I’m tired of seeing this response to the UCSB mass shooting

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One response I’m seeing to the mass shooting at UCSB is, “Why didn’t he just get a prostitute?” (or some variation of it: “Couldn’t get a date, why not get a call girl?”) Like all the killer needed was some sex, and he wouldn’t have been violent.

A few reasons this response is poorly thought out:

First off, having sex with a prostitute doesn’t make violent people less violent. That’s already seen from the way that prostitutes themselves are frequently targeted for murders and assaults. Having sex doesn’t make violent, entitled, and misogynistic people less violent and misogynistic and entitled. Sex is not a magical cure for deeply toxic thinking.

Speaking of entitled… among the killer’s personal problems was a major sense of entitlement. He wanted power and control. Paying for sex from a prostitute would not have been enough to satisfy his needs. He didn’t just need sex. He needed to have any woman he desired. In his eyes, women weren’t individuals in their own right; they simply existed to be his. (His sense of entitlement also extended beyond his relationships with women to other areas of his life, but women were his main focus.)

And the last point (but not the least important one): prostitutes are people and, except when they’re victims of human trafficking or other kinds of coercion, they choose who they have sex with. They often try to avoid people or blacklist people they suspect might kill or otherwise brutalize them. Who’s to say the killer would never have been turned down by a prostitute? In any case, prostitutes shouldn’t be seen as fodder for brutal, toxic people.

Just move on already!

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Don’t dwell! Don’t think about it so much!

When you’re dealing with past traumas, you’ll likely come across people who say things like this. Sometimes, they even mean it kindly.

Underneath it all, there’s a tremendous discomfort. They may not want to see you in pain. They may not want to be bothered with your hurt or confusion. They need to ignore you. Your anger might unsettle them. They might not like what you uncover when you consider your past too closely. You might change as a result, and you suit them just fine as you are.

So they tell you to move on, as if the past is something you can jettison. For instance, your childhood shaped you, but suddenly as an adult, you’re supposed to leave it behind and move on, as if the years in which your character was formed, mental habits and reflexes developed, mean little and don’t have a grip on you now.

As if the underlying rage, fear, and confusion will go away because you simply move on. (Or pretend to, turning that frown upside down.)

Do you want to understand yourself and how you came to be the way you are? This isn’t a pointless exercise in brooding or dwelling. This isn’t about wallowing in self-pity or seeking revenge. By understanding yourself and confronting what you find painful, you gain insights into yourself and other people. You understand your own self-defeating impulses and can better check them. You know your strengths and vulnerabilities. And your understanding of yourself can always further develop as you mature.

Forgive and move on!

Many people will urge you to forgive. Otherwise, they tell you, you can’t move on.

When they tell you this, they’re usually seeking comfort for themselves. They’re asking you to make your needs secondary to theirs. You have practice in this, don’t you? You might have done this for years and years: played the role of scapegoat, toy, nursemaid, surrogate parent, whatever use another person (or other people) had for you.

Now you must dispense forgiveness, like an angel. People need their happy ending. They need proof of your wholeness and that you’re “above it all.”

Is forgiveness possible? Of course. Naturally, unforced, perhaps a long time in coming… or not at all. It’s not a hoop to jump through in order to live well.

You can’t really feel this way!

Many people will tell you what to think and feel. This is supposed to make you more agreeable to them, and if you’re more agreeable to them it automatically means that you’re a healthy, wise and lovely person. Or if not, at least you won’t bother them as much.

Preferably, any powerful emotions that overtake you will be discreet and dealt with behind closed doors, via self-medication, various numbing activities, or the selection of inappropriate targets for your rage. Those emotional needs that remain unaddressed will propel you in ways you can’t imagine and don’t care to think about, but move on already! If you need to be dysfunctional about it, well, there are many socially-sanctioned ways of being dysfunctional and cruel. Just don’t stand out too much.

Or how about this – you can try to live, try to figure out how to live well, doing worthwhile things and feeling what you feel, thinking what you think, exploring who you are and who you can be and what life means to you, and not pretending that you’re all polished through and through, and that even your pain is tidy, like an elegant black handkerchief that flutters in your hand from time to time before you fold it neatly and tuck it away.

On Becoming a Person, Chapter 3 – Thriving in a Healthy Helping Relationship

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In the third chapter of his book, On Becoming a Person, Carl Rogers talks about some of the qualities of a healthy helping relationship. Although his focus is on therapists and patients, he also notes how these qualities could apply to other relationships, such as parent-child or teacher-student. Here are some:

1) A sincere desire to understand the other person. This doesn’t mean saying “I understand what’s wrong with you and now I’ll fix you” or “I understand what’s wrong with you because I had a similar experience and this is how I felt about it” or “I understand all right, but your concerns aren’t serious.” It’s important to try to see an issue as the other person sees it, not how you see it. Even if you don’t always succeed in understanding, people at least pick up on the sincere effort.

2) Genuineness. This isn’t license to be rude and insulting (for instance, there are ways of expressing anger that don’t involve humiliating another person; and I’m making this point from the start because I know people who are brutally hurtful, then claim it’s ok because they’re just being themselves).

With genuineness, you aren’t constantly giving off conflicting messages – ‘nicey nice’ words with anger in your eyes, a compliment spoken in indifference, contempt or resentment – as these generate mistrust. You’re aware of your thoughts and feelings, and aren’t always compelled to put on a show in front of everyone. To be more genuine requires self-acceptance; you’re willing to take the risk of being more exposed. You do not need to appear ‘perfect’ and express the ‘perfect’ sentiment at all times. Self-acceptance also means that you have less fear of others and what kinds of reactions they might provoke in you; you’re more accepting of their presence as well, and less defensive about what they say or do.

3) Allowing yourself to feel warmth and caring. You can care about the other person, while knowing full well that there’s always the possibility that they’ll flake out on you, try to take advantage of your good will, make terrible mistakes, stab you in the back, or disappoint you. The alternative is to remain cold or completely impersonal, which usually closes off communication in these kinds of relationships (though it does give you the sense that you’re protecting yourself).

4) Reminding yourself that you’re distinct from the other person. Do you fear losing yourself in their emotions? On the flip side, are you trying to control them, needing them to slavishly follow what you say or be dependent on you? You really have to respect that the other person is distinct and separate from you, and you from them.

5) Unconditional acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean you’re automatically condoning everything the other person does. It means that you keep regarding them as they are, instead of completely spurning them or twisting their words and behaviors to be more palatable to you. Or can you really only see the other person when they show you the kinds of things that are easiest and least disturbing for you to see?

6) The ability to create an unthreatening environment. Are you subjecting the other person to the threat of constant evaluation and judgment? Do they always feel as if they’re trying to prove themselves and are falling short? Or are you helping them establish their own standards of behavior, their own sense of what’s acceptable or not, and helping them take responsibility for themselves without the constant need of a punishment or harsh judgment hanging over their heads?

7) Perceiving the other person as constantly developing. Instead of seeing them purely bound to their past and what they’ve always been to you (often in unforgiving terms: an ignorant student, an immature child, a neurotic mess, etc.) you see them in the process of becoming, of daily changes and development.

Most of the time what blocks us from developing these qualities to any extent is fear – of being hurt and exposed, of being wrong. Another pitfall is all-or-nothing thinking: “I fail to be genuine all of the time, so I won’t bother.” Then there’s mental laziness, which can lead us to taking shortcuts in understanding and helping another person. The take home point is that to be in a position to consistently help others, you need to work on your own psychological maturity – so as not to use other people and their problems for your own purposes, and obscure them in a dense cloud of your own thoughts and feelings.

Researching the Long-Term Damage of Romanian Orphanages

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Read this excellent article that looks into the ethics of researching cognitive and neural development in Romanian children who live in orphanages. Even when adequate food, shelter, and medical care are provided, the children suffer from neglect; from a young age, they don’t interact much with caretakers, which stunts their development.

What practical benefit will this research have for the kids? Will the research itself be enough to change state policies? What is the research telling us that’s new? We already understand that growing up in these orphanages increase the chances of hurting cognition, emotional development, and other aspects of psychological health. What benefit will it bring to science, and to the kids, to investigate the effects on their brain, which includes decreased white matter?

The rot in athletic culture

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Participating in sports can help young kids and teenagers strengthen self-discipline, strategic ability, and the skill of working well with others, not to mention giving them more opportunities to be physically active.

Throughout the U.S., however, athletes are often worshipped or zealously protected. The fans cheering them on come to identify with them, fighting vicariously through them against ‘the enemy’ (whether it’s another school or town’s team, with tensions rife even in some little league games); this is especially true if the athletes are boys, and if the sport is super-popular, like football or baseball.

Another problem concerns the darker side of the traits cultivated in athleticism – when physical strength and aggression aren’t tempered by moral and mental strength. When aggression and domination are held up as the most worthwhile qualities – and in the case of boys, the qualities that most strongly define them as men. Sports becomes about crushing and humiliating others to show off your own perceived strength.

The Denver Post recently published an article about a 13-year-old boy attacked by upperclassmen at a wrestling meet:

At the state high-school wrestling tournament in Denver last year, three upperclassmen cornered a 13-year-old boy on an empty school bus, bound him with duct tape and sodomized him with a pencil.

In this case, the victim’s father, who was the school’s principal, reported the attack to police. And the community turned on them. The father wound up leaving his job. The boy’s schoolmates harassed and bullied him and openly supported the attackers.

The article goes onto to detail other sexual assaults (often part of so-called ‘hazing rituals’) perpetrated by boys against other boys. In some cases, teachers or coaches know and shrug it off. They expect the victims to take it silently and shrug it off too (‘boys will be boys,’ and all that). And there’s a price – of social ostracism and vicious bullying and harassment – when the victim does speak out or press charges.

I’m reminded of the Steubenville rape case, which concluded with two football players charged with raping a teenaged girl. Many people in their community and school supported them, and those same folks turned on the victim, spreading around photos of the rape and harassing her. They victim-blamed and slut-shamed her – a far too common response to rape victims. But ultimately I think what fueled their rage was that she was proof of a strain of ugliness in the culture of the community, a town known to prize its football players and identify with them. Many in the community felt that by exposing the depravity of these particular players, she was calling into question the decency of the community as a whole; a slur on the players was a slur on them. And rather than examine themselves, and look at a culture that mindlessly celebrates aggression and domination, they defended the players.

Yes, I know this isn’t limited to sports. When people identify with an athlete, a celebrity, a religious figure or organization, and there’s evidence of terrible behavior on the part of any of those figures or entities, they might feel a flicker of doubt about themselves. “I’m a good person, so could I really have identified with something or someone evil?” As a form of protecting themselves, and their beliefs about themselves, many people will then deny the evil and turn on the victims of it. (See my post on the book, Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me.) In athletics, this way of thinking, combined with the encouragement athletes receive to dominate others in a humiliating fashion, creates a culture where sexual assault is more likely to occur and then be defended or excused.

Granted, sexual assault isn’t the only way to humiliate or dominate someone, but it’s particularly potent and damaging. There may be some differences in how people perceive the victims; girls will frequently be shamed as ‘promiscuous’ or ‘sexually damaged,’ while boys will have their masculinity fundamentally called into question. But there are many similarities too in what’s expected of the victim: chiefly silent shame and diminished personhood. The expectation is that the victim exists to give others a power trip; it’s never only about sexual release, because in a number of cases, as with the boys’ hazing rituals, the attackers don’t experience sexual release – and the people witnessing and cheering it on don’t either. It’s the heady sensation of being able to use and hurt without regard for the will of another person; other people are yours for the taking, and there’s nothing they can do about it, because you’re stronger (physically, anyway). Notice also how in the rape of boys, the victims are essentially ‘feminized.’ The attackers, by penetrating a male victim, treat him as ‘not male’ and assert their manhood over him; he’s expected to bear this silently and maybe, if he isn’t ‘weak,’ become a man in spite of it and pretend it never happened – maybe even prove how manly he is in the future by doing it to someone else. Until then, he needs to ‘know his place.’ (In this culture, a victim who’s a girl will have to also stay silent, but forever accept that she’s now ‘in her place,’ reduced to a discarded ‘plaything’ – someone who couldn’t possibly be able to hold her head up high as a person.) It’s all part of the same culture of toxic aggression and warped ideas of masculinity. The victims have a role to play in this culture – and when the victims step out of that role and refuse to be silenced, they face a communal backlash.

Are all athletes like this? Of course not. But there are too many of these incidences – sexual assaults, along with various forms of extreme bullying and humiliation. And while the perpetrators are relatively few in number, they’re championed by crowds of enablers. If the perpetrators were shamed instead of the victims, they would be far less likely to do these reprehensible things. But ultimately, it’s not enough to just use shame against people. We need to look at the behaviors that parents, teachers, and coaches are modeling for athletes. What are these young people really learning about strength and what it means? What are they learning about power, status, and the sense of entitlement towards other people’s bodies – their use of other people’s bodies for personal amusement, power trips, and gratification? Enough with the excuses and the callousness from bystanders, the unthinking identification with people. Enough with saying ‘boys will be boys’ (which, when you think about it, is such an insult to boys – many of whom are kind and decent people). Participation in athletics could be, and often is, a positive part of people’s lives. It doesn’t have to be enmeshed in this warped culture.

Synaptic Sunday #14: Military and Neuroscience

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For Memorial Day weekend, three pieces of neuroscience research relevant to the military (and with applications beyond it):

1) Navy seeks to map the mind

On brain-computer interface technology -

The true goal is to make a vehicle or a robot arm just another extension of the human body and brain.

2) PTSD Combat Veterans’ ‘Fear Circuitry’ In Brains Always On High Alert

Even when an individual with PTSD isn’t confronted by a threat or a relatively taxing mental activity, there’s still PTSD-related activity in certain areas of the brain. What does this mean?

3) Professor finds neuroscience provides insights into brains of complex and adaptive leaders

What do the brains of great leaders look like? Is there really a way to increase leadership strength via neuro-feedback?

Attitudes that enhance vs. limit broad creative thinking

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What motivates you as you go about your life? Is your attitude more of approach or avoidance, the willingness to go for a reward or the desire to avoid harm?

I know it isn’t strictly either/or for anyone, but it’s helpful to think of your motivations in different situations and how they affect your thought processes, including your creativity and memory.

I came across an interesting study from 2001, The Effects of Promotion and Prevention Cues on Creativity. It centers on an experimental set-up where you have to get a cartoon mouse out of a maze by finding a route through the maze to the exit.

In one condition, there was a piece of cheese drawn outside of the maze, suggesting that if you successfully found the correct route out, the mouse would get the cheese. This condition was meant to evoke a style of thinking focused more on promotion: you complete a task in order to attain something new and nurturing.

In another condition, there wasn’t any cheese; instead, an owl hovered above the maze, making you think that if the mouse didn’t get out, the owl would eat it. The style of thinking evoked here was based on prevention: more about risk aversion and vigilance, avoiding bad outcomes.

So what happened in the experiment? The participants did well on solving the mazes (one would hope, given they were college students), but the interesting difference between participants who were in the promotion vs. prevention condition emerged later, when they were all given another task to complete. In one version of the experiment, they got a task that required them to detect images of simple objects embedded in a noisy visual. In another version, they had to come up with a list of ways that they could use a brick. In yet another, they had to complete word fragments by coming up with whole words that matched.

Independently of how much they enjoyed any given task, it seemed that overall, the participants in the promotion group were able to think more broadly and more creatively during the follow-up tasks. In contrast, an attitude of avoidance/prevention tended to make their thinking narrower. (And this wasn’t even tied to anything personal – the participants themselves weren’t going to enjoy the cheese or avoid a monster owl about to attack them, though they may have identified with the mouse; basically they were just cued into thinking within a certain framework, promotion vs. prevention).

You always have to be cautious when applying the results of one study to day-to-day life, but this does get me thinking about the implications. I’m more in the habit of avoidance than approach, which I don’t think always serves me well; while I don’t want to change this orientation completely, I don’t want to skew too much towards it either. Having risk-avoidance as a dominant approach may not be good in the long-run, in terms of thinking big and developing ideas creatively over time; it might limit you more to narrower, tried-and-tested paths.