Saturday, August 24, 2013


Both Bradley Manning

Listening to the coverage of recent trials, I’ve been reflecting on the role of “motivation.”   It is the defining difference between manslaughter and homicide or, as in the case of Bradley Manning, the difference between espionage and treason.  These situations mean the difference between a death sentence and long-term incarceration.  We are all assumed to have free will, except that since the social sciences and other forms of investigating humans have revealed convincingly that people’s decisions are often influenced -- if not determined -- by the assumptions they have formed since childhood and, given their circumstances, the consequences they expect.  Crazy people and very low IQ people are generally given a break.  They are assumed to be dead at the steering wheel, a situation not as easy to detect as one might assume.

I’ve described how I once took a course called “Motivation” in hopes that it would help me understand how to get motivated to do stuff like stay on a diet or vacuum often.  Instead it turned out to be about why white rats get thirsty.  That wasn’t helpful, since I didn’t have nor am I a white rat.  However, it was the early research that led to interesting brain neurology, so I forgive myself for my misguided motivation in taking the course.

Here’s a quick list of problems with understanding people’s motivations.

1.  NO motives.  Well, that’s just impossible though there might be a situation in which one wasn’t thinking.   Maybe there are some things that aren’t motivated -- they just ARE.  When I was a kid, my mother was always demanding,  “Why do you . . .something.”  Once it was why, when I held up my hand to swear, my thumb stuck out at a 45 degree angle.  A row of kids held up their hands to swear some darn thing and I was the only one whose thumb stuck out.  I had no idea why.  If she had asked me why I was always different from the other kids, which was true, it would have been a different question but maybe led her to a better understanding of all my motivations.

2.  Mixed motives.  This is more often the case than not. Life and thinking are pretty messy enterprises and most undertakings are a mix of social pressure, personal reaction, what happened earlier, and one’s genome.

3.  Projected motives.  People constantly try to guess each other’s motives (what is their motivation for doing that?).  When I was in high school, I had the idea of wearing my father’s tartan neckties.  I thought I was imitating a Brit school girl.  Now, looking back, I think I was trying to connect with my father.  A classmate asked me if I were pledging a sorority that required silly ways of dressing as a form of hazing.

4.  Socially unacceptable motives.  My nose is exceptionally hairy inside and mucus accumulates in it to the point of blocking air intake.  Well, I have fingers and it’s not nice to breathe through your mouth.  Bradley Manning’s motives are less acceptable than nose-picking but the latter will not escape censure.

5.  Personally unacceptable motives.   I cannot accept the motives of getting rich or famous.  They are certainly socially promoted motives and they sometimes creep up on me, but I have a huge taboo, considering them impure, unworthy, and bound to lead into a moral swamp.

6.  Uninformed motives.  I entered both marriage and the ministry with such strong yearning and determination.  The same with attempting to get a book published.  But I had no idea what was really involved and, in fact, the situations changed in ways no one could have predicted or controlled.  Bob said to me once,  “You know what you can do, but you don’t know what you can’t do.”  Takes one to know one, buddy.

7.  Retroactive motives.  This falls into the 20/20 hindsight category.  There are two sorts:  bringing things up to consciousness later and having a realization  On the other hand making excuses, trying to justify something already done and done.

8.  Unintended consequences.  We value control -- which I assume is guided by prediction -- so much that we don’t like unintended consequences, but in fact they aren’t always bad and might end up being salvific or at least happy.  Then we call it serendipity and smile even though our motivations were irrelevant.

9.  Unconscious motivations.  If rat studies are any kind of indicators, a lot of stuff that goes on in our bodies is not conscious and we don’t really need to know about them anyway unless there’s something way off the norm, like being stranded in Death Valley with no water.  But old intentions from long ago, unexamined assumptions about life that are hard to get rid of, and other old brain shadows of fear, shame, and guilt can interfere with a clear state of mine.  Not always negative.  If there were a happy pattern, that can lead to unjustified motives.
Mathew Shepard

10.  Imputed motivations.  Now we’re back to Bradley Manning, who’s in the cross-hairs of a number of motives.  (Can there be more than two cross-hairs?) One side says he is a patriot who was trying to get his beloved country back onto the principles of its own declared constitution by whistle-blowing.  The other side says he’s a traitor who was betraying his country and causing his countrymen to be killed.  A third side suggests that some boys just want to be girls and this is a valid yearning that leads to grief if it’s ignored.  A fourth opinion is that he is a weak and faulty human being like Mathew Shepard and that such runts should be weeded out.  Another is that the whole problem came about because he was assigned duties -- because of his skills -- that were beyond his capacity to cope with, so he more or less pulled the emergency brake.

I expect Manning himself would have a hard time sorting all that out, but some novelizing journalist will have a go at it, feeding our curiosity about other people’s lives, which some of us will use to investigate ourselves and possibly change -- while others will scorn as being departures from the Right Motives, which are the same as theirs.

Professor Mary Clearman Blue

How we react to each other and whether the outcomes are good depends on our own motives, but also on the “mirror cells” that let us understand other people on their own terms.  Mary Clearman Blue tells a heart-breaking story from her early childhood of killing a series of chicks in a bucket of water because she thought of them as ducklings who needed to be taught to swim.  Much of her work has been an investigation of the motives of generations and why the results were so mixed.  Maybe that’s what all writing is:  retroactive investigation of motives.

But what the larger society is looking for is ways to predict motives and understand the motives of people totally unlike oneself even though they live right next door.  We can’t justify going around “saving” them on our own terms -- it won’t work unless the motives are on THEIR terms.  And yet Antoinette Tuff talked down a shooter by accurately guessing his motives, matching them with her own experience, and giving him understanding.  She credits God, but God is always a metaphor.  Her motivation was practical salvation for all there in this earthly life.  Shouldn’t that be everyone’s motive?

Antoinette Tuff

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