Northern Valley Beacon

Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains----- E-Mail: Enter 'Beacon' in subject box. Send to:

Thursday, August 24, 2006


I've got one, you've got one, all God's children have reptilian cortexes

The policy of the NVB is not to directly engage in direct disputes or exchanges with other blogs. That does not preclude our correcting falsehoods or commenting on perfidious tactics that mark the descent of American politics into the primal rituals of degeneration and malice that are the preconditions for violence, as in places like Iraq. Look at the quality of democracy brought to Iraq, and you have a glimpse of what the current regime in power is doing for us. Shiites/Sunnis, red states/blue states, conservatives/liberals, the divisions are defined and the words that provoke mindless hostilities make up a good portion of the verbal environment. They are directed at what some communications theorists call "reptilian hot buttons." They circumvent the centers of higher order thinking and stimulate the primal instincts of fright, flight, fight, and domination.

Except for a few blogs that have established reputations for accurate information and reasoned analysis, I pay little attention to political blogs. When the Northern Valley Beacon becomes the subject of blog posts that misrepresent its words and thoughts, I generally would not be aware of them if other people did not call them to my attention and urge me to make a corrective response.

My writing has been accused of being hysterical. I suppose it appears that way when I happen to strike some hot buttons and inadvertently send their possessors into hysterical, uncontrollable frenzies of denial, denigration, and accusation. It takes the active application of the higher regions of thought to connect subjects to predicates, sentences to their grammatical referrants, and paragraphs to the thesis they are developing. When the reptilian hot button is struck, only those words and phrases that elicit the hysteria and its primal malevolence matter to those in the throes of instinctual response. On the other hand, some are versed enough in communication theory to isolate words from their semantic contexts and contort them into missiles directed at reptilian hot buttons. They know that they will strike the hot buttons of hatred and aggression in a number of people out there.

Brain theory, rhetoric studies, and communications theory converged about a half century ago when advertisers began what they called motivational research. (I was employed by an advertising agency that was a leader in this field in the mid-1950s.) Their aim was to find ways of controlling and prompting human responses to messages so that people could be programmed to uncontrollably buy what the advertisers promoted. Two major theories of pyschology came into play. One was behaviorism which posits that all animals, including humans, can be conditioned to give a desired response on command. The other was brain theory, which recognized that the first layer of the human brain is a primitive one we share with reptiles and messages that appeal to that layer of the brain and circumvent the more complex layers can produce behaviors in humans that are determined by the messages they are hit with.

The brain's three layers are: Brain One, the reptilian cortex or R complex; Brain Two: the limbic system or "old mammalian brain," which is wrapped around Brain One; and Brain Three, the neocortex, or cerebrum, which is wrapped around Brain Two and is the center of higher order perception and thinking. The brain is also divided into lobes which are connected and coordinated through a complex "wiring" system.

Some advertisers and some political factions are mainly interested in brain and communication research to find ways to control humans and human behavior. Political operatives have found the reptilian hot buttons and are particularly interested in finding ways to elicit responses. Much political advertising and communications is directed at those hot buttons. It is a given that many people are aware when someone is trying to condition them into a predetermined response or an uncontrolled reaction on the reptilian level, and they take offense at the attempts to control them. But many people are vulnerable. When they are asked why they voted the way they have, they come up with a message that was aimed right at their reptilian cortex, and they responded instinctively.

John Thune's campaign against Tom Daschle was aimed at the R complex. When people were presented with pictures of Tom Daschle with Saddam Hussein and Osam bin Laden, with the contention that his house in D.C. was a badge of abandoning his own, with the message that he abandoned a wife and family for a beauty queen, people did not question the veracity of those messages. They reacted with a mindless rage, like animals being threatened. They did not ask if the messages were true or accurate; they simply reacted to the hatred the messages inspired in them. Big Brother was jerking them around.

One of the most prominent theorists of the reptilian cortex is Clotaire Rapaille, who has been featured on PBS' Frontline. He sums up the success of the reptilian approach:

I don't care what you're going to tell me intellectually. I don't care. Give me the reptilian. Why? Because the reptilian always wins.

No one disputes that the reptilian wins. Communicators and students of rhetoric have been fully aware of why for years. George Orwell's 1984 is a depiction of behaviorism and reptilian programs at work in conjunction with communications technology to produce humans that are easily controlled by the state.

Rapaille makes the point that "It's absolutely crucial for anybody in communication -- and that could be journalists, TV, media, all of it, or marketing people -- if you want to appeal to people, it's absolutely crucial to understand what I call the reptilian hot button. If you don't have a reptilian hot button, then you have to deal with the cortex; you have to work on price issues and stuff like that. "

The issue is not whether the reptilian works. The issue is whether striking for the reptilian or conditioning humans like Pavlovian dogs is morally defensible. It is the antithesis of the human philosophy that has produced democracy.

When political operatives, such as the author of South Dakota War College, give advice on what works, they are usually shaping messages for the reptilian. Some weeks ago I stated that the political practices advocated on the War College blog were the politics of the reptilian cortex. They pursue a particular theory based upon the idea that most humans are too busy to employ their neocortex in interpreting the messages directed at them, so that political messages must be reduced to the slogan or the postcard or the 15-second sound bite if they are to be apprehended by today's human. In practice, that means they are reduced to something that will hit at the reptilian-level reactions of the audience.

I took issue with some quotations of mine that were simply false. They were false because they did not follow the basic rules of paraphrase and they were misquotations, although misquotation that definitely sent the herd of regressive dinosaurs out there into a rage. They raged at the term "politics of the reptilian cortex." They assumed they were being called names, but I was using a term that is well known in the fields of communication and rhetoric, a term that refers to a particular philosophy of communication and its practice.

That is another tactic that is used by the reptilian advocates. They excise and contort sentences down to reptilian missives that generally have nothing to do with what was originally stated. Then they rage and accuse and call names, and say, "See this unthinking rage I am in? Well, that nasty person over there did this to me. He is a bad person." They hope that careless readers will suspend Brains Two and Three and let Brain One substitute their rage for what was actually said or done. This is the put-all-your-asps-in-one-basket theory of political propaganda.

Communications aimed at the reptilian cortex is so reductive that it is inherently dishonest. It is dishonest because it misrepresents other people. Often the distortion and misrepresentation comes about because mentalities dominated by the reptilian cannot apprehend complex messages and must reduce them to something they can rage about.

The antidote to repilitan messaging is education. People who recognize tactics that try to excite the primitive nervous system into taking over the centers of knowledge and rationality resent the attempts at mind control. Furthermore, they tend to recognize the fallacies inherent in such messaging. To them, the purpose of the mindful life is to surmount the vestiges of our evolutionary past and maintain discourse that is honest, accurate, and respectful of language, if not other people. Political blogs tend to disqualify themselves from that kind of discourse because their main reason for being is to insult, abuse, malign, and cast scurrility upon their opposition.

When bloggers nearly always accompany their posts with comments meant to be destructive and belittling of personality, they show that they are more interested in destroying character than in building purposeful discourse. And, in those who value language and the processes of informed debate, they inspire revulsion. That is why I was and remain so revolted by the campaign of John Thune, the Swift Boaters, and those who lie, even if they don't know any better.

The field of rhetoric had to confront some new fronts with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Scholars saw rhetoric being used to control, damage, and destroy people. One of the leaders in studying rhetoric was Chaim Perelman. He was also a leader in the resistance movement in Belgium. He contended that set forms of rhetoric established in the classical world led the mind in channels that sometimes ignored the realities and circumstances in which people actually lived. He called for argumentation that establishes the structure of reality--recognizing, in essence, rhetoric that incorporates the highest regions of perception and rationality into the premises it advances.

Most American politics is of the reptilian sort. That is because most political discourse is conducted by media ads that do not serve the higher reaches of the human brain. Rather they pander to the reptilian.

If democracy is to survive and expand, we have to transcend the reptilian. And that is why I not only spend little time paying attention to political blogs; I make exceptional effort to avoid some.

The reptilian is more dangerous to America than Islamic militancy or Marxist subversion. We prefer to expend our efforts on more hopeful aspects of the human mind.

Thanks for resisting any snakes-on-planes cracks. I wish you would be more specific about SDDP which is such an offense to real academics at real universities. I begin to wonder if anyone in your state can figure out why.
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