Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Dog Bites and Human Bites

Because I've floated between so many socioeconomic strata in the past, my coworkers joke that I'm either a fugitive or in the Witness Protection Program. 

Oh, those sweet summer children don't know the half of it.

I don't even remember the half of it. 

Although I do recall staying in homeless shelters, eating in soup kitchens, living in cockroach motels, living in a semi truck, living in my car in Walmart parking lots, cleaning toilets, living on the third floor of a mansion in Europe, living in pretty apartments with fitness centers and swimming pools, volunteering at soup kitchens, and working corporate jobs in beautiful tall glass buildings with college-educated coworkers, to name a few brief examples. And now I live in a trailer park and deliver pizza.

Calling Dr Gentle: There's hot, juicy pizza waiting for you in the ER.

Because of my years of floating, and because I currently live and work among the poor, I often find myself thinking about how American social classes are subtly organized and perpetuated, how those classes are defined and by whom, what makes people poor, how they got there and how they get out, what adaptive or maladaptive values are learned there, which parts are cyclical and generational, and which factors are the chicken and the egg. Certainly there are major racial and institutional barriers that a lot of good, honest, hardworking people are not able to overcome. And unfortunately, our society is also structured in such a way that people with learning disabilities, mild cognitive delays, and untreated mental illnesses are often filtered into ghettos, if not onto the cold streets. 

So academics are correct in that sometimes innocent people are oppressed by institutionalized poverty, and I'd agree that the US has a lot of room for improvement in its public assistance programs and economic laws and structures.

But I'm also going to say there are quite a few able-bodied, intelligent-enough people who are poor mostly because they have a lot of misinformed and grandiose ideas about how to meet their basic needs under a capitalist system. 

Like the young homeless man I lost my virginity to when I was 18, for instance.

I met Tommy in a youth shelter and he, like the other street kids I met there, didn't really understand the concept of working a normal job for consistent money, whereas I had been working since I turned 15. I was new to Portland OR and looking for a job and my first apartment, and Tommy spat at both of those ideas, saying he was too good, too clever, too good-looking to “take orders” from anyone else at some stupid job or live in a shitty efficiency apartment, and he was disgusted that I would even consider such a humiliating thing. He bragged that he was going to be an underwear model and live large in a mansion, and until then he would remain “free” and homeless, stealing food and cigarettes and bouncing between shelters and not submitting to The Man. 

I had never been belittled for desiring employment before, so I toyed with his idea for a while but quickly tired of the kind of "freedom" that consists of catching lice from smelly shelter beds. Instead I got a stable job and rented a room downtown. One day, some months later, Tommy actually saw me through a window while I was working and walked away, shaking his cocky head in dismay all the way down the block.

Google doesn't show any results for his full name, boxer-brief clad or otherwise, so I guess he never made it as a famous male model.

But he was not alone in that mentality. All the other street kids I met had the same view, which they likely got from cliches about the American Dream mixed with lies from petty con artists who pose as entrepreneurs and sell pyramid schemes and real estate scams to the poor. Such con artists discourage poor people from "bending over" to the "degradation" of honest work and promise them instant wealth beyond their wildest dreams. No schooling, no honing specific trade skills, no gradually working up the ladder at a legit company and building a resume. Nope, that's for "suckers." Homeless to millionaire instantly, no skills or actual product necessary.
Which is exactly the opposite of what able-bodied poor people need to hear, but they fall for it because they're uneducated, gullible, desperate, and/or have mild learning disabilities, didn't do well in school, and don't feel like they have any real options for obtaining ordinary but stable and secure employment. And, like most of us, they want to "be somebody" and do something extraordinary and special and "show everyone" who doubted them in the past.

People like Tommy may crow that they're too good to work at MacDonald's or whatever, but I think the reality is that they don't have the social skills to hold down any job, no matter how easy, even if they wanted to. They don't know how to take direction or be a team player. They're the type to storm off the job in anger the same day they start.
I've seen that happen a few times, and I've worked with a lot of disturbed people over the years. Frankly, they don't communicate like the rest of us, and many are combative, impulsive, manipulative, immature, uncooperative, over-reactive, have no self-control, no self-awareness, no conscience, no sense of truth or justice, no concept of the greater good, and are lacking in really basic social skills the rest of us mastered in elementary school. 

What's going on there? Were they just not breastfed or what?

I'm familiar with the common ideas that a) babies need consistent bonding with a primary caregiver or else their social skills are irreparably messed up forever after; b) children learn social skills primarily from their families; c) many aspects of a child's cognitive development (such as language acquisition) are dependent on proper socialization within certain time windows, and d) highly social people with amiable, cooperative personalities are more likely to be successful, but how likely is it that someone in the grips of generational poverty will be exposed to meaningful networking contacts and amiable role models with advanced social skills?

That led me to ponder the interplay between poverty, social skills, and crime. I don't see a lot of criminologists addressing the social skills part. Race, poverty, childhood abuse, and mental illness get a lot of attention in relation to crime. What about this huge lack of social skills that's clearly not autism or mental illness, but something else entirely?

For the first time in my life, I googled a question and actually got a satisfactory answer instead of just ads and conspiracy theories. I found some cool blog posts by Dr George Simon, a psychologist who specializes in psychopathy and character disturbances and has written books and articles on how improperly socialized people think. These short little bits were super helpful in explaining why some people are so needlessly combative and hostile:

Understanding the Aggressive Personalities, Part 1 and Part 2

His central idea is that social virtuousness and conscientiousness exist on a spectrum, with neuroticism at one extreme and psychopathy at the other. Lookit, I even drew you a little bell curve:

Psychopaths have no conscience at all, never worry about other people, blame everyone else for their bad behavior, reject even the most basic morals, and believe they are superior to everyone and therefore feel entitled to take advantage of, steal from, bully, or kill people who are "beneath" them.

Neurotics have too much of a conscience, constantly worry about everyone else's feelings and discomforts, feel guilty for things that aren't their fault, are terrified of breaking even small rules, have low self-esteem, are prone to manipulation and being bullied, and let people walk all over them. Essentially, weepy people with no backbone. (Hey, like me!)

And in the middle are healthy people who care about others within reason but also assert themselves in a mature fashion when necessary. Do you know anyone like that? Yeah, me neither. The human brain is so complex and kluge-like with so much potential to go haywire, it's a miracle that any of us can make it through the day without setting the entire planet on fire, I feel like.

Quick vocab: Asocial means having no desire to chitchat or hang out with friends. Prosocial means building social connections, being a good person, and upholding basic social norms. Antisocial means railing against society by lying, cheating, stealing, killing, etc

People can exist anywhere on that spectrum, and not all abusive, horrible people are psychopaths. True psychopathy is extremely rare, apparently.

The debate among psychologists continues over whether and how much improperly socialized people, especially true psychopaths, can be rehabilitated, or at least convinced to just play along with society's basic laws. How much of psychopathy is genetic? Can its development be averted, or are some people simply born with defective psychopath brains and will be that way no matter what? Or is it entirely dependent on how stable and loving your caregivers are in your infancy so that your emotions and conscience can develop normally?

Dr Simon also talks about how these days our culture encourages and somewhat celebrates asocial and antisocial behavior, and social scientists agree. Americans deride 1950s “conformity” and lament how people were encouraged to fit in and cooperate, to not make waves, to visit and chat with neighbors, to join lots of clubs and civic organizations, put on a happy face, and not air one's dirty laundry in public.

One factor is that during the 1950s and 1960s, a lot of asocial-enabling technology like washing machines and microwaves became ubiquitous and affordable, so Americans had more economic freedom to be separate individuals. I've lost count of the people I've met who proudly thought "I don't care what other people think" was a license to be a gigantic asshole on purpose. And now with our phones, we're disconnected, depressed, lonely, and "raising awareness" of our supposed introversion.

So it seems the pendulum has swung in the other direction.

After driving for Uber in a heavy tourist area for six months, and thus quickly learning how to initiate (and enjoy) conversation with anyone, I changed my opinion on the “introvert/extrovert” thing. Before I understood how American social expectations have changed over the years, I bought that “introversion” crap hook, line, and sinker. Now I realize that I simply grew up in an environment surrounded by people with only rudimentary social skills, so I learned only rudimentary social skills myself and went around for decades thinking I was born awkward, asocial, and introverted. 

Now I think an introvert is just someone who hasn't been socialized properly, and an extrovert is someone who has.

That meme should say "asocial," not "antisocial." If you're antisocial, you'll likely end up in prison!

Improperly socialized people complain that socializing is "exhausting." Well, of course it's difficult and mentally exhausting when you're not proficient, just like playing tennis or piano is exhausting and no fun when you're bad at it. But when you practice and get good at it, it's way fun! Telling yourself you're “introverted” sucks and is no fun at all. It's not natural for the brain and it's not healthy for the heart. People on social media preach introversion like it's a romantic disease, when really I think we're asking the wrong questions, getting wrong answers, and as a culture getting rusty on our social skills from lack of practice and then misinterpreting that rustiness as a medical or nervous system disorder deserving of special consideration and understanding. I disagree. Barring genuine conditions like severe autism, there are people who are socialized properly and those who aren't. And if you aren't, it's in your best interest to learn. And practice. A LOT. Until you're so good at it that it's great fun.

So this year I've been thinking a lot about the dynamics between human cognition, socialization, and socioeconomic class, 'cause it's in my face every day.

My immediate neighbors, the ones who fly a Confederate flag beneath their American one (wtf??) and with whom I share a lot boundary, are highly belligerent and, I suspect, closer to the psychopath side of the spectrum than the neurotic side. Our most recent confrontation (one of several) was at the end of August when their kids were climbing on my utility wires and I nicely told them it wasn't safe and asked them to stop. Their mom immediately came pounding on my door screaming that I had no right to ever speak to her children or tell them what to do. She then explicitly ordered them to continue playing in that area.

This makes me long for a strict HOA.

That same week, I was bitten by a dog while making a pizza delivery. I knocked on the customer's door and her dog started freaking out, jumping and barking its head off, so of course she flung the door wide open and the snarling dog came flying out and immediately bit me, leaving a deep and enormous bruise that took a full three weeks to heal.

When THAT shit-dust settled, it occurred to me that the socialization of dogs and humans is very similar. Both are hyper-social pack animals that naturally sort themselves into hierarchies of alphas and omegas. Proper socialization must begin in infancy, must be sustained in copious amounts, is learned and practiced through play, and generally progresses in stages from beginner to advanced. The consequences of failed socialization for humans and dogs are similar as well. Overly-aggressive individuals create havoc and disorder within their packs, are at risk of being exiled, and in extreme cases where rehabilitation with specialized trainers appears futile, they're put down, i.e. sent to death row.

I watched a lot of Cesar Millan videos about body language and confidence when trying to figure out how to deal with my neighbors. Yes, Millan is old school and has his critics, but the majority of dogs straighten right up when he's around. So I've been more intentional about my posture when doing yard work and also when delivering pizza around dogs, and I'm not embellishing when I say that ever since that last spat, my neighbors have been suddenly and weirdly nice to me.

But maybe they were also impressed with my mad roofing skills. I mean, who wouldn't be?

I often wonder if living in a trailer park and working in food service is lowering my IQ. I'm pretty sure it is, but what good are IQ points when you don't really need or use them? The human brain is extremely calorically expensive, and there's no evolutionary or biological benefit to thinking harder than one has to--just enough to fit in with one's tribe and produce viable offspring. Thinking costs a lot of calories (more than running), Earth is a finite planet with finite resources, and calories take energy to search for and energy to digest and may not always be available. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why humans are just smart enough to get by. Or not.

And produce viable offspring:

I've been out of academia for a long time, and while I miss thinking, I don't miss the neurotic speech habits I learned in school. As a scientist in training, for example, you must always be open to new information and perspectives, always assume other people know more than you (because you're usually talking to other academics with more experience), never claim that you know anything for sure (because it's a big universe and you really don't know anything), and couch everything in quantifiers.

Lol. Talking like that outside of academia or an office setting will get you in a world of trouble. I've learned that the hard way. The laity see that manner of speaking as openly weak, vulnerable, admitting defeat and being 100% in the wrong, and as an unbelievably low level of submission not worthy of respect or civility at all. They see it as a request to be bullied. In the trailer park, you never, EVER apologize for anything you've done, no matter how bad. Always yell, scream, blame other people, call them every cuss word you can think of, and you realize you were wrong, smile and wave hello to your foe and pretend like nothing happened.

So maybe the trailer park is where I'll shift from neurotic to psychopath and finally grow a backbone. Or become a fugitive. Or get pargnut from a homeless man and join the Witness Protection Program. What better place to do that than in the Wild West!