Saturday, 5 August 2017

Fight or flight

I found this comment on Slaterblog some time ago. It was a response to the question of who was the ‘worst politician. It has a certain currency in light of recent events.

"The too sweet to be wholesome Aussie COMMIE REFUGEE NORMAN.Also the little fat ugly frog TUREI.Two pathetic assholes who seem to think we are all stupid and we cant see their hidden agenda of turning NZ into another North Korea."

Russel Norman is of course no longer co-leader of the Greens and Metiria Turei is back in the sights of the loud-mouthed and bigoted bullies whose knee-jerk reactions are so violent they have knocked themselves stupid.

I once questioned the ethics of horse racing on a Yahoo site and I was called a 'rabid PETA whore'; another genius came up with 'granola-eating kook'. There were several in similar vein – full of sound and fury and signifying – a great deal actually.

There are significant cognitive differences between those who have liberal political views and those who have conservative political views. These differences influence and go beyond, how they vote. 

The politically liberal tend to be more open minded and open to change; they tend to want to understand phenomena and, if what they find out doesn't fit with what they think, they're more likely to adjust their beliefs and their behaviour. The extreme end of the liberal spectrum could be a relativism that prevents meaningful political action. A person who argues that we cannot stand in judgment of other cultures/religions, and therefore we cannot impose our values on them even when their values are in direct contradiction of our laws ties themselves in both moral and political knots.

The politically conservative are more likely to respond with fear or aggression to things that challenge their world view, less likely to change attitudes or behaviour and, in the absence of facts, they may make up stuff to support what they already believe. The extreme end of the conservative spectrum is an absolutism that can lead to terrifying consequences.

Studies have indicated that those cognitive differences are matched by structural differences - most notably that the amygdala (flight and fight control centre) is larger and more active in the brains of people who are politically conservative.  

Whether that's genetic is simply not known, and in any event, how any given genetic inheritance is expressed depends on the social environment.  It's not nature versus nurture, it's nature combined with nurture. 

It might also be that the size of the amygdala is not the issue but how quickly and efficiently the more evolved parts of the brain kick in and rebalance and recalibrate the system -  for the simple reason that it is not evolutionarily advantageous to exist in a state of persistent fear, rage or disgust.

The bottom line is - when we are running on adrenaline we are less capable of being rational.  All systems seek homeostasis – acute or chronic imbalances can be highly destructive. If you lack a fear / aggression response you may be less able to survive the actions of predators - from within your own species as well as others. If you are in the grip of persistent fear / aggression, you may have a short-term survival advantage in some situations, but the hormonal storm will harm you in the longer term. This harm can take the form of being exiled from your group as well as the physical damage to a biological system that is unable to restore homeostasis.

Horses are a good exemplar.  As prey animals whose primary defence is flight, they have a hair trigger flight / defence response to perceived threats. This autonomic response is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system powered by the hormone adrenaline which propels them instantly and explosively into flight. The energy maintenance hormone, cortisol, sustains effort.  It’s why we can make horses do things they would normally avoid – like racing at a flat out gallop over longer distances than any predator would chase them, leaping huge obstacles etc etc. 

But, rapid flight carries risk of injury and is energy intensive so, in horses which have acquired experience of the world, the brain assesses the nature of the threat and if it’s not worth expending energy and risking injury, the parasympathetic nervous system acts to re-establish homeostasis. 

It’s all very interesting and complicated but it has allowed me to construct a caricature to counterpose against those used against the Left, if there is a ‘loony-left’ it is only fair and just that there be a ‘ranting Right’ aka the Amygdala Brigade, the Right’s storm troopers.
I'm fascinated by the thought processes of the Amygdala Brigade.  I watch them with same sort of wary fascination as I would a 4-metre crocodile. 

Rightwing propagandists concentrate a lot of their malign energy on caricaturing environmentalists and the Left in general as 'loonies' and 'tree-huggers' or as 'closet commies' out to destroy our current -  demonstrably unfair, uneconomic, inefficient and ineffective - way of organising production. They do this to keep the Amygdala Brigade on full alert.

We should not be too surprised when the members of the AB behave as if they are totally Upminster (8 stops past Barking) when you consider that one of their most prominent members, John Ansell, in an interview with New Zealand’s premier morning news programme in the lead up to the 2014 general election, referred to Russell Norman as  ‘the Australian communist’.

Largely unchallenged by interviewer Susie Ferguson, Ansell was allowed to rabbit on at length about ‘the people who supported the thinking behind leaky homes could soon be in charge of state housing, Russell Norman, the Australian Communist (SF laughs) could be in charge of finance in 1 month’s time (SF laughs again) that sort of thing that's what the Nats are going to have to be running with (SF still laughing) the Cunliffe cabinet is going to be 1/3rd Green…”

The reason why became obvious later when John Ansell admitted he’d gifted his dubious talents to a campaign which made claims about Green politics which verged on the deranged. The idea was to damn the Greens and, by association, damn Labour, or more specifically, David Cunliffe.

Some time ago Ansell announced he was fundraising to form a single issue political party – to get rid of 'racial politics' in NZ. It seems he’d also fallen prey to the notion that Mãori are not NZ’s indigenous people because the Scots got here first, ergo the Treaty is invalid.  The Treaty is between the Crown and Mãori so in legal terms he was not on safe ground – but given the shaky anthropological ground he’d ventured out onto, that was the least of his worries.

But he was right about one thing – how to appeal to the classic ‘low-effort’, conservative thinkers who retreat to the safety of what they think they know.  They are out in full force over the recent Metiria Turei revelations. 

There’s not much we can do about them, but there are a lot of other people who are more open minded and reasonable.  What we must do is to keep pointing out to them which track National's train is really on and that it’s the shortest possible route to a socio-economic and political version of Tangiwai;  what we must not do is sacrifice Metiria Turei.

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