Blog, Philosophy, Psychology

Living with Cancer

Originally published January 8th, 2015 on the Huffington Post 

The first sign that something might be wrong was a message from my GP saying that she wanted me to repeat a blood test that I had just taken as part of my annual physical. Upon getting the same results, she sent me a follow-up message saying that she wanted to talk with me in person. This was enough to raise my anxieties. After all, why would she want to see me if she didn’t have bad news?

As soon as my GP got in the exam room and sat down, I asked her right away, “Is it something bad?” To which she replied, “I don’t know for sure, but it could be.” She explained that I had an elevated level of protein in my blood that could be indicative of myeloma. She wanted me to see an oncologist as soon as possible who could do more tests.

The first thing the oncologist did was to order a whole body X-ray, which showed no cancer lesions on my bones. She told me the good news herself when I came into her office to have a bone marrow biopsy.

The biopsy showed that my bone marrow had 80-85% of cancer cells. In short, I had lymphoma. The good news was that I had the kind that could be treated. As she put it, I’ll probably die from something else before I died from cancer.

Upon hearing the news, I burst out with sobs, as much from learning that not only did I have cancer, but thank god, I had the kind that could be treated. When we got ready to leave, my oncologist hugged me and said that one wouldn’t be human if one weren’t emotional at such times.

I want to draw a parallel between (a) the emotions I’ve experienced in dealing with cancer, and (b) what people are feeling about the threat of terrorism and the general state of the world. Yes, I know that the two are not exactly the same, but as a systems philosopher/scientist, there are direct analogues at every level of complex systems.

Personally, I’ve had the best care and support possible in dealing with a dreaded disease. I have an extremely knowledgeable and caring doctor, plus most important of all, a loving, supportive family. This alone has given me great comfort even though I am far from being through with treatment.

But here’s where I feel an incredible disconnect. In effect, our nation and the world are suffering from virulent forms of cancer, of which ISIS is undoubtedly the worst. The demonization of refugees fleeing war is not far behind. It’s made worse by the feeling that knowledgeable and caring doctors are missing at every level of society and the world. They are certainly not to be found in the Republicans who only magnify and prey on our fears by proposing simple-minded and dangerous “solutions” such as erecting a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, banning all Muslims from entering the country, and cluster-bombing ISIS without any concern for the tremendous collateral damage this would inflict on innocent civilians.

I voted twice for President Obama, and would do so again if he were able to run. He is extremely intelligent, rational, and well-informed. He is also ethical and well-intentioned. In short, he has many of the qualities one wants in a president. But except after the all-too-frequent mass shootings where he has spoken passionately against our national obsession with guns, his lack of emotion in talking about what he and his administration are doing to combat ISIS is disappointing. Yes, we need a calm and rational voice lest we get drawn into another senseless and unwinnable war in the Middle East, but it does not need to be devoid of all emotion.

In times of great change and especially danger, we need a trusting father or mother figure that will soothe us more than ever. If we don’t get them, then the worst danger is that demagogues will fill the void. I pray fervently that this is not our fate.

Blog, Politics, Psychology

The Psychopathology of the Republican Candidates


Originally published November 24, 2015 on Nation of Change

As a lifelong student of psychoanalysis, I am led to the proposition that the behavior of the current crop of Republican candidates and their supporters can only be properly understood, if that, in terms of psychopathology. Conventional explanations such as Washington is more partisan than ever, American power is in decline, etc. explain part of the anger of the Republican electorate, but they cannot account for its sheer intensity.

Conventional explanations also cannot account for why when challenged the candidates not only deny actual facts, but engage in out-and-out lies and deception. For example, Donald Trump receives major amounts of campaign contributions from his supporters. Contrary to his repeated claims, his campaign is not fully funded by his own fortune. For another, Dr. Ben Carson did appear as a spokesperson for a questionable product. And so on!

Yes, the Republican candidates are certainly engaged in pandering to their base, but this only raises the fundamental question why the base lives in a fantasy world that is increasingly out of touch with reality. For instance, it’s complexly unrealistic, if not insane, to believe that one could actually get Mexico to pay for a wall thousands of miles long that would keep its citizens out of the U.S. What interests of Mexico would this possibly serve? Why does the base so readily accept anything that literally pops out of the mouths of the candidates? The more preposterous the idea, the more fervently it’s embraced.

In times of great stress, underlying fears and anxieties that have not been dealt with adequately rise to the surface and take over people’s reasoning, if not their minds. Thus, enormous anxieties and fears having to do with: (a) underlying racial and ethnic differences, (b) the fact that white men, in particular, are no longer in complete control, (c) a world that is so complex that no one can fully explain, let alone control it, (d) the ever-present danger of terrorism, and (f) the seemingly loss of power and influence of the U.S. in world affairs—all of these and more are sufficient to drive sizeable numbers of people into the most bizarre fantasies. Gaining control by whatever means of an uncertain, dangerous, and precarious world becomes paramount.

I cannot emphasize enough that in times of great stress, people revert to earlier, primitive stages of development. That is to be expected. Nonetheless, the extent to which the Republican candidates and voters have regressed to earlier primitive stages of human development is absolutely scary.  It’s nothing less than mind-boggling.

One does not overcome great anxieties and fears by facts and logical reasoning alone. If anything, cold facts and logic only drive people deeper into fantasies. One requires calm, soothing voices that can address deep underlying anxieties, fears, and fantasies not by naming them directly, but by telling stories that provide reassurance. But this requires candidates that are strong enough to face reality in the first place, and then to fashion stories that make unpleasant truths palatable. True leadership is telling people what they can’t bear to hear. Sadly, I see no evidence of this whatsoever in the current crop of Republican candidates.

Blog, Politics, Psychology

On The Psychopathology of Arguments

Originally published November 16, 2015 on the Huffington Post

One of the prime lessons of psychoanalytic thinking is that there are extremely strong and persistent parallels between people’s inner and outer worlds or lives. The particular issues with which a person is struggling in the “external world” (e.g., loss of a job or spouse), and especially the distinct ways in which he or she is attempting to deal with them (drinking, taking drugs versus reaching out and getting help), are strongly related to the primary issues with which one is struggling in one’s “internal world” (chronic low self-esteem, difficulties in forming close relationships, controlling anger). In short, the inner and the outer are not just bare reflections of one another. They interact so strongly that they are important determinants of one another.

Although there is little doubt that PTSD is often the direct effect horrific disasters, this does not mean that the inner necessarily causes the outer, or vice versa. Rather, the inner influences strongly how one deals with the outer. In certain cases, one’s inner states of mind directly affect what happens in the outer world such as causing or being involved in serious accidents.

Because so much is riding on the outcome, the arguments of the Presidential candidates are important to analyze from a psychoanalytic perspective. Most people naturally accept that arguments are anything but “purely objective, true or false statements about the state of the world.” Instead, arguments are in fact one of the best windows into the minds of their proponents and followers. If as Freud said that dreams are “the royal road into the unconscious,” then arguments are “the royal road into the anxieties, fears, and threats” of their advocates.

While many of the candidates’ arguments pander directly to the tremendous anxieties, fears, and threats of their respective bases, at the same time, they also reflect the tremendous anxieties, fears, and threats of the candidates themselves. While the candidates are the public persona of the deep-seated anxieties, etc. of their constituencies, the candidates do more than merely articulate such fears. They amplify as much as they give voice to them. For this reason alone, it behooves us to examine some of the major pronouncements of two of the front running Republican candidates.

Consider one of Trump’s major “outbursts”–I cannot dignify it by calling it a “argument”–namely that he wants to build a wall thousands of miles along, which he will of course force Mexico to pay, that will keep “all criminals and undesirables out!” Why it’s in Mexico’s self interest to pay for such a wall is beside the point. Indeed, it’s obviously intended to punish them for allowing so many criminals to “infect us.” Oh I get it: if they don’t go along, then we’ll cut off trade with them, as though that would hurt them more than us!

In short, one needs to build a wall so strong, so long, and so high that it will keep all underlying anxieties, fears, and threats regarding “them” at bay. Without such a fortress for protection, one cannot contain and thus manage one’s deepest fears. Forget about the near financial and physical impossibility of building and maintaining such a monstrosity and focus on the fact that fortresses appeal to the most fragile and primitive recesses of our minds. Forget as well that it’s virtually impossible to keep out those who are literally willing to die in undertaking long and perilous journeys in the hope of better lives. No forget all of this and focus instead that fortresses offer the illusion of complete and perfect protection–they thus revert back to childhood feelings of omnipotence–from a exceedingly dangerous and hostile world. The fact that so many share such fears and will do almost anything to get rid of them is cause for great alarm.

Take another of Trump’s repeated assertions, namely that he will “be so good at anything he does that you won’t believe it.” For all his outward blustering, bullying, and blatant narcissism, one can only imagine the terror a person suffers from if deep down he or she feels that that one is really not “up to the job,” especially the most important one in the world which of course is particularly appealing to a supreme narcissist. No wonder one continually has to shore up one’s low self-esteem by means of the most pathetic outbursts. It’s not that narcissists are too much in love with themselves, but rather, it’s exactly the opposite. They don’t love themselves enough.

What’s truly frightening is that in times of great danger people are most at risk of buying into the ramblings of those who promise that they and they alone can protect us.

There is no question that outwardly Dr. Ben Carson is immensely likeable. Unlike Trump, he is neither brash nor harsh. But this is precisely why I find him the scarier of the two. Once one considers some of his assertions, another much more problematic side emerges. It’s akin to Fascism with a friendly face.

Dr. Carson takes great pride in the fact that he is not schooled in the basics, let alone nuances, of domestic or international politics. If we wouldn’t for one moment dare to let someone operate on our brains who didn’t have years of advanced medical training, why would we then let someone apply for arguably the most important job in the world who prides himself in not knowing much, let alone in caring, about the intricacies of government? What indeed are his qualifications for “operating on the body politic?”

No less troubling is Dr. Carson’s repeated assertion that gun control prevented the Jews from standing up to the Nazis. Really, what good are all the guns in the world against planes and tanks? Further, he lied outright when he said that he was not deeply involved in the promotion of a harmful dietary product. For another, even after bitter pushback by both black and white women, he still refuses steadfastly to withdraw his comparison of abortion to slavery. And, his latest assertion that the Chinese are in Syria is just bizarre.

What’s especially disturbing is that outright distortions and lies have no bearing whatsoever on those who are drawn to Mr. Trump and Dr. Carson. The more distortions and lies, the more their followers like them. For instance, the fact that Trump’s campaign is not completely self-financed has not caused him in the slightest to retract his repeated assertion that it is. Nor do his supporters seem to care.

Virtually all of the Republican candidates and their followers have chosen, unconsciously of course, to live in a world of utter fantasy. Another of the prime characteristics of living in times of great stress is that underlying fears and anxieties that have not been dealt with adequately before rise to the surface and take over people’s reasoning and good sense. Thus, enormous anxieties and fears having to do with: (a) unresolved racial and ethnic differences, (b) the fact that older white men in particular are no longer in complete control of the U.S. and the world, (c) a world that is so complex that no one can fully explain, let alone control it, (d) the ever-present danger of terrorism, and (f) the seemingly loss of power and influence of the U.S. in world affairs–all of these and more are sufficient to drive sizeable numbers of people into the most bizarre fantasies. Gaining control by whatever means of an uncertain, dangerous, and precarious world becomes paramount. And understandably, the anger is immense towards those that they feel have betrayed them through the abuse of power.

For these reasons, I cannot emphasize enough that when people are strained to their limit, they revert to the most primitive, earliest stages of human development. That is to be expected. Nonetheless, the extent to which the Republican candidates and voters have regressed to primitive thinking is absolutely scary. It’s nothing less than mind-boggling.

One does not overcome basic anxieties and fears by facts and logic alone. If anything, cold facts and logic only drive people deeper into fantasies. One requires calm, soothing voices that can address deep underlying anxieties, fears, and fantasies not by naming them directly, but by telling stories that provide reassurance. But this requires candidates that are strong enough to face reality in the first place, and then to fashion stories that make unpleasant truths palatable. True leadership is telling people what they can’t bear to hear. Sadly, I see no evidence of this whatsoever in the current crop of Republican candidates.

Blog, Psychology, Sociology

Reality Wars: The Battles Over Truth and Reality

Originally published 8/19/2015 on Huffington Post

Recently, my wife and I attended a social gathering in Marin County, which as is well known is a hotbed of intense opposition to mandatory childhood vaccinations. One of the people with whom I spoke was not opposed to vaccinations, at least not in principle. Nonetheless, the person disagreed strongly with the idea that all children had to receive all of their vaccinations in a single session. When I asked why the person felt this way, I got an adamant response: “My own online research tells me that the idea is wrong!”

I wanted to ask, but didn’t, for it was apparent that it would only further inflame the situation, “And what medical school did you go to such that you are qualified to evaluate medical information?” Instead, I just walked away. End of story, and discussion!

Once upon a time, reality used to be nothing but all the hard stuff in the outside world that we bumped up against every day of our lives. And, truth was nothing more than all the true facts that were known about the external world. We don’t live in this simple world any more. Reality and truth are more complicated than ever.

In a word, Americans no longer inhabit the same realities, if we ever really did. The recent clashes over whether it’s necessary and safe to vaccinate one’s children and whether global warming is real are just two of the many on-going battles over what’s “real” and what’s “true.”

Increasingly, reality and truth are nothing more than what one believes and feels deeply about. And because we obviously don’t share the same beliefs and feelings about crucial events and issues, reality and truth are more personal and malleable than ever.

It’s not that facts don’t matter much any more, but rather, what one calls “facts” is a function of what one regards as reality, and thus, the web sites one turns to for “information.”

According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, there is a huge gap between what scientists and the general public think about key, hot button issues such as evolution, genetically modified food, global warming, nuclear power, pesticides, etc. For instance, scientists are far more certain than the general public that (a) Global Warming is caused by humans, (b) evolution is a well-established scientific fact and (c) vaccinations against childhood diseases should be made mandatory.

The differences are far from trivial. They affect greatly what one believes one should do, if anything, with regard to some of our most pressing problems. In short, the battles over what’s real and what’s true have very important consequences.

Ideally, in science, an idea is accepted as “provisionally true” if and only it survives repeated attempts by scientists to prove by means of “hard data” that it’s false. And, the longer an idea has been accepted, the more science tries to overturn it.

In contrast, in everyday life, people try to hold onto their ideas for as long as possible. Indeed, the more an idea is at the core of a person’s belief system, the more he or she tries to protect it. Or, at least this is the commonly held stereotype of the differences between scientists and the general public.

The differences between scientists and the general public are just one of the many battles occurring daily between the proponents of very different versions of reality. Thus, religious fundamentalists of all stripes — Christian, Muslim, or Jewish — have profoundly different views of the nature of religion and its place in daily life than their more moderate counterparts. The views of Islamic extremists, such as ISIS and Boko Haram, regarding the use of terror and violence are not only repugnant to the overwhelming body of ordinary, lawing abiding, peaceful Muslims, but are a gross misinterpretation of Islam. More accurately, the unmitigated use of terror and violence is a throwback to a 7th century, medieval version of Islam. In other words, Islamic extremists are stuck in a 7th century version of Reality.

Some of the most interesting and important cases involve the direct clash between scientific and religious belief systems, especially when they occur within the same individual. In Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine, Dr. Paul A. Moffit cites the case of an Orthodox Jewish medical doctor who justified the religious practice of sucking blood out of babies who have just been circumcised, even though the practice increases significantly the chances of transmitting herpes, and thus causing permanent brain damage to a child. Although many ancient practices have long been abandoned for health and other reasons, “When faced with two conflicting ideologies — an Orthodox Jewish upbringing and a scientific and medical training — the doctor yielded to his religious beliefs, choosing a weak rationalization that ‘all medical procedures have side effects.’ Such is the power of religious belief.'” Such beliefs are especially strong when a particular practice is part of an ancient religious ritual.

There is little doubt that we live in very different realities, and that the gaps between them are only growing greater with every passing day. What then, if anything, can be done to bridge them? Interestingly enough, social science research shows that the gaps between scientists and the general public cannot be spanned by logic and rational thought alone. While necessary, they are not sufficient by themselves. Logic and rational thought only turn off even more those who believe in their own versions of reality and truth.

As a scientist, I believe with all my being in the power of science to keep us honest. But I also believe that scientists are among the least equipped to bring about the changes we need so desperately. To effect significant change, it’s necessary to present ideas, especially those that go sharply against the grain of a person’s belief system, by someone who can speak plainly and simply, in short, someone the person trusts implicitly because “He or she is one of us.” More than ever, we need people who can speak from the heart and the head, not one or the other.


Blog, Psychology, Sociology

Completely Out of Control: Technology Gone Amok

Originally Published November 25th on the Huffington Post

In the 1980’s, because I taught at USC, my family and I were fortunate to live in Manhattan Beach, a small beautiful jewel of a city in Southern California that borders directly on the Santa Monica Bay. Thus, we were greatly saddened to learn from a close friend who has a teenage daughter at Mira Costa High School, the same school from which our daughter graduated, was shut down recently because of repeated bomb threats on the social media site Yik Yak.

Yik Yak is so bad that many have called it “The Bullying Site.” This doesn’t begin to describe how truly wicked it is.

This is not the first time that social media have been implicated as a major contributing factor in the cause of extreme anti-social behavior. For instance, the cases in which young girls have been driven to suicide after have been bullied repeatedly on social media sites are well known. For this reason, I prefer to call them “Anti-social Media.”

Clearly there is something very wrong with technology from its invention, implementation, and general overall management or control.

Recently, my wife and I attended a talk about a relatively new super high-tech university. While the technology discussed was utterly fascinating–e.g., 3 D printers and the like–the talk made perfectly clear why we get the mismanagement of technology that we do. Nowhere in the curriculum were there any courses in the history, management, philosophy, or sociology of science and technology. None!

This is not to say that such courses would somehow have magically prevented cyber-bullying or any of the other negative side effects generally associated with social media. Rather, such courses are indispensable in helping us to confront the dark sides of technology.

It is no longer sufficient merely to invent technology, unleash it on the general public, and then only belatedly try to deal with its negative consequences. I don’t accept that before Facebook and others were invented that it was not possible to imagine how they would be used in ways their inventors never foresaw, or didn’t want to foresee. If one of the primary audiences of social media were young people, then why weren’t parent oversight groups formed and empowered from the very beginning?

Yes, scientists and technologists are driven primarily by the thrill of discovery, invention, and nowadays, the enormous profits to be made. But that’s precisely why they are not necessarily well suited to the management of their inventions, especially if they are averse to thinking about the social consequence of their inventions, which unfortunately is too often the case.

And no, I am not inherently anti-technology per se. I have in fact a PhD in Engineering Science from one of the world’s leading bastions of science and technology, The University of California at Berkeley. The difference is that when I was studying for my PhD in Engineering, I took a three and a half year minor in the Philosophy of Science, an action that I constantly had to defend to the College of Engineering since no one had taken such a minor before, and to their way of thinking, “What did Philosophy have to do with Engineering?” Even though I couldn’t give it then, my answer is “Everything!”

We cannot leave the management of science and technology to scientists and technologists alone. But then, we cannot leave their management entirely to managers or politicians either. While not prefect by any means, the best we have is to strengthen the role of intelligent government and citizen oversight groups before, during, and after the invention and deployment of technology.

Blog, Gun Control, Psychology

Living in a State of Constant Paranoia: The Time is Way Overdue to Ban Toy Guns That Look Like the Real Thing!

Originally posted on Nation of Change – December 6, 2013

On October 22, 2013, a 13-year-old boy, Andy Lopez, was fatally shot by Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus in Santa Rosa, California after he was warned repeatedly to put down what looked like a real automatic rifle. When Lopez turned around with the fake gun pointing directly at Gelhaus and his partner, fearing for their lives, Deputy Gelhaus fired eight times killing Lopez instantly.

Because of the tragic loss of a young life and the understandable outrage that naturally followed, I am afraid that the full lessons have not been drawn from the episode.

Unless we understand and learn from them, we will only see future such tragedies.

While there are few if any excuses for the taking of any life, because I have worked with the police over my career, I want to put forward a different understanding of the tragedy. To do so, let me take a step back and indulge in a bit of theory.

Melanie Klein is one of the most influential child psychoanalysts who ever lived. It is contended that if Freud discovered the child in the adult, then Klein discovered the infant in the child. Working with children as young as newborns up to pre-teens, Klein pushed back even further our understanding of the roots of human behavior.

One of Klein’s earliest discoveries was what she termed the “paranoid-schizoid position.” The child’s earliest state was “paranoid” because of its incessant fears that it would be abandoned or hurt by its first caregivers, typically the mother when Klein worked early in the 20th century. It was also “schizoid” because the young child’s mind was not sufficiently developed to understand and accept that the “good mother,” that one that fed, cared for, and met the child’s every demand, was also the “bad mother” who couldn’t be there all the time and had to discipline the child. Fortunately, with love and understanding, and without overreacting to it, the mother helped the child to heal the “split” between these two diametrically opposite images. In time, the child was able to see and accept that the “good and the bad mother” were one and the same person. She also helped the child to see that there was a “good” and “bad side” to everyone including the child itself.

But if there were prolonged trauma, then the splits would never heal properly and even continue to grow. Indeed, even with healthy development, all of us on occasion split the world into “good and bad guys.” The constant demonization by Democrats and Republicans of one another in Washington is sadly only one manifestation of this phenomenon, albeit one of the worst!

Unfortunately, paranoia and splitting are also furthered by society and certain occupations. Thus, it is not an exaggeration to say that police live and work in a constant state of “paranoid-schizoid.” They are constantly in fear for their safety and lives.

This is not meant in the slightest to excuse or wish away the tragedy that happened. It is also not to say that there aren’t bad or racist cops. There are. But this often obscures more difficult lessons. At the very least, we are not only aware of bad cops, but we try to do things about it. But, we are generally unaware and try not to correct for the earliest states of mind that Klein identified.

If there is any blame to go around for the tragedy, I place it squarely on the makers and the sellers of toy guns that look so much like the “real thing” that they make such tragedies almost inevitable. What kind of society would even allow such things?

There is no excuse for such “toys,” let alone real assault weapons that are too easily available.

Contrary to gun proponents, we are not safer as nation by having 315,000,000 guns, approximately one for every person. Toy guns are now part of the same lethal mix.

If there is any good that can come out of such a tragedy, the California legislature is considering a bill that would ban the manufacture and sale of toy guns that “look like the real thing.” I fervently hope that such a bill passes.

One death is one too many!

Blog, Crisis Management, Media + Politics, Psychology

Treating Gun Violence as an Addiction and a Cult

Originally published on Nation of Change, January 30, 2013

There is something seriously wrong with a society that even has to debate whether it needs to control the most lethal types of weapons in the hands of civilians.

I want to propose what is to my knowledge a novel way of thinking about and thereby treating gun violence. If as I believe that an obsessive need for guns is akin to an addiction and therefore cannot be dealt with by means of conventional arguments (after all, many alcoholics know “rationally” that alcohol is killing them but they are still unable to resist its near total control over their lives), then I believe that we need to stop beating around the bush and treat the obsessive need for guns as a major form of addiction. Accordingly, I have taken the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and reworded them to apply to our society’s deadly obsession with guns. In proposing this, I have no illusion whatsoever that in and of itself this will help us to better manage what I believe is our society’s completely out-of-control proliferation of guns. What I do hope is this it will encourage us to explore new ways of thinking about guns.

I strongly urge the reader to note that in the second paragraph above I have deliberately stressed the word “obsessive” for I don’t believe that everyone who possesses guns or has the desire to have them is therefore suffering from a major form of addiction. Quite to the contrary. I also don’t believe that all guns ought to be banned. I believe that only those guns that are extremely lethal ought to be strictly controlled. That is, contrary to the NRA, some guns are more lethal than others. All guns are not equal. As a result, I believe that there is no place whatsoever for military-assault type weapons in the hands of civilians. Apparently, neither do many responsible and sensible gun owners.

Here then is my version of a twelve-step program for rabid gun owners.


1.      We admitted we were powerless over our fascination with and need for guns and as a result that our lives and society as a whole had become unmanageable. (Notice that this first step is a frank admission that one is no longer in denial of the fact that by themselves guns do not necessarily make oneself and one’s society automatically safer, that there are not dangerous side effects to having guns in one’s home, etc.)

2.      We came to believe that a Moral Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. That is, the lives and well being of children were more important than our desire to hunt, shoot, and collect/own firearms, especially high-power automatic weapons. As such, we came to realize that no rights were absolute. Thus, while we still believed in the Second Amendment, we came to realize that it did not sanction the possession of weapons of war.

3.      We made a conscious decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of this Moral Power as we understood It.

4.      Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and how our unrestrained possession of firearms harmed the collective good of society.

5.      Admitted to a Higher Power however we conceived of Him/Her/It, to ourselves, and to others the exact nature of our uncontrolled obsession over guns.

6.      We are entirely ready to have our Higher Power remove all these defects of character. That is, we are ready to take action against our obsession with guns.

7. Humbly asked our Higher Power to remove our obsession.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed through our beliefs and actions and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with our Higher Power, as we understood Him/Her/It, praying only for knowledge of His/Her/Its will for us and the power to carry it out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to gun owners, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. In particular, we saw the need to design and implement a new organization of Responsible Gun Owners for the Collective Good.

In short, the practitioners of this new Twelve Step Program for Gun Owners would be enacting a new form of a Precautionary Principle for Children. That is, if there was the slightest chance that a specific type of weapon posed an especially dangerous threat to the well being of children in particular, then they would willingly give that weapon (hobby, etc.) up for the greater good of society.

Religious and Cult-Like Aspects

If only the preceding were sufficient to change our deeply held attitudes towards the most dangerous types of guns. Sadly, there is almost a naïve, child-like quality to the preceding. It is not that Twelve Step Programs don’t work. They do. But in order to work, one not only has to “hit bottom,” but to believe that a “cure” is possible and to want to undertake it more than anything else.

Unfortunately, this is not possible for many for there is no denying that there is a deep, fundamentalist aspect to the makeup of many ardent gun owners. This is perhaps the strangest aspect to the whole gun issue for the founding fathers did not intend via The Bill of Rights to aid and abet any kind of “state religion.” And yet, the fervor in which many hold The Second Amendment is akin to an article of religious faith.

No one has said it better than Dennis Henigan, author of the incredible book, Lethal Logic, Exploding The Myths That Paralyze American Gun Policy (ISBN 978-1-59797-356-4):

“As one NRA leader put it some years ago, ‘You would get a far better understanding [of the extreme fervor with which many owners often have for guns] if you approached us as if you were approaching one of the great religions of the world.’ This is not a frivolous comparison. There is an unquestionably religious fervor about the beliefs of many pro-gun partisans. It is grounded in various articles of religious faith that form the catechism of the NRA: that law-abiding citizens are under constant risk of attack by predatory criminals, that the safety of every person and family depends upon the ability of individuals to defend themselves with firearms, that the government cannot be trusted to provide security to individuals and families, that democratic institutions cannot be counted on to protect our liberties as Americans, that those institutions are at constant risk of subversion by tyrannical elements, and that tyranny is kept at bay only by the potential for insurrection by an armed populace intent on maintaining liberty. In the NRA’s world, these are eternal truths. They are not themselves proper subjects for empirical testing or debate, but rather are a priori verities according to which the world is interpreted and understood.

“To the true believers, the gun is an object of religious devotion…The hallowed place of the gun is reflected in the holy text of the gun rights movement, the Second Amendment to the Constitution…”

If this is indeed the case, then all the rational arguments in the world don’t stand any chance of making headway with those who regard guns and the Second Amendment as “holy objects.” It is like talking to the members of a cult. The only thing one can do is to “deprogram them.” But even assuming that we could, there aren’t enough therapists and trained facilitators to deprogram those who don’t see any need for it. Besides, who “deprograms a whole society?”

In the end, all one can do is rely on those who are not members of the cult to come together and to organize themselves politically to take action against collective madness; and of course, to hope that there are enough who are not members to overcome those who are.

The more that the NRA speaks out against sensible gun laws and actions, the more it empowers those who have more responsible views. In sum, whether it knows it or not—and it clearly doesn’t—the NRA is its own worst enemy.

Originally published on Nation of Change, January 30, 2013

Blog, Psychology

Let No Factor Go Unheeded: Treat Every Causative Factor in Gun Violence as Aggresively as Possible

Originally published on Nation of Change, December 19, 2012

There are at least two widely differing positions in treating gun violence that surface every time there is a horrendous tragedy like that which happened in Newtown, Connecticut. Indeed, they are always just beneath the surface of any argument pertaining to gun control.

The first is represented by the movie/TV and video game industries; the second, by cardiologists of all people.

The first position argues that there is no firm causal relationship between (1) the prolonged exposure of children and young adults to violent movies/TV/video games and (2) their engagement in actual violent behavior. Correlations are all there are, and correlations are not hard definitive proof of causality. Therefore, lacking such proof, there is no valid reason for the producers/writers of violent movies/TV/video games to tone down their creations. Besides, aren’t they protected by the First Amendment?

The second position argues that no cardiologist would ever say that because a certain set of factors are low in their overall contribution to heart disease that one should therefore ignore them. Instead, no matter what their level of contribution, one should treat any and all factors as aggressively as one can.

To draw out the differences between these two positions even more starkly, let me put them in the form of two opposing ethical principles because that’s what they really are. The first says in effect that, “Whenever the correlation between what we do/produce as an industry and some important problem in society is low or beneath a certain ‘threshold,’ then we are warranted ethically in not doing anything; we are absolved as it were.” The question of course is, “How high would the correlation have to be before one accepted ‘ethical responsibility’?”

The second says, “No matter how big or small the correlation, do everything in your power to make it even smaller.”

The first principle is in effect a variant of Utilitarian Ethics. As such, it is a form of Cost/Benefit. That is, one weighs the “benefits” versus the “costs” of doing or not doing anything and if the benefits exceed the costs, or the costs are unclear, then one is justified in engaging in a certain set of actions.

The second is Kantian in spirit. It says do as little harm as possible. Even if the correlation is as low as 0.001 so act as to make it continually even lower.

Of course gun violence is a complex mess, where a “mess” is defined as “a complex system of problems that are so dynamically interconnected such that no single problem can be taken out of the mess of which it is a part and worked on independently of all the other problems with which it is intertwined.” So of course gun violence cannot be separated from mental health, video game violence, poverty, etc., etc. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attack one of the most critical components of the mess, the all-too-easy availability of military style weapons to virtually everyone.

It also means that we shouldn’t ignore the fact that while the correlations between viewing the worst depictions of violence may not rise to the level of “causality,” over 35 years of research demonstrates that the correlations are not negligible. Typically, the correlations vary between 0.2 and 0.4, but even more significantly, they rise considerably with children from high-risk environments. And, they rise with increased, persistent exposure to violence.

The arguments that rabid gun proponents use to justify the manufacture and possession of the worst weapons are so many that I could not possibly address them all. Instead, let me close by hitting straight on one of the most flawed arguments that is used far too often: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” This argument is not only “wrong,” but it is “dead wrong.” The more complete, correct proposition is: “People kill people more effectively by means of guns than by any other known weapon to which they have easy access!”

The time has never been more appropriate to see the arguments of rabid gun proponents for what they are: fundamentally unethical!

Originally published on Nation of Change, December 19, 2012

Blog, Media + Politics, Psychology

On Mixed Minds: Liberal-Conservatives and Conservative-Liberals

Originally published on Nation of Change, September 27, 2012

In a previous op-ed, “When Liberals Deny Reality: Demonizing Conservatives While Idealizing Liberals.” (Nation of Change, Saturday, September 22, 2012), I praised a recent book by Chris Mooney (The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, Wiley, 2012). In spite of this, I was nonetheless highly critical of it.

There is no question whatsoever that I basically agreed with Mooney’s characterization of conservatives and liberals. Conservatives are generally fearful of and highly resistant to change, have an obsessive need for order and predictability, prize individual differences (money, status, etc.), and believe in hierarchy over community and egalitarianism. In short, they are closed-minded and don’t believe in science, especially if it conflicts with their deep-seated religious and social beliefs.

In sharp contrast, liberals generally believe strongly in reasoned argument, logic, and science. They are not only extremely open to change, but to learning from their own errors, and from the views of others.

Nonetheless, as much as I agreed with Mooney on the key differences between conservatives and liberals, I parted sharp company with him with regard to his overly simplistic and highly idealized characterizations of academics and scientists. While academics and scientists may be liberals politically, they are not necessarily when it comes to their day-to-day work. Indeed, they are generally very conservative. Having been a university professor for over 45 years, I know this for a fact!

In short, Mooney was seriously wrong if he thought that academics and scientists were “the shinning model for liberal thought.”

None of this meant that I didn’t regard science as one of the best ways of ferreting out error that humankind has ever invented. Science is! Indeed, I have no regard whatsoever for those who don’t respect science. Still my basic point was that science was done by humans who weren’t always the epitome of objectivity.

In spite of this, my previous critique only skimmed the surface. There is a much deeper point to be made, one that penetrates more fundamentally to the underlying nature of conservative and liberal thought.

Nowhere in his otherwise generally excellent analysis does Mooney even hint at the existence, let operation, of unconscious, psychodynamic factors. For instance, in his primary use of social psychology, Mooney mainly treats conscious, explicit factors that account for the extreme differences between conservatives and liberals. While these “factors” are not wrong per se, they are incomplete in accounting for the complexity of the human mind.

Thus, Mooney is not able to consider (or only barely) that while one may be quite liberal on the surface, one can be rather conservative and even authoritarian unconsciously. Conversely, one may be conservative and authoritarian on the surface, yet have real strands of liberalism underneath. (The latter is the true meaning of a “compassionate conservative.”)

While both of the aforementioned “strange couplings” (“liberal authoritarians” and “conservative liberals”) are most easily seen in extreme groups, they are not confined to them. Indeed, it helps to explain why any number of liberal groups that believe in respecting differences are as hateful and intolerant as can be when it actually comes to living with staunch conservatives. I know this for a fact, for in all honesty, I’m one of them!

On the surface I’d like to believe that I’m very tolerant, but deep down, I know that it’s a very different story. No wonder why the great psychoanalysts talked again and again about the tug of war that occurs between the “two or more minds that make up the human psyche.”

There is all the difference in the world between (1) conservatives that are conservative at both the conscious and the unconscious levels (they are scary consistent), and (2) conservatives that are conservative at the conscious level, but deep down at the unconscious level have a touch of liberalism, and hence, often experience considerable conflict within, which is not always a bad thing. There is also a big difference between (1) liberals that are liberal at both the conscious and the unconscious levels (this can also be scary consistent), and (2) liberal at the conscious level and conservative at the unconscious.

Humans are too complex to be conservative or liberal through and through. Thank god we are not.

We liberals constantly say that we don’t want to put people into tight, narrow boxes, and yet we often do precisely this.

I know that being a “mixed type” (liberal on the surface mixed with underlying elements of conservatism”) allows me to appreciate and understand conservatives far better that if I were perfectly consistent.

If we really want to understand conservatism and liberalism—indeed, anything human–we have to give up simplistic consistency. If the human mind is anything, it is a boiling pot of “hot inconsistency.”

Originally published on Nation of Change, September 27, 2012

Blog, Media + Politics, Psychology

The Unconscious Choice: The Forces of the Dark and Light Sides

Originally published on Nation of Change, September 8, 2012

Make no mistake about it. This election is about the choice between two worldviews that are as psychologically different and far apart as any two could possibly be. The choice is difficult not just because so much is riding on it—this much is obvious–but like most crucial things in life, much of it rests on factors that are largely unconscious. The later is far from obvious.

On the one side is the Republican view of the world (the Dark Side) that is as mean and repressive as anything I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. On the other hand is the Democratic (the Light Side), which while far from perfect, shows real signs of humanity and maturity. With no apologies whatsoever for my clear bias and partisanship, let me explore the psychological differences between these two worldviews. Hopefully, this helps to illuminate the unconscious factors that play a major role in what people vote for and why. To do this, let me discuss very briefly: 1. Jungian psychological types; 2. ego psychology; and 3. American mythology. All three interact in powerful ways to produce the enormous, and unfortunately, unbridgeable differences between the current versions of Republicans and Democrats.

As long ago as 1921, Jung identified, among many others, the psychological differences between: 1. Sensing and Intuitive, and 2. Thinking and Feeling personality types.

Sensing types instinctively break all problems down into separate and independent parts for which they then proceed to gather “hard data” or “facts” that “measure precisely” the “exact status or performance” of each of the parts. In addition, they are anchored firmly in the “here-and-now.” In short, if you can’t see, feel, hear, smell, taste, or measure something in the here-and-now, then it’s not real, let alone important.

In contrast, Intuitive types instinctively look at the big picture, the whole system. They are not concerned with parts per se, but only with how they all fit together. Indeed, by themselves, the parts have no meaning or existence. In addition, they are concerned primarily with future possibilities, not with imperfect things as they are today. If they believe in measuring anything, it is the “state of the whole.”

Thinking types are primarily concerned with analyzing things impersonally in terms of logic and science. Feeling types are concerned with people’s feelings.

Putting these together in all possible ways results in four basic personality types: 1. Sensing-Thinking; 2. Intuitive-Thinking; 3. Intuitive-Feeling; and, 4. Sensing-Feeling.

Next, let me say a very brief word about ego psychology. Ego psychology postulates that there are at least three characters or voices in everyone; 1. Parent; 2. Adult; and 3. Child.

The Parent is the character that sets rules and lays down laws of acceptable versus unacceptable behavior. It is the voice that says, “Do this!” Or, “Don’t do such and such because if you do, then you will have to suffer the consequences!” The Child is the character in all of us that forever wants to play and have toys and goodies right now with no consequences whatsoever. The Adult is the character that has to mediate between the immediate, incessant demands of the Child and the harsh strictures of the Parent. The Adult says to the Child, “If you eat all your broccoli as your Mother and Father want you to do, then you can have your cookies!”

As I listen to the current Republican mantras, Sensing-Thinking and Sensing-Feeling are the dominant personalities that literally occupy center-stage. But more than this, they are Sensing-Thinking and Sensing-Feeling overlaid with a very strong Parent. The Parent Sensing-Thinking measures success solely in terms of monetary wealth alone. It disparages all occupations other that of a CEO. No wonder why the super-rich are raised up to exalted status and revered as gods. It also consigns women to secondary roles and issues harsh dictates regarding women’s rights and what constitutes “legitimate rape!” As the “natural heads of the family,” men have been “chosen by Nature to rule over women and children!” And, if “they know what’s good for them, they will obey without question!” The Parent Sensing-Feeling regards his or her immediate family or tribe as the only social entity worthy of consideration, i.e., human feeling.

Although the Democrats have more than their fair share of the Parent as well, their personalities lean more toward the Adult Intuitive-Thinking and Adult Intuitive-Feeling. The Adult Intuitive-Thinking finds expression in their concern for the “health of the planet,” which the Republicans sneered at haughtily at their latest convention. (Republicans were also conspicuously silent when at the end of his acceptance speech, Governor Romney called for compassion towards the poor and unemployed.) The Adult Intuitive-Feeling finds expression in the Democrats concern with a much broader expanse of humanity, e.g., working people, the middle class, poor, etc. In spite of their great differences, Republicans and Democrats are united in their endless chant and use of the myth that “America is the greatest nation on Earth.” It’s not that America is not great. Rather, a truly great, i.e., mature, country would not need to prop up its flagging self-esteem by ignoring and washing over its great problems, e.g., the large numbers of uninsured, incarcerated prisoners, gun violence, poverty, etc., etc.

But here again, Democrats are much more able and willing to face harsh problems than Republicans. The real tragedy is that all four personality types need one another. Intuitive-Feeling types need Sensing-Thinking types to “ground them.” And, Sensing-Thinking types need Intuitive-Feeling types to see the “larger human picture.”

Intuitive-Thinking types need Sensing-Feeling types to literally see real, concrete human beings. And, Sensing-Feeling types need Intuitive-Thinking types to see the bigger, whole system. But this is possible if and only if the Adult governs each of them. One of the strong characteristics of the Adult is that no matter what its particular Jungian personality, it says to itself, “So I’m a Sensing-Thinking type; so what!; I need all the others to complement the weak sides of my personality; we all need to work together.” However, from a psychological perspective, don’t count on it at the present time. When one party is primarily in the Parent stage and the other is in the Adult, communication, let alone cooperation, are almost impossible.

My prime recommendation to the Democrats is don’t waste your breath with the Republicans. Keep saying what you’re saying, but in the clearest, most succinct stories you can muster. No matter what one’s psychological type, stories are what move us to great feats.

Finally, as a strong Intuitive Thinking and Feeling type myself (one can be more than one), I say, “Never give hope.” As dire as things are, I believe with all my heart that the Adult eventually will prevail. This is the ideal by which I choose to guide my life.

Originally published on Nation of Change, September 8, 2012