Saturday, July 10, 2010

Will "States' Rights" Result in Two Americas?

States' Rights advocates (SRAs) are applauding a recent ruling that a state law allowing same-sex marriage in Massachusetts should take precedence over a federal definition of marriage. Maybe I should say, SOME SRAs are pleased - many SRAs are politically and culturally conservative and do not support same sex marriage in any state.

Via The New York Times:

The decision, by Judge Joseph L. Tauro of United States District Court in Boston, supports and echoes a central tenet of the Tea Party, 9/12 and Tenth Amendment movements, all of which argue that the authority of the states should trump Washington in most matters not explicitly assigned by the Constitution to the federal government.

Congress, the judge said, had infringed on a question that was the province of local voters and legislators.

But in using the argument to support gay marriage in Massachusetts, where the case arose, the judge created an awkward new debating point within the less-government movement about where social goals and government policy intersect, or perhaps collide.

Some people involved in the campaigns to limit Washington’s reach cheered what they said was a states’ rights victory.

“The Constitution isn’t about political ideology,” said Michael Boldin, the founder of the Tenth Amendment Center, a group based in Los Angeles. “It’s about liberty, and limiting the government to certain divisive issues — I applaud what I consider a very rare ruling from the judiciary.”

Others, like Steve V. Moon, a software programmer and founder of, a group founded in Utah in 2008, said the judge’s decision was both right and wrong.

“It’s unconstitutional for the federal government to pass laws superseding state authority — and the judge did affirm states’ rights in this area,” he said. “But I personally believe in the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman and support any state passing laws affirming the sanctity of marriage.”

Mr. Moon said he feared that what might look like a states’ rights victory could backfire. If judges in other states, drawing on Judge Tauro’s reasoning, start throwing out marriage definition laws that were passed by residents or legislatures, “that could be detrimental to states’ rights.”

However, it is this brief passage at the end of the article that got my attention and made think that this may be the beginning of a "two Americas" problem in terms of social rights - we have two Americas in terms of wealth and power.

Mr. Boldin, at the Tenth Amendment center, said the ruling, and how politicians in Washington and around the country react to it, would illuminate whether people were working to limit federal authority on Constitutional principle in all cases, or only for certain causes or partisan agendas.

The ruling, “leaves the proper situation of each state being able to decide its own fate,” Mr. Boldin wrote in a blog on the group’s Web site.

“If the courts were trustworthy, they’d do the same for healthcare, education and all kinds of other powers that the federal government has usurped,” he wrote. “So would politicians — who seem to champion the 10th only when it’s in their partisan best interest.”

So let's assume that the 10th Amendment becomes more widely employed and enforced. More and more states will pass laws the reflect the majority population's cultural values. Take Arizona for an example - English only education, no same-sex marriage/contracts/benefits, immigration laws that target ALL racial minorities, no-permit required for concealed handguns, guns permitted in bars and churches, and on and on.

Some of these laws violate federal laws. In fact the US Government is suing AZ over the immigration law - with Attorney General Eric Holder saying the law in unconstitutional, with immigration being a federal jurisdiction while other things, such as marriage and gun laws and other areas that states feel falls within the 10th Amendment.

So all of the Red States can pass cultural values laws against gay marriage/rights, supporting Biblical values in education, tougher anti-abortion laws, and other religiously based values laws. At the same time, Blue States can pass equal rights laws for all citizens, keep religion out of publicly funded education, limit or eliminate gun possession, allow a woman to choose what we body does or does not do, and other more humanist cultural values.

Over time, as people are able to move from one place to another, those of us holding more liberal, humanist values will try our best to move to states reflecting our values; and those with more conservative religious values will move to those states supporting their worldviews. We have a Blue America and a Red America, with little common ground to unite us - this is the nearly inevitable outcome of SRAs and the culture wars.

Maybe in a couple of hundred years, maps will reflect the humorous one at the top of this post.

Neuroscene - Antidepressants and the Placebo Effect: Is the “Chemical Imbalance” Theory Flawed?

I'm not sure I totally agree with this argument against antidepressants - it may be partially true, for some people. I don't think we yet understand the actual mechanisms of depression, but we do know that the SSRIs increase neurogenesis which, over time, may help in healing the symptoms of depression. Either way, it's good to expose the ways in which the Big Pharma companies manufacture their research results - and hide what they don't want us to see.

Antidepressants and the Placebo Effect: Is the “Chemical Imbalance” Theory Flawed?

For many years, the medical and scientific communities have largely accepted as factual the widely-held theory that clinical depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain – especially with regards to the neurotransmitter serotonin. However, repeated meta-analyses of the FDA-submitted clinical trial data do not seem to support this belief. Conversely, there is significant evidence that the patient benefits of antidepressants are largely – if not completely – due to a placebo effect.

In this podcast, we speak with Dr. Irving Kirsch, professor of psychology at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom and the author of The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth. Be sure to join us as we discuss the real story behind the effectiveness of antidepressants and why they may not be the “wonder drugs” we think they are.

The hardcover of the book is available at Amazon for as little as $6 or so and less than $10 from Amazon's own store. Follow the link above.

Philosopher's Zone - It's all about me: A forum on the philosophy of self

Cool discussion.

It's all about me - a forum on the philosophy of self

Alan Saunders with guests Candace Vogler, Graham Priest and  Phillip Pettit

Philosopher's Zone Forum
View the image gallery

This week it's all about me and it's all about you as we explore a few perspectives on philosophy of self. And more personally still, do you have a consistent principle that guides your life? Or are you philosophically all over the shop?

It's all about me! - The Quiz

Is there a moral way to live our lives? Is there an absolute truth? Consider these questions and more in our special quiz, before you tune in for the second part of our forum next week. Click here to read the quiz.

Show Transcript | Hide Transcript

Transcript available Monday 12 July


Candace Vogler
David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy
University of Chicago
United States

Philip Pettit
Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Politics and Human Values
Princeton University
United States

Graham Priest
Boyce Gibson Professor of Philosophy
University of Melbourne

Arche Visiting Professorship
University of St Andrews
United Kingdom

Further Information

Candace Vogler - homepage

Philip Pettit - homepage

Graham Priest - homepage


Alan Saunders

Dalai Lama - Try to remain in the natural state

The Power of Patience
from a Buddhist Perspective

by the Dalai Lama,
translated by Geshe Thupten Jinpa


Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

Try to remain in the natural state. This is a bit like a river which is flowing quite strongly, in which you cannot see the bed of the river clearly. If there was some way you could put an immediate stop to the flow from the direction the water is coming from and the direction the water is flowing to, then you could keep the water still, and that would allow you to see the bed quite clearly.

Similarly, when you are able to stop your mind from chasing after sensory objects and when you can free your mind from being totally "blanked out," then you will begin to see under this turbulence of the thought processes a kind of underlying stillness, an underlying clarity of mind.

...At the initial stage, when you begin to experience the natural state of consciousness, it will be in the form of some sort of vacuity, absence, or emptiness. This is because we are so habituated to understanding our mind in terms of external objects that we tend to look at the world through our concepts, images, and so on. So when you withdraw your mind from external objects, it's almost as if you can't recognize your mind. There's a kind of absence, a kind of vacuity. However, as you slowly progress and get used to it, you will begin to see an underlying clarity, a sort of luminosity. That's when you begin to appreciate and realize the natural state of the mind. [Even though this is not a very profound meditative experience, it is the basis of stillness of mind.]

--from Healing Anger: The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective by the Dalai Lama, translated by Geshe Thupten Jinpa, published by Snow Lion Publications

Healing Anger • 5O% off • for this week only
(Good through July 16th).

"Heartfelt Advice"
A Weekend Retreat with Author Lama Dudjom Dorjee
July 9-11, 2010
Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies, Ithaca, NY

In conjunction with his latest book, Heartfelt Advice.
For more information visit or call 607-273-0739.

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John Shelby Spong: Transcending Religion

Interesting to see the emergence of a postmodern theology - not surprisingly, he's Episcopalian. He has received both praise and criticism for his efforts to reform Christian theology and bring it into the 21st century.

Bishop Spong's call for a new reformation includes 12 Theses for a new Christianity:

The complete document in Bishop Spong introduces the 12 Theses is his "Call for a New Reformation"

The 12 Theses

1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.

2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.

3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.

4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.

5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.

6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.

7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.

8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.

9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.

10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.

11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.

12. All human beings bear God's image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one's being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.

Spong ends this article by saying:
"So I set these theses today before the Christian world and I stand ready to debate each of them as we prepare to enter the third millennium."

The whole article is worth the read if you are interested in understanding the ways Christian theology and practice might change for the better, although there are many - even within his own denomination - who do not agree with Spong's position.
Bishop John Shelby Spong leads the 2:00 pm audiences through a week-long conversation based on his newest book: Eternal Life: A New Vision - Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell.

This week having been inspired by the Eileen and Warren Martin Lectureship Fund for Emerging Studies in Bible and Theology, Jack Spong in his unique style makes accessible to the ordinary layperson emerging understandings within contemporary theology, and offers new ways in which to engage with traditional concepts.

John Shelby Spong, whose books have sold more than a million copies, was bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark for 24 years before his retirement in 2001. Acclaimed as a teaching bishop who makes contemporary theology accessible to the ordinary layperson, he is considered the champion of an inclusive faith, both inside and outside the Christian church. In one of his recent books, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Discover the God of Love (2005), Bishop Spong sought to introduce readers to a new way to engage the holy book of the Judeo-Christian tradition. A committed Christian who has spent a lifetime studying the Bible and whose life has been deeply shaped by it, Bishop Spong says that he is a believer who knows and loves the Bible deeply, but who recognizes that parts of it have been used to undergird prejudices and to mask violence.

A visiting lecturer at Harvard and at universities and churches worldwide, Bishop Spong delivers more than 200 public lectures each year to standing-room-only crowds. He was previously a 2:00 pm Lecturer of the Week at Chautauqua in 2000. His bestselling books include Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, A New Christianity for a New World, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, and Here I Stand. His extensive media appearances include a profile segment on "60 Minutes" as well as appearances on "Good Morning America," "Fox News Live," "Politically Incorrect," "Larry King Live," "The O'Reilly Factor," "William F. Buckley's Firing Line," and "Extra." His newest book is Eternal Life: A New Vision - Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Douglas LaBier - America's Continuing Empathy Deficit Disorder

An excellent and important article from Douglas LaBier over at Huffington Post and the lack of empathy in American culture. According to LaBier, we suffer from Empathy Deficit Disorder, or EDD - not a DSM-IV category, but maybe it should be. The problem actually stems from parenting - kids learn empathy through the affective attunement with parents, but also through being asked to consider another child's perspective in play, in arguments over toys, or other situations.

For those of us who are past sandbox squabbles over toys, it's not too late to learn these skills, and some techniques are presented in this article.

America's Continuing Empathy Deficit Disorder

Douglas LaBier

Posted: July 7, 2010

It's possible for an entire culture to develop shared forms of mental disturbance. As socially shared pathologies increase, they can be difficult to recognize; they become the norm. Such is the case today, and a prime example is what I call our national Empathy Deficit Disorder, or EDD.

I made the name up, so don't go looking for it in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Actually, I'm hesitant to suggest a new disorder, given that our mental health professions increasingly define normal variations of mood and temperament as new "disorders" (for which Big Pharma is ready to supply "treatments"). But this one's real. It's become pervasive throughout our increasingly polarized social and political culture of the past several years.

EDD has profound consequences for the mental health of individuals and society. Yet it's ignored as a psychological disturbance by most of my colleagues in the mental health professions, largely because it's become the norm throughout our emotional attitudes, public policies and behavior.

First, some explanation of what I mean by EDD: It's reflected in being unable to step outside yourself and tune in to what other people experience, especially those who feel, think and believe differently from yourself. EDD is a source of personal conflicts, of communication breakdown in intimate relationships, and of adversarial attitudes - including hatred - towards groups of people who differ in their beliefs, traditions, values or ways of life from your own.

Take the man who told me that his wife always complained that he didn't spend enough time with their children; that she had most of the burden despite having a career of her own. "Yeah, I see her point," he said in a neutral voice, "but I need time for my sports activities on the weekends. I'm not going to give that up. And at night I'm tired, I want to veg out." As we talked further, it became clear to me that he simply didn't experience what his wife's world was like for her, on the inside. His own reality -- specifically, his own needs -- were his only reality.

Or the computer executive who prided himself on having a stable family life, then casually told me that, even though he recognized the environmental threats posed by worldwide climate change, he couldn't care less. "I'll be long gone when New York is under water," he said. And when I asked him whether he cared about the consequences for his kids or grandkids, he replied with a grin: "Hey, that's their problem!"

Then there's the woman who works in the financial industry, who told me she's indifferent to how American Muslims might feel in today's environment, or to being profiled when boarding airplanes: "I think they're all terrorists," she said, "and would like to kill us all, anyway."

These may sound like extreme examples, but I hear variations of those themes all the time in the people I work with -- whether in my psychotherapy practice or my business consulting. You can see examples yourself in the statements of politicians or pundits on talk shows.

EDD reflects being locked inside a self-centered world, a breeding ground for emotional isolation, disconnection and polarization. That's highly dangerous in today's interconnected, globalized world, and it plays out in ways both small and large:

For example, in troubled intimate relationships, when partners become locked into adversarial and oppositional positions. It's visible in warfare between groups with different beliefs. And in the current polarization over political and social issues, including questioning people's "patriotism" when their views threaten one's own; and in opposition to policies that might require some personal sacrifice for the common good.

EDD is also visible in current global threats -- Tribal and religious groups killing each other. Palestinians and Israelis locked into an endless death-grip. Man-made climate disasters, and the continued, greed-fueled depletion of the resources and health of the only planet we have.

Empathy vs. Sympathy
To clarify, empathy is different from sympathy. Sympathy reflects understanding another person's situation - but viewed through your own lens. That is, it's based on your version of what the other person is dealing with. ("Yeah, I can sympathize with your problem with your elderly mother, because I have my own problems with mine ..."). A narcissist can be sympathetic in this way.

Such a self-centered focus is similar to what some people think love is when they're really enthralled with their own feeling of being "in love," rather than loving the reality of who their partner is, as I wrote about in a previous post.

In contrast, empathy is what you feel only when you can step outside of yourself and enter the internal world of the other person. There -- but without abandoning or losing your own perspective -- you can experience the other's emotions, conflicts, or aspirations from within the vantage point of that person's world. That's not telepathy. Research shows that it's a hard-wired capacity in all of us. And that kind of connection builds healthy, mutual relationships -- an essential part of mental health.

How Do You Develop EDD?
Most people are socially conditioned into believing that acquiring and achieving things are "normal" -- even "healthy" -- ways to live. EDD grows when people focus too much on acquiring power, status, and money for themselves, usually with the reinforcement of the larger culture. Nearly every day we hear or read about more extreme examples of the consequences: People who go over the edge in their pursuit of money, power or recognition, and end up resigning their jobs, in rehab or behind bars.

But there are many, less extreme, examples. People who struggle with the impact of too much emphasis on acquiring, both things and people, and have equated that with mental health, success and maturity. In reality, that mentality promotes increasing vanity and self-importance. Then, you become increasingly alienated from your own heart. You equate what you have with who you are.

And that's a killer for empathy, because you're now ripe for the delusion that you're completely independent and self-sufficient. You lose touch with the true reality, that all humans are interconnected and interdependent - all organs of the same body, so to speak. Your sense of being a part of a larger interwoven network - which is absolutely necessary for survival in today's world - fades away. So does your awareness that we have to sink or swim together, help each other, and sustain the planet we inhabit - or else we're all in deep trouble.

The net result of this social conditioning is the decline of empathy and a failure to recognize that we're all one, bound together. You only see yourself. And I think that's a bona fide emotional disorder in our times -- in effect, a "social psychosis."

Sometimes, a person's sudden awakening of interconnection jump-starts their empathy. Then, people automatically respond from the heart. For example, look at the response of citizens to the massive earthquake in Haiti, or to Hurricane Katrina. Or what I witnessed recently when some passers-by stopped to help the victims of an auto accident.

When empathy is aroused, you let go of your usual self-interest. You want to help; connect in some way. I often suggest to people to think of this, as an example: When you cut your finger, you don't say, "That's my finger's problem, not mine." Nor do you do a cost-benefit policy analysis before deciding whether to take action. You respond immediately because you feel the pain. It's part of you.

Practices That Build Empathy
Research shows that the capacity to feel what another person feels is "hard-wired" through what are called "mirror neurons." Regions of the brain involving both emotions and physical sensations light up in someone who observes or becomes aware of another person's pain or distress. Literally, you do feel another's pain or other emotions. Similar research shows that generosity and altruistic behavior light up pleasure centers of the brain usually associated with food or sex.

Research also shows that your brain is capable of being trained and physically modified through conscious practices, known as neuroplasticity. You can "grow" specific emotions and create new brain patterns that reinforce them. As you redirect and refocus your thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the direction you desire, the brain regions associated with them are reinforced. The result is a self-reinforcing loop between your conscious attitudes, your emotions, behavior and your brain activity. This may sound like science fiction, yet such studies show that you can learn to "reprogram" your brain. In effect, what you think and feel is what you become.

Jeremy Rifkin's recent book, The Empathic Civilization, provides a strong argument for an emerging empathic civilization in human consciousness. He presents evidence that counters the usual assumption that self-interest and greed are dominant forces among humans. In light of all the new research and evidence, here are a few practices you can do to help overcome your EDD in everyday life:

Empathy For Someone You Dislike:
It's especially challenging to generate empathy towards someone you flat-out dislike -- maybe even hate. Or, with whom you've had big-time conflicts: perhaps an ex-spouse, or someone at work. But you can try this:

  • Tell yourself how or why that person might have developed negative attitudes or feelings about you. Imagine what the conflict feels like from within his or her perspective. Entertain the idea that you are only partially right; perhaps wrong altogether.
  • Next, open yourself to seeing yourself through the eyes of that person. Just observe, without judging him or her, defending yourself, or agreeing with any of it.
Empathy For Strangers You Encounter

You can expand your capacity for empathy by practicing it towards people you don't even know:

  • Identify a situation or encounter with someone who's a stranger, especially one who may be very different from yourself. Try putting yourself within the consciousness of that stranger. The checkout person at the grocery store could be an example.
  • Think of ways that he or she is probably like you -- someone who desires love, who's probably experienced some kind of loss or disappointment along the way, or who has aspirations he or she hopes to fulfill.
  • Focus on those commonalities that show you how this person is much like yourself -- beneath the surface differences.
Empathy For People From Foreign Cultures Or Whose Way Of Life Is Alien To Your Own
  • Establish a direct personal connection with someone through a charity that links you with a specific recipient of your contribution (e.g., Alternative Gifts International or World Vision's Must Have Gifts); or a microfinance organization that provides small business loans to specific individuals in developing countries who cannot otherwise qualify (e.g. Kiva; Microplace)

Empathy Fuels Greater Mental Health
By developing empathy you deepen your understanding and acceptance of how and why people do what they do, and build greater respect for others. From empathy, tolerance grows, and tolerance of differences is an essential part of psychological health. This doesn't mean whitewashing differences you have with other people, or letting others walk over you. Rather, empathy gives you a stronger, wiser base for resolving conflicts when you have them. You're able to bridge differences more effectively and with less destructiveness.

Empathy heightens awareness of commonality and connection with fellow humans -- people who suffer and struggle with life in many of the same ways you do. It trumps self-centered, knee-jerk reactions to surface differences like religion, race, or ideology. That's a path towards a healthy life and a healthy society.

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George Lackoff - Disaster Messaging

George Lackoff is one of my favorite philosophers - his book, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought - is essential reading for anyone who want to understand embodied consciousness. He's less useful, I think, when he is writing about politics, but everyone needs a hobby.

Disaster Messaging

George Lakoff

Democrats are constantly resorting to disaster messaging. Here's a description the typical situation.

  • The Republicans outmessage the Democrats. The Democrats, having no effective response, face disaster: They lose politically, either in electoral support or failure on crucial legislation.
  • The Democrats then take polls and do focus groups. The pollsters discover that extremist Republicans control the most common ("mainstream") way of thinking and talking about the given issue.
  • The pollsters recommend that Democrats move to the right: adopt conservative Republican language and a less extreme version of conservative policy, along with weakened versions of some Democratic ideas.
  • The Democrats believe that, if they follow this advice, they can gain enough independent and Republican support to pass legislation that, at least, will be some improvement on the extreme Republican position.
  • Otherwise, the pollsters warn, Democrats will lose popular support -- and elections -- to the Republicans, because "mainstream" thought and language resides with the Republicans.
  • Believing the pollsters, the Democrats change their policy and their messaging, and move to the right.
  • The Republicans demand even more and refuse to support the Democrats.

We have seen this on issues like health care, immigration, global warming, finance reform, and so on. We are seeing it again on the Death Gusher in the Gulf. It happens even with a Democratic president and a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress.

Why? Is there anything the Democrats can do about it? First, it has to be understood. It doesn't just happen.

The Difference Between Framing and Messaging

Framing is the most commonplace thing we do with thought and language. Frames are the cognitive structures we think with. They are physical, embodied in neural circuitry. Frames come in systems. Their circuitry is strengthened and often made permanent through use: the more the circuits are used, the stronger they get. Effective frames are not isolated. They build on, and extend, other frames already established.

All words are defined in terms of conceptual frames. When the words are heard, the frames are strengthened -- not just the immediate frames, but the whole system.

Fit matters. The brain is a "best-fit" system. The better a new frame "fits" existing frames, the more effective it will be; that is, the more people will think, and make decisions, using that frame.

Frame conflict

The activation of one brain circuit may either activate or inhibit another. A frame that fits a system will activate other frames in the system and make them stronger. Strongly activated frames will weaken frames that they inhibit.

There are progressive and conservative frame systems. Activating the conservative frame system, weakens the progressive frame system -- both individual frames for particular issues, but also the system as a whole.

That is how framing works. There are consequences.

High-Level, Moral Frames Matter More

Higher-level frames, deeper in the system, have a disproportionate effect.

The more the language of frame is repeated, the stronger the frame gets, along with the system the frame is in. And the weaker the frames of the contradictory system gets. The stronger high-level frames are, the more effective frames that fit them will be. And the less effective frames that contradict them will be.

In politics, the high-level frames are the moral systems that define what is "right" for a conservative or progressive.

Most Framing is Unconscious

Frames are conceptual; they are the elements of thought. Most thought is unconscious. Words activate frames. We are rarely conscious of the frames that are activated by the words we hear. Yet those frames are there in our brain circuitry, and more we hear the words, the stronger the frames get, even though we aren't aware of it.

Framing is Long-term

Framing is the establishment of permanent (or long-term) high-level frames and systems of frames with the brains of voters. Framing can be done by long-term careful political messaging, or through education (say, by controlling school textbooks).

Prototype Framing

An important part of framing is the establishment of prototypes: social stereotypes, prototypes (typical case, ideals, nightmares, salient exemplars). Stereotypes are used in automatic reasoning and decision-making.

Bi-conceptual Framing

For important domains of thought, like morality, religion, and politics, it is commonplace for people to have two inconsistent frame systems that inhibit each other. When those frames apply to different issues and in different contexts, we speak of "bi-conceptuals." When you can shift back and forth on an issue, you are bi-conceptual on that issue. That is, you can frame the issue in two ways, using inconsistent higher-level frame systems.

Contested concepts

In politics, the high-level frames are moral frames. There are opposing conservative and progressive moral systems. Important political concepts are "contested," overlapping in some classic cases, but diverging in content depending on the moral system. Thus, vital political concepts like Life, Freedom, Responsibility, Government, Accountability, Equality, Fairness, Empathy, Property, Security, and so on are contested.

A major goal of political framing is to get your version of contested concepts accepted by the voters. Messaging can then use these concepts and their language freely and effectively.

That is how framing works generally -- independent of whether the frames are used in politics. In politics, bi-conceptual voters can shift back and forth on an issue, depending on how the issue is framed in terms of higher-level political systems.

Political Messaging

Messages use words. The words activate frames. In political messages, you have a double intention: to get voters to think using your frames and to keep voters from thinking using the other side's frames, which contradict yours.

Your message will be more effective if it fits existing high-level frames in the brains of voters, and less effective it contradicts such high-level frames.

Political messaging and bi-conceptual voters

Your goal, with bi-conceptual voters, is to activate your system of political frames and inhibit the other side's system of political frames. Your message should therefore fit your high-level frame system, and it should not fit the other side's high-level frame system. If it fits the other side's high-level frame system, your message will be helping the other side, because it will tend to make voters think using their frame system.

Why Does Disaster Messaging Arise?

Suppose the other side has structured its messaging over a long period of time to consistently strengthen its high-level frames, prototypes, and versions of contested concepts in the brains of voters. They can now do effective messaging by using those high-level, morally-based frames in messages that evoke the existing strong high-level frames.

Why Conservatives Consistently Win Messaging Battles

In the US, conservatives have set up an elaborate messaging system. It starts with an understanding of long-term framing and message experts who know how to use existing their long-term frame systems. Then there are think tanks, with experts who understand the high-level frame system and how it applies to the full range of issues. There are training institutes that teach tens of thousands of conservatives a year to think and talk using these framing systems and their language and argument forms. There are regular gatherings to consolidate messaging and policy around a contemporary issue that fits the conservative moral system. There are booking agencies that book conservative spokespeople on tv, talk radio, etc. There are lecture venues and booking agencies for conservative spokespeople. There are conservative media going on 24/7/365.

As a result, conservative language is heard constantly in many parts of the US. Conservative language automatically and unconsciously activates conservative frames and the high-level framing systems they are part of. As the language is heard over and over, the circuitry linking the language to conservative frames becomes stronger. Because the synapses in the neural circuits are stronger, they are easier to activate. As a result, conservative language tends to become the normal, preferred "mainstream" language for discussing current issues.

This messaging system has existed and has been extended and strengthened over many years. Democrats have a few of these elements, but they are relatively ineffective, since they tend to view messaging as short-term and issue-based, rather than long-term and morally based. Democrats tend not to understand how framing works, and often confuse framing (which is deep, long-term, systematic, morality-based, and conceptual) with messaging (which is shallow, short-term, ad hoc, policy-based, and linguistic).

This situation puts Democrats at a messaging disadvantage relative to conservatives, which leads to conservative victories. Hence the regular need for disaster messaging.

Polling and The "Mainstream"

When the Democrats are out-messaged, they call upon polling and focus groups to given an "empirical, evidential" account of public opinion and which language is preferred by the public. The "evidence" comes from polls and focus groups that test the normal "mainstream" language and logic, versus language and logic that is not "mainstream." This is, naturally, conservative language and logic, because the conservative messaging system has systematically made it that way patiently over years. The pollsters therefore report that the "mainstream" of Americans prefer the conservative language and logic, and the policies that go with them. The pollsters then suggest moving to right to go to where the public is. They then construct and test messages that move enough to right to satisfy the "mainstream." They also construct "good arguments." If the "good arguments" activate the conservative worldview, the conservative position will just get stronger in the brains of the voters.

What's Wrong?

When the Democrats use conservative language, they activate more than the conservative framing on the given issue. They also activate and strengthen the high level, deep conservative moral frames. This tends to make voters more conservative overall -- and leads them to choose the real conservative position on the given issue, rather than the sort of conservative version provided by the democrats.

Disaster framing is a disaster.

The "Center"

There are bi-conceptuals of many kinds-- you can have partly conservative, partly progressive views on many issues, and people vary considerably. There is no general ideology of the center. The myth that there is a single "center" is an artifact of current polling practices.

Here's how this works. Ask people whether they When you pick a given issue and poll on the most common "mainstream" language. It will be favored by both full conservatives and bi-conceptuals who happen to be conservative on that issue. Those bi-conceptuals may identify as "democrats" or "liberal-leaning" or "independents." With suitable framing, those bi-conceptuals should shift on the issue, while the true conservatives will not.

Do they form a "center?"

That is an empirical question, but they do not appear to. Change the issue and a new issue-specific "center" may appear, person-by-person.

Such polling is rarely done, so claims about a single "center" -- or a single left-to-right spectrum -- should not be believed.

The Importance of Bi-conceptuals

Pollsters tend not to test for bi-conceptuals. They are not just undecideds, or independents, or mere swing voters. They are voters who have both relatively strong progressive and conservative high-level moral systems and apply them in different contexts to different issues. There are usually a significant number -- in the US my guess is around 20% ± 3. They often determine elections. If they are given only conservative messaging, that messaging will activate their conservative frame system. If they are given progressive messages often enough over a reasonably long period, there is a good chance that their progressive moral system will be activated and strengthened.

The directly contradicts the traditional view of mainstream pollsters. As a result, it has not been tested empirically on a large scale, though there is one solid result.


Don't move to the right. Start thinking longer term. Build as much of a communications system as possible. Design long-term framing for your own high level, moral system and basic policy domains. Fit your immediate messaging needs to the long-term frames. Carry on both kinds of messaging in parallel.


Design polling to study bi-conceptuals through value-based frame-shifting. Always use batteries of questions.

How Conservatives Change Policies Without Winning Elections

How do conservative Republicans have a large effect on policy even when they are largely out of office? Their communication system is never out of office. That allows a conservative minority to stonewall and resist and gain popular approval for it. Their communication system intimidates Democrats into disaster messaging and policy shifts to the right. The Republicans don't have move the country in a conservative direction by holding office. Their communications system can get the Democrats to move the country to the right by forcing disaster messaging upon them.

The example of immigration

The most recent example of disaster framing is reported on in an important Politico article by Carrie Budoff Brown "Dems Tough New Immigration Pitch". It's an excellent piece, and I will be quoting liberally from it.

Brown reports that Democrats have taken "an enforcement-first, law-and-order, limited-compassion pitch that now defines the party's approach to the issue." Democratic leaders are now following the advice of pollsters Stan Greenberg, Celinda Lake, and Guy Molyneux and strategist/focus-group dialer Drew Westen: Talk like Republicans.

"The 12 million people who unlawfully reside the country? Call them "illegal immigrants," not "undocumented workers," the pollsters say." The pollster team was organized by John Podesta of the Center for American Progress.

"When [voters] hear 'undocumented worker,' they hear a liberal euphemism, it sounds to them like liberal code," said Drew Westen, a political consultant who has helped Sharry hone the message through dial testing. "I am often joking with leaders of progressive organizations and members of Congress, 'If the language appears fine to you, it is probably best not to use it. You are an activist, and by definition, you are out of the mainstream.'"

And craft a policy with lots of Republican elements. Here is what President Obama, following the pollsters' advice, said at a Cinco de Mayo celebration at the White House:

"The way to fix our broken immigration system is through common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform. That means responsibility from government to secure our borders, something we have done and will continue to do. It means responsibility from businesses that break the law by undermining American workers and exploiting undocumented workers -- they've got to be held accountable. It means responsibility from people who are living here illegally. They've got to admit that they broke the law and pay taxes and pay a penalty, and learn English, and get right before the law -- and then get in line and earn their citizenship."

Conservative Republican elements are being communicated here: Use force against the illegals ("secure our borders"); get tough ("held accountable"}; personal, not social, "responsibility"; criminals ("living here illegally"); be punitive ("admit they broke the law and pay taxes and pay a penalty"); English only ("learn English"); they're getting free handouts ("earn their citizenship.").

Put aside for a moment the substance of the policy, and notice that these are conservative Republican themes that fit a conservative Republican view of the world. Democrats, starting with the President, are using the language that activates the conservative Republican view of the world. Why? As Brown reports,

"We lost control of the message in the 2007 debate," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a pro-immigrant rights group that worked with Center for American Progress founder John Podesta on the messaging overhaul.

"We were on the inside fighting off amendments, and the other side was jacking up their opponents and getting Rush and Hannity and O'Reilly on fire about this. We needed to do a much better job on communications."

But the biggest factor came from Greenberg's polls: the threat that Democrats could lose "swing districts" in elections, but could win them with this message. So the Democrats not only adopted the message, but much of the largely conservative policy that went with it.

A major feature, however, is that the "illegals" would be legalized while on the path to citizenship. The conservative response is obvious: It's just amnesty warmed over. The Democrats are still soft on "illegals" -- a term now embraced by Democrats who follow Drew Westen's recommendation.

With the Administration's lawsuit against the recent Arizona anti-immigrant law, you can bet that the Republicans will use that lawsuit to pin "soft on illegals" on Democratic candidates. And the Administration's new "tough" right-wing rhetoric will only help support the Republicans.

Repetition over The Long Term

The only way progressives can avoid the disaster of disaster messaging is by regularly saying what they believe, in an effective messaging system -- out loud, over and over, with the idea of changing how the public thinks and talks over the long haul.

Here is an uncompromising example of a possible op-ed:

End A Bad Law: 287 g

Bad laws, laws that hurt far more than they help, should be eliminated. Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) is a bad law. Here's why.

Almost all immigrants who entered the US without papers are honest, hard-working, decent people, who have often risked their lives to come the America. They do essential work, mostly for low wages, work that makes the lifestyles of most Americans possible: cleaning homes, caring for children and the elderly, gardening, cooking in restaurants, working on farms, doing odd jobs, working on construction. They deserve our gratitude. They are America's mainstays, good guys. There are twelve million of them in America, helping us all live better every day.

A small number, as in any population, are bad guys: occasional murderers, human traffickers, drug dealers, gang members, and thieves. They need to be captured and convicted.

But 287 g mostly harasses, jails, harms, and deports the good guys, and in doing so, mostly lets the bad guys escape.

287g allows local police and jailers to act as deportation agents with ultimate power over the lives of the good guys, who are assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. Their very entry into the US without papers constitutes sufficient "guilt" to justify their mistreatment and deportation.

287 g promotes a form of racial profiling. 287 g is immoral, an affront to the human rights that define what America is about.

287 g is also ineffective in getting the bad guys, partly because it uses so many resources on going after the good guys.

As Alex DiBranco reports, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that 287(g) is poorly managed, ineffectively organized, and arbitrarily implemented from place to place; ignores or actually provides false information to the public; fails to focus on non-citizens who pose a safety threat; gives shoddy training; and lacks oversight and has not terminated those local partners who have clearly violated the terms of the agreement -- local law enforcement officials running amok in hunting down harmless undocumented immigrants. 287(g) also deters undocumented immigrants who witness a crime from coming forward and encourages racial profiling in which Latinos are "guilty until proven innocent."

287 g should be ended, and replaced by a law that protects the good guys and pays serious attention to catching the bad guys. It is not just ineffective; it is downright immoral.

The Point

Almost every day, I get a request from somewhere in the US -- or various other countries -- to help some group do disaster messaging. It's sad. Reframing rarely works with disaster messaging.

To work long-term, progressive messaging must be sincere and direct, must reflect progressive moral values, and must be repeated. Progressive framing is about saying what you believe, telling the truth, and activating the progressive worldview already present in the minds of those who are partly conservative and partly progressive.

Framing is, of course, about policy, more than about messaging. What you say should go hand-in-hand with what you think and do.

And, of course, the best messaging requires an excellent communications system, or it won't be heard. Progressives have the money to build such a system. The question is whether they understand the desperate need for such a system, and whether they have the will to build it.

Rob Preece: The meaning or purpose to be found in bodhichitta

Buddhist Practices for
Opening to Others

by Rob Preece

Dharma Quote of the Week

Sometimes our life can feel devoid of meaning even though we may try in different ways to put meaning into it.... Meaning comes when we go deeply within, wait, listen, and open. It begins to come when we genuinely open to the suffering of those around us with a compassionate heart. Equally, it comes as we respond to the environment within which we live with care and concern.

The meaning or purpose to be found in bodhichitta is less associated with what we do than with the quality we bring to what we engage in. Small, simple aspects of our life can be profoundly meaningful and have deep impact both for ourselves and others. Meaning lies in the quality of heart that we put into what we do.

It is not, therefore, the outer manifestation of what we can achieve that is the root of meaning. It is the undercurrent of bodhichitta's intention or purpose and meaning that flows within. What bodhichitta implies is that in attuning to our buddha nature or buddha potential, we touch a source of meaning in ourselves that will come through whatever we do.

This root of meaning gives the bodhisattva the capacity to live a relatively ordinary life and transform adverse circumstances into the path. Even small things become meaningful, like the way we respond to someone's distress or a gesture of friendliness that lifts someone's day. This deeper sense of purpose is reflected in the care we give to our relationships and the environment.

Being present and responsive to what arises may mean that the eventual goal of our sense of purpose is less crucial. We are seldom, if ever, able to see fully where our path will take us, and once we are open to the meaning present in bodhichitta, the ego must surrender ambitions and allow the journey to unfold.

--from The Courage to Feel: Buddhist Practices for Opening to Others by Rob Preece, published by Snow Lion Publications

The Courage to Feel • Now at 5O% off
(Good until July 16th).

Religious beliefs influence neural substrates of self-reflection in Tibetans

Excellent article from Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience - a look at the ways in which religious beliefs change the brain's neural substrates, particularly in Tibetan Buddhists. Unfortunately, the full article costs serious $$.

The article suggests that our sense of self - all the way down to the neural substrate - is shaped by our culture and religion. +1 for constructivist theory.

Religious beliefs influence neural substrates of self-reflection in Tibetans

Yanhong Wu, Cheng Wang, Xi He, Lihua Mao and Li Zhang

Correspondence should be addressed to Li Zhang, Department of Psychology, Capital Normal University, 83 Xisanhuan North Rd., Beijing 100089, PR China. E-mail: Correspondence should also be addressed to Yanhong Wu, Department of Psychology, Peking University, 5 Yiheyuan Rd., Beijing 100879, PR China. Email:
  • Received March 15, 2009.
  • Accepted February 2, 2010.


Previous transcultural neuroimaging studies have shown that the neural substrates of self-reflection can be shaped by different cultures. There are few studies, however, on the neural activity of self-reflection where religion is viewed as a form of cultural expression. The present study examined the self-processing of two Chinese ethnic groups (Han and Tibetan) to investigate the significant role of religion on the functional anatomy of self-representation. We replicated the previous results in Han participants with the ventral medial prefrontal cortex and left anterior cingulate cortex showing stronger activation in self-processing when compared with other-processing conditions. However, no typical self-reference pattern was identified in Tibetan participants on behavioral or neural levels. This could be explained by the minimal subjective sense of 'I-ness’ in Tibetan Buddhists. Our findings lend support to the presumed role of culture and religion in shaping the neural substrate of self.

If anyone has access to the full article and wants to share, please drop me a note.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Elephant Journal - Growing Up vs. Waking Up: Why Psychology and Buddhism Are Complementary

Check out my newest entry over at Elephant Journal and tell me what you think in the comments there.

Growing Up vs. Waking Up: Why Psychology and Buddhism Are Complementary

This is essentially a posting of Vince Horn's conversation with Dr. John Welwood at Buddhist Geeks - an excellent episode for anyone interested in the intersection of Buddhism and psychology. I want to hear what others think about Welwood's perspective.

Dylan St. Thomas - I Suffer and You Shall Too


This a great article at the Buddhist Geeks site - by Dylan St. Thomas, "I Suffer and You Shall Too." As someone who has struggled with anxiety my whole life, his article resonates with me.

For many years, I tried to stuff my anxiety, self-medicate it away (drugs, alcohol), meditate it away, get rid of it in therapy, more meditation - and still it is there, anxiety mind, anxiety body.

It's the body part - the feeling, the physical sensations of shallow breathing, rapid heartbeat, sweaty hands, butterflies in the stomach - more than the cognitive emotion (the brain's version of what the feelings mean) that holds the key for me.

I breathe into the anxiety, inhabit it, feel it, and know (after many years now) that I am NOT dying, I am not going to suffocate. I remain anxious, quite often, but it no longer stifles my life.

I Suffer and You Shall Too

I Suffer and You Shall Too

07. Jul, 2010 by Dylan St. Thomas

In a perfect world, I would be writing this as a completely recovered person. In a perfect world, I would not fall into the thirteen percent of the adult American population suffering from anxiety. Yet, part of working with anxiety is learning that this is not a perfect world.

There is serenity that most people associate with spiritual practice. ‘He meditates, so he must be pretty calm and collected.’ I take that comment a step further and say that many people who take up spiritual practice approach them as the key to serenity. ‘I will meditate, resulting in my calm and collectedness.’ In reality, spiritual practices are often meant to work us up – to reroute the typical pattern of the mind which, in my opinion, is often the equivalent of ‘serenely tuning out’.

I knew the ropes fairly well. I had participated in retreats and upheld a daily practice and I knew that spiritual practice could calm a person in one way and churns up emotions in another. Thus, when I began to experience anxiety, my mind began to fear spiritual practice. My mind had become an anxiety mind, and it demanded my attention at every turn. Why would I want to sit on a cushion and practice Tonglen with anxiety mind? Anxiety mind ruminates and has a knack of filtering normal experience through a pessimistic lens. Sitting with anxiety mind, surely, would not bring about serenity. Surely, it would lead me closer to panic than peace.

Then, one day, I found myself thinking that if I (with all my bounty and blessings) was experiencing such intense anxiety that surely the anxiety of other beings with great suffering must be much more prolific. So, that became my practice. I would allow myself to tune into the feeling of anxiety in a full way, and then I would think of other beings and the myriad forms of sufferings they sustained. Then, I would think of their suffering. Nothing based on fact, just my assumptions of what it must be like to suffer from things like war, poverty, and disease. Through this practice, I came to think of my own anxiety as very misplaced. Surely, the suffering of others was more valid.

All of this went on fine and well until a Dharma friend called on the phone and let me explain the practice to him. ‘Isn’t that kind of denying yourself of your own experience?’ he asked. ‘And isn’t it kind of unfair to assume that just because someone is poverty stricken that they must also be miserable. What about happy poor people?’ Oh yeah! What about happy poor people? What about people with cancer who found joy in every day? What about my own suffering and my own happiness? And why was it made any more or less valid by the experiences of others?

My anxiety mind had turned the world into a hell pit. I had taken the knowledge that ‘all beings suffer’ and had turned myself into the poster child for some strange ‘Life is Strife!’ campaign. Thus, instead of working my way out of anxiety, I backed myself into it. I nestled into it through assuming that it was everywhere. Even my Tonglen practice became riddled with thoughts like ‘I inhale all the anxiety of everyone I met today and I breathe out non anxious energy and happiness!’ Again, the anxiety mind likes to ruminate, so the more it is thinking about anxiety the more anxiously appeased it becomes.

There truly is a moral to this story.

Go find out where Dylan is heading with this post.

Brain patterns may show mental illness risk

This is an interesting research/summary report from MSNBC. If we can identify pre-onset brain patterns for schizophrenia, we might be able to prevent its emergence. Some research has shown that very early intervention can prevent the illness from fully emerging, or at the least reduce its severity. This could be a huge breakthrough.

Brain patterns may show mental illness risk

Finding may lead to earlier intervention, better treatments

LONDON — British scientists believe they have found specific patterns of brain activity in children and young people which could be signs or "markers" of those who will later go on to develop mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

Researchers from Nottingham University, who presented their study at the Forum for European Neuroscience in Amsterdam, said the patterns suggest it may be possible in future to identify those at risk of becoming ill before they develop symptoms.

"If we can identify people who are at particularly high risk of developing schizophrenia, perhaps using neurocognitive brain markers, then we might be able to reduce that risk and also help them to function better," said Dr Maddie Groom, who worked on the study and gave a briefing to reporters in London.

"If we give them a better start, they may encounter the illness in a more positive way and not get quite so ill."

Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are affected by mental, behavioural and neurological illnesses such as schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, epilepsy and dementia.

Many people who go on to develop diverse mental health problems will have a history of behavioural problems going back to childhood, but experts say the problem with finding them at that stage is that differences then are often extremely subtle.

In one study, Groom and her colleagues investigated looked at the healthy siblings of people with schizophrenia, who also have a very slightly increased risk of developing schizophrenia compared with the general population.

Using brain imaging to read activity levels, the scientists asked the siblings to perform task which involved playing an alien-zapping computer game in which they needed to respond quickly, and crucially, halt the urge to respond if the wrong kind of alien popped up. The task was called a "go, no-go" task.

"When we measured the brain activity of the siblings of people with schizophrenia, their brain activity was reduced at the time when they needed to pay attention to the stimulus, and when they needed to inhibit their response," Groom explained.

She said this suggested the subtle differences in brain activity may act as a risk marker for the disorder.

In a second study, scientists compared brain activity of children with ADHD -- a mental disorder that affects between 8 and 12 percent of children, and 4 percent of adults worldwide.

The researchers used the same "go, no-go" task in various scenarios, including when the children were taking their medication, Ritalin, and when they were not, and then using an additional system of rewards and penalties.

Millions of people take ADHD drugs including Novartis Ritalin, which is known generically as methylphenidate, and Shire Plc's Adderall and Vyvanse. In the United States alone, 2008 sales for these drugs was about $4.8 billion, according to data from IMS Health.

Groom's results showed that children who were taking medication, and children given an incentive, performed better than those who had neither medicines nor incentives.

This suggests, Groom said, that doctors may be able to find new ways to treat children with ADHD using a combination of behavioural strategies and drugs. (Editing by Jon Boyle)