Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Terror Management

Jesus wept.

There’s another primary tonight and with the Omnivore out, I kind of felt like I had an obligation to suck it up and try to find something to say about it (have you heard of this Kasich guy? He’s totally from Ohio) and now they’re pulling bodies out of an airport in Belgium.

If you’re like me you turned on the news and could not get away from assholes full of ideas about what to do.

The candidates, especially, are full of ideas, and quotes and reactions which makes me thankful that 9/11 happened after a national election, and also thinking I miss the ‘00’s.

Right after 9/11 there was no dearth of naked opportunism along with a healthy dose of “If You Had Only Listened to Me, This Wouldn’t Have Happened!”

But there was also room for some soul-searching. Some attempt at framing the attacks in a kind of bigger picture. I don’t think the genre has a name, but if I had to name it, I’d call it...

Why Do They Hate Us?

If you lived through any of this drivel, you’re probably astonished anyone could miss it. If you had the good sense to be inebriated during those days (I was consulting at the time; there were periods of sobriety) I can summarize it for you

  • They hate our freedoms; they’re savages and we’re civilized, and they resent & envy us for it
  • They hate our foreign policy (with a side order of We Deserve It)

Needless to say, both of these ideas are beyond redemption and with only with rare exception, did attempts to explain the terrorist mind rise above embarrassing the author, but even in abject failure (and believe me, it was abject), I feel the attempt was somehow noble: it assumes the people reading care why they hate us (watching the news today, I can assure you: no one cares why anymore. Now we just want them gone).

Don’t get me wrong -- all but the best attempts to explain terrorism are reductive, insulting (and I count the “because the Palestinians!” As reductive and insulting as the “they’re savages” one), and they mostly just end up exposing the author’s prejudices and bigotries.

But I can’t help myself: I miss that. I miss the idea that someone could write an op ed piece that would try to make the inexplicable make sense.

Also, I ran into one, finally, that I believe. I doubt it says anything particularly good about me, but it’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever read and I’m going to share it with you. It also explains Trump and Sanders, and frankly I pretty much recommend you stop reading and come back tomorrow when I’ll write something entertaining about Consulting.

The Runner Up

The second place goes to the idea that terrorism is a kind of male-bonding activity for young men draped over a framework of weaponized religious ideology.

You can look this kind of thing up; google terrorism and male bonding, there seems to be some good sociological evidence for it -- and it passes the sniff test: playing with guns and bombs and plotting Michael Bay scale destruction is exciting. Doubly so when your alternative is being a socially isolated loser, which seems to be the case for a lot of terrorists.

I don’t think this approach is wrong. I just don’t think it really gets at why these abhorrent ideas find such fertile ground.

And it doesn’t explain why the underlying fascistic or totalitarian frameworks are so popular outside of the young-men demographic. Middle-aged guys drawn to these ideologies aren’t blowing themselves up the way the millennials are but outright dystopian world-views aren’t just for Global Caliphates. You can find plenty of them in the good old US-of-A.

So while I think the boy’s-adventure-club idea has some merit, but I don’t think it’s the winner. It doesn’t go deep enough.

Memento Mori

In the shallow-end-of-the-pool genre of Why Do They Hate Us theory, pop-psychology drek (Bombs Create Terrorists!) is actually on the deeper-thought end of spectrum.

Relatively speaking, Terror Management Theory (TMT) is hard science. I’m not going list or link or whatever the cool kids do (I don’t know how to. You can google it), but based on my layman’s reading, it’s more Scientific American than Psychology Today.

Terror Management Theory, surprisingly, isn’t about terrorism at all. At least not directly. It is about terror, of course, but not about the kind you spread with bombs and guns. It’s about the terror you feel when you realize you’re going to die.

TMT hypothesizes a fundamental, underlying truth of human psychology that humans live constantly in the shadow of existential dread. This fear -- this terror -- in its fullest incarnation, renders our lives utterly meaningless -- we’re going to cease to exist. We’re going to be gone.

In the face of that stark bleakness, TMT says, we manage the terror with the weak, limited psychological tools we have at our disposal. Mostly we try not to think about it, but when we’re forced to (like when there’s death all over the news), we turn to frameworks that comfort us. Things that are bigger than we are.

Some of these frameworks are stories about the nature of the universe, or about (somehow) existing after death.

But when those aren’t enough -- when death is in our face -- we turn to more tangible forms of meaning. We look for causes, missions, organizations (your nation. Your tribe) that will make us more than we are.

TMT hypothesizes and predicts that when faced with the terror of personal annihilation we seek leaders who reflect our world-view back at us with vigor, strong words, and personal charisma.

It goes further and darker than just belonging and direction though. A significant finding in TMT research is that we aren’t satisfied with just shoring up our worldview -- to hold the darkness at bay we have to punish those who offend our beliefs.

This sounds pretty squishy, but like I said, the science behind it seems sound. I mean, think about it -- it’s saying that if you’re thinking about your mortality, you’ll turn into a Reich-joining, goose-stepping asshole. It doesn’t sound especially credible, but it shouldn’t be too hard to test, right?

Apparently it isn’t hard to test. And (apparently) the experimental results are fairly conclusive and repeatable. I will illustrate this with an actual science experiment that I read about and have either recalled correctly or have inadvertently made up:

They did this experiment with a bunch of judges -- people professionally trained to render impartial, just decisions. In the experiments the judges were given questions before being asked to assign a fine to a (hypothetical) criminal. The control group were given innocuous questions. The experimental group were asked to describe what they thought would happen to them (and their physical body) when they die.

According to what I read/remember/made-up the death-judges gave (hypothetical) sentences several times what the non-death judges gave. Their response was vicious. TMT predicts that.

I probably haven’t done it justice, but if you’re interested in something really depressing, read it for yourself.

Trump, Sanders, and ISIS. And also, Hitler.

Yeah, I put them all in one line (SANDERS!?!11 How Can You Even--). No, I don’t think they’re all equivalent.

I’m blogging, okay?

What I’m trying to say is: no one is voting for Cruz because he’s charismatic and being a Clinton supporter isn’t going to help you stave off your fear of rotting in the grave

Supporting Cruz is like chewing ice cubes when you’re thirsty and you’re out of liquid water. You might feel you have to do it, but boy is it unpleasant. I’m not exactly sure what it’s like to enthusiastically support Clinton, but I bet it involves running a hedge fund.

Trump and Sanders, though, I think are a different story.

Actually, to be honest, I could be wrong about Sanders. I can’t listen to the man for more than fifteen seconds, and reading things written by his supporters on-line makes my eyes bleed. You’ll have to do your own research on that one.

But Trump’s a phenomena. He’s larger than life. He uses lofty (if clumsy) rhetoric. He brings the vicious like nobody’s business -- and not just in his rhetoric; he’s got people hitting each other in the audience.

I’m sure that if you like Trump, it’s because of your clear-headed, unsentimental support for his policies, but you have to admit the rest of the crowd looks pretty whack.

So Here’s What I Think

Everyone has moments where the fear gets to them, and they look for causes to join and enemies to fight, but the fewer stable frameworks you have -- family, community, faith -- the more you’re going to look for something extreme.

I think that in an environment where people are vending extreme ideologies some people are going to fall into them. It’s a numbers game and the people playing it are going to get more than a few useful idiots.

Some of those idiots will be useful, and desperate enough to joyously commit atrocities.

So Then?

A classic part of the “Why Do They Hate Us??” Genre is the recommendations. The piece  usually concludes with some way to address the hate; some prescription to diffuse it, or fight it.

I don’t think Terror Management Theory, as a psychological framework for understanding the attraction of extremist ideologies, offers any answers. It doesn’t suggest we can change our foreign policy out of this, or that our enemy is exclusively external.

The solution would be for people to stop people from being human.

Failing that, I think that we can protect ourselves to some extent by eliminating the worst of the messengers looking to capitalize on our shared human weaknesses. Exactly what that means is an exercise for the reader, but from where I’m standing, I think part of it involves a sustainable campaign of attacks on our enemy’s strategic leadership and messaging channels or, to put it more tersely, predator drones and special operations forces.

On a personal level, I believe we have a sacred obligation not to despair, and not, in fear, to give ourselves over to false idols. My worldview is that we’ll all, ultimately, be held accountable for what we do, but even if you don’t join me in this, I think that if your morality says that you’re supposed to help the widows and orphans or that torture is wrong, you have to reject men offering immoral solutions no matter how safe you think it might (supposedly) make us.

There will always be opportunistic men offering brutal answers that appeal to the our darkest needs and fears. They will always have an audience; they will always find converts and followers. Our obligation is to recognize them for what they are and speak against them.

1 comment:

  1. Anecdote: People seem more susceptible to extreme solutions when they're part of a population expansionary period than when they're part of a population decline, and it seems like it's because they feel they can beat the problem somehow, rather than succumb to it. Being part of a declining cohort seems to promote cynicism and materialism as virtues amongst peers- boomers and millennials who feel they can save the world are a dime a dozen, something that was kicked out of Gen Xers by peer pressure. Anyway, it's worth noting that most middle eastern countries, and certainly the ones with the largest problems right now, have comparatively large populations of young people. Japan, on the other hand, hasn't seen any domestic terrorism since the lost decade took hold.