Reactionaries Seeking Reaction

The reactionary mind, to a large degree, is simply another way of speaking of conservatism; at least in Anglo-American society. That is separate from speaking of this being a reactionary age. Anyone can be pulled into reaction, but not everyone gets stuck in reaction. It’s the latter that is what it means to be a reactionary as an identity, rather than a passing state.

Yet we can narrow it down further. The most reactionary of reactionaries help us to understand what exactly is the modus operandi of the reactionary mind. As the name suggests, a reactionary is one who easily reacts and so is constantly in a reactive pose. This coincides, of course, with regressive politics; but it’s important to remember that reactionaries aren’t ideologically consistent.

It all depends on what they are reacting to. They don’t define themselves but are defined by their reaction. They are the shadow of liberalism, progressivism, and leftism; not to mention the denial and suppression of all that is traditional. There is no ultimate substance to the reactionary mind, much less a principled position. Like chameleons, they change with conditions.

Even that doesn’t fully get at what is going on. It’s not only that they react to anything and everything. That reaction is both their mindset and their entire worldview. They only understand reaction and so they also want to elicit reaction in others. They try to instigate reaction in general, to create a total shit-fest of reaction, because that pulls others into reaction where the reactionaries have the advantage.

Conservatives, on average, are more likely to be misinformed and spread misinformation; as compared to liberals. Yet it is not found evenly across all conservatives. There is a specific sub-type of conservative with a need for chaos. This is the reactionary extreme that is the most likely, in particular, to share fake news; along with a motivation to spread hostile political rumors and support negative behaviors toward politicians. They know it’s fake. That is the whole point. It is intentional disinformation, but not necessarily as propaganda.

The causal distinction appears to be conscientiousness. Those sharing fake news tend to be low in conscientiousness, a direct correlate to the need for chaos. But high conscientious conservatives are no more prone to this behavior than liberals. Interestingly, liberals in general are lower in conscientiousness and yet their liberal-mindedness seems to offer a protection against this reactionary behavior. Liberals, whether low or high conscientiousness, were not more likely to share fake news.

So, the defining feature of the reactionary mind is both their own reaction and the seeking of reaction in others. This goes to the old saying about wrestling with a pig. Both of you will get muddy, but only the pig will be happy. In the end, reactionaries are like the disobedient little boy who has come to believe that any attention is good attention. Maybe they didn’t get enough love as children.

* * *

All that said, these chaos-loving conservatives are a bit perplexing, in making sense what is the reactionary mind. Conservatives, on average, have higher measures of conscientiousness. So, what does it mean for a conservative to be low conscientiousness? Conscientiousness is what makes conservatives love social order, what makes them good, submissive, and obedient workers, religious adherents, Nazis, etc. This relates to the conservative-minded need for closure, which in turn makes one “prone to embrace competitive conflict schemas” (Margarita Krochik & John T. Jost, Ideological Conflict and Polarization: A Social Psychological Perspective).

High conscientiousness not only predicts conservatism but also authoritarianism (Eric W. Dolan, Personality traits predict authoritarian tendencies, study finds). Both are also linked to extraversion and agreeableness, with the one trait they diverge on is neuroticism. In some ways, an authoritarianism is just the extreme expression of a social conservatism under stress; and one might expect that neuroticism rates increase with conservatives when under stress. For an example of stress, pathogen exposure and parasite load are correlated to both authoritarianism and social conservatism, probably mediated by the disgust response.

If it’s true that stress might increase neuroticism, it might also suppress conscientiousness and so unleash a need for chaos; or what from a liberal perspective seems like chaos. Social conservatives are people who are vulnerable to stress and so easily overwhelmed by it. But under less stressful conditions, they are able to manage stress and actually have a great talent for doing so. Their need for order, control, and predictability serves this purpose; up to the point it stops working. Potential authoritarianism as personality can quickly become manifest authoritarianism as behavior, as political action, power, and oppression.

Under chronic stress, everyone can have greater psychological reaction, social dysfunction, aggression, divisiveness, fantasy-proneness, magical thinking, odd beliefs, paranoia, xenophobia, stereotypical-mindedness, and mentally illness. The strongest form of this that can really mess up a society is high inequality that induces collective madness (Keith Payne, The Broken Ladder). But simpler factors can have an affect, even if only temporarily. Get liberals somewhat inebriated and, with their neurocognitive functioning compromised, they’ll fall back on speaking in the kinds of stereotypical thinking that is more common among conservatives.

The need for chaos is linked to social dominance orientation (SDO) and dark personality (psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism, sadism). And all of these certainly increase with severe and chronic stress, particularly high inequality. That is what we’ve been seeing in recent years, although the conditions have been worsening for decades. It’s been gasoline and a match throw on dry grass during a drought.

There also would be a strong resonance between the need for chaos and conspiracy-mindedness. This isn’t only a general mistrust and suspiciousness (Beth Ellwood, People with a higher conspiracy mentality have a general tendency to judge others as untrustworthy; Marius Frenken & Roland Imhoff, Don’t trust anybody: Conspiracy mentality and the detection of facial trustworthiness cues) but also a tendency to act conspiratorially (Karen M. Douglas & Robbie M. Sutton, Does it take one to know one? Endorsement of conspiracy theories is influenced by personal willingness to conspire). Those who are untrustworthy project onto others, in assuming everyone is like themselves.

And all of that has everything to do with dark personality and SDO (Evita March & Jordan Springer, Belief in conspiracy theories: The predictive role of schizotypy, Machiavellianism, and primary psychopathy; Beth Ellwood, Machiavellian and psychopathic personality traits linked to belief in conspiracy theories). It is all mixed up. These are all the various derangements of the mind that crop up in a deranged society.

Like those spreading fake news having lower conscientiousness, those spreading conspiracy theories tend to be lower in agreeableness (Tim Christie, Study: Disagreeable people more prone to conspiracy theories). It’s the socially conservative mind switching to its reactionary dark mode, as defensive posture against perceived extreme uncertainty and potential threat. The willingness to share fake news might be caused by a total breakdown of reality discernment, specifically trust in authorities to discern reality. That makes perceived reality a free-for-all where every claim is equally plausible and it simply becomes a matter of confirmation bias.

What is fascinating is that the need for chaos is a corollary to the need for order. To the conservative mind, the only two options are order or chaos. It’s a black-and-white mentality. What conservatives fear more than anything is the breakdown of social order as, to their mind, it’s a breakdown of moral order. It’s an existential crisis of their very sense of reality, their sense of meaning. When desperate enough, they will do anything to reaffirm meaning, even if it’s invoking chaos. It’s related to the conservative proneness to fantasizing about violence, particularly redemptive violence; from overthrowing the government to hoping for the End Times (Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals).

Some have theorized that totalitarianism, what generally means authoritarianism, is caused by social isolation, loneliness, and anomie. These are common features of modern society with mass urbanization and industrialization, as exacerbated by high inequality and as results in social breakdown. Loneliness, by the way, is a predictor of the need for chaos (Camara Burleson, Need for Chaos and Predicting Radical Behavior in a Political Setting). Such conditions increase social conservatism in the population, even on the ‘left’, and this pushes social conservatism to extremes. Liberal-mindedness simply can’t function well when the conditions of health disappear.

* * *

Don’t Cry for QAnon
by Daniel Cubias

Chaos Theory
by Amanada Darrach

The “Need for Chaos” and Motivations to Share Hostile Political Rumors
by Michael Bang Petersen, Mathias Osmundsen, & Kevin Arceneaux

Personality Type, as well as Politics, Predicts Who Shares Fake News
by Asher Lawson & Hemant Kakkar

Study finds conservatives with a need for chaos are more likely to share fake news
by Eric W. Dolan

Of Pandemics, Politics, and Personality: The Role of Conscientiousness and Political Ideology in Sharing of Fake News
by M. Asher Lawson & Hemant Kakkar

Low Conscientiousness Conservatives and the Desire for Chaos We further contend that behavior of low conscientiousness conservatives is motivated not only by vehemently promoting the interests of their group, but also by denigrating other rival groups. Such a staunch inclination to elevate one’s group at the expense of other political outgroups is an act of negative partisanship — a reality that has become increasingly common due to the exponential rise of intense political polarization since the start of the 21st Century (Abramowitz & Webster, 2016; Van den Bos et al., 2007; Westwood et al., 2018). As
conservatives generally score higher on social dominance orientation – a set of beliefs that acknowledges and supports hierarchical differences in society (Kugler et al., 2014) – they may be more likely to criticize other groups to defend their own (Jost et al., 2003). Conservatives in comparison to liberals are also more vigilant in perceiving social threats to their group (van Leeuwen & Park, 2009), which can further increase their tendency to actively denounce other groups and outgroup members. This desire to promote the status of one’s group at the expense of other groups and outgroup members can lead to a generally hostile mindset, labelled a “need for chaos” (Arceneaux et al., 2021). The need for chaos is described as a drive to disrupt and destroy the existing order or established institutions in an attempt to secure the superiority of one’s own group over others. Such a mindset is especially salient when dominance-oriented individuals feel they are being marginalized and rejected by the broader cultural environment (Arceneaux et al., 2021; Krizan & Johar, 2015; Twenge & Campbell, 2003).

Given the lack of orderliness, diligence, and self-control associated with low conscientiousness individuals, coupled with the high social dominance orientation and group loyalty among conservatives, we contend that low conscientiousness conservatives will be more likely to entertain beliefs and engage in behaviors that seek to cause chaos, as a means to defend their group. Indeed, existing research has shown that people are more willing to believe and share outlandish conspiracy theories when it helps them to achieve a positive image of their group, its dominance, and its existence (Douglas et al., 2019; Roberts et al., 2009). Likewise, the desire to cause chaos also leads to less support for outgroups such as immigrants, and a greater desire to increase one’s social status and alter the current power structure, especially when political polarization is rampant (Arceneaux et al., 2021; Van Bavel & Pereira, 2018). Consequently, we predict that the interaction effect of conservative political ideology and conscientiousness on sharing of fake news will be mediated by this desire for chaos.

Furthermore, recent research has highlighted that the dissemination of fake news is largely driven by people’s inattention to accuracy. Once accuracy beliefs are primed either implicitly or explicitly, individuals are relatively more judicious when it comes to the sharing of fake news (Pennycook, McPhetres, Zhang, & Rand, 2020; Pennycook et al., 2021). However, our proposed effect, where low conscientiousness conservatives share fake news due to an elevated desire for chaos, is indicative of a motivated process. Specifically, when low conscientiousness conservatives perceive fake news as a means of furthering their social goals (Douglas et al., 2017) and sowing seeds of destruction (Arceneaux et al., 2021), the accuracy of news stories should play a smaller role in determining their intentions to share such stories. In other words, people who pursue general destruction to defend their ingroup should indicate higher subjective assessments of the accuracy of fake news, as long as it serves the agenda of their group, which in turn will predict the sharing of such news. Thus, when motivated to believe false information as accurate, priming individuals with accuracy beliefs might not be enough to deter the spread of misinformation. Rather, such motivated individuals will perceive false news as subjectively more accurate and hence share falsehoods at a higher rate regardless of accuracy
primes.

The Un-Silent Generation

It’s funny that one of the oldest living, yet still quite relevant, generations is called the Silents (1928-1945). That is such an amazing misnomer when one looks at the individuals who have defined that generation. Consider the single greatest religious right mastermind in recent American politics, Paul Weyrich, who was the leading figure behind the culture wars, Moral Majority foundation, and the right-wing Shadow Network. He may not have been out in the public limelight, but he was never silent and his voice carried in the halls of power. Still other Silents like the plutocrats Rupert Murdoch and Charles Koch continue to have an outsized influence over the American mind and society, as never before seen.

Yes, the Silents have often been overshadowed by the media and political narratives spun around the generations immediately preceding and following them, the Greatest Generation (or G.I. Generation) and the Boomer Generation. It’s true that the main conflict they fought in, the Korean War, never received much attention; in the way did World War II and the Vietnam War, although many Silents were among the military and political leadership during the latter. Yet even as they haven’t had one of their own elected president until Joe Biden, he is our current president and the oldest ever to assume office. Likewise, although they lost majority in Congress some years back, Silents nonetheless maintain key positions of power not only with the presidency but also with several major political elites like John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, Anthony Fauci, and Bernie Sanders; and that is only to list the Democrats (The Dying Donkey). Both parties are held captive by the elderly.

Some Silents like Weyrich operated more in the background, but plenty were out in the open and hard to ignore, for good or ill. Far from being silent or silenced, they possibly have been the loudest generation, not to mention maybe the most powerful and influential (as many are still among the ruling elite). Also, despite being portrayed as moderate and modest, their generational cohort includes plenty who were far left radicals and far right extremists, along with some who were downright demented and dangerous. More importantly, they are the single longest ruling generation in American history, a title that is often wrongly given to Boomers. The Silents’ collective voice is still with us and regularly heard in the corporate media and coming out of Washington, D.C. That’s impressive for a demographic consisting mostly of people in their 80s and 90s.

It goes far beyond political and corporate control. Don’t forget that much of the music that defined the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was produced not by Boomers but by Silents. They comprise some of the greatest Rock ‘n Roll legends of all time, people who back in the day disturbed their elder’s peace of mind in being a part of the soundtrack of youthful rebellion and revolt, not to mention Elvis Presley’s provocatively gyrating hips that shocked a nation — people were easily shocked in the good ol’ days. It’s similar to how many of the cultural and activist leaders of of that era, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Timothy Leary, were also of that not so silent generation. The Sixties that gets blamed on Boomers would not have happened without the so-called Silents’ widespread influence and inspiration. Many of them were radical voices of protest, critique, and demand during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. That isn’t even to discuss the great writers and artists that came out of that generation, some of them with wild and crazy imaginations or else intellectual and psychological insight, social critique and commentary; not to mention diverse public intellectuals.

There is a diversity of Silents who were famous or infamous icons, terrorists, activists, leaders, politicians, public intellectuals, influencers, writers, musicians, artists, and stars. Besides those already mentioned, here is a small selection:

  • Che Guevara (if not American), Jim Jones, Charles Manson, Ted Kaczynski, and Sirhan Sirhan;
  • Bernie Madoff, Jack Welch, Sheldon Adelson, Colin Powell, Ross Perot, Norman Schwarzkopf, Oliver North, Bob Woodward, Jim Bakker, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, and John McCain;
  • Warren Buffett, George Soros, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Walter Mondale, Madeleine Albright, Ted Kennedy, Harry Reid, Harvey Milk, Ralph Nader, and Noam Chomsky;
  • Jack Kevorkian, Larry Flynt, Gloria Steinem, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe, Flannery O’Connor, J. G. Ballard, Margaret Atwood, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jim Henson, Fred Rogers, Muhammad Ali, Louis Farrakhan, and Wavy Gravy;
  • Jane Goodall, Andy Warhol, Barbara Streissand, Jane Fonda, Joan Baez, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, Bill Cosby, Patrick Stewart, George Takei, Barbara Walters, Joan Rivers, Jerry Springer, and Geraldo Rivera;
  • Et cetera.

Many others were born on the cusp at either side of the somewhat arbitrary generational bracket, some right at the edge and even more a few years shy — some definitions of the Silent Generation put the starting point at 1925, which would include the likes of Malcolm X and Gore Vidal. For a more recent example, if President Donald Trump had been born 6 months earlier, he would be labeled a Silent. And Hillary Clinton is just slightly over a year past the generational demarcation. Among the most represented in power are more than a few first wave Boomers who basically had the same life experience as Silents in having had grown up in the stultifying Fifties and reached adulthood before to the Sixties heated up (e.g., Hillary Clinton began her political aspirations as an Eisenhower Republican). So, combined with the Biden presidency (along with the continuing influence of Murdoch, Koch, Soros, Gingrich, Cheney, McConnell, Pelosi, Fauci, Sanders, etc), the most recent years of political rule has been largely dominated by the Silent Generation and their age adjacent peers, with the younger generations having a hard time breaking into power or gaining representation.

Rather than having been silent all these decades, one wonders when they’ll finally become silent. They are maintaining significant control during this transformative period of the Fourth Turning (Neil Howe and William Strauss), from which will follow a new generational cycle (approximately 80 years) and the establishment of the hold on the sociopolitical order, handing over the reigns of power in determining who will be their ideological heirs (e.g., in having helped to pick the present crop of Supreme Court ‘Justices’). That means they’ll have disproportionate influence in shaping society for the rest of this century. No one is against old people from having a voice, but it is a problem when they silence the youth voice. The main problem, of course, is not that they are senior citizens; rather, how reactionary that generation has become over time. For too many Silents, their position for a long time has simply been a defense of their power and the benefits they’ve accrued, at the cost and sacrifice of the rest of society.

The Ground of Our Being Touches Us

“The foot feels the foot when the foot feels the ground.”

That quote by Ernest Wood is often misattributed to the Buddha. And it does express a Buddhist-like thought. Take the notion of co-touching from the Samyukta Nikaya:

“Who touches not is not touched. Touching he is touched.”

That being “touched by touch” (Thag vs.783) is a part of dependent co-arising and the bundle theory of mind, both central tenets of Buddhism (Robert Alvarado, The Foot Feels the Foot When It Feels the Ground). The separate, autonomous, and self-willed egoic-consciousness is not fundamentally real.

Everything that exists does so not as a ‘thing’ but as a feeling, a process, a movement, and a relationship. The self or any part of the self (e.g., the foot) emerges in awareness through interaction with the experienced world and perceived other. This is the sensory and social world as the ground of our being.

One theory in social science suggests that humans develop a theory of mind about others first before internalizing it as a self concept. So, the self is the introjected other. It’s similar to Lev Vygotsky’s private speech or self-talk, as a precursor to inner speech, that is the child’s imitation of adults talking to the child (Speaking Is Hearing).

We all begin life by first talking to ourselves as an other. And we carry this into adulthood. When you talk to yourself, who are you talking to and who is doing the talking? The other forever defines us, as if if the ground were to leave a print on our foot.

To the mind, the developing mind most of all, the world around us provides affordances (James J. Gibson) for actions and other behavior (The Embodied Spider; & “…just order themselves.”). These are known more for what they make possible and allow than for what they supposedly are, their socially constructed thingness.

We never know the world except as our experience of the world, since there is no self to know or experience without the world. The world is the primal self. The self is in and of the world. There is nowhere else to be.

That is why there is no foot in and of itself within awareness, no Platonic ideal of a ‘foot’, not without the ground that affords the foot the capacity to express it’s instinctual nature of footness. If one were to be so cruel as to completely bind an infant’s foot so that it could never move, it would shrivel up into crippled paralysis with little if any sensation.

The very sense of self would be constrained and the lesser for it. To emphasize this point, consider that the infant that is not touched at all simply dies. A foot is the touch and movement of the foot in relation to the ground. We aren’t separate from the world, not outside it, but immersed in it and an extension of it.

We need touch. We are touch. We touch by being touched.

* * *

There are two ways you can demonstrate such truths to yourself. The first method is to practice meditation and mindfulness for years, preferably under the guidance of a religious or spiritual teacher, guru, etc. That is arguably worth the effort. But it does require commitment, effort, and sacrifice; and, admittedly, most of us feel too lazy to try.

If you just want to get a small taste of it, sit or stand completely still while softly and unblinkingly gazing at an unchanging visual field (e.g., an indoor wall). Give it a minute or so and your entire vision will go blank, not even go black but simply to disappear as an experience. Sensory perception is dependent on movement and change, either in the environment or from our bodies.

There is another self-experiment one can do. The above quote about the foot feeling the ground can be taken literally. Take your shoes off and actually feel the ground. Walk around your lawn. Maybe even go for a jog, if you have somewhere nice and safe for your tender feet. Try that for a few weeks or a few months. Being barefoot is the normal state of humanity, quite likely what Ernest Wood was doing when he had the above thought.

Feel what it’s like to not have your feet bound and numbed in tight shoes, thick soles, and synthetic materials. Feel what it’s like to be electromagnetically grounded, physically connected, and sensorily in relationship to the earth. The affordance of the earth is far different than the affordance (or rather unaffordance) of modern footwear.

Each will elicit different ways of inhabiting one’s body, moving in the world, and perceiving reality; maybe even altering one’s very sense of identity. Then contemplate all the thousands of other ways we are disconnected, distracted, and numbed from direct sensory experience of the natural world. That is how the isolated self is socially constructed, supported, and maintained. These rigid boundaries of self are the defensive walls of egoic consciousness.

* * *

It’s interesting to consider the fact that Buddhism arose in an environment where most people in the past walked around barefoot, since is its a warmer clime and industrialization took hold much more slowly. That is true of other religious traditions, like Hinduism and animism, that question or refute or simply never acknowledge the ego-self. Would the bundle theory of mind even occur in a society where everyone had worn shoes for centuries or millennia?

Even Western philosophers like David Hume who have written about the bundle theory of mind, as some argue, likely learned of it from Christian missionaries having returned from the East. These were ideas that apparently never originated in the West or, if they did, it was so long ago they were forgotten; maybe back when Europe was still tribal and animistic, back when footwear would’ve been more akin to a moccasin that doesn’t desensitize the foot.

Shoes are only needed in needed in colder regions, such as  Europe and North America; and only needed on rough ground, such as plowed fields. Maybe that is a causal or contributing factor to such a strong tradition of egoic individualism developing there. The European and American traditions of Christianity fear and disparage connection to nature. Maybe a long history of wearing shoes has predisposed people to that experience and worldview, identity and way of being.

That reminds one of the WEIRD cultural bias (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) that correlates to a unique profile of personality traits and social behaviors. One researcher and writer on the topic, Joseph Henrich (The WEIRDest People in the World), argues for various causes for this development in the modern West, from Catholic marriage laws to literacy rates. But maybe footwear should be added to this list.

Written laws and written texts are examples of media that are made possible by media technology (e.g., bound books and moveable type printing presses). Footwear likewise mediates our sensory experience of reality and hence footwear could be considered a media technology. It shapes not only the foot but also the foot-mind-eye axis, as a core dynamic function within the body-mind-world axis — proprioception and perception.

Besides Joseph Henrich, numerous others have theorized about mediated reality: Marshall McLuhan, E. R. Dodds, Bruno Snell, Julian Jaynes, Eric Havelock, etc. But the main focus has been on language, specifically written language. That is important in a literary culture with high rates of literacy. Nonetheless, footwear have been more central and earlier introduced to Western culture. And it’s the modern thick, bulky, and constraining shoe that has become so common over the past few centuries, in relation to our altering the environment so that such protective footwear is needed.

* * *

This post is another ripple in a river of thought. We’ve been slowly building upon a theory about the physical aspects of social constructivism: the infrastructure and apparatuses and systems that shape and confine us, the lifeway patterns and pathway dependencies that predetermine and preclude our individual and collective behaviors, the ideological interpellation that hails us with voices of authority and authorization, the metonymic and metaphorical framings that came with changes in media technology.

This involves agricultural system, food laws, and dietary ideology; land reform as moral reform and substance control as social control. One can show an increasing shift, across recent millennia (particularly starting in the axial Age but speeding up in modernity), from non-addictive psychedelics and evolutionarily-consistent foods to addictive sedatives, stimulants, and high-carb foods (alcohol, opium, cocaine, tea, coffee, sugar cane, grains, etc).

All of these things, it can be argued, rigidified psychological and social boundaries. Yet no single factor alone would likely have made possible and probable the emergence of the post-bicameral, post-axial, and post-traditional hyper-individualistic Jaynesian egoic consciousness of the body-mind as isolated-subject and container-object. It was also the continuing development along each technological line that forced the transformation.

Footwear has been around for millennia, whereas more recent is the invention of shoes that are highly-restrictive, thick-soled, and synthetically non-conductive.  Similarly, language existed for millennia prior to writing, bound books, printing presses, e-books, email, texting, etc. Even written language operated far back in the archaic world but only in a minimalistic fashion, primarily as bureaucratic accounting, before it ever developed into literacy as we know it. There are still other tools of identity formation like transitional objects (teddy bears, pacifiers, etc) that were or are not common in premodern or non-WEIRD societies.

The development and accrual of changes formed slowly, if the results sometimes only fully erupted following a triggering point (e.g., Bronze Age collapse). Those eruptions allowed for a destabilizing or destruction of some former pathway dependencies, in order to lay down new foundations, but always using the material of what came before. Still, some pathway dependencies were so entrenched they remained; if reshaped, restructured, and repurposed (e.g., written text).

This area of study also overlaps with with issues of physical health, mental health, and public health. Specifically, there is an interesting history of how dietary systems and food laws (e.g., Christianized Galenic humoralism) were used to enforce identity, culture, and social order. There has been an ongoing change in what is eaten that during modernity has led to disease epidemics, health crises, and moral panics. The relationship between diet and identity might’ve been more well appreciated in the past.

These contemplations are also mixed up with the study of archaic and ancient societies, along with the anthropological literature on animistic tribes. This particularly focuses on the transitional period from the late Bronze Age and it’s collapse to the Axial Age and the resultant post-Axial world. During the Bronze Age, there was what Julian Jaynes called the bicameral mind, a type of bundled mind, with voice-hearing traditions. Growth of size and complexity of the Mediterranean empires in the late Bronze Age is what caused their collapse, as overwhelmed by decades of natural disasters, refugee crises, and marauders.

That is what cleared the board to make way for the Axial Age, although the changes had already begun in the Bronze Age (e.g., written laws). One of the changes that didn’t happen until the Axial Age was the systematization of agriculture where former weedy farm fields became the focus of more intensive and controlled farming. This increased dependable surplus yields and so provided more agricultural foods in the diet, but it also meant better pest control, including eliminating most of the ergot that would take over unmanaged fields.

Ergot, as a psychedelic, was inevitably consumed on a more regular basis prior to this ancient agricultural reform, often unintentionally but sometimes on purpose as part of rituals. Interestingly, coinciding with lessening it in the food supply was also the appearance of cultivars of addictive substances like opium, sugar cane, etc. In Europe, there was a ‘regression’ after the fall of the Roman Empire. Some knowledge and practice of agricultural management was forgotten, as fields returned to being weedy again. Following that was what appears to have been regular mass ergot intoxications and sometimes deadly dancing manias, what is called ergotism or St. Anthony’s Fire.

Later agricultural reforms eliminated ergot again. Yet other psychedelics persisted in European culture. Medieval church imagery often portrays fly agaric ‘magic’ mushrooms. Such imagery continued into early modernity, as seen in Christmas cards.

* * *

Related to dietary practices and the food system, there is another connection that could be made. There were also agricultural differences between East and West. One study sought to discern agricultural differences as linked to socio-cultural and socio-cognitive differences. Yes, it’s true that Westerners grow more wheat and Easterners more rice; and it’s true that these agricultural systems require different relational patterns and practices. Wheat farming can be done by a single man with a plow, but rice farming requires numerous people working together and is more labor intensive in requiring twice as many hours of work. Furthermore, rice-growing communities have to collectively build and cooperatively maintain infrastructure (dikes and canals) for water management and irrigation.

Some have speculated that this constructs, encourages, and enforces divergent cultural identities and ways of thinking. This might be what underlies the stereotypical contrast between Eastern and Western thought. The former focuses more holistically, interdependently, and concretely on environment, background, and relationships; and the latter focuses more analytically, atomistically, and abstractly on the individual, foreground, and action. Also, descendants of rice-growers are more loyal to friends and family; while descendants of wheat-growers have more successful patents for new inventions. The thing is we don’t need to stop there with a simple hypothesis of causal link, since we can control some of the potential confounders by making a comparison within a single country, though still other confounders remained uncontrolled.

Wheat and other cereal crops (e.g., millet) are also grown in parts of Asia, specifically in northern China; while southern Chinese are rice farmers. Multiple studies have been done in comparing and contrasting the personalities, cultures, social practices, etc of these two agricultural populations. Even in the East, wheat farmers are more individualistic and rice farmers more communal. But also the same divide is seen in thinking styles with the Asian wheat farmers, as with European wheat farmers, in being more likely to use linear thought in focusing on isolated objects and subjects in the foreground while not noticing much about the overall context.

To return to the topic at hand, it might be useful to look at other aspects of what differentiates the two. Are Chinese wheat farmers more likely than Chinese rice farmers to wear shoes or boots more often and to wear shoes or boots with thicker soles and narrow enclosed toe boxes, as opposed to wearing thin, open-toed sandals or going barefoot? One suspects that would be the case.

It wouldn’t only be that the dirt clods of wheat fields are harder on the feet than the soft mud of rice patties. The colder climate of northern China would require wearing thicker shoes for a large part of the year for protection against coldness, discomfort, and frostbite. Interestingly, a similar pattern is seen in Europe as well with the concentration of wheat farming countries in the north with their long history of Protestant-style individualism, as contrasted to southern European Catholicism and communalism. A better and more comparable example is the United States.

Wheat-farming, of course, has been practiced in the northern states for a long time; but also rice-farming has been common in a large swath of the Deep South, what is called the Rice Belt. Similar to southern China, “even when the correlations were examined only within the Deep and Peripheral South, the correlations of collectivism with cotton and rice production remained strong” (Dov Cohen, Patterns of Individualism and Collectivism Across the United States). That is strong supporting evidence. To link it back to the main topic, for most of Southern history in the US, going barefoot was far more common. That has contributed to greater hookworm rates, as this parasite tends to enter through the sole of the foot from infested soil. Also, note that wheat-farming and industrialization has been concentrated in the northern states, as was the case in northern Europe. Industrialization, by the way, is the letter ‘I’ in the WEIRD acronym; and maybe the letter ‘W’ for Western could equally represent wheat-farming.

When we think of farming cultures and practices as affecting identity, personality, and mentality, we rarely think about what people are physically wearing as being causally significant or even relevant. But consider that the person in a colder climate is not only more likely to have restrictive, binding, and thick footwear but also restrictive, binding, and thick clothing and outdoor gear. Maybe it’s no mere coincidence that, for example, many animistic tribes with their extremes of a bundled mind tend to go barefoot entirely and often to barely wear any clothing at all, other than maybe a breech cloth (e.g., Piraha). Even among farming societies, some where heavy, cumbersome clothing and others lighter and looser (e.g., the sarong common in the East).

It is interesting how much our society, particularly among intellectuals and scholars (i.e., the literary elite), is obsessed with language and, most of all, written language. We have the most literary culture that has ever existed since language was invented. And it’s precisely populations with high rates of literacy that are the most WEIRD, to the extent that brain scans shows it alters the development of brain structure and neurocognition (see Joseph Henrich).

As such, we Weirdos see everything through language and text (e.g., this post here), and so that is the primary lens through which we understand the world and humanity. There is an obsession with the study of language, from text to new media: philology, postmodernism, linguistic relativity, metaphor theory, etc. So, language and the media of language gets disproportionate credit and blame for much of the changes, problems, and advancements in society. The differences between the cultures and mentalities of East and West are often placed within a linguistic frame.

But even when language isn’t the focus, what we emphasize is often something else that is equally less tangible. When farming is studied, what researchers tend to isolate out as causal are how people relate and act within different agricultural systems, the kind of thing that is harder to measure objectively. Oddly, it almost never occurs to them to think about the most basic and concrete factors like what is grown and eaten in affecting the body-mind, despite the vast knowledge we’ve accrued in nutrition studies. Diets determine nutritional profiles and biological functioning, one of the most powerful affects on neurocognitive development.

Or consider how one of the most transformative changes in all of human existence was the agricultural revolution in general, no matter if wheat or rice or whatever else. It increased size and concentration of human populations, increased size and concentration of domesticated animal populations, and increased contact between humans and animals. It also increased pathogen exposure and parasite load, both of which research shows to raise the measures of social conservatism and authoritarianism, insularity and collectivism, which are not only correlated to social behaviors but also altered personality traits (low openness, high conscientiousness, etc) and brain structure (e.g., larger amygdala).

Pathogen and parasite levels do follow a regional pattern as well, more near the Equator and less the further away; although this can’t entirely explain the agricultural differences. Thomas “Talhelm’s study found that Chinese students who lived just south or just north of the rice-wheat divide were as different from each other as students from the far south and the far north. And he noted rice-producing Japan scores uniformly high on the collectivist scale, even though the country is cooler and wealthier than most of China” (Bryan Walsh, In China, Personality Could Come Down to Rice Versus Wheat). Even rice-growing islands in the north fall in line with the southern pattern of behavior and personality (X. Dong, T. Talhelm, & X. Ren, Teens in Rice County Are More Interdependent and Think More Holistically Than Nearby Wheat County). Do people in all Chinese rice-growing populations, whether south or north, have similar footwear?

On the other hand, Walsh writes, “The rice theory isn’t foolproof. It’s almost certain that none of the young Chinese college students participating in Talhelm’s study have any direct experience with wheat or rice farming, which raises the question of how these psychological values are transmitted.” Maybe it’s not entirely about who is growing which crop and how it is grown, as part of a socio-cultural order. Instead, it’s possible that more important is who is eating which crop. Chinese, in general, are less individualistic than Westerners, no matter which region they live in. The simplest explanation could be that, as part of a national food system, all Chinese on average eat more rice and less wheat than Westerners. It might be about nutritional differences in each crop (e.g., gluten).

Then again, it could be something else not directly related to the crop or diet. Different kinds of farming in different environments and climates will incur different public health conditions and hence different physical health of individuals. The contrast between rice and wheat farmers goes far beyond merely how people socially organize within an agricultural system or what they eat within a food system. After all, what kind of footwear one wears or does not wear depends entirely on the agricultural system and all that is involved with it, such as infrastructure, housing, etc. Enclosed footwear, for example, could be protective against parasites and pathogens when the ground is covered in human and animal feces. So, it would depend also on the animal side of the farming equation.

None of the studies that we’ve seen, however, have ever been concerned with or curious about these kinds of confounding factors. This is a vast cultural blind spot. We forget that we are embodied minds that are co-extensive with the physical world around us, not to mention bundled minds in a bundled world. It rarely, if ever, occurs to us to think about something so simple as what we are wearing. Yet footwear, like a thousand other unrecognized factors, potentially has immense impact on us.

Spend some time observing people with modern synthetic shoes. Most of them walk stiffly, awkwardly, and often flat-footed; not to mention demonstrating an unbalanced and ungrounded way of physically holding themselves. Obviously, many people aren’t comfortable in their own bodies, absolute the opposite of barefoot indigenous people. Maybe simple things like footwear affect us far more profoundly than we are aware of, to the point of affecting our ability to grasp the Buddhist truth that to touch is to be touched.

Also, the combination of other unacknowledged factors could create a greater influence than any single factor alone. It would be a cumulative effect over a lifetime. So, yes, shoes will stunt and distort the bone and soft tissue development of the feet. There would be a lack of musculature and mobility that would make one prone to injury, not only in the feet but also from the stress caused in how it would throw off the movement of other joints, particularly the knees and hips. The feet are the foundation of the body, the contact and connecting point between body and world, and hence the mediating point in the sense of the embodied and enworlded self.

Diet and nutrition could exacerbate problems related to the feet and everything influenced by it. Dr. Weston A. Price, for example, observed that populations with deficiencies in fat-soluble vitamins had worse bone development: thin bones, asymmetrical features, narrow shoulders, narrow chests, caved-in chests, narrow jaws, crowded teeth, etc. But this also affected the bones in the feet: pigeon toes, flat feet, etc. This probably would make the feet narrower like all the rest.

Combine that with further squishing the feet even narrower into confining shoes. Most modern people are being crippled from a young age. We modern Westerners feel morally superior than the premodern Chinese who bound the feet of girls, and yet we also bind the feet of not only girls but also boys and then continue to do so into adulthood. No doubt, the premodern Chinese bound girls feet precisely because it alters behavior and is used for the social constructivism of particular personality traits and social roles, maybe not unlike hobbling a horse to make it more calm and controllable.

What might our own practice of foot-binding have on the entire population? When we personally observe or scientifically study our fellow humans, we tend to look to their faces, heads, arms, and upper bodies; in terms of their gaze, expression, tone of voice, gestures, etc. That is what we think most as defining who a person is, whereas their lower body of hips, legs, and feet is secondary as almost a mere extension of the upper body. We might be wiser to spend more time looking down to the literal ground of our being.

Wheat versus Rice:

Relating Well

Here is what one can learn about relating well by spending a lot of time around non-human animals, in particular. But all of it also involves and is applicable to human animals as well. This is based on our personal experience with animals of all sorts. These rules even more strongly apply to smaller animals like cats where there is a size and strength imbalance. Then again, wariness and circumspection is common in relating to others in general, across species divides or not, at least until a personal relationship is developed. Sometimes we easily connect with individuals while, at other times, it might take months or years to be allowed into someone’s personal world. But it all begins with simple behaviors in acting friendly. Below are guidelines to keep in mind, as gathered over a lifetime:

  1. Trust has to be developed and all relationships are about trust. Win over the trust of the other by acting and exhibiting that you are trustworthy. Be confident in your body and in the world, but don’t be intimidating, aggressive, confrontational, pushy, intense, or overwhelming. Be relaxed in that confidence, be relaxed in your body-mind. Soften your awareness and defocus or broaden your gaze. Open up all of your senses and take in the full experience of being in the presence of another. Let a smile naturally come to your face, a smile that includes the eyes, if the mood is right.
  2. Meet them on their level and get inside their space or mentality, sometimes literally and directly but often instead easing your way sideways. Observe what they do, how they act and interact, how they inhabit the world, and how they hold themselves. This requires close observation, empathy, and intuition. Sense your way into what it feels like to be that other. Viscerally imagine what it would be like to be inside their body. Seek rapport and resonance, sometimes by mimicking their behavior, body language, gestures, breathing, etc but without mockery. If needed, make yourself appear smaller or otherwise in conformance to the physicality of the other.
  3. Center yourself in positive intent and express positive regard. Fully empathize with the other. Embody, emanate, and communicate loving-kindness. Feel it in yourself, in your entire body. Allow your muscles to relax, your breathing to slow. Create a shared psychic space of relating. This requires openness and vulnerability in allowing yourself to be seen. Don’t hold back your emotion in fear of being judged or rejected. Be tender-hearted with genuine compassionate concern and attentive interest.
  4. Speak with focused intent to that other and, if you know it, use their name. Make sure you have their attention in return. Use whatever verbal and non-verbal communication necessary. And be acutely aware of the response you’re getting. Accommodate and change in each moment. Seek to elicit a positive response, however slight or subtle. Encourage two-way engagement, a sense of mutual regard. If the other communicates in whatever form, listen with your whole being and maybe even use active listening. Express back what they are expressing or otherwise indicate you’re heard and acknowledge it while holding a space of trust and safety, of kind-heartedness.
  5. Look for openings as invitations of relating more deeply. If possible and appropriate without offense or discomfort, make physical contact such as greeting them by shaking their hand, touching their shoulder, or simply being in close proximity. Treat them as you would a family member or an old friend. Enjoy yourself and enjoy their company. Show them that you want to be around them. Don’t be detached and cold, but be ready to back off if your advances are not welcomed. Trust is often built up over long periods of time. Building a relationship with someone new, whether a stranger or a stray, is a process. The initial meeting is often a mere acknowledgement. Patience is key.

We won’t claim to be experts about any of this. Admittedly, our success rate is low with human animals. It is far easier to accomplish relating well with certain domesticated species of non-human animals, of course. There is an upfront simplicity to relating to a cat, dog, parakeet, guinea pig, etc. Much of it extremely simple like speaking softly and maybe raising the pitch of one’s voice slightly. Really listen to yourself as if hearing from the perspective of another. What do you sound like? How would you feel and respond if someone spoke to you that way?

Such advice as entering the space with a sideways approach can often be taken literally, particularly with animals like cats and horses. Actually, stand or sit with the side of your body toward them and/or else with your eyes averted (with cats, try squinting and blinking slowly as you occasionally gaze at them). That can work with humans as well (think of two friends relaxing in chairs next to one another while sharing a view), although in some cultures one more often faces another directly when talking. A sideways posture is merely one possible way to show relaxation and hence trust, but other ways can include drinking a cup of tea, clasping one’s hands, sitting on the ground, grooming behaviors, etc.

It’s always important to sense what a particular individual expects and is used to, specifically in any given context and conditions. So, there are no hard and fast rules, just suggestions of things to try and ways of thinking. Every relationship is an ongoing experiment and exploration. What worked in the past might not work in the present. It’s too easy to get stuck in mindless habits and not fully appreciate the other individual as they are in the moment. Take it all as a mindfulness practice. Loosen your hold on the egoic identity. Reality is always about relationship, and relationship is always about a greater sense of inclusionary experience and identity.

When we were younger, a New Agey lady we knew would pet houseflies and she said she did it by sending them loving vibes. It worked, whatever she was doing, as the houseflies would always sit still. We can’t claim such an ability with insects, but we know it works well with so many other forms of life. It’s simply connecting to another being. In our experience as biological lifeforms, there is nothing like another biological lifeform to act as a biofeedback machine, in helping one to learn how to get into a particular affective state and mindset. Most important, there is something about relating gently that is at the heart of relating well, no matter the nature of the relationship. If nothing else, it’s a nice ideal to aspire toward.

Water Quality (in Iowa and Elsewhere)

What is the quality of Iowa’s drinking water? An individual might suspect that it’s quite low. It’s a farm state with one of the least regulated and most big ag friendly economies. Iowa has a larger population than any state of factory-farmed pigs and egg-laying hens, combined with the highest percentage of farmed land — that is to say a lot of runoff from CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and agriculture. Yet, besides the expected contaminants of nitrates and bacteria, Iowa’s water manages to maintain a national ranking that is in the middle of the pack, not great but not horrible. I guess that is a minor achievement. As Midwestern residents of Middle America, we are used to being average. Admittedly, in terms of personal observation, the taste and smell that comes out of the faucet has vastly improved since the present Iowa City water treatment plant was opened in 2003. Before that, the government used to warn the public to not drink the tap water if they were young, old, sick, or pregnant; and that advice specifically applied to the springtime when the farmers were dumping chemicals on their fields with most of it being washed into the waterways.

As an interesting side note, we have previously heard about a water spring in or near the local Hickory Hill Park that was a Native American campsite along the trail they used (a mysterious place we’ve never been able to locate). But apparently there also was the “Iowa City Mineral Spring works located on Iowa ave,” along which runs Ralston Creek that passes through the park (Daily Iowa State Press Newspaper; Apr 29 1901, Page 4). Actually, it was three springs at the Iowa Avenue property and they were written about as far back as 1841 (History of Johnson County, Iowa). The site was originally owned by Robert Lucas, the Governor of the Iowa Territory. The spring apparently didn’t have soothing qualities, as Gov. Lucas was known to have a temper and almost started a war over a boundary dispute with Missouri, what is called the Honey War. A later owner built over the springs in making it a health resort that didn’t succeed and so there presumably is still a spring in the basement of whichever house that is.

Springs aside, what is the public utility water like these days? In 2020, Iowa City tap water was reported as having exceeded all state and federal health standards in that there were zero violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, for whatever that is worth. On the other hand, according to one website, 3rd party independent testing reports that Iowa City tap water exceeds health guidelines for multiple drinking water contaminants: Bromodichloromethane, Bromoform, Chloroform, Chromium (Hexavalent), Dibromochloromethane, Dichloroacetic Acid, Nitrate, Total Trihalomethanes (TTHMs), Trichloroacetic Acid, etc. Then again, that comes from the official website of a water filtration system retailer. Anyway, one way or another, Iowa City tap water is exceeding — they should give out an award for that.

As a longtime contentious issue, fluoride is added by the local water treatment plant which increases the biological uptake of lead, although lead levels in Iowa City are generally lower, unless you live in an old house in an old neighborhood. On a related note, fluoride is often contaminated with arsenic. In case you didn’t know, arsenic is really bad for your health and is found in much of Iowa’s well water, if for other reasons. One of the disturbing sources of this toxin comes from the decaying corpses that were buried before, a little over a century ago, arsenic was banned in embalming fluid. In Iowa City near a Civil War cemetery, arsenic levels tested three times the federal limit. By the way, the 2019 IC Water Quality Report didn’t test for arsenic. The last time they did test for arsenic apparently was in 2014 and they didn’t detect any — so, maybe there is no reason to worry on that account, assuming you’re not drinking well water near an old cemetery.

There are still other contaminants of concern. As of a few years ago (2019), it doesn’t seem the local government was testing for either PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances; “forever chemicals”) or microplastics. The state government, however, was on the ball; at least on one account. The Iowa DNR did an analysis last year of various locations that included Iowa City. The local tap water didn’t contain any traces of most PFAS and, of the one detected, it was considered at a safe level. It’s still not clear about microplastics that are found in 83% of water globally. It is hard to even find any discussion about microplastics in the water supply of Iowa City and across the state, other than a single letter to the editor in a local alternative newspaper, the Little Village. Other unknown potential contaminants could include pharmaceuticals and no local info came up about that at all, which makes one wonder considering Iowa City is a major medical town with three large hospitals and numerous assisted living residences.

As the tapsafe website put it in an article about Iowa City, “While tap water that meets the EPA health guidelines generally won’t make you sick to your stomach, it can still contain regulated and unregulated contaminants present in trace amounts that could potentially cause health issues over the long-run. These trace contaminants may also impact immunocompromised and vulnerable individuals.” Some of what is unknown is how the diversity of contaminants might interact within the human body, whether in terms of being ingested at the same time or in terms of bioaccumulation over years and decades. Yet it’s not merely a lack of knowledge of the effect but in some cases, from microplastics to pharmaceuticals, it seems we don’t even have info on to what degree they are present — they simply aren’t even on the radar of news reporting, public debate, good governance, environmental regulations, and health guidelines. That is to say, as a society, we have failed to follow the precautionary principle.

This brings us to the possibility of getting one’s drinking water from another source. Besides water filtration systems, the one product that has stood out is Mountain Valley Spring Water, as it has a good reputation of quality and transparency, not to mention many local distributors in the United States who will deliver it to your home at no additional cost; and it’s also widely available in grocery stores. It supposedly is the “Official water of the White House since 1920. . . [when] they made their first delivery of Mountain Valley Water to the White House of President Woodrow Wilson on the advice of his personal physician. Since that period Mountain Valley has been served to generations of US presidents and in the halls of Congress.” And, having been on the market for a century and half, it’s long been touted as clean and healthy; which is supported by various testing of water quality and product safety, albeit it won’t heal all that ails you as advertising copy claimed earlier last century back when healing springs were all the craze. 

Consumer Reports had a whole slew of bottled waters tested in 2019, including Mountain Valley. Even though Mountain Valley’s colored glass bottles themselves contain undesirable elements (as is typical of colored glass), the testing seems to indicate none of it leaks into the water contained therein. Glass doesn’t break down or leach chemicals in the way does plastic and hence the microplastics problem — even many expensive high-quality waters in plastic bottles are filled with microplastics; hence plastic bottles as something to concerned about and to definitely avoid. Anyway, the local vendor provides Mountain Valley in the 5-gallon glass jars that appear to be clear, even if colored glass was an issue which it’s not. The only downside to this option is pricing, but then again a high quality water filtration system at thousands of dollars would take years to pay off before it would save you money in comparison to home-delivered spring water. One’s preference partly depends on how much money one has to invest upfront. Still, even the best systems like reverse osmosis don’t actually remove all contaminants and so wouldn’t give you a water as pure as an ancient spring source.

That brings us to another important point, how protected is the source. Besides the plastic issue, the main cause of contamination in bottled waters probably comes from the water source itself. Sadly, it’s not only groundwater, waterways, and wells that are contaminated but apparently also more than a few springs, such as where delicious and popular Topo Chico is procured from in Mexico (some improvements have been made, though far from meeting health guidelines). This might be because many springs contain water that only filtered through the ground for a few months or a few years, and as such they contain some of the contaminants from wherever the water originated. Mountain Valley, on the other hand, is from a spring with water that fell as rain three and half millennia ago during the Bronze Age, long before industrialization. Other springs are even more ancient. One of the worrisome contaminants are the abovementioned PFAS, the specific contaminant at high levels in Topo Chico spring water. Consumer Reports has listed brands according to their PFAS content and they have further discussion about specific brands. They didn’t mention Mountain Valley, but other testing hasn’t found these problematic chemicals.

The lesson for the day: Be careful about what you put into your body! Water is good for your health, until it is not. And quality can be hard to determine, in requiring that you do your due diligence — buyer beware, as they say. This is an area where regulatory bodies have largely failed the public or else been highly inconsistent and at times careless, possibly because of corporate lobbyist pressure (e.g., the lack of regulation of PFAS and the fact that some of the most contaminated products are owned by big biz and highly profitable, such as Coca Cola’s Topo Chico). Once inside you, no one entirely knows what all of these weird substances do to your delicate innards. Be kind to your innards and they will be kind to you. But fail to heed this warning and you will slowly rot from the inside out, as you writhe in agony while cursing the gods for the day you were born. It could happen. One way or another, drink the best water you can reasonably afford as a starting point of health, even if a charcoal filter is the only option in your price range.

A thought experiment of questions

If there actually was a military-intelligence-industrial-media complex and if it had a massive black budget funded by profits from front companies and criminal enterprises and/or dark money funneled through front organizations, international banks, etc — not to mention involvement of and access to the resources and capabilities of client states, allies, trade partners, puppet dictators, foreign oligarchies, organized crime syndicates, etc — how would anyone know about what was happening outside of the ruling elite directly involved within the highest echelons of the crony establishment, deep state, shadow network, plutocratic corporatocracy, soft fascism, and inverted totalitarianism (or whatever one wishes to call it)? How would we the people know what was going on? Would the media elite in the big biz news media report on it? Would the political elite in the one-party state with two wings tell us about it? Who would speak truth to power, what media platform would allow such critical honesty to be widely broadcast, and how would these moral voices be heard by a public that is lost in mediated reality tunnels?

Besides, would it even require the bad intent and organized conspiracy of a secret cabal of social dominators and dark personalities (Machiavellians, psychopaths, and narcissists) or could it emerge almost naturally, or at least unintentionally and by default of the biases and incentives built into the system itself, as the result of normal human relationships and social affiliations, shared life experience and common interests in terms of a ‘natural aristocracy’ of monied elite and high society that lives in the same neighborhoods, goes to the same churches, sends their kids to the same schools, belongs to the same clubs, vacations at the same resorts, attends the same social events, donates to the same non-profits, owns stock in the same companies, are members of the same corporate boards, and generally hobnobs in the same social circles and career networks, in some cases even where family dynasties form through inherited wealth and power and how they are bonded together through generations of intermarriage (i.e., cronyism and nepotism)?

Do most individuals in the elite ever stop to think about the immense system of privileges and protections, power and position in which are embedded every aspect of their lives, identities, careers, and relationships; upon which is built their entire lifestyle of comfort and pleasure, safety and security; a socially-constructed and hermeneutically-sealed poltico-economic reality that in many cases continues from conception to death? Are the upper classes, as sheep herded through carefully structured and highly controlled elite institutions, any less brainwashed and miseducated or more so? In their roles as wealthy influencers, philanthrocapitalists, powerful actors, backroom dealers, political insiders, public intellectuals, and thought leaders, do they believe the lies, disinfo, and propaganda they help spread? What would cause them to become aware of the world into which many of them were born and everything they were freely given as their birthright within the power structure? What tiny fraction of a percentage of the ruling elite actually worked and/or lucked their way up out of desperate dirt poverty, not merely having started out in the upper middle class? How many of them have ever known anything other than membership in the upper classes?

If a semi-covert or obscure Anglo-American-Western Empire as the greatest geopolitical and economic superpower on earth, though hidden in plain sight, was doing top secret technological and military research, development, and build-up for ongoing and upcoming covert operations, espionage programs, propaganda campaigns, proxy wars, international conflict, and cold war containment, possibly in preparation for World War III, with the cooperation and support of various geopolitical power structures (UN, NATO, World Bank, etc), would there be any undeniably obvious outward signs and documented evidence of this activity that could be clearly detected, easily uncovered, and demonstrably proven by outside observers, investigative journalists, and academic scholars, no matter how intelligent and informed? What if other old centers of imperial power, such as Russia and China, were likewise being restructured behind the scenes such as a Russo-Sino-Eastern Empire to oppose, challenge, and potentially defeat it’s historical enemies in the West? If there had already been a second cold war going on for decades now, would most of us have any clue to its existence, what it means, and where it might lead? Are we about to enter a new era of imperial wars of adventurism, aggression, and expansion, as was the case from the 18th century to the world war era?

Or are the real powers that are acting behind the scenes entirely different from any imperialism or imperial-like power the world has known from earlier eras? If the United States CIA, for example, had surreptitiously become an autonomous transnational paramilitary organization as part of a global deep state that operated entirely beyond all normal political oversight and public accountability, democratic or otherwise, that could be enforced by any national and international governing bodies, treaties, agreements, and legal systems, would the ‘CIA’ as such appear or operate any differently than it did in the past or would it otherwise seem to continue to do what it always had done, whatever else it might be doing that couldn’t be publicly seen? What if the CIA itself or even the entire United States government had now become a front organization for an emerging socio-politico-economic power structure of a kind, globally extensive and pervasive, never before seen to such a degree of complexity and centralized control? Would even the average lower level career politician, political party operator, or bureaucratic functionary be aware that anything had changed or would it smoothly and imperceptibly merge into the social, political, and economic cronyism and corruption already established over generations?

What if, like how a banana republic creates the illusion of democracy, transnational neo-imperialism or some other form of globalization maintained the external forms and appearances of separate and independent nation-states (maybe akin to the centralized faux ‘Federal’ government of the United States that originally, according to the Articles of Confederation, was a Federation freely joined by nation-states that were free to leave; after all, that is why they were named ‘states’)? Considering that the once diverse private and public, for-profit and non-profit media in the Western world (presumably similar to other parts of the world) used to be mostly locally-operated before nearly all of it was shut down or bought up and consolidated by a few transnational parent companies that are also invested in big energy, big defense, big tech, big drugs, big ag, etc, what if this big biz media that represents 90% of the news infotainment and soft propaganda (political rhetoric, mediated narratives, public relations, perception management, etc; in alliance with astroturfing, think tank machinations, lobbyist group influence, corporate advertising, etc) that most Americans watch has since become a propaganda arm of a shadowy superpower (deep state, deep neo-empire, or deep whatever), just another extension of the military-intelligence-industrial-media complex with loyalty to nothing else? Would we be able to smell that something was off simply by turning on the television, radio, or other tech device?

As a counter-balance and reality check to contrast against paranoid cynicism (real or perceived, justified or not), what would the world be like and how would our society function if all that was suggested above did not exist at all and, instead, we were an entirely autonomous public beholden to no power above or beyond our own democratic self-governance as free citizens of independent countries and communities (or city-states or anarcho-communes or anything else your crazy radical imagination could dream up) with fully functioning free markets and social democracies (or democratic socialism)? On a practical level of direct and personal experience, how would we tell the difference between authoritarian non-freedom and non-authoritarian freedom? What kind of lives would we live, what kind of communities would we call home, what kind of work would we do, what kind of economic fairness and social justice would exist, what kind of real freedom and effective rights would we have, what kind of resources and opportunities would be available to us, what kind of governance would we freely choose? And if we we were fully aware and informed, not indoctrinated and propagandized or manipulated and deceived in any way, how would we perceive the world we find ourselves in and how we would we act to move toward the world we would prefer? What would it take for we the people to become intellectually discerning, morally courageous, fully engaged, and politically empowered agents of our own shared freedom and collective determination?

What would freedom feel like in our bodies, minds, and souls? What would it feel like to be free in the world, to be free in ourselves and in relation to others, to be free members of free communities of people, to know freedom as a living experience within a living world? From that sense of freedom, how would we live and act freely? As freedom is etymologically cognate with friendship, what would it mean to treat others as equally free beings in mutual relationships of freedom? What does it mean to know, understand, and honor freedom as an ideal, vision, and reality? What does it mean to free here and now, not only as an aspiration but as a simple undeniable experience of what it is to be human, as a choice and acceptance of the ever present potential of freedom? Are we not all free in that we all belong to humanity, in that we are all at home in this world and have a right to be here for there is nowhere else we could be? Isn’t freedom the realization that we are citizens of the world, inhabitants of earth as a biosphere, members within the body of Gaia? What if that sense of freedom took hold in society and culture, within the public imagination, and spread as a contagious revolution of the mind? Isn’t freedom the acknowledgement that we are already in interrelationship? If freedom as our birthright is the starting point, what follows from that?

WEIRD Personality Traits as Stable Egoic Structure

Nearly every scientific field of study is facing a replication crisis and, although known about for decades now, it still has not been resolved. Most researchers are so limited in their knowledge and expertise that they lack any larger context of understanding. They simply don’t know what they don’t know and there is no incentive in siloed professions to spend time to understand anything outside of one’s field. In science, the replication crisis has numerous causes, sometimes because of bad study design or the difficulty of some areas of study. Nutrition studies, for example, has been dependent on epidemiological studies that are based on correlations without being able to prove causation; and, on top of that, are often dependent on notoriously unreliable self-reporting food surveys where people have to guesstimate what they ate in the past, sometimes over a period of years. More recent research has shown that much of what we thought we knew simply is not true or has yet to be verified.

Another problem is what or who is studied. There are problems with the lab animals used because certain species adapt better to labs, even though other species are more similar in certain ways to humans. Researchers’, for example, preference for lab mice is not unlike the guy looking for his keys under the streetlight because the light was better there. This problem applies to human subjects as well, in that they’ve mostly been white middle class undergraduate college students in the United States because most research has been done in U.S. colleges; and, in medical studies of the past, this mostly involved men which meant women in healthcare were treated as men without penises. The first part is known as the WEIRD bias (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic), and it has particularly rocked the world of the social sciences. Take personality studies where the leading theory has been the Big Five (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism), with an additional factor being added to form the HEXACO model (honesty-humility). Like so much else, it turns out that most of these personality traits don’t replicate outside of WEIRD and WEIRD-like populations. This challenge of non-WEIRD cultures and mentalities has been around a long time, as seen in the anthropological literature, but most experts in other fields have remained largely ignorant of what anthropologists have known for more than a century, that environment shapes mind, perception, and behavior.

The funny thing is that, even when studies have shown this problem with the Big Five, the WEIRD bias continues to hold sway over those trying to explain away the potential implications and to put the non-WEIRD results back into WEIRD boxes. This is done by asserting the bad results are simply caused by social desirability bias and acquiescence bias, since the answers given by non-WEIRD individuals seem to be contradictory. The researchers and interpreters of the research refuse to take the results at face value, refuse to give the benefit of the doubt that these non-WEIRD people might be accurately reporting their experience. There is almost a grasp of what is going on in pointing to these biases, since these biases are about context, but this comes so close only to miss the point. Non-WEIRD cultures and mentalities tend to be more context-dependent and so unsurprisingly give varying responses in being sensitive to how questions are being asked, whereas the WEIRD egoic abstraction of rules and principles operates more often the same across contexts. Only a highly WEIRD person would think that it is even possible to discover something entirely unrelated to context.

WEIRD personality traits are a kind of psychological rule-orientation where the individual adheres to a psychological heuristic of cognitive behavior, a strict and rigid maintenance of thought pattern that calcifies into an identity formation. The failure of cross-cultural understanding is that the very concept of a stable, unchanging personality might itself be part of the WEIRD bias and an exaggerated extension of the larger Axial Age shift when the ego theory of mind took hold, what some call Jaynesian consciousness in reference to Julian Jaynes theory about the disappearance of the bicameral mind that is a variation of the bundle theory of mind. This was then magnified by mass literacy, beginning with the Protestant Reformation, that alters brain structure, as argued by Joseph Henrich. It might not merely be that those very far distant from WEIRD culture not only lack WEIRD-style personality traits but might also lack egoic personality structures. Most WEIRD people can’t acknowledge non-WEIRD mentalities, much less grok what they mean and how to imaginatively empathize with them. The sad part is this also demonstrates a lack of self-awareness, as the bundled mind essentially exists in all of us, something that can be observed by anyone looking into their own psyche — this is why contemplative traditions like Buddhism adhere to the bundle theory of mind.

Another explanation of this psychological change of personality traits is that agriculture and later industrialization increased labor specialization that generally passed down the generations. These work niches were originally and largely still occupied by specific families, kin networks, castes, and communities over centuries or longer (e.g., feudal serfs and factory workers). It formed a stable environment and a stable culture that shaped the human psyche according to what was required. This is the opposite of hunter-gatherers who are forced to be generalists in doing a wide variety of work. Agriculture had led to some gender specialization, but even that specialization was often limited. It is definitely true, though, that hunter-gatherers are far less specialized where some like the egalitarian Piraha have little specialization at all, along with no permanent authority of any kind. It’s possible that represents how humanity lived for most of evolution when food was more abundant and life easier, as is the case where the Piraha live along a river surrounded by lush jungle. The study of the Piraha have helped challenge one area of WEIRD bias, that of seeing the world through a highly recursive literary culture. The Piraha apparently lack linguistic recursion; i.e., embedded phrases. By the way, they are an animistic culture with the typical bundled mind as overt 4E cognition (embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended). Such animistic cultures allow for personality fluidity, sometimes temporary possessions and at other times permanent identity changes.

Even gender specialization might be a somewhat recent invention, corresponding to the invention of the bow and arrow. For most of human existence, humans hunted with spears and the evidence now points to spear hunting having required the whole tribe, including women. Some of the earliest rock art also portrays men holding the hands of children, which indicates that men were either involved with childcare or not kept separate from it, maybe because the children had to be brought along on the hunt with the whole tribe. So, even the theory that there are two genetically-determined personality types based on men hunting and women gathering was a result of relatively recent changes. By the way, those changes were caused by the megafauna die-off. Smaller game replaced the megafauna and hunting smaller game motivated development of new hunting tools and techniques. The bow and arrow, once invented, allowed individuals to hunt alone and this more often was an activity of men. This forced women to take up a separate labor niche. The lower nutrition level of lean small game also made necessary a greater reliance on plant foods, which meant horticulture and later agriculture. The plow, like the bow and arrow, made another area of men’s work and further reinforced gender division.

The point is not all hunting is the same and so these different practices would create different personality structures. The same was probably true of gathering, particularly in terms of how early humans were also meat scavengers. To get into the effect of the agricultural revolution, this is reminiscent of research done on wheat and rice farming in China. What was found is that the two populations fell into the stereotypical patterns of Western and Eastern thinking, with wheat-based populations having less context-dependent thinking and rice-based populations emphasizing context, even though both populations were Chinese. The explanation is that wheat farming is typically done by one person alone working a plow or now a tractor, whereas rice farming requires highly organized collective labor. Interestingly, China stands out in that psychopathy is found equally among both genders, unlike in the West and some other places where it is disproportionately found among males. It would be interesting to study if this is primarily an effect of the larger populations involved in rice-growing and the culture that has developed around it. On a related note, research does show higher rates of psychopathy in urban areas than in rural areas. Is this simply because psychopaths prefer to remain anonymous in cities or is there something about city life that promotes psychopathic neurocognition?

Anyway, wheat farming is as different from rice farming, as bow-and-arrow hunting is from spear hunting. What stands out is that both rice farming and spear hunting are collective activities involving both genders, but wheat farming and bow-and-arrow hunting can be solitary activities that have tended to be done by men. In Western Europe, there never was rice farming. And, unlike certain populations, spear hunting in the West probably hasn’t been common in recent history. Yet there are still spear hunting tribes in various places. Some of those also do persistence hunting, probably the original form of hunting. Anyway, hunter-gatherers in general need more adaptable minds because they are dealing with diverse tasks and often over large diverse territories. This requires a more fluid and shifting mentality, one where the very concept of stable personality traits maybe simply does not apply to the same extent. Even in the West, research shows that personality traits can change over a lifetime and under different conditions, such as how a liberal can basically turn into a conservative simply by giving them a few beers. But it is true that modern WEIRD conditions are much more stable with narrow niches of work and living, often with racial and class segregation, not to mention the repetitive nature of modern life with little changes in activities from day to day, season to season.

This brings us to the worries some had in early modernity. Adam Smith thought public education was necessary because repetitive factory work made people stupid, which might be simply another way of saying that those individuals lose or else never develop cognitive flexibility, cognitive complexity, and cognitive diversity. Karl Marx explained this in terms of the transition from traditional labor where an individual constructed a product from beginning to end, often having involved multiple complex steps with various tools and techniques, each requiring different physical and cognitive skills. This gave the individual great sense of accomplishment and pride, not to mention autonomy as to be a tradesmen was to have immense skill. The dumbing down of the work force with industrial labor may have contributed to the WEIRD mentality. Even the average office worker experienced this narrowing down of activity. This allowed moderns to specialize, but in doing so sacrificed all other aspects of development. This relates to the creation of stupid smart people, those who are only capable of doing one thing well but otherwise are clueless. It’s not hard to see how this has forced people into niche personalities and hence making possible theories about how to categorize such personalities.

* * *

Tests For the ‘Big Five’ Personality Traits Don’t Hold Up In Much of the World
by Megan Schmidt

So, why doesn’t the Big Five test hold up around the world? Lead author Rachid Laajaj, an economics researcher at the University of Los Andes in Columbia, said many of the reasons are rooted in literacy and education barriers. Many personality tests used in WEIRD countries are intended to be self-administered, designed for people who can read and write. But because of lower literacy rates in developing countries, tests may need to be given verbally. This introduces the possibility of translation or phrasing differences that could skew results.

Researchers also think that face-to-face questioning allows social desirability bias to creep into the process. This means that respondents may try to interpret social cues for a “right answer” or give answers they think would be viewed more favorably by others.

“Yea-saying,” or the tendency to agree with a statement even if it’s untrue, is also more common in developing countries, where there’s less access to education, the researchers say.

“People may have a harder time understanding abstract questions. Acquiescence bias may be accentuated when people do not fully understand, in which case it feels safer to just agree,” Laajaj said.

Additionally, the idea of personality tests — or personality itself — may not be a natural concept everywhere. Understandably, people who aren’t familiar with the idea of personality testing might be a bit wary of revealing personal details about themselves.

“Imagine that you live in a poor area and someone comes to you to ask you a bunch of questions, such as how hardworking you are, whether you get stressed easily or whether you are a polite person. If it is not common for you to fill out surveys, or if it’s not clear what will be done with it, you may, for example, care more about giving a good impression than being completely truthful,” Laajaj said.

Personality is not only about who but also where you are
by Dorsa Amir

To understand why industrialisation might be an influential force in the development of behaviour, it’s important to understand its legacy in the human story. The advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago launched perhaps the most profound transformation in the history of human life. No longer dependent on hunting or gathering for survival, people formed more complex societies with new cultural innovations. Some of the most important of these innovations involved new ways of accumulating, storing and trading resources. One effect of these changes, from a decision-making standpoint, was a reduction in uncertainty. Instead of relying on hard-to-predict resources such as prey, markets allowed us to create larger and more stable pools of resources.

As a result of these broader changes, markets might have also changed our perceptions of affordability. In WEIRD societies with more resources (remember that the R in WEIRD stands for rich) kids might feel that they can better afford strategies such as patience and risk-seeking. If they get unlucky and pull out a green marble and didn’t win any candy, that’s okay; it didn’t cost them that much. But for Shuar kids in the rainforest with less resources, the loss of that candy is a much bigger deal. They’d rather avoid the risk.

Over time, these successful strategies can stabilise and become recurrent strategies for interacting with our world. So, for instance, in an environment where the costs of waiting are high, people might be consistently impatient.

Other studies support the notion that personality is shaped more by the environment than previously thought. In work among Indigenous Tsimané adults in Bolivia, anthropologists from the University of California, Santa Barbara found weak support for the so-called ‘Big Five’ model of personality variation, which consists of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Similar patterns came from rural Senegalese farmers and the Aché in Paraguay. The Big Five model of personality, it turns out, is WEIRD.

In another recent paper, the anthropologist Paul Smaldino at the University of California, Merced and his collaborators followed up on these findings further, relating them to changes that were catalysed by industrialisation. They argue that, as societies become more complex, they lead to the development of more niches – or social and occupational roles that people can take. Different personality traits are more successful in some roles than others, and the more roles there are, the more diverse personality types can become.

As these new studies all suggest, our environments can have a profound impact on our personality traits. By expanding the circle of societies we work with, and approaching essentialist notions of personality with skepticism, we can better understand what makes us who we are.

A general theory of personality based on social selection and life-history theory
by Andreas Hofer

When it comes to personality psychology the Big 5 (or Five-Factor Model/FFM) are still considered the gold standard and many other personality tests, like the Myers-Briggs (MBTI) are considered pseudoscience. The FFM is even more useful and has more predictive power when a sixth dimension is added: honesty humility (HEXACO model).

However, adding new personality dimensions is of little use when it comes to understanding human nature, as not even five factors are human universals. Two of the factors that are often associated with mental disorders (neuroticism and openness to experience), never even show up in non-Western societies, which are called “WEIRD” (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) by Joseph Henrich in The WEIRDest People in the World (2020). Henrich points out the Big 5 are indeed WEIRD 5, as they are by no means human universals. Some societies yield only three or four factors. Subsistence-level economies often only have two factors. The Tsimane’  practise subsistence farming and Henrich writes about them:

So, did the Tsimane’ reveal the WEIRD-5? No, not even close. The Tsimane’ data reveal only two dimensions of personality. No matter how you slice and dice the data, there’s just nothing like the WEIRD-5. Moreover, based on the clusters of characteristics associated with each of the Tsimane’’s two personality dimensions, neither matches up nicely with any of the WEIRD-5 dimensions […] these dimensions capture the two primary routes to social success among the Tsimane’, which can be described roughly as “interpersonal prosociality” and “industriousness.” The idea is that if you are Tsimane’, you can either focus on working harder on the aforementioned productive activities and skills like hunting and weaving, or you can devote your time and mental efforts to building a richer network of social relationships.

Rice, Psychology, and Innovation
by Joseph Henrich

Decades of experimental research show that, compared to most populations in the world, people from societies that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) (4) are psychologically unusual, being both highly individualistic and analytically minded. High levels of individualism mean that people see themselves as independent from others and as characterized by a set of largely positive attributes. They willingly invest in new relationships even outside their kin, tribal, or religious groups. By contrast, in most other societies, people are enmeshed in dense, enduring networks of kith and kin on which they depend for cooperation, security, and personal identity. In such collectivistic societies, property is often corporately owned by kinship units such as clans; inherited relationships are enduring and people invest heavily in them, often at the expense of outsiders, strangers, or abstract principles (4).

Psychologically, growing up in an individualistic social world biases one toward the use of analytical reasoning, whereas exposure to more collectivistic environments favors holistic approaches. Thinking analytically means breaking things down into their constituent parts and assigning properties to those parts. Similarities are judged
according to rule-based categories, and current trends are expected to continue. Holistic thinking, by contrast, focuses on relationships between objects or people anchored in their concrete contexts. Similarity is judged overall, not on the basis of logical rules. Trends are expected to be cyclical.

Various lines of evidence suggest that greater individualism and more analytical thinking are linked to innovation, novelty, and creativity (5). But why would northern Europe have had greater individualism and more analytical thinking in the first place? China, for example, was technologically advanced, institutionally complex, and relatively educated by the end of the first millennium. Why would Europe have been more individualist and analytically oriented than China? […]

Sure enough, participants from provinces more dependent on paddy rice cultivation were less analytically minded. The effects were big: The average number of analytical matches increased by about 56% in going from all-rice to no-rice cultivation. The results hold both nationwide and for the counties in the central provinces along the rice-wheat (north-south) border, where other differences are minimized.

Participants from rice-growing provinces were also less individualistic, drawing themselves roughly the same size as their friends, whereas those from wheat provinces drew themselves 1.5 mm larger. [This moves them only part of the way toward WEIRD people: Americans draw themselves 6 mm bigger than they draw others, and Europeans draw themselves 3.5 mm bigger (6).] People from rice provinces were also more likely to reward their friends and less likely to punish them, showing the in-group favoritism characteristic of collectivistic populations.

So, patterns of crop cultivation appear linked to psychological differences, but can these patterns really explain differences in innovation? Talhelm et al. provide some evidence for this by showing that less dependence on rice is associated with more successful patents for new inventions. This doesn’t nail it, but is consistent with the
broader idea and will no doubt drive much future inquiry. For example, these insights may help explain why the embers of an 11th century industrial revolution in China were smothered as northern invasions and climate change drove people into the southern rice paddy regions, where clans had an ecological edge, and by the emergence of state-level political and legal institutions that reinforced the power of clans (7).

What the Right Fears, the Left Desires

Let us throw out a simple observation with limited detail and analysis. This is a phenomenon that seems to define the reactionary mind. And so it is more often found on the American right-wing. But it can be observed in anyone who is pulled into reaction, including those reacting to reactionaries or otherwise immersed in the reactionary dynamic; a dynamic, by the way, that is inevitably authoritarian. Within the reactionary culture of American society, that can include much of the population to varying degrees. While this complicates matters, we will mostly ignore it for the time being, since we’ve already discussed it elsewhere.

We’ll briefly note the complication in the following and then move on. To put this in concrete terms, most Democratic elite and partisans tend towards the reactionary, if less strongly and blatantly than GOP elite and partisans. It’s nearly impossible to be involved in the polarization and propaganda of partisan politics without being at least somewhat reactionary — it’s almost a prerequisite. Still, there are vast differences of degree and it’s mainly those at the extreme end that we’re talking about. It is a specific category of person that falls into the full glory of the reactionary mind and embraces it as an identity (for details, see our writings on Corey Robin and the reactionary mind).

Here is the observation. Reactionaries only perceive the other side’s beliefs and views, values and principles as ideological, that only those other people’s ideologies are radical and extremist; that other’s politics are a religious faith, other’s political actions are nihilism and anarchism, other’s religions are cults and myths, other’s rhetoric is propaganda, other’s fears are moral panic, other’s behavior is mass formation, other’s governance is authoritarianism, on and on and on. Basically, those other people are bad or evil, whereas reactionaries are confident that they are on the side of Light and Righteousness. There is a lack of humility and introspection, mixed with projection and caricature.

This relates also to various ways that reactionaries can be dismissive of others. Another person’s information and evidence, experience and suffering is not fully real to them. The reactionary mind works by closing down and excluding. So, another group’s oppression and victimization is not only less real but less legitimate and important. This is why, among Americans, many white conservatives, white fundamentalists, and white males believe they are the most victimized people in the United States, maybe in the world; a view starkly disconnected from reality.

This is an old pattern. And, in Anglo-American culture, it really does usually divide according to Left and Right. It was the emergent conservatives, as reactionary counter-revolutionaries, who accused the political left of being nihilists following the American and French revolutions. Then shortly after that, it was the Southern aristocracy, in reacting to modernization, that accused Northerners of ideological ‘-isms’. And these reactionaries would repeat this rhetoric endlessly, as if it was the most damning of judgments. But the point is that kind of dismissive criticism has rarely been heard on the Anglo-American left.

Why is that? We originally didn’t plan to offer any analysis, but let’s point to some old themes of ours and share a cursory explanation. The fundamental reason for this difference involves moral imagination, symbolic conflation, social constructionism, and ideological realism (we have numerous posts on all of these). We could surely add to that list, if we gave it much more thought. Basically, the reactionary right requires their worldview to be conflated with reality, confused in the mind, buried in the unconscious, obscured from public gaze, and so placed above interrogation. There are many tools to achieve this end such as faux nostalgia, historical revisionism, and invented traditions; and so erasing the evidence of its origins in order to make something appear as if it was always that way.

On the other hand, the action of the political left has typically been the opposite, to explore origins and analyze the development, to place things in context; and hence the reason the political left has long been closely associated with intellectuality, science, academia, and education. Between the conservative and liberal minds, this is the push and pull between two forces, what Lewis Hyde called Hermes of the Dark and Hermes of the Light, one that enchants and the other that disenchants. The liberal mind wants to bring things out into the open so that they can be analyzed, questioned, and doubted; or understood and appreciated. And this is precisely what conservatives fear, the grubby scrutiny of consciousness that Edmund Burke portrayed as a lecherous mob penetrating the palace and tearing away the queen’s clothing to reveal what should not be seen by prying eyes.

The ruling power of the reactionary mind and the conservative order can only operate by being hidden and protected. This is why the reactionary right fears the left as radical and extremist, nihilist and anarchist. There is a grain of truth to this. Consider that ‘radical’ means to get to the root of things and that is what the liberal-minded like to do, pull things up out of the dirt and into the sunlight. The conservative-minded rightly points out that this might kill the plant, but if it is a weed or invasive species we do want to kill it. And, if it turns out to be a desirable plant, we can always transplant it into the safety of a garden where it will be tended and watered. Contrary to reactionary obfuscation, the liberal mind seeks open-eyed clarity and discernment.

Even the accusation of nihilism hints at something genuine. It originally was a dismissive label and a slur used against revolutionaries, reformers, and radicals. But some far leftists in late 19th century Russia took it as a proud and honorable title; in the way some blacks use the ‘N’ word to take ownership of it and neuter it as a weapon. The Russian Nihilists were not a highly organized movement, similar to the present ‘antifa’ in the US (supposedly everywhere and yet can never be found), but they shared a common philosophy or attitude. To their understanding, nihilism meant that, although future solutions are unknown in the present, they could seek to eliminate the problems that obstructed the ability to seek and enact those potential solutions — like tearing a structure down to its foundation in order to rebuild or plowing a field to plant crops; that is to say creative destruction.

Unlike the false claims of nihilism as mere anarchistic terrorism, these Nihilists didn’t lack beliefs and values. Rather, what they wanted was an open public debate about beliefs and values, that nothing should be off limits. Their actions were pro-active. They embodied Hermes the Light who disenchants, but always with the purpose of re-enchanting (i.e., inspiring and enthralling) the mind with a different and better ideological frame of narrative and understanding. This is nothing unusual, as every major change necessitates this process of undoing, prior to re-creating. It depends on one’s perspective. To British reactionaries like Edmund Burke, the American Revolution ended up seeming like the chaotic nihilism of violent mobs. But, ironically, the American reactionaries, once they co-opted the revolutionary nation-building, saw it as the most wonderful thing.

There is a real distinction to be made between right and left, reactionary and non-reactionary. The political right is correct to an extent. The two mentalities really do diverge, even if a mutual dynamic lashes them together in their movements. This is what many soft-hearted and well-intentioned liberals fail to understand, in their desire for equality and their vulnerability to false equivalency. The two mindsets are not only different in degree but in substance and motivation — they are two worldviews foreign to each other. As rightism attempts to enclose the whole world within its ideological grip, leftism at its best points beyond itself to what is presently unknown. This is fundamentally nihilistic, whichever definition of that term one prefers, but essentially a broad and curious-minded openness toward undiscovered and unproven possibility.

Here is an even more important distinction. The reactionary right is drawn into essentialism and determinism, as related to ideological realism. This is the naturalistic fallacy. Like races and gender, social mindsets and political identities can be taken as reality itself; and so abstractions as labels can become reified. These are among the many things the political left seeks to undo and dispel, to disenchant. Think of the difference between Ayn Rand and Karl Marx. The former asserted an absolutist dogma, whereas the latter was more akin to the Russian nihilists in never having outlined any specific ideological system that would inevitably replace capitalist realism, as he also thought solutions couldn’t be determined beforehand. Leftism and liberalism, as such, are more markers of undetermined significance, pointing in a direction as yet unknown.

Those on the political left don’t need to dismiss the other side because leftism wants to weaken such boundaries of the mind and boundaries of social order, particularly boundaries of pseudo-tribalism, so as to imagine something else. In reality, none of us is actually left-wing or right-wing, conservative or liberal. These are social constructions, not reality; whether or not we deem them useful fictions. We are free to create something else and the suggestion that seeking not yet known possibilities is nihilistic is meaningless and irrelevant, and empty fear lashing out in the darkness. The leftist has less difficulty in admitting that their own politics are also an ideological worldview because it is only in admitting this that we can bring our biases and failures out into the open to be aired. What the right fears, the left desires.

The political left has less to defend, both in a practical sense and as an ideological project. This is why, in our own writings, we regularly take shots at all sides. In fact, we are often most critical of those who are most similar and most in agreement with us, and we regularly piss off people who might be perceived as being on ‘our side’. An example of this is our complaint against the corporate takeover of environmentalist arguments, in co-opting veganism as a political tool (e.g., EAT-Lancet). It’s precisely because we have been strident environmentalists for as long as we can remember that we take such offense at this movement being misused as propagandistic social control. The value of environmentalism, in our own liberal mind, is not as a social identifier of group identity. This is how we’ve ended up such a disloyal liberal in refusing to bow down to the DNC elite, AFSCME union leadership, or anyone else.

Group loyalty is not a defining trait of the liberal mind. It’s because of this resistant attitude toward group-mindedness that some describe trying to organize the political left as herding cats. It’s the strength and weakness of liberal-mindedness. Left-liberalism, rather than falling into strongly and strictly contained boundaries of us versus them, tends to expand and sometimes, sadly, splinter apart. But there is something impressive and worthy about the liberal mind. We’ve previously noted that white liberals are the first ‘group’ seen in American research to express a pro-outgroup bias, as opposed to identifying with those supposedly like themselves (i.e., other white liberals).

The reason is that most of those white liberals don’t take white liberalism as their group identity, in the way that do white conservatives, for they’ve opened and expanded the circle of concern. There is less sense of an other to project upon because the liberal potentially invites everyone, even those on the reactionary right, into belonging as members of a liberal society. Terms such as reactionary and progressive, left and right are relative, not absolute, labels and context-dependent, not essentialist, identities; and so one day those terms will disappear while the human race will remain. Liberalism aspires to unity through diversity. The political right sees this pro-outgroup bias as leftist self-hatred that seeks to destroy all that is good about the white race, the Christian religion, and Western civilization. But, in the liberal mind, there is enough kindness and compassion to go around, along with enough resources if shared equally and fairly.

It’s a split between an attitude of scarcity and an attitude of abundance, between fear and love. To the left-liberal persuasion, we are all humans on a shared earth, we are all citizens of the world — the ancient dream of the Axial Age prophets. Those on the reactionary right, obviously, disagree in that they define themselves by what they oppose and exclude. As conservative Ronald Reagan pointed out, we might only be unified as a common human species when earth is attacked by a common enemy of space aliens; although simply the existence of space aliens, even if entirely peaceful, would be enough to elicit a reaction of fear from reactionaries. If and when that happens, the reactionary right will accuse those space aliens of everything that, in the past, they accused liberals and leftists. Meanwhile, the political left will seriously consider and openly debate about whether space aliens should have the same freedom and rights, should be welcomed as fellow beings as part of a single shared galaxy or universe.

* * *

Notes on terminology:

We don’t make an absolute differentiation in how we use the labels of left-wing, leftism, liberalism, and left-liberalism. Even ‘progressivism’, at this point, has mostly been subsumed within this political left matrix. But there is separate historical development of the ‘left’ and the ‘liberal. We’ve covered this information before, but we’ll rehash it here.

Since the French Revolution, the political left has been primarily associated with egalitarianism and similar concepts of fraternity, solidarity, camaraderie, and such. This is about what mutually unites and holds together an economic class or group of people (typically a large group), either formally organized (e.g., labor union), informally associated (e.g., a poor community), or otherwise allied through common vision, interests, and benefit. The desired goal is to escape false consciousness by developing class consciousness or group consciousness, the knowledge and awareness of the conditions that create the social world one was born into. For this reason, the idea of a leftist way of thinking has also become implicated in theories or understandings about what is interdependent, systemic, environmental, ecological, holistic, integral, intersectional, complex, etc.

The metaphorical ‘left’ has an ancient pedigree, such as the left-hand path; as opposed to a right-hand man, being in the right, and having rights. Liberty and hence libertarianism is about the individual rights that can be given or taken away by official and legal power, specifically the right to not be enslaved, whether or not others are enslaved. Freedom, on the other hand, is more cultural and communal, such as belonging a free people and being among friends. See: Cultural Freedom, Legal Liberty. The word ‘right’ might be etymologically related to Greek ‘arete’ as virtue, righteousness, pride, power, ability, etc; and maybe also related to words like regent, royalty, and rajah. One can sense why the right-wing became naturally identified with authoritarianism. Whereas the connection to conservatism is more of a sociopolitical observation, since every authoritarian regime that has ever existed has been socially conservative, including Stalinism and Maoism.

Liberalism stands as unique among these terms. Unlike conservatism, it’s earliest definition had nothing to do with governance, politics, political parties, social order, power structure, legal systems, social movements, and such. To this day, it maintains more of its basic meaning as a psychological predisposition, a behavioral mentality or attitude, a way of relating to or treating others, and how one inhabits or acts in the world; particularly, as measured in FFM openness, MBTI intuition and perceiving, and Ernest Hartmann’s thin boundary type. Most simply, liberalism always has carried the meaning of generosity of spirit, although conservatives argue that liberals are being generous with other people’s money. This spiritual generosity, of course, never was inherently and primarily about money; as it mainly suggests an attitude of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness.

This relates to how liberalism became described according to the religious notion of a bleeding heart, which means a good Christian who sacrifices for others; but as an accusation it implies one who cares too much or who wants to be (or to be perceived as being) a martyr. And that brings us to the crime of sympathizing with the enemy, foreigners, and other unwanted or dangerous outsiders; along with sympathizing with undesirables in general (e.g., the conservative perception of the dirty, lazy, criminal, and all around inferior poor who are supposedly undeserving of sympathy) — anyone who is deemed ‘other’. This is why, during the Cold War, liberals were sometimes called fellow travelers, to judge them as guilty by perceived association with communists. There are endless associations along these lines, as the word ‘liberal’ has been around so along to accumulate a mixed history of meanings.

There is one other thing that is a new thought. In studying Julian Jaynes and Lewis Hyde, the use of language comes up. Everyone uses metaphors and metonymies and they have immense power over the mind (see the literature on linguistic relativity). But the left-liberal tends to use such language openly and consciously; while the right-conservative does so obscurely or unconsciously. It’s partly a difference of whether our use of language is held lightly or tightly. That even applies to the language of left and right, a metonymical metaphor of the body politic. That is the point we made above about the left pointing beyond itself. Left-liberalism wants to disenchant the mind and there is no greater power of enchantment than word magic, particularly as memetic mind virus.

That is why those who complain the most about the left-right metaphor are typically those on the left, not those on the right. It’s amusing because in complaining they are demonstrating their leftist style of thinking, in not perceiving these words as representing essentialist and deterministic qualities that literally divide up humanity. Metaphors are either useful or not, but when useful they help clarify patterns that are otherwise difficult to perceive and talk about. At present, there is not yet an equally potent and effective metaphor to replace this one. And no such metaphor disappears without being replaced. That is why, despite our own criticisms of all of these terms, we go on using them. There simply are no other good alternatives. We could simply speak of egalitarianism in place of leftism and liberalism, but that word doesn’t have the readymade sense of meaning that most people easily grasp.

* * *

2/5/22 – Note on left vs right, liberal vs conservative:

As often repeated in this blog, reactionaries can co-opt anything. That is a complicating factor. Take the Nazis, as right-wing authoritarian (RWA) as they come, and combined with social dominance orientation (SDO) — they used any and all rhetoric as it was convenient, in typical realpolitik fashion. This included also using the rhetoric of leftism and progressivism, but they also used the rhetoric of conservatism, religion, and much else. One observer who visited Nazi Germany stated that Nazi rhetoric was incoherent, as they simply would say anything. But there is actually a coherent motivation within the reactionary mind, if one scrutinizes it closely enough and digs down into its underlying psychological structure. The reactionary mind is essentially a Dark Personality, defined by the Dark Triad or Dark Tetrad.

Rhetoric is largely irrelevant, at least at this level. You have to first determine someone is honest in their use of rhetoric before you can take their rhetoric at face value. One of the pillars of the Dark Personality is Machiavellianism, having to do with a lack of humility and a willingness to do anything to get ahead. This is closely associated with SDO, which is distinct from but often overlapping with RWA. How they are differentiated is, for example, their motivation for prejudice. RWAs will fear and hate those who are unable or unwilling to assimilate to the group identity and subordinate themselves to conventional authority, which is why RWAs are actually more flexible in simply wanting to be good followers, even in a liberal social democracy or a leftist state. SDOs, instead, fear and hate those who will attempt to assimilate because, in doing so, they threaten to undo the social order of hierarchy and inequality.

That said, later research does differentiate between two elements of SDO that must be measured separately (The Nature of Social Dominance Orientation, Arnold K. Ho et al). There are the full-on dominators who express old school bigotry like racism. That is SDO-Dominance (SDO-D). But that aspect is on the decline in the West since it is no longer politically correct in mainstream society and no longer allowed to be enforced in law. That is where SDO-Egalitarianism (SDO-E) comes in. Many SDOs are prejudiced in more subtle ways and with more subtle means. They simply want to enforce anti-egalitarianism itself. That kind of SDO might be find if a few black people become rich, just as long as most black people remain poor, and just as long as the plutocrats remain in power. The same would apply to other groups as well, such as a harsh attitude toward poor whites (e.g., DNC elites and DNC-aligned corporate media scapegoating poor whites for Donald Trump’s rise to power, despite the fact that his main supporters were middle class whites). The fear is that the repressed will rise up, but SDO-Es are less concerned about the exact demographics of the repressed.

Obviously, one can sense how the reactionary can be complicated and why it comes in degrees. But the full reactionary mind will be high in both SDO-D and SDO-E, will be high in both SDO and RWA, what are referred to as Double Highs — these are the worse of the worst, the most prejudiced and the most likely to become leaders of far right groups. But what about left-wing authoritarianism and dominance? That is one of the further complications, as indeed reactionaries can and will use any rhetoric. Josef Stalin is the greatest example of how a Double High will use Machiavellianism to gain power and rule. He didn’t actually care about communism, other than how it helped him rebuild the Russian Empire with a neo-feudal peasantry as forced labor. What stands out is that Stalinism was socially conservative, not socially liberal. That is the main point. Reactionaries can co-opt any rhetoric, but this is superficial. What they can’t ever fully co-opt is social liberalism itself as behavior and policy because that would undermine RWA and SDO.

This is shown in research where “dark personalities seem to have a particularly important impact on political extremism and election of politicians and political parties who are considered right- or left-wing” and yet simultaneously “narcissism and psychopathy were associated with political conservatism, whereas Machiavellianism was associated with low rates of liberalism (Jonason, 2014). The Dark Triad traits also correlate with conservative judgments such as capital punishment, gay marriage, and gun control (Arvan, 2013). […] Finally, dark personality traits have been shown to be associated with moral foundations that in turn are linked to conservatism. For example, Međedović and Petrović (2016) showed that Machiavellianism predicted both ingroup/loyalty and authority/respect, whereas psychopathy was positively associated with ingroup/loyalty” (Boris Duspara and Tobias Greitemeyer, The impact of dark tetrad traits on political orientation and extremism).

So, even when some left-wingers or rather some using left-wing rhetoric measure high in dark personality traits related to RWA and SDO, they also measure high in conservative traits. You will never find a dark personality with liberal traits because, by definition and by essence, liberal traits are the complete opposite of the Dark Triad/Tetrad, RWA, and SDO. This is why, in seeking to clarify, we speak of left-liberals as a distinct category because one could also argue that left-conservatives exist along with right-conservatives, but what one will never find are right-liberals as the right-wing is defined to the degree it is not liberal, whereas the left is a bit less clear in its relationship to liberalism (there is a long conflict between leftists and liberals that has formed a legacy of confusion, although it is as much or more a conflict between old liberalism and new liberalism).

When we use the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ in this blog, we are always referring to motivations and not rhetoric. The strange phenomenon of left-conservatives doesn’t make sense beyond superficial rhetoric because conservatism inherently opposes the very substance and meaning of left-wing ideology. So, to refer to left-conservatives is simply another way of saying reactionaries co-opting left-wing rhetoric for right-wing purposes of RWA and SDO. This is useful knowledge, though, for intellectual discernment and intellectual self-defense. We are always using the past as a touchstone because, despite all of the confusion, there is a consistency of ideological distinction that goes back centuries. That is why it is helpful to put this in the earliest historical context. Right and left originally referred to the seating arrangement in the French Assembly. Supporters for the king sat on the right side of the king; whereas detractors, critics, reformers, and malcontents sat on his left. This basic kind of distinction remains true, no matter what is the power in question.

The French king was a Double High figure and so to support him meant to support a system that was based on high RWA and high SDO. There is only one way to be loyal to a strongman ruler who demands total obedience, only one position to be in when on the right. To be a right-winger means submission to some system of authority and domination, be it political, social, economic, or religious. To be the king’s right-hand man is to do as one is told, to be a yes-man, to be a good follower and a good enforcer of submission. But there is potentially an infinite number of ways to be on the king’s left. That basic distinction remains true to this day, at least in a Western context (as left and right categorization may or may not apply to other cultures). In the United States, there is no established left-wing system, institution, or organization of respected authority that wields any significant power and influence. Even academia in universities is structured according to authoritarian bureaucracy and dependent on authoritarian corporate funding, which is the reason why egalitarian far leftists like anarchists are rarely employed as college professors and researchers. American leftists inevitably are forced outside of power because that is the nature of being a Double Low and Light Personality within any society dominated by Double Highs and Dark Personalities.

But even in the most liberal society and most well-functioning social democracy, there will always be left-wing critics who are forever pushing toward new and greater possibilities, just as conservatives and authoritarians will come to defend the established order, even defending a liberal and egalitarian order — another way in which leftism is partly distinct from a broad sense of liberalism. To be a leftist is to be forever dissatisfied with what is in imagining what might be. This is why the political left is an endless spur toward progress as there is no ultimate end to possibility, in that enacting one possibility simply opens up to further possibilities. That goes to the point that left-wing ideology is never limited to any single political system but, rather, opens up to diverse possibilities that includes what has not yet been fully understood, articulated, and envisioned. Leftism simply stands for possibility itself, which ironically is how leftists get identified as nihilists with a bad attitude because leftism first requires pointing out what is wrong. Possibility, to be sought and made manifest, must be freed from what seeks to limit and eliminate possibility. More than anything else, this is possibility-mindedness as openness, curiosity, exploration, wonder, hope, and optimism.

This possibility-mindedness, though, is not a blank slate for it is inherently motivated by a love of ever increasing egalitarian freedom — it represents the possibility and the potential that is seen as equally residing within everyone; the opposite of and opposing to ideological realism that constrains possibility by shutting down the radical imagination. Leftism shakes loose the calcified mind and identity. Liberalism is just one component of this, but an important component. It is the victory of leftism that liberalism has become the dominant paradigm that frames and defines everything, even the reactionary right; where each and every generation of conservatives is more liberal than the last, such that the average conservative today is to the left of the average liberal from a century ago. This has created a strange situation where the majority of Americans are left-liberals, even as the reactionary right continues to not only rule the government and economy but also rule the public mind, public identity, and public imagination — rule by oppression.

Liberalism has been so normalized that classical conservatism is almost entirely buried and forgotten. One is hard put to find many contemporary American conservatives who openly and blatantly, fully and proudly defend the misogynistic, racist, eugenicist, genocidal, plutocratic, and imperialist conservatism from past centuries (e.g., a rigid caste system of aristocrats and peasants, of slaveholders and slaves, of colonizers and colonized, of the civilized and the primitive, of WASPs and ethnics). Classical conservatism is now politically incorrect, even on the mainstream political right, so politically correct that it can’t even be acknowledged. This is why, among the educated and respectable classes, conservatives will often claim to be classical liberals (i.e., early modern liberalism). But, of course, the reactionary right’s understanding of past liberalism is extremely narrow and nostalgic — they don’t mean radical Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers: Baruch Spinoza, Denis Diderot, Marquis de Condorcet, Pierre Bayle, Giambattista Vico, Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, Abraham Clark, etc. Mostly, reactionary right classical liberals are looking to John Locke and Adam Smith; but Lockean land rights were earlier, not to mention more strongly and radically, defended by Roger Williams; and modern conservatives overlook the fact that Adam Smith, the leading light of capitalist thought, stated a free society wasn’t possible with high inequality.

So, amusingly, the reactionary right in selectively co-opting yesteryear’s liberalism and filtering it through nostalgic historical revisionism has no inherent substance of its own, while the egalitarian left in abandoning or transforming old liberal positions is the creative force that again and again establishes the very substance that can be later co-opted. The right uses moral imagination to appear to have substance in hiding  its lack of substance, in that the reactionary is forever defined not by what it is for but by what it is reacting against. And the left constantly denies its own substance once it has been established, which can leave the impression of the left lacking substance, of being merely critical and antagonistic, destructive and nihilistic. Like the French left, the Anglo-American left came into being in opposition to a king and the entire authoritarian system of monarchy and aristocracy. The French were following the example of Anglo-American revolt, not only the American Revolution but also the earlier regicidal English Civil War that itself was influenced by the earlier radical class war of the Peasants’ Revolts, along with the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, and Anabaptist hereticism. All of this formed into a larger Western tradition of leftist politics that continues to oppose whatever powers that be, but not knee-jerk opposition for it is seeking to reform and re-create. What the left is seeking freedom from and hence freedom toward is always a moving target.

The Great WEIRDing of the Jaynesian Ego-Mind as a Civilizational Project

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
~ Luke 23:34

“I’m supposed to act like they aren’t here. Assuming there’s a ‘they’ at all. It may just be my imagination. Whatever it is that’s watching, it’s not human, unlike little dark eyed Donna. It doesn’t ever blink. What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me, into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly, because I can’t any longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone’s sake the scanners do better. Because if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I do, then I’m cursed and cursed again. I’ll only wind up dead this way, knowing very little, and getting that little fragment wrong too.”
~ A Scanner Darkly (movie)

Let us explore the strangeness of human nature and what it means in our society. For practical purposes, this will require us to use the examples of other people. The simple reason is that certain behavioral and identity patterns are easier to see in others than in ourselves. So, just because our present focus is turned outward, it does not imply that we are standing above in judgment, that we are casting the first stone. We will safely assume that, like all humans, we lack the requisite self-awareness to always see clearly what we do and how what we do is more inconsistent than we would prefer. The following is not about the moral failure of individuals but a reckoning with our shared species-being. The most blatant example we are aware of, in our personal experience, is that of someone we have known for about a quarter of a century. We have on multiple occasions, along with others present to confirm it, observed her say something to one person and then, upon walking into the next room, immediately say something completely contradictory to someone else. She seemed oblivious to the fact that she was still in ear-shot of those she just spoke to, suggesting it was not a consciously intentional act of deceit and manipulation. In all the years we’ve known her, she has repeated this behavior many times and she has never shown any indication of understanding what she did or any memory of what transpired. It’s as if she had been two different people, in apparently not carrying a portable and unchanging internal ego structure from one place to the next.

Along with other behaviors, this has led us to suspect she has borderline personality disorder or something along those lines, whatever one might call it; not that she has ever been diagnosed and it must be stated that, in her own perception, she thinks she is completely sane. But psychiatric diagnoses and debates about them are irrelevant for our purposes here. Indeed, maybe she is sane and labeling something does not protect us from what it represents, does not quarantine the perceived mental disease. The issue at hand implicates us all. What we’re discussing here has everything to do with how memory operates, with the narratives we create in retelling memories, forgetting them, and forming new ones. The same lady above, it might be noted, is talented at shaping narratives, not only in her own mind but in the moment of relating to others and so projecting those narratives onto the world, such as staging melodramatic conflicts (typical according to descriptions of borderline personality disorder; when an inner boundaries can’t be maintained, one turns to creating external boundaries in the world by projecting onto others and then controlling them). And she is masterful in creating and controlling her social media persona. The point for bringing all of this up is that, even if her case is extreme and obvious, that kind of thing is surprisingly not abnormal. All of us do similar things, if most of us are better at covering our tracks. We’ve come across numerous other examples over the years from a diversity of people.

Often memory lapses happen in more subtle ways, not always involving overt inconsistency. Amnesia can operate sometimes in maintaining consistency. One guy we know has a strange habit of how he eats. It’s so extremely methodical and constrained. He’ll pick up his fork, place a piece in his mouth, lay down the fork, and carefully chew for an extraordinary amount of time, as if he were counting the number of times chewed. It’s very much unnatural, that is to say we could tell it was trained into him at some point. We pointed this out to him and he didn’t realize he was doing anything unusual, but his wife told us she knew why he did it. Many years earlier, he had told her that his mother had made him thoroughly chew his food as a child and, indeed, she was a strict woman as he has shared with us. The thing is, even when told of this memory he once shared with his wife, he still could not remember it — it was gone and, along with it, any understanding about the origins of his behavior. The memory of his mother’s voice telling him what to do is absent, whereas the authoritative command of her voice still echoes in his mind. An external authorization is internalized as part of the individual ego-mind and simply becomes part of an unquestionable self-identity.

To emphasize the power this holds over the mind, realize this goes far beyond only one particular behavior as his entire identity is extremely controlled (controlled by his egoic willpower or by the authorizing voice of his mother repeating in his unconscious?). He had forgotten something from his childhood that has continued to unconsciously determine his behavioral identity. It was a total memory lapse; and maybe the erasure wasn’t accidental but an important mechanism of identity formation, in creating the sense of an unquestionable psychological realism, the way he takes himself to be as inborn character. It absolutely fascinates us. That kind of forgetting we’ve noticed so many times before. Let us share another incident involving a different married couple, one we’ve also known for a very long time. The husband told us of when his wife went looking for a dog at an animal shelter and he accompanied her. According to him, she told the shelter worker who helped them about how she had gotten her first dog, but the husband explained to us that she had made it up or rather she had told him an alternative version previously, whichever one was correct or whether either was. When he confronted her about this creative storytelling, she simply admitted that it was not true and she had made it up. As he told it, her manner treated the admission like it was irrelevant or insignificant, and so she offered no explanation for why she did it. She just shrugged it off, as if it were normal and acceptable behavior.

Yet it’s entirely possible that the whole situation was beyond her full self-awareness even in the moment of being confronted, similar to the case with the first woman mentioned above. Directly confronting someone does not always induce self-awareness and social-awareness, as identity formations are powerful in protecting against conflicting and threatening information. Amusingly, when we later brought up the animal shelter incident to the husband, he had zero recall of the event and having shared it with us. These transgressions of memory and identity come and go, sometimes for everyone involved. Let’s return to the first couple. There was another situation like this. The husband told us that his wife had been pro-choice when she was younger, but now she is rabidly anti-choice and calls those who are pro-choice baby-killers. This guy told us about this on multiple occasions and so obviously it had been something on his mind for years. Like all of us, he could see the inconsistency in another, in this case a woman he had been married to for more than a half century. He is an honest person and so we have no reason to doubt his claim, specifically as he himself is also now anti-choice (did he always hold this position or did he likewise unconsciously change his memory of political identity?).

The husband told us that his wife no longer remembered her previous position or presumably the self-identity that held it and the reasons for holding it; likely having originated in her childhood upbringing in a working class family that was Democratic and Protestant (note that, until the culture wars heated up in the 1980s, most American Protestants were pro-choice; in opposition to anti-choice Catholics at a time when anti-Catholic bigotry was still strong). Not long after, when discussing this with him on another occasion, he stated that he had no memory of ever having told us this. The thing is this couple has become fairly far right, fear-mongering, conspiratorially paranoid, and harshly critical in their older age. They weren’t always this way, as we knew them when they were younger. Though they always have been conservative as an identity, they both once were relatively moderate and socially liberal; prior to the rise of right-wing and alt-right media (Fox News, Epoch Times, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Schlessinger, Jordan Peterson, etc). The husband used to be far less intellectual and, in his younger days, instead of reading books about religion and politics he read Time Magazine and Playboy. In their early marriage, they attended liberal churches, had pot-smoking friends, and were committed to a worldview of tolerance and positive thinking.

Over the decades, they had re-scripted their identity, according to a powerful right-wing propaganda machine (i.e., the Shadow Network started by Paul Weyrich, initially funded by the Coors family, and ushered in by President Ronald Reagan), to such a degree that it erased all evidence to the contrary — their former selves having been scrubbed from personal memory. So, it’s not only that they’ve dramatically changed their politics over their lifetimes but that they no longer remember who they used to be and so now will deny they were ever anything other than ultra-conservatives. The change has been so dramatic that they probably wouldn’t like their younger selves, if they could meet; and their younger selves might be appalled by what they’d become. It does get one thinking. To what degree do all of us change in such a manner with similar obliviousness? How would we know if we did? We are unlikely to see it in ourselves. And often those around us won’t notice either or else won’t mention it to us. There is typically a mutual agreement to not poke at each other’s illusions, particularly when illusions are shared, entwined, or overlapping. Unravelling our own narratives or those of others can be dangerous, and people will often lash out at you for they will perceive you as attacking their identity.

This perfectly normal strangeness reminds one of anthropological descriptions of the animistic mind and porous self. In many hunter-gatherer tribes and other traditional societies, self-identity tends to be more open and shifting. People will become possessed by spirits, demons, and ancestors; or they will have a shamanic encounter that alters their being upon receiving a new name. These changes can be temporary or permanent, but within those cultures it is accepted as normal. People relate to whatever identity is present without any expectation that individual bodies should be inhabited continuously by only a single identity for an entire lifetime. Maybe this animistic psychology has never really left us, not even with the destruction of most tribal cultures so long after the collapse of bicameral societies. That other way of being that we try to bury keeps resurfacing. There are many voices within the bundled mind and any one of them has the potential to hail us with the compelling force of archaic-like authorization (Julian Jaynes’ bicameralism meets Louis Althusser’s interpellation). We try to securely segment these voice-selves, but every now and then they are resurrected from the unconscious. Or maybe they are always there influencing us, whether or not we recognize and acknowledge them. We just get good at papering over the anomalies, contradictions, and discontinuities. Julian Jaynes points out that we spend little of our time in conscious activity (e.g., mindless driving in a trance state).

What we are talking about is the human nature that evolved under hundreds of millennia of oral culture. This is distinct from literary culture, a relatively recent social adaptation layered upon the primitive psyche. This deeper ground of our species-being contradicts our highly prized egoic identity. To point out an individual’s inconsistencies, in our culture, is about the same as accusing someone of hypocrisy or lying or worse, possibly mental illness. The thing is maybe even psychiatric conditions like borderline personality disorder are simply the animistic-bicameral mind as distorted within a society that denies it a legitimate outlet and social framework. That said, we shouldn’t dismiss the achievements of the egoic mind, that is to say Jaynesian consciousness (interiorized, spatialized, and narratized). It isn’t a mere facade hiding our true nature. The human psyche is flexible, if within limits. There are genuine advantages to socially constructing the rigid boundaries of the literate ego-mind. This relates to the cultural mindset of WEIRD (Westernized, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic or pseudo-Democratic). Joseph Henrich, in his book The WEIRDest People in the World, argues that it is literacy that is the main causal factor. He points to research that shows greater amounts of reading, presumably in early life, alter the structure of the brain and the related neurocognition. More specifically, it might be linguistic recursion, the complex structure of embedded phrases, that creates the complexity of abstract thought — this is lacking in some simpler societies and indeed it increases with literacy.

Importantly, what the research on the WEIRD bias tells us is that most people in the world don’t share this extreme variation on the egoic mind and a few remaining populations don’t have an egoic mind at all as they remain fully adapted to the bundled mind, although surely this is changing quickly as most of humanity is becoming some combination of Westernized, modernized, urbanized, and educated; specifically in how literacy spreads and literacy rates go up. We are only now reaching the point of mass global literacy, but it’s still in its early stages. Literacy, for the average person, remains rudimentary. Even in Western countries, the civilizational project of Jaynesian consciousness, in its WEIRDest form, is still partial and not well established. But, in recent centuries, we’ve begun to see the potential it holds and one cannot doubt that it is impressive. The WEIRD egoic mind is obviously distinct in what it makes possible, even in its present imperfections. Studies on WEIRD individuals do show they act differently than the non-WEIRD. Relatively speaking, they are more broadly consistent and abstractly principled (uniform standards and conformist norms), with a perceived inner voice of a supposed independent conscience (as originally reinforced through the moralizing Big Gods that were believed to see into the soul); and that relates to why principled consistency is so idealized in WEIRD society. Even when WEIRD subjects think no one is watching, they are less likely to cheat to help their families than non-WEIRD subjects. And, when asked, they state they’d be less likely to lie in court to protect a loved one. This is what the egoic structure does, as an internalized framework that is carried around with one and remains static no matter the situation. The WEIRD mind is less context-dependent, which admittedly has both strengths and weaknesses.

It’s not clear that this mentality is entirely beneficial, much less sustainable. It might be the case that it never will become fully established and so could always remain wonky, as the above examples demonstrate. The bundled mind is maybe the permanent default mode that we will always fall back into, the moment our egoic defenses are let down. Maintaining the egoic boundaries may simply be too much effort, too much drain on the human biological system, too contrary to human nature. Yet it’s too early to come to that judgment. If and only if we get to a strongly literate society will egoic WEIRDness be able to show what it’s capable of or else its ultimate failure. Consider that, in the US, the youngest generation will be the first ever majority college-educated and hence the first time we will see most of the population fully immersed in literary culture. It’s taken us about three millennia to get to this point, a slow collective construction of this experimental design; and we’re still working out the bugs. It makes one wonder about what might further develop in the future. Some predict a transformation toward a transparent self (integral WEIRD or post-WEIRD?). Certainly, there will be a Proteus effect of mediated experience in shaping identity in new ways. Building off of mass literacy and magnifying its impact, there is the Great Weirding of new media that might become a Great WEIRDing, as there is a simultaneous increase of text, voice, and image. Will the egoic mind be solidified or fall back into the bundled mind?

The challenge for the egoic identity project is that it takes a long time for the external infrastructure of society to be built to support internal structures of identity (e.g., private property and the propertied self), since individualism does not stand alone. That is what modernity has been all about; and most of us have come to take it for granted, in not realizing the effort and costs that went into it and that are continually invested for its maintenance, for good or ill. This is what the Enlightenment Age, in particular, was concerned about. Science and capitalism, democracy and technocracy involve constructing systems that reinforce egoic consistency, principled morality, and perceived objectivity. Liberal proceduralism, within democracy, has been one such system. It’s the attempt to create a legal and political system where all are treated equally, that is to say consistently and systematically. That is far unlike traditional societies where people are intentionally not treated as equal because context of social roles, positions, and identities determine how each person is treated; and that would be especially true of traditional societies where identity is far more fluid and relational, such that how even a single person is treated would vary according to situation. Much of what we think of as corruption in less ‘developed’ countries is simply people acting traditionally; such as what the WEIRD mind calls nepotism and bribery where one treats others primarily according to specific context of concrete relationships and roles, not abstract principles and legalistic code.

Obviously, liberal proceduralism doesn’t always work according to intention or rather the intention is often lacking or superficial. Even conservatives will nod toward liberal proceduralism because, to one degree or another, we are all liberals in a liberal society during this liberal age; but that doesn’t indicate an actual shared commitment to such liberal systems that promote, support, and defend a liberal mindset. Still, sometimes we have to pretend something is real before we might be able to finally manifest it as a shared reality; as a child play-acts what they might become as an adult; or as a revolution of the mind precedes revolution of society and politics, sometimes preceding by a long period of time (e.g., the transition from the English Peasants’ Revolt and the English Civil War to the American Revolution and the American Civil War). This is what we are struggling with, such as with the battle between science and what opposes and undermines it, mixed up with crises of expertise and replication, and involving problems of confirmation bias, backlash effect, etc. The scientific method helps strengthen and shape the egoic structure of mind, helps an individual do what they could not do in isolation. We need systems that create transparency, hold us accountable, incentivize consistency, and allow us to more clearly see ourselves objectively or at least as others can see us, that force us into self-awareness, be that egoic or otherwise.

All of this relates to why it’s so difficult to maintain liberalism, both in society and in the mind; as liberalism is one of the main expressions of the literary WEIRDing of Jaynesian consciousness. Liberalism is an energy-intensive state, similar to what Jaynes argues; a hothouse flower that requires perfect conditions and well-developed structures, such that the hothouse flower requires the hothouse to survive and thrive. Do anything to compromise liberal mentality, from alcohol consumption to cognitive overload, and it instantly regresses back into simpler mindsets such as the prejudicial thinking of the conservative persuasion. This is precisely why inegalitarian right-wingers and reactionaries (including those posing as liberals and leftists, moderates and centrists; e.g., DNC elite) are forever attacking and undermining the very egalitarian foundations of liberal democracy, what makes liberal-mindedness possible at all; and so casting doubt about the radical and revolutionary possibility of the liberal dream. To be fair, there are real reasons for doubt; but the dark alternative of authoritarianism, as advocated on the reactionary right, is not a desirable option to be chosen instead; and there is no easy path open, besides maybe total collapse, for returning to the animistic and bicameral past.

This is a highly problematic dilemma for we have become committed to this societal aspiration and civilizational project, based on centuries and millennia of pathway dependence, layers upon layers upon layers of interlocking cognitive introstructure (metaphorically introjected structure), organizational intrastructure, societal infrastructure, and cultural superstructure. If we come to think this has been the wrong path all along, we’ll be scrambling to find a new way forward or sideways. In the conflict between what we are and what we pretend and hope to be, we will have to come to terms with the world we have collectively created across the generations. But maybe we are not actually schizoid and psychotic in our fumbling in the dark toward coherency, maybe we are not splintered within an internal self and not divided from external reality. If the bundled mind is and will always remain our psychic reality, our selves and identities have never not been pluralistic. Still, we might find a way of integrated balance between the bundled mind and the egoic identity, according to the integralist motto of transcend and include. It might not be a forced choice between two polar positions, a conflict between worldviews where one has to dominate and the other lose, as we’ve treated it so far. Until that changes, we will go on acting insane and denying our insanity, not recognizing in our fear that insanity itself is an illusion. We can never actually go against our own human nature, much less go against reality itself.

“When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will know that you are the sons of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty, and you are poverty.”
~ Gospel of Thomas, Saying 3

“Barfield points to an “inwardization,” or a simultaneous intensification and consolidation of subjectivity, that has transpired over the evolution of humanity and whose results characterize the structure of our souls today. In fact, just because of this represents what is normal to us, we hardly notice it, having no foil to set it off.”
~ Max Leyf, Mythos, Logos, and the Lamb of God: René Girard on the Scapegoat Mechanism

“Crazy job they gave me. But if I wasn’t doing it, someone else would be. And they might get it wrong. They might set Arctor up, plant drugs on him and collect a reward. Better it be me, despite the disadvantages. Just protecting everyone from Barris is justification in itself. What the hell am I talking about? I must be nuts. I know Bob Arctor. He’s a good person. He’s up to nothing. At least nothing too bad. In fact, he works for the Orange County Sheriff’s office covertly, which is probably why Barris is after him. But that wouldn’t explain why the Orange County Sheriff’s office is after him.

“Something big is definitely going down in this house. This rundown, rubble-filled house with its weed patch yard and cat box that never gets emptied. What a waste of a truly good house. So much could be done with it. A family and children could live here. It was designed for that. Such a waste. They ought to confiscate it and put it to better use. I’m supposed to act like they aren’t here. Assuming there’s a “they” at all. It may just be my imagination. Whatever it is that’s watching, it’s not human, unlike little dark eyed Donna. It doesn’t ever blink.

“What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me, into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly, because I can’t any longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone’s sake the scanners do better. Because if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I do, then I’m cursed and cursed again. I’ll only wind up dead this way, knowing very little, and getting that little fragment wrong too.”

Axial Age Revolution of the Mind Continues

As many have written about, there was a unique, profound, and dramatic transformation that happened across many civilizations, maybe initiated by the Bronze Age collapse (c. 1200 BCE) but not culminating until later in the following millennia (from Athenian democracy to Hellenism; also Buddhism) and lingering still further many centuries beyond that (e.g., Isis worship in the Roman Empire, one of the models for Mariolatry in particular and Christianity in general). This is what some refer to as the Axial Age, after which human society and culture would never again be the same.

Out of this era of tumultuous change, there would develop distinct categories of politics, religion, philosophy, science, etc that would proliferate in complex new understandings often in conflict and competition, particularly as distorted and co-opted by the emergent reactionary mind. But underlying it all, there were similar ideas and ways of thinking, a basic ideological worldview. As differently and partially as it came to be articulated and institutionalized among various populations and traditions, this set of beliefs can be somewhat fairly summarized and generalized as the following:

Although each of us may be a distinct expression or manifestation of individuality shaped by separate inner and outer conditions, but with independent selves, autonomous souls, and free psyches; in essence and value, we are all equal members, maybe even in some ways fundamentally identical beings (beyond false egoic identities, superficial personality differences, socially constructed social roles, etc), of a unified humanity with a shared human nature and human rights that exist within a common reality, holistic cosmos, and singular universe; an orderly and comprehensible world of natural or supernatural laws and systems where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; as originated from the same source to which everything ultimately returns or from which nothing ever actually departed.

This is the counterbalance between three main principles, as understood in human terms:

  • Liberty and freedom (negative and positive; from and toward; in theory and in reality; opportunities and results; possibilities and actions; resources and availability), guaranteed rights and protections (autonomy, security, and safety); the anti-authoritarian basis of civil society and social liberalism as part of a democratic republic, particularly more direct democracies and social democracies, including democratic socialism such as anarchosyndicalism (e.g., worker-owned-and-operated businesses).
  • Egalitarianism and fairness; respect, support, and tolerance; in the context of what is universal within the universe or at least within a given society, such as universal civil or human rights that are expected to be applied to all equally and fairly, maybe even as an expression of natural law or otherwise a cultural inheritance of shared values; with pre-Axial origins in archaic humanity, as demonstrated by many anti-authoritarian and anti-hierarchical hunter-gatherers through the common practice of meat-shaming and meat-sharing in order to discourage individualistic pride and sense of separation.
  • Fraternity, solidarity, and class or group consciousness; communalism and collectivism, mutuality and interdependence; shared compassion, care, and concern; brotherhood of man, family of humanity, and citizens of the world; similar to a specific people as the body politic and the kinship of the faithful as Body of Christ, as well as feudal commoners with common rights to the Commons; the idea that with freedom comes responsibility, that is to say we owe others in the living generation or even in future generations (Germanic ‘freedom’, meaning to be a member of a free society, to be among friends who will support and defend you).

One example of the above is what some consider the original baptismal creed of the earliest known Christians. It bluntly states that we are, in reality, all equal; that social positions and roles are unreal, including ethnicity (Jew or Gentile), legal status (slave or free), and gender (male and female). It is one of the most radical and absolute declarations of egalitarianism of any recorded text in history, and it was far from being mere words. The man who wrote it down, Paul, also described the practices of his fellow faithful. They lived, acted, and worshipped as if they were all literally equal before God, on Earth as it is in Heaven. The evidence of this being an already established creed is that Paul obviously was not writing about his own personal beliefs, considering he had doubts not shared by many others in the early churches.

As embodied by the communitarian and sometimes collectivist Christians, the first wave of charismatic and zealous radicalism was later violently suppressed, expunged from the Church, and the memory of it largely erased. The only evidence we have of the first generations of Christians are the Pauline Epistles, as the Gospels were written after all known living witnesses of that era were dead. The memory of the previous radicalism, nonetheless, lingered because of Paul’s awkward placement in the New Testament — thanks to the inclusion of the Epistles in the first New Testament canon created by the Pauline Marcion, a Church Father who was later slandered as a heretic.

Intriguingly, Paul never speaks of a physical and historical Jesus. His salvific figure appears to be the Cosmic Christ, more of a visionary and gnostic experience than a literal human that walked on the earth. This might be the significance of why Jesus, after asserting his own divinity, then points out that according to the Bible we are all gods; indicating that his divinity was not unique and isolated (as told in the apparently Gnostic Gospel of John). Now that would be some mind-blowing egalitarianism. This message is emphasized by Jesus’ teaching that the Kingdom of God is all around us, not in some distant and rarified Heaven. That is to say the divine and spiritual is commonplace, is in and of the world. A priestly class is not needed to reach God.

More than a millennia later, some Christians took this kind of crazy talk quite seriously. It inspired, among the peasantry, multiple class wars and political revolts across Europe. That set the stage for the Protestant Reformation, the English Civil War, and the Enlightenment Age. Some consider the English Peasants’ Revolt to be the first modern revolution in its violent and organized challenge of caste and class, privilege and authority; in its demands for equality of rights and economic reform. This would establish a pattern of rhetoric that would revive ancient Christian radicalism.

The reverberations would be felt in the early modern revolutions of America, France, and Haiti. In echoing the Axial Age prophets, many revolutionaries proclaimed themselves citizens of the world. That was not an entirely alien concept, since Paul’s letters had saved that pre-heresiological belief in a greater common identity. It was the seed of an ancient utopian ideal finally taking root, if it still to this day has not yet fully come to fruition. The radical challenge remains. In a sense, the Axial Age has not yet ended for the transformation is not yet complete.