Understanding the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Shootings — Empathy Disorders and the Effects of Societal Racism (Part II)


Ranger Peak, crest of the Bitterroot Mountains, Idaho, from the Beaver Creek fire lookout

If we can’t control individually the empathy-disordered in society, what can we do?  All civilizations have battled with this problem for thousands of years.  Dependent on the level of societal evolution, different cultural solutions have evolved that manage these people.  I remember (wish I could find the reference!) a conversation with an anthropologist about 15 years ago on Hutterite community size in Montana.  One of the primary drivers behind keeping bruderhöfe or colonies at around a 120 member size was that this was the size where one could keep track of potential child molesters.  More members than that, things would fall through the cracks.  I’m sure that no Hutterite explicitly leads with that information for community size inside the faith.  Such knowledge is encoded, along with a substantial list of behaviors and Bible study, to manage their 12-17% of high conflict personalities.

In short, we are not the first community of humans to deal with this problem.

So what societal change should be considered in the case of the EAME shootings? For those interested in activist social change, the real question that should be debated is ‘what are the system boundaries, and what are the timescales for enacting real change on this issue?’  This debate, held in an open, heterogeneous society, is going to be noisy.  If you ask most evangelical Christians, they will tell you that no prayer in schools is the root of the problem.  Psychology Today ran an article blaming it on anti-intellectualism.  There are a thousand different ways of looking at the elephant.

But the problem with most of these ways is that the majority offer no realistic way to change the elephant.  Without some change in the bedrock culture, based on the social physics of the systems, nothing will change.

How do we speed up change?  Societies themselves have emergent dynamics.  We are not the same society we were 200 years ago, when African-Americans were slaves.  We are not even the same society in 1963, when the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, undertaken by four Ku Klux Klan white, male members, killed four African American girls aged 11 to 14.  Viewing the preceding link indicates a long history of this type of activity.  This society, with its different level of empathetic connection, is in the process of creating different emergent behaviors — systemic change that occurs because of the force of history and these events.  In 1963, similar events caused the South to double down on segregation and, for example MORE symbols of hate.

But things are not the same today.  There are different sets of emergent dynamics in our society that will create changes of behavior in those societies through actions of individuals.  The Principle of Reinforcement says that societies affect the people in them, and the people in them affect societies.  But what should individuals do?

Creation of successful change requires defining the problem by considering what the system boundaries are that change can be effected in.  Psychology Today, in discussing anti-intellectualism in American culture, says we should draw boundaries around the whole society.  Maybe, but fundamentally impossible in the short term.  The evangelicals want to get everyone into church.  Once again, maybe — but likely out of their locus of control.

Gun control is another solution that might have prevented the massacre.  Dylann Roof would not have been able to kill the 9 without easy accessibility to firearms.  That might prevent the means of such individuals such as Roof from acquiring firearms.  But the current climate in the country and the power of the NRA makes such change extremely unlikely in the short term.  Plus, it would not eliminate the types of psychosocial forces that have contributed to similar, tragic events such as the Oklahoma City bombing — a crime that was pulled off with bags of fertilizer and a Ryder Truck.

One of the campaigns that emerged out of the tragedy was a united effort to remove the Confederate flag from its pole over the Confederate soldiers’ memorial in front of the South Carolina statehouse.  The call to remove the flag, first by a large cross-spectrum of center and left concerns, was joined, after reconsideration of toxic comments after the tragedy, by Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina, and the two Senators, Lindsay Graham and Tim Scott.  The flag removal will be scheduled for a vote in the state legislature.  As I mentioned in Part I, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show questioned the toxic bullying and racist reinforcement by the plethora of monuments to the Confederacy across the South, including naming highways after Confederate generals.

Social physics and a deeper understanding of the queuing behavior of psychopaths suggest that this might be a powerful tool for stopping people like Dylann Roof.  Various pathologies in the empathy-disordered community respond powerfully to authority — remember that psychopathy itself is a collapsed Authoritarian v-Meme response to existence.  When the governor and two senators come out and start calling for de-sanctioning government use of racist symbols like the Confederate flag, that matters.

And it’s an action that will require an about-face from leadership across the South.  The Confederate flag is either displayed or it’s not.  There’s not a middle position on it.

As this entry is being written, we are seeing more and more calls from the business community to take down the Confederate flag and remove it from prominently displayed public spaces.  Of note, the current CEO of NASCAR, Brian France, grandson of Bill France, a prominent George Wallace supporter, banned the Stars and Bars from its races on June 27, 2015. Walmart, Sears, amazon.com and eBay all banned flag sales on June 24 — just three days earlier.   Business concerns are typically more empathetically connected to customers than bureaucracies or institutions, as what their customers think directly affects their bottom line.

A concerted movement to remove governmentally endorsed racist symbols of slavery is a good step toward resolving systemic racism in our country.  The Confederate flag is not a symbol of lost nobility.  And the propagation of these symbols through government means conveys a legitimacy these symbols do not deserve.  It also serves as a bullying tool for empathy-disordered leaders in power — not just as a ‘dog whistle’ for the systemically powerless like Roof.  In the past, various white leaders have denied the obvious meaning of the flag.  But African-Americans know — which actually makes it the perfect tool for bullying.  When your target knows they’re under your thumb, while everyone else thinks the bully’s a great guy — hey, what’s not to like?

And if other countries can teach us anything, let’s just put it this way — there’s a reason the Germans banned the swastika after WWII.

At the same time, I think it’s very important to allow individuals to choose what symbols they want to use.  Banning the display of the Confederate flag by individuals, as opposed to governments, is a whole ‘nother ball of wax.  And gets back to individual suppression of speech from an entirely different direction.

Takeaways:  Societies must always struggle against the empathy-disordered, both the powerless and the powerful.  De-endorsing powerful, divisive symbols is one meaningful way of doing this.  At the same time, societies should be aware that institutional speech and individual speech are fundamentally different in intent and amplification.

Further Reading:  If you’re having a hard time believing that more memorials to the Confederacy are being built, read this.  Mind-boggling.

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