Social Groups and Racism

We are pre-wired to be racist.

That’s why it seems obvious, ‘Look at the differences, there must be differences of . . . quality, too.’ We are hardwired for it, that’s what gives it its truthiness.

I’ll be drawing a distinction soon enough: hardwired, hardcoded – it doesn’t necessarily mean objectively true. It doesn’t mean it’s not true either of course, but the point is, what it does mean is that we think it’s true. That’s what hardwired means, or specifically, that’s what something being an inherited, evolved genetic trait means.

As H. G. Wells said, ‘the past is a deep well.’ To illustrate it, he said that remains had been found to show that Peking Man (Wells was writing a long time ago) was sipping the brains out of the skulls of their enemies around the fire some 350,000 years ago. If I’ve got that wrong, I’ll be short, and I have no idea if the archaeologists have pushed fire back further into our past than that. We have a long existence that is one of nomadic and seasonal hunting and gathering, living in human family-based groups of between sixty and a hundred individuals, and that is the life that selection, ‘Natural’ or otherwise, has created us for. But don’t think about Adam and Eve, the theoretical first humans. That existence went on for millions of years and there have always been many human groups, all sharing the land and competing for its resources.

The normal course of events in that aboriginal and traditional human life, barring drought and famine, is that people breed, and the groups grow in good times, when food and water are plentiful until they reach a point where one or one of the few families in a group is so large that family resemblance begins to disappear, when there are third or fourth cousins in your village, it gets harder to know them all – and there is a split, perhaps a battle or a war, and two groups going forward, in competition, provided both survive. Again, the traditional pattern of human life since time immemorial. Jane Goodall witnessed and described at least one such splitting of the chimp group she monitored.

So the Earth has been occupied with these competing human groups for practically ever, and battles, wars, raids and the abduction of women have not been uncommon, right up to the present day.

These are the social conditions we evolved for, the social conditions we select each other for to this day. It is a normal, evolved trait to be at ease around your family tribe, up to maybe your second cousins, around few enough people that we can know them all, that we can know immediately, friend or foe. Family resemblances help for that. As do language and accent. That’s why we’re always coming up with new words, new jargon, new slang, which must be up to the minute. It differentiates us, our group from the next group, the rival, the enemy, the next village. In the dark, you use the right accent, the hippest slang – you gotta be in my group.

(For the religious: this is what the story of the Tower of Babel is all about, says Joseph Campbell, I think. The point in the Bible I think, is that the Lord cursed us with different languages so we couldn’t coordinate an assault on Him and Heaven. I guess the biologists would say that it’s a curse we put on ourselves, the price for the security it provides from our neighbor groups of humans.)

Other ways of identifying each other, who is friend and who is foe have been famously tried, the Hebrew ‘sign’ of circumcision foremost among them, but mostly it’s accomplished by selection, a group has traits it decides is distinctive and that is what they select for in that group, therefore increasing the incidence of it within their group, again, differentiating one group from another increasingly over time. Now, don’t get me wrong. No shame if you do, we are going to get to racism, and I thought for a minute that’s where this was taking me too, but prehistoric human groups in the frozen north probably didn’t select whiter and whiter partners to differentiate themselves from Africans they may have never been in contact with. Perhaps simple selection by race is a modern problem, a racial smorgasbord of potential mates is possibly an historic phenomenon, but was rarely a prehistoric one. Meaning, it is not in such a simple way that we are hardwired for racism.

Firstly, that is conscious selection, nothing necessarily hardwired about it, and second, races weren’t neighbors in the aboriginal world. With no air travel, it was a smooth transition as you walked the thousands of miles, from race to race. Plus – wife stealing, the necessary genetic shaking up, has made certain that was the case.

This is our evolved selected-for idea of a social group, of our social group: sixty to a hundred people who all share a family resemblance, an accent, an up to the minute vocabulary, and probably diet and body odours as well. Oh – and everyone in our group we see, all the time. Out of sight is out of mind – that’s natural. It’s all natural, it’s why it feels true, plus it’s evolved survival traits we’re talking about, so that’s why it feels not only true, but of life and death importance. This is something:

You pretty much have to go to university to learn this, but this is really true: social groups are what it’s all about for us. For humans, the environmental elements that have been most likely to kill us throughout that deep well of the past, throughout all of our evolution and development, are us. It’s humans that are the most difficult for us to survive, we’re our smartest enemies in the world and we have driven each other and so ourselves to dedicating ever increasing levels of resources to our brains, producing a prodigious machine. Thing is, human intelligence, homo sapiens sapiens’ massive brains evolved to sort out this life, social groups, friend or foe, and it’s what it does best. Again, though: we are a supercomputer designed to track and assess one hundred humans as relatives and all others as enemies.

It’s no wonder we’re having troubles living with one another in the millions and billions, right?

This is something we do not from our traditional, exclusionist and warlike natures. This is something we are attempting consciously, from a vision we have that comes from a different part of our brains.

“Nature,” as Katherine Hepburn’s character said so well in “The African Queen,” “is what we are here to rise above.”

 

Well that wasn’t nearly divisive enough, so here:

That is the position of the Nurturists, the true liberals, and the modern mind.

 

 

Jeff

July 18, 2016

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The New Naturists

The Old Naturists

 

I’m not as sure of this as I’d like to be, but the ‘Nurture’ side of the argument is the newer idea, right? It’s modernity, some analogue of science. It’s an increase in complexity in our understanding, the suggestion that not only are things what they are, but they are also what we make them. At least that’s how it looks from today, with the framework of progress superimposed on it. If we really thought in the past that we were simply as God made us, then that might be difficult to reconcile with any sort of strivings for change and success anyone ever had at it, so clearly even Christendom leaves us some ability to direct ourselves – even Jesus gives us the choice to believe or not, to choose the light or the darkness. The framing of that choice shows us that Nature ruled the world in Christendom, though: our choice was to deny our sinful natures or not. It would seem to have been the enlightenment, Rousseau and his ilk who were the early Nurturists, who suggested that our evil was not inherent, that we create it with our interactions.

During that time, while these ideas were being tossed about, the Nature side of the argument in Europe and European societies elsewhere was held most strongly by the church: if we don’t have specific natures, then we don’t all need the church’s cure for it. These were the Old Naturists, and their stance was Man is Evil by Nature, and if he were to direct himself without God’s laws, all that Man produced would be evil. If Man turned away from God, the Devil was already inside him and ruled him. There are still plenty of these sorts of Naturists around, but they may not be the only variety of them anymore.

 

 

The Old Chestnut

 

 

Ideas of Nurture appear to have derived from the evolved human psychological faculty, our ability to “read” one another, to glean other peoples’ intentions and motivations. This explains why psychology seems obvious to so many of us, because of course we’re able to understand some of what’s going on in one another’s minds, we need to. The workings we perceive in those minds and in our own are clearly changeable; if minds cannot be changed, why develop complex language? The ability to add to one another’s information (or misinformation) and alter their calculations would seem to be the definition of the Nurture idea. And it really happens, people tell each other things, people learn, people change their minds with enough time and evidence. Not every time, sure, but we do. ‘Nurture’ as such, is a real thing in the world.

Of course, ‘Nature’ is too, and like so many things, the old debate is always increasingly polarized. There have been famous grandiose pronouncements from the Nurture side of the house, declarations like the big three from Pinker’s book, the Blank Slate (also the title), the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine and others, Watson’s claim to make whatever professional he wished to out of any child, all of which are regularly trotted out today to show the error of the Nurturists’ ways – but the Nurture principle is not really destroyed just because it doesn’t destroy all others. Just because there is more to life than the Nurture idea doesn’t mean there is no Nurture, the same as everything else in the world.

The Nurturists are still in the debate, despite their sometimes jingoistic denial of any human Nature at all, due to the innate belief in our natural psychology most people share, and in that sense they always will be – but this rift has biology and psychology on divergent paths. That situation is all too common in matters of human affairs, but intolerable to science and to true understanding.

 

 

Today’s Naturists

 

The above mentioned atheist fallacies that the enlightenment produced to replace the old world order of church and king – the blank slate, etc. – were loud, flashy, provocative ideas, and to some folks they were worth checking out. There have been famous failures, famous human rights violations. What they are today, though, I think, are strawman arguments. It seems today that all that is required to win the ancient debate is to show that any trait varies more with the presence or absence of a genetic connection more than it varies with some environmental factor, or rather, I suppose, with all the environmental factors we can reasonably vary within the law. Any measurable facet of Nature would seem to disprove any Nurture, which, perhaps I should just give it up: sure. Nurture has not yet been measured.

Rumours that it has actually been measured but in fact lacks dimension have been exaggerated – like all other negative propositions, like the existence of God. Of late, the Real Sciences have been giving the Nurture-based attempts at science like psychology the gears for their famous failures, for their lack of evidence. Of course, finding objective evidence for subjective processes is probably an impossible task in the first place, a setup for failure.

I recently saw a film that convinced me I’d been naïve regarding the existence of antisemitism as a real, distinct thing, its own species of racism. I mean, I knew it, but I must not have, because the experience of the film – The Woman in Gold – really drove the point home and I have a changed understanding of that phenomenon now. That is Nurture in action, isn’t it? Is it not an actual Nurturing event because there is no evidence other than my say-so? Nurture operates subjectively. There may indeed be no way to objectively quantify it – it hasn’t changed my understanding to the point where I might provide evidence, such as some sort of financial support for Israel, or write something pro-Israel, nothing concrete – but twenty such steps, if life somehow arranges them for us, and we have reversed ourselves completely. Some number of steps along that road and my voting habits can change.

Nurture is a stealth operation. No evidence for each of many steps in the execution – but people do change their minds, we do learn. Perhaps that is the question that should be asked in this discussion. Is our inner life not a real thing, does our inner life not have its effects in the real world? What may be the New Naturists’ Bible, The Blank Slate, is all about that it does, that those three toxic atheist ideas have had huge effects on the world, not all desirable. So how has the geneticists’ objective evidence somehow shifted the point from the importance of the subjective world to ‘give us some proof or step aside?’

Does the Nature VS Nurture argument mean it’s like “Highlander” for scientific disciplines? There can be only one?

I think the Nurturists bought into it, is what it is, at least to some degree. Some of them must have gotten overly excited about the twin and adoption studies, they maybe thought they had a chance, thought they were going to be able to compete on that playing field, numbers and graphs. Of course, we all want objective success for psychology, for a potential cure for our hurt. But Nurture stepped into Nature’s home ground with some piss-poor assumptions with which to build their evidences, and they got their asses kicked. The geneticists had real numbers; it was hardly even a battle. Now the narrative (written by the anti-narrative explanation of life people) is that social science has lost the war. Of course psychology, the subject of which shares its subjective nature with religion, can also never be killed objectively – but I too search for the Holy Grail, the connection to objective science from psychology.

Everyone knows of times when they themselves had an inner life experience that changed at least their inner life going forward and many will say they’ve had ones that changed their lives objectively as well, and so psychology can’t ever die. This apparent divergence however, the perception that a good and thorough search for objective support for evidence of parental or environmental influence has been done and the hypotheses of social science have been debunked and the implication that psychologists are pushing ahead regardless of having been disproved – this is a clue about the New Naturists over and above their limited, disciplinary point of view. First of all, the scientists railing against the blank slate tainted psychology paradigm are failing at science: they’ve accepted the classic psychology studies’ data as valid data, bugs, bad assumptions (blank slate included!) and all. Apparently the geneticists don’t know what was wrong with those classic studies today anymore than the psychologists who did them at the time, because they’re comparing data, as though they’ve signed off on the conception, assumptions, and parameters of the old studies.

That is my clue: no improvement in the science, and no desire to improve social science. These folks are saying “psychology has done as good as it ever can and they haven’t proved anything. Let it go.” That is sort of an incurious attitude, coming as it ostensibly does from scientists, who are normally rather sensitive to the closing of avenues of study.

If we consider that psychological disciplines began from a positive place, from a repair point of view, that it began as the study and search for the cure for some our more extreme subjective hurts, we know it’s something we hope would work out. Adding to that the obvious subjective importance of our narratives, the data and the causal relationships by which we understand our lives that is the Nurture principle‘s subjective apparent proof of existence and we may have to wonder. Who wants to win the argument against Nurture? And why?

 

The New and the Old

 

Of course Pinker laid it out: the toxic, pure reason sort of ideas that seemed to arrive with atheist science, the blank slate, etc. He tells of how it’s destroyed social science and delayed better science, and he tells of some horrific communist experiments, breaking families up, that resulted. That’s all well and good, and politically those ideas created nightmares, and they certainly stained social science and all of that, just as he says. Who am I to argue with him? But that isn’t enough to explain anti-nurture sentiments. Just as there is more to any religion than it’s most radical, fundamental sect, Nurture generally is not the enemy of Man because blank slate extremists would take things too far. Further to this idea, that blank slate paradigms do not represent the Nurture principle, I must add that blank slate paradigms took over some politicians’ minds, some governments, and some universities – but not the world generally. Blank slate ideas may be the unreasoning ancient, incumbent evil to be fought at the universities – but there are sure to be a whole lot of Naturists lining up behind the geneticists that never went to school and never gave the blank slate a second thought.

In fact, it may be the older kind of Nurturists lining up in front of the geneticists too, there may be funding from the larger world’s incumbent rulers, the churches and their associations. A lot of money still flows where the churches think it should, and in issues like this, the original polarized debate almost, there are only two sides. Nurture is psychology and atheism. Religion, with all of its inertia and ties to the ancient world of God-kings and emphasis on bloodlines and inheritance, is naturally aligned with the geneticists, on the Nature side of the argument.

Be careful where you place your resources for “science.”

Ancient forces have them pitted against each other, and the “winner” here is not the new kid, as he may want you to think. He may not be working for himself. Nurture is real, so psychology needs a hand up – not to be finished off or shut out of the conversation.

 

Jeff

April 5, 2016

 

Punishment as Bullying

The world runs on authority, on force. The army, the police, schools, corporate hierarchies, parenting, parenting, parenting. Family structure. Punishment and discipline is a system by where we control unwanted behaviour by force, and punishment, which, punishment is defined as dishing out unpleasantness to the misbehavers in order to motivate them to change their ways.

 

This is pretty much a definition of bullying. The bully punishes the victim. The bully justifies this punishment by listing the victims’ misbehaviours, or the victims’ families’, or race’s, or faith’s misbehaviours.

 

This is punishing behaviour, this is bullies doing what adults do, doing what the police do, I mean the bully’s behavior is very close to that, closer than any of us would like to think. I’m saying the bully feels he is doing what he sees around him, that in the parlance of some schools of psychology, the bully is getting his power back, after some authority figure has taken his power from him.

 

So, parents and schools going to the bully kids and telling them to stop is a joke to these kids. They see it as just more ‘do as I say, not as I do,’ which it is. I, for one, would love to see someone ask the kids if I’m right about that. Don’t take my word for it. Ask the kids. Better yet, we need a mole, someone who can infiltrate the kids’ group and get a real answer. They don’t trust us.

 

Parents don’t think they are bullying. We have a consensus about what is acceptable punishing behavior, and we really cannot seem to draw parallels with what we see as our legitimate punishments and other similar behaviours. If we can’t, if we won’t see how bullying is an extension, an extrapolation of our punishing ways, then there is very little hope that any of our conversation about bullying, any of our attempts to combat it will get any traction, very little hope of our ever solving a problem if we refuse to understand it in the first place. Surely, someone has noticed that speeches that don’t acknowledge this difficult truth have not had any dramatic effect on the bullying phenomenon? I think any approach that doesn’t include this idea would be considered empty and hopeless, at least to any group that lives under threat or reality of punishment – like our kids.

 

Long and short, if we adults don’t stop ‘bullying’ kids everywhere, we will never stop their bullying, that should be obvious. I don’t know why it isn’t.

 

Many nations have outlawed corporal punishment, in Canada, we are in the process of outlawing it, and I can see the next step, that we will someday realize that the damage caused by punishing behaviours generally outweigh any benefit, and when we all stop anything like bullying, so will our kids. Until then, we will fight this bullying thing in vain, fighting fire with fire, and modeling it and propagating it as we do.

 

So now, there will be programs, task forces, plans and research, all government money spent to figure out this embarrassing problem, and if we don’t try to stop people from the use of punishment – corporal and otherwise – on our kids at home and everywhere else, we are wasting all those resources. And that is a sad, cruel joke, one that the adults don’t understand, and only our kids are laughing about. Not in a good way.

 

Jeff

 

Jan. 22, 2016

Mom’s Such a Martyr – Parental Sacrifice and the Six Year Challenge

 

One of my many differences with people in the parenting groups and with the prevailing climate in the gentle parenting movement is around sacrifice, around parents looking after themselves as well as their kids, because it’s important to model self-love and care, and because we figure happy, less stressed-out parents will have more success with their efforts to make the gentle change in their parenting. All this and more, and it’s obvious, impossible to deny in theory . . .

LOL. Of course I’m kidding!

My contrariness is not easily intimidated. I don’t know if you, the postulated reader realize it, but I’m kind of living on the edge here, when I start these sorts of rants, often the subject of my critique is something apparently unassailable like this. This is a high wire act in my mind, unconventional thinking, and it’s not easy. But with every new aspect of my study here, I’m gaining confidence and I don’t think I’m going mad. Fooling myself that I’m winning any points in these arguments doesn’t seem overly difficult or complex, which tells me I’m not so far diverged from the reality of things. Of course, for a curmudgeon, this is where the fun is. So to it, then.

This generation’s allergy to parental notions of sacrifice has some strange roots. The image of the sacrificing Mom is that of the Nineteen-fifties middle America, thing, Dad off at work and Mom at home, a slave to the house, the laundry, the kids, and of course Dad, and Mom lives out her life never doing a thing for herself, a martyr for the family. That, yes, a horrible standard for Mom, working twenty-four seven and the most hardworking of Dads not working those hours at all, home time being largely off-time for Dad. This is a situation at which to rebel, and when I was young, it was Women’s’ Lib, the women’s’ liberation movement, or more generally known then as today, feminism, that broke the spell and let us all know that this sacrifice was neither ‘its own reward’ or the model anyone should set their daughters up for.

All right and proper, not strange, I know, but here it is: was that also not the time and culture that beat the crap out of their kids, out of our parents, us and our friends? (I’m fifty-five as of this writing.) I know, right, parenting blogs and feminist blogs and never the twain shall meet, but, folks, it’s all one world out there. Our martyrs passed on their second-class citizen status and associated abuse to us, right? I know, many acted as protectors, shielding us from our more violent fathers, but really, in that demographic, who raised the kids? All I’m saying is, I get it, that culture of “sacrifice” was bad, that model needs to go, for both feminist and – childist – reasons, no argument for that larger thing: that whole culture needs to change, absolutely.

But (and here come the comments), was the sacrifice really the problem in it?

If it seems to be, I think it’s only because of its close ties to abuse, that Mom’s sacrifice means she allowed herself and therefore us to be abused. Does the feminist movement want to say that Mom was complicit in her own and her children’s’ abuse, that is, is Mom’s shared guilt what they want to shine a light on, or should we not just keep the parenting talk focussed on abuse? Abuse is the real scourge here, focussing on sacrifice is oddly misogynist when we’re talking about abuse or parenting, it’s a form of victim blaming – as though there are impersonal, automatic cycles of abuse with lives of their own, but these martyr women, they’re making a choice in it, like they’re the only ones who are. It just smells off to me. Mom may have done it as an adult, but abuse is still abuse, even if we seem to volunteer for it. It’s the driving force in the dark side of our parents’ and grandparents’ parenting and Stockholm Syndrome in itself is a reaction, not a cause. All I’m saying is, Ladies, mothers, feminists and those who are both especially, yes, no-one should model that, that was some misguided sacrifice indeed.

To give the devil and the dark side it’s due, though, some bullshit in the name of a virtue is not a new thing in the world, and many a callous abuser has beaten his chest and cried about his “sacrifice.”  As Dark Side as I can ever be: is the flip side of ‘happy parents are gentle parents’ an ultimatum: ‘Call me out on my bullshit and I will beat the tar out of this kid?’ Misreads and abuse exist for everything, including sacrifice; it doesn’t mean things can’t ever be the good, proper versions sometimes. Sacrifice was our mothers’ and grandmothers’ immediate personal problem, their battle, and maybe still many ladies’ battle today, and solving it saves women, absolutely. Suggesting that fighting this battle somehow saves children, and that the two groups, women and children (read adults and children) can never be in conflict, that one’s gains can never negatively impact the other, however, isn’t right and it’s not helpful. Your fight for freedom was and is against the men, the adults. It’s still OK to sacrifice a little for your kids.

How sacrifice hurts us as children is only one of the many, many ways abuse hurts us. Let’s keep our eye on the prize.

So. ‘One of my many differences.’

I don’t mind some sacrifice. Yes, I’m a cultural Christian, and while that doesn’t mean I agree with the sacrifice of human beings in the literal sense, nailed to trees, I do think sacrifice is, at least in it’s better forms, a good thing, a moral act. In fact, it’s a big part of my planned cure for abuse and punishment in the world. In it’s most practical, generational terms, what I’m advising is that some punished and also possibly abused generation swallow that pain and find a way not to repeat, in fact to sacrifice what they see as a “normal, happy life,” live with the pain and troubles their childhoods left them with and keep their fucking hands off of their own kids, even if they think “raising their kids right” will make themselves feel better. That is gonna feel like some sacrifice, I won’t lie to you.

I felt it, believe me.

I can’t imagine how many times I’ve told the half-joke that I sometimes wish I had beat my second daughter up at least once, just so that during all the frustrating times with her afterward, I could have just closed my eyes for a second and treasured the memory. Man, it would be nice, once in a man’s life to bark an order and see it swiftly carried out. That is an immediate gratification I have rarely enjoyed, believe me. I have fantasies of personal power, my worldview tells me we all do, and I have happily (usually happily) sacrificed getting the payoff those fantasies promise.

In practical terms in a slightly shorter time frame, I would say the sacrifice of our inheritance of parental power needed to last until my younger daughter was old enough to talk and reason with, old enough to understand things, and as I remember it, she was five or six. She was born a full three and one-third years after our older one, so the difficult years, where we manually did everything we might want to train our kids to control themselves for, were then over before ten years had elapsed from the first one’s birth. I mean, ten years into our life as parents, we never had another cause to consider punishing. This when the teen years were still before us, and they aren’t anymore. We sacrificed, and it paid, sorry if that sounds ironically old fashioned.

We sacrificed a lot, all the other things, besides the sense of parental power I will save for another post, but there was a lot of work, and we had opted out of much of normal life around normal families, we sacrificed the support normal parents get from each other. Not kidding, it was a lot, but again: for six years after the birth of your last child, then it’s payoff time. Not kidding about that either.

 

 

Conclusions

 

That old model of family life, yes, that was bad, let’s do away with that, but let’s also make sure we’re fighting the real devil here, not some victim proxy. Mom’s sacrifice didn’t help, but abuse and force, these are the issues that shape us, negative things like these. Sacrifice is still a moral tool, with a legitimate existence. Do we imagine that in harsh, unforgiving nature, sacrifice on the part of parents is not a survival adaptation for the young and so for the species?

Having said that, part of what was wrong with the model of Mom’s martyrdom is that it never ends, the payout is never made. They thought the payout was our success and our happiness – but again: they whooped our asses while they said that to themselves, so that payout maybe never came either, right? Sacrifice for nothing really isn’t, in hindsight. What I’m offering you here is old-time, tried and true sacrifice, hard work for actual results.

Face that Mom and Dad were and all your friends and colleagues are wrong about the benefits of any sort of punishing, and hold back your punitive urges until your kids are six years old. Make that sacrifice and see what happens. And don’t get me wrong, be nice to yourselves, that part is true, it will be easier if you’re getting breaks. If, however, when it gets hard, and you can’t help but feel you’re somehow repeating Mom’s errors, over-sacrificing, I promise you, six years. Six years of feeling like something of a fool, six years of letting your kids get away with stuff you never would have gotten away with, six years of feeling like your inner child has lost a fucking lottery, and after that the hard part is behind you – a decade or two earlier than it was when our parents parented us, if you recall. For my wife and I, it meant it was that long before it ever got any easier for many of the parents around us, and neither the strictest ones nor the least so were immune, which, BTW, fits the social science study data.

Some sacrifice is a good thing, sometimes.

 

Jeff

Jan. 16, 2016

#SixYearChallenge

Looking Normal, Part #1

We try so hard, you know?

I swear, it must be half of our brainpower dedicated to it. It doesn’t matter what our state of affairs is, we must always do what we can to appear normal, which, I’m guessing, is a survival adaptation, “looking normal” must mean “looking like an ‘in’ member of our social group,” and so we avoid expulsion or persecution so long as we do.

I knew a fellow, he had been my mother’s live in boyfriend for many years, and while they had split up and he had moved out, he keeled over and died ay Mom’s dining room table during a visit. Several minutes passed before the ambulance arrived and they revived him, and there were some weird things when he woke up. First of all he had lost either a decade or more of the most recent of his memories – my mother and her family completely wiped out – or most of his life, it was hard to tell, because we didn’t know enough about his earlier life to tell what he knew or made up. Made up, I say, because he seemed to think he was constantly switching planets and lives. All this was immediately after his heart attack and demise, I can’t say whether he recovered any in the intervening years, but it was his efforts to appear conscious and functional that stuck with me. He didn’t recognize us, but seemed to get that he was supposed to, so he pretended. Anything we asked about was a positive – “Oh, yeah, I know that, I remember that” – and then some story that might have come from L. Ron Hubbard’s discarded first drafts!

The social pressure, the need to look normal . . . that was an extreme case, I know I’m not proving anything about the rest of us with the tale of a flatlined, brain damaged man’s priorities, but it’s there, and it works in some number of different ways. It’s a priority for us all.

(Plus of course, ‘normal’ can move around, and it can be very different from crowd to crowd. Some of our most extreme efforts to appear to fit in with our group can be exactly what places us so firmly in others’ ‘out’ categories . . . the obvious cases being the polarization of political groupings. This is probably more the point of what many people are trying to describe with terms like ‘confirmation bias.’)

From silly things like trying to look cool through a trip on a flat floor to amnesiacs keeping up appearances to what degree they can, to my mother’s boyfriend’s altered reality – me, in a sports bar on Superbowl day – the importance of an image of comfort and belonging seems to be very basic. Closer to foundational in our psyches rather than modern or cultural. Again, not that I’m a prime example of primality or anything! I may have been the weak link among those examples, but still. It’s almost certainly an important survival trait, for anyone who knows anything about fighting or ever watched a boxing match. If you can look normal, unhurt when you really are, perhaps your opponent doesn’t rush in for the kill every time and you have a chance to come around again and survive the round, the match, the real, primal struggles that we as a species have known forever. Statistically.

So, like many things, not a bad thing in the long run, part and parcel of being the beings we are, an important adaptation for ourselves made somewhere along our evolutionary path and not likely to change anytime soon anyways, but just something good to know about ourselves. If I can really cram this idea into my own head, that whatever altered state of mind a person is in, that what we see is them trying their hardest to look normal. If not normal, at least like they’re not the sort of abnormal that doesn’t belong. Maybe there’s a sort of a no-man’s-land for outliers within our groups, as long as they’re not clearly ‘in’ in some other group either.

I have this idea that the naïve, the starry-eyed and trusting among us, or the plain dumb, like me, what we don’t get is that people aren’t being genuine, that no-one is really themselves. I mean, I always just assumed, why wouldn’t you be? We only get one life, probably, at least it seems that this is the place we are this time through, so why would someone go through life pretending or lying? Just in case that sounded like false self-deprecation there, try this: blind and stupid as I am, I have been writing, thinking and talking child-rearing and abuse for my entire adult life and I can still ask the questions in this paragraph without ever having made the connection. I mean, I assumed it of the few users and liars that I’ve encountered in my life, that they had been abused and lied to and that it seemed sort of normal to them, but I sort of thought that unabused, we would all just be ourselves.

Not so sure of that right now . . .

I’ve just read two different books, both telling a disturbing story about some tests that were done with epileptic people who had required and received that surgery where they remove the connective tissue between the hemispheres of the patient’s brain. I think the theory is that a seizure that originates in one side doesn’t take over both sides, and there is improved quality of life. But the experiments somehow showed that when one side of the brain does a thing, that when questioned, the person’s other hemisphere will tell strange, tall tales about it, that is make up the reasons for the action. They may come up with something possible, even plausible, but it’s a guess or something, because it’s not what happened. It makes the authors consider that reason itself is an illusion and we’re all just making it up after the fact. Add to that what we have all heard over the last few years about memory, in the context of eyewitness recall and some celebrity false memory faux pas, it would almost seem that we’re so concerned with looking normal that we have completely forgotten to try to be! It’s a sad thought that perhaps looking like we know what we’re doing is as good as it gets.

(The books were The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker and The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, by Dan Ariely. I don’t think Ariely got into any detail to warrant a citation, but I’m sure Pinker tells us exactly who did what and what they learned. I’ll try to find it.)

This is getting long. I guess this can stand as Part #1.