Positive reinforcement, social media, and animal training.
We’re on the road for the first time since 2019 (You know, that thing), visiting family and friends in as safe a manner as we can manage and getting ready for 4th Street Fantasy, which is this coming weekend. Between the travel and a course of prednisone I’m on for post-surgical edema (They don’t warn you in advance that after they take out a lymph node or two the parts of your body they used to drain will puff up like a water balloon) and because I’ve been having a psoriasis flare to beat the band, and traveling with that level of joint pain is miserable.
The pony boys are doing great at summer camp and the trainer is correcting all sorts of issues I didn’t even know were issues (this is why we hire professionals), such as finding a better bit for Ormr that takes some pressure off his bars (a part of the mouth) and his poll (basically the occiput), which gets him to move his weight back and balance better because he’s not trying to evade the pinchy sensation. He’s apparently doing great, and Magni has PT exercises to strengthen his back muscles and get him to tilt his pelvis in a more ergonomically correct position.
Good horse trainers are fucking magic.
The cat sitters inform us that the cats are doing great. I’ve been thinking a lot, while driving, about people and reactivity and kindness. Specifically, the older I get, the more plain it has become to me that usually when people are cruel or selfish or behave badly, it’s because of trauma in some fashion. I think of Fafhrd, that ridiculous little doughnut, and his big feelings and stereotyped responses to things that make him uncomfortable.
For example, I’m pretty sure he was grabbed and squeezed and mauled a lot as a kitten, so while he craves cuddles he hates feeling trapped and will hit you with his teeth if you try to pick him up in the wrong way (i.e., the normal way one picks up a cat). It’s not a bite: there’s no intent to damage. It’s a warning to let him go.
He also has scarcity issues, and resource guards, and demonstrates some referred aggression.
Watching him makes me think about people who do all these things: Patrol their territory, try to control others, lash out at innocent targets, get defensive about mistakes rather than fixing them. There are certainly folks out there who are just stone predators—con artists, rapists, megalomaniacs—and there’s nothing to do about them except harm reduction. But for most people, when they act badly it’s because they are responding in a way they have been programmed to respond.
Because they are scared or insecure or feel scarcity or are worried about getting hurt or have some trigger issue or are unconvinced that they matter or have been trained to deny their own power. Because they have no interrupt between that urge to lash out, and the lashing out.
Therapy is good, y’all.
This is true on the tribal level as well as the individual. If some impoverished person is voting for a far-right candidate because social programs are “too expensive” and “somebody who doesn’t deserve it might benefit” (yeah, that’s usually a racist dog whistle) even though those social programs might improve that person’s quality of life and even keep them alive, it’s not a rational decision. Austerity in general is not a rational decision except in cases where the resources just do not exist.
It’s a fear decisions, a scarcity decision. In general, measured altruism provides the best outcomes for the most people.
We’ve managed to forget that, in America, and forget the power of the collective will of the people. We’ve been very carefully trained to forget it by a lot of propaganda that ensures that many of us see each person as competition, scarcity s inevitable, and the world as dog-eat-dog… which is a state of affairs that serves to line the pockets of the Betsy De Voses, Kock Brothers, and Sam Brownbacks of the world.
The hierarchal ideal—you’ll see it on social media—is a smaller version of the same metric. People will say, “You don’t get cookies for basic decency.” That is one of the most counterproductive things I have ever heard.
Of COURSE you get cookies for basic decency. You get, among other things, the respect and community of your peers! if you don’t get those things, if you’re not supported and rewarded for behaving well and making choices that support the commonwealth as well as yourself, you’re an asshole and nobody wants to be around you except other people who have internalized the sick system.
MAMMALS ARE WIRED TO WORK FOR POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT. We can also be trained to avoid punishment, but that makes us neurotic, burned out, avoidant, and ineffectual. It makes us easy to manipulate, but afraid to learn and experiment. It doesn’t help improve people’s awareness, community-mindedness, or outcomes. It just makes them freeze up or withdraw.
But punishing people is an easy way to exert power and feel strong, if you’re suffering from trauma and reactivity yourself. Cod knows I spent a lot of my thirties reactive. I’m still triggery (that’s how triggers work) but after years of therapy and medication I can look at the trigger and (sometimes, except in very extreme circumstances) learn not to respond to it.
When something triggers us and we lash out at the nearest target whether it’s deserved or not, we’re like Fafhrd biting the shoulder of the person who just picked him up. Except sometimes we do real harm.
There’s a tendency to blame those feelings on other people, too—you made me feel bad!—and of course sometimes people behave terribly and hurt us in profound ways. Sometimes they even do it on purpose, because they are the sort of people who get off on the exercise of power or say, conquering a neighboring nation.
But those people are rare.
For most of us, it’s possible to learn to put a moment of introspection between the trigger and the response. I refer to this as “the interrupt.” It’s part of having good boundaries—and one of the signs of somebody who is abusive is that they repeatedly ignore those boundaries. So say something triggers me: once upon a time, I had terrible boundaries and I would either withdraw from the discomfort (run away) or I would bite. It was reflexive. There was no choice in it. I just did whatever my nervous system told me to do.
Now, sometimes I still just bite. But more often, I am able to look at the thing that made me want to fight, fly, or freeze and decide what action to take.
Our triggers are not just things to be avoided, though avoiding them can be a responsible mental health choice. They are also parts of our person that we can make ourselves and our relationships happier by learning to manage, and thus, our own responsibility—even if they are the result of trauma we had no control over to begin with. In fact, we can reclaim some of our agency by learning to manage them.
Anyway, that’s what I’ve been pondering. Positive reinforcement and animal training.
Hope you’re well and staying safe out there.