I’m Not Afraid of Big Red Christmas Candles: The Socio Cultural Theory Part 3

Posted: March 29, 2014 in Socio Cultural Theory
Tags: , , ,

It’s supposed to be scary when someone pulls a gun on you. I realize that now. When I was sixteen, I’d never given it much thought. I have to think about and actually experience such things to gain any understanding.

Picture Halloween night in a subdivision in small town America…a bunch of teenagers shooting basket ball in the street…nothing sinister…nothing to be afraid of. Except there was this one house… Most of the houses were nice, well kept and the neighbors were friendly but this one house, it was different. Unkempt. The paint was peeling. They never mowed but they didn’t have much living grass so it didn’t really matter. There were dirty old rusty cars in the driveway. The occupants didn’t look much different. Sweaty with long hair and not particularly friendly.

That Halloween, they weren’t home. The creepy guys that drove up in the old Cutlass realized it pretty quick. We watched one of them knock and then get back into the car. Instead of leaving the neighborhood, they drove past us, turned in the cul de sac and headed back. When they got to us, the car stopped and the passenger rolled the window down. He was greasy looking with a floppy brown hat on. He looked like something from Deliverance when he slid the long barrel of a single shot shotgun out the window and directed a racist statement at the black kid in our group.

Everyone broke and ran for my cousins house. I watched them running for cover and then looked back at the car. The guy never even looked back at me. The gun disappeared inside the car and they drove away. I scratched their tag number into the dirt with a stick.

My friends, for some reason, were impressed that I hadn’t run like a big chicken. I wondered to myself why I hadn’t perceived the same threat they had and reacted in a similar way. The reason is that I don’t have the same relationship with my fear response system that most people have.

Brain scans of individuals on the psychopath end of the Socio-spectrum have indicated severe dysfunction and sometimes a lack of any function at all in the centers of the brain relating to fear processing and response. This suggests either an extreme desensitization or a simple lack of appropriate wiring necessary to experience fear and perceive it in others. Had I not gotten scared and ran away with my friends because that part of my brain simply didn’t work? Was I born that way?

Recent research into “brain plasticity” suggests that might not be the case at all. The science basically states that most functions of our brains are essentially adaptations based upon our environments and sensory inputs. Our biological functions, in other words, are not necessarily as predetermined as originally thought. For example…when musician’s brains are scanned, several areas, especially memory, show much more electrical activity than that of a non-musician. This increased activity is due to increased need for use of that part of the brain. As a result of continued use, new neurons are produced and that part of the brain becomes stronger.

How does this apply to fear and my seeming response malfunction? Imagine if Mowgli from the Jungle Book were inserted into a basketball game in suburban America. What would happen if, just as he had begun to understand the game, two rednecks rolled up and pulled a gun? All the teenagers should naturally be inclined to run, except Mowgli, who wouldn’t have a fucking clue what a gun is or what to do when someone whips one out.

Mowgli would likely stand there, just as I had, wondering why everyone else was running. It would appear that Mowgli and myself share a commonality. I am not suggesting that Mowgli was some sort of sociopath anymore than I am claiming to have been raised by wild animals in the jungle. The trait that we theoretically share is not based in biology but is in fact simply an affect based upon our respective personal cultures, life experiences and interpretations of external stimuli.

The link between our behaviors is rather specific. Mowgli would likely have no understanding of what a gun is, how it is used or what it is for. Nothing about that situation would initiate a fear response. I, on the other hand, as a sixteen year old American male, was quite aware of all these things (shout out to network television). Our two “experiences” might suggest that an association between the fear response system and a catalyst, such as a gun, is not enough to activate the system and initiate an actual response.

Running away from a gun the way a chicken runs from, well, anything, is also a socially-based association. Human beings are not born with an instinct to run from rednecks with guns; it’s something we have to learn. Mowgli, obviously, wouldn’t have learned the response if he didn’t possess the initial knowledge that a redneck with a shotgun can blow a mighty big hole in a man.

The potential danger of the situation was in no way a foreign idea to me. Between my experiences hunting and the things I’d seen on television, I understood, all to well, how much harm a shotgun could cause. I’m sure my friends had this same understanding. We’d grown up in the Golan Globus era, after all, and we had been the intended audience fora variety of sensationally violent media for most of our lives. They quickly formed the association between the gun and an element of immediate personal danger. Furthermore, they all exhibited an identical and seemingly instinctual response when they ran.

During those moments, their brains registered dramatically increased activity in the regions associated with fear response. When this happens, emotion essentially takes over and overrides the brains ability to rationally process input. The fact is, that by running away towards no visible cover, they made themselves easier targets. During such a crisis, the brain of a sociopath doesn’t register nearly as much activity and tends to remain relatively rational.

I think that this is a learned behavior. The U.S. Navy uses a training method that essentially reprograms the brain’s fear response system through a process utilizing desensitization, re-association and breathing techniques in order to control the physiological effects of fear often present during crisis situations. One of the techniques involves putting a bag over someone’s head and upon suddenly removing it, presenting a situation which ranges in intensity from something as scary as an attack with a meat cleaver to a little old lady asking for directions. Students are evaluated based upon time and the effectiveness/appropriateness of their response. The idea is to weaken the impulsivity of the fear response system and maintain rational mental abilities while engaging in dangerous activities.

I grew up in a household where emotional abuse and violent outbursts were common. Physical violence, while not necessarily infrequent, was certainly not the norm. I liken it to the whole “Terrorist Threat Level” shit on the news. The signs are always there. Always posted. They’re assigning a level of fear, the same way an angry stepfather towers over a boy and screams in the most menacing way possible. Based upon the plasticity research, the fear response centers in the brain might likely adapt to such situations at an early age. Actual physical abuse, in such situations, is not omnipresent and it’s occurrences are often easily predicted by the victims based upon past experience. Simply put, some things precipitate ass beatings and some things don’t. Even if someone is physically threatening you with a hammer for the purposes of inducing fear and maintaining control, you learn more often than not that actually being hit requires some element that would make the individual feel justified to use the weapon. At least with that particular individual. You get a hammer or a fist shaken at you enough times, you stop being scared so long as no causation is evident. Every time the hammer comes out, whether it’s used or not, this pattern is reinforced and the fear response weakens. When it weakens, the brains rational response increases and seeks to better understand and interpret the survival dynamics of the situation. This further weakens the fear response, and so on.

Eventually, a sixteen year old boy sees a gun barrel slide out a car window. Standing toward the rear of car, nearly to the immediate right of the gunman, he was in no immediate danger. The shooter could not have physically gotten a shot into that boy before the boy could take control of the weapon. He was close after all, and the shotgun only had one shell. The redneck only had one useless shot, so far as the boy was concerned, before his object of fear became the boys blunt instrument and the redneck, trapped inside a metal box, got his face bashed in.

It’s not that I do not experience fear or that a certain part of my brain either doesn’t exist or doesn’t work. On the contrary, I think that my fear response system works appropriately during times when I perceive myself to be in real danger but is desensitized to the point that it does not override my ability to rationally process fear-associated stimuli when presented to me. My friends’ fear responses took over their brain function, whereas mine was weak enough that my rational brain had an opportunity to assess the situation and determine that I would be safer staying close to the car and potentially engaging my fight response system.

Being a big chicken, or at least running like one, seems to have more to do with a poorly tuned ability to assess danger and know when to run and when not to run than it has to do with bravery or cowardice or even something as extreme as “having a death wish.” Coming from an abusive and fear-based household, as I did, suggests that my brain simply adapted to its environment. Furthermore, it’s conceivable that such a common trait amongst sociopaths might actually be a learned trait passed down generationally.

This relationship with fear provides for a world view which, while not unique, is definitely uncommon. I see the way other people engage with fear, most often, the way you look into a room through an open window. To me, it’s like a twisted equation scraped into the paint on the wall.

Association(catalyst + perception) = fear.

The catalyst element is what is recognizable to most folks. It’s the thing you’re afraid of and it’s nature can vary from the truly scary, such as a grizzly bear, to something as benign as a big red Christmas candle. Most people are familiar, in some way, with the nature of grizzly bears, even if it’s through television and I think we can all agree that if you get crossways with one, it’s very likely to fuck you up. Like bad fuck you up. Or even eat you. Indeed, an encounter with a grizzly bear should produce a fear response that is based in rationality.

I don’t know anyone who is afraid of big red Christmas candles. That’s because it’s a stupid, irrational thing to be afraid of, but it’s possible. If you take the candle and beat someone with it enough times, the presence of the candle will initiate a fear response. Granted, it’s not quite the same as the bear, but it’s a fear response nonetheless. This is where perception figures in. The grizzly bear provides its own context for the possibility of a negative and maybe even fatal encounter, whereas the big red candle needs some help to become a deadly weapon. The assessed potential outcome of the encounter, regardless of its context, is what defines our perspective.

The fear response engages, typically, when an association is formed between an outcome that is in some way unpleasant and a catalyst. The association equivocates to televised images of bear attacks or the experience of being bludgeoned with a cinnamon apple scented hunk of beeswax.

The funny thing about the equation…the variables are essentially static and can be applied in such a way as to produce a desired effect. It’s referred to as a “scare tactic” and the application requires an additional layer of association. If you encounter a grizzly bear and you don’t have a big assed gun, you’re probably going to run. Running would be the fear response, just as shooting the bear would be if you happened to be armed. Whether it comes from our parents, friends, the tv or nature magazines, a framework of knowledge is provided for us which associates the possible responses to the encounter. Some folks call it common sense.

For the sake of argument, I have an unarmed liberal friend who I want to make run like a chicken. I also have access to a grizzly bear. All I have to do to get the desired response is to apply the grizzly bear to my friends reality and watch him run like a chicken.

Take it a step further. Say I like dinner to be ready promptly at six p.m. When it’s not ready by seven, I pick up the big red Christmas candle from the kitchen table and beat the motherfucking brakes off my wife with it. The next night, I do the same thing at 6:01 and display the candle prominently in the kitchen as a reminder afterward. I have chosen a random catalyst, provided a negative perspective for its existence and associated the two things together. Furthermore, I have provided only one acceptable response, of my own choosing: the establishment of a behavior in another person which suits my purposes.

(If you read this, Penny, I promise never to beat you with a big candle no matter how late dinner is.)

This is how people use fear against other people. The catalyst itself, while the most recognizable symbol of our fear, is often quite random, and it is the perception and subsequent response which are in fact most significant. On a daily basis, our fear responses are engaged. More often than not, the attempts are subtle, as with advertising, but sometimes, sometimes it is blatant. I see it the most in political rhetoric and embedded within religious doctrine.

The reason people use fear against one another is to get something they want. It’s that simple. And if all of the elements in the equation are present…if a motivation can be linked to the established response, that means someone’s pulling some shit on someone.

I like to watch the Walking Dead…it reminds me sometimes of the old George Romero ploy of lacing a horror picture with social commentary. In season three, however, I watched a flu virus overshadow the danger posed by the dead returning as unstoppable cannibals. The response? Acquire pharmaceuticals and get rid of the pigs. That’s not an accident. It’s called fear based marketing and this incidence is rather obvious. Sometimes the fears played upon are more subtle, such as demonstrating a response toward the fear of social rejection by presenting audio/visual examples positively portraying the use of consumer goods and services that we are expected to believe will make us more acceptable to others.

Does that make advertisers any different than a guy who beats his wife with a big red candle? Of course they’re different. But the methodology, it seems, links them intimately and this, to me, suggests a comparable mindset and similar personalities establishing micro cultures of self-perpetuating shittiness.

The fact is, I can fucking smell my own kind.

  1. Larry says:

    Thanks for stopping by my site. I enjoyed this post in a weird twisted way. It kept me interested, I like that. Made me think of Little Albert. I like your writing style as well, sophisticated, but with humorous references. Look forward to reading more, I’ll be back. Keep up the good work brother.


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