Category Archives: lesser of two evils

Don’t Look Now


“Good eye contact” is entirely overrated. “Look at me when I’m talkin’ to you!” Why? What if I’m one of the 50% of people who process information auditorially, rather than visually, and looking at you just distracts me from what you’re saying? What if I grew up in another culture, where staring directly at my interlocutor [particularly one higher in the pecking order] is the height of bad manners? Even in our own military, when standing to Attention, one is taught to stare “into middle distance,” not into the eyes of the Big Wig addressing one, even when answering questions. In the Navy, it is called “keeping one’s eyes in the boat.” [One is also taught to speak in the third–not second–person: “Would the Admiral care for…?”]

And don’t get me started on prey animals–such as horses–one is handling. Direct eye contact is an amygdalar trigger, provoking “highly inconvenient” reactions, ranging from bolting away to charging the handler. [Remember the Spanish Riding School scenario? Probably started with a stare.] Seasoned stable lads [a unisex term], equine vets, and farriers know to avert their gaze when approaching a horse, as if it were a Roman Senator. [Trivia question: Which emperor was deposed for appointing his horse, Incitatus, a Consul?]

Predators know the fierce power of a direct stare, and use it strategically. Dog spies rabbit; fixes it with a stare; and rabbit [most likely] freezes, at least momentarily. Think back to the dog fights in Top Gun, where the prey jet is “painted” with the laser of the predator, indicating “I’ve got you in my sights now. You’re toast.” Back in the 1920s, before eye contact was considered an Altogether Good Thing, there was a New Yorker cartoon, with two women walking past a man in the street: “He gave me such a look!” The joke is that she is feigning indignation, while secretly enjoying being “in his sights.”

Let’s consider the hard-done-by black & white dog in Dr. Range’s experiment on Inequity Aversion. We know he is angry at the injustice of his pal [Black & Tan] continuing to receive a reward for giving a paw, while he gets bupkes, nowt, Nichts! He demonstrates his displeasure by going on strike [no longer giving his paw], and by averting his gaze–not just from Black & Tan, but also from the experimenter. What’s up with that? Here’s my theory. Like Conrad in the Santa Rita jail, he knows he is “just a number here,” and Black & Tan is “just a number here.” It is not really Black & Tan’s fault that The Man [a unisex term] is being arbitrary and unfair. His beef is actually with The Man, who is the established Pack Leader. [Remember, this is the Clever Dog Lab–ain’t no slow learners here.] Back in the world [as GIs used to say in ‘Nam], he would be able express his anger in a number of ways: attacking The Man [fight], high-tailing it out of there [flight], or going into the “suspended animation” state which Object Relations Theorists call Somnolent Detachment. Here, his options are limited. Attacking The Man is not a clever move, since the Pack Leader is the source of basic rations, not just treats. So, to lessen his temptation to do so, he avoids “fixing The Man in his sights.” If his amygdala is really ramped up, he may actually go into Somnolent Detachment. When human infants do this, they “stare right past” their caregiver, as if she weren’t even there.

This is Crazy-Like-a-Fox behavior: the lesser of two evils. “If you slight me, I’ll ignore you. You have more power than me, but you don’t own my spirit [soul, what have you].” It is a gutsy move, whether you are a clever dog at the University of Vienna, or a PoW near the River Kwai. One has to do it with enough dignity and Stoicism, NOT to be mistaken for a Lame Gazelle. This little dog’s sit-down strike and averted gaze carries the subtext message: “I am not your victim, but I am not your enemy.”

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Filed under Epictetus said..., ethology, lesser of two evils, limbic system, semiotics

You Bet Your Life


One summer day in Manhattan, young Dick Cavett saw Groucho Marx walking down the street, and overcame his shyness for long enough to blurt out, “Mr. Marx, I’m a big fan!” Without skipping a beat [according to Cavett, whose anecdote this is], Groucho replied, “On a day like this, I could use a big fan.” Well, I’m a big fan of Groucho’s, too. Hands up, if you ever saw an original broadcast [not some archival retrospective] of his iconic quiz show, “You Bet Your Life.” The least important aspect of the show was the actual quiz. It was all about Groucho’s gift for ad libs [many of which had to be edited out before broadcast] and the challenge to the contestants, “Say the secret ‘woid’ and win $100.” A stuffed duck with specs, mustache, and cigar [the forerunner of the Vlasic pickle stork] would drop down on a wire, to show the audience the random word whose utterance would earn far more than correct answers on the quiz. How like life, eh?

Well, the other word [besides the “penalty box” command] that our dog trainer had us choose for ourselves, was the “attack” command. It had to be–as opposed to Groucho’s secret word–unlikely to come up in normal conversation [and so inadvertantly “loose the dog of war”]. He suggested, therefore, that it be foreign. Each of us had to come up with something unique for our own dog, lest we launch the whole pack, while learning to use the command in class. You can just imagine, can’t you? “Bonzai!” “Tora! Tora! Tora!” Ours is the Japanese for “evil.” [You could look it up.]

Like learning to use any weapon responsibly, this training was both technical and philosophical. I was appalled by the insouciant tone of the Drivers’ Ed our two kids received [one in Michigan, one in Maryland], compared to the lugubrious, required-course-in-high-school that my sister and I took in the 60s, where each class began with the call & response: “When you are driving a car, you are in charge of…” “A Lethal Weapon.” I felt compelled to invoke this reality check every time my kids took the wheel…still want to. Well, when we are out with Lili, we are…in charge of a Dangerous [if not Lethal] Weapon. We well and truly must “acknowledge our wolf,” if we are to keep everyone safe. As our trainer points out, dark dogs are usually perceived as male and more vicious than light-colored dogs. [Especially pointy-eared dogs, compared to Lab types.] This puts out a provocative subtext, which the dark-dog-owner must “own” and learn to manage, whatever the “truth” of the matter is.

Now, here’s the ironic thing about Lili. During Agitation Classes [where you learn to deploy the “attack” command] she was a Paper Tiger. The linebacker dude in the padded suit with the canvas “bite me” sleeve would mock-assault me, and Lili would either look away or try to hide behind me. Away from me–just dog-and-dude–her attack response was [eventually] evoked, and then paired with her secret word. She is no Stoic, our Lili. She would not come to the defense of the defenseless, unless she personally felt threatened. In this respect, her nature is all too human.

Lili is not my bodyguard [never thought I needed one, anyway]; but she is my character guide. As a recovering Paper Tiger, myself [“all bark and no bite,” as my husband has been known to describe me], I continue to challenge my hair-trigger amygdala, to see if my alarm in any given situation is exaggerated, or justified. Would I cry “Havoc!” and use aggressive means to defend myself or my family from a Very Bad Person, if all other options had failed? You bet your life.

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Filed under aggression happens, lesser of two evils, secret code

"Crime and Punishment"


We’re talking Dostoevsky’s pre-Russian-revolution novel, which has what a Hollywood producer would call a “high-concept title” [like “Snakes on a Plane”]. We’re also talking Kohlberg’s first stage of moral development: “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” So, that Note to Self takes 22 years of living and learning to develop? [In humans, that is. Still no word on how long it takes in dogs.]

Alas, doing the Right Thing turns out to be a bit more complicated than just following the rules. To begin with, whose rules? In the Royal Navy they have a little [inside] joke: “We have a code. We don’t live by it, but we have a code.” In the 1970s Marvin Harris, an Anthropology prof at Columbia, published an instant cult classic [in my reference group, anyway]: Cows, Pigs, Wars & Witches. His premise was that the Code of Conduct is not universal, but regional, often determined by geographical considerations, such as weather patterns. Thus, in the Subcontinent, where it is very dry except for the monsoon season, if no rains come one year, a farmer might be tempted to eat his draft animal, it being pointless that year to use it to plow the arid soil. Ah! But if he does, then next year when the rains come again, he will be SOL. So this culture devised the no-eating-cattle taboo, to keep the idle beasts off the menu, preserving them to plow another year. Hence, the Sacred Cow.

My generation of social scientists took this model and ran with it, seizing on every cockamamie cultural taboo we could find, and asking: “What’s the local survival payoff? Does it involve the health & safety of the community?” Thou shalt not eat oysters in months without Rs. [Hint, cuz it’s hotter then, at least in the Northern Hemisphere.] Play along at home.

Now comes along another anthropologist, Jonathan Haidt, with his 5 Moral Spheres, the relative importance of which vary by geographical region and [intriguingly] by political leaning. Liberals are all about Do No Harm to Others, and Social Justice for All; whereas Conservatives are all about Be True to Your School [or Tribe, or Reference Group], Respect Authority, and Remain Pure. This is why it takes so long to stock the brain’s Code of Conduct library. Back in the day, when people tended to live their lives where they were born, and didn’t have so much access to information about other places and their exotic folkways, it was easier to know what the Right Thing to Do was. Nowadays, not so much.

Reductionists insist that there are–always were, always will be–absolute commandments, so to speak, concerning the human Code of Conduct. “Thou shalt not kill,” for instance. Do me a favor, guv! What about combat troops? Are they supposed to kill no one? So, why do we spend so much on weapons? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Oh, so we’re cool with extreme interrogation methods being used against our troops? Once again, I invite you to play along at home. Find me a rule, in any Code of Conduct, that applies to everyone, without exception.

Which brings us back to Dostoevsky’s fictional student, Raskolnikov, a Nihilist [Remember Durkheim’s WTF anomie?], who had just written an article on moral philosophy, justifying the killing of undesirable individuals for the greater good of society. He murders a “disgusting, old, dishonest” pawnbroker, and then has to do away with her friend, who witnessed the incident. The rest of the book is a psychological cat & mouse game between the student and the detective assigned to the murder case, Porfiry Petrovitch.

So, it all depends on “when you come in to the movie,” whether you think a specific act of aggression should be lauded or condemned. In this scene, is Lili in jail for her acts of unjustified aggression, or is she policing other incarcerated individuals? Plot twist: she’s returning to the scene of her two crimes–the Lacrosse field–where the little boy “rattled her cage”and she growled at him, and where she ran up the hill to challenge the out-of-the-blue dog. Spoiler alert: Raskolnikov does, too.

So, the “second of all” thing to do, to promote development of the Pre-frontal cortex, is to learn from our own trespasses [and, far less costly, from those of compelling fictional characters]. As the London cabbie’s brain actually expands when he gains The Knowledge [the cognitive map of the city], so our Pre-frontal cortex grows, as we lay down ever more complex pathways for navigating between Right and Wrong.

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Filed under aggression happens, lesser of two evils, pro bono publico

Give it some welly!


This idiom from the UK in the 70s means “Do your utmost!” In my youth, especially when my sister & I were sitting around, engrossed in a game of Cribbage or War [or some other frivilous activity], our father would ask us to fetch him a beer; and we would stall him, saying, “Aww, not now. When this game is over.” He would retort, “C’mon, how many Therbligs would it cost you?” The Therblig is a unit of effort, devised in 1908 by Frank Burke Gilbreth [inventor of Time & Motion analysis, and the author of Cheaper by the Dozen], to quantify units of work [such as search, find, select, grasp, hold, and so on]. It’s an anagram for “Gilbreth” (sort of). It’s definitely a metaphor.

Talk about “doing the math,” we all can make instant calculations of how many Therbligs it would cost us to do a task for a Loved One who asks us; and it is human nature to expect a quid pro quo. If we expend more Therbligs than we receive credit for [in praise, gratitude, success, financial recompense, or other forms of positive reinforcement], we experience the humiliation of having been “hoodwinked” [schmized] into doing something “for nothing.” Let’s say we use up a certain amount of Therbligs studying for a test, and then flunk it anyway. [Or training for an athletic event, and then lose.] For some individuals, the misery of having “put it all on the line” and still failed, is so mortifying that they write themselves a life-long, face-saving Note to Self: “Never Let Them See You Sweat.” In fact, the Note advises, “Make It Obvious That You Didn’t Try Very Hard, at All.” Then, if you don’t succeed, you have only the pain & suffering of your loss to cope with–not the mortification, as well.

It takes a certain amount of bravery, such as Lord Louis Montbatten urged, to risk the humiliation of defeat, by “giving it some welly”–going at your goal full-tilt boogie–knowing that the you may still be judged to have done the thing “badly.”

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Filed under ambivalence, lesser of two evils, therbligs

Crazy Like a Fox


Remember the post called Hayfever? Let’s say you wanted to avoid the common symptoms of that “dreadful lurgy,” so you invested in the latest over-the-counter nostrum for it. I know this will sound like one of Stephen Colbert’s sotto voce adverse-side-effects-warnings for a bogus health product, but I’m quoting from the PDR: “Somnolence [needing a nap RIGHT NOW], fatigue, dry mouth, pharyngitis [sore throat], dizziness, headache, GI upset/pain, cough, diarrhea, epistaxis [nosebleed], brochospasm, irritability, insomnia.” Sort of like Mexican Swine Flu in a bottle, no?

Psychodynamic theory [the kid brother to Freudian psychoanalysis] posits that whenever an individual faces a choice between two courses of action, s/he is ambivalent [“on the one hand…on the other hand”], but ultimately, s/he chooses the one that seems like “the lesser of two evils.” It is, however, a matter of personal opinion, as to which would be worse–sniffles & sneezing, or the daunting list of side-effects listed above.

Same with the Four Horsemen of What Gets Up Your Nose & Makes You Angry. We humans, as well as Lili the dog, “do the math” in our heads, calculating which of two irritants will cause us less misery, and choose accordingly. Let’s put some meat on the bones of this theory. A young woman dreads the humiliation of being judged “less than Vogue model thin,” so she opts for the pain & suffering of an Eating Disorder. A teenager cannot abide the intrusion of parental limits, so s/he runs away, opting for the fear of “being on your own, with no direction home…like a rolling stone” and having to make a deal with the skeevy dude in the song, who’s “not offering any alibis.” In either case, the casual observer might say, “You’re crazy to ruin your health, just to be a Size 2,” or “to risk your life, just to play by your own rules.” The individual who has made the choice thinks, “Yeah, crazy like a fox.”

Back in the day, I treated a young woman in Detroit who kept losing high-powered jobs because she was chronically late for work; and once there, stole money from her boss. How could this possibly be the lesser of two evils? [Even in the 90s, good jobs in Detroit did not grow on trees.] What could be worse? Well, submission to The Man was worse, in her book. She was willing to risk the financial pain & suffering of job loss, and the fear of her husband’s disapproval [that she had “screwed up again…what are you, crazy?”], rather than endure the humiliation of having to play by the same rules as everybody else. Once she grasped this, she was able to find less self-defeating ways to rebel [such as wearing a Che T-shirt under her corporate suit].

So, look at Lili and guess what trade-out of irritants she is making. Is some predator after her [causing fear]? Is there an intruder up the hill, whom she feels she must challenge? Was she told [by my husband, who took this picture] to stay put [“Zen-zen!”], and she cannot abide the humiliation of obeying his command? Actually, I am hiding behind a tree at the top of the hill, and she is rushing to join me, to avoid the pain & suffering of abandonment. [As if!]

Next time you’re faced with a Hobson’s choice of potentially risky actions, you do the math.

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Filed under aggression happens, ambivalence, lesser of two evils, understanding shenanigans

"The Wolf Is at the Door"


Although we each have our own, personal associations to this metaphor [possibly involving 3 little pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, a Russian boy named Peter, even Kevin Costner…or Sarah Palin?], the received meaning of the phrase for several centuries has been, that one has fallen on hard financial times. [Everything old is new again.]

Since many of these scenarios end with the scary, intrusive wolf being shot dead, it’s a wonder that more bailiffs and repo men don’t get blown away on the beleaguered householder’s doorstep. One could argue that, by doing the dirty work of the householder’s creditors, these “heartless mercenaries” become de facto Silent Partners, who are prepared to destroy the lives of the debtor and his/her family. In many recent lost-his-job-and-went-on-a-killing-spree-including-himself stories, this Silent Partner dynamic is obvious.

But, even for those fortunate enough [for now] to remain solvent, the wolf-at-the-door is an archetypal symbol of threat. To understand why, let’s go back to Vienna, to the 300-year-old Spanish Riding School, for another animal story [attributed to Freud]. The Lippizaners are the horses that do “ballet” [high-level Dressage moves] to Mozart, whose shows are a notoriously hard ticket; but whose rehearsals are open to the public. I like to think that it was while watching such a rehearsal [perhaps seeing a groom leading two high-spirited stallions around the arena] that Freud asked a friend, “Which would you choose–to be pulled apart by two horses, or to be charged by two horses?” If you’re like most people, you would choose to be charged. The usual logic behind this is, “If they’re coming at me, I can try to jump out of the way.” Freud used this metaphor to illustrate the defense mechanism of projection. Rather than feel “torn apart” by two powerful, opposing impulses [such as the urge to act out antisocially vs. the desire to “be good”], an individual externalizes [projects] the impulse to behave badly onto a scapegoat [or wolf], and then tries to “jump out of the way” of it [saying, “That is so not who I am!”]. The problem with this temporary fix, is that the wolf can circle around behind you [called in psychoanalytic parlance–like a B movie title–“The Return of the Repressed”], and thus overpower your good intentions, causing you to act out antisocially, willy-nilly.

So, sometimes, the Big Bad Wolf at the door is not a sinister stranger. It’s an unacknowledged part of ourselves.

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Filed under Freud meant..., lesser of two evils, semiotics, silent partner theory