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Form is Insight: painter’s eye, cinematographer’s segue

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a follow-up to Form is Insight: parliamentarian scuffle, photographer’s eye -- Breugel's Fight between Carnival and Lent comes to a movie house near you ]
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Jem Cohen‘s film, Museum Hours, is set largely in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, with a particular focus on Pieter Breughel the Elder. Less than 10 minutes into the film, this shot, showing a detail of one of his paintings:

is followed seamlessly — as though nothing had happened — by this one, a “detail” one might say, of the Vienna street, perhaps indeed as the viewer steps into it right outside the museum:

Between the two shots — in the cut — we move from the sixteenth to the twentyfirst century, and from curated museum to careless street. The painter’s eye is echoed by the cinematographer’s segue: litter remains litter.

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The first image is a seemingly insignificant detail taken from the area of Breughel’s painting containing the “figure of Carnival”:

which you can easily spot, low down and slightly left of center, in the painting as a whole, here:

The painting itself, which goes by the title The Fight between Carnival and Lent, presents Breughel’s juxtaposition of festive and fasting seasons which follow one another seamlessly in the calendar of the church, while their respective impulses wrestle constantly for dominance in the hearts of humankind…

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Drew Martin at The Museum of Peripheral Art blog notices the successive “litter” shots from inside and outside the museum in Cohen’s film, too, and writes:

The most brilliant thing about this movie is the use of segue. In one scene, a series of shots focus on details of a Bruegel painting with the guide’s voice listing the objects “.. discarded playing cards, a bone, a broken egg ..”, and then the images switch to nondescript ground shots in Vienna, as he continues “.. a cigarette butt, a folded note, a lost glove, a beer can.”

When I write of the power of juxtapositions and of the eye that perceives pattern, then, I am not speaking of something that is entirely subjective and personal, but of a faculty native to the human, yet woefully under-practiced, under-explored. My intention is to suggest that this faculty is not merely of use to the artist or art-historian, but basic to a rich and full cognizance of the world around us. It is one techne of reading the world, one of many.

**

How’s this for another juxtaposition from the same film?

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Satire! Fake! Hoax! Internet! [correction on p.16 below the fold]

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- and yes, "p.16 below the fold" is pretty much the news equivalent of "at the back of the bus" ]
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A prime-time Dutch TV news show, De Wereld Draait Door, regularly includes a satirical segment, and the other day the segment editors spliced together a number of snippets of Netanyahu speeches to produce this clip, which they may feel represents Netanyahu’s true feelings, but which clearly isn’t what he actually said.

As the Jewish news agency JTA noted:

The video, made to appear genuine through seamless splicing of sound bites from previous speeches by Netanyahu, was spread by thousands of Twitter and Facebook users who advertised it under the headline “Netanyahu finally tells the truth.”

“We are conducting these surgical operations against schools, mosques, hospitals, children,” Netanyahu is heard saying, adding, “This is something I don’t have to explain to Americans.”

That video is satire. You may like it, you may not like it, but it is satire.

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Here for comparison is the genuine news video on which it was partly based:

Two friends of mine, from different areas of my social life, reposted the faked video on Facebook, one of them with the comment:

fourth reich innit

No it isn’t. It’s a satirical mashup of Netenyahu speeches, spliced together to make him appear to say the exact opposite of what he actually says.

And the lady who posted the satirical video got 26,422 (and counting) people to “share” it.

Look, anyone who can post or share that satirical video piece without noting up front that it is satire is either

  • believing Netanyahu would say such a thing as “We don’t not share your concern about civilian casualties at all .. one of the things we are doing is trying to maximize the number of civilian casualties, we prefer that” to Hilary Clinton, with world news sources watching, without a ripple of suprise or condemnation — or

  • knows it to be a smear, and is using it to stir up hatred in an already hypertense situation
  • **

    In this case, the hatred stirred is against the Israelis. Earlier this week, two other Facebook posts by friends of mine passed along equally misleading memes whose purpose was to stir up hated for Muslims.

    There are important things that need to be said about both Israelis and Muslims in these volatile times — but stirring up hatred is hardly a route that’s likely to lead to peace.

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    Sibling pea rivalry? So same, so very different

    Thursday, July 24th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- a battle of the hashtags re the Chibok schoolgirls, with some background first, and an aside re Carl Jung afterwards ]
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    I have talked about what I like to call “sibling pea rivalry” here before:

    we’re up against the phenomenon I call “sibling pea rivalry” — where two things, places, institutions, whatever, that are about as similar as two peas in a pod, have intense antagonism between them, real or playful — Oxford and Cambridge, say, and I’m thinking here of the Boat Race, or West Point and Annapolis in the US, and the Army-Navy game.

    Oxford is far more “like” Cambridge than it is “like” a mechanic’s wrench, more like Cambridge than it is a Volkswagen or even a high school, more like it even than Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford — more like it than any of the so-called “redbrick universities” in the UK — so like it, in fact, that the term “Oxbridge” has been coined to refer to the two of them together, in contrast to any other schools or colleges.

    And yet on the day of the Boat Race, feelings run high — and the two places couldn’t seem more different. Or let me put that another way — an individual might be ill-advised to walk into a pub overflowing with partisans of the “dark blue” of Oxford wearing the “light blue” of Cambridge, or vice versa. Not quite at the level of the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, perhaps, but getting there…

    **

    Under the header Missing Nigerian girls: whatever happened to #Bringbackourgirls? the Telegraph noted ten days or so ago:

    Meanwhile, with the world’s attention once again turning to fresh crises in Iraq and Israel, #bringbackourgirls is no longer the hashtag it once was. The regular downtown demonstrations in Nigerian capital, Abuja, have dwindled, with the crowds of redteeshirted campaigners accusing the government of trying to undermine them. There have even been fisticuffs with a rival group, which wears white tee-shirts and campaigns under the name of #ReleaseOurGirls.

    “As of about three weeks ago, they began turning up at the same location where we hold a vigil every day, and have been outright aggressive with us,” said Lawan Abana, one of the demonstrators. “Recently they smashed up a whole load of our plastic chairs and fractured one of my colleague’s arms. We think they are being paid by the government, as their message is ‘release our girls’. That puts the responsibility for solving this case on Boko Haram, rather than the government.”

    On the face of it, both hashtags and both groups want the girls returned to their homes — yet the difference between them is enough for one group to smash the chairs and break the arms of the other…

    **

    As an aside:

    Sibling pea rivalry is an intriguing business, an easily missed part of the human puzzle — and relates interestingly to the idea that we’re closer to our own shadow than we are to the sun –

    As a metaphor for our own psychology, that’s something we may not want to admit, though Jung would argue it’s the first step towards individution, towards nuance, towards multi-dimensionality. As Jung says in Psychology and Religion: West and East, pp. 131 and 140:

    Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.

    and:

    Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day.

    **

    Always working to understand complementaries, oppositions, paradoxes, and how the human mind identifies, or perhaps forms, and reacts to them.

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    Torture, a Rolex, & the Dalai Lama

    Thursday, June 19th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- torture by photographic means, and compassion as exchange ]
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    It is the image above, not the Dalai Lama himself, that has been “tortured” photoshopically. It is featured, along with similarly “tortured” images of Iggy Pop and Karl Lagerfeld, in a Belgian ad campaign from Amnesty International — in which each “iconic” figure’s tortured image is accompanied by an unlikely quote to illustrate the series theme, “Torture a man and he will tell you anything.”

    I know nothing of Lagerfeld, and only enough about Iggy Pop to agree he likely wouldn’d admit that Justin Bieber “is the future of rock’n’roll” — but yes, I am pretty confident that if you ever hear or see the Dalai Lama claiming that anyone who doesn’t have a Rolex by the age of 50 has failed in life, His Holiness has been tortured — either for real or, as here, in an ad.

    **

    I can’t easily speak for Iggy Pop or Karl Lagerfeld, but the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist, and it is worth noting that Buddhism addresses the question of “who suffers” in a manner that is relevant to the use of the Dalai Lama’s image above.

    From a Mahayana Buddhist point of view, as Dr John Makransky puts it in his chapter on Compassion in Buddhist Psychology in Germer & Siegel’s Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy:

    Another renowned 8th century Indian teacher, Santideva, by pointing out the constructed nature of concepts of “self” and “other,” shows us how to re-employ those concepts to re-configure our world into an expression of compassion and wisdom, entering into the bodhisattva path. “Self” and “other” are merely relative, contextual terms, Santideva argues, like “this bank” and “the other bank” of a river. Neither side of a river is intrinsically an “other bank.” (Harvey, 2000). Similarly, it is a cognitive error to think of other beings as intrinsically “other.” For all are “self” from their own perspectives; all are like oneself in their deepest potential, desire for happiness, and deluded patterning; and all are undivided from oneself in the empty, inter-dependent ground of all things (Wallace and Wallace, 1997). By reflecting on the sameness of self and others in such ways, and the tremendous benefit to our mind that would come by reversing the usual constructs of “self,” “other” and associated feelings, we explore viewing others as our very self while sensing our self as a neutral other. Through such practice, we discover, the great burden and suffering of clinging to our self over others is relieved, and we can increasingly give rise to the compassion and wisdom that feels and recognizes all beings as like ourselves (Wallace and Wallace, 1997).

    and:

    In Tibet this practice of “exchanging self and other” is commonly given the form of tong-len meditation, in which we exchange self for other by imagining that we take others’ sufferings into the empty ground of our being while freely offering others all of our own virtue, well-being and resources. This imaginative pattern helps conform our mind to the wisdom of emptiness that recognizes others as ultimately undivided from our self, and gives that wisdom its most fundamental compassionate expression.

    Indeed, the Dalai Lama teaches the practice of tonglen — literally, “the practice of giving and taking” — himself, and explains it thus:

    “Exchanging ourselves with others” should not be taken in the literal sense of turning oneself into the other and the other into oneself. This is impossible anyway. What is meant here is a reversal of the attitudes one normally has towards oneself and others. We tend to relate to this so-called “self” as a precious core at the center of our being, something that is really worth taking care of, to the extent that we are willing to overlook the well-being of others. In contrast, our attitude towards others often resembles indifference; at best we may have some concern for them, but even this may simply remain at the level of a feeling or an emotion. On the whole we are indifferent we have towards others’ well-being and do not take it seriously. So the point of this particular practice is to reverse this attitude so that we reduce the intensity of our grasping and the attachment we have to ourselves, and endeavor to consider the well-being of others as significant and important.

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    It is instructive to compare the “tonglen” form of practice and insight described here with two comments I quoted recently in my post on dehumanization and its consequences

    Archbishop Tutu:

    when we dehumanize someone, whether you like it or not, in that process you are dehumanized. A person is a person through other persons. If we want to enhance our personhood, one of the best ways of doing it is enhancing the personhood of the other.

    And Jonathan Shay:

    Restoring honor to the enemy is an essential step in recovery from combat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). While other things are obviously needed as well, the veteran’s self-respect never fully recovers so long as he is unable to see the enemy as worthy. In the words of one of our patients, a war against subhuman vermin “has no honor.” This in true even in victory; in defeat, the dishonoring makes life unendurable.

    **

    From yet another perspective, isn’t what all these writers are getting at– from the Lama via the Archbishop to the psychiatrist — exactly the different the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber pointed up in his classic book, I and Thou?

    Love does not cling to the I in such a way as to have the Thou only for its “content,” its object; but love is between I and Thou. The man who does not know this, with his very being know this, does not know love; even though he ascribes to it the feelings he lives through, experiences, enjoys, and expresses.

    and again:

    Inscrutably involved, we live in the currents of universal reciprocity.

    And isn’t this also the core of Charles Williams‘ teachings of Substitution within the Co-Inherence — a practice which, as he writes:

    exchanged the proper self, and wherever need was, drew breath daily in another’s place, according to the grace of the Spirit ‘dying each other’s life, living each other’s death’. Terrible and lovely is the general substitution of souls…

    I have added a couple of commas to make Williams’ dense text a little more accessible here, but his thought in these matters is profound, and not too distant from that of tonglen: that Christians, acting within the will of God, can offer themselves to take on themselves each other’s specific burdens, perils and illnesses, in an “exchange” of love.

    For those wishing to dig deeper into Charles Williams — the sadly neglected and no less brilliant friend of Tolkien and CS Lewis — and his doctrine of Substitution in particular, Susan Wendling‘s paper Flesh knows what Spirit knows: Mystical Substitution in Charles Williams’ Vision of Co-Inherence seems a good place to start, and her bibliography offers further sources to explore.

    **

    All of which, it meseems, is a far cry indeed from the lure of the Rolex

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    Posts from my Coursera classes I — dehumanization, consequences

    Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- where brute reality & instinct collide head-on with morality & military professionalism ]
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    I’ve been taking various MOOCs recently — online courses from places like the University of Leiden, the START program at the University of Maryland, and Princeton, on topics relating to counter-terrorism and warfare. In some cases, I have been TA-ing these courses, and I’ve offered to write a FAQ for the folks at Leiden on religious aspects of their terrorism course. Most recently, in a Princeton course on “paradoxes of war” I have been finding myself writing some short essay-style summaries of my thinking on various topics, supplemented with appropriate source materials, and thought I’d post some of them here for commentary and further refinement.

    Here’s the first, responding to some posts on the incident where a group of US videotaped themselves urinating on Taliban corpses — an issue in which brute reality and instinct collide head-on with morality and military professionalism.

    **

    I have read through this thread with interest, appreciating the various voices raised and at the same time wishing that more of the available research was more widely known.

    Several scholars have studied the realities of “dehumanization” and written about it, and what they have to say can usefully support some of our own thoughts about the matter, and in some cases challenge us to look deeper into war and its effects.

    We might start our considerations from the work of Brigadier General S. L. A Marshall, official historian of the European theater in World War II for the US Army. As a 2012 Guardian article put it:

    Marshall’s astonishing contention, debated vigorously ever since, was that about 75% of second world war combat troops were unable to fire their weapons on the enemy. Guns were discharged, but they would be deliberately aimed over the heads of the enemy. The vast majority of soldiers couldn’t actually kill. And, in the midst of combat, they became de facto conscientious objectors.

    Indeed, in his 1947 book Men Against Fire: the problem of Battle Command, Marshall argued:

    It is therefore reasonable to believe that the average and healthy individual — the man who can endure the mental and physical stress of combat — still has such an inner and usually unrealized resistance towards killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility.

    That’s the scholarly basis for holding that soldiers don’t “naturally” want to kill their enemies, even when under fire. It is entirely possible to disagree with Marshall, but to do so effectively requires more than a simple opinion: it requires research.

    This would be a horribly long piece if I jammed everything I want to say into one post, particularly since the conversation had already covered so much ground by the time I came across it — so I’ll break here, and follow up shortly with more pieces of the puzzle as I see it.

    **

    Let’s pick up the thread where I left off in a previous post about General Marshall’s finding that humans tend to avoid killing one another, even in time of war.

    Sebastian Junger, who hung out for the better part of a year with troops in one of the most heavily contested parts of Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, describing what he saw there in the book War and the film Restrepo, which he directed. Junger commented not so long ago in the Washington Post:

    I can’t imagine that there was a time in human history when enemy dead were not desecrated. Achilles dragged Hector around the walls of Troy from the back of a chariot because he was so enraged by Hector’s killing of his best friend. Three millennia later, Somali fighters dragged a U.S. soldier through the streets of Mogadishu after shooting down a Black Hawk helicopter and killing 17 other Americans …. Clearly, the impulse to desecrate the enemy comes from a very dark and primal place in the human psyche. Once in a while, those impulses are going to break through.

    And:

    They are very clear about the fact that society trains them to kill, orders them to kill and then balks at anything that suggests they have dehumanized the enemy they have killed.

    But of course they have dehumanized the enemy—otherwise they would have to face the enormous guilt and anguish of killing other human beings …. It doesn’t work …, but it gets them through the moment; it gets them through the rest of the patrol.

    That’s the evidence from the front lines — in a war still winding down as we speak — for the practical necessity of dehumanizing the enemy.

    Next up: the psychological impact.

    **

    Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former Ranger who has taught psychology at West Point, agrees with Marshall that we humans tend to be averse to killing one another, and with Sebastian Junger on the necessity of desensitization in time of battle:

    During the Vietnam era millions of American adolescents were conditioned to engage in an act against which they had a powerful resistance. This conditioning is a necessary part of allowing a soldier to succeed and survive in the environment where society has placed him.

    In his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War, he explores how the US has responded to such findings as Grossman’s, by a “triad of methods used to enable men to overcome their innate resistance to killing” including “desensitization, classical and operant conditioning, and denial defense mechanisms”.

    He then goes on to point out the moral obligation these simple facts place on those who send sons and daughters, wives and husbands, fathers and mothers into harm’s way:

    But if society prepares a soldier to overcome his resistance to killing and places him in an environment in which he will kill, then that society has an obligation to deal forthrightly, intelligently, and morally with the psychological repercussions upon the soldier and the society. Largely through an ignorance of the processes and implications involved, this did not happen for Vietnam veterans — a mistake we risk making again as the war in Iraq becomes increasingly deadly and unpopular.

    **

    But what are the “processes and implications involved”?

    Archbishop Desmond Tutu is neither a battle-hardened soldier like Marshall and Grossman, nor a war correspondent like Junger — but he cuts to the point where there’s a potential disconnect between life “up range” and the realities “back home” when he says:

    when we dehumanize someone, whether you like it or not, in that process you are dehumanized. A person is a person through other persons. If we want to enhance our personhood, one of the best ways of doing it is enhancing the personhood of the other.

    And he’s right, it seems.

    Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, author of the book Achilles In Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, found that dehumanizing the enemy during the Vietnam war caused psychological damage to American troops:

    Restoring honor to the enemy is an essential step in recovery from combat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). While other things are obviously needed as well, the veteran’s self-respect never fully recovers so long as he is unable to see the enemy as worthy. In the words of one of our patients, a war against subhuman vermin “has no honor.” This in true even in victory; in defeat, the dishonoring makes life unendurable.

    So that’s the impact of killing an enemy you have dehumanized — and the moral situation we need to reckon with when we send others into the line of fire on our behalf.

    Perhaps now it is time to take a closer and less dehumanized look at our enemies.

    **

    On which point I’ll have more to say in an uncoming post

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