Star Trek — Good Scaffolding, Bad Scaffolding, and Knowing it When You See It.

Seceshriver (1)

Secesh River, Secesh Roadless Area, Payette National Forest, Idaho

As I discussed in the previous post, v-Meme Scaffolding is important — without it, we open our organizations and our messages to corruption — some of it virtual, some of it quite real.

It might be helpful to understand an example that, over time, have been highly resonant  of both well-scaffolded messages, as well as organizations.  One of my favorites is the original series of Star Trek.  Almost everyone can recognize the four characters below:

Slide03Bridge Crew of the Starship Enterprise, from the Star Trek, the Original Series

For those that forget, we’ve got Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Commander Scott.  No question that these four are a high performance, if not just a little sexist team.  Lieutenant Uhura at least made it on the bridge — a major first — but she was sentenced to answer the phone.

Still the personalities, and their different levels of empathetic interaction, are highly instructive on how they were effective.  Consider the basic plot of the show — the Enterprise is thrust into a situation where there are major metacognitive unknowns — whether it was an unknown alien civilization, or trouble with Tribbles.  There were always Survival-level stakes — the Enterprise was in constant jeopardy of being destroyed.  Yet time and again, this integrative v-Meme team would think their way through the situations, and largely remain friends.

How did that work?  First off, we have Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Scott, head of engineering.  Even though he had an informal nickname — ‘Scotty’ — he was pure Authoritarian.  The Captain was the captain — I have yet to find a single instance where Scotty calls Kirk ‘Jim’.  He’s two v-Memes removed from Captain Kirk, and when the Captain tells Scotty to turn the Warp Drive past maximum, Scotty might say “I don’t know how much longer she can take it, Cap’n!” — but he turns up the dial anyway.  He follows orders.

Next up the v-Meme ladder is Mr. Spock.  A Vulcan, and the chief science officer, he is the master of logical, algorithmic thinking.  He is famous, of course, for mastering his emotions, and viewing this as a pathway to superior status.  Yet time and again, algorithmic thinking, while leading to reliable results, fails the validity test.  The one answer he comes up with might be part of the solution — but not all of it.

For that, we need the more complex, empathetic profile of Captain James T. Kirk.  Ever the integrative, multiple-solution, performance-based thinker, he’s not afraid to assert his authority in times of crisis.  But he also demonstrates a broad range of both emotional empathy, as well as rational empathy.  His ability to trade places with the alien mind enables him to very accurately guess what his adversaries are going to do — and saves the Enterprise from getting blown up on numerous occasions.

Finally there is Dr. McCoy, the deeply empathetic communitarian.  McCoy often speaks as the voice and liaison of those lower in the service hierarchy than any of the bridge officers, and is prone to using a combination of humor and grumpiness — emotional affect — to convey his points.  As a doctor, he processes data for diagnoses of difficult problems.  But he also takes his role in promoting psychological well-being very seriously — and demonstrates a deep sense of emotional empathy.

One of the easiest ways I’ve noticed to diagnose the v-Memes operative in any work environment is how people use titles, as well as the degree of dependence.  Star Trek is no exception.  Scotty NEVER calls Captain Kirk by his first name — typical of a true authoritarian.  Spock mixes it up — calling him Jim in more relaxed situations, as well as Captain when the phasers are firing.  McCoy is famous for almost always calling Captain Kirk by his first name.  Note that this would be extremely consistent with their representative v-Memes.

Additionally, v-Meme conflicts are also well-represented with the characters.  McCoy and Spock are often in conflict — rules vs. exceptions for individuals.  McCoy basically never talks to Scotty — the 3 v-Meme gap would mean they would have a hard time understanding each other anyway.  Captain Kirk sits in the middle of all of them.  Yet even the two level v-Meme difference between Kirk and Scotty pops up every now and again.  In the famous episode ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’ — Scotty and the engineering crew end up getting into a bar fight with some Klingons on a space station.  When interrogated about the brawl, Kirk asks what happened to get things started.  Scotty then goes on to explain that the Klingons had called Kirk many names — but Scotty told the Captain he had specific orders to not get into a fight from him.  So he let it pass.  It was only when the Klingons started insulting the U.S.S. Enterprise — the core sense of Scotty’s identity — that the fists flew.

The original Star Trek premise also promised its viewers a much more egalitarian, evolved, self-aware world — truly embodying the Global Holistic v-Meme.  What is interesting is that after the series ended, a fan community sprouted up, complete with costumes, and Trekkie conventions.  William Shatner even made a movie about it — called Get A Life!  What’s fascinating is that Shatner starts out being very cynical about all the folks participating — but is won over when he recognizes and realizes the higher ideals that this group of geeks are attempting to embody.

I doubt Shatner or the most of the Trekkies have ever thought much about empathetic development.  But it is fascinating that when people come together, under a set of higher guiding principles that everyone has to follow in order to be part of a larger group, that beautiful things can happen.  Even if they involve adults playing dress-up.

Takeaway:  Balanced Teams have balanced v-Memes — and real leaders use this stuff to understand both strengths and weaknesses of how individuals in their organizations work — and process knowledge.  The Original Series Star Trek is a great example that’s easily recognizable of v-Memes on display — and who you want to do what.

Empathetic Ladders and What People Can Understand — Matching Knowledge Structures for Messaging (Part I)


Rainier Rapids, Main Salmon River, Idaho

Empathetic ladders are fun to find — enlightened leadership has been using them since the beginning of time.  I’m sure, if we could find some sequence of caveman paintings on the wall in some cave somewhere and looked with that in mind, we could find an empathetic ladder with lots of wooly mammoths and dudes with spears running around, painted by the local mensch attempting to get his or her tribe to up their game.

At the same time, any person who’s trying to grow has been stuck in a meeting with a leader who insists that everyone has a chance for ‘input’, while doing a seemingly endless round-robin around the room, with the same people saying nothing, and the same people doing some weird humble-brag about their area of interest.  Communitarian on the surface, but eh — not so much.  Really just the same authoritarian assertion of status.

And after a while, you might find yourself, with certain empathetic ladders, picking them apart.  What do they really mean, after all?  Your own level of sophistication will start to pick apart these kinds of things.  And I think there’s few people that really like those pithy sayings on the bottom of motivational posters.  In fact, I’m sure most of you have seen these anti-motivational posters, with the same beautiful picture, but tagged with an ironic punchline, like this one:


Since I’m writing this blog with the intent of turning it into a book, there’s also a natural tendency to want to list quick ‘how-tos’ Internet-able memes.  These would inevitably be used to torture workers in as-yet inconceivable ways by the percentage of psychopaths who buy business books.

At the same time, there ought to be a way to discern between sound-bites of pithy wisdom, and things that can revolutionize cultures and societies.  That’s where understanding what knowledge structures are used by the evolving v-Memes come into play.  One of the next big concepts in this blog is the idea that social structures create design structures — Conway’s Law.  And the breakthrough concept that comes out of that is that in between social structure and design structure is knowledge structure.  I have named this principle The Intermediate Corollary. And it starts the process of unlocking the idea that social/relational structure, all dependent on empathetic level, creates different ways of thinking for people in those social  structures.  


I’ve found that this concept is very difficult for people to grasp.  There’s a part of our fundamental humanity that wants to believe that even though there may be different cultures, or surface level structures, that all humans process information the same — same organic matter in between the ears, after all.

But that’s a pretty hardware-oriented view of the brain.  Every day, we are reminded that we don’t all think the same.  This worldview discounts the role of software in the brain — that programming the brain is not just assembling surface level knowledge.  As we move through life, our brains actually function differently.  And the strand that runs through all of that is empathetic development, and the social structures we operate in.

Takeaways:  Conway’s Law says that social structure produces design structure.  In order to produce a design, though, we first have to produce the knowledge.  That concept — The Intermediate Corollary — directly implies that different social structures will produce different knowledge structures — and that means that different people in different social structures will fundamentally think differently.

All this links back to empathetic ladders.  The next thing I’ll discuss is how we can identify the knowledge structure of our empathetic ladders, so we can get down to real ‘guiding principle’ evolution, instead of just one more annoying motivational poster.

Elephants, Rhinos, UAVs and Interdisciplinary Teams — Does Any of this Empathy Stuff Really Matter?

Liverpool (1)

Liverpool, England, in front of the Hard Days Night Hotel.  Not surprisingly, Liverpool has a thing for the Beatles!

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, I know by looking at my statistics,  that you likely have not read all the posts.  After all, I am aware that while a lot of my readers are fond of me — I was the professor that helped get them ready for the work world, or a business associate with my Industrial Design Clinic, and we enjoyed educating students together — I also know that I am not an internationally recognized expert on organizational development, or empathy, or philosophy.  I haven’t cut it yet in the status-based lower v-Memes.  I’m not bothered by this —  those that know me personally know that I’m not much of an Authoritarian or Legalist.

But you’re probably thinking — “well, Chuck, that’s nice.  But why should I really care?  And how does this really matter?”

Here’s some insight.

Last week, I was in Liverpool, England, at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) at a conference for UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles — think quadcopter or fixed-wing drones) applied to environmental science and problems.  The breadth of application of UAVs to problems in the environmental arena was immense.  The keynote speaker, Tom Snitch, talked about his program, which involves using relatively low-cost drones to monitor elephant and rhino poaching in Africa   Others talked primarily about the use of LiDAR mounted on a UAV, which is basically using light like radar waves to map vegetation and landscape features.  Others used UAV-mounted regular cameras to create high-resolution photo mosaics of landscapes that are much more high resolution than available from satellite images.  And so on.

But in such a potentially synergistic, systemic world, those connections were few and far between.  The key element in all this was the structure of the combined UAV – sensor system.  In a room full of passionate, sophisticated people, the basic structure of a UAV system was ‘take a store-bought UAV and mount a camera on it.  Figure out how to trigger it and capture the location of the image and bring that back to the ground for post-processing.’  The design structure of any system that does that — regardless of the complexity of the design of either the UAV, or the measuring instrument (like the LiDAR unit) — is three fragmented, non-synergetic blocks in a row.  Learn how to fly the UAV, bring back the pictures, make your map.

It’s pretty obvious that this maps to the non-empathetic structure of researchers in the academy.  Three blocks put together, basically in what we call open loop feedback (read ‘no feedback at all’) .

What is interesting as well is to see how this social/relational structure will attempt to solve their problem.  How will they evolve?  In a fragmented social structure, the first (and likely subsequent) iterations will likely involve more pictures (read more fragmentation) and more detail.  More computer processing, with more sophisticated on-the-ground mapping algorithms for more complex assemblages of images.  Greater accuracy in the GPS units used.  Paying more money for UAVs with greater flight stability.  And so on.

Notice how NONE of these things engage in any meaningful feedback between the elements.  How could they?  How could the people engaged in the task develop any synergies at all, given the social structure of the typical academic enterprise?  Synergies with this given social structure are likely to come (not surprisingly) when the resolution of pictures taken on the ground get down to pebble size.  Fancier cameras.  More stable UAVs.

And that’s exactly what is happening.

What would be required for synergies?  The short answer is a different social/relational structure.  We might start with the old ‘multidisciplinary teams’ axiom.  Perhaps if we added someone who was an expert in flight control and dynamics, they could stabilize the UAV better.  Someone in cameras could invent a camera with greater resolution.  And so on.

What’s the takeaway? If we pursue a similar, fragmented non-empathetic structure, we can see that multidisciplinary teams approach doesn’t really add much to the synergies of the device.  At first blush, the different component providers don’t need to do much understanding of each other — knowledge can be passed in fragments, like ‘well we’d like finer resolution.’  And things would march down exactly the same path.  Perhaps a little faster, but likely much more expensive.  More people on the project definitely means more dollars.  Higher resolution equipment is going to climb up that marginal cost/performance curve that every product possesses.

What happens, however, if we pursue a different structure — where we now have a multidisciplinary team, with pairing between different components of the entire UAV system?  The mapper says to her partner, the camera designer ‘I want finer resolution.’  In an empathetic exchange, the camera designer would hopefully ask ‘why?’  The mapper would then explain that things aren’t going so well on the boundaries of images, and she figured that finer resolution was the answer.  The camera designer then might say ‘well, you can get finer resolution, but if you still can’t improve the auto-stabilization and orientation of the UAV, any more pixels are just going to get lost in the noise.’  So after understanding the problem with perhaps a little math, they make a decision to engage the flight control person.

The flight control person goes through an empathetic exchange with both the mapper and the camera person.  It turns out that the real problem with getting the pictures to overlap is that the UAV turns a little in the wind, and that makes the photos not line up on a nice, even grid.  So the real answer is to put two GPS units on the UAV, separated by a meaningful distance, so that the UAV can be flown with both a static coordinate, as well as an angular direction orientation.  Then mapping can commence so that you don’t have blurred pixels on the boundary, and so on.  The social structure, as well as the degree of empathetic connection, all has to change.  And in the world of empathetic connection, there’s going to have to be a whole lot more of it.

Or if nothing else, it gets discovered that we can’t yet orient the UAV at a given angle.  So we don’t waste money on more and more expensive cameras, or mapping software — because we really can’t do better than the fragmented system.  Either way, the performance of the system goes up.  Money is saved from not pursuing something not feasible (or too expensive), or mapping accuracy is improved.

And we can also see how trust is brought into the picture.  If one component expert doesn’t know the other component expert, how does one know whether they can believe them?  Only through an evolved working relationship can the mapper be sure if the flight control UAV expert is telling the truth — whether it be that you can orient a UAV, or you can’t.  Empathetic connection is the primary tool for assessing someone else’s metacognition — if they know what they know, as well as what they don’t know.

The non-empathetic, multidisciplinary effort yields results similar to the fragmented academic social structure.  Just as Conway would have predicted.  And the understanding of the level of empathetic connection leads the project manager on the same path as has been discussed in this blog.   😉

Takeaways:  Sophistication of individual knowledge doesn’t do you that much good if you can’t work at the boundaries (or even in the guts of these systems) with other experts to optimize and synergize shared results.  And empathetic connection between teammates is the pathway toward getting a better shared result, without having to go outside and pay a ton of money for experts who may or may not know what they’re talking about.  A little bit of empathetic relational development goes a long way.  Change the social structure if you want to change the performance.

Further reading: This piece on Tom Snitch’s work in South Africa regarding using drones for prevention of poaching elephants and rhinos shows, better than anything, that it is often social factors and trust that limit all our efforts.  It is indeed all about empathy.

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, 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.

The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian Tragedy — the Short Version


I’m posting my op-ed from the Moscow-Pullman Daily News today as the short version of a longer analysis I’ll write later. Takeaway:  Reinforcing social paradigms from authorities (as predicted by the Principle of Reinforcement) define what the empathy-disordered in a society will think, since they lack core integrity.  Symbols — especially endorsed symbols — matter.

Joy Cometh in the Morning Chuck Pezeshki, Reality-Based Lefty June 26, 2015

It was with tremendous surprise that I greeted the news that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott announced support for lowering the Confederate Flag in front of the South Carolina State Capitol building Wednesday morning. Some people have criticized the potential meaninglessness of the gesture in removing the flag in the wake of the horrific Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting, that took nine lives a week ago Wednesday.

But it’s not just symbolic. It’s a huge step toward correcting a psychopathic bullying culture that has institutionalized racism across our country. Some might question the above statement. Here’s how it works. Displaying the Confederate Flag underwent a resurgence of popularity in the early ‘60s in the South, in direct opposition to the Civil Rights movement and desegregation. And while it’s questionable whether every white guy on the street knows exactly what the Stars and Bars stands for – there’s a great book by Tony Hurwitz called “A Confederate in the Attic” that proves that – there’s no question that the Southern Racist Intelligentsia know exactly what it stands for. And while I haven’t done a survey, I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of African-Americans knows what it stands for as well.

The long-standing position of the Southern Racist Intelligentsia is to psychopathically deny the intent and value of the flag. They say it stands as a testament to a lost, yet noble cause. They point to some bizarre construction of a noble heritage. You can almost hear the music from the movie, “Gone With the Wind” in the background. It’s all a nonsense myth, of course. But it’s devious, constant abuse. As Jon Stewart from The Daily Show noted after the killing, black people have to see the flag, and drive on highways named for Confederate Generals all the time.

It’s the best kind of abuse; the kind where the target knows exactly who wants to get them, while all the other folks (mostly white folks) get to go on about their business and ignore the crime in front of them. It would be one thing if those were the only people in the mix – the Southern Racist Intelligentsia and the African-Americans.   Over time, the African-American community would rise above, and the abuse wouldn’t affect them.

But enter Stage Left – the low level, empathy-disordered who actually believe this stuff. They’re poorly integrally defined, which means they’re empty on the inside, except for a profound sense of victimhood and blaming. And they absorb all the constant positive reinforcement for hating African-Americans from the bombardment of the messages from the Southern Racist Intelligentsia. They’re mentally ill, all right. But it’s more useful to think about them as being the mash in a whiskey still, fermenting their hate. And as they boil away, exacerbated by hate radio, secret clubs that give them distorted meaning, and the chronic grinding of poverty that we’ve grown to accept in America, one drop comes out the top.

And that one drop of poison is Dylann Roof. That’s how you get a shooting of an 87 year old grandmother reading Bible verses, along with eight others, in an historic church. It’s a system effect.

There are other big picture issues to consider, such as gun control, or how we perceive and develop our society. Psychology Today even had an article saying that the shootings were the result of anti-intellectualism in our society. All this may be true. But an enormous first step is the calling for removal of the directly racist symbols of the Confederacy. It’s time to realize that the Myth of the South was just that. We need to dismantle the psychopathic bullying infrastructure, whose construction continues today. And maybe we can take one step forward toward dismantling racist attitudes across our country. As Psalm 30:5 so eloquently said: weeping may come at night. But joy cometh in the morning.

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

parking garage

Montreal Parking Garage, Braden Pezeshki photo

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  Martin Luther King

To be honest, I had a hard time writing this post.  There is so much swirling around on the Internet about what must be done, and who, or what, is at fault, that writing anything seems like appropriation of a tragedy.  But at the same time, there is also such a lack of systemic and systematic understanding of this event, and the potential for this moment of sacrifice to be lost, that I felt compelled to write.

On June 18, at the EAME Church in Charleston, SC, a young white man shot and killed nine members of the congregation during a Bible study session.  The suspect, Dylann Roof, allegedly entered the church at the start of the session, and participated in the scheduled study for nearly an hour before pulling out a .45 caliber handgun and methodically shooting the nine of the twelve participants.  He allegedly reloaded five times in the context of the event.  His first victim was 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, nephew of 87-year-old Susie Jackson, whom Roof had pointed his gun at first.  Tywanza had dove in front of Susie to protect her from being shot.  While shouting racial epithets, he proceeded to shoot at close range the rest of the churchgoers, leaving Tywanza Sanders’ mother, Felicia Sanders, intentionally alive, so he said, to spread the word of what happened there.

The basic facts and victim profiles can be found here.  Roof apparently had done research on the symbolic significance of the EAME Church, and was a member of multiple racist hate groups.  A picture of  Roof taken earlier shows him wearing a jacket with symbols from South African and Rhodesian apartheid promotion organizations.

It is difficult to wrap one’s head around the event itself, and imagining the wild terror and horror that occurred is traumatic.  The victims were not simple, one-dimensional individuals.  They were complex, deeply empathetically developed people.  The leader of the church, Pastor Clementa T. Pinckney, was also a state senator.  Other individuals shot were part of the larger heterogeneous community of the Church, ranging in age from 26-87 and served in a variety of service roles in the Charleston area.  It is important to understand this as part of their own empathetic development, and why they would welcome what obviously appeared on the surface as an Out-group individual into their Bible study group in the first place.  Obviously governed by high moral principles, they maintained their openness until Roof shot them.

Responses from political officials after the tragedy were at best obtuse, and at worst, appalling.  South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said “While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another,” she said.

Senator Tim Scott, who last year became the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate from the south since Reconstruction, said in a statement  “My heart is breaking for Charleston and South Carolina tonight. This senseless tragedy at a place of worship — where we come together to laugh, love and rejoice in God’s name — is absolutely despicable and can never be understood.”  If anything, Senator Scott’s response shows that racial paradigms of potential understanding — that because someone is also African-American, they have an immediately attuned sensitivity to such events — are deeply flawed.  It is the empathetic development of any given person that must be considered, as well as the reinforcing social system.  As Larry Wilmore of The Nightly Show said, “Black don’t distract.”

How to understand what happened that day in the EAME Church?  The debate that followed was mind-bending.  Conservatives on FOX News speculated that Roof, a declared white supremacist, had based his attack on religious grounds, appropriating the event for their ongoing theme of a War against Christians.  Political leaders in South Carolina, as shown above, declared the attacks a mystery.  Psychologists called the attack an outgrowth of anti-intellectualism in the U.S.  Both comics from the Comedy Central Network, Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore, came in with by far the most sensible answers — trans-societal, inherent racism.  Jon Stewart, besides noting the Confederate Flag flying over the Confederate Memorial adjacent to the State Capitol Building, also drew attention to the numerous highways in South Carolina named after Confederate generals.

There were also numerous attributions of intent to the usual individual causes — mental illness, and lack of consistent open carry of firearms.  But understanding the interplay of both individual intent and larger societal forces was notably absent.  How does a 21-year-old man get to the point of being able to deliberately plan and execute a crime of such hate?

Societal Racism, Empathy Disorders,  and the Principle of Reinforcement

One of the things that has been sorely lacking from the discussion of this event has been a systemic understanding of how the influence of larger societal influences create the state of mind that would compel an individual such as Dylann Roof to, in a very cold-blooded fashion, pull out a gun and shoot nine innocent people who had only welcomed him into their circle an hour earlier.  Roof himself, when confessing to the police, had commented on how nice they were, and how that had almost dissuaded him from committing his murderous act.  Yet in the end, he had done it.  His stated goal of starting a race war was probably apt, and also lends insight into why he followed through.

But in order to have a more concrete understanding of how and why Roof, the individual, did what he did, we have to understand, to some extent, what was going on in his brain.  He made the decision to pull the trigger.  He was not in some wild, psychotic rage when he did it — though I’m willing to bet he experienced a distorted flood of positive reinforcement of his actions when he was killing all of them.  He did it because the society that he operated in reinforced the internal  justification for his behavior that he had created — the Principle of Reinforcement.  Everything that he did was constructed as part of his own pathology that resulted in a disordered empathetic connection with others.

Empathy disorders from a systemic and systematic perspective

That’s easy to say — but how did it actually work?  Let’s start with Roof and how his mind was likely working at the time of the attack.  At some level, we have to have a model of mental illness that describes how Roof thought when he made the series of decisions that he made both before, and during that fateful event.  The short version is this:  he has an empathy disorder, and by killing all those people, he got his rocks off.  He’s a vampire.

The understanding of mental illness in general in Western society has largely been focused on the individual, with treatment being considered primarily in the context of an individual modality.  The short version of this is that someone’s brain is sick, and you give them a pill and hope they get better, or you send them to talk it out with a psychotherapist.  There is more complex thinking out there, but it is rare.  If you have depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, there are pharmaceutical regimens one is supposed to be on to prevent aberrant behavior.  As long as you don’t ‘go off your meds’, you’re going to be ‘normal’.  Underlying this worldview is the Western belief that if you’re unhappy, it’s your problem.  How many times when you’re having a bad day, you’ve heard someone tell you ‘well, you realize you’re in charge of your own happiness?’

Even of the surface, this view of day-to-day existence is fallacious.  The reason you’re unhappy, of course, might have to do with your own egocentric frustrations (think Authoritarian v-Meme).  But often, it’s because someone else is doing something to you that’s making you miserable.  They’re part of a system that you also belong to, with the variable levels of empathetic connection that are embodied in all the blog posts I’ve already discussed.

Of course, sometimes we do things to others that make others upset.  If we’re at fault, if we’re more evolved empathetically, we then do things to make others in our social system feel more normative.  We apologize;  we send flowers;  we buy someone a beer.  These types of behaviors depend on either societal convention, or some integral definition of self — in a very basic sense, we get to the point of apology because we have an independently generated, data-driven, trust-based relationship with ourselves.  The latter is important, because it gives us the ability to reflect on our own actions, and make amends.  And making amends is what makes the social system able to keep chugging along.

If we don’t have that level of empathetic development — really at least a beginning of rational empathy — then society steps in for us.  All the external definition stuff that rests in the lower v-Memes is there.  Someone is there to tell us not to do something bad (Authoritarian).  There are rules, or laws we’re not supposed to break (Legalistic/Absolutistic).  There are taboos (Tribal/Magical) we’re not supposed to break, or rituals we should follow when we do.  And finally, we could even get down to Survival level thinking — if we do something wrong ourselves, we could die.

Almost every human being is a mix of both relational v-Memes — externally defined, and independently generated.  The Principle of Reinforcement will dictate largely which ones society tries to cultivate in you.  Not everyone in an advanced society (like socialist Denmark) has evolved to the level of Communitarian/Global Systemic.  But the cultural sidebars make everyone who hasn’t gotten there think, to some degree, in that fashion.  For example, no one argues about health care for everyone on the street in Copenhagen.  It just is.

But back to mental illness.  There are the kinds that are contained in the individual — and the psychologist’s treatment prescription book, called the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is encyclopedic in these types of things.

There is a section in the DSM, however, that focuses not on just the obvious malfunctioning of our neural circuits.   This section deals with what are called personality, or empathy disorders.  These disorders are poorly understood, and these are not so easily treatable — if they are treatable at all.  There are varying modalities — folks often have heard of Borderline Personality Disorder — but the landscape is more complex that just that.  Psychopaths, narcissists, histrionics and sociopaths also fall into this category.  My favorite writer on the more practical side of all of this is Bill Eddy, who coined the term High Conflict Individual, to describe how these people function.  They are victims, and blamers, and Bill does a great job of describing how one might deal with them one-on-one in a work environment, or a courtroom.

But all these insights are typically not systemic.  And the effect of the empathy-disordered on social systems is profound.  According to the NIH, some 14-17% of the population has some version of an empathy disorder.  That’s a lot of people.

My perspective is that if there is a definition of a healthy mind, it involves being empathetically connected to others, in relationships, defined externally or independently, in a way that either promotes stability of the social context, or evolution of the society, as well as some level of personal happiness.

The empathy disordered do not do that.  Instead of being relational constructors, they are relational disruptors.  Instead of damping out disagreements, according to that combination of external and independent relational formations that healthy people have, they inflame them.

Engineers will recognize this as a classic stability argument, dependent on the eigenvalues of the system.  The short version is that negative eigenvalues give convergent behavior;  positive eigenvalues give divergent behavior.  For systems with positive eigenvalues, all it takes is a little nudge to blow everything up.  You can’t look at the system for some huge force that makes it self-destruct.  That capacity is internal, and inherent.

From a v-Meme perspective, the empathy disordered occupy what I call ‘Authoritarian – collapsed egocentric’ mode.  There’s only one person whom the profoundly disordered recognizes as in existence — and that is the self.  It is a state beyond selfishness, though selfishness is part of the spectrum of emotions and behaviors available.  Like a black hole, the worst of the empathy disordered are collapsed in on themselves under their own personal gravity.

What that means, when rationally spooled out, is fascinating.  It means that the empathy disordered person probably has no subconscious boundaries that are important for establishing differentiation between themselves and other people.  It means that self-definition is solely dependent on external stimulus — there are no insides, and as such, the empathy disordered person is likely acutely aware of feelings of others around them — in fact, they have kind of a super-radar to figure out what one’s surroundings are, and how to adapt to them.  Detecting other’s empathetic signals is important, and the empathy disordered person often has no problem with that.

But because the processor inside someone who is empathy disordered is broken, how that person will react to a particular outside input is dependent solely on the pathology of that individual.  And since they are ‘collapsed egocentric’, they are likely to act in a way that is self-stimulating for their own pleasure.  They get off on others’ suffering.

Consider, for example, a child molester.  Most normal people do not need laws to prevent them from molesting children.  For myself, and most of us, such an act is reprehensible.  It’s gross and sickening.  Why would anyone want to traumatize a child for temporary pleasure?

But for the empathy disordered,  it is a different scenario.  Without boundaries, one cannot recognize the identity, let alone agency of the child.  The child is an object that exists solely for the stimulus of the disordered.  If the child screams or objects, this only feeds more emotion into the situation.  With no internal feedback damping, the empathy disordered individual only becomes more aroused, until neurological limits come into play.

Societies have evolved myths about such individuals — the iconography of the vampire is a great example.  Vampires see nothing when they look in the mirror (no independent definition.)  They externally are well-dressed.  They live only at night (lack of awareness of their condition from other people.)  They perish in sunlight (when people finally figure them out, they are ostracized, imprisoned, etc.) They drink others’ blood.

There is much more to write about the empathy-disordered, and how they make up the Dark Side of our empathetic evolution.  But some takeaway points would be as follows:

  • Collapsed egocentricity — only their feelings matter.
  • Lack of diversity of v-Memes — as Authoritarians, they decide on reality.
  • No integral definition — the only relationships that exist are ones that are defined externally.
  • Able to exquisitely sense their surroundings and blend in — they can often be very charismatic, often borrowing behaviors from higher v-Memes for their own purpose of desiring control.
  • Small disturbances can lead to explosive behavior.
  • Poor or non-existent boundaries — unable to see that other people are individuals.  No respect for different agency.
  • Relational disruptors.  Instead of being interested in relational evolution of their communities, they are interested in relational disruption –especially for their own neural stimulus.

And there is certainly a distribution of level of empathy disorders, besides the various types.  But when you’re dealing with 14-17% of the population, you have to realize that there are going to be extreme cases out on the tails of the distribution.  Here’s the main takeaway — there is largely, on an individual basis, NOTHING you can do about them until they commit an act that lands them into the legal system.  And even then, their skilled pattern of deception will aid them in escaping what society might call justice.

Understanding empathy disorders and how they operate lay open the lack of awareness regarding the mental illness side of the argument for stopping such heinous crimes.  You can spend all the money you want on treating the empathy disordered (they’re not likely to think they have a problem, BTW!,) and while you might intercept some individuals, lots are going to get through — the most deceptive and powerful.  And the thing that is easily forgotten — an empathy-disordered person is likely to obey all the rules, because they are focused so strongly on societal cues.  Until they decide they want the juice.

In summation, you cannot focus on fixing the sole individual in stopping events like the EAME shootings.  And while it is true that as a society, we need better mental health care, you can spend all the money you want, and you won’t even find, let alone fix these people.