The Result of University Cost-Cutting Measures . . .

the Plausible Deniability Blog takes up where the PostModernVillage blog left off. While you'll see many of the same names here, PDB allows its writers and editors a space away from financial strum und drang that torpedoed the PMV blog.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Co-Evolution and the Cultural Dance

by Lael Ewy

One of the most powerful ideas that currently drives my thinking, one the psychiatrist Ronald Pies called “speculative,” is the notion that human beings co-evolved with culture.

I would imagine some anthropologists and primatologists wouldn’t find the notion so radical.

Consider this: theories assuming a linear progression from biological structures to cultural expressions tend to downplay what culture is for: helping assure the survival of those species for whom it is a feature. This suggests that as a species practices culture, that practice itself would influence the genetic variability and expression of the species. To worry too much about whether clothing came first or hairlessness came first is to get yourself into a pointless chicken and egg loop. To questions of nature vs. nurture, the correct answer, I think, is “yes.”

Consider also that for those species who use culture, being cut off from that culture leads to extreme distress. People in solitary confinement go crazy pretty consistently; people outside of a cultural context quickly cease thinking of themselves as human in a way that we commonly recognize, becoming severely depressed, delusional, sociopathic.

It’s along these lines that I’d like to explore a little more, since the idea that we’ve co-evolved with culture has some deep implications about the roles of spirituality, politics, gender, criminality, and behavioral health. It calls into question the often simplified cause and effect relationships posited by pundits and researchers, reporters and politicians.

We want to believe that, whatever the problem, we are not to blame, that the origins of what ails us lie in some biological, natural, or extra-cultural “other” preying upon us and making us miserable. When we shift blame, we also shift responsibility. These ideas are often linked in legal considerations because we view them as interdependent aspects of culpability. We reinforce power structures, if we benefit from them or fear their realignment. We place somatic and psychological suffering on the individual and ignore her sociocultural situation.

But all of the bases for these actions and desires are culturally determined; our thoughts and feelings are, themselves, influenced by how we live our cultures, ways of being to which our bodies and the brains within them are constantly reacting and are helping to create. The much vaunted “brain chemistry” explanation for psychological distress ignores the fact that brain chemistry in humans does not exist outside of the cultural and ecological contexts in which the human brain evolved. Treating it separately from a person’s sociocultural situation is not only inaccurate, it’s nonsensical and cruel.

Likewise, what we view as criminal or what we view as politically or economically acceptable are impossible to fully grasp outside of the contexts of shame and blame, feelings of responsibility and rage, that we tend to view as highly internalized or personal. Yet what is our reaction to tragedy or loss? We gather together for public rites of mourning and solidarity. We “check in” with others to make sure that, despite devastation, destruction, or violence, we’re all still “ok.”

Trauma research increasingly suggests that psychological healing happens through meaningful connection with trusted others, yet our “scientific” response is still, for the most part, to isolate the suffering person through medical or pharmaceutical means, to criminalize the person or render her legally “disabled,” kicking her out of the world of social contribution through compensated work.

Perhaps we do this because of baser urges, no matter how gussied up with professional jargon. Isolating individuals, and locating larger problems within individuals, justifies the power of the medical and legal structures that perform this kind of work and serve to maintain the status quo. It’s preferable to those in power to place the problems the institutionalization of that power creates on “problem” individuals, “the mentally ill,” “thugs,” and “lone wolf killers.” But maybe doing this sort of thing also derives from the perceived need to contain or purge what we react to as social contagion. We rid ourselves of suffering people because being in the presence of suffering causes suffering for cultural beings. The brief emotional turmoil of sentencing or diagnosis, execution or exile, will lead, we hope, to the contentment of “closure,” certainty, settled science.

As humans, then, we sit on the balance of favoring the offending limb or cutting it off—and perhaps what side of the scale you’re on determines whether you lean toward the political left or right, toward the traditionalist’s “sensible” exclusion or the radical’s inclusive communitarianism.

That we can even contemplate this is another indication that the dance between the cultures we comprise and the brains that create them never ends.

Monday, January 2, 2017

"Is Sending" and "Theft" as Trumpist Legerdemain

by Lael Ewy

Because I don’t want OnWords to become only about the ways Donald Trump abuses the language, I’m addressing here some special concerns.

In this case, it’s his use of “is sending” in regards to immigration from Mexico, and “theft” in the case of manufacturing jobs in China.

The president-elect assured us during the campaign that Mexico “is sending” people here in order to rape and sell drugs. This implies that there is some intentional, planned effort on the part of either the Mexican government or some other massive national organization to send people here.

As far as I can tell, unless this program is the world’s best kept secret, that’s poppycock.

People from Mexico risk their lives to come here because economic and social conditions in Mexico are very bad. They come here fleeing the violence created by drug gangs—gangs sustained by the immense appetite for drugs in the US. They come here because Mexico’s class structure prevents them from advancing. They come here because their farming communities have been devastated by cheap commodity exports from the US, thanks to NAFTA.

Nobody is sending anybody anywhere; people are coming here because it’s better to live poor in the US than it is for some people to live at all in Mexico.

In other words, they’re coming here for the same reason immigrants have always come here.

When Mr. Trump says that China is stealing American jobs, that this is unprecedented “job theft,” he is, likewise, simply not telling the truth. China welcomed US jobs, but they were sent here by manufacturers in the United States.

American executives chose to export those jobs, and their companies received nice rises in their stock prices when they did. The executives then used that increase in stock value to justify bonuses for themselves. They used that increase to raise the value of their own stock options.

They did it for the same reasons they have long sought to reduce labor costs. That payroll costs are the highest costs a business faces is axiomatic in American economic thought. Businessmen in this country seek to reduce payroll costs for that reason alone.

The last few decades have also seen US markets “mature” and growth slow. Because publicly traded companies are judged not on profitability but on the continual rise of profitability, American executives chose to show growth by reducing labor costs instead of lowering growth expectations or increasing efficiency or pursuing new markets.

Exporting US jobs also follows a long-term trend: in the ‘60s and ‘70s American companies outsourced manufacturing to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan. When labor costs rose in those countries, they began to export to South Korea and China. As South Korea and China become more costly, they are moving jobs to India, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Last, moving jobs overseas accomplished something American executives have sought to do for more than a century: it devastated the power of organized labor. Rather than shooting and killing striking workers as they did in the early 20th century, rather than negotiating as they did through the middle part of the 20th century, executives saw the opportunity to do an end-run around unions by sending jobs to a place where the authoritarian government and the massive number of available peasants assured little resistance to low pay and poor working conditions.

If anything was stolen, it was the profit created by US workers, and if it was stolen by anybody, it was stolen by shareholders and the executive class.

Trump’s rhetoric in these cases is dangerous not merely because it grossly misrepresents what’s going on. It’s dangerous because it distracts angry, working Americans by placing the blame for their plight on others who are simply acting in the same way any of us would given their circumstances.

His rhetoric is dangerous because it conflates desperation and opportunism with malice and foments enmity among those whose common interests suggest solidarity.