Reacting, receptiveness and “ability to feel”

January 5, 2013

Probably the most disturbing part of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is the description of how Perkins felt when he heard the news about 9-11, his eerie sense of exhilaration that a symbol of the hypocrisies he was most familiar with at work had been targeted with unmitigated violence, in the name of a moral outrage he found unsurprising.

There is something outrageous about indulging in such an attitude in the face of deaths of that kind, a highly engineered spectacle of horrors. But Perkins might have mistaken an abrupt personal calling for vindication. He was logically the one to introduce such an atrocity as a “teachable moment,” and that insight stopped him from drawing breath for pause, in the general silence that is held to express respect for those recently killed.

There are just things we suspect we should not allow ourselves to see coming – that they could be predictable is not acceptable. No one likes to feel surprised, but for some things, whether it is clear the hope can be realized or not, we must insist – never again.

“We will never forget, we will never forgive,” is the same refrain, changed only by an inflection demanding revenge.

Or, the spirit of tragedy can be invoked to recognize profound fear and loneliness behind opportunistic acts of cruelty, and answer it with compassion rather than being easily enraged.

“… And I won’t die alone and be left there. …”

Sometimes it’s the difference between quietly watching ants go about their business in the grass, and needing to get a reaction out of them.

Some would sacrifice anything to refuse to show patience with gross injustice. Hence the illegal yet politicized use of white phosphorous, the brutality of the chemical’s effects a calculated measure of pain.

Vindictiveness can be a knee-jerk reaction. Remorseless adherence to honesty in your unreflecting emotional reactions is a way of self-signaling that you are confident your real feelings are valid, even if you expect to be overruled by others.

This is the same place the inclination to silence explanations for the terrorist attacks comes from – insistence that there is nothing debatable about the anger these events inspired, and that such provocations are hardly explained away.

Yet those who would explain away evil are right to challenge anyone who claims monstrosity is un-understandable. Self-signaling the credibility of one’s private feelings by showing them also has something to do with the refusal to let anger go, even when we find it can only be expressed by deflecting it onto targets we can afford to pick fights with, like civilians.


“There’s no moral order as pure as this storm.” – Shutter Island

Revenge fantasies characterized by extreme violence display a terrifying flexibility. Once the habit of visualizing extreme violence when angered is established, there is liable to be a problem with target-drift. One begins to lose perspective, and then a less terrible offense given by a far less hateful adversary triggers the same level of violence in one’s fantasies about getting even.

Anger management experts more often recommend finding permissible outlets to vent frustrations on the theory that if bottled up they will accumulate, risking dangerous “explosive” pressure build-up. Otherwise, one way of handling fear of one’s own anger is refusing to naturalize or justify violence under any circumstances.

Yet choosing effectually permissible targets is exactly what sociopaths are thinking when they select vulnerable targets, and those so victimized are indeed prone to rejecting violence even for self-defense out of fear of themselves, fear of resembling their own assailants and bringing such violence down on others.

It’s easier to get away with violence behind closed doors than it is to get even for road rage or being slighted at work. People test your receptiveness by pushing you for involuntary emotional reactions, and a violent person can argue they were needled beyond endurance by such baiting behaviors.

The monsters who aggressively target those who cannot resist or escape play by the same rules, and test your receptiveness by pushing you for involuntary emotional reactions if they expect psychological resistance – fearing that you would withhold from them, or try to deny them the satisfaction of seeing how you feel.

When you would rather try to conceal resistance than show your displeasure, your situation is pretty bad. But when oppression and cruelty seem to define your environment, denying yourself anger can be a desperation measure, like a fail-safe, to avoid feeling like a monster yourself.

And this is a valid concern, because when you begin to identify as a monster, your moral code adapts to the behavior you find enjoyment in, until the guilt (if there still is any) is just a Pavlovian cue that good times are at hand. Grendel or hobbit sized ring-bearer, one grows to identify with certain of those things the mind struggles to make peace with, even if this begins in dwelling on a mistake.

I’m not actually convinced anger naturally festers when left unattended, or that not venting combatively intensifies the need to do so. For instance, the connection between anger and surprise could be interpreted thoughtfully – what shocks us to anger can be taken as a cue to reflect on why we were taken by surprise.

It’s as if there is a flatness of affect in sadistic curiosity that presses for response without asking open-ended questions, a brute boredom with violence for its own sake that perseverates only because frustration reinforces the illusion of being trapped in a blind alley and fighting crudely to access the only way to get elsewhere.

Not looking up when surprise greets you from others is a strange fate for someone so gruesomely bent on receptiveness-testing, like a mute with a gun unwilling to wait for an intelligible plan to come to mind.

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