Sunday, September 13, 2015

Mind-killing 2: reduction and polarization

In my last post, I discussed two methods, seduction and alignment. In this post, I discuss two more methods of mind-killing, reduction and polarization.

Reduction refers to someone (or a system, including your own reactive patterns) reducing a complex situation to a single emotionally charged issue. The result of reduction is that you are locked into one and only one way of seeing the world. When someone tells you that all the problems in the Middle East are due to ISIS or that money is the only thing that matters, you are being subjected to reduction. Any nuance, any other perspective, is not taken into consideration.

We see this time and again In the political arena in single-issue and identity politics. Climate change, for instance, is regularly reduced to a matter of economics. The reduction has prevented governments at every level, municipal to international, from taking effective action. Reduction is often used to rationalize the inequalities of the status quo. A favorite trope is that people get what they deserve and those who are poor deserve to be poor and those who are wealthy deserve to be wealthy. This reductionist fantasy is used to eliminate public services with the specious argument that they provide help to people who do not deserve help.

Closely associated with reduction is polarization. Polarization eliminates complexity and nuance by presenting issues in black and white terms—this or that, for or against, right or wrong. It is regularly employed by political leaders, for instance, to solidify support and isolate those who disagree with them. “If you are not with us, you are against us.” In polarization, you feel that you being forced to choose sides. You are told that any dialogue between different perspectives is suspect, dangerous or simply not permissible. 

Where seduction and alignment are based in attraction, reduction and polarization are based in aversion. They are instruments of aggression, and they rely on evoking anger and hatred in you. Both polarization and reduction play on pre-established prejudices and fears. Those fears are invoked to get you to act not in your interests, but in the interests of the person or system invoking them. Reduction and polarization often rely on reason and supposedly rational arguments, but, as I have written elsewhere, reason can be a weapon used by those who do not want their anger to be evident or identified. By leading you to feel the “rightness” of what they are saying, they can appear utterly reasonable while they get you to destroy your world and the world of those around you.

If you step back and open to what you are experiencing when faced with either reduction or polarization, you notice that you feel stripped, naked and exposed. You feel stripped because considerations that are important to you or to those you care about have been stripped away. You feel naked because you are not able to rely on your usual frames of reference and the ways you usually relate to others or to the world. And you feel exposed because you do not know how  to maintain your own integrity in the face of the reductionist or polarizing rhetoric.

Direct opposition to reduction and polarization is rarely effective. The person or system has defined the field of engagement and if you engage them directly, you are fighting on their territory and with their weapons. Instead, step right out of the world of anger and hatred that they are projecting and seeking to elicit in you. Compassion is probably the most potent practice, because anger and compassion are mutually incompatible—in the same way that heat and cold are. In the world that anger projects, you seek to avoid your own pain by making someone else experience it. In the world that compassion projects, you know and understand the struggles that every person, including yourself, experience and the pain generated by those struggles. Compassion dissolves the sense of “I” vs “other” because, with compassion, you see the other is a human being just as you are.

As for the polarizing and reducing tendencies in your own reactive patterns, open to the anger and fear that drive their operation. You may try to use insight (what is angry? what is the anger?). Even though this approach is recommended in many texts, I have rarely found it to be effective because it is easy to employ insight without engaging the reactive emotional material in you. Instead, I recommend compassion-based methods, such as taking and sending, that involve engaging the pain and struggles in yourself, and, from there, the pain and struggles in others. When you can stand in your own pain, you are no longer driven by fear. When you know your own struggles, you know the struggles of others.

Mind-killing 1: seduction and alignment

What is mind-killing? It is the use of your own patterns of emotional reaction to lead you to do what another person, a system, or even your own patterns of reaction want you to do. The techniques of mind-killing have been carefully honed in politics, advertising, marketing, public relations and many other areas of modern life. They also operate internally. The genius of mind-killing is that most people do not know they are being manipulated. They feel they are doing what is in their interests and, in effect, destroy themselves.

To be awake and aware requires that you have enough free attention to recognize and counteract mind-killing, whether it comes in the form of personal interactions, of the social conditioning that we are subjected to through the media, or of the voices that your patterns use to preserve and maintain their operation. In the next few newsletters, I am going to discuss six methods of mind-killing. Although he does not use the term mind-killing, Naom Chomsky describes precisely these six methods in the documentaryManufacturing Consent (available on YouTube). 

Today, I look at the first two: seduction and alignment.

Both these methods use attraction, which, along with aversion and indifference comprise the three fundamental emotional reactions known as the three poisons.

In seduction, you are led to feel that the fulfillment of your dreams depends on your doing what the other person (or the system or your own patterns) is encouraging you to do. In mind-killing, there is always an implicit threat, and it is the fear evoked by that threat that is used to coerce or manipulate you. In the case of seduction, the threat is that your dreams will never be realized unless you do what is being asked of you. The threat is rarely made explicit. To do so would make it possible to examine it objectively and it would lose its power. But the threat is there and acts on you through your own fears. In effect, the fulfillment of your dreams acts as a lure and the implicit threat pushes you to take the bait.

In alignment, you are led to feel that your survival, your viability in society and/or your very identity depends on your doing what the other person (or the system or your own patterns) is requiring of you. You are being offered a way of life, a position in the world and/or recognition, and the threat here is barely concealed: if you don't do this, you don't belong in the world.

One method of counteracting mind-killing is to use a set of four questions originally developed by Byron Katie:
  • Is this true?
  • How do I know it is true?
  • How do I feel when I believe this?
  • Who would I be if I let this go?
The key in employing such a method is to be willing to stand in the storm of emotional reactions that these questions elicit. The storm is inevitable because the mind-killing has already provoked emotional reactions, particularly desire, longing and wanting in all their different forms. In effect, you are making your own patterns of attraction and desire the object of your attention. There is little, if any, need to analyze. It is sufficient to stand in the experience of the physical, emotional and cognitive sensations that arise when you ask these questions. When you do so, the energy of the emotional reactions is transformed into attention. You are able to experience attraction as an experience, not a compulsion. You step out of the world of projected desire. The mind-killing loses its power. You wake up from the spell that the seduction has cast on you. You break out of the jail that alignment has confined you to. And you taste the fresh air of freedom.

Practice tip: random thoughts on power and relationship

Persona A has power over person B only if A can make life difficult for the B. Power operates only in situations when there is a contract (voluntary or involuntary, explicit or implicit, social or individual) which allows or enables person A to make life difficult for person B.

Power usually runs in both directions. If A can make life difficult for B, B can make life difficult for A.

When either party can do without the other, no power relationship exists. Yet people often continue to behave as if a power relationship is still operating, that is, they can coerce or can be coerced. Person A may employ coercive methods even when it is clear that they have no effect on B. In such cases, A will often escalate coercive actions out of all proportion to the issue at hand in a destructive yet futile effort to maintain their illusion of connection. Conversely, Person B may feel and act as if coerced even when there is nothing that Person A can do to make life difficult for B, again to maintain the illusion of connection.

two people sitting at long tableTo question whether A can do without B, or B can do without A, usually threatens fundamental assumptions about the relationship. 

Anger is frequently employed as a defense against such questioning. It reduces the questioning to a single emotionally charged issue while polarizing the relationship so that the questioner backs down. Another defense is to marginalize the questions ("That's not important" or "That doesn't count" ) or to reframe the situation so that the questions cannot even be thought, let alone asked. Still another approach is to get the questioner to believe that their own interests will be secured or enhanced if they drop the questioning and threatened if they don't.
All these are forms of mind-killing, methods in which person A uses person B's emotional reactions (pride, greed, desire, anger, jealousy, fear, guilt, etc.) to get B to act in person A's interests. The polite word for this is social engineering, a term that glosses over the coercion and power dynamics that are operating.

  • Stand in your own experience and touch what is vitally important for you. Everything else can be let go.
  • Do not pick up what isn't yours except as an intentional decision on your part.
  • Authority or obligation is something that you choose to give to others -- for your own reasons. They are not imposed from outside. When you recall those reasons, you reconnect with your own agency and any feeling of coercion or powerlessness disappears.