Sunday, May 27, 2018


"Detained" children.  These have mats to sleep on.

“Theory of Mind” is the formal name of the ability to see that a creature has purposes and to be able to tell what they are about to do.  It’s an ability that arises through the predator/prey relationship so that the cat can guess where the mouse is about to run and the cougar can tell what choices a racing deer in the forest might make.  The same thing works from the other side, so that the mouse and the deer act as erratically as they can in order to evade the predator they know is in pursuit.  The dynamic gets complicated when the prey tries to mind-read the predator.  “What does that cat think I’m going to do?  I’ll do the opposite!”  But the choices aren’t that complex or multiple.

The next step up is Sympathy, meaning understanding what another creature shows it is feeling and “feeling with” it.  When another creature is sad, the sympathizing creature knows it and is sorry.  Likewise, when another creature is rejoicing, the sympathizing creature sees that and laughs, happy for them.  Still not complicated.  Apes and toddlers are sometimes full of sympathy and try to comfort or celebrate with others.

Empathy, which means that one creature actually knows what the other one is feeling inside or maybe even thinking, is a matter of imagination that can make some heavy demands.  For instance, it’s pretty tough for someone who has never had that experience to really feel what it’s like.  Maybe it would be too painful even when it’s possible.  Or maybe there hasn’t been enough similar experience in life, never having been there, never having had that happen to them.  

Who knows what the trapeze artist or the fighter pilot actually feels like in action?  Likely it is more a matter of focusing their attention and processing sensory information than the emotional reaction, though they might be electric with adrenaline.  Later they might shake and cry.  But we begin to realize that there are some humans who simply don’t ever empathize with others, always seeing them from outside, maybe not even trying to guess how they feel.  

The next step up is in the famous pre-frontal lobe of the brain and is unique to humans, maybe not all of them.  We know it’s there because damage to that place in the head will remove it.  The morality of what to do is more complex than sympathy or empathy and can control what is done, even if it is painful and difficult, maybe involving loss.  Most people get along on the knowledge of what their culture thinks is moral and are guided by the consensus.  Some people are aware of behavioural stands in books and movies and know what is generally considered good or even heroic.  They might try to be like these imagined people.  Or at least persuade others that they are like the stalwarts in novels, sensitive and effective.

“Who’s going to give back the young and beautiful lives (and others) that have been devastated and destroyed by the phony Russia Collusion Witch Hunt? They journeyed down to Washington, D.C., with stars in their eyes and wanting to help our nation...They went back home in tatters!”  Trump’s tweet this morning is his interpretation of the rats bailing from a sinking ship “to spend more time with my family” and taking their ill-gotten millions with them.  It’s fantasy.

So when Trump tries to get us to feel sorry for Washington DC players, whom he portrays as aspiring and noble, in spite of those faces that are so easy to caricature, he is so much in contrast with the corruption and compromising, secrecy and self-serving that has been revealed in the last year, that we can only laugh.  It would be easier to believe that he could understand the despair of destroyed families, much less the consequences that will come in the future, a firestorm of revenge.  

One can understand that he wants us to sympathize with him, but a few of us can “read his mind” empathically and know that it is all worms and serpents.  It is only our own morality, this idea called “rule of law”, that keeps us from storming the White House to tear him apart.  I’m sure this impulse would baffle him — not that we should want to hurt him (because in his life everyone who isn’t dazzled will hurt him, including his family) but that we should be offended by what he does.  To his mind the fact that everyone is so angry is inexplicable but inevitable.  Therefore, he is justified.

This limitation on Trump’s “theory of mind” also explains why he has such poor judgement about choosing his helper.  It’s obvious that many are senile, many are stupid, and all are traitorous to the nation and therefore willing to betray Trump to save themselves.  I don’t think he has even “theory of mind” for a man like Bannon or Giuliani, but can only accept their masks or why is he so easily misled?  

Imagination or lack thereof interferes in understanding these relationships from both positive and negative points of view.  Those of us who are white, prosperous, privileged enough to see into the world of politicians and law enforcement, simply can’t grasp the desperation of parents or — on the other side — those whose needed jobs require controlling row on row of pre-adolescent children on bare floors behind cyclone fencing, covered with tinfoil for lack of blankets.  This is plain in photos.  

To save their own sanity guards must act with armoured minds.  Again, years from now the stories will come out in clouds of regret.  The stories will be nothing like the patriotic old movies we see on television late at night, the remnants of a righteous war that has left obsolete armament shrapnel eating through our flesh and tainting our understanding of multi-national dilemmas.

Luckily, this is not a one-nation or even an American problem.  And even more luckily, internal to this nation and stretching into many others is a pre-existing network of indigenous people with a tradition of honouring families.  We have yet to hear much from the black “world,” now ever more powerful and thoughtful.  These are citizens who are not dominated by Washington, DC.  Indeed, the White House thinks of them as invisible people who serve and guard without personalities.  The day they become so outraged that they throw open the doors . . .   it’s happened before.  Don’t mislay those plans for a new White House.

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