Ideology and the Supernormal Stimuli

Ideology and the Supernormal Stimuli

What does ideology and supernormal stimuli have in common? The answer turns out to be everything. Ideology is an important concept to have a handle on as we all grapple with polarized politics, the rise of fake news, a generation succumbing to dangerous organized nihilism, and increasing authoritarianism. The supernormal stimuli, a near forgotten Nobel prize winning discovery, is a topic I’ve covered quite a bit in relation to creative linkage in the culinary arts and its particular application to the cocktail. Supernormal stimuli are commonly thought to be only sensory in nature, but with ideology we experience a purely symbolic version of the concept and it is no less dangerous.

To quote wikipedia, “A supernormal stimulus or superstimulus is an exaggerated version of a stimulus to which there is an existing response tendency, or any stimulus that elicits a response more strongly than the stimulus for which it evolved.” If you need more background, Stuart McMillen’s comic strip primer on the subject is absolutely brilliant. The seductive tug of breast implants comes to mind immediately or the Venus of Willendorf. In the classic studies, the robin sits on the bluer egg and lets it’s own go un-incubated while the Australian beetle tries to mate with the beer bottle because it is bigger, more orange, and more dimpled than its natural mate. Multiple male beetles have been known to stroke the dimples of the same beer bottle until they all ran out of energy and died right next to each other. This last example sounds very much like ideology, but lets try to build a stronger case.

From the Doubter’s Companion (A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense), John Ralston Saul defines ideology as:

Tendentious arguments which advance a world view as absolute truth in order to win and hold political power.

A God who intervenes in human affairs through spokesmen who generally call themselves priests; a king who implements instructions received from a God; a predestined class war which requires the representatives of a particular class to take power; a corporatist structure of experts who implement truth through fact-based conclusions; a racial unit which because of its blood-ties has a destiny as revealed by nationalist leaders; a world market which, whether anyone likes it or not, will determine the shape of every human life, as interpreted by corporate executives—all of these and many more are ideologies.

Followers are caught up in the naive obsessions of these movements. This combination ensures failure and is prone to violence. That’s why the decent intentions of the Communist Manifesto end up in gulags and murder. Or the market place’s promise of prosperity in the exploitation of cheap, often child, labour.

There are big ideologies and little ones. They come in international, national and local shapes. Some require skyscrapers, others circumcision. Like fiction they are dependent on the willing suspension of disbelief, because God only appears in private and before his official spokespeople, class leaders themselves decide the content and pecking order of classes, experts choose their facts judiciously, blood ties aren’t pure and the passive acceptance of a determinist market means denying 2,500 years of Western civilization from Athens and Rome through the Renaissance to the creation of middle-class democracies.

Which is ideology? Which not? You shall know them by their assertion of truth, their contempt for considered reflection and their fear of debate.

The first part of ideology we see from John Ralston Saul is that they are a manipulative tool, very much like breast implants. She knows they are fake, but presents them as the simple truth to hold power. And it works. Men are quick to suspend their disbelief. They are also often exaggerated to make up for deficiencies.

The nth degree is often invoked in ideology as with gods and kings. If law comes from a common man it is not as attentional as when it comes from a supreme figure. The modern day supreme figure in our corporatist world being the expert. The more supreme the figure invoked, the more likely the ideology is in violation of common sense. Pre-destiny or harnessing inevitability is a mode of simplification that ideology takes. We become more biased to accept.

Class and race are the intersection of the symbolic aspects of ideology as supernormal stimuli with sensation. Class categories often divide along sensory features. This starts with the color of skin and when that existing response tendency changes, the shape of our noses is always available to provoke an exaggerated response. I have done a lot of writing to explore the ordinary and extraordinary in sensation and have found that frequency of occurrence rules so much around us.

Obsession that consumes those introduced to ideology is very much the beetle stroking the beer bottle until it runs out of energy and dies, unsuccessfully mating. Failure is ensured because key details are missed and overshadowed by the blown out oversimplifications. In the movie, Her (2013), society quickly becomes obsessed with their seductive tongued personal assistants and messy human relationships get dropped. Matching with someone possessing the complete details to achieve a goal like reproduction also comes with confronting the grittier side of the human condition.

Detail is the enemy of ideology. That willing suspension of disbelief relates to lack of ability to categorize, parse, and build detachment. She is in the same room and you are allowed to touch them if you dare, you literally gravitate towards the breast implants. Those doomed beetles could not parse and categorize the beer bottle as not a useful mate.

Marshall McLuhan emphasized the difference between acting and reacting. Ideology is the guilty pleasure of reacting and being willfully illiterate so that a primal satisfaction does not go unindulged. Many very smart people succumb to ideology and various motivators perpetuate the ruse. The guilty pleasure of reacting (sometimes we say “overreacting”) without detachment transitions to the euphoria of obsession and that sometimes gives way to wielding ideology to win or hold political power.

For those that learn to wield them, ideologies start to get swapped like trading cards. When open racism is no longer a useful enough ideology to harness the votes of the ignorant masses, it is traded in for Islamophobia and/or transphobia. Most politicians personally do not care about about the ideology of the moment, they know the robin will jump to the bluer egg or that if they troll with a beer bottle, they will come up with a pile of beetles not afraid to die without successfully mating.

Polar politics is all about ideology and both camps are capable of generating them. The pessimistic right leans on prejudices and policies to undermine taxes while dismantling the public good whereas the left is capable of being overly optimistic and does not respect enough the importance of private industry and choice. One side needs to be there to check the other, but it becomes harder as a fear of nuance and debate sets in. It almost seems as if we are at a point where we cannot talk down the beetles, we simply have to wait for them to die to move on.

Fake news is a form of supernormal stimuli and a pizza shop where Hillary Clinton traffics children for many, believe it or not, is just a bluer egg. Response tendencies have changed due to the 24 hour news cycle, and to stand out, a story has to be more attentional. More attentional these days is often plain fake. You’d think the average person would dismiss so many of the stories, but then again how could the robin not know? We are back at John Ralston Saul’s willing suspension of disbelief (he likes to use that term a lot).

The rise of nihilist culture and its ideologies is greatly exacerbated by supernormal stimli. Much of it starts with sensory stimulation and it also straddles the line of supernormal stimuli as therapy versus a grave danger. To start framing things it must be realized that all art is an attempt to create a supernormal stimuli and art is not so completely innocent anymore now that it has been widely co-opted by propagandists and advertising agendas. Games, a big part of internet culture, are an extension of art and they create protected worlds where response tendencies can be abstracted and again manipulated. Gamification is a fairly new field of study worth following and is generating very interesting ideas.

Games are thought of as therapeutic in moderation, but when they take up enough time they can start to interfere with productive goals like mating or being an integrated member of society. Unemployment among the male internet addicted demographic is many multiples that of the national average. When you give up on inclusion or being included you join the nihilists and somehow they’ve decided to organize to increase the “lolz”.

Nihilist internet culture is pornography obsessed and dependent, creating a significant enough population for concepts like “invol cel” to become pop culture. Sex with a partner is important because it ends up teaching compromise. Many that remain involuntarily celibate develop dangerous misogynistic ideologies.

Taking gaming beyond a therapeutic distraction to an obsession creates isolation and stunts social skills. Due to its artificial protective shield, risk tolerance increases in a game and decreases out of it. When social skills are developed in many online games they have a way of collapsing outside so that the afflicted demographic becomes increasingly isolated from contribution to productive goals. The importance of inclusion in society is becoming increasingly relevant to this group that is part of the majority (white males) yet little of their own actions support inclusion. Society needs this demographic included to break the nihilist cycle, but their own actions lead to exclusionary viewpoints that are increasingly turning violent.

The internet seems like it would be a place for debate and nuance, but it becomes a breeding ground for ideology and communicating in all caps oversimplifications. This happens because it is saturated with supernormal stimuli. It is not called hyper-text for no reason. One has to dodge bluer eggs left and right to find nuance. The nature of reward makes us prefer short pieces with abstracted “click-bait” titles over detailed long form journalism. In McLuhan-esque ways, in what we could even start calling media disease, shortened attention spans gravitate towards ideology. In a strange twist, these ideologies are not championed by priests invoking gods, kings or experts, they are championed by a collective being called anonymous who ascends as they are shared.

The world some no longer want to be included in requires authoritarianism. Many want a figure who can single handedly solve their problems short cutting nuanced affairs while they stroke the dimpled bottle. For others, the chaos is just a hysterical vindictive prank. Those used to the game world become increasingly detached from real world consequences. Regret does not set in fast.

Precocious figures start to navigate among this vast demographic that has risen, it seems, out of nowhere and manipulate them as seen with the growth of alt-right commentators. This finicky group seems like it could turn on a dime, but doesn’t because the externalities generated from their pursuit of lolz is typically outside of their isolation. On the verge of violent radicalization, this large population of men is an unprecedented problem we do not at the moment have strategies to tackle. We need to transition from making fun of them to incentives and policy.

Ideology’s link to the supernormal stimuli phenomena could continue to be elaborated into a full fledged book, but hopefully enough of a picture has been painted to jump start critical thought. Supernormal stimuli is a near forgotten concept and it has been hard enough to draw interest to studying it in relationship to the culinary arts. Just like in culinary, there is possibility for supernormal stimuli as productive therapy, but a line can easily get crossed and they can become detrimental to health as seen in the classic animal examples.

McLuhan prophetically warned us about the consequences of introducing new media. The internet, catalyzed by economics, has created a population dangerously susceptible to destabilizing ideologies. Home grown extremism is growing rapidly in the U.S. and we are seeing a large population of white males fail to become productive members of society. Hopefully new ideas to help us frame these challenging problems will also help us generate solutions.

A New Institution of the Public Good: Mandatory Civil Service

In my last short political thought piece about the public good as a support system for immigrants, I highlighted some great language by John Ralston Saul about public schools. Saul explains public school as a vital inclusive equalizing institution that is more relevant than ever due to modern life. If we needed a new institution to carry out those same vital roles and possibly solve a host of other hard to reach problems, what would it be? I wager it would look like mandatory civil service.

Today we have a largely urban population. Our cities are filled with a highly mobile population, two job families, high divorce levels, single parent families, the return of long hours of work, the loss of community identification, high immigration levels, a new rise in the division between rich and poor and so on and so on. All of these factors mean that the one—if not the only—public structure we have which is capable of reaching out to all citizens in all parts of the country and making them feel part of the extended family of citizenship is the public education system. In the classic sense of the inclusive democracy, those simple bricks and mortar buildings, which we call the public schools, are in fact the one remaining open club house of citizenship. Not only is the public education system and its fundamental structure not old fashioned, it has found a new form of modernity. I would argue that we are more reliant on it today than we were through most of the 20th century. -John Ralston Saul, Address to the Canadian Teacher’s Federation (2001)

To combat the formation of class divisions and to promote the idea of inclusive democracy we likely need to create a mandatory civil service as an extension of our public school system (which is in danger of going private). U.S. politics have become extremely polarized, almost as if we are living in bubbles, so we may benefit from the forced mixing of young people. Conservatives would rub off on liberals and liberals on conservatives. We would have the opportunity to create a new center before we spread too far.

I never thought I’d be outlining this and I’ve encouraged a discussion group of women I know to pursue it, but the ideas have to become more common place. Whether we adopt one or not, thinking about a civil service and outlining one reinforces that we rely upon, and need to firm up, our equalizing institutions.

A mandatory civil service may also positively impact three of the most pressing and hard to solve problems within our society. The first is the heroin epidemic that gets many people at the critical age range of a civil service program. Young, impoverished Americans succumbing to hard drug addiction are often thought to be in cages and need geographic change to escape. Programming could be designed to give maximum positive impact to the nation’s growing heroin and meth problems.

Secondly, is the gang problem which is something I do not know of firsthand, being from Boston, but no doubt geographic change and forced mixing of young people at a critical age will make a positive impact where other strategies have failed.

Lastly, is making a dent in America’s startling leadership gap. The recent election season has shown that we are critically short of viable leaders. Programming within a civil service can highlight individuals who show strong leadership abilities and opportunities can be provided so they can advance as public servants. The equalizing nature of a program may fill our leadership gap with much needed diversity.

Civil Service programs previously have been associated with the military and were used as methods to build large trained forces in times of war, but this does not need to be the case. The U.S. is a startlingly large country and currently has a vast network of neglected and crumbling infrastructure that could be the target of civil service. Much of the infrastructure work is labor intensive and cannot be automated. The U.S. is also in need of transformative change to its energy infrastructure to combat climate change. All of these needs could be met and channeled in a way that provides equalizing opportunity for America’s young.

The major classic pro of a mandatory civil service is the promotion of national unity through shared experience and training together. Where in the past, programs have rallied around a threat from another nation, America could rally around the threats of climate change and extreme partisanship. A lot of the labor required to mend American infrastructure will be physical. Military programs create an appreciation for sacrifices, and no doubt young Americans would learn to appreciate the physical sacrifices of hard labor.

A new civil service deal will not be military oriented, but the American military will benefit from an increase in organized and trained individuals. Catching young Americans before they fall at ages where they are far more likely to commit crimes will increase military eligibility because countless young Americans cannot benefit from the positive life transforming effects of military service due to prior offenses.

High levels of government participation come from civil service programs generated by heightened awareness of issues. Classically, this watches politicians and puts the breaks on military intervention because anyone’s immediate family could be impacted. An infrastructure orientated program would increase participation by tying more Americans to smaller national decisions that have typically attracted less scrutiny. Knowledge of local politics would increase as more communities worked with the civil service department.

Many neglected skills will be taught offering significant equalizing opportunity. Infrastructure work would require vocational technical skills and fill large voids in the American work force. Due to national mixing, young Americans will also migrate to fill these voids in ways that previously saw too much friction and expense. A young person from North Dakota with no local opportunity could find their calling and become a machinist in Georgia. There will be gains to character related skills such as teamwork, responsibility, stress management, initiative and diversity tolerance which are all increasingly deficient in young Americans. Anyone that goes on to college after their civil service will likely be more successful.

Civil Service is equalizing because it exempts no one. The wealthiest and the poorest Americans will have to work side by side and come to understand each other. Urban Americans and rural will have the opportunity to see more of the country and learn each others concerns first hand. The opportunity for all walks of American life to rub off on each other will hopefully generate bi partisan interest in developing a program.

There are classic cons to a mandatory civil service and the number one is the violation of free will. This is true, but few young Americans have enough opportunity to make it worth their while to skip out. Many rebels may find some adventure in it (though I’ve seen some Israeli movies that make it out to be horribly boring and bureaucratic). Wealthy Americans who want their children to work for the family business would likely be happy to have their children cut their teeth elsewhere (at civil service), shedding entitlement, and developing a work ethic before they return. A non military focus with the promotion of inclusion will reduce concerns for violating free will.

Interference with higher education is a concern, but statistics are showing that we are sending young people to college unprepared for what they are committing to. Too many are also unable to afford higher education while most jobs require education beyond a high school degree. State sponsored education within a civil service program may help everyone.

Safety, which is a concern of military oriented programs, will be less of a concern for a climate change and infrastructure orientated program. The military may also benefit with higher quality recruits that have graduated the civil service program. The American military is in transition to more specialist personnel and capital intensive warfare. Civil service may be a catalyst for significant military transformation while maintaining a pool of organized and trained young Americans to draw from in an emergency.

Not everyone will fit in, even while not being military orientated, but a big percentage require a kick in the pants. Americans are riddled with physical ailments, emotional problems like anxiety and depression, as well as unstable political ideology. It is time to take stock. Many young Americans will rise to the occasion and mandatory civil service could be the cure to numerous ailments. Bi partisan support should not be hard. What heartland American does not want to see a rich kid from Connecticut forced into some manual labor? What coastal progressive does not want to see a rural kid meet their first Muslim, work side by side, and learn they are not too different.

The aim of this article is simply to get you to ponder the idea and hopefully take up a pen and outline it for yourself. What did I overestimate or what did I miss all together? Is civil service more pragmatic than making college free where students exercise their miss guided free will and study for unmarketable degrees? When I discussed this with the group of women I referenced in the beginning, I assumed their children would not benefit but wondered if they would anti them up to help others by rubbing off. The unanimous reply was that all their children would benefit immensely. Straight from their mothers lips, they all need to shed entitlement and gain focus before college. Near no kid out there is on a straight path out of high school through college and straight to a high paying job at Google. Any premier high tech company, no doubt, would to want hire the identified leaders of a few years of mandatory civil service.

What is water? Swimming in the Public Good

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” -DFW at Kenyon

My last political thought piece included an introduction to the public good which was a new concept for a lot of people even though we swim in it. Institutions like public schools or documents like the Bill of Rights are not often explicitly categorized and taught as the public good so few of us can easily outline it. We commune with, and draw from this resource constantly but probably end up just like the David Foster Wallace’s fish, “What the hell is water?”

Last week I watched the video monologue of Marine Steve Gern in Iraq who is a very impressive guy and I admire the calming way he speaks about a very charged topic. Gern’s (over)simplified conclusion did not take into account that back in the states we are swimming in this public good that other countries simply do not have to our degree. The Marine notes that an American cannot go and walk the streets of Iraq alone because they’d probably get kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. That being the case, he concludes that no Iraqi should be allowed to come to the U.S. because they’d likely carry out the same behavior. Gern seems like an exemplary soldier, and no doubt has made many friends in hostile territory, but Iraqis to Gern are regarded as inherently bad until they are vetted.

Countless immigrants come to the U.S. from dangerous places around the world and this peculiar thing keeps happening, near all of them become productive members of society. But what makes that possible?

A fish needs water. Out of water a fish thrashes around dangerously gasping and embracing primal instincts. A fish in merely stagnant water languishes. The public good is the set of resources and rights that supports our inherent goodness and lets each of us participate in the American optimism that creates prosperity. The public good works when it is around. It stops working when it is privatized by kleptocrats.

A reason for the failure of the democracies we’ve tried to create around the world is that they were built with no strong institutions of the public good, no rights actually held firmly by checks and balances. They were set up by American politicians and consultants who cannot recognize the properties of the water they are swimming in.

There is a human gravity towards being lazy and corner cutting to make a job easier, especially when we stop exercising foresight, so there will always be a push towards ideologies like immigration restrictions that we need to resist. What we need to realize is that immigration, with its inherent risks, is integral to expanding prosperity. There will be a few bad eggs and even those that want revenge after seeing their entire families murdered in front of them at the hands of the West, but that may be laissez faire no matter how hard that is to swallow.

In parts of the world we’ve meddled, there is even a large shell shocked generation with hidden physical scars very much like our own soldiers who come back and succumb to erratic behavior and often suicide. We are in denial of their condition, often inflicted by us, just like we are in denial of our own veteran’s state. This kind of risk complicates freedom of movement yet we must allow it. We need to restrict the obvious, but never fully exclude. Anyone left behind will become increasingly dangerous. The ability to leave a hostile land with the choice to join the West reduces radicalization in areas we destabilize. Crossing our border and joining us, anyone foreign should realize they are entering water and can become their good self. It works, we’ve done this for years.

The relationship between immigration and prosperity is something we need to thoroughly debate more often so we can resist ideology. Many think immigrants are taking the jobs of American born citizens, but they are often taking jobs Americans will not do and at the other end they are truly innovating and creating new jobs for Americans as seen by looking at the figures in Silicon valley. Countless doctors who are the best and brightest of their countries come to America to supply our growing demand for healthcare. The closer you look, the more clear it is that we are nowhere near a point where immigration is damaging American prosperity.

What we also need to debate is whether fear of immigrants particularly Muslims is invented to accumulate the easy votes of the ignorant. Racism worn on the sleeve against African Americans has mostly subsided into covert systemic racism so that it can no longer be easily used as an electioneering tool. The hate vacuum has been filled by plainly spoken prejudice against Muslims. Many politicians, personally, barely care, but for the GOP party of pessimism, any category to hate openly is a tool to enter or maintain power.

Today we have a largely urban population. Our cities are filled with a highly mobile population, two job families, high divorce levels, single parent families, the return of long hours of work, the loss of community identification, high immigration levels, a new rise in the division between rich and poor and so on and so on. All of these factors mean that the one—if not the only—public structure we have which is capable of reaching out to all citizens in all parts of the country and making them feel part of the extended family of citizenship is the public education system. In the classic sense of the inclusive democracy, those simple bricks and mortar buildings, which we call the public schools, are in fact the one remaining open club house of citizenship. Not only is the public education system and its fundamental structure not old fashioned, it has found a new form of modernity. I would argue that we are more reliant on it today than we were through most of the 20th century. -John Ralston Saul, Address to the Canadian Teacher’s Federation (2001)

As explained by John Ralston Saul, the public good reaches out to people and makes them feel included and connected to others through citizenship. The outstretched arms of the public good, in forms so easy to take for granted as public lands, is an equalizer that prevents class formation and increases economic mobility which is important because most immigrants come here so poor.

When defending immigrants, asylum seekers, and refuges to those that are fearful or ignorant, it is important to mention the outstretched arms of the public good. For generations we have absorbed those that came from hostile lands and a positive force not readily apparent has been there to guide them in participating in the creation of American prosperity. For those of us that have never stepped outside of this force, we are doomed to say “What the hell is water?”