Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Art of Rhetoric


Statue of Aristotle at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece via Flickr.

On September 5, 2014, The Denver Post presented opposing points of view on the issue of repeal of broadband regulation (Senate Bill 152) in Colorado.  The “No” opinion was presented by Dr. Ron Rizzuto of the Daniels College of Business at Denver University.  The “Yes” opinion was given by Tim Wirth and Ken Fellman.

The two presentations differ markedly in style.  The work by Dr. Rizzuto is data-driven:
--SB 152 serves as an important protection for Colorado citizens.

--I have reviewed the financial track record of more than 75 municipal telecom systems that are competing with existing providers.

--My research shows that 75 percent of the competitive municipal systems do not “pay their own way.”  All are operating below the break-even point.

--Given the risky nature of municipal broadband operations and the sizable financial investments required, laws such as Colorado’s are necessary to provide citizens sufficient transparency and oversight of municipal decision makers.

--Why on Earth would Colorado want to take a step back from this level of transparency, voter empowerment, and accountability?

The work of Tim Wirth and Ken Fellman makes an appeal for us to “just do the right thing:”
--Competitive high-speed broadband networks are critical to the future of Colorado’s communities.

--Indeed, broadband access should be considered an essential service just like water, sewer and electricity.

--Incumbent service providers that do not want competition are blocking access to competitive, high-speed broadband.
--Colorado’s statute causes delay in local decision-making and increases costs.

--Our schools, businesses, health care facilities and service institutions deserve nothing less than the highest quality of service, at affordable rates.
--Our [state] legislature should not continue to hamstring our local officials in order to protect incumbent service providers from competition.

--SB 152 should be repealed, and unrestricted authority to make broadband decisions should be returned to the local level.

 Which technique appeals the most to you?  If you were a decision maker in our state legislature, which approach would sway you?
Your choice could indicate a susceptibility to authoritarian techniques.  Depending on your degree of left-brain dependence, you will be attracted to one argument or the other.

Note how the second argument brings in the pairing of idealism and hatred.  Idealism is validated with the understanding of broadband being “critical to the future of Colorado’s communities.”  (It is as essential as water!)
The hatred is directed at “incumbent service providers” who are shielded from competition.

This argument makes us feel very comfortable.  We are all part of the same mindset.  We know who the bad guys are, and we keep our idealism intact.
Dr. Rizzuto’s argument brings a “power to the people” libertarian appeal.  He believes local governments should have restrictions placed on their authority, and the people being governed are just the ones to do that.

It turns out the principle of this debate is really about control: How should local governments be restrained by the electorate?
Not surprisingly, the argument for unrestrained government is made by two Democratic Party politicians.  Tim Wirth, currently Vice Chair of the United Nations Foundation and the Better World Fund, is a “high priest” within the Democratic Party.  Ken Fellman is more associated with the Democratic Party’s “muscle.”  (He has been accused of stealing political yard signs while serving as mayor of Arvada, Colorado.)

For reference, posted below are the two articles.  Note how The Denver Post describes the question as allowing “communities” more flexibility.  This obscures the central differentiation between local government and the people being represented.  Also, the description of the participants fails to note Dr. Rizzuto's PhD and omits the Democratic Party affiliation of Tim Wirth and Ken Fellman.  (Just an oversight, no doubt.)

First the Wirth/Fellman article:

Should Colorado broadband law be revoked? Yes


Eliminate barriers to local decisions on broadband networks

By Timothy E. Wirth and Ken Fellman

Updated:   09/08/2014 12:12:40 PM MDT

Editor's note: Colorado Senate Bill 152, which was passed in 2005, prevents the state's municipalities from creating their own broadband networks. Nearly a decade later, some say the law is outdated. We asked key players in the debate to answer this question: Should SB 152 be revoked or changed to allow communities more flexibility for broadband accessibility?

Competitive high-speed broadband networks are critical to the future of Colorado's communities. Access to fast, affordable and reliable Internet service is required for job growth, enhanced educational opportunities, and improved health care.

Indeed, broadband access should be considered an essential service just like water, sewer and electricity. Communities without access, or those relying on first-generation networks will find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide.

The Federal Communications Commission has challenged us to create "gigabit communities." Only a handful exists today. In places like Chattanooga, Tenn., and Lafayette, La, city-owned fiber networks provide high speed, cost-effective connectivity, and have resulted in private companies upgrading their networks and lowering prices due to the competition. This has led to significant job growth and investment. Why don't we see these activities in Colorado?

Incumbent service providers that do not want competition are blocking access to competitive, high-speed broadband. These are usually the largest telecommunications companies that want to expand their monopoly or duopoly positions at the expense of consumers. This monopoly-like behavior takes many forms: lobbying at local town meetings; millions of dollars spent lobbying at the national decision-making level; and more lobbying dollars spent to convince legislatures to pass laws either prohibiting or creating barriers for local governments from building broadband networks.

Colorado's state law, Senate Bill 152, was passed in 2005, and generally prohibits local governments from providing broadband without a local vote. When Longmont tried to re-establish its local authority through a vote in 2009, the industry spent $240,000 to defeat it. In 2011, despite another $400,000 spent by the industry, Longmont prevailed. Now Longmont is poised to become a gigabit city.

We don't suggest all cities should provide broadband services. Communities can leverage excess capacity on internal government networks to incentivize the private sector to provide new and better broadband. Cortez, which was not affected by SB 152 because it had a pre-existing network, has been collaborating with the private sector for years. Montrose tried to get its incumbent providers to upgrade broadband networks, to no avail. After passing an election to re-establish local authority to build broadband networks, the telecom companies are now interested in upgrading their networks in Montrose. Imagine that! And imagine how interested they'd be in upgrading networks throughout Colorado if they knew that the failure to do so might result in local government stepping in to make 21st century services available.

Municipal broadband networks are not perfect. There have been local failures, just as there have been private telecom ventures that have gone bust. Yet opponents of municipal broadband often cite examples from the mid-2000s or earlier, and do not acknowledge the hundreds of communities around the United States that successfully provide broadband today — either directly or through public-private partnerships.

Colorado's statute causes delay in local decision-making and increases costs. It's one of the reasons Google chose to bypass Colorado and invest millions in new broadband networks in neighboring states. Localities took the lead a century ago to ensure that Colorado communities would not be without reliable, affordable electricity. In the 21st century, broadband is an essential service. Our schools, businesses, health care facilities and service institutions deserve nothing less than the highest quality of service, at affordable rates. Our legislature should not continue to hamstring our local officials in order to protect incumbent service providers from competition. SB 152 should be repealed, and unrestricted authority to make broadband decisions should be returned to the local level.

Timothy E. Wirth served Colorado in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Ken Fellman is a former Arvada mayor and is currently Littleton city attorney.

 And now, Dr. Rizzuto’s piece:

Should Colorado broadband law be revoked? No


Municipal broadband is a risky financial proposition

By Ron Rizzuto

Updated:   09/08/2014 12:12:21 PM MDT

Editor's note: Colorado Senate Bill 152, which was passed in 2005, prevents the state's municipalities from creating their own broadband networks. Nearly a decade later, some say the law is outdated. We asked key players in the debate to answer this question: Should SB 152 be revoked or changed to allow communities more flexibility for broadband accessibility?

The two most commonly cited reasons for wanting to revoke or change the 2005 law governing broadband services in Colorado, Senate Bill 152, are:

1) It hinders the expansion of high-speed broadband networks across Colorado.

2) It prohibits cities from providing free Wi-Fi in libraries or other public buildings.

Neither claim is correct.

In fact, SB 152 serves as an important protection for Colorado citizens.

First, Colorado law does not prevent local governments from selling broadband services.

Rather, the existing statute simply empowers citizens to vote on whether their local government should enter this risky, high-stakes industry. And that's a prudent requirement, given that publicly subsidized missteps could hit the wallets of these same citizens.

The record of municipal broadband throughout the nation is very uneven and cities have made costly mistakes.

Two very recent examples include Groton, Conn., and Alameda, Calif.

Groton was in the telecom business from 2004 until 2013. The municipality invested more than $34 million and never generated any positive cash flow. Each year the municipal utility in Groton had to subsidize the telecom operation.

In 2013, the municipality sold the operation for $150,000 but is still required to repay the $34 million that it borrowed to build and operate the business.

Likewise, Alameda sold its telecom operation to Comcast in 2008 for $17 million after operating it for 10 years. It is estimated that the municipality lost $60 million on this venture.

In April, the city just completed dealing with the lawsuits from its bondholders and third-party partner in this venture.

I have been doing research on the economics of municipal telecommunications since 1997. In the course of my research, I have reviewed the financial track record of more than 75 municipal telecom systems that are competing with existing providers.

In reviewing this performance, I have used the annual reports prepared by the municipal utilities and the financial performance from the date of inception to the current period.

My research shows that 75 percent of the competitive municipal systems do not "pay their own way." All are operating below the break-even point.

Given the risky nature of municipal broadband operations and the sizable financial investments required, laws such as Colorado's are necessary to provide citizens sufficient transparency and oversight of municipal decision makers.

Second, local governments in Colorado can legally today offer free Wi-Fi in public places like parks, and libraries — and they do so.

There are prominent examples of local governments providing free Wi-Fi, including Denver International Airport, the Denver Public Library system, the Golden Library, and Boulder Public Libraries. This is just a sampling.

Beyond these real-life examples, there are legal bases to support the idea that free Wi-Fi at a public park, library, government office or the like is permissible under Colorado law without a vote. Free Wi-Fi could satisfy the "internal and intergovernmental purpose" exception in the law, for example.

Given these realities, it is no wonder that free public Wi-Fi is increasingly available in certain communities.

Time and again, Coloradans have demonstrated their desire to vote on important financial questions that impact them. If a local government can make a compelling case to voters for investing in broadband, no doubt these voters will support the investment — just as they support ballot questions to fund schools or other public priorities.

Why on Earth would Colorado want to take a step back from this level of transparency, voter empowerment, and accountability?

Ron Rizzuto (rrizzuto@du.edu) is a professor of finance at the University of Denver.

UPDATE 9/25/2014:
Cory Gardner, running to replace Mark Udall as U.S. Senator from Colorado, has the following ad playing on Colorado television:


Note his use of statements of fact.  Contrast that with the DSCC response:

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Communications Director Justin Barasky released the following statement on Congressman Cory Gardner’s disgusting attack on Senator Mark Udall’s family:


“It’s clear Congressman Cory Gardner’s campaign is struggling to overcome the damage done by his support for laws that could block a woman’s access to common forms of birth control, take away women’s personal health care decisions even in cases of rape or incest, and roll women’s health care rights back decades. It’s disgusting that Congressman Gardner would stoop as low as attacking Senator Mark Udall’s late father and it is beneath a candidate running for the U.S. Senate. Congressman Gardner should apologize to Senator Udall and his family and pull the ad off the air.” 

Mr. Barasky uses rhetoric to (once again) pair up idealism and hate.  The idealism is the protection of women and respect for the deceased.  The hate is the "disgusting" Representative Cory Gardner.

It's formulaic, and it works.

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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Video Recruitment


Video frame of James Foley and his Sunni captor courtesy of New York Magazine
 
Nancy Snow, writing today for The Guardian, has an interesting depiction of the recent videos of American journalists being killed by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).  She characterizes the videos as a propagandist recruiting effort.  “I know good propaganda when I see it,” she states.

Ms. Snow says the recruiting efforts are directed at “people who have lost all other meaningful points of reference.”  In her view, these people are simply searching for meaning.

I disagree.  I see it from the perspective of those in pursuit of Authoritarianism.

The videos clearly elicit a differential reaction in people.  We either find them abhorrent or we find them attractive.  What accounts for the differences in our perception?

Rather than simply dismiss the individuals attracted to the violence as aberrational and “in search of meaning,” let’s do some research.

England and the United States can identify over 1,000 citizens who have travelled to the Middle East in search of the sanctity provided by ISIS.  What common experiences and behaviors define these individuals?

Were they bullies in elementary school?  Did they seek out particular cliques?  Did their peers, parents, guardians, or instructors have particular perceptions of them?  What is the evidence?

Authoritarian behaviors do not suddenly appear.  They develop over time.  It would be interesting to find out what drives these individuals to seek out opportunities to act with impunity.  Why do they search for life and death authority over other human beings?  What were the early manifestations?

Establishment institutions of our academic community apparently do not see this as a worthwhile area of study.  Our culture has no interest in early identification of authoritarian tendencies.  Why is that?

Maybe the culture needs some study as well.

Return to Bottom

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Everybody Knows That

 

GEICO has an advertising campaign that portrays individuals coming to the realization that “15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance.”  The wholly owned subsidiary of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway is recognized in our popular culture by its green gecko spokesperson.  The current campaign leverages this product identity by having individuals respond to its 15% statement with the remark, “Everybody knows that.”

Everybody knows that” is a cultural expression.  It indicates an accepted understanding.  It shows what is held to be a common belief by people within a particular culture.

Let me take that idea a bit farther.

Peggy Noonan has a July 31, 2014 article in The Wall Street Journal on the subject of political divisiveness.  It is titled, “Out of Many, Two?” and is (unfortunately) behind the WSJ Paywall.  Here is an excerpt:

The president shouldn't be using a fateful and divisive word like "impeachment" to raise money and rouse his base. He shouldn't be at campaign-type rallies where he speaks only to the base; he should be speaking to the country. He shouldn't be out there dropping his g's, slouching around a podium, complaining about his ill treatment, describing his opponents with disdain: "Stop just hatin' all the time."

Peggy Noonan uses her “Parent-to-Child” voice, telling us what politicians should and shouldn’t do in our culture.  She avoids pointing out that our culture permits our president to preach to us about hate.  President Obama teaches us that Republicans are haters, and is comfortable in his position because…Everybody Knows That.

Here is an example of a political advertisement being run by Mark Udall in Colorado.  The ad attacks Republican Cory Gardner as being a threat to women:



Senator Udall is able to do this because Republicans are waging a War on Women.  Everybody Knows That.

Here is a scene from the HBO series “True Blood.”  In it, an actress characterizes female Republicans using the slur “Republic*nt:”



HBO is able to do this because Republicans are bad people, and female Republicans are an aberration.  Everybody Knows That.

Pundits could take note of this cultural tendency in the USA, but few will.  Our media tend to shrug it off until it becomes a matter of life and death.

In the Middle East, there is some media attention being paid to Anti-Semitism as Hamas showcases damage done by Israeli forces to hospitals, schools and mosques.  The message is that Israel wants to kill women and children.

In much of our world community, Everybody Knows That.

Return to Bottom

Monday, June 2, 2014

Don't "Other" Me, Bro!


AP Photo of Evan Spiegel by Jae C. Hong.  Photo of Carl DeMaio courtesy of Politico.

You may not be familiar with the term, “Othering.”  It has to do with characterizing people as being of “The Other.”  Those individuals grouped as “The Other” are bad people.  They are not good, regular people like you and me.

It’s a subtle technique used in American culture to intensify group exclusion.  You belong to an identity group, and you want to be popular.  An easy way to accomplish this is to characterize non-group members as inferior outsiders.  The people not in your group become “The Other.”

As the 2014 midterm elections approach, we will see this technique employed in American political ads.  There will be the “(Insert Republican) is too extreme for (Insert State)” advertisements that have been a staple of the Democratic Party for the past 20 years.

But watch for something more subtle.  The graphic at the top of this post is combined from two news stories that were featured last week.  On the left is Evan Spiegel, CEO of Snapchat and a recent entrant into America’s 1% culture.  On the right is Carl DeMaio, a candidate for Congress from California, running in San Diego’s CD-52.

The two hotlinks connect to news stories about these individuals, but the graphics are what are instructive.  One graphic displays a confident individual who knows he is a member of the popular culture and is secure in his identity group. The other displays a concerned individual who knows he is in danger and conveys anxiety.

Both are public figures, but one is subtly cast as “The Other.”  You don’t have to know the back story to understand that one of these individuals is in trouble and the other is not.

Our news stories either humanize or de-humanize individuals.  Here are some examples from the humanization side:

--Donald Sterling is battling dementia.

--Robert Byrd was doing what he had to do to get elected.

--Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is simply caught up in tending to his media dynasty.

And this is the dehumanization side:




Note the side-by-side comparison here and the fawning coverage here.

When you next come across a news story, take a moment to consider whether you are seeing “reporting” or witnessing “Othering.”


Friday, May 9, 2014

I SEE AUTHORITARIANS


M. Night Shyamalan’s Oscar-nominated movie “The Sixth Sense” has a memorable line from Haley Joel Osment.  The actor states, “I see dead people.”

It is powerful because it makes no sense.  The line is delivered by a person who appears to be under medical scrutiny.  Why would he say such a thing?

We don’t understand the impact until events further evolve.  At that time, the effect becomes profound.

The same could be said about the idea of Authoritarianism.  It is a term we learn in school, and never give a second thought.  We never personalize it.  We don’t see the bully at school as an authoritarian.  We don’t see the spoiled child as an authoritarian.  We don’t see gang activity as an example of Authoritarianism.

Is it because Authoritarianism has not been placed under scrutiny?  Maybe Authoritarianism suffers from a type of academic misrepresentation.

A retired psychology professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada wrote a paper on Authoritarianism in 2006.  The title of Professor Bob Altemeyer’s paper is “The Authoritarians” and it is extensively referenced on the Internet.

The paper deals with political conservatives in America, with the author representing this group as “Right Wing Authoritarians.”  He devises an RWA scale to define and categorize them.

This exercise has the academic imprimatur necessary to give it a level of credibility, but does it properly represent Authoritarianism?  Is Authoritarianism simply an affliction of American Conservatives?

Do we see authoritarian characteristics in autocratic rulers?  Do we deal with people in our penal system differently depending on whether the individual has authoritarian behaviors?  Do people become more or less authoritarian as they age?
These questions imply a multidimensional quality to authoritarians.  If we think of Authoritarianism as nothing more than a type of political behavior, we are missing the larger picture.  It deserves some investigation.

WHO ARE THOSE GUYS?


General George S. Patton, III was commander of mechanized forces in the European Theater during World War II.  “Old Blood and Guts” was a colorful figure with impolitic mannerisms.

The 1970 movie “Patton” featured George C. Scott playing the role of General Patton.  One of the classic lines from the film has General Patton outmaneuvering his opponent, the German General Erwin Rommel.  General Patton finds his tactics validated, and exclaims, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!”

It is likely that one of these individuals (or both) was an authoritarian.

The 2011 movie “The Intouchables” stars Franรงois Cluzet and Omar Sy.  It is about two individuals who form an unlikely alliance.  The film explores the relationship that develops between two people from decidedly different stations in life.  The story is intriguing because it brings together two disparate authoritarian personalities and allows us to watch them learn to coexist. 

We find it fascinating, and we are intrigued by it because we know authoritarians can create chaos.  We want to know how far they will go.  There is excitement!

But that doesn’t mean we seek to be directly involved with authoritarians.  Most of us work to minimize the influence of authoritarians in our daily lives.  Authoritarians are “high maintenance” individuals.

Each and every one of us has had to deal with authoritarians on a personal basis.  As children, we realize that we are expected to share with our siblings and classmates.  Perhaps you recall the task of making a helping of dessert “fair” by allowing one person to cut the portion while the other gets first choice.  It acknowledges the human characteristic of wishing to bring advantage to oneself before providing for others.

We see that authoritarian tendencies are normal behavior.  It’s just that they often need to be tempered.

In “normal” human interaction, we find ourselves being the authoritarian from time to time, and then allowing others to take on the role.   It is a kind of “dominant” and “deferring” behavior.  We get our way at times and then defer to others.

Look at your personal friendships.  You may take the lead in certain activities, but your friend will take the lead in others.  That “give and take” is what leads to a lasting relationship.  If the relationship becomes one-sided, it tends to be unsuccessful.  Human beings do not like being in a perpetually deferring situation.

And that leads us to the idea of authoritarian tendencies being taken to the extreme.  How do we separate the dominant and deferring behavior of a “normal” individual from the more aggressive behaviors of an authoritarian?

There are two defining characteristics:

            --An authoritarian is never wrong.

            --An authoritarian acts with impunity.

That incorporates a wide range of human behaviors, from the despotism of someone like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to the juvenile antics of a neighborhood bully.  The bully may not be in the same league as The Supreme Leader, but will still exhibit the tendencies.  The bully believes he (or she) is never wrong, and wishes to act with impunity.  The despot has absolute authority while the bully desires absolute authority.

The impact of authoritarian activities is vast and varied, yet the defining characteristics are the same across the complete spectrum of Authoritarianism.  An individual is identifiable as an authoritarian at different times throughout life, and our culture intervenes if the individual’s behavior generates adverse societal impact.

Our culture has typically works in an institutional fashion.  Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani cites his 1990s “Broken Windows” crime prevention program as reducing serious crime in New York City.  While the issue has been given a political tone, it would be interesting to see it studied from an authoritarian standpoint.  If a society is successful in correcting disruptive authoritarian behaviors at an early stage, does it result in less devastating authoritarian behaviors at a later time?

While that question deserves to be studied, our culture seems predisposed to study the opposite side of the issue.  We find greater concern for individuals who lack self esteem than for those with authoritarian tendencies.

That may simply be an issue of personal safety.  A person with low self esteem is typically not as significant a danger as a person who exhibits bullying tendencies. We may be less inclined to study people who pose a threat.

There is also the “profiling” issue.  If we label an individual as authoritarian at an early age, can he or she be rehabilitated?  If so, how does that “authoritarian” label get dropped?

Studying the subject of Authoritarianism is fraught with all the sociological dangers, but with the additional problem of being a new field of study.  Our culture has expectations, and conclusions would end up being challenged in an emotional environment by the various institutional stakeholders.  Things could get ugly!

Even so, there is too much of interest to be ignored.  Here are a few questions to consider:

            --When can authoritarian behavior be identified?  Should elementary school behaviors be off the table?

            --Can extreme authoritarian behavior be corrected?  Are there options other than incarceration?

            --Do we become more authoritarian as we age?  Should healthcare protocols be adapted?

That last question is interesting because we implicitly acknowledge authoritarian tendencies with age.  We understand “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” and that “we get set in our ways” as we get older.

Both of those characterizations attach almost exclusively to older people.  While the descriptors are less severe than “never being wrong” or “acting with impunity,” they are nonetheless on the authoritarian side of the behavior spectrum.

American culture remains uninterested in authoritarian behaviors, as we prefer to work on the “low esteem” side of things.  That seems curious.  It’s like studying high tide without studying low tide.  Shouldn’t we be interested in the complete picture?

“The Complete Picture” requires an examination of the physiological/pathological side of authoritarian behavior.  Human beings have specific physical attributes that impact our behaviors.

It has to do with the way our brains operate.

UPDATE 8/19/2014:
Bret Stephens at The Wall Street Journal brings us up to date on the "Broken Windows" crime-prevention program noted above.  He sees a connection between this month's rioting in Ferguson, Missouri and the fall of Fallujah in January, 2014.

IAIN MCGILCHRIST


Dr. Iain McGilchrist published a book in 2009 titled “The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.”  Completed after more than 20 years of work, Dr. McGilchrist’s book devotes 500 pages to the study of the human brain.  His work is remarkable for its dramatic hypothesis: The human brain is two separately functioning organs.

In the same fashion that human beings have a left arm and a right arm, the brain has a left hemisphere and a right hemisphere.  The hemispheres are similar, but function separately.  The central tenet of McGilchrist’s research comes in the Introduction to his work:
My thesis is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognizably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bi-hemispheric structure of the brain.  It follows that the hemispheres need to co-operate, but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture.
 Dr. McGilchrist sees the right hemisphere as “The Master” in his thesis, with the left hemisphere as “The Emissary.”  The right hemisphere is more adventurous, directing our actions and seeking to understand and formulate the human experience.  The left hemisphere is more rigorous, attempting to map our behavior to a known set of rules and guidelines.


While Dr. McGilchrist does not use this analogy, I see the left hemisphere as the authoritarian side of the brain.  The right hemisphere is curious and welcoming; the left hemisphere is more rigid and self-centered.  The left hemisphere lacks self-doubt.

The characterizations used by Iain McGilchrist are a departure from conventional descriptions of the hemispheres of the brain.  We are taught that the hemispheres represent a “creative side” and an “analytical side.”  The left brain is more data-driven while the right brain is artistic.

McGilchrist extends this concept by formulating a mediation process where the left hemisphere tells the right hemisphere how to perform based on the reality known to the left hemisphere.  The right hemisphere must compare this understanding to the situation that is currently presented, and decide whether to act based upon what it “knows” or what it “sees.”

It brings up the Marx Brothers line, “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

That is the genius of Iain McGilchrist’s work.  He relates the interactions of our brain to well-understood human behaviors.  We understand how the hemispheres relate to each other because we have our own personal examples of that kind of behavior.

The right brain must dominate our early childhood because the left brain is still an empty slate.  The right brain must use a parent or guardian as a proxy for the left brain because the left brain is not developed and is not able to share its experience.

As we get older, we depend more on our left hemisphere.  It is our life experience.  It helps us navigate unexpected events that we encounter.  It also keeps us functional as we lose the desire for right brain stimulation.

But as the left brain deteriorates, we must adjust.  Maybe we forget the more obscure rules in the game of Bridge.  Maybe we forget important dates.  We have to keep written lists because our left brain becomes less reliable.

Returning to the idea of “The Complete Picture,” we see that research on the human brain is, for the most part, restricted to reporting on individual outcomes.  We have documentation of an individual suffering brain damage, and research that tracks the individual’s recovery.  We know that people recover from a hemispherectomy, and that physical limitations result.

What is less understood is the behavior shift that occurs from brain trauma.  How does the brain compensate for damage?  Does the “Master and his Emissary” model go out the window?  Surprisingly, a government agency may have the answer for us.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is an agency of the United States government that is responsible for biomedical research.  In 2009 it sponsored the Human Connectome Project (HCP) with a five-year task of developing a network map of the human brain.

That effort led to a demonstration of brain activity featuring unique differences between male and female participants.  The study, with the unwieldy name of “Sex Differences in the Structural Connectome of the Human Brain,” was presented to the National Academy of Sciences in 2012.  It shows activity between the left and right hemispheres being higher for female participants in certain tasks.  Male participants showed less cross-hemispheric activity.

With mapping capability demonstrated for gender differences, it should be straightforward to analyze differences based on authoritarian behaviors.  The idea that the left brain dominates authoritarian action can be tested!

The way is now clear to move beyond case studies of individual behavior.  We can continue to study those individuals who struggle with internal dominant/deferring behaviors, but can also move to studying behaviors between individuals.  A husband and wife engaged in interpersonal negotiations can be mapped as they engage in dominant/deferring behaviors.

Groups can be studied.  We can contrast the differences between those groups involved in gang-related activities and those in routine social interaction.  We can begin to understand group dynamics in a way that is vastly superior to the analysis of polling data.

Beyond small groups, we have the phenomenon of complete societies behaving in a certain fashion.  Why do human beings tolerate despotism?  Why do we become attracted to situations that are destructive to us?

Depending on whether we are dominated by our left or right hemisphere, we get completely different outlooks on life.  And at the center of these behaviors is whether or not we have self doubt.

Self doubt is the province of the right brain.  The left brain is self-centered and rigid in its understanding of the world.  There is a sense of “self” which the left brain does not question.  Its representation of the world is “reality,” and outside of this representation is a world dispatched as “The Other.”

The right brain has to act as a judge of the representations of the left brain, comparing what it sees on its own with what the left brain has catalogued as “reality.”  If there is sufficient evidence that the left brain’s representation is faulty, the right brain can make the left brain adapt to the “new reality.”

This give-and-take is what we consider as normal behavior.  As human beings, we have strong beliefs and feelings based on our life experience, and modify those beliefs only when confronted with strong evidence to the contrary.  This is why our dominant/deferring brain activity changes with age.  When we are young, the left brain is developing its “reality” and must adapt as new situations are presented by the right brain.  When we are older, the right brain expects the left brain to use its experience to keep us going.  The right brain goes on hiatus.

But back to the issue of self doubt: Authoritarians lack it.  It’s as if the right brain completely defers to the left brain.

Consider the case of people following a cult leader to their own self-destruction.  An authoritarian leader might convince cult followers of the imminent destruction of the world.  Only when the cataclysm fails to materialize does the left brain have to adjust.  In the case of an event like the 1978 Jonestown Massacre in Guyana, death interrupts the opportunity for the brain to reconcile.  Authoritarian behaviors can have deadly consequences.

It is therefore important to understand why human beings are attracted to authoritarian leaders.  Certainly there can be a fear factor, where intimidation is used to coerce the follower.  But this is not always the case.  Often a person will be drawn to an authoritarian figure without coercion.

Understanding the brain as a construct of two hemispheres can help us see that people will follow an authoritarian leader simply because the authoritarian becomes a proxy for the right brain.  Following the leader is the less complicated path to take.  We don’t have to engage in the work of analysis and interpretation; we simply sit back and let the authoritarian take charge.

It appears that authoritarians relish this phenomenon.  Having other human beings relinquish their personal power can be quite seductive.  Furthermore, when authoritarians see that power exercised by other authoritarians, it becomes an object of admiration.  We sometimes see “the authoritarian salute,” an automatic, reflexive behavior where one authoritarian leader uses a deep bow from the waist to show respect for another.

In 2014, Russia under Vladimir Putin annexed the country of Crimea.  The United Nations voted on a non-binding resolution that decried the annexation.  Of the 193-nation General Assembly, 11 nations voted against the resolution.  They were Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua, Russia, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.  A strong case could be made for the existence of authoritarian leadership in each of these countries.

Interestingly, we don’t find this of academic concern.  While we see authoritarians in various stages of power, from the autocratic ruler of a nation to the school bully, we still don’t find this worthy of study.

And yet, obvious questions abound.  Who are these authoritarians?  How do we identify them?

Is Reese Witherspoon an authoritarian?  In the early morning hours of April 13, 2013, she was arrested for disorderly conduct in connection with a field sobriety test administered on her husband, Hollywood agent Jim Toth.  She attempted to intimidate the arresting officer, asking him “Do you know my name sir?” and “You’re about to find out who I am.”

What about the case of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.?  On July 16, 2009, Professor Gates was arrested by Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley.  Sgt. Crowley had responded to a possible break-in at Professor Gates’ home.

Professor Gates had forced his way into his own home after finding the door jammed.  A neighbor saw this action and notified police that a robbery was in progress.  Sgt. Crowley responded, and asked Professor Gates to step outside.

The professor became perturbed and accused Sgt. Crowley of racism.  The Sergeant’s report indicated that Professor Gates felt he was being arrested “because I’m a black man in America.”

Both Ms. Witherspoon and Professor Gates exhibit authoritarian behaviors in these two instances.  They act with impunity and believe they are not wrong.  But should they be classified as authoritarians, or is their authoritarian side simply dominant at the moment?

We easily assign an authoritarian classification when the power of the authoritarian is unchecked.  In the Twentieth Century, we have the examples of Idi Amin, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, and Adolf Hitler (among others).  Tremendous human suffering results when authoritarians act with impunity and destroy the lives of those individuals under their control. 

But what about instances where the authoritarian behavior is less obvious?  We often witness these behaviors in private, and don’t find anything remarkable unless they are reported as infractions of institutional rules.

Maybe it is bullying at a public school or some type of criminal behavior.  It doesn’t become newsworthy until the authoritarian is limited by the power of a higher authority.

With limited academic study and no metrics for analysis, our experience with authoritarians is mostly anecdotal.  We are missing “The Big Picture.”