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If They Get You Angry, They Control You

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Elias Isquith has written in Salon.com that the Ferguson MO announcement was deliberately provocative because riots distract people from questioning the racism and the unfairness of the system.

The conspiracy this time was not to protect Officer Darren Wilson from standing trial for the killing of Michael Brown, though that was certainly related. This time, the conspiracy was to organize the announcement of Wilson’s exoneration in as provocative a way as possible. The ultimate goal was to manipulate the public and the press into forgetting the real story of Ferguson — of police brutality and racial injustice — and bickering about the morality of rioting instead…

All they wanted was to improve the Ferguson power structure’s battered images — not by doing good, but by making the protesters look even worse.

My first reaction to reading that was to wonder if that might be just a bit too paranoid. I mean really, it seems like a pretty convoluted argument, verging on the “tin foil hat” sort of reasoning that is easy to mock. After all, most people are just middlingly competent at organizing the office holiday party, much less at orchestrating other groups to respond like angry swarms of bees.

But then I think about it some more. As a psychologist, my expertise is in helping people manage their emotional reactions. Teachers, preachers, nurses and moms share the same basic skill — managing people’s emotions and behaviors — to help them calm down or get inspired or follow a diet or study their math, to get them to react and behave in certain ways. And this is done with the aim of being a source of good to the other.

On the other hand, politicians, marketers, and their consultants’ expertise is also provoking the emotions and behavior of others. It’s what they do — what they spend many years learning to do. They are professionals in a different psychology of influence.  And their goals are not necessarily helping you. Their goals are generally about getting or holding onto power. Or making money for themselves by, in one way or another, getting it out of your pocket.

There are armies of experts in manipulating your emotions in the service of selling unnecessary products (“Black Friday, anyone? Love that name – suggests something both economic and partaking of a great darkness of soul)… in getting votes, consolidating power, getting you to argue over selected things and so distracting you from other thoughts. It’s been said that the main function of all the hysterical Ebola coverage before the last election was to crank up the fear level of voters. Why? Because it’s known that that when people are scared, they tend to vote Republican. (Seems that Ebola magically disappeared from the news the day after the election, didn’t it?)

Isquith is basically saying that in the case of Ferguson, the magic formula may have been “riots = distracting people from all the recent coverage of how corrupt the Ferguson power structure is.”

If they don’t want us discussing a corrupt political and legal system, what better way to control our hyper little minds than to grab headlines with the self-confirming drama of “those violent Negroes rioting again…just the same thing Michael Brown was doing…” So make the grand jury announcement at night, show footage of the police, deliberately provoke the crowd.

Or more simply (in the language of our reptilian brains): “Dangerous bad black people in T-shirts in the dark with flames. Safe good white police and politicians in suits and neatly pressed uniforms.”

Maybe not so paranoid? I don’t know now. But whether the Ferguson powers-that-shouldn’t-be are that clever or not, it’s certainly a powerful reminder of an important psychological fact:

If they can get you to react out of anger and fear, they can control you.

It’s well worth reminding yourself every day that controlling you is big business. Whether it’s called “PsyOps” or “marketing” or “Fox News,” whether it takes the form of the “psychological violence” of “news” shows such as “Crossfire,” or kissing babies at the state fair, every time someone in a suit talks in front of a camera, they are trying to influence your heart and mind. (Never trust anyone in a suit.) And just maybe, they are trying to get you to join a swarm of people intent on burning down a town. Or bombing a country.

Or just breaking down the doors at Walmart and depleting your bank account tomorrow, on “Black Friday.”

But if you can feel the anger or lust or desire, and still maintain control of your thinking and behavior, take a breath to get grounded, develop the skills of mindfulness, wisdom and strategic thinking, you may be able to resist the urge to join the swarm.

And that way, you may help change the world into something less horrible, violent, greedy, and cruel.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Reviving the blog

There’s a part of me, probably familiar to most people, that rebels at the idea of blogging.  Or Twittering. The whole “social network market yourself reveal your inmost secrets to the whole world” thing.

Maybe it’s an introvert thing. I’m just not comfortable, much of the time, standing up in front of people and yelling “Hey!  Want to hear what I think?”

And there’s been moving, getting a psychology practice started in Vermont, and working on three different novel projects.  Lots has been going on!

In any event, I’ve been quiet on this thing for some time.

But I do think it’s time to revive the blog.

Up till now I have focused on writing about writing (and using my other blogs on social intelligence and sexuality in culture to explore some other interests.)  But I am thinking I’ll expand this one.  I have a fairly large list of interests and things it’d be fun to do here.  First and foremost is my interest in writing fiction, perhaps from the particular vantage point of a psychologist.

I’m also interested in exploring some topics in that psych field, as well as in related areas ranging from health care to special topics in consulting, to just writing about books and movies.  Some of the blogs I’ve been enjoying lately have that mix of topics approach… I may try it and see what comes of it.  (The alternative, having a separate blog for some topic areas, is something I’ve also done, and may continue, but at some point that becomes unwieldy.)

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Doctor Mustard, In the Consulting Room, With Words

As a kid I was fascinated by a comic strip about a bumbling cop, Fearless Fosdick, most famous for his habit of pursuing bad guys by “firing a warning shot into the crowd.”   In one series of strips, there was a sinister murder weapon that was killing people off — a sheet of paper on which was written a joke that was so funny that anyone who read it would die of uncontrollable laughter.

Thus was planted in my adolescent brain the possibility that a thought could literally kill a person.  (And of course, an undying curiosity to read that joke.  Kind of the Fosdickian equivalent of Odysseus panting to hear the song of the Sirens.)

Later I discovered that various writers of thrillers had attempted to plumb the depths of this concept.  Two of the most famous were Agatha Christie and Thomas Harris.  Harris, in The Silence of the Lambs, included an episode in which the evil psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter persuaded a man in the next cell, “Miggs,” to commit suicide by swallowing his own tongue.  (Lecter is generally good at mindfucking, but this is his most notable example of having a non-drugged victim literally kill himself.)

In her novel Curtain — Poirot’s Last Case, Agatha Christie creates a villain whose skill was in getting others to kill by means of psychological manipulation.  A string of murders are all committed, seemingly by a collection of unlikely suspects; in each case the “killers” had been manipulated into performing the deed by this third party, labeled “X” for much of the book.  Generally, “X” needed only a brief, seemingly casual conversation to launch the “bolt” through the other person’s actions.  It’s often pointed out that “X” is a kind of Iago on steroids.

This is a fascinating topic.  But a moment’s reflection might reveal that the idea of being manipulated into doing something horrendous is not far removed from our everyday experience.  Seductions abound, whether it’s someone using sex or wealth or “best foot forward” lies to get us to marry (or at least sleep with) them, or advertisers conning us into buying the ten dollar shampoo when it cleans no better than the cheapest brand.  Much in our lives is about being, or resisting being seduced into doing things that may be against our self-interest, whether as individuals or “demographics” or entire nations.

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J.K. Rowling and Depression

There’s an article today on J.K. Rowling that says she struggled a lot with major depression, and even thoughts of suicide, before she became successful with her “Harry Potter” books. Thankfully, she got some good help (though it was apparently a near miss, in the sense that a substitute medical person more or less blew her off in the absence of her regular doctor — why do medical establishments continue to assume that you can just “substitute” someone else for the person with whom you have a regular relationship? It usually doesn’t help so much.)

Of interest was how Rowling later based some of her eeriest, scariest creatures, the “Dementors,” on this experience of depression. As noted in the Wikipedia reference to the Dementors, they are soulless creatures, soul sucking fiends who can afflict both humans and wizards with the loss of the ability to imagine that you can ever be cheerful again. She describes it as “The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, whicih is so very different from feeling sad.” They feed on positive emotions, happiness and good memories.

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