Beyond Good and Evil

More than moral reasoning.

Weaponization of Popular Culture and Islands of Moral Insanity

A New Guide for the Morally Perplexed

August 1, 1966: It was noon. I was about to leave my office for lunch. This  involved walking under Live Oak trees, under the administrative tower of the University of Texas at Austin, and on to the cafeteria. As I reached to turn the radio off, the music ended abruptly with an emergency announcement warning everyone that a sniper was shooting and killing students from the observation deck of the Texas Tower building.  

I ran to the window. In quick succession, I spotted puffs of smoke in the direction of the tower, and Richard yelled, “Carolyn’s left for lunch…ahead of us!” We bolted for the elevator and dashed from the building shouting her name. In the distance a figure turned and stared. Sweating from nerves and Texas in August, we grabbed Carolyn’s hand, retreated from the line of fire, and ran for the safety of the building.

We lived to graduate. Others weren’t so lucky. This embodiment and animation of evil had a name and it was Charles Whitman. He had killed his wife and mother before killing 14 students and wounding 32 others that day. When it was over, Richard and I walked to the Student Union in silence. We were in no mood to continue what we were doing. Walking under the tower we noticed pools of human blood drying in the sun.      

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Reliving the Trauma: Since then, the memory of it all has never left me; nor have events like the following allowed me to forget: 1. My trip to Munich, Germany in 1973 following the massacre of athletes at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics. 2. While writing The New Science of Axiological Psychology at my home near Dartmouth College, the embodiment and animation of evil struck again in what is known as the Dartmouth College Murders of January 27, 2001. 3. The next embodiment and animation of evil hitting close to home was the killing of 32 and wounding of 17 at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. I was now living in Northern Virginia and found myself counseling students at the mental health center of George Mason University. One of my patients, a male Korean, spoke of losing face and the need to talk to someone. I listened. I also dealt with the pain of students in my psychology classes. 4. The next embodiment and animation of evil to stir memories of Austin was the incident at Tucson, Arizona on January 8, 2011 which resulted in the death of six, including a child and a judge. It also resulted in the wounding of 14, including a U.S. Representative. I like Tucson, Arizona if only because it always reminds me of the Austin, Texas of my college days…back in the 1960s. 5. I travelled to Norway to accompany my patients, former World War II prisoners of war and some ten years later the embodiment and animation of evil killed and wounded many young people on vacation in Norway on July 22, 2011.  6. More recently, the embodiment and animation of evil invaded a movie theater at Aurora, Colorado on July 20, 2012, not so many years after it had brought death and suffering to Columbine High School Students  on April 20, 1999.  7. It is now August 5, 2012, and as I write this blog, I’m getting reports of the embodiment and animation of evil that killed members of the Sikh Temple at Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Such recurring incidents remind me of my close call on the campus of UT Austin more times than I want to remember.

Left Wanting to Know Why: How am I supposed to process all this? In some respects, this blog records my struggle to make sense of it all. I realize my approach runs the risk of being eclipsed by more sensational blogs seeking to get  into the heads of these deranged individuals. However, I’ll leave such guesswork to others. I’m now more interested in what society can do to reduce the risk of such events. I’m especially interested in a bottom-up preventive-psychology approach as opposed to a top-down crisis-psychology or law enforcement approach.    

Today’s clinical psychology is more a sickness-care, crisis-psychology than a wellness-care, preventive-psychology! This isn’t surprising given its historic modeling after crisis medicine. In both instances, the practitioner’s bread and butter lay in the diagnosis and treatment of symptoms. Preventive-medicine is showing signs of life these days, but where is preventive-psychology? Glimmerings can be found, on a case-by-case basis, involving the psychological screening of individuals being considered for sensitive occupations (e.g., nuclear power plants, pilots, etc.). But, this isn’t preventive-psychology promoting the moral and mental health (defined as rational autonomy and pro-self, pro-social behavior) of members of society so as to diminish the risk of such incidents.

Questions: Do you think the time has come for moral education? Do you believe tomorrow’s preventive-psychology is to be found in moral education grounded in a science of values and morals (axiological science)? Do you think moral education might be a way to “inoculate society” against such evil? Do you think the time has come to revive the old idea of “moral insanity,” as distinguished from the clinical insanity diagnosed and treated by psychologists? If you can buy into the idea of moral-insanity, do you think it is a pre-clinical condition that contributes to the birth of clinical-insanity marked by diminished rational autonomy and the acute anti-self, anti-social behaviors diagnosed and treated by psychologists? Can the one lead to the other? Such questions come to mind when I think about the mass killings previously cited. I regret my profession of clinical psychology is focusing too exclusively on the mental status of these killers while largely ignoring society’s contributions. Are we to consider society as a patient? This is a question too important to be left in the hands of criminologist, social psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers or religionists alone! It should be no surprise that I’ve come to specialize in the study of good and evil, from the new perspective of value science as we all sail in leaky boats onto the rough seas of the 21st century.

__________

Food for Thought: I’m reminded that in the 12th century Maimonides gave humankind a “Guide for the Perplexed.” Philosopher Nietzsche later proclaimed the new morality of Social Darwinism or “survival of the fittest.” I like to think that more recently axiological science gives us a “New Guide for the Perplexed” beyond anything Nietzsche’s dilettantish and amateurish interpretation of natural science could imagine. One of the practical consequences of this new science is the deceptively simple identification of three ways of seeing and thinking with values, poetically defined in the Tutorial below. Without this new science there can be no moral education, no preventive psychology, no definition of moral insanity, no understanding of how evil forever reinvents itself, no inoculation of civilization and its discontents against evil, and no adequate defense against today’s weaponization of popular culture and society’s islands of moral insanity. As for the concept of “weaponization,” I need help. I need more than poetry. I need a strong figure of speech to make my point!     

__________

The Search for a Strong Metaphor: Can we agree that the lack of moral education is fertile soil for the perpetual reinvention of evil? Now consider what I call the weaponization of popular culture and the weaponization of islands of moral insanity in the general culture. Cognitive science studies analogy and metaphor. Such figures-of-speech are useful in private practice and the teaching of psychology. In my search for a useful metaphor to clarify my use of the term “weaponization,” I was rewarded recently by reading an article by Cara Buckley appearing on the front page of the July 20, 2012 edition of The New York Times. As one who lived and practiced in Manhattan for many years, it grabbed my attention. Now this might be a stretch....you decide!    

Journalist Cara Buckley writes about the dangers of noise pollution in New York clubs, bars and restaurants. We learn how audio engineers manipulate noise levels to attract young customers, discourage older customers, and motivate all customers to eat and drink more as normal conversation becomes challenged and even impossible! We learn that acoustical engineer John Mayberry refers to this manipulation of noise as the “weaponization of sound.” Is this the metaphor I’m looking for? It will have to do for now!

Can we say that we’re enduring the “weaponization of popular culture” by commercial interests marketing gratuitous violence, embedded in music, movies, games, etc., and without regard for the alienated and vulnerable among us? Do you think for a moment that the rest of us can escape its erosion of moral consciousness and critical thinking? Beyond popular culture, are we also enduring the weaponization of “islands of moral insanity,” all of which is fertile soil for evil in all its forms.

Behind it all, there lurks the questions of moral fitness, the appropriateness of moral education and the readiness of society to go there. Let’s not forget that the architects, embodiments and animators of evil are human beings who are prisoners of their values, the sensitivity, balance, order of influence, and plasticity of which have profound consequences. Values that belong to the puppeteer-mind (the subject of axiological science) pulling the strings of the puppet-brain (the subject of neuroscience).   

© Dr. Leon Pomeroy, Ph.D.

_______________________

Tutorial: What follows is a footnote. I offer it as a reminder of the three pillars of axiological science which have to do with three ways of seeing and thinking with values: These pillars or lenses of value-vision were once theoretical predictions of philosopher Robert S. Hartman's mathematical modeling of habitual evaluative habits. Their existence. Their descriptive, and predictive powers have since been proven valid in published research findings. They uniquely define the human condition. These cognitive processes dedicated to valuation and moral reasoning vary as to sensitivity, balance, plasticity and order of influence among individuals. For better or worse, without moral education they are calibrated and fine-tuned by the vicissitudes of parenting, culture and life. If we "choose" our parents and our culture wisely; we have a leg up on those less fortunate; for seeing and thinking with values has powerful consequences. Consequences rendered more consequential in today’s increasingly complex world of globalization, rapid social change, cultural diversity, the internet, growing income disparities, the clash of ideologies, and so forth. In the spirit of presenting and explaining axiologcial science, I offer the following poetic interpretations of the three dimensions of seeing and thinking with values:       

FEELER-Value-Vision (Thought-Style F) is something soft touch Suzy is especially good at: She is a feeler / Wears her heart upon her sleeve / Empathy is her middle name / By your side, she’ll never leave!”

DOER-Value-Vision (Thought Style D) is something energetic Nancy is especially good at: She is always busy as a bee / Takes no time to feel or think / Her actions won’t set her free.

THINKER-Value-Vision (Thought Style T) is something Fiona is especially good at: She is analytical to the bone / Lost in thought and questioning / She spends her time alone.

We learned our ABCs, We learned our 123s, The time has come to learn our “emotional” FDTs.

 

Leon Pomeroy, Ph.D., teaches at George Mason University and is the author of The New Science of Axiological Psychology.

more...

Subscribe to Beyond Good and Evil

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?