(This is fourth in a five-part series of posts. To start at the beginning, click here.)
In Controlling the Narrative, Part 3: Method, we saw how Paul settled his identity quandary. In this part, we’ll see how answering “Says who?” makes the power of Paul’s identity solution accessible to us.
What Vs. Who
As adults, we get wrapped up in “what” questions. We didn’t start that way, and we won’t end that way either. To children and the aged, even sages, “who” is much more interesting. I advocate a return to the Alpha and Omega of our mental and emotional roots. Who says gets down to the heart of how we think, because our thinking eventually traces back to our emotional connections to people we either trusted or didn’t, and to the consequences of doing one or the other. Compelling stories owe their power to the storyteller. Before we can even ask what questions, we need information; and whatever we get, we always get it from some who. When it comes to the narratives we use to make sense of ourselves and each other, power originates from people. Who always trumps what, and there are good reasons to make sure that we stand at the head of the narrative trail.
People who excel at manipulating other people love what questions, for some very simple reasons. What is one step removed from who, and it’s more easily manipulated. Hiding their true intentions from us is easier if our attention is diverted away from them as persons who have intentions and agendas. And if they manage to get us to focus on a what of their choosing, they just established rapport with us: they and we agree that this particular what should be paid attention to, and we are doing it together. At that point, we already have several strikes against us in a game that we don’t even know we’re playing.
Prioritizing what over who shifts our focus from inner concerns to external concerns and obscures the crucial roles played by whomever is concerned. This is typical of those who treat people like objects. Their paradigm is mind-numbingly unvarying regardless of scenario or scale:
- Idolatry: Establish some what as all-important. This what is always something under their control.
- Elitism and Enmity: Categorize people into “Us” and “Them” depending on their relationships to the what established in the first step, creating a potentially adversarial and threatening environment. “We” recognize the all-importance of that what. Everyone who refuses to likewise recognize it and behave accordingly is either inferior or an enemy.
- Imperialism: Create a two-pronged campaign with the goal of total domination: one prong to convert as many as possible from their unenlightened state; the other to quash all resistors.
- Black Hole Promises: Forecast a glorious, ultimately victorious future for “Us” that perpetually remains a tantalizing distance ahead.
This model was exactly what Jesus and the apostles decried. We aren’t surprised to see it pervade the secular world, but it not only taints most of the history of religion, it typifies the history of the Christian church. The church’s bloody history can’t be excused by blaming individuals or eras; it was inevitable given the object-adoring, person-denigrating paradigm it has consistently maintained since the early days when it was expropriated by power- and wealth- (and sex-) hungry ecclesiasts.
Object, Object – Who’s Got the Objects?
We are all guilty of objectification at times. The people affected by our lapses usually let us know about it. We typically react by explaining our reasons, as if seeing things from our perspective would help them understand our priorities, and so, what we did would make sense to them even if they didn’t like it. Objectification never makes sense to people with healthy senses of self, so they take our “reasons” as rationalizations we’re using to justify their objectification. The difference between resolution and loggerheads in cases like that boils down to the ability — both ours and theirs — to recognize the integrity of each other’s perspectives and the validity of each other’s priorities. In other words: affirm each other’s dignity. This, in turn, requires a capacity to perceive intention: to see the intangible; to look past appearances; to focus on inner, personal realities that lie behind what.
In future posts, I’ll show that prioritizing what over who is the crux of what Jesus called hypocrisy, what Paul called according to the flesh, what John called anti-Christ, and what we currently call psychopathy. It makes sense to psychopaths to subordinate and sacrifice living beings for the sake of objects and material resources. Unfortunately, psychopaths have ruled the world for far too long, and we’ve all been corrupted by their anti-life views. I think that this corruption is the “sin” which Paul held responsible for the “evil” he did. Prioritizing what over who is the source of our shit. More about that in future posts, too. 🙂
Do we truly believe that things are more important than people? Of course not. Even psychopaths are human beings with hearts capable of love towards some. Criminals, gangsters, Mafiosa, and ruthless, genocidal dictators display affection and tenderness to those they care about, at least in their better moments. We would rather that monsters were very unlike us, but the facts don’t bear that hope out, our preoccupation with serial killers notwithstanding. We might want to limit the term psychopath to serial killers and other aberrational — and miniscule — populations, but they only represent the extremes of a wide spectrum of psychopathic thinking and behavior. Maybe the likes of a Manson, Bundy, or Dahmer are the most thoroughly psychopathic examples we know of, but the facts that a hitman comes home with flowers for his wife, gifts for his children, and friendly words for his neighbors in no way mitigate the psychopathology that enables a Richard Kuklinski, for example, to dispatch dozens of people over a period of decades while maintaining an otherwise seemingly “normal” life in an upper-middle class neighborhood. Clearly, psychopaths can well be “normal” guys next door. Even Hitler, Stalin, and Chairman Mao — three of the 20th Century’s worst psychopaths — had parents and siblings and came home to mistresses and wives.
A Familiar Type
Writing about the trauma suffered by victims in captive situations, award-winning psychiatrist Judith Herman observed:
This idea is deeply disturbing to most people. How much more comforting it would be if the perpetrator were easily recognizable, obviously deviant or disturbed. But his is not. The legal scholar Hanna Arendt created a scandal when she reported that Adolf Eichmann, a man who committed unfathomable crimes against humanity, had been certified by half a dozen psychiatrists as normal.  (italics mine)
Adolf Eichmann was the Nazi Lieutenant-Colonel in Hitler’s infamous SS responsible for the logistics of mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in German-occupied Eastern Europe. Commenting on Eichmann’s war crimes trial in Jerusalem in 1961, Hannah Arendt wrote:
Those observations beg the question: Do psychopaths seem “normal” because they learn to disguise their psychopathologies, or because our conceptions of “normal” incorporate psychopathology so seamlessly that even experts can’t distinguish between monsters and normal people? For now, I’ll leave that question to the experts and simply point out that they continue at a loss for answers.
Psychopaths Have Most of the Objects
We need ways to deal with very real psychopathic forces now. I believe that Jesus gave us those answers, and that the apostles and early Christians elaborated on them, but that much of their wisdom was buried or destroyed by those who transformed the church into a worldwide materialistic enterprise over its first few centuries. We have almost no “how-to” information about the radical life and powers described in the New Testament, whose writers refer to fantastic attributes of early Christian experience without providing much detail. This is understandable, since most information at the time was communicated verbally. The how-to of connecting with God is probably one of the most private, sensitive topics we could discuss with each other. Even today when information can be recorded effortlessly, we rarely record sensitive personal conversations. Verbal how-to information about the life promised by Jesus’ gospel was lost and must be rediscovered. Written how-to information is sparse, marginalized as “mystical.” The Bible is not enough. Fortunately, the discovery process is neither complicated nor esoteric. It just takes uncommon honesty.
The psychopathic paradigm is easy to recognize, thanks to what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.” M. Scott Peck argued that we need to develop a “psychology of evil,” a chief characteristic of which is how boring evil people are.
To psychopaths, life is presumptively adversarial, where authority demands submission, respect is coerced, might ultimately has the last word, materialistic prowess is admired, and empathy is viewed as an intrinsic weakness. The psychopath sees the world as a complicated arrangement of objects that he must control or they will control him. His means of control — intellect, emotional coercion, physical force — and the arenas in which he chooses to operate — secular, religious, political, academic, scientific, public or private, etc. — don’t alter the basic, underlying psychopathic paradigm, only how it gets expressed. The paradigm itself has remained remarkably similar and consistent across widely varied scenarios over the ages. At its crux is a dysfunctional reversal of priorities between what and who.
Down to the Roots of What
I stress the what vs. who issue because this question of priorities is key to understanding Paul’s identity quandary and his solution. As long as we look at life the way psychopaths do, psychopathic thinking will keep making sense to us and healthy thinking will seem strange. With the healthy prioritization reversed, what trumps who, making self-identification and self-definition seem like alien concepts. To psychopathic minds, imperialistic agendas seem reasonable, even desirable. Obscene wealth doesn’t look like a symptom of mental illness, i.e., hoarding, but a proof of acumen and successful “planning and execution.” Power consists of controlling others instead of the ability to enjoy life and facilitate enjoyment of life for others. People and other important beings get subordinated to some preferred what: a cause or an ideal or a truth or a desired state of arrangement. The way of the psychopath is the “way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”
When read without a psychopathic lens, Jesus’ message and the apostles’ teaching claim that we see things wrongly. They describe what it’s like to see life and the world the way they really are, which is why, for example, the truth “shall set you free” just by knowing it. They advised us to turn away from our corrupted pictures and embrace a completely new vision. The Christian church, on the other hand, twisted their words into programs that amount to little more than corrective lenses, promising good results without fixing root problems. That, I believe, is the church’s “sorcery” condemned in the book of Revelations. Jesus and the apostles couldn’t have been more clear or emphatic that we need to get at the root of the matter and be healed. They characterized the abundant life they promised as something entirely new, not a reparation and continuation of our old ways of thinking and living.
What would possess us to prioritize what over who in the first place? Paying attention to children for a while helps make this clear. One of our earliest childhood challenges is to manipulate objects: first hands, arms, and legs; next whatever we can clutch and shove into our mouths. If we develop into healthy adults, we start to recognize that entire psychic worlds exist within other people, and we learn to represent those worlds in our own inner psyches by processes like sympathy, compassion, and empathy. We learn to anticipate eventual outcomes. We learn to see the unseen.
Children who grow up in loving, safe environments don’t see the world as an adversarial, threatening place, in contrast to children who grow up in abusive ones. However, abuse is like beauty: it lies in the eye of the beholder. When it comes to our developing minds, behavior that affects us abusively constitutes psychologically real abuse from our perspectives, even if it happens to fall within a range considered “normal” by others at the time. Lloyd deMause identified seven stages in the history of child-rearing since Paleolithic times. He called the earliest stage the infanticidal stage because of the prevalence of ritual sacrifice of children, high infanticide rates, incest, body mutilation, child rape and tortures. The child-rearing practices of the 19th and 20th Centuries were improved, but still very abusive. Just a mild contemporary example: to parents of my generation, whether they should lie to their children about their youthful indiscretions was a very relevant question, and it still is for many parents. Let’s see… Our children must trust and respect us, but behind their backs we decide whether or not we’ll tell them the truth. Does that kind of mentality fall on the healthy or the psychopathic side of the spectrum of human thinking?
We don’t originate our own abuse, although we often participate in it, even to the point that we enable and perpetuate it; but we do so under duress, not willingly. Abusive conditioning skews our expectations, making us wary, skeptical, even cynical. The world stops being a safe place (if it ever was) where we can experiment and let ourselves be vulnerable enough to develop sympathy, compassion, and empathy. We don’t learn how to represent the inner worlds of others in our own inner pictures of reality. Our pictures get skewed and our development flounders as we get preoccupied with self-defense. We remain blind to the unseen, and our sense of the reality of other people doesn’t go much deeper than their external appearance and behavior, just like any other objects.
A psychopath’s world is a world without minds that have the power to choose, in which storytellers have disappeared and everything gets moved by invisible, near-inscrutable forces. We have expressions that imply this. “It’s a dog eat dog world.” “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” “The devil made me do it.” Even our notion of survival of the fittest reeks of psychopathic elements. A psychopath’s skills are manipulative: he learns how to get other people to do what he wants, whether they want to or not. His conception of “power” consists of the ability to force others to act against their own wills. The more he can get his victims to do, the more powerful he feels. The stronger his victims’ wills and interests are, the stronger he is if he can cause them to bend. This is the power of the psychopath. The power that Jesus advocated was diametrically opposed to it.
Asking who says focuses us on the meaning of what was said and done, and preserves our narrative rights, the same rights that psychopathic thinking presumptively shuts out by ignoring inner realities and over-prioritizing externals. Stories are motivated and tailored by the intentions of storytellers. Getting a just glimpse of their inner pictures is worth thousands of argumentative words aiming to prove the right and justice of what they want.
A great way to see how who trumps what is to pay attention to humor, one of the best emotional power detectors we have. When the what of a matter is clearly inane or ridiculous, we don’t get upset; instead we laugh. That is, we do if we feel safe. On the other hand, when we feel threatened by the person promoting them, the inane and ridiculous don’t seem funny at all. We take all kinds of inane and ridiculous things seriously with guns to our heads, under threat of censure, or when we feel the heat of hell-fire.
It is ridiculous to think, for example, that thousands of rote repetitions of a phrase would bear real meaning to any intelligent being, unless that being is a psychopath. I have no interest in hearing millions of people chant, “Hail, Millard, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst men.” Would you? Who in their right mind would? Instead, would you, like me, think that such people had lost their minds and couldn’t tell the difference between us and gold-plated statues? I don’t mean to be offensive, but atheistic denigration of religious ritual can’t be boiled down to just misunderstanding or malice. Bill Maher is right: much of religion is religulous.
While religious ritualists aren’t necessarily crazy, they get indoctrinated and conditioned to take a lot of craziness seriously. What kind of person — let alone what kind of god — would prize meaningless repetition, something that Jesus expressly prohibited? Pay attention to your surroundings; there are types that love it. They love being the focus of ornate ceremony, decked out with glitzy falderal, surrounded by senseless gestures of honor, subordination, and obeisance. Those are the guys who taught us that such nonsense pleases God.
Humor is also a great litmus test of our own reactions. Who says, for example, that a slur or insult merits our serious consideration, even if just to debunk it? Why not belly-laugh instead? But just catching wind of a false rumor can immediately scramble our defenses. If a rumor is ridiculous, why do we care? But cortisol starts flowing, heart starts pumping, and brain gets right to work without a second thought. We don’t ask if a spreading rumor is worth our time unless we feel relatively secure. Often we just react and scurry to counter it. Some very relevant questions might not even occur to us. Who decided that the rumor, not something else, is the crucial topic? Who says that anything hinges on it? What gives them the right? Do they even have a clue? If we raise such questions, we normally do so as defenses against a threat we have already accepted as real rather than to challenge whether one actually exists.
Think About It
The defensiveness and predictability of our reactions to adverse stories tell a story of their own. Who chose to characterize us as being under threat? To whom does defensiveness seem advisable or even make sense? They must see the world as a dangerous place. Do we even like these guys? We fall for it from no more than our own kids, who learn early on how to push our buttons.
Their ability to rile adults on command continues to provide generation after young generation of kids with amusement and a sense of power over seemingly invincible beings. Parents react in frustrated wonder that their kids do and say such stupid, disrespectful things, while the kids revel in their accomplishment: See? I did that! When we feel secure in our parenting roles, we find creative, even humorous ways of dealing with juvenile power plays. Too often, though, our alarm and emotional reactions betray our sense of inadequacy and apprehensions of chains of awful possibility: that our kids won’t respect us, that they’ll ignore our guidance and put themselves in harm’s way, even become stubborn, willful, cocky, and eventually fail or worse.
That’s if we actually analyzed our reactions. Too often, all we know is that our kids “crossed a line” that they shouldn’t have, and now we need to make them feel the consequences. When we lack self-awareness to that degree, our kids didn’t cross lines, they pushed buttons. They tripped conditioned reflexes: results of experiential habit, not reasoned deliberation; programmed responses, not rational ones. Buttons make us vulnerable, manipulable even by children. No wonder, then, if we let ourselves be manipulated by peers or those we consider our superiors. Asking who says is a first step out of the conditioning.
Who Is Hiding Down There
We tend to react as if the mere fact that something was said is enough to make it matter. For all the effort we don’t put into asking and answering, “Says who?” the words might as well have been uttered by a disembodied voice from heaven. Pay attention to arguments as they escalate and you’ll notice that they invariably take on the character of mortal struggles over incontrovertible — if not divine — truth. In fact, simply demanding an answer to “Who says?” can effectively disrupt the escalation.
Notice that when things get adversarial people switch away from simple, descriptive language in which they figure prominently. “I want” becomes “You must” or “If only you’d” or “It would be so nice if you” did what the speaker wants. Instead of saying, “I’d really like it if you _____,” they say, “You have to _____,” or, “Things will get really bad if you don’t _____.” They disappear from their own stories. They become mouthpieces for disembodied, eternal principle to which all — especially we — must submit. Even if they don’t go so far as, “Thus saith THE LORD,” no one who hears them doubts whether they think that’s who they speak for.
On an interpersonal level, declarations of unassailable truth, citing “They” (you know: “They know that _____,” or “They proved that _____,”) or resorting to authorities like Science or Her Majesty or His Holiness or anyone not actually present to answer critical questions (hint, hint) doesn’t actually help persuade, because it emotionally alienates the very people being persuaded. If people call upon God to judge between them and us, they put God between them and us. They also imply that they are arguing about God’s will, not their own, which of course just isn’t true. God can argue his will with us without their help. Their emotional investment in the argument originates from their interest in it, not God’s. As a result, we’ll probably resist all the harder. When we remain unconvinced, they might resort to the psychopathic: threats, force, abuse, even violence. What kind of behavior does that resemble; the reasoned behavior of people who understand how things work, or a resort to intimidation and force by frustrated people too dumb or too young to be constructive?
If someone tries to malign us or twist our arms, why respond at all? What would happen if we didn’t? Better yet, why not take the initiative and create our own characterizations on our own terms? And while we’re at it, why not make ourselves the good guys? Any reason? I can’t think of one, which makes it even more ironic that we seldom do it, and then only with great effort. And if we actually attempt to turn the tables and occupy the narrator’s seat in a confrontation, we rarely meet with much success. Our efforts initially fall flat. Selling a story takes confidence and conviction, two things which are hard to pull off when we’re on the defensive. Our premonition of failure is probably why we so seldom try, sadly, because the mechanics of success in this skill are no different than those in any other: just a matter of practice. But the real problem lies deeper than mechanics and practice.
Who Ya Gonna Trust?
Underneath the details of an unfavorable story lie two things that we are extremely sensitive to but have very little socially acceptable language to manage: intent and power, both very much who issues. If someone with our best at heart hears negative information about us, we don’t sweat it like we do if the guy who has it in for us hears exactly the same thing. The difference lies in their intentions. Even so, someone who has it in for us might be at a power disadvantage, so his attempts to use the information against us are easy to thwart, if not dead out of the gate. Maybe he lacks credibility or is so junior to us that he doesn’t represent a threat. The reverse also holds: if we sweat, it’s because we perceive intentions and power that do pose threats worth our attention. So the question becomes why so many can make us “sweat” so easily. Merely getting the wrong idea about us does not automatically constitute a threat, but our reactions beg to differ. Our bias toward perceiving threat so quickly and instinctively does not make rational sense.
“Accomplished” and “successful” people like to report that they aren’t afraid of much. They don’t perceive much threat worth paying attention to. They mastered whatever skills were required to reach a level of achievement and competence, and from that position of power they feel capable, even secure. In the context of this discussion, standing on those laurels would amount to a dodge. I’m not asking if it’s possible to compensate for perceived threat; I’m challenging whether the perception of threat is valid by asking who said that a threat exists in the first place. Saying that a threat has been managed or eliminated only proves that they perceived it and does nothing to illuminate whether the threat was real or an erroneous result of conditioned reflex. It also dodges identifying who said it was real to begin with. Until you answer that question, you can’t decide whether the person who says is someone worth trusting. And it’s still a good question that needs an answer even if the persons who say are us.
Asking, “Says who?” puts the matter into a perspective that relates to our emotional makeups. The biggest problem we have with unfavorable stories is not what they claim, but who they might motivate to act to our detriment. This is easy to see with slurs that friends use with each other as terms of affection. “You son of a bitch!” a guy exclaims through a huge grin as he opens the perfect gift. “You devil,” “You sly little bitch,” and the list goes on. There probably isn’t a derogatory expression in existence that hasn’t been used between friends to show how inviolable their friendship is. We have no problem with derogatory characterizations when the intention and power behind them are in our favor. Judging from how easily we perceive threat, it’s hard not to wonder how we became so convinced of our relative vulnerability, and who convinced us.
We react as the result of what we feel before we think. Our emotions revolve around people long before and long after they attach to things, unless abuse twisted them, rendering them dysfunctional, so that we prioritize things over living beings and objectify persons. Notice how much difference it makes when someone we trust simply says, “It’s going to be OK.” Even if we’re sure that they have no way of knowing that it’s actually going to be OK, it still helps. That’s the way our limbic systems work. Everything eventually comes down to who because everything eventually comes down to trust.
My parents used to say, “It’s going to be OK,” even after I passed the age when I believed them without question. At that point their words were frustrating, not comforting, and my response became, “How do you know?” I wanted to believe them, and I would have if I’d thought that they knew, but I had to be sure for myself. I’d started to write my own story. Plagiarizing theirs didn’t help. I ran into the same problem in school, and then again on the job. If someone said it was so, I wanted to know how they knew. If it didn’t make sense, I refused to accept it until it did. I didn’t simply reject it, (although in retrospect I would have done well if I’d made that a personal rule,) because I was keenly aware of my shortcomings. I took it for granted that the fault was probably mine. I assumed that I couldn’t see the sense, not that there was no sense to see. Now you understand what kept me in a quasi-cult group for 15 years and why I finally got expelled. I spent over 40 years of my life (post-implicit trust) giving apparent nonsense the benefit of the doubt. Now I look back to see how often that doubt was merited, and realize that my own stories might not have been great or at times even much good at all, but they were almost always better than the nonsense.
In the final part, Controlling the Narrative, Part 5: Outcome, we’ll look at some implications of becoming self-identifying, self-defined controllers of our own narratives.
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 I use psychopath in a very broad sense to include the impersonally oriented and less extreme term sociopath. I prefer psychopath because I believe our societies have long been controlled by psychopaths and are largely founded on psychopathic principles. If so, then some “sociopaths” could have been really great human beings. In fact, history shows repeatedly that anyone who strays too far outside the contemporary norm gets treated like a sociopathic element, even if the directions they took were great ones that were eventually vindicated. Also, sociopath has no effective meaning if it isn’t a symptom of underlying psychopathology. In other words, if sociopaths are psychologically healthy, either sociopathy represents a valid alternative for well-adjusted people, or society as we know it is the true pathological element, since it vilifies well-adjusted people just because they disregard social norms. I’ll write more about this in future posts here and on my secular blogs, Millard’s Blog and Millard’s Philosophy Sandbox. (continue reading…)
 Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery, (New York: Penguin Books, 1992), p. 75. (continue reading…)
 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 2nd ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1964), p. 276. (continue reading…)
 By the time of Constantine, a tripartite union had formed that John metaphorically described in Revelations Chapters 17 and 18, between “Babylon the great” and the kings and merchants of the earth. About the downfall of Babylon, he wrote:
I believe that the Babylon of Revelations represents corrupted religion. You would think that religion might serve as a moral bulwark against the conniving of politicians and businessmen. In some ways it does, but only within parameters that are suspiciously similar to those considered normative in the secular world, and only with deference (even devotion) to methods of organization and control that were originated by totalitarian regimes long before the time of Christ. Whatever Babylon refers to, according to John not only are political and business powers united with it, but it facilitates their ability to exploit humanity. (continue reading…)
 M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie, (London: Arrow Books Limited, 1990) p. 303. (continue reading…)