Archive for February, 2013


Terrorism in the Checkout Lane

February 20, 2013
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

No doubt you heard that shoppers at a Kroger supermarket in Charlottesville, VA got a bit of a scare yesterday evening when a 22-year-old man walked into the store toting a loaded AR-15 rifle. Sounds frightening, and it was for some customers who ran out of the store upon seeing a large, semi-automatic gun similar to the one used by Newtown, Conn. shooter Adam Lanza in their grocery aisles.  [1]

In Virginia his behavior is considered legal and sane, and police released him. But perhaps in case the police or another gun-owner mistakenly killed him, the armed shopper carried in his pocket a note explaining that he was just exercising his 2nd Amendment right to walk around with a menacing weapon.

This is a brilliant demonstration of the politely hushed reality that the demand for guns correlates with insensitivity to the feelings and rights of other people. To be blunt: displaying a military-style assault rifle associated with rampage massacres is a form of psychological violence against unarmed people. The reality is that the man terrorized some fellow citizens who were intelligent enough to flee the store. Why say “terrorized”? Because his arsenal gave him grossly disproportionate power over others in an obscenely inappropriate situation. The vicious nature of the weapon allows it to kill indiscriminately in a split-second—much faster than any potential victim could evaluate the gunman’s intentions.

At a minimum, the armed shopper was brutally insensitive to other people. More likely, I’d guess, he wanted to force a confrontation with a world he feels is threatening his sense of potency. However he intended it, his behavior can be read as a threat display: a violent signal designed to intimidate “enemies.”

Because the behavior deliberately challenged social custom while careful not to break the letter of the law, it is passiveaggression. And passive aggression can be as lethal as an overt assault because it disables our reality-testing capabilities through its compulsive dishonesty. The grocery gunman pretends he is just “sticking up for himself,” and the public pretends that it isn’t reciprocally angry about being scared to death. Such a fog of motives invites accidents.

The grocery gunman’s mentality suggests a level of anxiety and paranoia that could justify keeping lethal weapons away from him. After all, even the NRA wants guns kept away from mentally unstable individuals. And with such a violation of community rights to peaceful food shopping (with children), how can we trust the gunman’s motives?

You notice that media conventions unthinkingly echo the gun carrier’s perspective by reporting he was “exercising his right,” not terrorizing people, and referring to him as “a 22-year-old man” not a “gunman.”

Similarly, neither media nor the Senate hearings call attention to the intoxicating nature of the nervous system arousal that has been triggered by the shock of massacred children in Newtown CT and by disputed government efforts to tame the threat of promiscuous military weapons in unpredictable hands. But look at the number of copycat and otherwise routine gun crimes in the news since the Newtown massacre. In the newspaper before me, I read “Suspect on loose after deadly Ariz. shooting” (AP). And beside it, yet another “Gunman kills bus driver, seizes boy” as hostage—in this case a retired truck driver who was “a menacing figure who once beat a dog to death with a lead pipe” and threatened kids “for setting foot on his property.”

For all you know, he’s standing next to you at the cucumber display.

The public reality is politely irrational—crazy—on this subject. The refusal to look at personal motives goes deeper than mere hypocrisy. Unless you’re considering fighting a guerrilla war against the Federal government (“to defend your rights”) or slaughtering a rival drug gang, there is no rational need to own assault weapons with large magazines. If your trigger finger demands that satisfaction, gun clubs could oversee their use.

The “debate” over gun control is actually a singing contest, with each side trying to woo public applause with its carefully crafted lyrics and repeated riffs. The gun control advocates have suffering and death supporting their position, as in the testimony of grieving parents from Newtown and nearly assassinated Rep. Gabrielle Gifford. Data also show that large-capacity assault weapons produce more rampage carnage. But the NRA and its politicians aren’t listening. They recite.  They riff.

If you think about it, this farce is a familiar form of negotiation when polarization has thwarted compromise.  The real work is “outsourced” to distant polls of the remote electorate. By the time the debate seeps into public awareness it is bound to be diluted, the compelling numbers outshouted by impassioned demands.  The crucial insight is that for the NRA and “the 22-year-old man,” the behavior is also passive aggression. It riffs to play along with polite negotiations, but the real argument is the threat of orchestrated retaliation by NRA supporters and election ad “war chests.”

If you’re being terrorized by a gunman in the toilet paper aisle of your supermarket, it’s not wise to confuse a “debate” with the passive fog of war.

*   *   *

1. “It’s time for more fun with guns from the great state of Virginia! Shoppers at a Kroger supermarket in Charlottesville got a bit of a scare yesterday evening when a 22-year-old man walked into the store toting a loaded AR-15 rifle. Sounds frightening, and it was for some customers who ran out of the store upon seeing a large, semi-automatic gun similar to the one used by Newtown, Conn. shooter Adam Lanza in their grocery aisles. Take it away, Daily Progress:

Charlottesville police Lt. Ronnie Roberts said the man did not break any laws. Since he legally owned the rifle and it was not concealed, he was within his rights, Roberts said. Virginia requires a permit to carry a concealed weapon, but has no such restriction on guns in plain view. According to police, the man originally entered the store unarmed, then went back to his car and retrieved his rifle. He then walked back into the store briefly before leaving again.

So, basically, it’s totally legal to carry whatever size gun you want anywhere in Virginia, so long as you have a permit. At least the supermarket managers were able to take some meaningful action. The gunman received a lifetime ban from the Kroger, according to The Daily Progress.”

James Holmes, who is accused of killing 12 people and wounding 58 at a Colorado movie theater on July 20, also allegedly used an AR-15. (kf)


Flu Shot Resistance – A Symptom of Death Denial?

February 14, 2013
TDF Guest Scott Murray

TDF Guest Scott Murray

Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich has made a career out of studying the cognitive processes that sustain dubious beliefs. There is something about flu season that makes me wish I could combine his work with that of Becker and enlist their aid in a cultural intervention. It seems there is a robust resistance to influenza vaccination despite the potential risks of the flu – a subject rife with extensions into Gilovich’s work. If the flu is so dangerous, what dubious beliefs inspire resistance to vaccination? And a glance at Beckerian thought might raise the question of why the fear of death wouldn’t drive more people to get vaccinated. But a deeper understanding of what death denial actually entails helps inform us why many resist the shot.

We’ve had rather mild flu seasons the last year or so (, but as statistics readily predict, occasionally influenza strains are more potent and many cases of serious flu infection can occur. The cost in dollars – and lives – can be quite serious. So why do some resist influenza vaccination?

Certainly the media, with its drive to fill air time and sell stories that attract attention, is part of the problem. Flu hype sends millions scrambling for a vaccination each year – but the media is known for its hyperbole, slanted use of facts, and even fear-mongering. It’s no wonder, then, that many cautious, critical individuals would see reports of this year’s raging epidemic and dismiss the need for a flu shot. But as Gilovich is insistent in pointing out, we tend to be most critical of that information which does not agree with the beliefs we already possess. As he puts it: “when the initial evidence supports our preferences, we are generally satisfied and terminate our search; when the initial evidence is hostile … we often dig deeper.” (82) In other words, those who suspect media hype and doubt the need for a flu shot may already believe that a flu shot is unnecessary, and be looking for reasons to support this belief.

Is a distrust of the media, with their tendency to overstate or distort facts, sufficient to explain dismissal of flu season severity? Becker might disagree. Cognitive biases are in one respect no different than elbows and thumbs: they’ve evolved to serve a purpose, and where Gilovich leaves off, Becker nicely steps in. Gilovich is a laboratory psychologist, a statistician; he resists the temptation to speculate too grandly on why the human brain comes hard-wired to accept information that supports existing beliefs while remaining doubtful of information that does not. Becker’s focus on death anxiety provides a compelling furtherance of this line of questioning.

Disease and death are deeply connected concepts. Disease is a limiting of life and brings the carefully repressed reality of our mortality painfully to the foreground of our thoughts. It’s no surprise, then, to discover a deep desire to believe that the flu shot is essentially needless. The CDC, in addressing the most prevalent myths that prevent influenza vaccination, have to deal with the ‘argument’ that influenza is only serious for those who are very young, elderly, pregnant or otherwise already ill. Your average healthy person can deal with influenza using natural means – namely, the immune system (

The challenge with this argument is that it isn’t untrue; in fact, the majority of people who come down with influenza nowadays – certainly in the more affluent Western world — survive relatively unscathed. But the problem with the argument is that it isn’t actually an argument against vaccination at all. Just because you can survive the flu does not mean you shouldn’t avoid it, if not only for yourself than for the basic public health service of not acting as a transmitter of the virus to someone who is more at risk of hospitalization or even death due to influenza. So the question persists: if vaccination serves yourself and the community, why resist it?

There are other studies being conducted on what is termed ‘naturalness bias’ (like this one at Rutgers: The result of the study is essentially that some people make bad decisions because of a cognitive bias towards means that feel more ‘natural’ – in other words, if you tell them a kind of tea is a great counteractive agent to influenza, they will drink it, but if you suggest that they get vaccinated, they will find all kinds of reasons to dispute you. Tea is from nature; vaccines are a mysterious, dubious concoction brought to you by the same science that supported cocaine as medicine and DDT as pesticide.

So all kinds of reasons exist to doubt the flu vaccine. What’s in the flu shot, anyway? Many believe that the flu shot can actually get you sick, which is itself a medical misunderstanding involving a combination of known statistical nemeses. For starters, a large number of influenza strains and influenza-like viruses exist, and the vaccine can only protect you against so many. Some argue that this makes the vaccine worthless, when in fact it means that the vaccine is only as good as the severity of the strains it actually protects against. Those concocting the vaccine work hard to ensure it protects against the most severe strains predicted to be active in any given season. Nevertheless, the likelihood that some who are vaccinated become sick soon after is statistically guaranteed given a large enough sample, either because the vaccination didn’t come in time or because those unlucky few caught something the vaccination could not defend against. To these few (a minority, particularly if you establish a clear window of time after vaccination where sickness constitutes a possible response to vaccination), it is not surprising that they feel cheated and suspect that they’ve been had — not only by flu hype, but by flu shot hype.

The other factor in play has to do with anecdotal evidence and word of mouth narrative; it’s a simple tale of how everyone knows someone (who knows someone?) who has ‘gotten sick from a flu shot.’ The CDC is very candid about why this can seem to happen to any who cares to actually read up on it: (

In the light of these cognitive factors that influence these behaviors (influenza vaccination denial and the anti-hype hype), is there a motivational determinant that can be identified? Becker’s theories outline what Gilovich’s work suggests: something at work deeper than cognitive tics, deeper than the prevalence of poor science in pop culture. Isn’t it safer for the psyche to believe that disease is less of a threat? That the body has what it needs to defend itself against death? Don’t flu severity denial – and the cognitive factors that help sustain it – work in the service of protecting the embodied self against the reality of its own fragility?


Gilovich, Thomas. How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. New York: Free Press, 1991.


Who Needs Humanities?

February 3, 2013
"Leucocephalus" Phil Hansten

“Leucocephalus” Phil Hansten

It is the debate that never dies. With finite (and often dwindling) resources for university and K-12 education, legislators and educators make cuts. Sadly, we invariably round up the usual suspects and haul them off to the gallows: music, art, theater, philosophy, literature, and languages, both ancient and modern. The executioners mean well, but they ignore a basic truth: science and technology without the humanities (i.e., knowledge without wisdom) is a recipe for societal disaster.

The controversy is not new. Over a century ago Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?) wrote a marvelous essay entitled, “An Historical Monograph Written in 4930.” (free on iBooks, etc.) Bierce is most famous for his acerbic but hilarious book “The Devil’s Dictionary” but in this essay he pretends to be writing in the year 4930 about the demise of “ancient America” which he says fell apart in the 1990s. He may have been a few decades early on the timing, but his analysis of the etiology of America’s final decline is stunningly prescient. Bierce cites two primary causes:

The Politics of Greed. Bierce identifies selfishness as a fundamental motive of human behavior, and describes how it destroyed American politics: “Politics, which may have had something of the contest of principles, becomes a struggle of interests, and its methods are frankly serviceable to personal and class advantage.” This is precisely what is happening in America today, in which the plutocracy is in control, and our political system has degenerated into a dysfunctional charade. There is little nuance… little insightful analysis… little genuine concern for humanity… just predatory self-interest punctuated by paroxysms of self-righteous demagoguery and rhinocerine obstinacy.

Prosperity at All Costs. Bierce then turns to the related issue of our unflagging focus on wealth and prosperity as our raison d’être. In a magnificent passage, he describes what “ancient America” ultimately sacrificed to achieve its mercenary goals:

“It is not to be denied that this unfortunate people was at one time singularly prosperous, in so far as national wealth is a measure and proof of prosperity. Among nations it was the richest nation. But at how great a sacrifice of better things was its wealth obtained! By the neglect of all education except that crude, elementary sort which fits men for the coarse delights of business and affairs but confers no capacity of rational enjoyment; by exalting the worth of wealth and making it the test and touchstone of merit; by ignoring art, scorning literature and despising science, except as these might contribute to the glutting of the purse … by pitilessly crushing out of their natures every sentiment and aspiration unconnected with accumulation of property, these civilized savages and commercial barbarians attained their sordid end.”

This remarkable prophecy so accurately describes our current sorry state that it is almost as though Bierce were a time traveler who observed the America of today, and then traveled back a century to write about it. Bierce was basically arguing that, in order to remain civilized, societies need the humanities as a counterweight to the hegemony of technology. I think he was correct.

This balance is important for individuals as well as societies. One need go no further than Ernest Becker to see what happens when a person with a first rate mind has a deep, organic understanding of both the sciences and the humanities. If Becker had been “just” a talented anthropologist, or if he had been “just” extremely well read in philosophy, literature, religion, and sociology… he would now be well on his way to intellectual oblivion. Instead, his remarkable synthesis still resonates for us in the 21st century.

Now, one must admit that science and technology have provided humanity with substantial benefits in medicine, agriculture, engineering, and many other fields. So it is not an “either or” proposition; it is not that we need humanities instead of technology. The problem is that we have become seriously out of balance; our power over nature is out of all proportion to our humane tendencies and moral sensibilities. Neil Postman of New York University clearly perceived the Janus-faced nature of technology when he said, “Reason, when unaided and untempered by poetic insight and humane feeling, turns ugly and dangerous.”

So, will preserving the music program at your local high school save humanity? Not likely. Nonetheless, if a critical mass of people around the world recognized that our single-minded worship of technology is on course to destroy civilization, we might be able to clear a bit of room for the humanizing and tempering influences of the humanities. I admit that the truth of our situation is unsettling, but as Emerson said, “God offers to every mind a choice between truth and repose. Take which you please—you can never have both.”