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Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Dehumanization

During the Vietnam War, Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University, replicated the experience of a prison for a psychology experiment. His student participants were divided into guards and prisoners. The guards were given uniforms and sunglasses. The prisoners were stripped of their clothes and their names.

The experiment had to be stopped in less than a week.

Zimbardo later wrote a book about the Stanford prison experiment called The Lucifer Effect, and he provided his expert testimony in the case of the Abu Ghraib abusers. In short, whenever you allow some people to have absolute power and authority over other people, you will have dehumanization, abusive behavior and acts of evil. Zimbardo outlined his ingredients for how good people are able to do bad things.  They are deindividualization, anonymity of place, dehumanization, role-playing and social modeling, moral disengagement and group conformity

In the past couple of weeks, I have witnessed a lot of moral disengagement and group conformity. I have heard some shocking excuses for the behavior of the police officer that shot Michael Brown. Generally, they go like this: “That’s the way they behave”, “If you try to tackle a cop, you deserve what you get”, “They don’t care about other people’s stuff. They just want to take everything they can get”. These people laugh at the social media snips they pass around to each other about how any killing of an unarmed black male must be just an excuse to go looting.

It’s disturbing not just because of the content of what “they” are supposed to think, feel and do. It’s disturbing because it usually comes from the mouths of white people that I work with or other white people I used to think were above that kind of talk. And they talk like this to one another because they think it’s Ok. They think that they will not be censured or excluded from polite society for trivializing death or the desecration of a body by leaving it to bake in the summer sun for four hours without the decency of anyone to heap on a sacred handful of soil much less load it into an ambulance.

When I’m just trying to eat my lunch and I hear this kind of justification to treat other people as less than human because everyone is under the impression that it’s OK to behave like we’re back in 1954, well, let’s just say it makes me mad and I lose my appetite. I have to get up and rest my hand on the shoulder of the only other person in the room with a differing opinion and say, “I’m with you. It isn’t decent” and then leave.  It just doesn’t seem like enough. It’s not enough.

It’s not just the outrageous treatment of african americans that bothers me. It’s the way we treat anyone who is poor too. Oh, gosh, that means me now. If you’re poor, most people think you did something wrong to get that way. You must have a drinking habit or do drugs even if you don’t or you were lazy at work when you weren’t. It doesn’t matter if the economy sucks or that you were in an industry that was slaughtered. It doesn’t matter that your kid got seriously ill just when your insurance ran out. It doesn’t matter that you graduate with a mountain of student debt during the worst recession since the Great Depression and can’t find a job. It doesn’t matter that so many Americans are enduring the trials of Job, losing their jobs and their houses and their family’s sense of security. All that matters is that some people have now been given permission to kick their fellow citizens when they’re down. That’s enormously satisfying to some people. And when those people get together, they reinforce their belief that they can make themselves feel powerful and good by making others feel powerless and bad.

We may not be anywhere near as destructive and evil as Germans were in the 1930’s. But we’re getting there. You are not safe from evil just because everyone around you is making the same derogatory remarks.

**************

Honor your mayor and keep it peaceful out there tonight while you’re protesting.

 

 

 

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Narcissists, scapegoats and the golden child

A few months ago, I said I would be revisiting the topic of narcissists.  It might have been Phillip Zimbardo’s book, The Lucifer Effect, that lead me to read more on narcissism and malignant narcissism.  Or maybe it was one of those moments that we all have from time to time when something we see that is out of focus suddenly snaps into place.  I had interactions with many narcissists last year in every possible area of my life.  The one at work was particularly awful. But whatever it was that finally clued  me in, I realized how narcissism has been allowed to run amok.

We all have the capacity for narcissism. Most healthy human beings have to be somewhat narcissistic to survive.  In this economic environment, we have all been pushed a bit further on the spectrum because a false sense of scarcity has been created and we are all competing for the same piece of the pie.  It pays to be more selfish, to project more confidence and talent than we actually have, and to adopt an “every woman for herself” attitude.  But most of us do not have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a way of seeing the rest of the world as merely actors in the play we wrote ourselves and are directing.

Here are the characteristics of people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD):

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance (may be shown as an exaggeration of abilities and talents, expectation that he or she will be seen as superior to all others).
  • Is obsessed with him- or herself.
  • Goals are almost always selfish and self-motivated.
  • Has troubles with healthy, normal relationships.
  • Becomes furious if criticized.
  • Has fantasies of unbound success, power, intelligence, love, and beauty.
  • Believes that he or she is unique and special, and therefore should only hang out with other special, high-status people.
  • Requires extreme admiration for everything.
  • Feels entitled – has unreasonable expectations of special treatment.
  • Takes advantage of others to further his or her own needs.
  • Has zero empathy – cannot (or will not) recognize the feelings of others.
  • May be envious of others or believe that others are envious of him or her.
  • Behaves arrogantly, haughtily.

– See more at: http://www.bandbacktogether.com/adult-children-of-Narcissistic-parents-resources/#sthash.HtiA1zJT.dpuf

Based on the number of politically tone deaf statements from the plutocrats about how the rest of us envy their success, it has become painfully obvious that there is a surplus of narcissists at the top. But you might be surprised by how many people with NPD hide behind religion.  A very religious person is very hard to criticize and our social structure gives them a convenient cover screen.  How could a person who praises the lord and loves Jesus (and lets you know about it all. the. time.) be selfish, manipulative and malicious? It’s a brilliant place to be if you want control but want to come off looking sweet and pious while simultaneously believing that you are superior to others because you have The Truth.  Many cult-like and high control fundamentalist religious organizations encourage this kind of narcissism in their converts. The Duggar family is a perfect example of this mindset.

And then there is the right wing noise machine that seems to encourage a base narcissism in its target audience.  The unlucky “deserve” what they get while the rich “deserve” what they’ve gotten.  And what’s wrong with saying things that are racist?  You’re allowed to be a racist if you want to be.  (I’m just paraphrasing the incredible things I’m hearing from the Fox News crowd lately.  Personally, I think racism is revolting in thought, word and deed.) Putting people down to make yourself look superior is a hallmark of a narcissist, although I doubt that these same Fox News watchers would be as comfortable saying it’s Ok to be anti-semitic.  Just a guess.

The relationships that develop in a family poisoned by a narcissistic parent illustrate on a micro scale what can be projected to a wider audience in the political sphere.  In a family when one of the parents has narcissistic personality disorder, the children in the family are frequently pitted against one another.  The NPD parent designates one of the children as the scapegoat.  The role of the scapegoat may rotate but it’s usually one particular child that is targeted.  This child is usually the more sensitive child, the one who doesn’t play the game and flatter the narcissist, the truth teller.  When the NPD parent injures this child using emotional manipulation and encouraging the others in the family to “mob” (bullying by group), the NPD parent gets a whiff of narcissistic supply.  They get off on control and their ability to make someone else feel inferior, to sabotage and limit their success. The goal of the NPD parent is to make the scapegoat bend to her will by using ostracism, mockery, malicious gossip and alienation.  Yeah, imagine living with that.

The golden child, on the other hand, can do no wrong.  No matter how much the kid screws up, the NPD parent will make excuses.  It’s not his fault.  The problem started before he came along.  He needs time to mature.  He will never suffer the consequences of his behavior nor will there be any criticism of his limitations.  Indeed, any minor accomplishment is made to look magnificent.

And then there are the flying monkeys.  Flying monkeys are the siblings, and others, who act as the hit men for the NPD parent.  They are sent on missions to obtain information from the scapegoat that gets reported back to the NPD parent.  The parent then uses that information to spread rumors, gossip and malicious mockery through his or her own actions or the actions of the flying monkeys.  The gossip may contain a hint of truth but this is usually blown out of proportion.  The more voices that propagate the gossip, the greater the negative effect on the scapegoat.

So, here’s my leap from micro to macro and what we will be subjected to for the next two years until the presidential election.  The narcissists are in charge.  They control the horizontal and the vertical.  All the moneys are belong to them and they are determined to extract every penny of what they think they are owed.  They will do this by conscripting the US government to cover their debts even if it means impoverishing the tax base.  They don’t see labor as consisting of real people.  Labor is a resource to be used when it is needed and discarded when it is not.

I’d like to use the term exploitative profit mining to describe the effect of unfettered narcissistic capitalism on the general public and predict that this will continue to result in economic instability and eventually, the dangerous undermining of democratic governments.  The early and mid 20th century saw the negative fallout of this kind of behavior with WWI, the Great Depression and WWII.  I’d hate to think we are going to have to live through those kinds of upheavals again but the rise of ultra right wing and nationalistic parties in Europe in the wake of austerity, as well as the political chaos caused by the Tea Party fanatics here in the US have me very worried that we’re headed for trouble.

Over the past 6 years, we have become all too familiar with the typical behaviors and attitudes of narcissists.  Do not look to them for any sense of empathy.  They do not possess it and the only mechanisms for keeping them in check have been abandoned at this point.  Check out any review of Tim Geithner’s book, Stress Test, if you want to know what he,  the lieutenant of the narcissists, did on their behalf.  Keep in mind the characteristics of narcissists as you read it.

Their most significant triumph to date has been to get their golden child elected.  The scapegoat is Hillary Clinton.  Look at any comment section of a left leaning blog and you will find this is true.  Obama inherited the financial crisis.  That’s why the economy sucks.  The Republicans hate Obama.  That’s why the ACA is FUBAR.  Obama didn’t start the war in Iraq.  So, it’s not his fault if the void we left when we pulled out of Iraq has destabilized the country.

(Sidenote: Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker was interviewed on Fresh Air yesterday.  In the last 4 minutes of the interview, Filkins lays out the culpability of the Obama administration with respect to the current crisis in Iraq.  It’s not pretty. Expect Filkins to suffer some scapegoating for truth telling about the golden child’s “accomplishments”.)

Hillary can do nothing right.  Everything she says is scrutinized in order to put the worst possible spin on it.  She’s not perfect, that’s for sure, and right now, unless I see her move to the left boldly to take on the exploitative profit miners, it will be hard for me to justify voting for her.  But, golly gee, nobody is as bad as the left seems to think Hillary is.  According to the left, she and her husband wrecked welfare and imposed an unconstitutional piece of legislation on gay people while single handedly destroying Glass-Steagall.  Then they wickedly danced around the fire while chanting incantations, laughing evilly at the suffering of others and killing the bees.  It’s an image of the Clintons that completely cuts out the crazy Whitewater scandal, the crazy Monica scandal, the hours of congressional hearings and special prosecutions over billing records, and the millions of dollars that they and their friends and everyone who ever worked for them were forced to spend on what turned out to be harassment suits.  This during the Newt Gingrich years.  Remember Newt??

But it doesn’t matter.  Hillary Clinton is facing flying monkeys on the left as well as the right.  And while we can’t do anything about the flying monkeys on the right, I just have to wonder if the flying monkeys on the left have thought this through.  The books I’ve read say that the flying monkeys are not always aware of what they are doing.  The narcissists controlling them make them feel included, like they’re one of the club.  And it’s fun to get that sip of narcissistic oxygen that comes with watching the scapegoat flailing and not succeeding.

There’s a danger to this though.  If Hillary truly is the last great hope of the left in 2016, and she sees that the narcissists and flying monkeys on the left are determined to see her fail, then her only choice to win the White House is to appeal to the disaffected voters of 2008 who abandoned the Democrats for the Tea Party.  That wouldn’t be me.  I’m still in exile.  I’m talking about the more socially conservative Democrats who felt snubbed by Obama and his supporters writing them off, calling them religious, gun toting, bitter knitters.  She’s got to get her votes from somewhere and if the crunchy lefties and snobby lefties are going to get prodded by the narcissists to go after her non-stop from now until 2016, then she’s going to have to appeal to the Reagan Democrats.  At this point, the left is all but conceding that she is the inevitable candidate (why they say this is anyone’s guess but it’s out there).  And if it is true that the left is finally, reluctantly, going to get behind Hillary, it’s going to be undermining its own candidate if it keeps telling the world how loathsome it thinks she is.

That’s something to think about.

On the other hand, Hillary has to come to terms with her scapegoat role.  Once you have become the scapegoat, there is virtually nothing you can do about changing it. Defensiveness doesn’t do much good. The scapegoating will continue until the narcissist dies or the flying monkeys get a clue as to how and why they are being used.  As long as the flying monkeys are getting off on what they’re doing, finding it successful, and the golden child remains protected, don’t expect anything to change.  The scapegoat has a choice.  Go along with it or divorce the whole family.  You can never appease the narcissist enough to be your own person.

Non-fiction day: The Divide and The Lucifer Effect

I’m not quite finished with Matt Taibbi’s new book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, but I thought I’d review it now because, a.) I’m pretty sure of my impressions of the book and b.) it should be read in conjunction with another book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Phillip Zimbardo.  I dunno, maybe I should read the Taibbi book to the end to see if he makes the connection but I’m beginning to get outrage fatigue, which is why it’s probably a good idea to read the more clinical prose in Zimbardo’s book to gain perspective.

So. Much. Morality.

The premise of Taibbi’s book is that the justice system is divided into two parts in this country.  If you are a member of the bonus class or oligarchy, your possession of the One Ring makes it nearly impossible for the justice system to prosecute you.  You’re invisible to the powers of accountability for one reason or another.  On the other hand, if you are a member of the working class, that is, anyone not living off their investments, the justice system can make your life a living hell.  Just breathing wrong can get you into trouble and that trouble is excessively punitive, relentless, expensive, arbitrary and seemingly endless.  It doesn’t take much to fall down the rabbit hole but it takes even less if your are a member of a minority population.

Sidenote: We have experienced this in our own family when a cousin’s persistent drug problem lead to direct interaction with the justice system.  He needed rehab- quickly.  What he got instead resembled Les Miz.  In the end, the legal system and it’s self-replicating fees, coupled with unmerciful punishment of every imaginable variation, put him in a hole he could not climb out of, made him homeless, broke and despondent.  He committed suicide.  So, you know, we definitely know what Matt is talking about. You don’t have to be black or hispanic. All that is required is that you have no money and live in a country where the public has been trained to be completely unsympathetic to what is happening to you.

Taibbi alternates the book with stories from each side of the divide.  We swing from bankers on Wall Street who got away with murder to “stop and frisk” detentions of young black men who are just standing outside their apartments at the wrong time.  Where the justice system seems willing to take a “boys will be boys” attitude towards the bankers, it comes down on the loiterers with a vengeance, depriving them of their dignity in the courtroom and subjecting them to endless hours of waiting around, mounting fees and coercion to plea to crimes they didn’t commit that ultimately deprive them of their right to public housing and student loans.

Taibbi doesn’t write with the same snap and clarity as Michael Lewis or Neil Barofsky  when describing the machinations of the Wall Street criminals.  His prose tends to meander, feels insidery (is that a word?) and it was difficult to follow who did what to whom.  This only pertains to the case studies in the upper justice system but I think his editor should have pulled him aside and asked him to tighten these sections up. He could never have gotten those case studies published in the kind of peer reviewed journals the science community is subjected to. Both Lewis and Barofsky have demonstrated that complexity doesn’t have to be confusing, even in an audio book.  But if you’re going to plow through Taibbi’s book, you’re probably better off getting the ebook version so you can make notes, leave book marks and create a flowchart.

On the other hand, Taibbi’s case studies of what happens on the bottom half of the justice system are easy to understand and  heartbreaking, probably because the infractions are so minor but the reaction is so severe.  It’s like the American justice system is chock full of turbo charged law and order types who carry out punishment with ruthless and brutal inefficiency.  And there was something about depersonalizing experiences of the victims and the anonymity of flawed computer systems of the justice system that reminded me of the Stanford Prison Experiment that Phillip Zimbardo carried out in the 70’s.

In case you aren’t familiar with the experiment, Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford, wanted to replicate the experience of prison in order to figure out how the accused reacted to incarceration and depersonalization.  So, he recruited a couple dozen students to take the roles of prisoners and guards.  He randomly assigned the students to one of the groups and had the prisoners arrested and processed by real police.  In the makeshift prison, the prisoners were stripped of their clothes and given numbers instead of names.  The guards hid behind mirrored sunglasses and were given very few instructions. The warden was hands off.  Well, it didn’t take long before the guards started exercising authority and the prisoners started to crack.  We’re talking days.  It turns out that when one group of people is given all of the power and another group of people is subjected to that power, depersonalization and lack of oversight, it can lead even the blandest guy on campus to become indistinguishable from one of the guards at Abu Ghraib. The guards imposed capricious, humiliating and sadistic punishment while the prisoners became more and more despondent and stressed.  Zimbardo went on to testify as an expert witness in the Abu Graib trials.  He concludes that even the most decent, moral people are capable of evil behavior when the situation is right.  Group dynamics, conditioning to authority and dehumanization contribute to the kind of evil we saw at Abu Ghraib and, it seems, the excessively punitive experiences of the victims in the lower half of the American justice system.

The more I read Taibbi’s book, the more I was reminded of Zimbardo’s book.  So, I recommend you read Zimbardo’s book first and follow it up with Taibbi’s.  In fact, that’s the only reason I would recommend Taibbi’s book.  Without a proper context, it lacks the force it needs to land a powerful blow.  And that’s why I’m going to finish it even though the stories of “getting away with evil” followed by “getting away with nothing” are somewhat monotonous.  Taibbi might make the connection in the final chapters and have that eureka moment that will make it all worth while.  But I’m almost done with the book and see no evidence of it yet.  I’m afraid that the lefty community will miss the larger point that could propel it out of its fecklessness.  Instead, it might fall back on the “Bill Clinton is to blame for all of this!” crap they’ve been mindlessly vomiting for the past decade (as if Newt Gingrich and his Contract On America never existed {{rolling eyes}}).  What a horribly wasted, missed opportunity to see the world as it truly is.

3 Sponges for The Divide

4 Sponges for The Lucifer Effect (it can bog down with too many details in the first part)

PS. The left should study part 2 of Zimbardo’s book to understand how to resist situational influences.  It’s going to come up again in 2016.  Let’s not get fooled again, m’kay?

Oh, and here’s a concept that we should all learn about: malignant narcissism.  Don’t throw it around indiscriminately though.  It’s the kind of thing that Fox News and Rush Limbaugh types will seize on and dilute.  (it’s what they do)  But the next time an oligarch whines about how the rest of us are mean to them and envy their wealth, think about malignant narcissism.  They’re on the spectrum.