The Iron Mask of the Mind

There’s something about this election that baffles me.

It has always seemed to me that climate change is the most important challenge we face now or will face any time in the near future.  I’m hardly alone in that thought, of course.

Bernie Sanders said it outright and was mocked by many on the right.

If we continue on our current path we will, according to scientists, make large portions of our earth uninhabitable in the future.

But if we truly believe our scientists (as we progressive Democrats say we do), if we really believe that we are about to face massive population shifts, droughts, sea level rise requiring the abandonment of huge portions of the world’s coastlines, why are we talking about almost everything BUT climate change in this election?  If the US military has climate change as “significant threat to national security”(1), why is it that the US House and Senate can’t even admit it exists?

We argue about economic issues as if having most of Manhattan under water in fifty years won’t make any difference to that economy.

We talk about immigration and how it is such a huge problem when the prediction is that the most of the population of northern Africa could be displaced by drought in the future.  Where do you think they are going to go?

We ignore the fact that we are already facing water shortages right here in America that will only continue to get worse, thawing permafrost that is already makingCaliforniaDroughtAlmadenReservoir214-500x322 Alaskan highways impassable and whole towns on the Alaskan coast that need to be relocated.

There are Pacific island nations that are being swallowed up by the sea right now and ocean ecosystems that are irreparably harmed already by acid water and higher temperatures.

We say these things are real issues, but we spend our time talking about Melania Trump’s past visa status and ogling pictures of her boobs which her husband so kindly supplied to distract us.

I’m not the biggest Bill Maher fan, but he put my thinking into words best the other day when he said “There is no room for boutique issues in an Armageddon election.”(2)

If we truly believe that climate change is proceeding at the pace our scientists have projected, we simply do not have the time to allow the US House and Senate to obstruct any and all efforts to slow it down.  We don’t have time to change people’s minds and come to consensus, play patty-cake, and be nice.  We are past that.

And yet many neverhillary progressives are throwing away their vote in order to support Jill Stein, ironically a candidate from the “Green Party,” who has absolutely NO chance of winning the election, and changing ANYTHING.    On Nate Silver’s 538 website (Aug 7,’16), Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate is predicted to get 0.3 electoral votes. (3)  Jill Stein’s numbers are so low; she doesn’t even show up on the chart.  When the election is over, Jill Stein and the Green Party will slip into the never-never land of American politics for the next four years and will have ZERO input to the American government on the issue of climate change… or anything else.

These supposedly progressive voters have been so terribly upset because their hero left them behind, by the corrupt actions of the Democratic Party, and the sheer evil of that party’s candidate that they will, by their own votes, work against what may well be the most meaningful decision this country has yet made.  Do we DO something to slow the decline of our environment or do we play whiney, liberal boutique games.

These people can maintain all they want that their votes are not being wasted and will help change the American political system and move us away from a two-party oligarchy, and I might be almost be willing to listen if the streets of Miami Beach weren’t flooding with salt water with every storm and sea surge.

We don’t have time for that right now.

There are millennials who have turned from Sanders to Trump, claiming that there is no real difference between the Trump and Clinton.  They are both corrupt.  They are both liars.

I know that many of them are disillusioned – again – with the political process.  I know that some of them have already made the decision not to have children because they see no future for them in the world they have been left.   But there is a difference.   And there is still time to avert the worst.

A Trump presidency will undo every major step we’ve taken to make a difference in the rate of climate change.  A Clinton presidency will not.  A Clinton presidency along with a Democratic senate led by people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren will advance the efforts of the world to help stave off the worst and slow down the rest.  There is no guarantee of success under that scenario, but a Trump presidency will guarantee failure.

On the other side of the spectrum are a whole group of otherwise intelligent people who have come to believe that who uses what bathroom, who gets to call their relationship “marriage” and who doesn’t, and whether women have the right to make decisions about their reproductive systems or not is more important than whether or not the planet can sustain a population anywhere near what it has today in another 50 years.

They insist that getting prayer back in the schools, saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” and keeping the Ten Commandments hanging in the lobby of state houses is more important than what it will cost our economy if another hurricane Katrina makes landfall in a low-lying area due to the changes in weather patterns that are obviously happening right now.

Some of these people are natural followers and have been misled; some of them truly believe this stuff.

We don’t have time for either of them any longer.

While the country has been playing cultural warfare games for the last 50 years, the real threat to the American family has been kept behind the curtain and fed continually by the corporate greed and political shallowness of the conservative mindset.

It would be wonderful to think that we might change their minds.  It would be exhilarating to see a national conversation develop that would result in compromise and allow progress on climate issues.  Unfortunately, that almost certainly can’t happen.  The movement conservatives (4) of the past 50 years have been replaced in government by something much more dangerous.

In the same piece where he talks about the Strict Father Family model, George Lakoff talks about a related issue: Strict Father Family model members (read conservatives) are more likely than Nurturant Father Family model members (read liberal) to display a direct causation mindset.  Liberals seem more able to deal with the idea of systemic causation.  Empirical research bears this out. (5)

From the day you are born you begin to develop a mental framework that defines who you are.  Most all of this is unconscious.  You pick up this image or that bit of language, this sound or that smell, and your brain tucks it away until somewhere down the line it is evoked by something that happens in the present and it is hauled up.  And that act of hauling it up starts a neural pathway that makes it easier to haul up in the future.  This repeats over and over again until your brain has beaten paths that define you.  They form a sort of grammar for how you think and learn.

Direct causation leads to “either – or” thinking.   Do this and that happens.  It is black vs white.  It leads to extremes.  Things are either “wonderful” or “disgusting.”   People are “great” or “corrupt.”

Direct causation is what we learn in physics class.  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Hit me in the nose; it bleeds.

There is a language of formal logic with its own grammar to describe it.  P→Q.  If P happens then Q happens.

But the direct causational mindset doesn’t do well with systemic causation.

In chaos theory the butterfly effect holds that the flapping of the wings of a butterfly in South America can influence the path of a hurricane in the Atlantic months later.  This is systemic causation at work.  This is why climate change is almost impossible for the direct causation mindset to understand and why so many still deny it exists.

Climate change involves complicated interactions of large numbers of systems.  Wind patterns, ocean currents, atmospheric ionization, greenhouse gasses, melting permafrost (caused by warming temperatures, caused by greenhouse gasses) increasing gas emissions because of all the carbon dioxide trapped in the soil – all of these are systemic causes.  Warming ocean currents over the Pacific vaporize water droplets which are transported by jet stream patterns through colder air until they fall as snow in Washington DC and a senator with no understanding of any of this can scoop up a handful and present it as proof that climate change is a hoax.

Thinking in ways that do not involve those paths laid down throughout one’s life is hard to do.  It requires starting over and building new pathways to compete with those that are perhaps decades in the making.  It involves learning a new language – a new grammar.  It’s much easier to just reject such ideas and get on with your life.

If the thinking involved contradicts the mental framework badly enough to cause anxiety and disorientation, we call the result cognitive dissonance.  In that case the mind simply refuses to even consider the ideas and turns away as if they had never been presented.  Much has been written on that.  Short of that, though, is a place where the ideas just seem “wrong” or “alien” or “gibberish”- outside the mental grammar.

For someone who has developed a grammar of direct causation the outcome is the same.  The idea, the thought, the scope of the problem, the solution – is rejected.

It is important to understand that at any particular point, this is not a matter of choice for the individual.

A 60-something senator cannot simply choose to ignore neural pathways laid down over 6 decades and suddenly embrace systemic thinking.  The brain doesn’t work that way.

Donald Trump and his followers are firmly embedded in that direct causational mindset.  So are most of the Republican conservative members of Congress.

Immigrants from Mexico a problem?  Build a wall.  Some terrorists are Muslim?  Keep all Muslims out of the country.  The father of a Medal of Honor winner threatens you?  Punch him in the nose.

There is no apparent grasp of the interconnectedness of the world, the social, economic, political systems that make it up, and the complexities of the science behind all of it.

We would like to think these people’s minds can be changed.

They can’t.  They are like a man in an iron mask, peering through what little slits the brain allows at the world outside.  And we have neither the tools to remove that mask, nor the time to waste trying.

If we really believe that climate change presents the single biggest threat the world has ever faced, we need to stop talking about who is a narcissist and who is corrupt and by how much.  We need to stop talking about how our feelings were hurt by business-as-usual politics that may or may not be why our guy lost a primary.  We have to stop talking about the bullshit.

Sure, the country has to function even while we fight the climate change battles.  Sure, we need to feed people, protect their freedoms, and protect the nation.

But more than anything else, we have to identify every politician at every level of government whose mind is locked in the iron mask of direct causation and vote them out of office.  We need to replace them with people who can understand the intricate complexities that comprise the world in which we actually live and which is being taken from us by those incapable of seeing that they are the reason we are at risk.

Your Humble Servant,

Roger A. Shipley, The Willowbrook Curmudgeon

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4 thoughts on “The Iron Mask of the Mind

  1. Dear Friend Roger:
    This piece strikes me as a cry against reality. Your reasoning and writing here are not as tight as your usual efforts. I do not have the answers and apparently neither do you. Your piece speaks to me of the frustration and fear you find at not having the answers. You spend much of your effort in trying to force on yourself an answer which mimics the “direct causation” you complain of in others.

    We, homo sapiens, are all on paths to the same destination. We value and honor some of our progress above others. Einstein, R.Buckminster Fuller…. James Inhofe, Forest Gump… but as I see it there is very little distance between us all. We all have a mixture of individual goals and group goals but any answers to our principle problems lie in a group answer. When we separate ourselves from our group we delay arriving at those answers. You are clearly perplexed at this and you are finally so bereft that your proposal mirrors the thinking at which you complain. You propose a linear solution (dichotomous) to complex questions. Our minds desire answers and we are confounded. You are trying to arrive at a temporary final answer and your proposal is a prescription which satisfies few and will not even satisfy yourself as will probably be shown by your return to the subject matter.

    People are OK with the result of their ignoring problems because it reduces our stress. It is not that we are OK with the people of North Africa dying. We shut that out of our minds and continue on. We do keep keeping on. Some of our behaviours are thought out and relatively intelligent some are less so. We continue to act for ourselves and for others. “If we are not for ourselves, who shall be? If we are not for others, what are we? If not now, when?” Rabbi Hillel.

    In my understanding, I am not throwing away my vote in voting Green for Dr.Jill Stein. In your mind it seems you have concluded that the Clintons will lead us to a more full on assault against what we see as environmental challenges. I no longer agree with this and it has taken all of my 71 years to arrive at this understanding. This does not mean you are wrong and I am right. Of course I think my view is better, do you not?

    Roger, you say we do not have “time to waste” on those who see things differently from us but any answers will necessarily involve us all. Please try to maintain your flexible mind and awareness of our group identity. We have been manipulated into our current situation by an oligarchical interest that is willing to cut off a large segment of humanity from eventual solutions. Something like this may be necessary but I urge you to try to find answers that are more inclusive rather than less.

    Your Friend,


  2. Pingback: The Iron Mask of the Mind | oldgymrat71

  3. Mike,

    I agree that neither of us has all the answers. If I implied that I do, that was not my intention.

    I am less convinced that Clinton will lead us to a more full-on assault on climate change than I am convinced that Trump will do more damage in 4 years than we can undo in the next decades.

    My point wasn’t that we have no time to waste on “those who see differently.” My point was that we have no time to waste on those who CANNOT see differently. Those views, in the end, will have to be taken into consideration. That’s the democratic process. We all breathe the same air.

    But we cannot stand by thinking that closed minds can be changed if we only wait long enough.

    If you are convinced that you should vote a certain way after all that anyone can do to dissuade you, you should obviously vote that way. And yes, I think the answer I came to is better. But we both came to our answers taking into account all of the information we could lay our hands on and all the thought we could put into arriving at a decision.

    You are acting in a rational manner after weighing pros and cons and applying the lessons of a long and productive life. Your mind is no more closed and limited by the “iron mask” I talked about here than mine, and I respect your decision even as I am not convinced it is the best one.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Roger, I was trying to point out that your thinking is more closely aligned to the opposition than perhaps you (we) are aware. I think we are much more a group organism than we are aware.


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