Archive for the ‘Mental Health’ Category

Let’s say one has a sheet or sheaf of paper to cut. Lots of tools available for that purpose. The venerable scissors can do the job for small projects, though the cut line is unlikely to be very straight if that’s among the objectives. (Heard recently that blunt-nosed scissors for cutting construction paper are no longer used in kindergarten and the early grades, resulting in kids failing to develop the dexterity to manipulate that ubiquitous tool.) A simple razor blade (i.e., utility knife) drawn along a straightedge can cut 1–5 sheets at once but loses effectiveness at greater thicknesses. The machete-blade paper cutter found in copy centers cuts more pages at once but requires skill to use properly and safely. The device usually (but not always) includes an alignment guide for the paper and guard for the blade to discourage users from slicing fingers and hands. A super-heavy-duty paper cutter I learned to use for bookbinding could cut two reams of paper at a time and produced an excellent cut line. It had a giant clamp so that media (paper, card stock, etc.) didn’t shift during the cut (a common weakness of the machete blade) and required the operator to press buttons located at two corners of the standing machine (one at each hip) to prohibit anyone who became too complacent from being tempted to reach in and, as a result, slicing their fingers clean off. That idiot-proofing feature was undoubtedly developed after mishaps that could be attributed to either faulty design or user error depending on which side of the insurance claim one found oneself.

Fool-proofing is commonplace throughout the culture, typically sold with the idea of preserving health and wellness or saving lives. For instance, the promise (still waiting for convincing evidence) that self-driving cars can manage the road better in aggregate than human drivers hides the entirely foreseeable side effect of eroding attention and driving skill (already under assault from the ubiquitous smart phone no one can seem to put down). Plenty of anecdotes of gullible drivers who believed the marketing hype, forfeited control to autodrive, stopped paying attention, and ended up dead put the lie to that canard. In another example, a surprising upswing in homeschooling (not synonymous with unschooling) is also underway, resulting in keeping kids out of state-run public school. Motivations for opting out include poor academic quality, incompatible beliefs (typically related to religious faith or lack thereof), botched response to the pandemic, and the rise of school shootings. If one responded with fear at every imaginable provocation or threat, many entirely passive and unintentional, the bunker mentality that develops is somewhat understandable. Moreover, demands that others (parent, teachers, manufacturers, civil authorities, etc.) take responsibility for protecting individual citizens. If extended across all thinking, it doesn’t take long before a pathological complex develops.

Another protective trend is plugging one’s ears and refusing to hear discomfiting truth, which is already difficult to discern from the barrage of lies and gaslighting that pollute the infosphere. Some go further by killing silencing the messenger and restricting free speech as though that overreach somehow protects against uncomfortable ideas. Continuing from the previous post about social contagion, the viral metaphor for ideas and thinking, i.e., how the mind is “infected” by ideas from outside itself, is entirely on point. I learned about memes long before the “meme” meme (i.e., “going viral”) popularized and debased the term. The term originated in Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene (1976), though I learned about memes from Daniel Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained (1992). As part of information theory, Dennett describes the meme as an information carrier similar to genes (phonetic similarity was purposeful). Whether as cognition or biology, the central characteristic is that of self-replicating (and metamorphosing or mutating) bits or bytes of info. The viral metaphor applies to how one conceptualizes the body’s and/or mind’s defensive response to inevitable contact with nastiness (bugs, viruses, ideas). Those who want to remain unexposed to either biological pathogens (uninfected) or dangerous ideas (ideologically pure) are effectively deciding to live within a bubble that indeed provides protection but then renders them more vulnerable if/when they exit the bubble. They effectively trap themselves inside. That’s because the immune system is dynamic and can’t harden itself against virulent invaders except through ongoing exposure. Obviously, there’s a continuum between exposure to everything and nothing, but by veering too close to the negative pole, the immune system is weakened, making individuals vulnerable to pathogens healthy people fend off easily.

The hygiene hypothesis suggests that children not allowed to play in the sand and dirt or otherwise interact messily with the environment (including pets) are prone to asthma, allergies, and autoimmune diseases later in life. Jonathan Haidt makes a similar argument with respect to behavior in his book The Coddling of the American Mind (2018) (co-authored with Greg Lukianoff), namely, that overprotecting children by erecting too many guides, guards, and fool-proofing ironically ends up hobbling children and making them unable to cope with the rigors of life. Demands for trigger warnings, safe spaces, deplatforming, and outright censorship are precisely that inability to cope. There is no easy antidote because, well, life is hard sometimes. However, unless one is happy to be trapped inside a faux protective bubble of one’s own making, then maybe consider taking off the training wheels and accepting some risk, fully recognizing that to learn, grow, and develop, stumbling and falling are part of the process. Sure, life will leave some marks, but isn’t that at least partly the point?

Can’t remember how I first learned the term conversion hysteria (a/k/a conversion disorder a/k/a functional neurologic symptom disorder) but it was early in adulthood. The meaning is loose and subject to interpretation, typically focusing more on symptoms presented than triggers or causes. My lay understanding is that conversion hysteria occurs when either an individual or group works themselves into a lather over some subject and loses psychological mooring. I had my own experience with it when younger and full of raging hormones but later got myself under control. I also began to recognize that numerous historical events bore strong enough resemblance to categorize them as instances of group conversion hysteria. In recent years, clinical psychologist Mattias Desmet’s description of mass formation psychosis fits the same pattern, which is elaborated by him more formally. Some reports refer to Desmet’s description as “discredited.” I decline to referee the debate.

Two historical events where people lost their minds in response to severe disruption of social norms are the Salem witch trials and the Weimar/Nazi era in Germany. Two further, more recent episodes are Trump Derangement Syndrome in the U.S. and the Covid Cult worldwide, neither of which are over. The latter features governments and petty bureaucrats everywhere misapplying authoritarian force to establish biosecurity regimes over what turns out to have been a hypochondriac response to a bad flu virus (and yes, it was pretty bad) along with a maniacal power grab. What all episodes share is the perception — real or imagined — of some sort of virulent infection that triggers fear-laden desperation to purge the scourge at literally any cost, including destroying the host. The viral metaphor applies whether the agent is literally a virus alien to the physical body or merely an idea (meme) alien to the social body.

Let me acknowledge (as suggested here) Jordan Peterson’s comments in his appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience that such events resemble social contagion that come and go in waves. However, those waves are not like the regular, established intervals of the tides or daylight/nighttime. Rather, they’re more like rogue waves or tsunamis that break across segments of a culture unpredictably. Peterson’s primary example was the very thing that brought him to prominence: Canadian legislation requiring that teachers use students’ preferred pronouns. While initially part of a broad social movement in support of transgender students in Canada and elsewhere, the issue has since become foundational to Woke ideology. Peterson said to Rogan that by pushing the matter into the mainstream (rather than it being at issue for a tiny fraction of students), Canadian legislators were quite literally opening the floodgates to a wave of confusion among youths already wrestling with identity. I can’t recall if Peterson said as much at the time (2017?) or is projecting onto the past.

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/rant on

The previous time I was prompted to blog under this title was regarding the deplorable state of public education in the U.S., handily summarized at Gin and Tacos (formerly on my blogroll). The blogger there is admirable in many respects, but he has turned his attention away from blogging toward podcasting and professional writing with the ambition of becoming a political pundit. (I have disclaimed any desire on my part to be a pundit. Gawd … kill me first.) I check in at Gin and Tacos rarely anymore, politics not really being my focus. However, going back to reread the linked blog post, his excoriation of U.S. public education holds up. Systemic rot has since graduated into institutions of higher learning. Their mission statements, crafted in fine, unvarying academese, may exhibit unchanged idealism but the open secret is that the academy has become a network of brainwashing centers for vulnerable young adults. See this blog post on that subject. What prompts this new reality check is the ongoing buildup of truly awful news, but especially James Howard Kunstler’s recent blog post “The Four Fuckeries” over at Clusterfuck Nation, published somewhat in advance of his annual year-end-summary-and-predictions post. Kunstler pulls no punches, delivering assessments of activities in the public interest that have gone so abysmally wrong it beggars the imagination. I won’t summarize; go read for yourself.

At some point, I realized when linking to my own past blog posts that perhaps too many include the word wrong in the title. By that, I don’t mean merely incorrect or bad or unfortunate but rather purpose-built for comprehensive damage that mere incompetence could not accomplish or explain. Some may believe the severity of damage is the simple product of lies compounding lies, coverups compounding coverups, and crimes compounding crimes. That may well be true in part. But there is far too much evidence of Manichean manipulation and heedless damn-the-torpedoes-full-steam-ahead garbage decision-making to waive off widespread institutional corruptions as mere conspiracy. Thus, Kunstler’s choice of the term fuckeries. Having already reviewed the unmitigated disaster of public education, let me instead turn to other examples.

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This blog has never been obliged to observe every passing holiday or comment on celebrity deaths or public events via press release, public statement, command performance, ritual oversharing, or other characterization more closely associated with institutions and public figures who cannot keep from thrusting themselves wantonly onto the public despite having nothing of value to say. The chattering class maintains noise levels handily, so no need to add my voice to that cacophonous chorus. To wit, the recent Thanksgiving holiday prompts each of us every year to take stock anew and identify some area(s) of contentedness and gratitude, which can be challenging considering many Americans feel abandoned, betrayed, or worse as human history and civilization lurch despotically toward their end states. However, one overheard statement of gratitude this year made a strong impression on me, and as is my wont, I couldn’t help but to connect a variety of disparate ideas. Let me digress, starting with music.

Decades ago, the London Philharmonic under Jorge Mester recorded a collection of fanfares commissioned during WWII. American composers represented include (in no particular order) Henry Cowell, Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, Morton Gould, Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thomson, and Walter Piston. None of their respective fanfares has entered the standard repertoire. However, the sole composer whose stirring fanfare has become legitimate and instantly recognizable Americana is Aaron Copland. His fanfare celebrates no famous figure or fighting force but rather the common man. Copland’s choice to valorize the common man was a masterstroke and the music possesses appealing directness and simplicity that are unexpectedly difficult to capture in music. Far more, um, common is elaborate, noisy, surface detail that fails to please the ear nearly so well as Copland’s stately fanfare. Indeed, the album is called Twenty Fanfares for the Common Man even though that title only applies to Copland’s entry.

The holiday comment that stuck with me was a son’s gratitude for the enduring example set by his father, a common man. Whether one is disposed to embrace or repudiate the patriarchy, there can be no doubt that a father’s role within a family and community is unique. (So, too, is the mother’s. Relax, it’s not a competition; both are important and necessary.) The father-protector and father-knows-best phase of early childhood is echoed in the humorous observation that a dog sees its master as a god. Sadly, the my-dad-can-beat-up-your-dad taunt lives on, transmuted in … superhero flicks. As most of us enter adulthood, coming to terms with the shortcomings of one or both parents (nobody’s perfect …) is part of the maturation process: establishing one’s own life and identity independent yet somehow continuous from those of one’s parents. So it’s not unusual to find young men in particular striking out on their own, distancing from and disapproving of their fathers (sometimes sharply) but later circling back to reflect and reconcile. How many of us can honestly express unalloyed admiration for our fathers and their character examples? I suspect frustration when feet of clay are revealed is more typical.

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The difference between right and wrong is obvious to almost everyone by the end of kindergarten. Temptations persist and everyone does things great and small known to be wrong when enticements and advantages outweigh punishments. C’mon, you know you do it. I do, too. Only at the conclusion of a law degree or the start of a political career (funny how those two often coincide) do things get particularly fuzzy. One might add military service to those exceptions except that servicemen are trained not to think, simply do (i.e., follow orders without question). Anyone with functioning ethics and morality also recognizes that in legitimate cases of things getting unavoidably fuzzy in a hypercomplex world, the dividing line often can’t be established clearly. Thus, venturing into the wide, gray, middle area is really a signal that one has probably already gone too far. And yet, demonstrating that human society has not really progressed ethically despite considerable gains in technical prowess, egregiously wrong things are getting done anyway.

The whopper of which nearly everyone is guilty (thus, guilty pleasure) is … the Whopper. C’mon, you know you eat it do it. I know I do. Of course, the irresistible and ubiquitous fast food burger is really only one example of a wide array of foodstuffs known to be unhealthy, cause obesity, and pose long-term health problems. Doesn’t help that, just like Big Tobacco, the food industry knowingly refines their products (processed foods, anyway) to be hyperstimuli impossible to ignore or resist unless one is iron willed or develops an eating disorder. Another hyperstimulus most can’t escape is the smartphone (or a host of other electronic gadgets). C’mon, you know you crave the digital pacifier. I don’t, having managed to avoid that particular trap. For me, electronics are always only tools. However, railing against them with respect to how they distort cognition (as I have) convinces exactly no one, so that argument goes on the deferral pile.

Another giant example not in terms of participation but in terms of effect is the capitalist urge to gather to oneself as much filthy lucre as possible only to sit heartlessly on top of that nasty dragon’s hoard while others suffer in plain sight all around. C’mon, you know you would do it if you could. I know I would — at least up to a point. Periods of gross inequality come and go over the course of history. I won’t make direct comparisons between today and any one of several prior Gilded Ages in the U.S., but it’s no secret that the existence today of several hundy billionaires and an increasing number of mere multibillionaires represents a gross misallocation of financial resources: funneling the productivity of the masses (and fiat dollars whiffed into existence with keystrokes) into the hands of a few. Fake philanthropy to launder reputations fail to convince me that such folks are anything other than miserly Scrooges fixated on maintaining and growing their absurd wealth, influence, and bogus social status at the cost of their very souls. Seriously, who besides sycophants and climbers would want to even be in the same room as one of those people (names withheld)? Maybe better not to answer that question.

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A recent episode of the Dark Horse Podcast introduced what appeared initially to be a new bit of lingo: the Inversion Fallacy. I’ve discussed logical fallacies and hidden biases in the past, and this one bears directly my multipart blog series “Dissolving Reality” from 2015 where I put forward the Ironic and Post-Ironic mindsets. The Ironic is more nearly the reversal of meaning yet tracks with the Inversion Fallacy. Without getting too hung up on the pointless minutia of terminology (trying to distinguish between, say, reversal, inversion, transposition, contradiction, and opposition), inversion means to turn something upside-down or on its head. It’s also related to devil’s advocacy, topsy-turvy argumentation, and is not … is too! squabbles where a thing becomes its opposite. Several pundits and commentators have lost my readership because of frequent forays into disingenuous reverse argumentation. I simply lack patience.

As described on Dark Horse, the Inversion Fallacy occurs when a thing or idea is treated as equivalent to its inverse. One example now commonplace in Wokedom is to accuse someone of being racist and then insist denial is proof of racism. (Also heard this particular example called a Kafka Trap, also on Dark Horse). As math, the equation would be either x = 1/x or x = –x. Inversion is the former, reversal the latter. The x = –x formulation (the Ironic) suggests that an idea or thing automatically invokes (i.e., brings into being) its opposite, especially through the use of sarcasm. Here’s the old joke illustrating the point:

Professor of linguistics hold forth before a class of undergraduates, “In language as in mathematics, a double negative is a positive. But in no mathematics or language does a double positive equal a negative.”

To which a student replies dryly, “Yeah, right ….”

The modest advantage of the x = 1/x formulation is that when x = 0, the equation has no meaning because dividing by zero is … undefined. The obvious example is the oft-quoted (and misquoted) Vietnam War nonsense, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” That’s dividing by zero in a nutshell.

The difference between the two formulations does not IMO prevent the fallacy from working. My suspicion is that multiple ways of observing, describing, and naming the fallacy exist. An attribute of the Post-Ironic is that the tension between thing and not thing is expanded to include a fluid spectrum of competing positions. Whether reversal or inversion, Ironic or Post-Ironic, the common element is the necessity to set aside obvious cognitive dissonance and enter a state of flux where meanings cannot be fixed. Just a few blog posts ago, I cited George Orwell’s famous formulation: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” Requires Orwellian Doublethink to accept those propositions.

Watched Everything Everywhere All at Once (DVD version) at home on my TV, which is where I see most films these days. Very few inspire me to trek to the theater anymore to overpay for seats and popcorn. Was pleased to enjoy this film quite a bit — at least before turning an analytical eye toward it. Let me provide a fun, glossy assessment before getting bogged down in troublesome detail.

The film introduces and trades heavily on characters from a supposed multiverse (a multitude of parallel universes branching indiscreetly from arbitrary decision points into an infinity of possibilities) “verse-jumping” into our universe to fix and repair damage done in one or more of the others. As plot devices go, this one is now quite commonplace and always (perhaps inevitably, given our preoccupation with ourselves) positions our universe (the only one we know until someone from outside intrudes) at the center of the others and as the linchpin in some grand plan to save the space-time continuum. It’s a worn trope yet allows storytellers immense freedom to conjure anything imaginable. Everything depicts disorienting alternative universes quite well, most of them (for no particular reason beyond having fun, I surmise) absurd variations of the familiar. Indeed, unlike most films where I sit in stone silence no matter what is presented, this one generated laugh-out-loud moments and gestures across the couch to the effect “did you see that?” In short, what that means is the film produced reflexive responses (it goosed me), which is quite unusual considering how most films, despite lots of overwrought action and drama, fail to register more than a checkbox “yup, got it.”

Actors portraying the three or four main characters do well in their respective jobs, playing several versions of themselves from different universes with diverse experiences. Most of the film is chase-and-evade, devolving at times into a familiar martial-arts punchfest that has frankly lost all possibility of making an impact in the era of overpowered, invulnerable superheros and magical unpredictability. Why filmmakers believe audiences want to see more of this drivel is beyond me, but I guess the animal curiosity to find out which make-believe character will prevail in a battle royale never gets old with mouth-breathers. I’m quite over it. The central conflict, however, wasn’t about the strongest punch. Rather, it was about persisting in the face of revealed meaninglessness a/k/a nihilism.

So here’s where hindsight analysis kinda ruined things for me. Although I recognize storytelling as elemental to modern cognition and consciousness, I don’t regard most narrative forms as art. Cinema, because of its financial interests and collaborative nature, rarely rises to the level of art. There are simply too many diverse elements that must be assembled under a unified aesthetic vision for that to occur often. Cinema is thus more entertainment than art, just like sports and games are entertainment, not art. Impressive skill may be demonstrated, which often produces enjoyable results, but I don’t conflate skill or mere craft with artistry. (I also tire of everything that provides moral and epistemological orientation being conflated with religion). So when films introduce super-serious subjects that really trouble me (e.g., overpopulation, institutional corruption, the climate emergency) but treat them lightly, I’m bothered. Everything does that with philosophy.

Coming to grips with nihilism and the absurdity of existence is the central feature of more than one 20th-century philosophy (and their variants). Downstream (or parallel?) are artistic genres that also express the idea, though in far less overt terms. One can easily get lost down a hole, seeking the bottom (alternatively, the root of things) but finding only the abyss. For that very reason, I have acquaintance with philosophical themes but have not truly sunk into them deeply. Nihilism is not something to mess with, even as a thought experiment or intellectual inquiry — especially if one is inclined to connect strongly with those same things. In Everything, the nihilist conclusion (i.e., that nothing matters) manifests absurdly as a giant, black, everything bagel that can literally suck a person into its hole. Well and good enough; probably best not to overexplain that McGuffin. But it demands a conclusion or resolution, which comes in the form of the mother rescuing the daughter. Ironically, it was the mother (from an alternative universe) who had introduced the daughter (also an alternative) to verse-jumping, who then (the daughter) got lost down the hole and threatened to collapse the multiverse into the everything bagel in a final gesture of despair. In effect, the mother had tinkered with powers well beyond her control, unwittingly created the daughter-monster with out-of-control feeling and unexpected powers, and had to clean up her own mess. How does she (the mother) do it? Through the power of love.

OK, fine. Love (especially unconditional love, as opposed to romantic or familial love) is a universal salve capable of healing all wounds. Except that it’s not. When the film finally depicts the rescue, saving the daughter and multiverse from destruction, it comes across as flat, obvious, and ineffectual (to me at least) and breaks the tone and pacing of the film. Lots of films resort to the power of love to save the day (typically just before the stroke of midnight), but they usually (not always) have better set-ups, which is to say, their film universes cohere and deliver cogent conclusions rather than waving a magic love-wand over everything to solve and resolve. The writers of this film are adept at the enjoyable absurd parts that launch and propel the story but could not stick the landing. Introducing (albeit comically) doomsday philosophy but then failing to treat it seriously enough left me deeply conflicted and dissatisfied. Perhaps it’s a case where my suspension of disbelief was not complete enough. Or maybe I brought too much into the film from outside, but we all have inescapable frames of reference. I wasn’t exactly triggered, merely frustrated. YMMV

Got one of those chain e-mail messages from who knows who or where, ending with the exhortation to pass it on. My comments follow each of the titular things. Read at your peril. (I could nit-pick the awfulness of the writing of the quoted paragraphs, but I’ll just let that go.) Before commenting, however, let me point out that the anonymous writer behind this listicle assumes that systems will function long enough for predictions to prove out. The last two years have already demonstrated that the world is entering a period of extreme flux where many styles and functions of social organization will break down irreparably. Supply chain difficulties with computer chips (and relatedly, fossil fuels) are just one example of nonlinear change that is making owning and operating a personal vehicle far less affordable (soon impossible for many) than decades past. Impossible to predict when breakdown reaches critical mass, but when it does, all bets are off.

1. The Post Office. Get ready to imagine a world without the post office. They are so deeply in financial trouble that there is probably no way to sustain it long term. Email, Fed Ex, and UPS have just about wiped out the minimum revenue needed to keep the post office alive. Most of your mail every day is junk mail and bills. 

Despite its popularity among the general public, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS link ends in .com, not .gov) has been under attack for generations already with the ostensible goal of privatizing it. Financial trouble is by design: the USPS is being driven to extinction so that its services can be handed off to for-profit alternatives, jacking up prices in the process. So yeah, it might fail and go away like other cherished American institutions.

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Most poets in the West believe that some sort of democracy is preferable to any sort of totalitarian state and accept certain political obligations … but I cannot think of a single poet of consequence whose work does not, either directly or by implication, condemn modern civilisation as an irremediable mistake, a bad world which we have to endure because it is there and no one knows how it could be made into a better one, but in which we can only retain our humanity in the degree to which we resist its pressures. — W.H. Auden

A while back, I made an oblique reference (a comment elsewhere, no link) to a famous Krishnamurti quote: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Taken on its face, who would agree to be swept up in the madness and absurdity of any given historical moment? Turns out, almost everyone — even if that means self-destruction. The brief reply to my comment was along the lines of “Why shouldn’t you or I also make mental adjustments to prevailing sickness to obtain peace of mind and tranquility amidst the tumult?” Such an inversion of what seems to me right, proper, and acceptable caused me to reflect and recall the satirical movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The full title is not often given, but the forgotten second part is what’s instructive (e.g., mutually assured destruction: MAD). Events spinning out of control? Nothing any individual can do to restore sanity? Stop squirming and embrace it.

That’s one option when faced with the prospect of futile resistance, I suppose. Give in, succumb, and join the party (more like a rager since the beginning of the Cold War). I also recognize that I’m not special enough to warrant any particular consideration for my intransigence. Yet it feels like self-betrayal to abandon the good character I’ve struggled (with mixed success) to build and maintain over the course of a lifetime. Why chuck all that now? Distinguishing character growth from decay it not always so simple. In addition, given my openness to new ideas and interpretations, established bodies of thought (often cultural consensus) are sometimes upended and destabilized by someone arguing cogently for or against something settled and unexamined for a long time. And then there is the epistemological crisis that has rendered sense-making nearly impossible. That crisis is intensified by a variety of character types acting in bad faith to pollute the public sphere and drive false narratives.

For instance, the show trial public hearings just begun regarding the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol (or whatever it’s being called, I prefer “Storming of the Capitol”) are commonly understood, at least from one side of the political spectrum, as a deliberate and brazen attempt to brainwash the public. I decline to tune in. But that doesn’t mean my opinions on that topic are secure any more than I know how true and accurate was the 2020 election that preceded and sparked the Jan. 6 attack. Multiple accounts of the election and subsequent attack aim to convert me (opinion-wise) to one exclusive narrative or another, but I have no way to evaluate narrative claims beyond whatever noise reaches me through the mainstream media I try to ignore. Indeed, those in the streets and Capitol building on Jan. 6 were arguably swept into a narrative maelstrom that provoked a fairly radical if ultimately harmless event. No one knew at the time, of course, exactly how it would play out.

So that’s the current state of play. Ridiculous, absurd events, each with competing narratives, have become the new normal. Yours facts and beliefs do daily battle with my facts and beliefs in an ideological battle of all against all — at least until individuals form into tribes declare their political identity and join that absurdity.

Cynics knew it was inevitable: weaponized drones and robots. Axon Enterprises, Inc., maker of police weaponry (euphemistically termed “public safety technologies”), announced its development of taser equipped drones presumed capable of neutralizing an active shooter inside of 60 seconds. Who knows what sorts of operating parameters restrict their functions or if they can be made invulnerable to hacking or disallowed use as offensive weapons?

A sane, civilized society would recognize that, despite bogus memes about an armed society being a polite society, the prospect of everyone being strapped (like the fabled Old American West) and public spaces (schools, churches, post offices, laundromats, etc.) each being outfitted with neutralizing technologies is fixing the wrong problem. But we are no longer a sane society (begging the question whether we ever were). So let me suggest something radical yet obvious: the problem is not technological, it’s cultural. The modern world has made no progress with respect to indifference toward the suffering of others. Dehumanizing attitudes and technologies are no longer, well, medieval, but they’re no less cruel. For instance, people are not put in public stocks or drawn and quartered anymore, but they are shamed, cancelled, tortured, terrorized, propagandized, and abandoned in other ways that allow maniacs to pretend to others and to themselves that they are part of the solution. Hard to believe that one could now feel nostalgia for the days when, in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, calls for gun control were met with inaction (other then empty rhetoric) rather than escalation.

The problem with diagnosing the problem as cultural is that no one is in control. Like water, culture goes where it goes and apparently sinks to its lowest ebb. Attempts to channel, direct, and uplift culture might work on a small scale, but at the level of society — and with distorted incentives freedom is certain to deliver — malefactors are guaranteed to appear. Indeed, anything that contributes to the arms race (now tiny, remote-controlled, networked killing devices rather than giant atomic/nuclear ones) only invites greater harm and is not a solution. Those maniacs (social and technical engineers promising safety) have the wrong things wrong.

Small, insular societies with strict internal codes of conduct may have figured out something that large, free societies have not, namely, that mutual respect, knowable communities, and repudiation of advanced technologies give individuals something and someone to care about, a place to belong, and things to do. When the entire world is thrown open, such as with social media, populations become atomized and anonymized, unable to position or understand themselves within a meaningful social context. Anomie and nihilism are often the rotten fruit. Splintered family units, erosion of community involvement, and dysfunctional institutions add to the rot. Those symptoms of cultural collapse need to be addressed even if they are among the most difficult wrong things to get right.