Monday, December 21, 2015

How Today's Media Hijacks Our Species' Threat Assessment Mechanisms

This post could be subtitled "why most people ignore data when deciding what threatens them."

Back in September 2015, husband (also a sociologist) was driving me to a doctor's appointment to get my recently damaged hearing evaluated.  I had been exposed to extremely loud, percussive sounds of an AK-47 shooting blanks less than 15 feet from me, during an "active shooter training" session at the college where I teach. We were discussing the extent to which most of the people we knew, both college colleagues, students, and neighbors persistently ignored or refused to acknowledge all the accumulated data on crime in the United States that violent crime has declined steadily for many years. 

Overall violent crime, as recorded in the Uniform Crime Report of the FBI, as steadily and consistently declined from 1993 to the present, both in total numbers ( a decline of at least 700,000 per year from 1993 to 2012), and in rate (a decline from a rate of 747 per 100,000 in 1993 to only 386 per 100,000 in 2012) (FBI Uniform Crime Reports). Violent assaults on police officers, and officer deaths and injuries from assault have declined from 2004 to 2013 (National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund). 

School shootings, the ostensible prompt for the "Active Shooter Training" that damaged my hearing, are no where near as common as media and the public imagination figure them to be. There does appear to have been some uptick in such shootings in recent years, but many media, social and political discussions of such shootings overstate the numbers by 100 percent,  both since Columbine in 1997 and since Sandy Hook in 2012.

Even the trends of the death of civilians at the hands of law enforcement officers - a topic much in the news - is not at all clear. The Bureau of Justice Statistics gathered data on "arrest related deaths" from 2003 to 2009. But the BJS determined in 2014 that the validity and reliability of the data was not good, and "that the data collection likely did not capture all reportable deaths in the process of arrest" and suspended further data collection and the publication of any reports after 2009 (Bureau of Justice Statistics).

The data suggests that for the most part, the risks of violence in our society have declined in the past thirty years, not increased.  Yet nearly universally Americans have greater fear and anxiety about violence.  Why is that? 

The human species, Homo sapiens, evolved over millions of years in dangerous environments, where they were often the prey of other species, and beset by a wide range of perils. The Homo sapien brain is wired by this evolution to respond to the sounds, sights, and other sensory input from our immediate environment.  Threats from poisonous snakes, spiders, loose rocks, cliffs, torrential streams, large predators, even other humans, had to be evaluated on the basis of patterns of sound and sight. Frequent sightings, increased the threat. (See an interesting NPR piece about sound and the evolution of the human brain).  

The ancient foragers survival in their environment was based on evaluating immediate sensory perceptions, not on the dispassionate analysis of statistical data.  Today, our immediate sensory environment is circumscribed within man-made buildings, walks, roadways, and man-made media.  Every where we go, in every home, in every office, in every doctors' waiting room, every public space we are exposed to sights and sounds of television - mostly news programs, and at least in this part of the world (central Appalachia) almost always Fox News (although it is hardly limited to Fox News).  The news programming that we see is mostly about dangers - dangerous people, dangerous events.  A single event is covered 24 hours a day for multiple days, the same images of threat (explosions, gun shots, shouting, fighting, confrontations, rubble) are repeated over and over again. The human brain is wired to evaluate threat based on frequency of occurrence. While the higher functions of the brain can remind us that this is all one incident, one discrete moment in time, usually a very long ways away from us, the old "reptilian" parts of the brain simply process the nearness of the sounds and sights that repeat over and over again over long periods of time. It is not surprising that most people interpret this sensory input from media as an increasing threat. Especially when there are leaders (with lots of media coverage) who encourage the fear and anxiety as a means to gather followers and political power. 

Zombie America - Installment 6

Four years ago, while thinking about conditions in the U.S., the phrase "zombie America" popped into my head. What is a zombie? The original use of the word is for a dead body, devoid of real life and soul, that is reanimated and caused to walk around by witchcraft or dark magic. In the ever popular science fiction of recent years, the concept of zombie has evolved to mean a person who has as the result of infection or exposure to unspecified substances been robbed of their humanity - of their personality, intelligence, soul and will - and transformed to a monster that kills and feeds on uninfected humans (especially their brains). Those that are not killed are also infected and become zombies themselves.

Zombies are variously referred to as the "undead" and the "walking dead," phrases that I think can be applied to American economy, politics and society at large. The nation is still lurching and weaving about, animated but no longer truly alive, dead (or dying) but because still animated, so that many observers still imagine it to have life. 

New evidence that American society is "walking dead" is constantly presenting itself. Through out the month of August 2015 stories about teacher shortages have popped up almost daily as many states struggle to put teachers in front of classes with the beginning of a new school year ( ). Thousands of veteran teachers are leaving the classroom every year and no where near enough new teachers are coming up through the pipeline to replace them.  Veteran teachers are deserting the profession due to low pay, lack of classroom resources, schools obsessions with testing, proliferation of regulations and paper work, and lack of real instruction time in the classroom.  This is just one of the ways in which the American educational system is being hollowed out. 

The former center of automotive manufacturing in America in Western Michigan has become the canary in the coal mine for the rest of American society.  Flint, Michigan has recently (December 14, 2015) declared a formal state of emergency as the result of a wholly man-made disaster: the dramatic increase in lead in the cities water supply. Substantially increased levels of lead are showing up in blood tests of the cities children.  The increase in lead poisoning came when the city switched to the Flint River as a water source. Lead exposure in children is irreversible and impacts intelligence and general mental functioning, creating long term educational issues for communities with declining educational resources, not to mention the human tragedy involved. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Revolutionary Nature of Same-Sex Marriage

Same-sex marriage has become legal everywhere in the United States. I have actively supported the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples for over two decades, and supported LGBT rights in general for forty-five years. One of the reasons that I support marriage rights for same-sex couples is because as a sociologist I know that same-sex marriage has the potential to radically change the nature of marriage and families. 

I was recently reviewing the original lectures that I wrote fifteen years ago for Kentucky's first fully on-line introductory sociology course.  This was at least four years prior to the first state (Massachusetts) legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States. In that 15 year old lecture I stated the following: 
"Family is the most important agent of socialization in our childhood, and it is the place where we first learn gender. It is also the one social group in our lives in which all the roles held by individuals are "gendered." One is a husband or a wife (not a generic marital partner), a mother or a father (not a generic parent), a son or a daughter (not a generic child). "  [emphasis added]
Same sex-marriage has the potential to create generic marital partners and generic parents, and thus potentially substantially diminish stereotypic gender role socialization in children. This transformation is not automatic, nor will it happen quickly.   Some same sex couples, especially those involving transsexual individuals, often incorporate rigid gender-role stereotypes into their relationship with one person playing a stereotypical husband and another a stereotypical wife role. Moreover, research continues to demonstrate that parents still unconsciously treat male and female infants and small children substantially differently. These unconscious behaviors convey gender stereotypes to the next generation in ways that  highly resistant to change because they are unrecognized by those who engage in them.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Inequality, Global Warming and the Western Drought

It seems to me highly likely that the capitalist elite, the wealthy owners and controllers of large energy corporations such as the oil companies and people like the Koch brothers know full-well that global warming is real, that it is propelled by human carbon emissions, and its negative consequences like heat extremes, drought, rising oceans and severe weather extremes are real as well.  These are intelligent people, they have to be to manage their huge corporate and financial empires. They are certainly at least as intelligent as U.S. military leaders who have been convinced for years that the most significant security problem facing the U.S. in the long term is climate change.
A report released by the Pentagon in 2014 indicated that "Department of Defense has dramatically shifted its views towards climate change, and has already begun to treat the phenomenon as a significant threat to national security. Climate change, the Pentagon writes, requires immediate action on the part of the U.S. Military."
After all the Koch brothers were one of several funders of Berkeley physicist Richard Muller's Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project. Muller initially a climate skeptic began the project expecting to debunk climate science and instead came away a convert, declaring publicly that the climate science data not only showed that the earth had warmed and was continuing to warm for the foreseeable future, but that the only reasonable explanation for the warming was human carbon dioxide emissions. By providing funding for Muller's research the Koch brothers obviously considered him a scientist with a good reputation whose work would be respected.

However, unlike the military the wealthy leadership of the fossil fuel energy industry are publicly doubling down on climate change denial, and investing huge amounts of money into a efforts to convince the American public that global warming is a hoax; all while raking in enormous profits from the fossil fuel economy.

The most logical explanation it seemed to me was that the wealthy whole-heartedly believed that their wealth would exempt them from any consequences of climate change. Their approach seemed to be scrounge every bit of profit from the sinking ship and then abandon it and retreat to some protected, gated, isolated community cushioned by their wealth, while the rest of humanity dealt with the problems created.

So I felt vindicated to discover that this kind of thinking about environmental crises does in fact exist among the wealthy.  From yesterday's Washington Post an article datelined Rancho Santa Fe, California quotes from wealthy residents (owners of $30+ million dollar estates) that their wealth exempts them from water rationing. The basic sentiment expressed by some of the wealthy in Rancho Santa Fe which is the only community in its region to increase water usage while other communities are cutting back, is that if we can afford to pay for it we should have it, because the "should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful." ( Yes, it is more important for the wealthy to have green lawns than it is for the farmers to have enough water for their crops. The economy of the state, the solvency of the farmers, the jobs of the region, even the cost of food for the rest of the country is not as important as green lawns. 

Sunday, November 09, 2014

How much control do parents have?

I read a Facebook post this morning by a young woman I know - mother of two daughters - and found myself utterly surprised to find that I no longer agree with her position. She said:
"With few exceptions, kids are the way they are because that's how they're being TRAINED. If we don't like the current situation, we must do something differently."
I might have said that myself forty years ago as a young sociologist. We sociologists were trained to think primarily in terms of nurture, and to lay everything at the foot of the "socialization" process. But I've seen a lot in the past 40 years and what I've seen tells me that while  socialization is the primary contribution to  our development, parents and primary caregivers have far less control over the process than most people imagine. Parents really are not "trainers" of children. 

First, parents exercise very little control over the world in which they and their children live. Things happen that have deep and sometimes traumatic effect on children that are beyond the control of parents. Examples can include illness, death, accident, job loss, financial reverses, war, earthquake, flood, tornado, home loss, and many, many other things that may be completely beyond the capacity of a child to understand. Parents often make vital decisions, decisions necessary to survival and well-being of themselves, their children or their whole family, but a child understands nothing of those decisions and the reasons behind them. The child only knows how he or she is affected, they only know the fear, uncertainty, loss, anxiety, and other emotions that circumstances can create.  
When my brother was 2 he got pneumonia and had to be hospitalized. Back in the 1950's parents were not allowed to stay in children's hospital rooms, parents like any other visitors were limited to official visiting ours. The practice common today of parents sleeping in the hospital ward room was unheard of 60 years ago. It would not occur to the parents and even if it did it would most likely have been met by strong resistance by the hospital, even forcible removal. So a two year old little boy experienced severe trauma and great separation anxiety that translated into many "difficult" behaviors because his parents left him to health care professionals to prevent him from dying from pneumonia. 
Forty years ago a young woman I knew married her high school sweetheart and had two children with him, recognized the necessity of removing herself and her children from his increasingly violent and unpredictable behavior (including substance abuse and criminal activities).  But her small daughter only knew that her mother took her away from the father she loved with all her heart. The daughter acted out, became delinquent, used drugs, ran away, and got pregnant as a teenager, because she could only see her loss and hated her mother for it. 
It is not just the big events that make a difference. The necessity to "tighten the belt" even just a little in daily life to get past some rough economic times, can read to a young child as deprivation, as loss of security, and an unacceptable loss of predictability. The child cannot always understand how today's economies translate into better things in the future. 

Second, every child is unique and has their own temperament, their own way of relating to the world, and multiple children in the family are always at different stages of development. What works well with the 10 year old, is not necessarily right for the 8 year old, or the six year old.  This is true for all the many kinds of ways in which parents try to reach out to their children and teach them. 
Two years ago, shortly after my mother died, my slightly younger brother flew back here with our parents ashes to be interred at my father's Virginia home town. In one of our many conversations during his visit, I was shocked to discover that my brother viewed the many trips we took as children as miserable torture and hated them. These many excursions to learn how timber is turned into lumber, milk into cheese, water into electricity, etc. are some of my most cherished childhood memories. The very trips that underline my life-long passion for learning evoke only the most painful memories for him. It was as if we did not have the same experience at all. 
That is the key.  Every child experiences the world differently. What is pleasant for one child, can be painful for another. What works as discipline for one, may spark the opposition and rebellion in another. Just trying something different may not work either. 

Third, parents may be the most important influence in children's lives but they are far from the only influence. Siblings, grandparents, neighbors, Sunday school teachers, school mates, teachers, television, books, and many other sources affect children. All of those other people and other sources of information with whom children interact, even briefly. We teach children to read, and then they proceed to socialize themselves within fictional worlds.  I think that I may have learned as many lessons from "Marmee" along with Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy as I learned from my own Mama. About a decade ago, I was re-reading Little Women and found this passage: 
"Jo, dear, we all have our temptations, some far greater than yours, and it often takes us all our lives to conquer them. You think your temper is the worst in the world, but mine used to be just like it." 
"Yours, Mother? Why, you are never angry!" And for the moment Jo forgot remorse in surprise. 
"I've been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so." The patience and the humility of the face she loved so well was a better lesson to Jo than the wisest lecture, the sharpest reproof. She felt comforted at once by the sympathy and confidence given her. The knowledge that her mother had a fault like hers, and tried to mend it, made her own easier to bear and strengthened her resolution to cure it, though forty years seemed rather a long time to watch and pray to a girl of fifteen.
"Mother, are you angry when you fold your lips tight together and go out of the room sometimes, when Aunt March scolds or people worry you?" asked Jo, feeling nearer and dearer to her mother than ever before.
"Yes, I've learned to check the hasty words that rise to my lips , and when I feel that they mean to break out against my will, I just go away for a minute, and give myself a little shake for being so weak and wicked," answered Mrs. March with a sigh and a smile, as she smoothed and fastened up Jo's disheveled hair."
Alcott, Louisa May.  Little Women (Kindle Locations 1670-1685).  . Kindle Edition. 
And suddenly I knew where it was that I learned to stifle and stuff down all feelings of anger as a teenager and young woman until those denied feelings found their way out in migraines and suicidal feelings. This was no lesson learned from my own parents, who had little trouble expressing anger.  Indeed the anger of expressed by my parents motivated me to seek a different way, offered by a beloved book character. 

The world often socializes children in ways that cause parents despair despite every effort to block the world.  A favorite social psychology professor in graduate school told us this story: he and his wife (a biologist who earned her doctorate before her husband earned his) made every effort to raise their children, a boy and a girl in non-sex stereotyped ways. They often took their daughter at three to watch her older brother play soccer and made sure to point out the girls on the team, and talk about the skill of those girls as well as the skill of her brother. They offered their daughter stories and images of girls who were adventurous, athletic and brave. So they were totally unprepared for the moment when their three year old daughter announced that she wanted to be a cheerleader when she grew up because they were pretty. 

Children are people, who from their first moments in the world accrue a unique life history.  Influences from all the people the child encounters, all the events in the child's world, all the books, movies, TV, and other media that touch the child's world are woven into a personal tapestry, a self, that is unlike that of any other child, even an identical twin. That self will not always express it self in ways that are pleasant for those around the child or for the child him or herself. 

Last, even the most self-conscious, aware adult human being is to some extent still influenced in subtle and less than conscious ways by his or her own history...and let's be blunt, MOST adults are not particularly self-conscious and aware. There are subtle psychic  undercurrents, hot buttons, feelings of fear, loss and anger from the past, that can be evoked in a second by the right triggers.  Parents act out of their own losses, griefs, fears, and anxieties. We cannot always train ourselves to respond to the world the way we think, when we are thinking, is the right way to respond.  This does not absolve parents of responsibility for the effort to shape their children, but it does absolve them of absolute responsibility for the outcomes. 

There are times when parents genuinely have exhausted all the alternatives and options that are available to them at a given time.  It does not mean they have given up, but rather that they must take a respite, regroup, and sometimes wait with love and tolerance for the child to change within him or herself. 

Saturday, September 06, 2014

confessions of a former optimist

I have always been an optimist. Or perhaps I should say I was always an optimist until the last few years. This has little or nothing to do with my personal life experiences. I maintained an optimistic outlook during unemployment, poverty, cancer, divorce, and many other personal trials, and recent years have been kind to my husband and I in many ways. 

Moreover, my optimism  was not based on ignorance of the worlds problems and issues. My parents brought me up to be highly aware of the dire circumstance of poverty, war, brutality, pain and suffering that others in the world suffered. I was brought up to care about and fight for equality, freedom, and opportunity for others. I was a realist optimist. 

I can remember reading Linda Goodman's Sun Signs in high school and she had this very apt description of Aquarius that fit me to a "T": 
"Lots of people like rainbows. Children make wishes on them, artists paint them, dreamers chase them, but the Aquarian is ahead of everybody. He lives on one. What’s more, he’s taken it apart and examined it, piece by piece, color by color, and he still believes in it. It isn’t easy to believe in something after you know what it’s really like, but the Aquarian is essentially a realist, even though his address is tomorrow, with a wild-blue-yonder zip code." 
Goodman, Linda (2011-02-23). Linda Goodman's Sun Signs: Aquarius (Linda Goodman's Sun Signs Set) (Kindle Locations 175-178). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition. 
Later few years later in college I read Yevegeny Yevtushenko's A Precocious Autobiography  and identified strongly with this passage: 
"My optimism which had been all pink, now had all the colours of the spectrum in it, including black, this is what made it valid and genuine." 
I made my career in sociology a discipline focused on understanding the realities of social life; and I focused on topics of inequality (wealth and poverty), economic and political power (its uses and misuses), and environmental problems. I became more and more versed in what was wrong with human societies, and still I retained optimism that if people properly understood the sources of those problems they could struggle together to make a better world. 

But some where in the past decade, perhaps just the past five years I lost my way. I have come to believe that many of the problems the world is facing can not be fixed, at least not in a way that allows human societies to move forward from where we are now. The inequalities have become so huge, the gaps in power so large, and the many of the environmental problems irreversible without immediate, dramatic reversals in energy, transportation, and food policies that I know will not happen because of those overwhelming inequalities and power differences. 

It feels to me on a daily basis as if those in control of the multinational corporations and the worlds' wealth are deliberately driving humanity towards the edge of destruction, because they believe that there is more profit and more power in creating impoverished and powerless masses, and that the accumulation of vast wealth will some how exempt them from the disasters to come....and who knows, enormous wealth provides a lot of cushion against catastrophe so perhaps they are right. Whether they are right or wrong they are acting as if they, and their children and grandchildren will be immune. 

I do not believe humans are headed to extinction - even as we drive many other species to extinction - but I do believe that we are headed to a lot of hunger, disease and death, and the break down of much of modern industrial society.  

I also believe that within that disaster lies the possibility for vibrant, localized, lower tech, sustainable communities to come out from the other side of the disaster - perhaps many decades on the other side. I also believe that there are people around the world who are doing enormously good things to build social capital, make connections, create local food webs, advance new forms of spirituality  and environmental awareness, and to create support networks that may be the tenuous bridges that we will need to reach that sustainable future on the other side of disaster. 

I know some of those people doing good work and dreaming good dreams. Most of them are far away from me and I only have contact with them through Facebook. It is this lack of direct connection that I think has given birth to my despair.  I want to be part of the bridge building, but no longer know how to make the connections.  I no longer feel it in my soul the way I once did. I feel weighted down by the presence of so many whose response to the uncertainty and fear that they feel in their bones is to cling to a mythical past that never existed and demand that nothing change or that changes should be to a more restrictive, narrower, meaner, less inclusive future. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Why the Rich Hate Obama

This morning I ran across an article "The Best Worst President Ever" by Mark Morford in SF Gate.  Morford observes a wealthy beneficiary of the economy under Obama proclaim Obama the "worst president ever." Morford then proceeds to give a litany of economic facts that provide ample evidence that this wealthy individual is almost certainly benefiting greatly from the economy during Obama's presidency. In the end Morford just laughs, and shakes his head at the "bizarre lament" of these crazy rich bastards. His only explanation is simple racism - rich white guys can't stand it that a black guy could actually run the country, so they'll simply deny that he has done so. 

I think that Morford and almost all the other defenders of the Obama presidency are missing something truly important, something that the wealthy feel in their bones, even though few of them can allow themselves to recognize it consciously. There has been a seismic shift in this country during the Obama presidency, one that has nothing at all to do with Obama's actions as president, but everything to do with what a black man in office means to American people. It is not what Obama has done, but what Obama has inspired (including fear) that makes him "the worst president ever." 

The seismic shift to which I refer is the cosmic decline in the legitimacy of the existing American social system, in all its economic, political and social dimensions, in the minds of Americans. The fact of an Obama presidency, the presidency of a Harvard educated, progressive black man of mixed racial and cultural heritage is the catalyst that turned the already existing cultural divergence of America into a chasm of Grand Canyon proportions. It is not about what Obama has done or will do, it is all about who he is and what he represents to the various factions in America. 

Obama of course represents quite different things to those on the left and those on the right. For those on the left, Obama's presidency offers hope (yes that "hopey changy thing") that real change and reform can happen. If a black man can get elected in America, than perhaps real, progressive economic reforms are possible too. By raising expectations, Obama's presidency undermines the legitimacy of a Congress stalled in the morass of partisan bickering, and of a corrupt and massively unequal economy.  Decades ago historical research on revolutions suggested that the greatest danger for revolt occurred not when conditions were the worst in a society, but when small improvements gave people hope, but change did not come quickly enough to satisfy those hopes. 

Obama's presidency has done something that nothing before has been able to do: the fact of a black man in the highest office in the land has led masses of ordinary conservatives to question the legitimacy of government and law enforcement. Suddenly "law and order" conservatives are on the side of armed vigilantes protecting a law-breaking rancher (Bundy) in Nevada, who casually aim weapons at local, state and federal law enforcement officials. 

The most class conscious, educated members of the rich are fully aware of the disintegrating legitimacy of capitalism and the vastly unequal distribution of wealth and income in this country. A tiny handful of these economic elite think that it is possible to re-establish legitimacy as was done during the Great Depression by Roosevelt. Warren Buffet speaks openly and often about the need to reform the tax system to address rising inequality. Bill and Melinda Gates focus on pouring their wealth into reforming education with a goal of reducing inequality. Far more common however, is the headlong rush to accumulate more and more, claiming the moral superiority of capitalism (or getting toadying academic economists to do it for them), and blaming Obama for the rising numbers of Americans who seriously question the both  legitimacy of extreme inequality and capitalism. 

Their hatred of Obama is based not on anything that he as actually done to effect inequality, because in point of fact, Obama's actual policies and actions have fueled the growth of wealth and inequality.  Rather it is based on the fact that an Obama presidency has fueled more and more open disaffection with the existing order of things, and shaken the legitimacy of both government and economy. Their hatred is greater because they have more to lose.