can’t factor it in to anything, we can’t imagine it as an option, we can’t imagine taking it out of our equations as a factor.

OK, look. I know you see this as quixotic and stupid, I know the point I’m making looks like this: people get poisoned, and poison one another, and that’s all because we all eat. If we didn’t eat, we couldn’t be poisoned, what’s the point? You gotta eat. If that seems a good objection to you, I respectfully submit that you’ve given the game away, suggest that you have maybe just proved my point, if you can equate punishing with eating: you think punishment is like food, we can’t live without it.

That’s just not true, despite that we all think it.

My wife and I raised our kids without using punishment once, and my girls did not grow up wild and amoral. They are moral and brilliant, and if they do anything wrong, it’s never anything punitive or violent. Because that’s just crazy when it’s supposed to be for a good reason, let alone when it goes pear-shaped.

My model, my hypothesis predicts this: that this phenomenon, angry mass shooters, is not going to change and it’s not going to end, because the prime driver, punishment, has something like Diplomatic Immunity. It isn’t going to improve because of ideas about gun control, because in the Punishment Culture, or the Punishment Cult, the tools of violence are held on the ‘solutions’ side of the ledger. If we could change that, then real change could be possible. But until we do change that, this thing isn’t going away.

Because the basic thing happening there? You LIKE it.

Life is Hard

Life is Hard

I’ll prove it to you. I mean, logically, rhetorically; I don’t aspire to be the agent of any more pain or difficulty for you. If I have been in the past, maybe move on, this one won’t be better for that, probably.

It’s just this, that some of the things that are our options in life are very hard things indeed. Still, options they are and they do get their share of hits, which is the proof I’m offering. If some of these things are possibly as good or better than our circumstances when the choice is required, then our situation is hard all around, and it means that quality of life before these hard choices – life at home for kids and teens, life without prospects for adults, etc. –  wasn’t so different.

On a personal level, I was shocked when I saw some kids in my extended family running away from home and prostituting, and it was a part of the puzzle of my cause when I realized that homelessness and sexual slavery seemed to be a viable option to these kids over staying at home fighting with their parents and staying in school. Sure, teenagers are too stupid to be afraid, but the numbers are there. That isn’t our countries’ smallest industry by any means. List all the reasons you like, street life and prostitution is a real option in the minds of millions of North American teens. If they’re all just that stupid, then sure, teenagers are dumb –

–        But of course it’s not all of them, is it? Of course it happens to smart kids and wealthy kids too. I’m not saying all these teens are making an informed choice. I’m just saying that the hand of the free market has judged that in some percentage of teens, an attitude of ‘anything is better than this’ prevails. Teens are voting with their feet. They may be stupid and wrong, but we raised these idiots.

Oops. Preaching aside, the point is, when that is an option, life must be hard.

Other examples come to mind:

  • Battle, war, nuclear war. It’s a hard life that makes war such a regular option and where nuclear war can be seriously considered and planned for. Plus, like Churchill said, I’ll paraphrase, ‘of course there are worse things than war. Dishonour is worse than war. Slavery is worse than war.’ It’s a real option, which means peace is not, apparently, because if it were it would be no contest. Life is tough when peace is not even an option. On an individual level, soldiering is a hard, dangerous choice, and for many, it’s their last option among others that include homelessness, crime and or incarceration. For some, I imagine it’s the same as the teen choice above, it’s a way out of the nuclear home.
  • Suicide. Again, say what you want about their reasons and choices, the numbers are there. It becomes an option for far too many when their lives become intolerable, and it has a nasty way of working to become their only option. Of course, this was an easy one, every suicide has the aspect of an indictment. But still, when that is among your best options, and again, far too many . . .
  • Cheating. Lying. Stealing. Along with divorce, along with death by addictions, situations no-one wants from their youth. When you can live with a bad reputation, when being mistrusted is as good as it gets, that signifies a depressing choice at some point, the lesser of two particularly smelly evils.

I guess I’ve said it. Really, for me, of course it’s about the runaway teens, about kids, and you probably know I see it as a fractal thing, that if big life, the life of nations sucks so hard that mutually assured destruction is an actual option, then that possibility derives from individual lives sucking so hard that military service is an option. When kids run away, to the streets or the army, they’re voting with their feet, against their parents and caregivers and maybe their judgment comes from their pre-verbal times, as it seems to in teens, but still.

So I’m just trying to give that a voice, just saying, this is what ‘Life is Hard’ means to me. I don’t think it’s a rule, that life is hard, but it certainly is the present state of affairs.


August 21, 2015

    It All Starts when We Punish our Kids, #8

                It all starts when we punish our kids.

What “all starts?” Well . . .

  1. Domestic Violence.

I know, I`ve already talked about violence generally (part 2), as well as misogyny (part 3) and rape (part 5) all in this series and I`ve written this argument before too, but I thought it deserved its own entry.

Here`s the rest of the series:

And here`s the other one:

Oh, and there`s this, possibly amusing and enlightening for those who haven`t seen it yet:

Wow, seems this is all I ever say!

OK then, so, one more f/$%?*g time: when you start to see a few things, when you start to see that there is no qualitative difference between abuse and punishment, and that there really is no form of punishment that isn`t physical, then the connections stand out like a white guy in a rice paddy.

Personally, it doesn’t surprise me. From my point of view, the idea that some folks get used to the situation we mostly all shared in our childhoods, that our creators and landlords (“I brought you into this world, I can take you out” and “As long as you’re living under my roof you’ll obey my rules”) make the decisions and keep control through force and intimidation and so they just transition smoothly into adult abusive relationships. It’s only a surprise when we’re going about in denial about it. I tell you now, the surprise is a clue, an opportunity.

When two apparent facts are in conflict, one of them must be wrong, or there is a higher truth behind them. Certainly not in every individual case, of course, but in general, adult abusive relationships give the lie to stories we tell of peoples’ idyllic, or even “normal” childhoods. I think in a way, we all intuit this connection, and so parents and caregivers of abused women have a range of reactions to their child’s adult abuse, from blatant support for the abuser against a child they always thought was difficult, through blindness to it, to demonization of the abuser in an attempt to distance themselves and preserve the family myth of discipline without abuse. Sometimes the parents figure it out and guilt ensues. Perhaps some of these parents would have changed their ways having seen where their kids ended up.

Now I’m not unsympathetic, at least not from my vantage here at the computer. Honestly, I get unsympathetic (frightened and reactive) in the presence of violent people, but in theory, parents deserve some sympathy, some understanding. The shock and horror of seeing the child we raised apparently addicted to abuse, that is terrible, and in theory, if not in real life, I imagine I can empathize with the experience even if I think that generally, parents set it up in the first place. That’s not easy, because parents and caregivers are very active, very much the agents of this thing. You can’t stop them from their discipline, they are committed to it and won’t be turned away. Empathy for the way things turn out afterwards would seem to require either approval of their methods or some sort of acknowledgment that they too are victims, driven by unconscious forces, that their agency and authority were illusions.

It’s hard, finding sympathy and forgiveness for those whose mistake was to be powerful and authoritative. Seriously, if that was forgivable, who is left that we can just relax and hate? That rationale puts Hitler, Stalin, and dictators generally in the ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ column. It’s where every sinner belongs if we’re saints, but actually getting there, well . . . let’s just say there is intellectual forgiveness. We know, that in theory, in a perfect world, or from our image of our perfect selves, power ultimately needs to be forgiven and understood, eventually.

So, with that caveat, that there is sympathy for every possible mistake and that we are all only human, raised in the system, here are the ways in which parents and caregivers lay the groundwork for abusive adult relationships:

  • Modelling authority. If our childhood home has a hierarchy, if the adults are in charge and make the decisions, then that power structure becomes part of our worldview. Every person raised this way will expect to be a boss or an underling. Most children are trained to take orders.
  • Modelling intimidation, violence and personal disregard through the use and teaching of punishment. We call it “discipline,” but it means all of that.
  • Modelling gender roles, as relates to hierarchy and power sharing. Many families still have certain expectations of children based on their gender, such as that violence is somewhat more acceptable from boys than girls and that girls are more often expected to be the peacemakers

I’m successfully resisting the temptation here to give this one of my pithy, rhetorical endings, I think this one is better left hanging, like the situation I’m talking about, unresolved and embarrassing . . .

Thanks for reading, Folks. Please re-tweet and repost, trying to save the world here.


August 8, 2015

Authority is the Problem, Part #2

Authority is the Problem, Part #2


       Here’s Part #1:

although it’s not really related . . .

Really this Sandra Bland thing, feels like the final straw, I’m sure these last few weeks’ body count of people who die in police custody will be for many people, the very last possible straw.

Don’t let it be, folks.

I know it’s horrible, and depressing, but if it’s what it looks like? If it’s as bad as it looks? Because what it looks like is that individual policemen all over America are making examples of black people, driving it home for blacks and everyone else watching exactly who kills who in this society. Just when a sane person might imagine some shame, Hell even chagrin, on the part of America’s police, no, same answer as always, the club, the gun, the authority. They just keep doubling down and they never seem to run out of chips. That’s what it looks like: gang style intimidation. It’s like the American jihadists shooting soldiers for “the self-proclaimed Islamic State,” individual nut case cops acting as representatives for policemen generally, all on their own. Maybe we can’t show affiliation, but their interests are all leaning in the same direction.

If it’s that? If it’s that, and it is, then our fear and obedience may be the first goal of these examples, but don’t let it get you down either, because our sadness, depression and apathy serves their goals too. Be happy when you can, and maybe be angry if you feel the apathy creeping in. Certainly don’t let the apparent hopelessness keep you out of the voting booth. Somebody needs to vote against these Law and Order sister-sleepers. These swine are selling that employment-killing criminal records and prison sentences – which only create poverty and crime – are supposed to somehow be something we all want. Of course they sell that, because that really is good business, selling social improvement while destroying families and communities, creating the need and expanding their market with every poisonous thing out of their mouths.

Looking at you, Stephen Harper.

Authority is the original, world-warping scam.

Seriously. It’s sold to us like the American Dream. ‘Sure you’re not enjoying it now, while you’re bottoming for the authority,’ they say. ‘But you’ll get some too. Some day you can top!’ Nobody likes it when they’re being pushed around by authority, but give somebody some authority of their own – let them reproduce, for example, let them become parents – and now, they’re invested, now they’ve bought in, and they’ll tell you: ‘we need authority. Without it, there would be chaos.’

It’s a scam, and we’re all getting a piece of the action or we’d hate it. The thing is, though, just because everybody’s in on it, that doesn’t make it right. It only makes it a universal wrong.