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Forget Me Not

by on February 10, 2016

                                                      Forget Me Not

                                                  by Marco M. Pardi

                                           All comments appreciated

Nothing has more retarded the advancement of learning than the disposition of vulgar minds to ridicule and vilify what they cannot comprehend.” Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) in The Rambler 1751

Daily life is filled with temptations. No, not those.  I’m talking about the temptation to forget, or to devise exemptions to lessons learned. I’m talking about the temptation to place transient social wisdom and presumptive judgment therefrom above hard learned experience.  I’m talking about those events after which we find ourselves saying, “I knew better, but I didn’t want to seem like a(n) _________”(fill in the blank).

Starting in our early years we learn interesting ways to develop and navigate selective memory, to rationalize changes in what we earlier took as natural dictums.

If a child gets burned more than a couple of times on a hot stove the adults cluck and pronounce him a “slow learner”.  If a child gets burned more than a couple of times by a particular kind of person and decides to avoid them entirely the adults tear their hair, rent their garments, pull their togas over their heads in shame at the thought the child they raised is a __________(fill in the blank: racist, sexist, misogynist, homophobe, bigot, etc.)  In this case the child is encouraged to forget the lessons learned and approach each new situation with an “open mind” – code: vulnerable.  A twist on this comes with the admonition to “never talk to strangers”; strictly adhered to, the child would never meet new people.

Recent years have seen a sharp rise in public concern over “profiling”, and a concomitant rise in attempts to have charges dropped on those grounds.  An almost completely overlapping graph shows the concern for preventing terrorism and curbing crime.  Terrorism aside for a moment, entertainment and news media have focused on the Behavioral Science departments of the FBI and major police departments, fawning over the work of “profilers”, even when those specialists have a spotty record at best and despite that they often narrow the search parameters to something comparable to the twelve zodiac signs.

Profiling runs throughout our social experience, with reasons as varied as its applications.  Insurance companies profile policy applicants based on group data and personal data they retrieve, often finding incidents we ourselves have forgotten.  Employers screen job applicants often with little more than the schools attended and the zip codes where they have lived.  The list is almost endless.  The internet provider over which you are reading this is a goldmine for profilers, especially marketers.  Metadata mined by any of several parameters informs marketers how to pitch their product or service to large or small demographic groups, making it seem tailored just for you.  Focus groups, by which I conducted nearly forty health related or other studies for the Federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Immigration & Customs Service, and other agencies begin with an identification of the target demographic and setting of strict recruitment parameters.  Everyone from marketers to political speech writers and other public speakers learns the rules of “audience segmentation”, the shaping of the pitch depending on the profile of the target audience.  Obviously, this includes not just what is pitched, but how it is pitched – which can be the deal breaker.  And, in both criminal and civil court cases both sides use Jury Consultants – profilers – to assist in jury selection.

On the exclusionary side, Twitter has just announced it is suspending thousands of accounts it feels are suspected terrorist communications.  Based on what?

Further exclusionary profiling includes no-fly lists and airport screening. The acknowledged leader in the latter is Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. Relying on behavioral profiling and analysis, they employ techniques which are atmospheres above the simplistic “body language” stuff purveyed to the public in entertainment and pseudo-scientific articles.  And on that note, polygraphs are often fairly simple to defeat (I won’t elaborate for obvious reasons); it’s the skilled polygrapher that is the real hurdle.  This person has learned the art of multi-sensory information processing.

A recent article I read in the Journal of Neuroscience reports the methods and findings of a team from the University of Guelph, establishing that involvement of more than one sense during exposure to an object/person codifies information about that object/person in various parts of the brain, enabling quick cross-assembly and recognition on subsequent exposure.  So, just seeing “body language” on a mute monitor is miserably less informative than, for example, seeing a person, shaking their hand, and listening to them speak – perhaps smelling them as well, but I wouldn’t suggest taste on first meeting.  A separate article (I doubt the authors knew of each others’ work) I also just read, in the Journal of Criminology and Public Policy, documents and explains the disruption of this process by the use of Tazers to subdue suspects.  The implications here being that interrogators cannot rely unconditionally on statements made subsequent to Tazering.  This must come as no surprise to therapists and other people familiar with the use of electro-shock therapy for depression. 

A further development in the search for reliable profiling, even behavioral prediction, can be found in a recent Funding Opportunity Announcement issued by the DoD’s Office of Naval Research (ONR).  As part of the Pentagon’s Multidisciplinary Research Program of the University Research Initiative (MURI), which was initiated over 25 years ago, the focus here is on discovering “latent intent” embedded in how people use social media in small groups, enabling analysts to project likely actions emanating from those groups.  Not yet on par with Phillip K. Dick’s 1956 science fiction short story, The Minority Report, it nonetheless points in that direction. Done on a massive scale, the data could only be analyzed by computer algorithms.  Reading it reminded me of my 1967-1968 Research Assistant position at a southern university when the State legislature had us administer the Minnesota Multi-Phasic Personality Inventory to all incoming freshmen and transfer students.  The Inventory itself should only be applied once a problem is suspected, and the careful analysis by a highly trained specialist can take eight hours or more. In this case, the “problem” was presumed – young people in the ’60’s, and the “analysis” was done by computer.    

But what about everyday life?  How are we affected?  In my younger years I had a muscular build.  I stopped counting the number of times a new adult acquaintance would say, “You must play football.”  I did, but spent more time playing chess and reading books.  Gaining some years I formed a lengthy habit of buying and driving very fast sports cars.  Somewhere in there I heard the phrase “ticket-me-first car”.  Although I didn’t collect tickets, I well knew the sentiment that if you have a fast car you must be a fast driver. I knew I had little chance of winning an argument in court. I’m sure every reader has some story to tell of being physically or behaviorally profiled.  I could go on just about my name.

I’ve read numerous accounts by African-Americans of how, as they (the African-Americans) join into a mixed crowd such as at a mall, the White men tend to feel their wallet pockets and women to hold their purses tighter. Store clerks follow them in stores. On leaving a Wal-Mart with a purchase I waited in line as the door attendant checked everyone’s bag ahead of me.  On my turn she waved me past.  I asked her did she not want to check my bag.  She responded, “You’re not one of them.”

Apparently looks really can be deceiving.  In 1991 I read an article in Esquire magazine profiling six CEOs of major corporations.  Each man (yes, all men) was profiled in a half page bio, complete with previous positions, degrees, hobbies, vacation homes, etc. Above each bio was a half page color photo of the strikingly powerful looking man ensconced in his plush office, dressed impeccably and sporting all the right accessories.  On the last page the reader was referred to pages toward the back of the magazine. There I found the “before” photos of each man as he was freshly recruited from Skid Row in Los Angeles, complete with images of his sidewalk hooch and a description of what he could remember of his life up to that point.

On the flip side I was recently at a social event where I met a nationally known vascular surgeon. He was explaining a procedure he had pioneered, the placement of an inverted Y stent in the abdominal aorta, the branches extending into the femoral arteries.  Since he cited going through the right femoral artery to push this stent up into place I asked him, “How do you navigate the aortal bifurcation for the femorals without temporarily occluding the renal branches?”

I got a good look at his lower teeth as he gaped at me. Recovering, he managed to say, “You sound like you have some education!  What are you?” Not wanting to take his time I gave him a brief sketch punctuated by “It’s complicated”.  But I admit considering a trip to the restroom to look in the mirror and see if I really looked uneducated.   

So when is it fair to say enough experience, enough data, justify a presumption?  When is it fair to say, “If it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it must be a ______”?  I have several decades of experience behind me, with a few defensible categories of people.  But even at the outset of one of my careers, college teaching, I recoiled at the comments from fellow faculty that they felt duty bound to “change students’ minds.” I’ve met students with whom I was glad for the opportunity to change my mind.  Sadly, that openness doesn’t show.  Or maybe I just don’t know the “body language”. Deep in an inner city “crack neighborhood” my vehicle was suddenly surrounded by young African-Americans.  I was stopped while looking for a particular house supposedly in the area and my windows were down.  One young woman leaned into my driver’s window, looked me in the eye, and said, “We aren’t dumb just because we’re Black.” I can only guess that what must have been the perplexed look on my face defused what could have been an ugly confrontation.

So yes, we all do form mental categories of people and we think we have assembled the criteria by which we can place someone appropriately.  It’s called by many names, “street smart”, “worldly wise”, and so on. But the ever lurking danger is the failure to remember the full context of the events which brought those categories to our social toolbox.  I must strive to remember the full and true circumstances in which I came from a social interaction with a conclusion about a certain “type” of person.  Doing that is as much a look at me as it is at them.

To this day I’m still amused by people who, in seeing me in the midst of some adversity, say I seem so placid, so self-confident.  I think it might be that, in balanced mindfulness of many decades of often very unpleasant stuff,  I have a larger context surrounding the problem of the day.  To restate a phrase, I have remembered to forget me not.  

 

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7 Comments
  1. I’m just old enough to remember segregation, but not old enough to understand it. The separation of people based on the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes is a concept which eludes me. I abhor prejudice in all its varied forms. Profiling is just the latest version of this particular stupidity.

    Why to we presume the ability to judge a person’s attitudes and behaviors without knowing them, and especially based on such trivialities as race, religion, or even nationality? All, none, always and never are words which are false in that they presume the impossibility of variation.

    I have always attempted to base my opinions of people based only on my personal knowledge of them as individuals. I wonder sometimes if people judge me, and how. Would I put myself into the same boxes they chose for me; if so, I’m sure the labels I would put on those boxes would probably be different from those others have chosen.

    I read recently that science has proven that we are all the same on a molecular level. A thousand things may go into making us unique individuals, but in the end we are all just particles drawn together to create the illusion of a whole, yet never quite touching.

  2. Thank you, Rose. I guess people profile, or categorize as a way of not having to think too deeply. It seems that’s pretty common. At the same time, we must consider the foolishness of not learning from experience, and try to keep it all in context.

    • I agree. It is not conclusion based on experience or evidence to which I object, but rather assumption based on fear or ignorance. As you say, we must keep all things in context. And, btw, no one who has ever known you, even casually, would find you easy to forget.

  3. This reminds me of the first day of class at GPC. Somehow the topic of gestures was brought up, and you said that, without context, a gesture has no meaning.

    Being the total genius I am, I flipped you off and asked, “So this wouldn’t mean anything if you’d never seen it before?” My brother kicked me under the desk. I thought I was going to get kicked out, fail the class… Something awful. I guess there really is something to be said for context.

    I’ve lived in Soldotna, Alaska, where the only minorities in town were Inuit, New Orleans, Lawrenceville, and now Houston. After the Virginia Tech shooting, someone popped balloons on the GPC campus to scare the students, and an African American guy I’d never met before in my life threw me to the ground under a table outside and made himself into a human shield. The other day in the grocery store, a Latino guy covered in prison ink approached me and asked if I needed help getting things down from the high shelves (being five feet tall, I did).

    People can have as many preconceived notions as they want to, but one thing I’ve learned is that I should never judge based on appearance. The kids who beat me up in school were always white.

    • Thanks, Ash. It was clear from the start you are not a person who lives by convenience, but by thought and learning. This is also clear in your blog. I’m not that tech savvy, so I hope you will reply to this with a link to your blog. Marco

  4. Generational hand-me-downs and habitual thought patterns embedded in our psyches. I’ve been looking at this within my own family of origin as I decided to take charge of my own life and become accountable. I told my mother when I was 12 that I was going to break the chain of the family abuse and disfunction.

    See when I was 12 my whole world flipped upside down. I saw adults, the ones who were in charge, the ones who told me who I was and how I was supposed to act, the “responsible” ones, behaving like a children younger than myself. I was quite fascinated, scared and horrified at the same time. During that time while trying to keep my older sister from running away from home my mother found “self help”. At the age of 12 during that tumultuous time I aligned with my mother and started asking questions about her upbringing, her family, my absent father and abusive absent abusive step father.

    She answered all of my questions without any kind of filter. She told me things one may want to tell a therapist. And it all came from a victim perspective. Something happened to me during that time. Unknowingly I put her well being in front of mine. Mostly because she had gone through so much physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Even though I was the little one being abused as well. I felt sorry for her and wanted to protect her. I became the adult in our family. I grew up really fast and became the “responsible” one. Somewhere in there I made it my job to make everyone happy, starting with her. And this lead me to become what I like to call The Queen of Codependency. Even still there was with a little independence mixed in there too.

    It took me from the age of 12 to 40 to break the familial chain of abuse and disfunction. At 12 I knew, I had a mental understanding of what I needed to do, but I had to have the direct experience of repeating the same exact pattern before I could put the change into action. I see it all clearly now. I had no idea what was happening for me and for my children. It’s been terribly hard and a bit of a lonely road, but worth every single moment. I can say with confidence that I broke the chain and my children will not continue as I did. They will have other challenges like all of us.

    We can talk about the vast amount of things that shape our lives, the people and the situations in life that guide us into making us who we are. I know the family origin is a reflection of what’s happening on a global scale. Humans are habitual in thought and repeat the patterns of old. It takes thoughtfulness and mindfulness to break out of any habit or pattern of the generations of the past. It has to occur first that we are following in footsteps that may not be in our best interest. Most of the time it isn’t about what we’re pointing at.

    • Thank you so much, Jezze. Reading your comments was a journey through sadness at what you endured with a great gladness at how, painful as it must have been, you emerged into the person you are. In addition to you, your children and the people with whom they interact are the beneficiaries of your struggle. And, all of us reading these pages are as well. I’m so glad you are with us and willing to share in our mutual journey. Marco

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