Posts Tagged ‘Psychology’

When I was a boy, my father taught me a lot of things that I’ve come to find useful. He taught me to steal without getting caught. He taught me to lie and cheat and conspire. He taught me how to assault other people in public and get away with it. Coincidentally, he taught me that Yankee people are a vile, distrustful bunch, devoid entirely of morals. Go figure.

Now if you aren’t sure what a Yankee is, or are wondering if you are one and if I’m about to viciously insult you, I’ll explain. “Yankee” is a slang term southern Americans use when referring to northerners. It is a derogatory, dehumanizing term closely akin to the word “nigger” but generally is considered socially acceptable and is more commonly used. Ethnically it is applied to groups with European heritage who have assimilated entirely into the white culture. Sorry minorities, but white southerners have separate epithets for you…Yankee appears to be a white thing.

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“The Yankee states are the blue ones.”

It’s also a perspective thing, which means it depends upon who you ask. Yankees, to most folks, are people from the northeast. Northeast of what, you ask. Why, northeast of the person you are asking comes the answer. To a true southerner, anyone from two or three towns to the north is a Yankee. If you’re from New England or anywhere close to New York or Chicago, you are also a Yankee. Anyone west of Iowa is generally not a Yankee but if you live in south Florida and aren’t Cuban, then you probably are one. Virginia is considered somewhat Yankee-ish, but somehow West Virginia and Kentucky aren’t really. Does that make any sense? At all?

So, back to insulting Yankees, it wasn’t long before I started to see that northern, or Yankee, people behaved a little differently than what I was used to in the small southern Appalachian (pronounced Apple-atch-in) town where I grew up and presently reside. My early dealings with transplants from Ohio and New Jersey supported my father’s statement, but after my first couple of years in the military, I began to see things a little differently. The lack of morality he described was actually, as near as I could tell at least, simply a different interpretation of the term. They had intact moral systems, but they were nothing like what I was used to.

It’s a cultural difference that can only be described anecdotally. On a recent road trip, while the wife was inside a small post office, I was flipping through the rental car’s satellite radio and happened upon the Vivid Video porn radio station. Yep, porn is on the radio and I’d tuned into a call-in talk show. The topic was “cream pies.” Now if you don’t know, I’ll tell you. If you’re squeamish, skip to the next paragraph because this shit is nasty. The contextual meaning of “cream pie” on this show involved a man licking a strange man’s baby batter out of his own wife’s hoo ha. Yuck city.

All of the six callers I heard before my wife returned were either from Massachusetts or Ohio, with most being from the latter. Does that mean people from Ohio are disgusting and devoid of morals? Maybe. Ohio also has the highest rate of human sex trafficking in the country. It’s the place where your child is most likely to be abducted a block from home and wind up being pimped out in a truck stop two weeks later. All I’m suggesting here is that the sexual culture in that region of the country may be a little different than what most folks consider normal and when it turns bad, it also happens a little differently.

When I related my story at work, it was met with disgust and contempt, only later to be generalized into a series of epithetic jokes with each being more crass and foul than the last. In a fundamentalist Christian culture, such sexually deviant behavior is considered morally repugnant on every level and for a number of reasons, despite the fact the act itself is a consensual one, between adults and occurring behind closed doors. When a guy from Ohio hoovers up a puddle of some other dude’s man-mayonnaise, he calls a nationally syndicated radio show and frankly discusses it. But if a guy from the N.C. hills ever even had the inkling that he might enjoy such a thing, he’d be on his knees begging Jesus to forgive and redeem his sinful, broken black heart. One guy feels guilty, one doesn’t. Same mouthful of sour milk bubble gum. What gives?

Back in the forties, the U.S. instituted the draft and started shuffling soldiers off to fight the Nazis. The Nazis, as we all know, we’re bulldozing their way across Europe and North Africa looting, pillaging and trucking Jews away to labor and extermination camps. The American soldiers were appalled by what they saw. The big question here is: why weren’t the German soldiers appalled as well? After all, they were tasked with doing the work and saw it much closer than anyone else. Why did the Germans not experience overwhelming guilt and simply stop the butchering? It almost seems as though the Nazis had produced some sort of psychopathic super soldiers, incapable of feeling or remorse or love, like the Terminator but with less-cool catchphrases like “Seig Heil. ” That seems unlikely, considering that psychopathy is thought to be on the rise and presently only figures at an estimated 4% of the population. Note: feel free to replace “Nazis” with any other genocidal social group, including Colonial and/or slaveholding Americans…

It’s more likely that the Nazi propaganda machine created a culture and moral structure conducive to what it intended to accomplish and left the grunt work not to clinical psychopaths, but dedicated citizens and soldiers who believed what they were doing was best for their social group, or at least doing what they could to fit in. It’s hard to feel guilt or remorse when you don’t believe you have done anything wrong to begin with. This statement is key to the understanding of how morality functions both socially and neurologically.

Conventional morality means nothing to me. I do not experience the sensation of guilt. Or remorse. I understand, concisely, the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, but I possess no innate inclination to prefer one over the other, especially when it comes to the way I relate to others, nor am I pathologically predisposed toward one over the other. In a clinically sociopathic brain, morality deals with what is best for the self. For me, right and wrong only really applies to what is either beneficial or non beneficial for me.

Most sociopaths, the ones who will speak openly, report their lack of engagement with traditional morality as an evolutionary advantage. Non-socios see it as a harmful social disorder. Fundamental religion happens to frame it as a separation from God. When I was young, attending private Baptist school, I was taught that my conscience was akin to the Holy Spirit, and that it lived in all of us. The Spirit would pack it’s bags and hit the bricks, however, if we should ask it to do so. The Spirit never “convicted” me with feelings of guilt when I was naughty, no matter how naughty, and I began to wonder if I’d asked it to leave without even realizing.

Maybe I had, but I must have been tiny when it happened. Long time readers of my blog will remember an early post (click to read this post) which depicted a four-year old Jason pitching a kitten into a red hot wood stove. While I’ve never repeated that sort of behavior in any way, I’ve never felt any sort of guilt or emotional torment as a result. The Holy Spirit has never had anything to say to me about it, although my grandma sure as hell did. What I remember clearly are the two sequential ass bustings, separated by a period of time out in the corner. That and the smell of burnt cat. That sort of thing sticks with you.

Lacking a conscience and the capacity to feel guilt, in and of itself, doesn’t make a person a monster. The smoking cat may claim otherwise, but remember that the cat is in fact smoking, which severely biases the cat’s scientific opinion. The supposed lack of conscience, in any context, serves only as a behavioral enabler and to understand it’s true implications, the very concept of morality must be reframed. Right and wrong, it seems, are not necessarily what we think and are a hell of a lot more static than we’ve ever imagined.

Most religions teach that God, besides being the Creator, is also the “law giver,” as in the decider of what is moral and what is not. In other words, the idea of conventional morality, to a believer, is a universal constant defined by a higher power. The problem with this is that the idea of right vs. wrong varies between individual cultures and according to time period. Four hundred years ago, the moral way to deal with “witches” was to crush them with large stones. While this behavior was acceptable in 17th century Christianity, it is no longer considered justifiable. In a few centuries, the dividing line between right and wrong shifted drastically. These American centuries also saw the enslavement of the black man and the genocide of the native people, all justified in the minds of the offenders by the popularized form of morality present at the time. Sometimes, religion itself was used to explicitly justify such savage offenses. In the film Django Unchained, Tarantino depicts a slaver quoting Genesis 9:2, common piece of scripture used to normalize slavery as he uses a bullwhip against another human being for breaking eggs.image

Morality, the idea of right vs. wrong, is a concept that evolves within the culture in which it presents, and nothing more. It exists as a behavioral framework that provides a consistent standard wherein people may coexist peacefully with one another. It’s the reason our societies have come so far and is absolutely necessary for the survival of our species. Morality, at its root, serves as a tool for the perpetuation of the species and therefore, must evolve with the times in order to remain effective and beneficial to the larger group.

If I experienced guilt, it would not be a feeling that I had sinned against an instituted universal order. This paradigm is no more measurable than it is tangible when considering that standard moral programming is not a feature humans are born with. What I should have experienced after I burned the cat is a form of anxiety. Things like roasting live cats are considered deviant in terms of common behaviors exhibited by the majority in a culture. Committing such acts, for most people, results in a fear of being ostracized by their social group. Morality, rather than referring to the intangible and static concepts of right and wrong, actually reflects the societal standard of normal behavior. The feeling of guilt is not related to the Holy Spirit, but is in fact a sensation of emotional displeasure experienced after behaving in such a way as to risk the security of one’s social identity and status. It’s an important tool which exists to link humans together and help them relate peacefully and harmoniously with one another.

For me, it’s not that easy. There is no little voice in my head providing an evolutionary cue as to how I should behave with regards to others. In this aspect, the anti-sociopath crowd has a point; I, and others like me, seem to be at a disadvantage when it comes to naturally fitting in with the rest of society. We are presented, as such, with a choice. A person with an antisocial personality can choose to either ignore social convention and live at will or cognitively engage the system, mimicking the moralities imposed on others, and fit in the best way possible. Or, at a bare minimum, not be burned at the stake by a bunch of pissed off villagers. While fitting in takes considerable work and finesse, it is in the ability to make this conscious choice that the sociopath derives his own evolutionary advantage.

Unconstrained by any sort of neurological directive to conform, I am free to define my own personal code of morality as I see fit. On the one hand, were I a malevolent sort of a creature, a pathologically offending victim of intense childhood trauma, then you could see how lacking this behaviorally inhibiting brain function might cause a lot of problems. But on the other, that isn’t the case at all and not only am I completely free to choose my own right from wrong, I am able to do so objectively.

For example…

I’ve done my level best to convince a close friend of mine that eating commercially processed chicken, especially from fast food joints, is socially irresponsible and perpetuates cruelty. Chickens are not protected by cruelty laws, they are pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, raised in tiny boxes, cooked and sold by people not being paid enough to live, the whole spiel (read more about this here). His answer:

“The Bible says nothing you eat can defile you, only what comes out of you can defile you. And I like me some chicken.”

You don’t really see the cost of being locked into an institutionalized system of morality until you observe said behavior being framed by such a ludicrous and contextually inappropriate justification. The pathological need to be a part of a certain social structure usually serves to inhibit harmful antisocial behavior, but in this case, the behavior’s lack of significance within the moral framework only serves to perpetuate it. The social culture of Evangelical Christianity, amongst others, not only fails to identify the social issue as a problem, it draws on the Genesis 1:28 claim of man’s dominion over the Earth as justification to say nothing.

In other words, if my friend and I eat factory farmed chicken for lunch, we should both, by all rights, feel guilty for doing so. But neither of us do. He doesn’t because it’s not a part of the social-moral paradigm to which he subscribes. The Christian belief system simply doesn’t choose to prosecute the perpetuation of cruel acts against defenseless creatures as a sin…so there is no reason for him to feel guilty. I don’t feel guilty either. Not that I would have actually eaten the chicken, but it wouldn’t matter to me if I did, not from an emotional standpoint anyway. I’m free, remember, to define my own terms of morality and in this case, humanity sits in the sociopath’s corner, as does the evolutionary advantage. Think I’m full of it? Change the example of two guys eating chicken to two German soldiers in World War II arguing about how ok it was to go along with the popular Nazi definition of morality in those days.

Whether it involves torturing chickens for profit or the mass murder of millions, the implications of how a person defines what is right and what is wrong can be a very serious business, even more so if a man decides to trust another man to do his moral reasoning for him. Religious institutions, for example, provide much of our moral framework. Despite their tax-free, non-profit status, these organizations still function as bureaucracies and by their very nature, create self perpetuating ideologies which may or may not be beneficial to the overall social group. This is why the Catholic Church has been behind so much mischief, historically speaking. An institution, like a clinical sociopath, is incapable of experiencing attacks of behaviorally inhibiting conscience.

Objective morality is the middle ground between a lack thereof and that which is externally imposed, both of which result in selfishly motivated and anti social patterns of behavior. No matter who you are, building an internal moral framework which is objective and based truly upon “Do Unto Others” principles takes hard work and a discerning eye for the greater social consequences of your behavior. All of it.

Something which seems so trivial as purchasing a chicken biscuit from Chik-Fil-A should by all means be deemed socially irresponsible…immoral. A four dollar decision enables the abuse of animals for the pure selfish sake of profit margins as well as the practice of dramatically under compensating employees. It’s only four dollars, but it’s still four dollars. I can see this objectively because, ironically, I don’t have morals. Or a conscience. Or a guilt complex. The same lack of neurologically forced social engagement that let John Gacy sleep soundly atop the corpses rotting in his crawl space enables me to point a bony finger in the face of popular convention and proclaim, in the words of ultra-galactic asshole James MacDonald,

“For shame!”

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Ain’t the world a funny place?

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Tommy got out of his cage again. It’s a son of a bitch to get him back behind closed doors, otherwise, I’d have written sooner.

You can hardly blame him, I suppose. Twelve years, after all, is a very long time to lock such a wild creature away, but sadly, it’s just not long enough. The truth is, Tommy can never be free. The rest of us wouldn’t be safe, plain and simple.

Tommy and I first met back in 2000, far away from home. I’d seen him around, a lot. Every place I was stationed, there he was. On each deployment, he found his way into the muster report. And when I went drinking with my boys, he was always at the bar, right in the thick of it all, the Great Instigator of Chaos. As often as we were together, I didn’t really know him that well in those days. Fact is, I never even knew his name, not until he tracked me down anyway.

When I left the service, it had been because of him. And in spite of him. Tommy was old school soldier…true a Von Clausewitz disciple. “To introduce into the philosophy of war itself a principle of moderation would be an absurdity,” was one of his favorite quotes. It made sense, coming from the guy who actually seemed to find some sort of savage peace in the smell of people who’d been burned to death with incendiaries or, for lack of a better implement, napalm. Tommy loved the smell of that too, especially in the morning. Personally, I’ve never caught the scent of victory in the stuff, only raw petroleum and burnt skin. But it’s amazing what a man can get used to, especially around that guy.

Tommy knew me better than I knew myself, at least it seemed. He knew how to draw on the hate and anger inside, how to focus it into hostility, how to create chaos. In those days he brought out the worst in me and it was really too late, when I finally broke from him, because, by that time, I had become him. As my enlistment wound down, I’d grown downright dangerous to be around, and the brass was as relieved to see me go as I was to be leaving.

Mostly, I just wanted to be away from Tommy. The word most closely resembling the way he made me feel about myself is…Fear. From that feeling, I ran hard and fast, cutting a wide swathe across the southeastern United States, stopping only to refuel and reinforce the identity Tommy had imposed upon me. My journey was a haze, mostly, drenched in alcohol and brutality, a half dead and rabid pursuit of a sunset I couldn’t quite seem to catch.

It was on the night I gave up, turned right, headed north toward the wee hours of the morning, it was that night when Tommy finally caught up with me. It was pushing towards dawn, in a diner, somewhere just east of the Rockies, when a girl, a regular patron with sandy hair and a pretty smile, approached my quiet corner and asked my name.

“Tommy,” I answered without thinking, raising my eyes to make friends.

The name was random. It was the first time in a month I’d been asked, honestly, and given the fact that I was running low on cash, providing false information to potential witnesses would serve, at the least, to confuse anyone investigating anything I might end up doing.

Anything Tommy ended up doing.

In reality, it wasn’t so much the assumption of an alias as it was a christening of the part of me that really defines who I am. Deep down, in the darkest recesses of my little black heart, I know that Tommy is me. And that I am Tommy. And that it’s always been way. It’s Jason, as a matter of fact, who is really the impostor. Jason is the mask that Tommy wears out into the world. He’s a series of learned and socially acceptable behaviors. He’s the cage that Tommy lives inside.

A few weeks back, Tommy got out of his cage. And he tried to go to war.

“War is merely a continuation of politics, albeit through other means,” said Von Clausewitz. Tommy skips the politics. He’s not a talker or a manipulator and couldn’t give two shits about a treaty. He doesn’t bring logic and sensibility to the table. Tommy shows up with the box of matches. The matches and the gasoline.

The truth is, I let him out on purpose…because I needed him.

Tommy is the essence of the survival mechanism…he’s a living, breathing fight response…a last resort. When I can’t solve the problem any other way, when I can’t escape it or fix it conventionally, when I simply need it destroyed or subjugated, Tommy’s the one who handles that type of shit.

My new wife met Tommy while he was free. It wasn’t like introducing her to an old friend that I hadn’t seen since the hectic days of my youth. There wasn’t a warm reception or an embrace of a man long lost to the confines of civility. That day, he was just there, not on the porch, at the door, but inside. Inside our home. Inside of me…like an furious animal backed into a corner…lost, angst ridden and aggressive.

For the first time in over a decade, I felt like myself, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Neither could Penny. Tommy scared her, I think. Hell, he scares me, and he is me.

Tommy would never harm Penny, not directly at least. I’d actually set him free to protect her, to do a job that Jason just couldn’t do. The trouble with him is that he takes over completely. He just can’t function properly within the constraints of the mask. Tommy understands only war, ungoverned by convention or absurd moderation, unhindered by any real or constructed element of conscience. And he commits fully with a level of effectiveness that’s hard to argue with and even harder to turn off.

All he really wants is to feel normal. Behind the facade lies coiled a creature trapped between two worlds. Tommy understands only conflict and his very presence threatens peaceful existence. In these moments of stress and contention, Tommy finds the closest thing to peace he will ever experience. When the shit hits the fan, in other words, he’s on both sides of it, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

Sometimes I wish the world had a place where Tommy could be himself…where he could live out his days, what very few he could have, and feel normal in his own skin. The cost of this is great, unfortunately, and the only acceptable tender is the blood and fear of those in his vicinity. Indeed, Tommy can only truly exist within the haze grey obscurity of violent conflict. Or in the shadow of the man he longs to be, a man not unlike myself. And in that shadow he shall remain, watching, waiting, just in case circumstance demands an element of surgical brutality fueled by the homicidal panic of a cornered mountain lion.

I still read Von Clausewitz every now and again, as well as Tsunetomo and even a little Miyamoto. To a point, it’s nostalgic, a crawl through the gutters and trenches of the past, a reminder of what once was and most importantly, what could very easily be again. Some of it is for perspective, for an understating of Tommy, because Tommy and I, we are the same. But mostly, mostly it’s because I just can’t let it go.

And that’s ok.

Just as long as Tommy doesn’t get loose long enough to do anything really bad…like running amok through downtown in a heavily armored bulldozer…or…hijacking a submarine filled with Peruvian cocaine…or even…using a can of industrial adhesive and a case of road flares to ignite a revolution in Nicaragua…as long as he’s under wraps, mostly, we’re good.

And if you think I’m telling you what he did while he was loose last time, then you’re crazy as shit. I already checked the statute of limitations. I’ll get back to you in 2022. In the meantime, the frenzy has subsided, the beast imprisoned and I’ll be getting back to blogging about bullshit no one cares about.

Thanks for reading.

The last thing that I killed was a dog. But don’t start hating me. Not yet at least.

I did have a good reason…

My good friend’s dog came home one day with half his shoulder peeled back. He’d been, as dogs do, fighting in the neighborhood and the dog he’d been fighting had proven himself a consistent threat. Unfettered, unneutered and untrained, that dog oversaw a loose conglomeration of mutts that gathered daily at the end of the street to chase cars and menace the neighborhood. Axel was the de facto leader of this group and he seemed to rule with an iron fist.

Axel had been a problem for some time. He’d nipped at and bitten children on several occasions. His owners refused to keep him at home, which was actually several miles away. And animal control? In the country, animal control doesn’t really exist and the sheriff’s department answers your complaint with a question:

“Do you have a gun?”

I took one look at the big, nasty flap of torn skin on the affable Lab with whom I play fetch on a near daily basis and understood what was coming. My friend, bless his soft Christian heart, just doesn’t have it in him to do what sometimes has to be done. He didn’t ask me to do it. I just did it. Call it love, possession, call it what you want…but if you fuck with one of the few people that I value, I can and will correct that behavior. Without remorse.

I remember pulling the trigger. Vividly. That kind of a killing happens, partially, in slow motion. The instant your finger wraps around the trigger, when it realizes true intent, time nearly freezes. Your heart beats in your ears. The constriction of your hand and index finger around the grip, the nanometer by nanometer movement of the trigger, it’s like time is crawling, presenting you with every opportunity to disengage from the permanence that’s coming. But it’s all a fraud…before you know it, the firing pin drops and the primer explodes. In a literal flash, time begins again.

Axel saw it coming. From about six feet away, he saw the muzzle flash and a full load of 00 Buck headed his way. I’d say that was all he saw but I seriously doubt he felt anything. 00 Buckshot is the equivalent, if you don’t know, of eight .380 handgun slugs being fired at you. Simultaneously. Axel never had a chance to feel anything.

Neither did I, for that matter. I think that’s what always really bothers me afterwards. Most people describe sensations of guilt or remorse after committing such a deed. Some people probably experience fear. A considerable number, likely more than we’d prefer to admit, feel some form of elation and a few, a small chosen few, have mind bending orgasms when they pull a trigger. Me, I experience more stimulation when I pull the mailbox door open.

It took ten seconds to toss the dead animal onto a piece of plastic in the back of my truck and away I went. Yeah. It happens that fast. No one saw me. When I flopped the plastic wrapped Chow into the big green bin at the dump, the attendant didn’t even look up. It was a good, clean killing. No mess. No witnesses. An hour later, at breakfast, my then fiancĂ© asked if I was ok.

She knew what happened because I tell her everything. So over eggs and coffee, I told her I was fine.

And I was.

So therein lies the problem, or at least that’s what I used to think.

It’s supposed to be hard to take a life, any life, isn’t it? I’ve always interpreted that from tv and from other people, at least. A friend refused, at the last moment, to shoot the deer he’d been stalking. “I just couldn’t do it,” he said later. Guys freeze up in close combat all the time. Soldiers admit to missing intentionally. The tv protagonist, when presented an opportunity to gun down the villain, is often shown to hesitate at the last second, or even backing out entirely. Killing…violence in general…is supposed to be fucking hard.

Not so for me. My lack of personal emotional repercussions associated with such events leaves me pretty well ambivalent with regards to the commission of the act itself. I can just do it. Without hesitation and especially any sort of unnecessary reconsideration. If you hesitate, the target has a chance to move its head and you lose your opportunity. If you back out, you don’t eat venison for dinner or someone else’s dog gets the skin peeled off his shoulder. Or your six year old is scarred for life.

These days, I think it’s all about balance. I think the whole world, human society included, operates in a sort of harmony and it needs people like me to keep it in tune. Make no mistake…I’m not a pathological killer. There is no enjoyment, no stimulation, no chemical charge. The act in itself, to me, is not rewarding. But I can do it, and then eat breakfast and take a mid morning nap afterward.

When you first discover what you are actually capable of, how far you can really go, it’s a little scary. Realizing that sort of power is something that only a fool, or a true psychopath, takes lightly and I’ve always struggled with understanding it. The ability to inflict harm and pain without remorse, or fear for that matter, just didn’t seem like it could be a good thing. I always felt like something was wrong with me.

During my military years and the chaotic adjustment period that followed, I had a weird relationship with violence. The antisocial personality shit, along with a good bit of alcohol, the steady exposure to violence, testosterone and increased opportunities to engage in it made me a ticking bomb during my early and mid twenties. I treated my ability to behave violently the same way I treated the first fast car I ever owned and that car red lined in fifth gear at 168 mph. I never found my own red line. In retrospect, I consider my experiences in the service as a series of experiments in violence, sanctioned by both society and the state. Legal wise, it was all ok.

In the time thereafter, I found it difficult to disengage and slipped into a pattern of criminal behavior. Engaging in violence had not necessarily become pleasurable, but it had become habitual. Fucking shit up was normal behavior and, all of the sudden, it wasn’t, so what had been considered normal in that world was, even in the criminal subculture with which I began to experiment, extreme. And sort of profitable. I guess.

But it didn’t last. Violence doesn’t fit well within many social constructs. It almost always attracts other, more violent behavior, the same way Axel attracted me. And for that matter, the same way I attracted two well armed gentlemen in Juarez who effectively ended my criminal career by nearly ending me.

That’s balance. And the world needs balance.

There always needs to be somebody bigger. Somebody meaner. Somebody willing to go a step further with a pair of pliers in order to make the point that it’s not ok to use pliers and other assorted hand tools on other living creatures. It keeps the rest of us honest.

What the Columbine kids did wasn’t ok, not by any means, but it gives kids who like to bully other kids something real to consider. Frame by frame.

That’s also balance. It’s fucked up. But it’s balance.

I tend to avoid violence these days. I hadn’t even thought about the Axel incident in over a year until a couple of days ago when my Christian friend randomly thanked me. Apparently, his children had said something to him about feeling safer in the neighborhood since Axel disappeared. For a moment or so, I felt like a lost puzzle piece that had fallen into place.

I still do, sort of. It’s not possible for me to ever really, truly, fit in to a social group. I can make believe or play monkey see-monkey do and I do a damn good job, but it’s all for show and ultimately, it’s all for me. So the incident with Axel, for me, was monumental.

For once, a negative behavioral trait I carry and engage naturally served as cause for my puzzle piece to truly fit in somewhere, even if it was in a dark corner. I’d like to fit in all the time, but I know that’s not really possible and I’m definitely not seeking out similar opportunities. It was nice though, if only for a moment, to feel like I actually belonged.

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.