Thursday, 20 June 2013

Pathology Vector

Last weekend I wanted to comment on a commentary piece for Reuters by one Ian Bremmer that was published in the China Post on the Saturday. On Sunday night I read Tyler Cowen's blog-post review of "Confessions Of A Sociopath". That article, along with several follow-up pieces I read, got me thinking about psychology and brought me back to Bremmer's article, although the two articles are ostensibly about different subjects.

Cowen starts his review of "Confessions Of A Sociopath" with the opening caveat that the contents of the book cannot be trusted, which is just the premise I would choose when considering the prescriptions of psychology. Nontheless I noted a speculative claim that the sociopath's characteristic absence of empathy is consequent to a selective attention mechanism - one that attenuates "cognitive emotional and moral feedback". That is an interesting claim for two reasons. Is affective empathy, which is what sociopaths are said to lack (as opposed to cognitive empathy), in some instances consequent to cognitive processes rather than independent of them? And what could be the cause of such a particular attentional "bottleneck"? That latter question would lead obviously to the interminable "nature-nurture" questions, such as concerning the existence of genetic predispositions, and what conditions facilitate its' emergence.

And now a line from Ian Bremmer's article. It is one among several I could have picked, but it is sufficient by itself to illustrate my next question:
"How can America impel countries with different economic systems to believe in free markets after episodes like Enron, Lehman and Madoff?"
What's happening in this sentence is the misuse of nouns as if they were adjectives; the denotative purpose of nouns, the function of clear demarcation, has been replaced with the connotative purpose of adjectives and the function of fuzzy association. Were the sentence rendered in denotative rather than connotative form, it might look like this:
"How can the U.S. government persuade the P.R.C. government about free markets* after several high profile failures of its' own regulatory system?"
Clearly, "America" is employed as a substitute for the U.S. government, but with the implicated guilt of the votista American public. The neutral-sounding "countries with different economic systems" can only be an oblique reference to the government of the P.R.C. with its' merely "different" system of human survival. Notice also how the noun-phrase "free markets" is left un-blurred by connotation, but is then impugned by reference to three "episodes", each of which occurred under the noses of the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission. The author either hasn't even noticed the obvious contradiction, or just doesn't care, or has done it on purpose; he is accusing the U.S. government of a false hypocrisy. Examined in this way, it is an extraordinary sentence; even the split verb-phrase on which its' predicate stands, "impel... to believe", is an obvious oxymoron. And yet at the same time it is perfectly ordinary; a sentence which I suspect most people would read without pause, with the kalaidescope of subliminal associations and contradictions it contains hidden from view in plain sight.

Language itself is a selective attention mechanism; the various word types are like different kinds of lenses, refracting a reader's mental attention to varying degrees of focus on specific subjects, actions, objects and qualities to the purpose of clear identification and comprehension. The common perversion of language - as evinced so richly throughout Bremmer's article - is like altering the lens apertures and introducing mirrors to play camera tricks; the reader's attention is diffracted into incoherent patterns. Under these conditions, specific subjects, actions, objects and qualities can be confused and outright logical contradictions can pass unnoticed.

If language is a potential pathology vector, and I think it must be, is it any wonder then that pathological political writing begets pathological policies and pathological institutions?


*Though I could have rendered it in several other ways, I rendered Bremmer's "impel to believe in free markets" this way because it seems to me the simplest and most neutral.

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