We are in a most interesting historical moment here in the United States. We have departed from sanity really. And so, like psychologists in 1946, I find myself asking the question: how could this have happened?
I have developed the answer which seems to satisfy my curiosity on this point. I call it the emotional cattle prod.
I have borne personal witness to seeing people that I’ve known for many years becoming totally irrational before my eyes. Bear in mind, these are people who, in many cases, possess exceptional intellect. They have ability to problem solve. They study human experience and history. They can do advanced math and extremely technical tasks. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with the conscious problem-solving frontal lobes of their brains. But even so, they have still been seduced into totally hysterical and nonsensical ways of thinking, and voting against their own personal self-interest. And it’s happening on a massive scale. How can this be?
My conclusion is this: there are certain areas of the mind that, if stimulated, become the dominant force in the mind, completely overwhelming any calm objective logical streams of thought. Machiavelli talks about this technique in his discourses. He explained that if a given ruler of the city was having difficulty with dissident factions rising against him, all he had to do was somehow create the illusion of an impending attack from neighboring city, and all the people who were against him within the city would suddenly come to his aid, because no matter how awful a ruler he was, they would prefer him to the threat of an enemy attack.
So we now hearken back to Lee Atwater and his Willie Horton ads, and before that we can hearken back to that famous ad with the little girl pulling petals off a flower, turning into a nuclear holocaust. Now we have extreme claims of all kinds, to energize a given right or left by creating fear of attack. This includes vague concepts of non threats, like the War on Christmas. These images overwhelm most people’s logical thought. They are emotional cattle prods. You just go down the chute without thinking.
We can become so taken up with fear or racial hatred that we never stop to think that maybe we are being played and given hyperbole and stereotypes that prey upon our deepest fears, and have virtually no relationship to objective facts.
This is a weakness in the human mind that has nothing to do with intellect or education. Hitler understood this weakness, and was able to exploit it to its extreme conclusion. This was done in what was, at the time, the most culturally and technologically advanced nation on earth. If it could happen there, it can happen to us. And it is.
Prior to the Lee Atwater era, we had social codes and taboos that were in place for the purpose of recognizing that we need to limit certain kinds of inflammatory speech, because it crosses a line and actually removes our civil behavior. This is why we had to create the Geneva convention– even when we are trying to kill thousands of people, we collectively agree to limits. This is not the case in our emotional news cycle lives. Anything goes.
We used to understand that our collective discourse should not include certain kinds of rough language or imagery. Instead, we have taken this carefully designed social structure for granted and are failing to understand the need to maintain it. When we take away those restraints and allow anybody to cross these lines and exploit these deep dark weaknesses of the heart, it’s like not recognizing that nuclear weapons are dangerous and might explode. We are are failing to understand the larger danger that faces us if we don’t keep these dark animal survivalist emotions in a glass jar, with signs saying do not touch.
Fringe elements and Russia are using this technique, because otherwise their arguments would be exposed as fallacious and would be rejected by the majority. They have removed our sense of decency. And it is historically inevitable that without it, we will eventually be driven to destroy ourselves.