Category Archives: semiotics

An Instrument of Danger?

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Vignette from the Smithsonian Woods: Last Saturday morning Chris & I were walking Emmy (on a leash) on the path to our usual cross-country trail, when a young woman in running gear approached us and asked breathlessly, “Is your dog friendly?” Thinking she might actually be wondering, “Is your dog dangerous?” we muttered vague assurances, which she interrupted with, “Because our dogs are loose in the woods, but they’re very friendly.” At which point 2 small dogs bounded up, the black & white Cocker Spaniel of the pair charging at me (not at our dog, mind) in full Baskerville cry, barking and snarling. Emmy, for the record, was unfazed. As we walked on by, I flung over my shoulder, “Friendly, eh?” To which she flung back, “Oh, he just likes to act big, but they’re both really friendly. You don’t have to be so aggressive!”

So, somehow, in her eyes, merely by owning & operating a 68-pound, mild-mannered German shepherd, we were the Bad Guys. At the time I put it down to the common “pot & kettle” cognitive distortion [“You think I’m bad, look at you!”], or to the semiotics of certain breeds [“all German shepherds, pit bulls, and their ilk are, by definition, dangerous animals”]. If that was where she was coming from, she has legal precedent on her side.

Today’s New York Times tells the sad story of a pit bull puppy and her owner, playing in their front yard, who were shot by 2 plainclothes police officers in pursuit of a drug suspect running into the building where the wounded owner & now dead dog lived. To muddy the waters, a neighbor’s adult pit bull, tethered to a fence, was also playing in the yard. The wounded owner was charged with several offenses, among them, “criminal possession of a weapon, namely, a pit bull dog.” The case law cited in the article dates back to 1956, when a 100-pound German shepherd named Prince “jumped on a pair of officers responding to a dispute.” The prosecutor in the case was quoted as saying, “This is an intelligent and well-trained animal that was ordered to attack the police by its master.” (A charge which the owner denied.) Prince was duly subpoenaed and “brought to court as evidence.” The owner was found guilty as charged.

Maybe it’s a blessing, that our Emmy has not fulfilled her biggest-of-the-litter potential (although her long fur coat does make her look kind of gangsta).  For the rest of our walk, I kept trying to formulate a cogent response to the often asked, always loaded question, “Is your dog friendly?”  Having rejected, “Compared to what?” or “Why do you ask?” as sounding evasive (and therefore defensive), I have decided on the truth: “She is. I’m not.”

Oh, I’ve “got wolf” for sure; but Emmy is not she.

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“Just Stop It!”

So said a young woman I see, to her obsessive-compulsive boyfriend, whose prolonged, ritual flicking on & off of a light switch was making them Late for a Thing they had planned to do. To her amazement & delight, he did stop it, at least long enough for them to get on with the day’s agenda. Who knew? 40 years of trying to effect changes of behavior through Socratic reasoning and other insight-oriented methods, and all along I could have done what your Dad [or at least mine] did: sonorously intone the command, “Knock it off!”

Trouble is, as parents & dog owners know, once the Commander has left premises, the proscribed behavior usually resumes.

The hard-to-extinguish behavior that I wish I could peremptorily curb [in myself & those intrusted to my care] is Black & White Thinking: the so-called Cognitive Error of perceiving everything in life as either All Good or All Bad.

Big fans of Stanford biologist Robert M. Sapolsky’s 1994 PopPsych bestseller, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, may quibble with my choice of animal metaphor, since his point is that wild beasts don’t overthink life’s adversities, therefore they produce fewer glucocorticoids, and suffer fewer stress-related illnesses. My rebuttal would be that this particular zebra is a captive of the Los Angeles Zoo [where we took his/her picture]; and if zebra-ear semiotics are anything like horses’, this one was signalling a situationally appropriate lack of joie de vivre.  “Okay, so I may be safe from drought, poachers, and my traditional predators; but, Poseidon! Is this enclosure ever bo-ring! Bring on the lions, already.”

Also, come on, how black & white can you get?

Remember the teenagers’ mantra of the 90s, “…but it’s all good”?  Usually uttered right after their disclosure of a Fairly Bad event or situation? How tempting it was to remark, “Surely, it’s not all good? Not 100% good?” Then, as now, there were also the drama queens, who at the first sign of adversity declared that a situation was “the worst!” Really? You can’t imagine an even more grim scenario? This one takes the cake?

One year when my girls were fairly young I gave up saying “Never” and “Always” for Lent: “You never clean your room!” became, “A lot of times, you don’t clean  your room.” [Far more accurate, and less humiliating for all concerned.] As gratifying as the ensuing Peace & Harmony was, it was difficult to sustain. We humans are wired to dichotomize: friend or foe? Am I the fairest of them all, or the ugliest? Do I feel “On top of the world,” or “like Hell”?

May I suggest 2 antidotes to Black & White Thinking? One, print & post this visual mnemonic of my LA zebra. Two, in response to adverse situations, try to Find the Beauty Part: the small, positive aspect that makes it “So it shouldn’t be a total loss.” This basic premise of Stoic philosophy helps counteract the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” [which want to get up our nose and produce rage & glucocorticoids].

At least in your head, you could try to replace the [usually inaccurate] absolutes of “This is the best” or “This is the worst,” with the words of that modern-day Stoic philosopher, Larry David, “This is pretty, pretty, pretty good.”

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“Offensive and tasteless”? Moi?

Well, I did ask. This wasn’t a random insult flung at me as I walked the streets of SoHo in the rain. If it had been, my not-your-victim-not-your-enemy rejoinder would have been: [in New York] “Yeah, that’s kinda what I was going for”; [in London, channeling my Irish grandma] “Aww, go on wit’ yez!”

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I have been a member of The British Psychological Society since the 70s, and therefore a regular reader of their monthly periodical, The Psychologist, which makes the following blandishments to its readers: “We rely on your submissions, and in return we help you to get your message across to a large and diverse audience….The editorial team are very supportive, and it is a great way of communicating your work and opinions to other psychologists.” So, I decided to be brave & shoot an email to the Managing Editor, briefly describing my blog’s premise & purpose and embedding my new web address. That was last Monday. On the Wednesday morning, just before heading off to work, I received the following reply:

“Hi, Unfortunately our work internet categorises it as ‘offensive and tasteless’ and therefore won’t let me view it! Shame, it sounds interesting. Cheers, Jon”

To say that “I was gobsmacked,” is probably the kind of offensive & tasteless [hereinafter abbreviated to O & T] term to which the bps [their own abbreviation] objects; but I was. I deployed every amygdala-mediating technique written about in my blog, to avoid a road accident on my way to the medical center [where I work. Not the ER. Let’s not over-dramatize]. Later, I phoned my sister, the head librarian @ a Med School & hospital, to ask her what manner of firewall my blog may have hit; and she sent me an article about Filtering by Statistical Classification computer programs [FSC], which are used “to determine what content is or is not acceptable.”

Hurrah! A way out of my humiliation, at having been summarily dissed & dismissed as an O & T purveyor of filth! My wit & wisdom had simply been lost in translation, by an Artificial Intelligence language analysis program which was stymied by my [over]use of the Poetic Speech Function. All that quoting of rock lyrics and slang expressions…the literal-minded computer program just couldn’t cope. For a New York minute, I even considered changing the title of my most recent post…until I remembered the dictum of Epictetus. All we have in this life is our character. If we start selling out to avoid the censure of others, we will lose that.

So, I sent the editor another email that afternoon, explaining my “lost in translation” theory, and assuring him that, although I wrote about the dark side of human nature, my intent was pro bono publico. In the silence that has ensued, other ways of viewing “what went down” in the original email exchange have occurred to me. After watching the latest episode of Sherlock, “Scandal in Belgravia,” I realized that my high-frequency use of humiliation and, to a lesser extent, pain & suffering, might lead an FSC program to conclude that mine was an S & M website. Well, at least that removed any temptation to alter what I’ve written. Without the 4 precursors of anger, no GotWolf blog.

Then I took my own advice: “Consider the source,” and found out the following things about the Managing Editor.  First of all, and rather trivially, he was a Boy Scout. Therefore, presumably, if he had really found it a “shame” [kind of a Freudian slip, I’d say] that the “work network” wouldn’t “let” him view my blog, which he thought “sounds interesting,” he would have been resourceful enough to stroll down the road to the nearest Internet cafe and borrow a hipster’s laptop for a few minutes, to check out my website for himself.

Second, and more salient, his own Award Winning 1999 Doctoral Research is entitled “Bullies – Thugs or Thinkers?” To quote from his Abstract, “The public, the media, even psychologists: all have a tendency to stigmatise and pathologise individuals involved in threatening behavior as psychologically and socially abnormal or deficient. But is bullying a pathological behavior found only in a minority, or is it in fact a common identity choice actively chosen at certain times because it makes sense in certain social environments? Are the children involved inadequate, or could they be considered socially competent…even superior?”

I wonder if anyone from a certain Presidential campaign reads this blog?  If not, “shame.” They might find today’s post “interesting.”

 

 

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To "Lose the Plot"


So, here we are again, with 3 shooters (one, as I write this, “holed up but in talks” with the French police), for each of whom the media & the public are trying to arrive at a differential diagnosis: “mad” (in the British sense of the word, meaning: “crazy”) or “bad”? To cut to the chase, as usual, I think the more relevant distinction is between “mad/crazy” and “mad/angry.” But I digress.

Into this quagmire of Anglo-American failure(s) to communicate, I am tossing an old expression [to “go haywire,” from 1915] and a 21st Century one [to “lose the plot”]. Notice, if you will, my choice of the present participle, “tossing” [“used…to express present or continuing action or state of being” Webster’s New World Dictionary, 3rd edition]. When we say an individual “goes haywire,” or “loses the plot,” do we mean to say [pace Sir Bob Geldof] “the silicon chip inside her head gets switched to overload,” and stays in the Overload position? [Notice how cunningly Sir Bob, who knows his English grammar, for all he’s an Irishman, uses/used the ambiguous “gets”? Could be my least favorite tense, the historical present, or could be a recurrent thing that happens with this particular shooter’s brain every Monday, that her chip always gets switched. Nar’mean?] If you were born yesterday, you may not know that the song’s title, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” is the verbatim explanation that a real life school girl gave, for her shooting spree.

Americans who use the phrase, to “lose the plot,” mean [according to the Urban Dictionary], an individual got mad/angry about something and acted out aggressively. The Brits say “He’s lost the plot,” and mean that an individual has gone mad/crazy and is now acting erratically, posing a danger to self & others. Who knows if it’s “an on-going situation,” or it will clear up at sunrise?

Now, I shall use an animal metaphor [as I am always doing, not just this one time]. I was watching the steeplechase (hurdle jumping) racing from Cheltenham [UK] on HRtv the other morning, with my usual attitude of neutrality. “Let all riders & horses survive these grueling contests of attrition without major mishap,” I bid Poseiden. But, in two consecutive races [one for mares & one for male horses] several jockeys “came off” as they went over jumps. Unlike the Santa Anita flat races described in my last post, there were no outriders to wrangle the riderless horses. A few horses carried on jumping the fences, even though they had the option to avoid them and to “run on the flat” parallel to them, if they wanted to “stay with the herd” and cross the finish line. One mare seemed to “figure out” that she could make better time by going around the fences rather than over them; and she gave the front runner quite a challenge. If this had been a scene from a Disney-type movie [like Racing Stripes or Mary Poppins], it would have been easy to attribute the human motive to these riderless jumpers, that they “knew the mission and were going to see it through.” Even so, what was the “mission”? [What was the “plot”?] To jump every fence on the course, or to cross the finish line first? Which horses, then, had “lost the plot”? Or had they all “lost the plot,” when they kept on racing even though they had lost their riders? Cut them some slack, will ya? They’re horses. Herd animals. Born to run with their reference group.

What about these 3 shooters? [There may have been more by the time you read this. I am referring to the Staff Sgt. in Afghanistan, the vigilante in Florida, and the Algerian in France.] Each one of them has been described by those who “knew” them, as “not the sort of person to do such [aggressive] things.” Did they “lose the plot” and “go haywire,” or were they “wild” all along, but no one knew it? Well, folks, we all are. That’s the point of this blog. The specific “irritant” that “got up the nose” of each of these shooters [and led to their acts of aggression] may or may not ever be revealed to us; but it’s a salutary exercise to try to speculate about it. Human behavior is complex, but not inexplicable. To say that an individual “must have just snapped” or “gone haywire,” or [temporarily or permanently] “lost the plot,” is to explain nothing.

After all, these are human beings, not horses. Yet, even the actions of horses are complex [but not random, although we cannot always predict them]. The horse in this picture is one of the wild ones on the Outer Banks, photographed by my 90-something mother-in-law (something of a wild one, herself).

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Taking the Mick Out of Murphy’s Law


In 1949 at Edwards Air Force Base, a team of military engineers were studying the effects on the human body, of “sudden deceleration,” using a speed sled on rails & brave volunteers. The lead researcher, Capt. Edward A. Murphy, annoyed with the imprecision of one of his technical assistants, remarked that if a device could be fitted incorrectly, this clown would do it. Later, Dr. John Paul Stapp, who survived a 40-G [sic] deceleration in the sled, told reporters that, “the good safety record on the project was due to a firm belief in Murphy’s Law.”

So, how did the 20th Century dissing of one schlemiel in the California desert morph into the pessimistic worldview now implied by the idiom, “It’s Murphy’s Law, isn’t it?” uttered whenever [as the 18th Century Scottish poet, Robert Burns, wrote] “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley”?

Well, as long as we’ve wandered back to the British Isles, let’s consider the far older [but unattributed] expression, “It’s sod’s law, innit?” In post-1950s dictionaries [both British & American] the two phrases are listed as interchangeable. But dey’re not really, are dey now? Cuz your British lexicographer was until recently reluctant to codify pejorative references to the Irish, even referring to a certain AKC breed of dog as a “red setter,” lest offense [and, presumably, reprisals] be taken. [Compare this to the linguistically insouciant Yanks, who t’row scores of Hooligans into Paddywagons every March 17th, for da love o’ Mike!] Mind you, there also are no “German Shepherds” in the UK; there are instead “Alsatians,” n’est-ce pas? [“Don’t mention the War!”]

Cultural nuances aside, though, there are important locus-of-control differences in the lessons to be drawn, between Sod’s and Murphy’s Laws. The former posits “a perversely malignant universe,” in which “dropped toast always lands buttered-side-down,” and bad things happen to good people. It is essentially Nihilistic. Murphy’s Law, on the other hand, suggests the adoption of a “belt & suspenders [or braces, as the Brits would have it]” approach to human endeavors. There may be no such thing as a “fail-safe” plan; so there should be at least one back-up plan. Written down & rehearsed [since, once the limbic system is lit up, hippocampus-mediated problem-solving will go off-line.] Yeah, sure, that plan might not work, either. Score one for the Nihilists. But, then again, it just might. Worth a try, yeah?

For Lent, I’m trying to give up seeing the world in Sod’s Law terms. I still believe in Murphy’s Law, of course. I know, for instance, that at the end of an hour-long, free-range adventure in the woods, Lili will still feel the need to “leave a message” for her canine correspondents on the lawn of the public schoolyard. Never let the other guy have the last “word,” is her motto. Luckily, though, this time she was “only taking the Mick” [Google it]; and no deployment of a New York Times blue plastic bag was necessary. [But I always carry at least one in my pocket, pace Capt. Murphy.]

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Feeling Threatened?


Back in the day, before the advent of the Homeland Security Advisory System [as in “A day without Orange is like a day without sunshine.”], there were other semiotics for indicating that it was time to “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” There were the DefCon levels, whereby [counter-intuitively], DefConOne betokened Doomsday, whereas DefConFive was the Peaceable Kingdom. Since most non-combatants thought it was the other way round, it wasn’t all that useful as a civil defense advisory. In my Naval family of origin, we used the traditional “Go to General Quarters” to signify that we were in crisis mode.

But, whatever you call it, your limbic system usually gets there way ahead of your pre-frontal cortex; and you are already engaging in a [possibly ill-advised] Fight, Flight, or Freeze response, “before you can say knife” [as the English measure it, as compared to the American “say Jack Robinson” unit of time]. Absent an airport Tannoy announcement, what cues the threat response? For most of us warmblooded creatures [including, as usual, Lili the dog], it’s the fur on the back of our neck standing on end. This is most amusingly obvious with cats’ tails puffing out, of course. Yeah, yeah. That’s what I’m saying. In the dualistic parlance of the Mind/Body dance of anxiety, it’s usually the body that leads. [You can search-engine iconic studies from the 60s involving the IV administration of adrenaline, the physical effects of which “undergraduate volunteers” (an oxymoron) were “contextually manipulated” to interpret as either fear or excitement.]

Other physical changes include pulse and respiration rate, as well as increased muscle tension. Those of us in the business of devising ways to “smooth ruffled feathers” often resort to reverse-engineering tactics. Big Pharma, and brewers before them, recommend skeletal muscle relaxants: “How dire can things be, if I’m feeling this loosey-goosey?” Despite the risk of inconvenient side-effects [DUIs, addiction, or respiratory collapse], ya gotta admit, the euphoria that comes with chemically-induced muscle relaxation really beats being told, “Oh, relax!” by an unsympathetic companion. We Mental Health providers try to suggest alternative routes to tranquility: yoga, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation exercises, hypnotic trance induction… “Too New Age-y” complain the uptight. “I can never remember my mantra in a crisis.” So, I try to reverse-engineer the shallow breathing: “Sing!” I command. “Whistle, if you know how!” [Remember my post on Bridge on the River Kwai? The ditty the POWs whistled in the face of their implacable captors, “Colonel Bogey’s March”?] Besides sublimating fear with an inside joke against the enemy, whistling (like singing and humming) normalizes breathing. It is what Behaviorists call an Incompatible Behavior (with the panting that accompanies anxiety).

Recently I have found that singing to Lili is as effective for “standing her down from General Quarters” as the Freeze commands to “Lie down” and “Stay down” are. She just can’t resist coming over and singing along. [It may have to do with the overtones I produce.] Another explanation is that my carefree singing lowers her level of perceived threat: “How dire can things be, if my Pack Leader is so loosey-goosey?”

So, in this picture, is Lili a threat, or threatened? [Well, in the event, neither, since the shadow is cast by her trusted Pack Leader.] But if she were confronting a stranger, the correct answer would be “both.” Next time you encounter a dog who’s “going to General Quarters” [or find that the Wolf in Your Head is howling], you might try a little musical reverse-engineering, yourself.

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Are You Gaslighting Me?


By 1994, when Victor Santor published his creepily serious book, Gaslighting: How to Drive Your Enemies Crazy, the term had come to mean “a form of intimidation or psychological abuse in which false information is presented to the victim, making them doubt their own memory and perception.” Most Americans will associate this with the 1944 film Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman & Joseph Cotton, which was a remake of a 1940 UK film of that name [later released in the States as The Murder in Thornton Square], based on the 1939 West End play Gas Light, which opened on Broadway in 1941 as Angel Street, starring Vincent Price in his debut role as a Baddie, where it ran for a record-setting 1,293 performances. In a real-life attempt to gaslight American movie-goers [“British version? There was never a British version.”], MGM arranged to have the negative & all the prints of Thorold Dickinson’s 1940 film destroyed [but he surreptitiously made a print for himself and squirreled it away].

In all the versions, our heroine notices that the gaslights on the lower floor of the house intermittently go dim [indicating that someone has lit up a gaslight in the attic]; but the complicit housemaid [Angela Lansbury in the MGM flick] denies that anyone is upstairs and she denies that she notices the downstairs lights dimming, at all. It’s another case of, “Who ya gonna believe? Me, or your lyin’ eyes?”

Apparently, humans can’t resist this form of Poetic deception, often rationalizing it as “just a bit of fun.” According to my Dad, each Junior Officer, upon arrival at his first Pacific port of call, was gaslighted in the Officers’ Club, thusly. The Newbie would spy his first gecko, peering down at him from one of the corners of the room, point to it and say, “Oh, look! A lizard!” As one, the Old Hands would turn variously to every other corner of the room and say, soothingly, “Yes. I see it. Of course I do.” “No! Really! Over here!” the Newbie would insist; at which the Old Hands would all switch their gazes to another [gecko-free] corner and reiterate, “A lizard. Yes.” Of course, the wheeze would only work if there was only one gecko in the room. A log was kept, of how long it took for “the penny to drop.” And don’t you just know, the ex-Newbie was the most enthusiastic gaslighter, when the next Junior Officer arrived.

Why do we humans feel the urge to deceive? Probably, for the usual reason we resort to Poetic communication: because we reckon that the truth will get us in trouble. The Baddie in Gaslight fears his wife will dime him out as the murderer, so he seeks to turn her into an unreliable witness. The Old Hands seek to assuage the humiliation of their own Newbie cluelessness, so they ritually pass on the pain to the new Newbies. This is especially likely to happen if there is the perception of scarce resources [such as available females, or supplies, or even space] in the area, into which the Newbie has unwittingly intruded.

Turns out, we’re not the only creatures who engage in intra-species deception, as Jakob Bro-Jorgensen reports in his recent article, “Male Topi Antelopes Alarm Snort Deceptively to Retain Females for Mating.” [First of all, that title is far too high-concept to get green-lighted as an MGM film. I’m thinking, Don’t Be That Schmized Gazelle!] Quoting here, “male antelopes snort and look intently ahead if an ovulating female begins to stray from their territory [which] suggests to the female that there is danger ahead…[such as] lions, cheetahs, leopards [or] humans…the snort and intent look were a false call…and there was no danger nearby.” The article asserts, “This type of intentional deception of a sexual partner has not been documented before in animals. Previous studies have shown that animals do deceive each other but mainly in hostile situations or to protect themselves.” Bro-Jorgesen ponders “why females keep responding to alarms at all”; and concludes that “females are better off erring on the side of caution, because failing to react to a true alarm could easily mean death in a place…full of predators.”

So, here’s my suggestion, whatever your species happens to be. If you begin to suspect that you are being gaslighted, ask yourself, “How might the [would-be] gaslighter benefit from the deception? What’s up his [or her, let’s not forget Angela Lansbury’s shenanigans] nose, anyway?” If you come up clueless, you always have the option of reading the power subtext back to the other party: “Are you gaslighting me?”

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