One of the most positively insane things that has been happening, in the background of the larger COVID pandemic, is the extreme set of restrictions being adopted by the most elite universities in the United States, regarding COVID. The restrictions at universities like Stanford, Harvard, Brown and MIT would make one’s head reel. The whole gamut of interventions, regardless of efficacy (because there are none that are meaningfully efficacious and beneficial for the age cohort of most college students — ages 18-26) are always applied. And when a new one pops up, it is resoundingly trumpeted and enacted. These range from the more reasonable (100% vaccination requirements) to the totally bonkers (Harvard wants students to not gather in more than groups of three, and replace their masks in between bites of a sandwich.) Deans of Medicine, like Ashish Jha of Brown, are some of the worst, smugly and resolutely saying every ridiculous NPI that he can dream up, must be held in place.
These types of policies and pronouncements make no sense from any physical perspective. This excellent op-ed by one of the rational champions of our current debate, Vinay Prasad, at UC-San Francisco, makes this point at this link. Vinay’s still in the Matrix, though, talking about the need for Random Control Trials of policies I’m sure he knows bend physical reality to the breaking point. Word, Vinay — when the gods want to punish you, they grant you your wishes. Do you really want to pull apart hundreds of BS RCTs on COVID for the rest of the pandemic?
But he does do a little poking at the lattice of the Matrix in this comment at the end:
“A final point worth considering is why colleges impose these rules. While widespread testing can be beneficial for understanding the prevalence of a disease, these policies aren’t based in compelling evidence and seem more targeted at another goal. Such policies are unlikely to please most students, but much more likely to appeal to the sensibilities of their parents. The most parsimonious explanation then is that elite schools cater to elite parents, and they are engaging in these policies to give parents the comfort that their child is safe — while no one on earth knows if the policies help, and more importantly, if they are worth the price of life interrupted.”
It’s a start, and it’s close enough, I’d give him half a cigar.
What we’re really looking at here is the end game of Elite Risk Minimization — the idea that the elites would make the rest of us jump through whatever hoops to minimize whatever minuscule risk they might have of actually catching and dying of COVID. Prasad is right — you better believe that parents are calling the Duke University President’s office with their “concerns”. Except it’s likely not the parents of the poor kid that won the academic lottery and got a scholarship. When I was at Duke, the granddaughter of Enzo Ferrari was also there. And yeah, she drove a sky blue 308 GTS, if memory serves. Those people are now demanding protection from the rest of the students. It’s an Elite Risk Minimization fractal cascade — the end game of the Legalistic/Absolutistic status-chasing v-Meme. If you’ve always wondered if these same contemporary elites would engage in the Hunger Games with each other, well, look no further.
It’s made worse by scholars at those self-same universities screaming for “lock-em-up” policies. People like Gavin Yamey, Professor of Global Health, have been the worst of the hysterics in the whole COVID college kid game. Any Emir that might send his kid to Duke need only log onto Twitter to find the ostensibly pre-eminent scholars at that same university demanding social isolation of the student body. And when not only your kid comes with a full-ride tuition, but the prospect of the endowment of a series of full professorships, you better believe that when the Emir calls, that President is going to do something. S/He’s not feeling the pain of the rest of the student bodies in his or her care.
Meanwhile, Presidents out here in land-grant land are stuck with an entirely different dilemma. Because of their problems with the academic version of Skynet — the US News and World Report College Ranking edition — they’re slavishly forced, kinda like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, to follow whatever the elite institutions are doing. Except now, they’re looking at a real Survival v-Meme situation. The commonly held belief, even inside WSU’s modestly covered Ivy walls, is that students are also terrified of catching COVID. But I have it from pretty sage authority — my own students — that they’re not. In fact, most feel tremendously cheated, and are extremely angry about even the restrictions that are currently imposed in state universities in Blue States. Everyone just assumes that the students are stupid and don’t understand the actual risk of COVID, a profoundly age-stratified virus. But they do — and many have told me that if they lock us down again, they’re going to walk.
Personally, I doubt many students in my class would actually do that — my Industrial Design Clinic is, after all, full of graduating seniors. And most of them are deep in debt, and then to not receive their degree in a professional field that requires a credential would be beyond ridiculous. But in the world of a declining benefit/cost ratio, with our numbers already tight, I’m guessing our own university president isn’t that stupid. He knows that it will start shaving enrollment, with the effect of sending students back to community college to watch Cougar Football on TV.
And we already have physical attendance dampers already in play. Being in a Deep Blue state, we already have crazy bullshit, like masks at football games, to contend with. Fun fact — unenforceable, as much for the fact that folks are eating, as well as they can’t round up enough Labor Ready folks at Home Depot for temporary security guards. The wage rate for such work is $14/hr., or something. Telling a college student drunk on Everclear and grape juice to put their mask back on, outside, potentially in the rain? Fuggedaboutit.
But students WILL put up with the constant boundary violation of PCR tests at places like MIT. They want that Gold Star for the good life. So they’ll shut up and go along. But they’re young people, too. We need them to have good brains — after all, they’re going to likely be the next bunch of elites running the show, considering how social mobility has essentially collapsed in the US. The real problem is never discussed in most of the media — that we’re taking what is one of the most profound social experiences any person will have in their life and turning it to shit.
And that has a larger consequence for all these young folks than just memories. Social connection wires the brain, and if you don’t believe that, I have no idea why you’re on this blog. What we’re really doing, by chasing the eradication of a respiratory virus already likely endemic, is we are making a whole group of young people, already tormented with the social fragmentation of education under the pall of school shootings, and whatnot, and making them fundamentally less well-wired for dealing with complexity. It’s never been solely about the degree at any university. It’s the social milieu that makes up for our often slipshod pedagogy, and packed classrooms. Their relationships they develop with each other are the real things that train young minds.
What, at some level, is equally amazing, is that none of these elite universities, many with impressive-on-paper medical schools and schools of public health, are not reflecting on the fact that history will not treat their rebarbative ignorance and refusal to update their understandings kindly. All of this profoundly draws into question their fundamental competence. And don’t get me started on their humility. It is true that COVID has been a sticky wicket since the beginning, and you can page back through my own writings to see both my successes, as well as failures in logic. And since it has to be said — none of that has to do with my formal academic training — not “staying in my lane.” But you’d hear nothing but hubris from the loudest voices, some of who must know that they’re wrong. At this point in the pandemic, it’s simply impossible not to.
As I wrap this up, I think I need to point out again that bucking compliance is not about how college kids will act in this scenario. Certainly not about the students at land-grant institutions. All my students, and yours truly as well, lined up to get our vaccinations, most of us before our recent governor’s mandate. At WSU, we are approaching 100% compliance with our vaccine mandate in the student population — or so my own inside sources tell me. So don’t give me this bunk about how college students can’t follow reasonable orders, or are fundamentally anti-authoritarian.
But if anyone thinks there are no downstream consequences of this profound demonstration of a lack of empathy, for what is truly Elite Risk Minimization, you are dreaming. The college students of today are the decision makers of tomorrow, and their memories will be long. They will remember how most of this was done in their name, but not for their benefit. And that will not make them feel kindly toward those of us that are old.
And I want someone to give a shit about how I feel when I’m forced to don my own lobster spit bib.
One of the main things that’s caused me to take an activist position on COVID interventions — in fact, the main thing — has been the societal interventions imposed population-wide on children and young adults. I have been passionately committed to the well-being and evolution of young adults my entire working life, and also am dedicated to understanding how to raise children in these difficult, fast-changing times.
A little over a year ago, when vaccines seemed close, and information was starting to leak out that we might be able to vaccinate adults safely, but kids’ fates and health were going to be up in the air, I predicted that we would have a societal donnybrook on whether, and when to vaccinate children. It was going to be a tough trade-off. While old folks were easy — the vast majority of deaths from COVID (don’t want to argue about with/of COVID coding here!) were in people over 50. A novel vaccine may have risks, but the risk from COVID was high enough it was a relatively easy bar to meet.
Not so with children and COVID. Any vaccine would have to get over a VERY HIGH BAR of safety. While kids may get COVID, they get a cold. COVID deaths are less than flu deaths in young people, which in and of themselves, are extremely rare. Here’s the current COVID death distribution in the USA, from the website Statista.
That means any convincing case of vaccine efficiency would be a.) hard to generate, because numbers of seriously affected young people would be so low as to be likely unrepresented in a clinical trial, and b.) any trial with an experimental vaccine would have to be so large that it might also cause great harm.
OK. That’s the “science” case. The rational case — the argument I assumed we were going to have, whether getting the vaccine in any measurable way affected COVID outcomes, without causing harms on the order of magnitude as COVID itself, would not be easy. There would be a gray area. But that would be the question.
Boy, was I wrong.
As we now know, that hasn’t turned out to be the debate in the least! Yes, it DOES get brought up. But it’s not the way the public understands COVID for kids at all. Instead, what happened in the absence of the vaccine, once our focus had been sufficiently sated with vaxxing adults, it turned to the fact that kids were NOT vaxxed, and were going to be dirty little super-spreaders. As a society (especially in the US) we went back to dichotomous binning — vaccinated good, unvaccinated bad. And kids, already bit players in the overall American narrative, were literally going to take it in the shorts. Once the Eye of Sauron had been taken off adults, it turned to kids. And then held them hostage through the issue of school re-openings, and protocols for that, which mostly included masking and isolating kids.
OK — masks don’t work. I’ve covered that extensively. But masks, to young kids (I’d argue a majority) aren’t neutral. They are literally a torture. Wrapping young faces in masks (which don’t work) is only “shallow rationality” (implying a cause and effect) in the world that masks might actually work. Some kids can tolerate them — all children go through a phase where they want to be considered good members of the tribe, and fidelity to rule-following is one way of expressing that. And kids are not immune from the social informational environment. Many college students have not been informed that COVID is likely little threat to them (though, quite frankly, my engineering students are well-informed) so it’s no surprise that some grade school kids stepped up to be masked.
And don’t even get me started on masking special needs kids. It’s beyond terrible, and deeply sadistic.
But the problem got worse much more quickly. “Shallow rationality” indicated that there was a hostage situation now in play. Mask kids, and invasively test kids, or they don’t get to go back to school. They’re stuck at home, in online environments, with teachers on iPads. Determined parents might keep a child glued to a screen for four or five hours a day, especially if there were only 1 or 2 kids. But for those with more, or other duties, well, kiss learning goodbye. At least from the screen.
Now that a hostage situation had been created, it should serve as no surprise that a certain subset of narcissists and various flavors of the empathy-disordered showed up. We now had a couple of psychopathic tropes in play, especially with respect to masks that I’ve written about here. The whole “your mask protects me, while my mask protects you” schtick quickly became a control routine for the collapsed egocentrics to bully folks through moralizing. And now, instead of “if you don’t isolate grandma, you’re going to kill grandma,” you had the ever-so-elegant argument “your child, if you don’t do what I tell you to do, is not only NOT going to get educated, but is also going to kill grandma.” Never mind that grandma had very likely already been vaccinated, and well, masks don’t work anyway.
It’s important not to get carried away with specific content when considering psychopathic manipulation. Specific content is only created to be resonant in enacting strategies of power and control. Never say never, but for a true narcissistic fabulist, it doesn’t have to be true at all. There’s no better example than these two clips from ‘The Dark Knight’ — where the Joker talks about how he got his scars. I’ve written about this here, but these two clips so nail the narcissistic control dynamic, they’re worth reposting. I’ve cut and paste them below.
The Joker: You wanna know how I got these scars? My father, was a drinker, and a fiend. And one night, he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn’t like that. Not. One. Bit. So, me watching, he takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it. He turns to me and says, “Why so serious?” Comes at me with the knife. “WHY SO SERIOUS?” He sticks the blade in my mouth… “Let’s put a smile on that face.” And…
When the audience first sees this scene, their thoughts immediately jump to empathetic connection. We are poised to think “Wow — I totally understand the Joker. His dad, tortured and killed his mother with a knife. That kind of trauma would turn ANYONE into a psychopathic killer. ” The Joker is leading us, with our own mental models of how someone might become a killer, not only to empathetically connect with him, but to sympathize with him. Here’s the scene:
Not only can we understand the Joker, but we relate to his experience. We engage in rational and emotional empathy!
But then, a short while later in the movie, we have this scene:
The Joker: Oh, you look nervous. Is it the scars? You want to know how I got ’em?
[He grabs Rachel’s head and positions the knife by her mouth]
The Joker: Come here. Hey! Look at me. So I had a wife. She was beautiful, like you. Who tells me I worry too much. Who tells me I ought to smile more. Who gambles and gets in deep with the sharks. One day, they carve her face. And we have no money for surgeries. She can’t take it. I just want to see her smile again. I just want her to know that I don’t care about the scars. So… I stick a razor in my mouth and do this…
[the Joker mimics slicing his mouth open with his tongue]
The Joker: …to myself. And you know what? She can’t stand the sight of me! She leaves. Now I see the funny side. Now I’m always smiling!
Worse, the next folks, essentially allies to show up are what are called in the “Psychopathic Narcissist” literature, Flying Monkeys, after the assistants of the Wicked Witch of the West from the Oz series written by L. Frank Baum. Notably, those Winged Monkeys are essentially neutral actors, doing terrible things in the name of others. Scientists in this pandemic have been especially useful Flying Monkeys — asking questions like “do babies need to see mothers’ faces in order to not delay development?” There’s a dark historic underbelly to psychological science that has served the needs of narcissists in all this. The heavy burden of proof in a healthy society would be on anyone saying “children do not need to see the faces of caregivers” to somehow demonstrate that thesis was remotely supportable, without experiments of great cruelty.
It’s beyond the scope of this post to examine ethics in animal research. But suffice it to say, empathy considerations, even in the most benign circumstances, are really not the point. Status-seeking through assertion of relative “rightness” is the game in play. And a whole host of scientists and psychologists are more than happy to step up and roll the dice on some other sentient being’s misery in order to burnish their own reputation.
The problem with the current situation is that it is a multi-dimensional hack of the Matrix. The argument, which should have been “how do we protect children and make sure they get to go back to school” instead shifted to “how can we maximize Elite Risk Minimization, through exploitation of a relatively non-affected population.” We had data from other countries, that showed there was essentially no threat to spread from school kids. But if you’re just attempting to add that .001% of protection to elites, AND you essentially have an innumerate population on which to play that game (we’ve seen that one in spades) well, the game is afoot. And that game is what I call Narcissistic Inversion — subpopulations of a given country with collapsing development, down to collapsed egocentricism and survival-level fears — turn to their children to demand they sacrifice for irrational adult fears. The parent/child relationship is inverted on a massive scale. Children are now responsible for adults.
It was more than problematic almost immediately. Mixed into this already toxic gaslighting cocktail was a long, societal-wide debate on vaccines in general. The press and large social media companies had taken the convenient position that the debate on kids’ vaccines were somehow related to the long-standing argument about childhood disease vaccinations. And with a population already fundamentally unable to process risk/reward arguments, this came down in the middle of everything like Thor’s Hammer.
I have stories from friends — not just off Twitter — of parents alternatively telling me “my kids just want to go to school, and if wearing a facemask is what they have to do, they’re happy to do it.” Another parent of a woman I deeply admire told me her seven-year-old was begging to be given a vaccine. These are all normal folks I’ve known and been friends with for a long time.
And what that tells me is that what we are dealing with is not so easily isolated to an individual. This problem of narcissistic inversion, where now children are in charge of protecting the health of parents and their grandparents, is a society-wide memetic abuse tactic. In any large-scale societal trauma, it would be considered incumbent on the parents to buffer the children from the stress and trauma of the given situation. But because of the toxic environment, functionally unmoored from statistical reality (there will always be children with severe respiratory disorders, and of course that is sad) children are now in charge of parents and their emotional states. The parent/child relationship has been inverted, if not consistently on an individual basis, certainly on a larger statistical one.
What’s even worse is the media environment that now attacks healthy parents, who might be attempting to protect their own children, in giving in to the argument of masking or taking an untried vaccine, or be essentially banned from social intercourse. Kids pick up on that stuff — and so if you don’t go along with the narcissistic inversion script, it’s because you, as a parent, are fundamentally an immoral person.
The problem with all of this is that it means that the results of this narcissistic inversion, while being borne by children now, will profoundly affect the shape of our society to come. Children who have to raise their parents (and in the interest of full disclosure, I was one) have been subjected to complex traumatic stress disorder. Downstream, that means there will be further, deep crises with attachment, dissociation, and stress.
The sign of a successful family, community or nation is its ability to both reproduce a culture with a set of healthy values, as well as further evolve its members’ ability to manage complexity as the world continues to evolve. We have had lots of challenges in our society along these lines. But a continued period of narcissistic inversion may mean development of one of the largest critical flaws of all — our children, because of their experience and exhaustion with their own parents, may not want to have children at all. As we wrestle masks onto three-year-olds that would not need it, even if masks worked, and deprive them of the developmental signaling because of the arguments of erudite, yet low-empathy professional idiots and poseurs with their own set of issues, we might pause, band together and end this crazy bullshit.
From an empathetic scaling perspective, narcissistic inversion implies a collapse of time to a single second, centered on the pathological individual and the fears that exist in their own head. And that will not bode well for any long-time societal trajectory.
There is a large and rich literature on this phenomenon in the family systems literature — you can search under ‘parentification’. I’m far from the first person to notice the phenomenon.
When nations proceed along paths that subvert the basic notions of attachment, so ably described by researchers like one of my heroes, John Bowlby, they may achieve some extra outcome for a while. But fundamentally, deciding not to raise children with healthy attachment inevitably ends in catastrophe. I write about Athens and Sparta in this piece on that very ruinous outcome.
Just so folks understand, I can’t believe I have to write the piece I’m going to write down. You’d think that there would be some cogent narrative regarding COVID, that the epidemiological community would settle on, and the press would forward. But unfortunately, we’ve inherited communities whose social structures are far more damaged than we care to admit — rigid hierarchies, ruled by people with OCD, and psychopaths — that basically are possessed only with dichotomous thinking modes. And that means we’re either ON or OFF with COVID. And in that context, the only messages during ON times are that everyone is going to die, or at least Grandma is going to die.
It’s utterly absurd.
So, in the interest of curing this toxic ignorance, I’m going to write down my take on any virus. Let’s get going.
The Three Stagesof Any Viral Epidemic
Any pandemic can be roughly broken up into three stages. These are:
Containment — where the virus is either fenced into a particular geographic area, or alternately fenced out.
Mitigation — where spread across a given landscape can be constrained or delayed with some set of human actions.
Endemic — the virus is functionally everywhere, and while some spread actions may or may not affect who get the disease, it’s largely futile to worry about who’s going to infect who, barring the usual concerns of sanitation of keeping people from coughing on each other (viral dose concerns.)
Containment of a virus is the first part of any pandemic. We jumped this shark in the US likely back in late January 2020, or earlier. Wuhan practiced a provincial lockdown that worked only moderately well (they DID end up shipping enough people around the world to infect everyone else!)
Containment is largely a function of the boundary being considered, as well as the structure of the interface (the permeability of the boundary.) Obviously, if you’re an island nation like New Zealand, you are far more likely to have a longer period of containment/exclusion of a given virus than if you have a situation like New York City, with multiple airports, lax virus security (especially at the beginning of the pandemic) and an attached super-spreader network like the New York subway system. The problem with containment is that it is absolutely inevitable that it WILL end, because living creatures serve as viral reservoirs, and no testing can find a given virus once it is dormant inside a human system.
We can see great examples of failures of containment down through history, with past pandemics like the Black Plague, and the smallpox epidemics that devastated the Americas during the Columbian Exchange. Looking at the situation with a very neutral eye, we might conclude that total social isolation is the only thing that will keep a sufficiently infectious agent out of a population over historic time. And once that collapses, because there is no built-up immunity from exposure, bad things are going to happen.
Containment phases also imply NO exposure to the virus. When that ends (the virus, somehow, gets through) the results aren’t pretty. In COVID, we’ve seen the higher Case Fatality Rates in institutional settings, since no virus was allowed to circulate until it came knocking on the door. People’s immune systems were completely unprepared, and those have been the places with the highest fatality rates.
Mitigation is the phase where potential social actions can be taken to limit the spread of a given virus, before it is established in the myriad biological reservoirs available to it that help it on the path to becoming endemic.
Mitigation is largely a function of network topology of (in our case) a nation. A country like the United States, with its hyper-connected road and other transport systems, is essentially going to have an impossible time during any mitigation phase. Since between any two points on the map in the U.S. contain multiple pathways, each with some assigned time due to population health, various Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions of various efficacies, and especially in the U.S., passage through different climatic zones, what you do on one path only delays the inevitable.
Countries with more simplified topologies, like Canada (essentially a straight line, once the border was shut off) are likely to see more limited success in some kind of mitigation efforts. But of course, these will fail as well. It’s also poorly studied whether mitigation helps or hinders long-term Population Fatality Rates (PFR). An argument might be made that slowing circulation of the virus might help build up human immune systems through low exposure (breaking down containment, essentially, more slowly) or help other systems like hospitals prepare for endemic levels of exposure. At the same time, all mitigation efforts always come at a price of other social goods, like businesses, health, including mental health, and a host of other factors poorly considered.
Understanding mitigation also requires some understanding of viral dose, as well as how this indexes to viral exposure. Maybe I just didn’t get the memo, but this has been one of the most under-studied part of COVID. Feel free to correct me in the comments, and I will add those insights.
After a minimum of one seasonal cycle, and potentially two, it should be assumed that mitigation efforts are ineffective and should be discontinued. In the U.S. , a hyperconnected topology with two seasons under our belt, it is a fair assessment that COVID is everywhere and mitigation no longer works. Don’t believe? Look at the US case map on Google. Or look at this blog post by Ian on Substack. Comparing various areas with mitigation (like masks, which are worthless anyway, but still) next to those without, and seeing identical results, can mean two things. First is that the mitigation measure is weak, and cannot positively affect the numbers of cases/deaths. Or — it can mean that the virus is so well-established with viral reservoirs that we’ve transitioned out of that stage.
When a virus is endemic, it means that spread is no longer an issue because the virus is literally everywhere. Recently, we’ve seen research on COVID in deer. COVID has also been found in dogs, according to the CDC. I do know from personal experience that airlines won’t let you fly your dog in cargo because of fear of COVID exposure to their employees. Because all of this is just crazy-making, you can indeed fly your small dog under the seat in a compartment. In order to keep this a friendly piece, I really have to hold my fire in discussing the CDC. If you’re an absolute germophobe, you should realize that your cat or dog that is likely the only thing keeping you modestly sane in this pandemic is likely also harboring COVID.
Seasonality drives all respiratory viruses. That means, once a virus is established and endemic, the only thing that can protect you is your own immune system. Wearing a mask isn’t going to help (not that they work anyway) and if anything, likely forces re-dosing of your respiratory system. We exhale freely for a reason, folks, and the “experts” that seem to trumpet these kinds of measures don’t realize is that wrapping your face in a piece of cloth is not the way the system has evolved to work.
One thing I do know — we likely won’t see a movement to exterminate our pets. I wonder about how far all this will go, but I think that Fido and Fi-fi are probably safe. People may refuse to accept endemicity as an actual thing for people, and wrap those of lesser social status (including children!) in useless masks. But they will not tolerate anything severe for pets. How do I know this? There are two things I’ve written about that have generated the most controversy in my ridiculous, semi-pro career as an op-ed writer. One is masks, during COVID. The other? Killing off feral cat colonies. Lordy.
There is a lot of research out there on viral reservoirs. I Googled up this piece in about 5 seconds on RSV. Note date. This is not a new insight. It’s actually an interesting blurb, and I recommend reading it. Basically one can draw from the conclusions that in a modern world, it is functionally impossible to maintain containment over time. Just so you realize, with both the Black Plague, as well as the 1918 Flu, it was ALSO impossible. Once a disease has some combo of factors that increase its virality past a critical level (and hopefully we can agree that COVID is such a disease) everyone’s gonna get it. Anyone with a kid in daycare has experienced this phenomenon.
Virus can hide at undetectable levels in all sorts of living creatures. So China, New Zealand or Australia really don’t look that smart now, do they? They’re just people that jumped off a building and declared they were flying. And we all know what happens next. At the same time, competing for ignorance are people saying “well, I wore a mask this year and didn’t catch a cold.” No one really knows about endemic spread, and sure, contact with other humans may have something to do with viral dosing. But folks — it’s an undiscovered country out there. Or rather, it’s a discovered country out there — by the virus. Demand the right studies. And I’m guessing that the results, in the end, won’t involve our latest version of a St. Christopher medal.
What we are really witnessing is the same old viral phenomenon we’ve experienced as humans (regardless whether it was invented in a lab– that’s an issue but not relevant here) over literally millions of years. But what is new is the memetics. Now we have institutions stuck primarily back in the containment/exclusion – mitigation phase, who have taken unchangeable stances because of their addiction to status. Or you could just say ‘fame’.
These two pieces are here, and really, they’re far more insightful than this one. Once again, I can’t believe this isn’t in a basic epidemiology textbook. But here we are.
Let’s start with a time stamp for this post. This post is being written at the time of maximum gaslighting of authorities regarding COVID-19. I say this because we’ve already passed through a couple of waves in different seasons, around the world. We have reasonably reliable statistics on Population Fatality Rates, and we’re even into variants and mutations, which, other than contagion, pretty much act like the original model. That doesn’t mean things can’t change, of course. But it’s far down the road that would have appropriately justified using the Precautionary Principle back at the beginning of all of this. We have plenty of data on COVID.
We also should realize that in much of the world, they are starting to come out of the Authority-driven Memetic response of the various Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs). Sweden, the most modest of all the Western countries, is now a basically Zero Covid state. Great Britain lifted all its NPIs on July 17, “Freedom Day”, and instead of seeing a surge of cases, saw a dramatic drop. I could go on.
But what is happening in the U.S.? Here we’re fighting in all of the Blue States (with skirmishes in the Red States) over masking kids 12 and under who cannot yet be given a vaccine. And it’s not like a vaccine is particularly needed. Kids 12 and under have a death rate from COVID something less than half of influenza, and that rate is already extremely low — something in the range of 1 in 1 or 2M, with 50% of those deaths with sad, extreme comorbidities, such as stomach feeding tubes. One of the things that might help kids, even if catching COVID is a real thing, would be increased ventilation in schools. Yet the debate rages on surrounding masks, which have little to do with physical reality, but much to do, as I have written here (do read this one!) with memetic reality. The goal of the media is almost always to support authority. And it has managed to do that through essentially an 18 month diet, once unleashed, of constant fear.
Needless to say, living in your limbic brain is not good for complex, nuanced thought. Yet here we are.
Why? What happens when a system is apparently stuck in Survival v-Meme hysteria, but in any measurable reality, is not? Real/valid Survival v-Meme hysteria would have to be fueled by bodies in the street, a collapse of the food and water supply, or other such icks. Of course, none if this is actually happening. Even the vaunted “hospital overflow” problem — the original reason given for large-scale NPIs, has turned out to be a bust, over and over. You can read this post for some insight there. As well as for how to actually find things like real hospital and ICU vacancy numbers. Always go to the source. It’s good for your sanity.
Where we are actually stuck in, both physically and memetically, is in Elite Risk Minimization (ERM.) And what is that? ERM is the social dynamic that takes place once a society functionally loses its desire for agency of the majority of its citizens. The information stream the society works on is so gummed up both by fear and polarization, the only thing that matters in the larger, magnified mindset is the preservation of elites. Because of things like the societal polarization I discuss in this post (worth a read — it’s a breakthrough post) everything informationally in aggregate literally whirls in craziness, and even basic facts become contested.
I did a quick “person on the street” interview of a few people (I walk around and ask folks about really basic facts re: COVID) how COVID spreads. These are educated people, so don’t go there. All of them said “respiratory droplets” — which are really not the problem. The real problem with COVID is that it is an aerosol, and can hang, especially in interior spaces, for an indeterminate time. Yet even saying this to you, dear reader, might come as a surprise, and maybe a pushback. This is just a simple fact of the pandemic.
But if you view the statement of this fact that might not support your model of the situation as some attempt to “count coup” on your understanding, instead of discussing in the same matter-of-fact context of the weather, it becomes impossible to find common ground across opposing camps. And COVID’s death rate is basically so low — worst case scenario, looking at larger societal morbidity rates at twice the annual toll from respiratory viruses — you can’t validity ground this yourself because, crazily enough, 628K + people in a society of 330M means not enough people have died. You might have had an elderly, infirm or obese friend die during the pandemic (I had two) but the reality is there is no way for your mind to create a coherent pattern of those deaths on your own. In fact, you’ve likely not known enough people that had COVID and recovered to establish a pattern from that! And for the record, I’ve likely had COVID myself, it wasn’t fun, and in NO WAY am I saying COVID doesn’t exist.
But your brain and sensemaking needs both examples, and others inside your social network that you trust, to develop a larger shared understanding. If that doesn’t happen, well, you’re left with the “experts”. Your fragmented sense of knowing, already exacerbated by fear from media streams, just can’t validity ground this experiment on your own. And then when you add a lack of socialization, mask wearing, and other anti-social effects (like depression) into the mix, society is serving up a Perfect Storm of paralysis in knowing. Which is, needless to say, anti-empathetic and anti-agency.
So you’re left with the v-Memes of your elites, who, through outsize energetics (money) and other markers of status sit astride the various rigid hierarchies that run our world. And their level of kindness and mercy is directly indexed to the cultural sidebars enforced inside those elite communities, and their level of practiced empathy.
As we’ve seen, with the endless supply of videos on both Left and Right of the political spectrum, it ain’t great. Elites partying while the server-folk serve them canapés are easily found on Twitter. Gavin Newsom goes to the French Laundry. On and on. They’re inside their own little community of other rich folks (and this extends to private schools, and childrearing pods) while the rest of us suffer through mask-wearing, or school closures, because our mask wearing protects you, and your mask-wearing protects me — one of the most clever psychopathic tropes yet invented, considering how masks fundamentally don’t work.
Back up a bit. While it’s fair to say that they don’t work to prevent the spread of COVID. But they DO work — to truncate human interaction, and maintain homeostasis inside the social system. Because they’re wrapped around your face maps to the level of social scales that we believe we CAN control in this pandemic — which is barely about 1mm off your body. This limbic scaling (immediate control of your physical boundaries) fits nicely in the larger model.
Since the elites do have the time to know all the various stuff I’ve mapped on this blog (that absolutely doesn’t mean that they do, of course), but perhaps you don’t, you’d think “hey, why aren’t more of them being good humans and pushing back on this claptrap?” As with all things informatics in an unconscious/subconscious social structure, the answer is in the information flow. Or rather, in the lack of information flow. Our elites have been isolated from the population for a long time. They quite literally don’t feel your pain, because there would be almost no way they would be connected to you. Their kid is in private school. Their house is in the gated community. Service people show up and deliver packages to one’s door, and in this day and age, that even includes food behind pizza and Chinese take-out.
It didn’t use to always be that way. Two of my favorite books by James Howard Kunstler are the story of built architecture in the US titled The Geography of Nowhere and the companion volume, Home from Nowhere. The killer point that has influenced my thinking tremendously — we used to be more understanding of poor people’s lives because they lived with us as the help. We saw the challenges they faced raising their kids, making ends meet, and such because they were in our lives. Not badged in some kind of strange uniform, descending on our mini-mansion to clean the pool or mow the lawn. I myself experienced this. Growing up as a child of a doctor, and living on a hobby farm, we had alternately an African-American cleaning lady that raised me, as well as a lawn man whom I would assist with various chores. I’d bring him water when he was hot, and though he was quite reticent, we would talk. I still can remember both their names (Jeannette and Marvin) — so it was not just a passing incident.
When you are not connected to people, you can generate whatever bullshit you want to justify your own self-interest. One can find whatever flavor of, alternately, oppression or opportunity online to rationalize your mental model. That is much harder to do when the person who is working for you is present in front of you. And over time, it’s just accepted that this is “the way things are.” Which then reinforces the homeostasis of a rigid hierarchy.
What’s really crazy is that this kind of disconnection in our society, since we’ve generated income gaps (and therefore social connection gaps as well) is not only limited to rich/poor. A book now a bit dated (the income gaps are even more extreme!) titled Richistan: A Journey through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich chronicles this among the various strata of the New Rich. This might sound like a non-issue, but this is not true. One of the things that has grounded this country forever in how we treat people across the strata of our society is how our Establishment functions — rich people who care about the fate of the entire nation. With the incredible shift in fortunes from the influence of Old Money to New Money, we also lose continuity in information flow in our Burgher/Baron class. This is no call to some return to a hidebound elite. But it is worth understanding that not all people who are rich are necessarily evil. They are, however, harnessed to an increasingly sequestered, and curated information stream that is further removed from reality. And this lack of validity grounding increases more egocentricism of perspective. And hence, more ERM.
The problem with ERM is that it is a natural outgrowth of limbic fears inside the closed system that the elites inhabit. We talk about understanding risk estimation, but if you’re rich, and there’s only one or two things that can potentially get you, or your kids, you’ll pay extra (a whole lot more extra) to not have to worry about it. Especially if someone else is doing the suffering. Cut seroprevalence of COVID by having everyone (but you) wear masks? Why not? There are a whole litany of excuses one can drum up from masking, including the most insane I’ve been told — masks don’t interfere with breathing. Obviously, masks interfere with breathing. I know because I run the experiment on myself when I have to wear one. I’m doing fine, and then there’s kind of a respiratory debt built up, and I have to pull the thing off my face. Yet I am told over and over again about some ridiculous study about CO2 (I actually dug it up and read it once) that I don’t even have the agency to decide if I’m being suffocated — and if I am, it’s all in my head. That’s some crazy ass gaslighting shit. As a 58 year old man, I am not allowed to even comment. That’s how powerful ERM is.
The other thing that is so fascinating about ERM is that the measures forced on the population are essentially NEVER pro-social nor salutary. Improved ventilation, without a doubt, in interior spaces, can drop COVID dosage, and potentially prevent infection. We’ve seen over and over that places like ships, prisons, and other confined spaces turn into COVID hotspots (this is actually a complicated issue and I should write a post on it). Yet the measures enforced are inherently anti-social, like masking, where the main empathy organ of the human brain has an interface, as well as social distancing. Those little six-foot markers popped right up, far quicker than any other NPI, and even in spite of China being trumpeted as the leader in COVID-Zero talk. It was trivially easy to get on the Internet and see that the Chinese were not standing 6′ apart in line, and in fact, some of the restriction was potentially due to an error in translation. That didn’t make the nightly news, now, did it?
Yet inside the context of rigid hierarchy and its associated v-Meme, all of the masking and social distancing profoundly reinforces the social physics, and the homeostasis of the social topology. You mask, and you get depressed. It’s harder to connect to other folks. Overall, as with all Authoritarian systems, the key markers work toward suppression of energetics of people lower down in the social strata. Lock people up, deny them hugs, don’t let them see others’ faces. Yep — that’ll feed that depression. It’s also why one must be careful about declaring explicit evil in those mandating these things. These are emergent phenomena that come out of a social system proposing a given intervention. It’s not a bug. It’s a feature.
ERM doesn’t just work on physical COVID risk. I had the realization just two days ago that since we’re so far down this particular rabbit hole, it wasn’t just some micro-adjustment of actually catching the bug that was really at stake. Elite Risk Management also means you want to maintain homeostasis inside the reputational algorithms of the social network that’s creating these various ineffective NPIs. If you’ve been for masks all along, you can’t stop now. And the while the reality is that around the world, kids have been going to school without masks, and no non-salutary effects, now that the spotlight has shifted to the places where the issue of ‘return to school’ for kids come up, you simply also have to be FOR masks there as well. To not be for masks on kids, especially in the masks/vaccinated tradeoff world, would mean that the authorities were wrong. And that’s not what authorities do.
Connected action is also off the table, especially as this whole thing progresses. The mRNA vaccines are also experiencing breakthrough infections among some parties. Even though overall mortality from COVID is knocked way down through vaccination (it’s well-established that the vaccine prevents severe COVID infection) ERM has to rear its ugly head once again. That means masks and vaccines — and boosters when they come along. There will be no end to this, because there can’t be. An end would mean an end to homeostasis of the coercive social system. And we simply can’t have that. Everything is working according to plan. The only real problem is that the plan is emergent, and can’t be seen nor surfaced for conscious debate (well, except on this blog). Short take — things will only get crazier. Because signs of status are always, in the long run, fundamentally arbitrary. And usually for show. Ask your neighborhood peacock if you have any questions. If it works, evolutionarily, we run with it.
If there is a bright spot in all of this, one of the beautiful things about operating in the limbic zone is that since it is fundamentally what we call a “state matching” situation (you’re either happy/sad, angry/scared, no shades of gray) flips will come suddenly. It’s rational debate and shared knowledge that create smooth on- and off-ramps of culture and policy. None of that is promised with this latest round. No figure of authority is speaking, well, authoritatively on the fact that COVID will become endemic. Until we put a stop to this, we’ll always hear about the Sturgis super-spreader (non) event. See how quickly this year’s already been forgotten? And don’t worry about any nuanced story. Just like John Wayne said “never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness,” our authoritarian cowboys ain’t gonna say they’re sorry. It’s just not in the social physics.
So how will all this end? It’s a good question, and I can think of two immediate pathways. The first is noncompliance from enough of the worker-bee class. In my own School, we’re looking at retirement from two key machinists who simply don’t want to take the vaccine. Both are old enough to retire. Teachers are not coming back who don’t want to get vaccinated. And even in the health care system, we’re seeing lots of reports of various health care workers (who are already in short supply) refusing to get vaccinated, and promising to quit. Not good. Noncompliance is an established way that Authoritarian systems collapse, and the signs are popping up.
The other is riots in the streets. I don’t think we’re there yet, though it sure is starting to look like that the good folks of Australia, with their prominent Zero-COVID efforts are getting there. Smart governments know when the people have just had enough of the craziness and pull back. That might be happening over there. But it might not. I’ll be watching.
As the pandemic grinds on, sometimes I feel the need to yank my gaze from all the anti-empathetic behavior (and knowledge creation) of the people that somehow believe if we punish people enough, all this will just go away. It won’t. But that’s for another time.
The pandemic does indeed keep me on Twitter, though. And at some level, in an odd way, because the pandemic is primarily an information war, it does make me up my game. Examples from all sorts of people — evolved, only sophisticated, and otherwise — keep me thinking about what is really going on. I’ve had a lot of fun with youngish mothers, some of whom really have got it going on. Here’s looking at you, Geneve! (@bergerbell)
One thing that is true is that once you have a LOT of people on the planet, the notion that you can manage with simplified knowledge structures is idiotic. As they say in the Spiral Dynamics community, there are too many life-conditions for simplistic ways of living. If you’re a Christian missionary sent to the Amazon, no matter how much you want to keep things simple, you have to adapt.
What that means is you either have to evolve your society with empathy, to get the needed complexity, or you have to engage in branching sophistication. Evolution and upward progression in complexity, my preferred mode, allows for increasing autonomy of individuals, responsibility for each other, and differentiable relationships. The great thing about evolution is that if you do it right, you drive even more evolution, on up the Spiral, that accommodates more people, and more creativity and innovation. Things don’t have to get better with evolution, but they often do — that was Clare Graves’ point.
But if you want evolution, you really have to get out and meet different folks, who are going to work your brain. At some level, you also have to approach them with a limited set of preconceptions on how they think, and what they’ll do. You have to trust in yourself as well, that you’ll be able to connect with them as a human being, and see where things go from there. Of course, all this builds your own self-awareness, and metacognition — knowing what you don’t know. But that exploratory sense also allows for a richer life, and worldview. Who knows what you’ll find out there?
Let’s pull up the old Knowledge Structure diagram as a refresher.
Additionally, evolution, through its more diverse set of canonical knowledge structures, opens up the path for new emergent paths. What that means is increasing radically the potential for new technologies. No better example of this exists than the last 25 years of human existence. Where was the Internet in 1997?
What happens when we stop that upward, evolutionary path? For a society to maintain its ability to support the same number of people, you still need something resembling the information density that you might obtain from a bunch of individuals (read as decentralized agents). But since those decentralized agents are either a.) societally constrained from going out and making new relationships, acting on their own behalf, or b.) incapable because they can’t go out and meet different people, because their own agency and empathy are poorly developed, society, somewhere has develop new templates imposed from the outside. While some of this might be good (who’s going to argue in this day and age against the need to fix racism?) once you’ve created any given rule set, you’ve opened up your society to manipulation by Authoritarians and Legalists who may not have society’s best interests at heart. And may indeed be psychopaths. Evolution is far harder to fake than Sophistication. And it shows.
Take, for example the largely academic fight over “appropriate pronouns.” Most professors and academic administrators proudly hang their pronouns on their e-mail signatures, even though there was never much, if any, ambiguity on what their gender was. Pronouns might have started out helpful. We do have some transgender folks, and I fully recognize the difficulty some of these folks have. Maybe some clarification was necessary. But at some level, there is also a ceding of one’s ability to make decisions and read people on their own. That empathetic work — donated now to the pronouns on an e-mail — exists no longer. And our relational brains are worse off for it.
Further, it gives a new cadre of pronoun specialists to tell us how we’re supposed to perceive different groups of people. Agency takes a dive. We begin the drift off into a senescent society. And of course, there is now an avenue for socially sophisticated risers to stake their claim on the notion of bona-fides for administration. Pronouns are big. They must be sensitive, empathetic people because they’ve latched on to the newest labeling scheme, which really didn’t come from the bottom. One more box-check along the route of administrative progression.
How does relational sophistication go wrong? As populations grow, you do need more boxes for more people — the need for new roles doesn’t quite go away. But self-definition isn’t part of that. The roles will be given by your betters. No better example of how the end game manifests than considering the arc of the Tang Dynasty in China (618-907) by the end of it all (and it did end) had something like 20 different classifications/castes of people for a population of 80M people. The Tang is generally considered the high point of the Chinese dynastic progression, with many inventions (the Tang invented the world’s first escapement clocks, and even structural building codes.) But inevitably, without evolution, stasis set in, generals fought, and the whole thing came crashing down.
Once you lock yourself into a position where individuals cannot meaningfully contribute heuristic insights from their perspective, one ends up in a fractalization cascade. What that means is there are a handful of relational patterns with the same meta-characteristics that fill out the hierarchy (and hierarchy it is). Short version — you’re not a “who”. You’re a “what”, with limited ability to pick exactly what that “what” is. It IS historic — look at many of our last names — my last name means “Doctor” in Farsi. But I’m still a “what.” Forces outside me define me.
In our own world, our own version of post-modernism ends in a similar fractal cascade, where, having supposedly deconstructed the power structure of the hierarchy, we get down to the individual getting to assign value of right and wrong, or more exactly, societal benefit. The problem with this is not that an individual shouldn’t be able to contribute in a larger sense to society. But without understanding how our perspective is inherently based on scaling in our brains — some of us really can only perceive any benefit or cost in the immediate sphere around us — those larger forces of culture around us don’t force any reckoning. Are we being selfish or generous? You decide.
Because regardless of either your level of awareness, or your actual expertise, you know best, Dunning-Kruger be damned. If we were actively evolving people so that those scales were expanding, we would create a larger cadre of people who actually DID know better. But we’re not doing that, and so, for the most part, we are simultaneously dismantling these larger codes, while being stuck in an egocentric trap of every human for themselves, where no one not only knows more, but the hierarchy is built on an arbitrary structure of belief and status. Say goodbye to the deeper guiding principles of a hierarchy of responsibility — not just to yourself, but to a broad spectrum of others, each needing an independent optimization algorithm.
If we view this through the lens of quantum mechanics, an individual ends up being represented by an independent electron observing itself. Werner Heisenberg himself noted that this didn’t end well. So just like the wave/particle duality of classical quantum physics, once we move out of deep mythic knowledge structures (like killing others) we get to judge whether we’re the good guys or the bad ones. Perspective then uniquely defines our actions. If, as Lene Andersen and Tomas Bjorkman so eloquently say, post-modernism is making no one happy, this is the mechanism. John Donne said “No man is an island.” We can update this notion to the end-all of the cascade of sophistication in our current knowledge structures as “no individual is an electron, because if they are, we end up in a cloud of our own self-imposition.” And what that means is our own knowledge ends up in a pretty arbitrary, statistical cloud. If you never know what to do, you’re not alone. It’s actually in the knowledge physics.
And it’s damn hard to recover from. Once there’s this infinite fragmentation, all generated by Legalistic/Authoritarian elites along the line of very limited consequentiality (remember we’re down in the Legalistic v-Meme, so all we get is “if this -> then that” ) it’s very hard to knit a coherent worldview back together. Post-modernism doesn’t naturally lead to some version of metamodernisn, with a restoration of hierarchy through the mode of ‘hierarchy of responsibility’. Rather, it becomes an arbitrary, pseudo-egalitarian smorgasbord where some animals are more equal than others. Today, you get to believe in the views of ancient mystics. Tomorrow, you can opt for Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity. The problem with grounding your truth with only your beliefs is that it’s impossible to avoid reality drift. The Zen masters realized this explicitly. One of my favorite Zen stories from Paul Reps’ book —
The Stone Mind
Hogen, a Chinese Zen teacher, lived alone in a small temple in the country. One day four traveling monks appeared and asked if they might make a fire in his yard to warm themselves.
While they were building the fire, Hogen heard them arguing about subjectivity and objectivity. He joined them and said: There is a big stone. Do you consider it to be inside or outside your mind?”
One of the monks replied: “From the Buddhist viewpoint everything is an objectification of mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind.”
“Your head must feel very heavy”, observed Hogen. “if you are carrying around a stone like that in your mind.”
The current COVID crisis is ripe for creating a very dark interregnum of social evolution through its very attack on empathy and empathetic development itself. Through broad scripts that mostly fall along the line of implicit Elite Risk Minimization, we are undermined in getting together, sorting out that the vast majority of us are pretty good folks, and seeing each others’ faces, which is hands down good for our own personal evolution and personal well-being. Being somewhat of an optimist, I thought the notion of the pandemic would help the Ds take out Trump, and then it would be back to battling the corporate forces threatening workers’ rights, the environment and so on.
I was obviously wrong. We’re much deeper in The Matrix than that. The Elites at the top really don’t need the majority of us for their own survival. And to the extent that we represent some minuscule, fractional risk to their health, they can’t see a reason to NOT wrap school kids in N95 masks. That’s so whack, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around. Have you ever seen a child wear an N95 mask all day? Anywhere? Talk about an anti-empathetic social experiment. Travel (especially international travel) is another pathway for empathetic development. Where’s that now? I thought I was going to be pretty much free by this summer to get back in the network with my colleagues overseas. Not so much — though there’s no question that Zoom and other conferencing services have helped.
And it never ends. We started out with COVID, and then got the Alpha, and the Delta variant. Now the World Health Organization wants to add constellation names once we run out of Greek Alphabet letters. This is exactly the kind of repetitive fractalization that comes from rigid hierarchies, and is a hallmark of increasing sophistication. And things aren’t going to change unless outside forces (that’s us) demand it — because their rigid hierarchies don’t recognize change. Until, of course, it all comes apart. At some level, knowing how their brains are wired makes me feel empathy for them. I’m sure if you asked any of them, they’d tell you they were responsible actors, gearing up for smaller and smaller scales in the only way they know how. After all, they’re just naming and creating necessary categories. But they’re stuck — and if you think they’re going to get society unstuck, I don’t know what to tell you.
Underlying all this is a core understanding of the intrinsic driver of Elite Needs. What the Elites do need is cheap labor. And empathetically detuning an entire population is one way of getting this. I’m convinced it’s emergent — I don’t think that the majority of rich folks are actively plotting on driving down wage rates. It’s just a function of system dynamics when you’re separated from people who are different from you — and it’s not just race. The long, emergent game is that you end up with a highly developed group of elites (think private schools, universities and such) who are long on sophistication and apparent empathy, but pretty short on actual connection. They don’t know what the consequences of their actions will be, because of that lack of timescale. And where would they be exposed? They only see the world through a preferential media feed, which is confirming what they thought along.
And over time, the working class starts to match, through neglect of development, what the rich believe them to be. How many times do we have to go back to Hillary Clinton and the concept of Deplorables to see this is happening? You can make people deplorable through neglecting things like wage gaps, decent working hours, and good schooling. So everything turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy, complete with developmental (or lack of developmental) feedback loops. China once again serves as a great example. Over an arc of 2500 years, once they got to peak Authoritarian/Legalistic development, there was no need to lift the peasantry out of poverty. Well, until the Great Narcissist himself, Mao Tse-Tung, got in there. And then followed up with the Cultural Revolution. Is that what we want?
I still think there’s time to fix what ails us. But that’s not going to happen without confronting the problem, and dealing with issues in a forthright manner. Human connection is what creates our larger organism. And sophistication leaves that on the table as an optional component. Time to get smart. Or rather, connected.
I forgot to add this to the original post — one might fairly ask “why would information from an evolutionary pathway be “better” than information from a sophistication pathway? This has to do with the validity grounding process. If you are down there, generating viewpoints from a lower value Meme, where grounding experience doesn’t matter, you can basically make stuff up and assert it as true. Though there’s no question that independent experience can be distorted (there’s a whole, reasonable trauma literature on this) the more developed experiential perspective is far more likely to detect bullshit early on. Additionally, if one is actually heuristically adding one’s experience to the larger body of knowledge, there’s a whole brain full of sensory experience that adds reality to all of this on the individual basis. Smell, taste, hearing all combine to give a more accurate representation of a given experience, which then heightens the effect of validity grounding.
Contrast that with something simply made up. And remember that the next time you read a book. Check the author’s bona-fides.
Take, for example, alligators and Florida. It’s fair to say that alligators are both endemic, and (another one of my favorite words) ubiquitous (seemingly everywhere) in Florida. Since this blog is all about you developing your own sense of enlightenment, this is an easily testable hypothesis. If alligators are pretty much endemic in Florida, you ought to be able to, using the magical power of The Google, type in the word ‘alligator’ with some place that might exist in Florida.
Like ‘kitchen’. And sure enough, if you Google ‘alligator’ and ‘kitchen’ stories pop up of alligators in kitchens!
I also Googled ‘alligator refrigerator’ and did find a hit in Charleston, S. Carolina — but after one hit, it ended up behind a paywall. I ain’t lying!
Later that evening, I was talking to a friend about this very topic. I said “since alligators are endemic, it wouldn’t surprise me if you Googled ‘alligator ice cream parlor’ and found a gator story. A little different, but what do you know. You will be rewarded with a TikTok video if you click through. Granted, the gator was getting a little help from a grown man, but what’s not to like about the human/alligator holobiont?
That’s what ‘endemic’ means! Now that doesn’t mean you WANT to have a gator at your car dealership. But things that are endemic are notoriously difficult to totally eradicate. Maybe some of the Zero COVID crowd could learn a little from this short post!
What’s the takeaway? Once a living thing is endemic in an environment, you simply have to learn to live with it. That goes for COVID — as well as gators!
There have been lots of controversial non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) in the pandemic. And most of us have gone along with most of them — I’d hazard a guess that a lot of the readers of this blog were, and are, pretty respectful of the various authority-driven pronouncements and restrictions on personal freedom during the course of this pandemic.
Certainly I was. At the very beginning, when I received a request from a friend on a reopening committee, I immediately went to work (this was back in March, 2020) to see if there was any way to contain COVID-19. And like many of us, that road led me to masks. It looked like various countries that had strong mask-wearing mandates had successfully managed to dodge the pandemic. And so I wrote this piece — “How We Know Masks Work.” It is still up on my blog, as I have a policy to leave up the things I’m wrong about, as well as the subjects I nail.
It’s actually still pretty good — but we’re far along the evidence pipeline now, and much stronger evidence is now out there that clearly shows how masks DON’T work. I really recommend everything on Ian’s Substack. It’s super-readable, and he really nails the population-based time series case. And he’s really funny. He also links back to “the Science” (the good, the bad, and the ugly) if you need to read that as well.
The short version of how we know that masks don’t work is we have case/hospitalizations/deaths time-dependent plots from almost every country on the globe. If you look at when in time the various mask mandates have been implemented, you’ll see that none made any difference all in any of the measurable quantities. NONE.
Here’s the short version from a systems dynamics perspective. When you implement a policy, there should be at least a modest change in the dynamics of the system, downstream in time from where you implemented the policy. What that means is that if you implement masks, then you should see some reduction in cases, etc. This is called a “step response” and it’s what we cover in junior-level system dynamics class in engineering. It is true for ALL physical phenomena, and it is EASILY observable. You add an intervention, something happens downstream. And don’t start in with that ridiculous rant about “you’re not an epidemiologist.”
If you don’t see a change, then the input (in this case, the mask mandate) didn’t make a difference. It really is that simple.
I don’t want to belabor this with the various arguments, so I’m posting one of the plots from Ian’s Substack, because folks will inevitably say things like “well, they put in the mandate, but no one followed the rules.” Or “maybe there was an effect and it changed the population dynamics.” And so on. Before we move on to what this post is really about (the social dynamics of the persistence of masks, or rather why authorities want us to use them, which is really weird and strange) I’ll just say ALL OF THAT IS ALSO BULLSHIT. I have pored over this for the past year, attempting to find some version of a rational argument, with data, that really supports this, and it basically doesn’t exist. The fact that people have put masks on hamsters, or built weird devices to blow air through masks, is largely meaningless. You can stop the virus by putting a plastic bag over your head. That would definitely work. But needless to say, there will be relatively immediate downstream consequences.
The various protected island populations (Taiwan, S. Korea, etc.) have now all gotten COVID big-time, they are losing their shit over it (my wife is Taiwanese so I get to watch this firsthand in the home country.) They are running around (at least in Taiwan) in Hazmat suits, and it is making no difference. No NPI is really making a big difference in the time-dependent numbers. Though indeed, when everyone locks themselves in their apartments, they might (might!) make a difference in the various peaks. For a week or so. There is simply no way to tell, because there is enough variation in the populations affected you cannot run what is called a Randomized Controlled Trial, where you have a nation where you introduce the virus, and one where you don’t, and do a comparison. You can’t do it because societies are open systems (a whole ‘other graduate class there) and you have to find other ways of knowing. What’s tragic is that when you build fear to the level that they have in this idolized, homogeneous societies like Taiwan, is that since everyone thinks the same, and everyone believes the virus is a death sentence, you have people allowing themselves to literally be burned alive in order to avoid exposure or spread. Anyone who lives in a Western democracy and advocates for this level of societal control — I honestly don’t know what to tell you. It IS more complicated than black-and-white thinking allows (Taiwan, for example, has some very innovative democratic mechanisms) but it is still a relatively unevolved society in certain measures. And even get me started on China.
And for those post-modernists (read the photo on the link — you’re never gonna be happy!) or those with a bad case of Dunning-Kruger, look — check out my resume’. I kinda feel like I have some street cred for writing about masks and earlier getting it wrong.
Masks don’t work, and like hell they don’t obstruct one’s breathing. In order to believe this, you really have to be under total mind control. And when it comes to empathy — you’d do this to kids? With the level of evidence, as well as the preventative case, out there? Are you for real?
So here’s the South Korea curve from Ian. Thank you again, Ian, for doing this.
So let’s leave that surface-level question of whether masks work. They don’t. That’s not what this piece is about anyway.
It’s about “Why are people so fixated on masks, as well as forcing others to use them?” In order to understand that, I’m going to introduce a few concepts.
First is this. You think you are in control of your own thoughts. But you’re not, completely. You are part of a social organization, or a number of social organizations that have rules of engagement as far as how you relate to people. These rules (or really meta-values – we’ll come back to this) dictate whom, and how, you’ll talk and relate to others. There are bunch of these rules that are packed in our heads. They actually fall out trans-culturally (this is extremely challenging for academics to accept) and they are knitted into our heads across humanity. These rules enable different societies to coordinate activities among individuals inside that society.
And while they are FAR from the same, they do fall out into well-established groups of social structures. These social structures are all motivated by one uniting meta-goal. And what is that? It’s persistence. At some level, for some time, you want to wake up in the same society you left when you went to bed at night.
This feature is called homeostasis. All living things tend toward it. Here’s the wild thing. Just like the cells in your body tend toward a physical homeostasis, you, as an individual inside a larger social network topology, also seek this.
Every single one of us has a variety of social systems that we traverse. And every one of those social systems burns these relational patterns into our brains, in what is called a canonical stack. This canonical stack creates the knowledge in given structures. This leads to a unifying, guiding principle — As we relate, so we think.
As we move up through the different social structures, and their linked knowledge structures, we develop strategies for how we fit in — or really, how we will help a given social structure achieve homeostasis. The level of variability and complexity in that homeostasis is directly related to how evolved the given social structure is.
Let’s take in a brief example — supporting your football team when you go to the stadium. If you’re in the early 21st century, you’re likely going to wear a football jersey of your favorite player. You may have a set of cheers you do when your team makes a first down. You may have a long, mythic history associated with your loyalty for the team (“I believed in the Cleveland Browns when no one else did!”) and so on. I’m not the first to note that there is a tribal identity with something like football. And if you don’t? You sit there while everyone else cheers for the home team? In this modern age, the worst is you’ll have a bad time and people will look at you funny. Scale it back 500 years, and the outcome might have been a bit more grisly.
As you move up in social evolution, different identities emerge with the different social structures. And the one you spend the most time with often creates the rules that are your unconscious “Go To’s” for means of processing information. If you’re in a legalistic hierarchy, for example, you’re used to following the rules. If you’re in an authority-driven hierarchy, you’re likely waiting for someone to tell you what to do — or think.
This natural predilection sits in a part of your brain called the Default Mode Network. It’s the background processor that basically runs the relational patterns on the knowledge you acquire and helps you make sense of your situation. Your default pattern that you’ll unconsciously reach for is a function of your aggregated values, otherwise known as your value Meme (v-Meme — those meta-values I alluded to earlier). For me, I’m naturally very goal-focused. You bring me a problem, I’ll immediately start composing some heuristic to get us to whatever that shared goal is. (Might be sexist to say this, but it drives girlfriends and wives crazy!) Maybe you’re a rule-follower. Maybe you’re a community well-being maximizer. All these modes are represented in the v-Meme set described here.
Now here’s the thing — and it’s a hard one to really grok. A given action (like wearing a mask) DOES NOT IMPLICITLY and definitively reside in any given v-Meme. You can’t look at someone wearing a mask and immediately know what their v-Meme is. But in aggregate, in a larger social system, they DO tell you something.
Finally, we tie this to empathy. The KEY element to evolutionary social systems is the characteristic of the full stack of empathy. Empathy is NOT just giving folks a hug, or telling someone you’re sorry. Empathy has little to do with accepting someone telling you a story — bullshit or not — though this is often how the notion of empathy is weaponized. “You’re not empathetic because you don’t care if grandma dies…” This is a manipulation. Empathy is really about how you connect with others. HOW. Mirroring? Emotions? Reason? Information taken from their person? Projection of their circumstance? All these govern the empathetic response, that is given in a triangle. And here is a never-discussed fact — that level of empathy dictates the level of information coherence inside your social network. The more empathy, the greater the coherence. Here you go:
These things are all tied together — social structure, knowledge structure, individual development, our operation of our default mode network, and our v-Meme set that maintains homeostasis inside that social structure. They are all connected, and integral to each other.
They are ALL tied together, in feedback loops with each other.
And while any given action may not uniquely map to a given v-Meme, let’s just say that certain ones turn up over and over.
And some, in the context of modern society, like masks, are a hack.
I’ll repeat that — masks are a hack, in the most literal, computer-sciency sense of the word. They’re meant to get inside that higher-level homeostasis of individual rights, and care of community, that higher v-Meme, and BRING IT DOWN.
And they’re not just any hack. Any modality that fundamentally attacks empathetic function (you cover your face, people cannot read your intent) is what I call a Deep OS hack. It’s hack inside The Matrix — how various social structures relay information around their various networks. Interestingly enough, it helps low empathy social structures (like authoritarianism) while dismantling other social structures that promote individual choice or larger well-being. Here’s a plot of Don Beck’s evolutionary social structures to give you a feel for generalized societal evolution.
My work has made the case that the empathy dynamic is the key thread running through societal evolution — by the time you’re up in Green, you’re identifying individuals and their unique needs. In order to do that, you have to be able to look at a person, and read them. And needless to say, when you wrap their face in a mask you’re aggregating them into a homogeneous group. Move that needle down to Red Mode!
So now we have to talk about how at least a couple of these social structures work — in particular, the old Authoritarian Power Structure one. In order for Authority to work, the person at the top has to be right, and you (you!) have to be wrong. That means that regardless of what information you are taking in, you have to disregard it and believe whatever you are told. What I call ‘validity grounding’ — the process of confirming what you’re told, with what your eyes see, or your cognitive process tells you, you have to suspend. It’s not a bug of a stable Authoritarian system. It’s a FEATURE.
Here’s the interesting thing. For some folks, wearing a mask will make them feel safe (regardless if it physically works or not.) That’s a response from down lower on the social organization chart (look to the left.) Maybe a mask “just feels right” for some folks (that would be instinct-driven.) But mostly, masks homogenize and make folks feel depressed. They can’t have a higher level of emotional affect. They can’t recognize individuals. They obviously can’t understand sarcasm, or irony, or all those other human communication signals that are so important for conveying nuance. Or really, independently generated affinity and love.
The overall effect of any Authoritarian system is to create depression among those that are receiving conflicting information streams, and the True Believers that basically have an Old, Angry God installed in their heads that supports whatever the Authority is saying. Low energetics are mandatory — or else folks might speak up and against the Authority, disrupting the natural homeostasis of the system.
Here’s the truly terrible thing. We’ve set up most of our scientific and academic organizations on Authority-Driven and Legalistic social structures. What that means is that when it comes to knowledge structures, they are primarily belief-based. And that means the people in them, whom we’re counting on being rational, aren’t really rational at all. Their relational practice is based on titles — not reading the room. And so that spills over into how they think. That’s the whole Default Mode Network thing. You can see how that might be a bit problematic in a global pandemic. Right when you need multiple avenues of explanation, that really get to the heart of the problem, what you get instead is profound GroupThink.
And now here’s the real kicker. Most of this is unconscious. MOST. The elite consensus on masks was established early on during this pandemic. And it’s no surprise that masks, which kill empathy, and are a single point, small temporal and spatial scale solution (you wrap that sucker around your face, after all) would take off, in a noisy environment where you’re taught to judge your neighbor (more low empathy, in-group/out-group sorting) if they weren’t wearing one. “Just wear your damn mask!” has been the battle cry forever. And it so conveniently divided up into Left/Right politics. And what a way to constrain responsibility. All you had to do was agree to slow-scale suffocation of you and your loved ones, and hey — you’re off the hook!
Now let’s stop and consider that a good hunk of people on the Left are going to be rule-followers (“Wear your damn mask!”) and on the Right (“I’ll do what I want!”) you can see how we got there. And because it was fundamentally dichotomous in knowledge processing (Do/Not wear a mask!) the memetics easily went viral. Simple things go far. More complex, nuanced thoughts do not (don’t even ask me about the vitality of my blog!)
And so masks — the ultimate low empathy hack — came to the fore for what they actually did best — a tool of relational disruption. It certainly wasn’t stopping COVID. You can’t go to church without one. You can’t let your kids go to school without them on. You can’t go into a restaurant without one on, until, of course, you sit down at a table and immediately take one off. And on and on. What an easily identifiable badge of In-group/Out-group low empathy conformance. Masks turned into a memetic virus — far more effective than in the physical world against actual viruses.
Naturally, they favored the memetics of the relationally disordered. If you have OCD, masks are a lifesaver. People are a big old vector of disease, and finally, society as a whole recognizes your pain. I’m being facetious here of course. But we’re going to have to start understanding how all these things work or we’re never going to get out of this.
Little kids masking? No question that little kids are going through emotional growth phases where reading faces, if we want them to be whole, and have appropriate attachments (and here’s the kicker) THAT THEY FORM THEMSELVES. If you live in a country where you’re forced to veil your face, this is no big deal. Note that these are countries that also still have arranged marriages (which is a big can of worms that of course has pros and cons.) Because your ability to develop relationships is severely affected. What’s also fascinating is that kids are passing through a phase of growth in rule-following at the same time, and many children, if you tell them to wear a mask, will scrupulously adhere to it. But it will have developmental effects — especially as we’ve now chosen in some states to carry all this crazy bullshit out over years.
These types of hacks are all emblematic strategies and tactics in what is really a MEMETIC WAR – a war of information structure conservation between social systems. What one tactic/hack, like wearing masks does for one social system (if you’re attempting to identify people individually, or form independent relationships, well good luck with that!) is very different for another. Wearing masks, for example, profoundly disrupts the homeostasis of higher v-Meme systems. Those systems require nuance, and distributed processing in order to persist. They REQUIRE empathy. But that’s where masks as a weapon of rigid hierarchies come in — through disrupting this transfer of information, in aggregate, mask-wearing profoundly supports lower v-Meme systems. And people will quite literally go to war to support their homeostatic social system. (Here’s how that works.)
Do the people inside a given system really know what they’re doing? I have no doubt that THE MAJORITY DOESN’T HAVE A CLUE. They’re in the Matrix, after all, and things just are the way they are. Achieving a higher consciousness, Enlightenment, self-awareness, whatever you want to call it, has been dwelt upon by all sorts of philosophers down through the ages. By any faith/system of belief standards, it’s a TON of work, most folks never get there, and most folks aren’t even aware that they’ll never get there. That’s because we process the Matrix at the level of development that we’re at. And looking above our heads is something that we were never very good at, but Postmodern philosophy has now demonized. You are in The Matrix. Even if you don’t realize it. Or the Truman Show. Pick your metaphor. The point is that the behavior is emergent. It’s what you do to get along. Whether you realize it or not.
Does it mean that the various scientists who are doing things like advocating for masks have no clue to their motivations? I also don’t believe that they’re unaware of the surface-level system dynamics for a red second. They may not know they’re in the Matrix. But most know there is considerable career risk for speaking out against the status quo, and the act of speaking out upsets that rigid hierarchical apple cart. Trust me — if you intend to move up in academia, you don’t even write pieces like this one, which I consider a.) to be obvious, and b.) to be relatively innocuous.
And some of the proponents, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, (dude is 81, and relatively sharp!) are very likely experiencing what I call the Nazi High Command problem — they’re in it so deep, they think if they backpedal, they’ll be up against the wall. I’d argue that this would require at least a little self-awareness. So it’s unclear how many of them are actually thinking like this.
But that’s not the only modality for the Fauci’s of the world. You can be sure that there’s also a narcissistic God Complex problem going on. They’re not just worried about their current status. They’re also likely worried about a profound loss of authority, which perhaps they view as necessary for societal good. If they reverse themselves (though it could be argued that Fauci has already reversed himself a couple of times) then they will lose their authority and then the population won’t listen to them the next time. And The Matrix is very clear about what happens to those that disobey GroupThink. Scott Atlas, who has actually been pretty rational in all this, first was attacked, and now shunned. Deborah Birx offered herself up for sacrifice. These are not inconsequential actions. You can bet your hard-earned money that all of these folks can read a time series, and know they should see some change in system performance for any NPI they apply. Yet they are caught up in The Matrix, as we all are, at some level. And ended up with the consequences that the dominant social structure in organizations like the CDC dole out to dissenters. Even if they’re at the top of the organization. If you want the sun to come up, some poor bastard has to get their heart cut out on the pyramid.
As a nation, we were ripe for this kind of nonsense. We have neglected developing our people, as well as our kids basically forever. Once you’re down there with your homeostatic thermostat stuck in Authority-land, which implies low- to no-reality-based grounding, anything goes. If you want people to not fall for Authority, you have to raise them with agency, as well as appropriate empathy. Nope — we didn’t have it coming. But entropy has a way of creeping up on you, and having the bill come due. Our societies have long been set up for the hack. How the hell did Donald Trump become President anyway?
Here’s the thing. Culture will keep you going for a while. Culture consists of sidebars, many of which can be economic. But culture won’t save you if your social structure is broken. And that gets back to the basic dynamics of relationships in a given nation. Culture can preserve old things, but has a nasty time creating new economies — that’s what social structure does. (I do write about this quite a bit.)
And the fact that this has now crept down to school-age kids? No surprise there either. We’ve neglected child welfare in this country forever. The fact we threw them on the sacrifice fire early was also no surprise. That’s what our national Default Mode Network, endlessly stuck in oscillating dichotomy, had in store for us. Status-based thinking. And like it or not, kids are low status.
This kind of low level of empathy development also makes us vulnerable in other ways. As a society plagued with overwork forever — I’ve toured the world many times, and no one works like Americans — the aggregate level of exhaustion leaves us in a Survival v-Meme meaning crisis. Now the very act of wrapping one’s face in cloth is how we define helping others — an ineffective NPI that demonstrably does nothing unless you’re coughing. And that lowers the bar on other arbitrary things that fix no real problems. There is more here in maintaining the social homeostasis of an Authoritarian society, which inherently has a bottom caste, than meets the eye. And one of these, unfortunately, is believing that magical rituals matter, as opposed to removing real human suffering of those huddled masses. That’s the real peril of empathy collapse.
IWhy fight this fight? I’m addressing the U.S. now, though I think that most other countries are really not that far away from us. This chronic level of gaslighting upsets the meta-thinking apple cart on lots of other issues. “If they believe this, then let’s try this!” It’s important to keep things real, or you basically open yourself to more Magical levels of societal development. Like it or not, the informatics will find its level. It’s emergent, after all.
And untethering from the belief that you have an obligation to a little of physical reality (not everything is easy here, so it’s important to temper a bit) is a recipe for societal collapse. Here is the key thought — how we practice thinking is how we WILL think in the future — and the key way we practice thinking is how we practice relational dynamics. Believe this however you need to believe this — with Gladwell’s 10K hours mantra (just so you know, it’s more complicated than this) but this simple concept of how we practice thinking is how we will think should rally you to take action against the gaslighting.
In times like this, I reach back to even worse times and find inspiration. One of my heroes who survived the Nazi concentration camps, Viktor Frankl, said basically you can make it through anything with one person you grounds you. Our situation is far away from what he endured — don’t go all Godwin’s Law on this current situation. But if you want to give light, expect to endure some burning. We have to speak out. Now. And with school kids, don’t tell me it’s not local and you can’t make a difference. Because you can. You’re in the Matrix. I just explained it to you. Now go get your Neo on.
Let’s explore this a bit. The empathy disorders we are addressing today fall mostly into the Axis II/Cluster B and C categorizations in the DSM IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders put out by the American Psychiatric Association. Just so y’all know, my brain LOVES to go down the rabbit hole of validity as far as understanding how the APA actually came up with this. But in the interests of brevity and giving my personal squirrels some rest, let’s just take the surface-level descriptions, aggregate them a bit and reason with them.
Empathy disorders, also known as personality disorders, are quite literally disorders of empathy — where a person’s empathy pyramid just doesn’t work like some representative “average” person. The bad kinds have been better represented by Simon Baron-Cohen’s “Empathy 0 +/-“ and we’re going to focus on the nasty version — not people that represent on the autism spectrum. We’re talking about people that we know just don’t connect the way a normal human does – and often display malevolent, anti-social behavior.
This matters quite a bit, once you understand that one of the key drivers of evolution is inter-agent coordination. The average individual actually wants to get along, mostly doesn’t want to control others, and barring various forms of trauma, wants to be happy. Believe it or not, this is a pretty big net to cast, and includes (depending on who you ask) around 80-90% of the population.
The laundry list of empathy/personality disorders might be something like this — narcissistic, histrionic, borderline, anti-social, avoidant, and more. These are the ones you encounter in people who are out there functioning, often at the highest levels, in society. They are NOT the ones of people who are actually low-functioning, and obvious. If you were to meet some of them at a party, they might be the most charming person in the room, and bright. You simply cannot tell from a laundry list of symptoms who has, or doesn’t have a personality disorder. As I’ve said in the past, Donald Trump was a classic narcissistic psychopath. Yet, like it or not, he found a way to become the President of the United States, and there’s still a good hunk of the electorate that wants him back in the White House.
The dominant v-Meme of the empathy-disordered is Authoritarian Red v-Meme, to the exclusion of much influence from any of the other v-Memes. This creates a condition I call Collapsed Egocentricism. My thesis (with considerable overlap with others like Scott Peck) is it evolves from a process of destruction, either from genes, or trauma, or a combination of both, of well-defined personal boundaries. The result of this is a structural dissociation, following a range of conditions, that creates a deep state of subconscious confusion. Over time, the individual adapts to that confusion by intense management of others’ emotional states. Think of it this way — when you have weak, or no personal boundaries, it’s impossible to not be absorbed with others’ thoughts. And so the empathy-disordered individual turns toward whatever flavor of control they see work in the surrounding world to create depressed emotional states in the people around them. This lack of differentiation also can lead to very disturbing outcomes, which I’m only going to touch on here. Lack of a habituation response is one; the other is the inherent belief that you can get away with anything as long as there is no obvious, superior external observer.
The sum of these characteristics often lead to people who are inured to any internally developed morality (there are degrees, of course) as well as individuals who are very often detail-oriented. Their lack of boundaries often leads to hypersensitivity toward how others think and feel, and because they are existing in a collapsed-egocentric world, feel free to borrow from whatever the contemporary zeitgeist allows to both depress and control others.
The end result of this analysis, by looking at the individual, is you often, without a whole lot of training or experience with them, cannot finger them in a crowd. The key point here is this: You cannot ID themdefinitively solelyby looking at the individual. There have been books about various famous people who are admitted psychopaths, including various research folks. This story is particularly instructive. And so, just as one cannot associate a particular behavior with a given v-Meme — v-Memes are ensembles of behavioral containers that can produce a given range of behaviors — so also can you not identify a psychopath by looking at a list of personal characteristics. It doesn’t mean that it can’t help — obviously some behaviors are going to be far more common among the empathy-disordered than not. But it’s just not as final as folks would like.
These facts point to even understanding the empathy-disordered, because of inherent knowledge creation problems in our social systems that have evolved to study psychopathy and empathy disorders. Psychological research will tend to fine-scale and study a given personality ensemble to death. But the inherent knowledge creation deficits involved in fragmented, authority-driven hierarchies mean that the real “Golden Ticket” description — how the psychopath maneuvers in a social system — is opaque.
That said, there are some obvious indicators when researchers are cruel. And cruelty in contemporary society (not so much in ancient societies) is a good hallmark of the empathy-disordered. My “favorite” would have to be Harry Harlow, famous attachment researcher, who found all sorts of ways to torture mother and child monkey pairs. It’s no wonder that these guys started, through reaction to their work, the Animal Rights movement.
How then do you tell a psychopath, with any reliability? Certainly, more research absolutely needs to be done. By my thesis, though, the best way to tell is by looking at relational disruption around the psychopath. Donald Trump was a premier case in point. Look at the chronic disruption in his Cabinet. Over the course of four years, his turnover was unbelievable, especially relative to other administrations, both R and D. Trump totaled 28 high-level turnovers, compared, say to G.W. Bush, who only saw 2. It’s tough to compare apples to apples here, but you get the idea.
As a narcissistic psychopath, Trump had no problem playing the various cards out of the “victim” deck, for himself, and his constituency. But lots of politicians (many who have empathy-disordered tendencies) do that. The key signifier in his world was that Donald Trump destroyed empathy through his leadership through obvious relational disruption — from old allegiances with foreign allies (Trump, for example, wanted to withdraw the US from NATO) as well as inside constituencies in the Republican party.
The idea that this is some unique right-wing disease, though, should not be taken seriously. There is obvious chaos in the Democratic ranks as well. Hillary Clinton’s calling a huge section of the country “deplorables” certainly was a relationally destructive move. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds compiling lists of sins for politicians. But the short answer to look for is a down-migration of relational systems to lower v-Memes. Short version — evolutionary leaders create societies where more, and diverse relationships are possible. Devolutionary leaders do the opposite. Trump migrated the country down to Right/Left. But Hillary did her own share of damage.
V-Meme level of development of individuals can also give insight – if, as Don Beck said, small ‘p’ progressive leaders are optimally one v-Meme level above the population they are attempting to evolve, regressive leadership is at least one level below the dominant v-Meme of a given population.
What that also means is that in our larger state of societal evolution, where we have a generalized population in the US that are a blend of Legalistic/Absolutistic Blue v-Meme, with a Goal-Oriented Orange v-Meme in the empathetic sense, we are especially prone to having our relational systems being manipulated by Collapsed Authoritarian v-Meme psychopaths. Such people will borrow from things like racial classification schemes, for example, or even small-scale societal goals, to manipulate events in their favor. Inherently, because of their lower filtering of complexity, more evolved ideas will get turned into concepts without the initial complexity score, or intellectual heft they were proposed with.
The most current example of this would have to do with Critical Race Theory. What Critical Race Theory is at the highest, guiding principles level, is the idea that many legal concepts implicitly produced racism in an emergent fashion. This is simply undeniable. Slavery itself (embodied in the U.S. Constitution), Jim Crow laws, and other legal constructs like redlining created systemic discrimination. They also created isolation of various racial groups from each other, so that empathy could not grow on an individual level, obviously!
The problem arises when you have knowledge encapsulated at higher v-Memes, like CRT (obviously systems of systems) is that when one group wants to weaponize various understandings, they generally have no warm spot in their heart for the people on the other side. And with any higher understanding, inherently people will take a given topic and decomplexify it as their level of understanding permits. In the case of CRT, this turns into “we are teaching white kids to hate themselves” on the Right, to “The Right is attempting to keep us from teaching about slavery/Jim Crow!” Neither of these viewpoints represent the more nuanced, guiding principles take on what CRT is. It’s more like saying “Gravity hates me because if I jump off a cliff, I’ll die!”
But these mental models are powerfully, relationally disruptive. They move people down into their In-group/Out-group limbic brains, and prevent the agency for individuals to form their own relationships with people on the outside of their in-group. They also tend toward perspective homogenization — “all white people” or “all black people” and deny individuals their own ability to decide their affinity for others. Matt Taibbi indirectly talks about this in this piece on current doyenne of anti-racism, Robin D’Angelo. D’Angelo’s consistent denial of any allowable agency for white people in the current milieu is inherently psychopathic. It doesn’t mean that racism isn’t an undercurrent in our society at all. But through simplification of white people all into one aggregated class, regardless of lived experience, means that relational disruption and fragmentation is at play. You must forfeit your agency to D’Angelo or you are evil — a classic psychopathic play.
Psychopaths very often make a big splash when they show up on the scene. Their emotionally disruptive messaging gets everyone in a lather, and exciting those lower v-Memes brings out the tribal behavior in many people, who otherwise might be comfortably intellectually lounging on a given issue. There is a disruption of emotional and societal homeostasis. And that can be a good thing. Ossified systems are prone to be shaken up by psychopaths, who are more than happy to use the viral trigger/affair of the day to get their own way.
What happens over time, though, is that psychopaths might build a cohort of like-minded individuals in the short term — what I call a “vampire colony” — but over time, the overwhelming desire of most people is to return to some positive latency. Peace, by any other word. Dependent on the power and influence of the psychopath, isolation, even of the most powerful, is an inevitable outcome. People develop avoidance mechanisms and work-arounds, that likely will result in lower system performance for hitting goals, and certainly well-being. But things do seek an equilibrium.
Occasionally, the number of psychopaths will reach a criticality, and whole societies will become psychopathic. Certainly, Nazi Germany fell into that category, with its fictional, racialized history of the 1000 Year Reich. And of course, looking back in history, one can look at the comparisons of Athens and Sparta, as I did in this post. But inherently, such larger societies, once they move past a persistent tribal form, cannot support the complexity needed to feed and care for large populations. They then collapse.
That said, tribal societies through careful management of bounding cultural sidebars, can maintain persistence of groups of psychopaths. Iroquois division of war chiefs and peace chiefs might be an example. In this instance, we had a nation based on tribal structure, but through borrowing of knowledge through higher v-Memes (see The Great Law of Peace) managed to contain their empathy-disordered warrior elites. One of my favorite movies of all time, The Last of the Mohicans, illustrates the delicate balance between psychopathic warriors and overall larger tribal structures. For those that need a more recent side-by-side illustration of this dynamic, it’s tough to beat Farley Mowat’s book The Desperate People, an absolutely excruciating read of side-by-side normal vs. psychopathic tribal bands.
Summing up, here are the big takeaways.
Empathy-disordered people cannot be discriminated reliably in a general population through individual characteristics. Mirroring empathy in these individuals, as well as attention to detail, allow them to adopt behaviors that often make them highly successful inside various organizational systems.
Some percentage of any human system will contain the empathy-disordered. Exactly what this number is is not known, but likely somewhere between 5%-20%.
Empathy-disordered people can be identified in social systems through their relationally disruptive behavior.
This relationally disruptive behavior often is the result of decomplexification of more complex, prosocial behaviors that are weaponized for power and control of others.
The empathy-disordered, upon showing up on the scene, inherently make a big splash, often as champions of pressing causes, or moral arbiters of truth. Emotional manipulation and deletion of nuance are key here.
Over time, these relational disruptors become increasingly isolated inside social systems as the larger aggregate of people seek healthy attachment and lower stress modalities of living.
In situations where a manager must manage some degree of the empathy-disordered in their ranks, it’s important to realize that who is at fault in a given conflict situation will be difficult to ascertain. When people start acting badly, the initiator or the reactor might execute a bigger sin. That said, a key element for a manager to identify is who is the pursuer, and who is attempting to get away. It is very likely that the guilty party is the one in pursuit of the other.
An interesting thing happened of note last week in the constant social roil that we know as the United States of America. Andrew Yang, former U.S. Presidential candidate and now candidate for mayor of New York City, issued a comment declaring the rights of Americans to socialize in public spaces, and then fingered the mentally ill as the reason that they couldn’t.
This isn’t the exact comment (which was more blunt) but you can see Yang is still making this point, while struggling to come up with solutions.
When asked “how we got here” by folks, I’m quick to finger what I consider the Big Three causes —
The growing wage gap that started back in the early ’70s.
Now, take a deep breath, and a pause — let’s look at this from a meta-level/memetic perspective.
How many of the things on that list are trauma triggers for you?
How quickly did your brain process the thought “he’s on the backside of how I view this issue”?
Did your brain say “Huh. I need to learn more about each of them.”
Odds are at least one of the things listed above was a trauma trigger — which means the space is very difficult to discuss!
There is no one root cause to any of those three things — but there are a cluster of these root causes that make it then very difficult to solve other root cause problems in our system. That’s the point. Racism, for example is not listed as a root cause above — instead I view it as a chronic problem that needs dramatic remediation, but we are prevented from doing so because we are just not evolved enough as a country. And the three causes I do list are the largest stumbling blocks for fixing our brains so we can solve these more persistent problems.
With that said, let me explain my view (with no apologies.)
All three of the syndromes above served to drive our current population apart based on both race and class. Money obviously separates groups — haves are going to occupy different spaces than the have-nots. If public spaces are unsafe, then a huge opportunity for trans-racial- and class- socialization can’t occur. When you destroy that, you also destroy opportunities for personal empathetic growth, as the default solution is to surround yourself with your in-group. Plus, when you don’t even recognize that some small percentage of mentally ill folks can be violent, then you a.) hand a powerful tool to the moralizers that say you should just accept everyone, but b.) the legitimacy of the concern means most people will just retreat from dealing with the problem. No one wants to be told (no matter how true!) that they are an immoral person — and so that process of delegitimization of debates will create fluxes of individuals away from a given problem. And then we get back to the state of Kayfabe, so eloquently described in this piece.
This overall devolution of empathy will also affect the advocates for particular pieces of the solution — they’re part of the population as well. We’ll start down a road of disaggregated, dichotomous thinking, which continues to create tremendous burdens on people to even engage — and now they don’t have anything resembling a public space to just BS through things. I’ve always maintained that coffee houses and bars are super-important parts of any society. But if you create a certain fear level of people toward other people, then you lengthen the time constant for people to develop appropriate trust and form those independent relationships. Which then, as this blog intimately details, make it harder to create the baseline neural complexity for people to be able to suggest the nuanced, and complicated solutions that will inherently be required. We’re really missing this last part — the idea that relationships work our brains toward complexity. But just because we’re missing it in the larger culture doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Another point in understanding complexity that we’d do well to put a little more cognitive energy into understanding is the idea of a bifurcation point. A bifurcation point, in complex systems theory, is where we tweak a parameter for the larger system and see a whole new set of stable/meta-stable behaviors. So much of our discussion on creating social change has little to do with bifurcation points, mostly because the suggestion of one involves the folks with less appreciation for complexity (do note — I’m being kind with this description) screaming about the larger problem. But larger problems are fixed with bifurcation/tipping points are reached, where a given policy will reconfigure the problem space to a different set of societal attractors.
And so it is with addressing mental illness in conjunction with creating safe, public spaces. We ought to do both. The first — mental illness — is obviously not being addressed, and will need some level of a leveraged institutional solution. It’s not a “throw the baby out with the bath water” — some aspects of what we do work somewhat, and can be evolved. But we also need to realize that we’ve pretty much turned a blind eye toward the problem, and it affects our larger social mind. The second should be obvious — safe public spaces — and communities that have them immediately stick out as places on the move.
Let me end this with a story — this was supposed to be short, after all.
Anyone that knows me also knows that I’m that guy that lives his life with that fire engine siren permanently attached to the top of my head. I’ve saved numerous lives (the real thing) in my time here on the planet, and when I see a bad situation, I’m that guy. I run toward the situation — not away.
Recently my two sons have relocated to Reno, NV. Reno is a town on the move, for those that haven’t been there. It actually has those huge public spaces next to the Truckee River, and if you need some validation that such spaces matter, you should visit. With so many sunny days, you’ll see lots of folks of all stripes congregate next to the river. There are bars lining a section, and folks of all stripes — from Hispanic and black families, white folks, as well as what my son calls ’80s Music Dude’ — an old white guy with a small boombox — who hang out there for at least a couple of hours a day. It’s truly pleasant to go down to downtown Reno, and every time I’m in town, we drive down there and avail ourselves of the scene, even though only two blocks away, the downtown casino industry is obviously in collapse. This is no paradise.
Only perhaps 10 blocks away, though, is another scene. And that is Reno’s large, linear homeless encampment that lines the Union Pacific mainline railroad tracks. Reno, like many towns, started out as a transportation center. I-80 runs through the town, and the UP mainline ends up going over Donner Summit down into Sacramento and the Bay Area. It is not a small encampment — Reno is on the edge of that weather envelope that allows year-round outdoor occupancy, and as pressure mounts in the more desirable homeless locations in California, more people are showing up. I don’t have numbers, but the environmental factors point to nothing but growth.
My son recently bought a very nice, pretty expensive mountain bike to celebrate, at some level, his financial success in the blockchain business. I am indeed a bike nut myself, so after he bought it, I took it for a spin. I rode down the hill from their modest apartment complex, down to 4th Street that runs by the river, and adjacent to the homeless encampment. On the side of 4th St., close to old downtown, there was a young girl, probably about 14, weeping and screaming. I saw her, and slowed down.
But I did not stop. Instead, I thought “what would my son say if I got off his new bike, and while I was comforting this human, someone literally jumped out of the bushes and stole his new bike?” My older son is a transplant from San Francisco, and had spent the last year living in the Mission, and stepping over piles of human defecation across that city. Though he is pretty righteous about his mission to help in the world, he feels little of the need to share comfort to the homeless. I’d be out an expensive bike if bad stuff happened, and I’d also suffer his wrath.
Just so you know — I really wasn’t worried about my personal safety. That thought didn’t even occur to me (though I guess maybe it should have.) It was really about the bike. So I rode on by.
Those that know me also know that on the Fearless scale, I’m pretty off the charts. There are all sorts of reasons for this, some beautiful, some less so. But if you have a society where even someone like me won’t stop, what does that do to everyone else’s capacity to grow and develop empathy?
Though it certainly won’t be the last, the academic literature is starting to turn to the obvious failures of the epidemiological science surrounding COVID, the conclusions, and their dramatic failures in over-predicting harm, which was then used as rationale for global civil liberties suspensions around the globe.
It’s a decent enough paper, and explores the ramifications of a refusal of the COVID mathematical modeling community to ground themselves in past pandemics with data as well as historical newspaper coverage. For those of us with a COVID hobby/problem, I highly recommend reading it. The authors point out with particular historic pandemic cases (they draw heavily, for example, on the 1889-1891 pandemic, with its similar behaviors in terms of low morbidity for children, and obvious seasonal variation.) Here’s the killer paragraph from the paper:
“Specific epidemiological correlates between the 1889–91 and 2020–21 pandemics include the low morbidity among children, the lack of the shift in excess mortality to younger age groups usually seen with pandemic influenza, the magnitude and distribution of peak excess mortality ratios in metropolitan settings, and the rapidity of epidemic propagation within communities (Valleron et al. 2010; Campbell A. and Morgan E. 2020; Nicoll et al. 2012; Nguyen-Van-Tam et al. 2003; Honigsbaum 2010; Smith 1995). While downscaling this synoptic analogy to make short-term forecasts of COVID-19 activity in any given place 130 years later is clearly foolish (short-range forecasts from well-observed local data being very much the preserve of computational modelling), the historical record may provide a richer and more useful understanding of the range of medium- and long-term consequences of a pandemic of this epidemiological pattern on human societies than even the most complex mathematical model.“
If you had to have a quick takeaway, the authors say “look, this has happened before… and will likely happen again — just get your timescale right.” (For all Battlestar Galactica fans, cue the appropriate music..)
Looking at the structure of knowledge in the paper, the work itself fits well on the concept of what I’ve named Intellectual Flatland. And what is Intellectual Flatland? It’s that map that academics keep of their disciplines, that maintain there is no evolutionary pattern to information complexity. Everyone has their own little island, and that can definitely accrete, or erode as time goes along. Connectivity and precedence just isn’t there. The case the authors make is had this static pattern-matching happened before the start of the pandemic, we would have moved our understanding far faster, far more quickly with regards to modeling, if we had just paid attention to the past. If we had only visited Past Pandemic Pattern Island.
And, at some level, they’re correct. But the deeper “why” isn’t just “send all epidemiological modelers to pandemic history class,” though that might have helped a little. A confession — I’m always a bit suspicious of learned knowledge, because having delivered it for quite literally 37 YEARS!!! I just know how little people listen if their brains are not prepared for the message, or its complexity.
The real answer is to get people to do more asking “why?” And that’s harder. There are tools I highly recommend, like the Toyota Design Process “Five Whys”. But it really helps more, if your brain has the circuits, to understand the knowledge complexity scaffolding process.
I’ve written quite a bit about this. The short version is that we start with lessons learned from the simplest human social structures (Survival Bands) and then move up — through Tribal/Mythical knowledge, Authority-Driven Power Structures, Legalistic/Algorithmic processing, Heuristic thinking where individual decisionmaking matters, and then on up into higher empathy synergizing of individual viewpoints, and ending up Reflecting back on the whole can of beans.
The big insight here — is this whole knowledge structure thing is nested — lower levels are not thrown away — they instead are embedded in higher forms. It’s not “either/or”. It’s a multiple “Yes/And”.
Here’s the Knowledge Structure chart. This thing is gold.
In a perfect pandemic world, all people executing at a given knowledge structure would be well-scaffolded with at least some representative examples of the information underneath. What that might mean, in the case of modeling, is that expert analysis of historical data would be integrated as far as weighting functions for any contemporary modeling. That would mean that the historical information referred to in this paper would have been used, in some kind of translated aggregate, to map the pattern of this pandemic to the past. If this was wrong — that for whatever reason, there was no historic precedent — that would have shown up as well as data collected for the broader pandemic, as time progressed, would be incongruous with the model.
It’s worth it to take a minute and discuss the meaning of “history” in all this. Of course, anyone that’s ever looked at history knows that any numbers from history are literally fraught with peril. The authors of the paper claim to have analyzed historical data, and mention newspaper clippings as well. My guess is they’re playing the empirical research card for status assertion — they are academics, in academic hierarchies, after all. Yet any statistical researcher worth their salt knows that we really have only improved with data collection. When it comes to illnesses and death (especially of the poor) such numbers from history are mostly nonsense. No one really knows.
But even with that said, history as myth is vitally important. History as myth, or narrative, often captures deep information that actually happened — or the myth memetically was not likely to have persisted. Yes, BS does survive. But myths last because, fascinatingly enough, they contain information that are the result of validity grounding, often from large-scale catastrophe. In the lower v-Meme set (below the Trust Boundary and Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Memes) there is precious little validity grounding. Authorities, experts, and processes say “we know stuff, and you should believe us because we are smart/thorough/etc.”
Myth is different. One of my favorite examples of how this works involves Native American reverence for nature. There is a whole religious edifice built in tribal societies saying “preserve Mother Earth.” A good question is “where did that come from?” Obviously, in terms of Western and Eastern philosophy, for the most part, we don’t seem to care very much about the Earth.
If one, however, understands the context of the Pleistocene extinction, where tribes cross the Bering Land Bridge, and found a whole continent of giant, tasty mammals, this all starts making more sense. The first humans dined away on almost all of these, as few of the animals were evolved enough to avoid the newly transited predators. Many of the species that vanished were “giant” versions of earlier species. And giantism occurs as an evolutionary response in a given species from a lack of evolution along the lines of inter-agent coordination. The few large species that survived — like bison; and mammoths were some of the last to go for reasons of inter-agent coordination.
The incumbent likely starvation after the Giant Pleistocene Barbecue knocked those tribes of humans on their butts — and led to the deeper validity grounding of “don’t just kill off nature or it won’t be there to eat.” These types of deep history events likely constructed the mythos of nature worship.
There’s not much difference between the story above, and the need for appropriate myth generation in the epidemiology community, with solid narratives that form the basis for sound modeling. A selection of narratives might form the basis for model construction, as well as reflection upon why, if a model did fail in its predictive capacity, exactly why it failed.
My guess is you’re going to see serious narrative generation in microcosm about five years from now, when the reality of the societal transgression is fully understood. Epidemiologists and immunologists will be looking at a Survival-level event, with the incumbent trauma and neuroplasticity that accompanies all these things. The In-group supporting all this is going to come un-done, because the recommendations of the various NPIs have been so ineffective and fundamentally anti-human behavior. Like it or not, we are social animals, and all the NPIs are profoundly anti-social, and especially anti-empathetic. And also importantly, anyone who can read a time series can clearly see they didn’t work.
A better question is this — how did the epidemiological and immunological communities get so ungrounded? My suspicion is this has come as a price paid of the specialization and sophistication of the technical communities. Those models, even if they’ve been wrong, are not trivial. There are a host of skills required in order to create them, ranging from statistics, data analysis, coding and so on. There seems to be some magical belief that people learn everything in a field when they get a Ph.D. Nothing could be further from the truth. And in the heightened pressures of the current research milieu, you have to learn enough to avail yourself of funding. You’re far better off learning a statistical package than reading historical accounts of the bubonic plague. And worse — this turns out to be a Survival level choice if you’re a grad student. The longer musings are going to come far later in the career game, after the rigid hierarchical social structures inherent in research groups have a chance to hammer on your brain, and actually prevent you from caring on big-picture notions outside your immediate wheelhouse/silo.
And that, of course, will distort how you see the world, or history and your place in it.
One thing that is important to remember is that such sophistication comes with it sophistication in self-delusion as well. We can create elaborate rituals to elevate our status, and certainly the epidemiological community has done this. Two years ago, the prospects for various stars rotating through permanent advisory chairs in networks like CNN and MSNBC never occurred to them. Finally, at last, they were receiving the notoriety that their titles surely implied they deserved.
But a lack of validity grounding will get the best of any civilization. And the only way to avoid that is to understand knowledge scaffolding, and use it.