Thursday, August 02, 2012


One way to approach human problems is through High Philosophy, so who are we to skip over it?  One of the main threads in the study of “Terror Management” -- which seems like a very useful thing to study since so much of the current marketing is fear-based -- is the work of Ernest Becker.
Here’s a vid snippet:
Ernest Becker is a “cultural anthropologist.”  Forget that.  It’s just another pot-handle.  “He asserts in his 1973 book The Denial of Death that humans, as intelligent animals, are able to grasp the inevitability of death. They therefore spend their lives building and believing in cultural elements that illustrate how to make themselves stand out as individuals and give their lives significance and meaning. Death creates an anxiety in humans; it strikes at unexpected and random moments, and its nature is essentially unknowable, causing people to spend most of their time and energy to explain, forestall, and avoid it.”
This is beyond Ray Rappaport’s idea of physical homeostasis, which is that the evolved nature of humans is to do what will help them simply survive: get food, water, air, shelter, and -- in the case of the whole species, sex.  The basic animal stuff.  Becker is a step up to the idea that a person is not just obliged to survive, but to SHINE!!  To be extra special !!!  Just simply living is not surviving anymore, because you need to be a STAR!  This moves the whole issue into the social arena.  It’s a new dimension that couldn’t exist without the memes of culture. How else would you know what makes a person so great?  (Just loving them for themselves is not enough.)  And it can’t be achieved without the mirror cells that give us empathy.  Mitt Romney hasn’t figured that out yet.  Bill Clinton probably has more memes in his blood stream and mirror cells behind his forehead than any other human on the planet!  He survives.  He thrives.  
Both men have high self-esteem.  Maybe a little too much.  Here we go with an anonymous Wiki writer again:
“Becker refers to high self-esteem as heroism:  the problem of heroics is the central one of human life, that it goes deeper into human nature than anything else because it is based on organismic narcissism and on the child's need for self-esteem as the condition for his life. Society itself is a codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning.”
This is off-kilter if you ask me.  Incomplete.  A child’s narcissism is about the Rappaport conditions: physical survival, which the child can only get by pleasing adults.  Narcissism has a nasty overtone of being unjustified, but how can care for a child be unjustified?  (I admit an ugly, troublesome child is in danger.)
I think what Becker is trying to say is that a child needs more than simple physical survival.  My mother (innocently) didn’t know this until late.  She said,  “I thought that if I kept you clean, got healthy meals on time, made you do your homework and go to bed, and got you to the doctor and dentist -- that would be enough.”  She was a farm girl.  No one talked to her much until she was adult.  Her mother was raised by a stepmother who disliked her.  Dr. Dan Siegel calls this “avoidant attachment.”  

A hero doesn’t survive for himself.  He survives for others -- he makes the lives of others better.  If he dies, the others remember and love him for what he has done and been and they keep his memory alive.  Sod the billionaires and their ability to run companies.  That’s just not heroic.  
The "key" for Terror Management Treatment is self-esteem as a sense of personal value, obtained by believing in two things:
1. the validity of one’s cultural worldview
2. that one is living up to standards that are part of the worldview 
Self-esteem is not a matter of being praised for being “nice” -- which means conforming -- but the inner feeling that you deserve to live, that you are a contributing, praise-worthy, human being.  Sometimes you can only achieve that feeling by opposing the people around you.  People who try to use blaming and shaming as control will attack someone who scares them by going their own way.  They name-call that individual as scum, a faggot, a skag, a loser, a criminal.  That’s stigma.  It means that they want you to be controlled.  First stigmatization, then medicalizing, then criminalizing, then force, then killing.  First fear, then labeling and numbing, then incarcerating, then striking, and finally execution.  The white crow is doomed.  Animals do it.  Bugs do it.  Oddballs out.  The original response to a white buffalo calf was to kill it and put its skin at the top of the next Sun Lodge as an offering.
The second part above and the motive for this destruction of the nonconforming is to defend one’s worldview, the whole justification of the way you are.  If people can be different, one of you must be wrong.  Outsiders have to go.  This plays out over and over UNLESS there is enough confidence to tolerate difference, enough skill to negotiate social relationships with one’s built-in empathy (mirror cells).  In Portland we used to have a building inspector who never got into fights even though he was going in and out of some very different and often hostile Portland sub-communities.  He said,  “I look into the person’s eyes and pay attention to what I see.  If he draws back, I give him more space.  If he smiles, I might go closer.  I never hurry.  I listen to his voice -- not just the words, but the tones.  I honor what he says.”
So first you need the confidence that you can “read” another person, and then you have to believe that his life is valid to him, that his world-view might be different and you should find that out -- deal with it, learn from it.  It has been pretty tough to teach American soldiers this.  The ones who learn come back with a lot less trauma in some ways.  The ones who can’t handle it at all end up treating foreign people’s homes as though they were American movie theatres showing Batman movies.
Suddenly their fear of death, their own and their cultures, is enacted.  Death gapes alive and gobbles them up, along with their “self-esteem” and their righteous ways.  Death's little joke.

No comments: