Instinct v. Intellect

The McCain Campaign put out an ad the other day with a rather peculiar tag line–that Obama has “bad instincts” and isn’t “ready to lead.”

Since John McCain is using the same PR shop as Hillary Clinton did, the “ready” meme may just be a hang-up for that particular team. But the message it was supposed to convey on behalf of Clinton was a puzzle then and remains one now. Why is readiness important?

READY. GET SET. GO. Clearly, readiness is not the same as actually getting anything done.

Perhaps the “bad instincts” provides a clue to what this is about.

But first, an example of the good instincts of John McCain.

I happen to know from personal experience that it’s possible for an individual to function quite adequately without much or any conscious reflection or thought, even in our complex society, if the conditions are right and supportive enough. Indeed, strange as it may seem, a person with a brain defect, commonly referred to as pre-frontal lobe syndrome, which can be the result of a minor physical insult causing a slight lesion, can, nevertheless appear to be functioning in a fully normal manner as long as all of his/her behavior is positively and constantly directed to compensate for what seems to be the primary deficit–an absence of short term which manifests as an inability to retain the proper sequence of events or behaviors to accomplish particular tasks, like tying one’s laces or buttoning a sweater.

In this age of velcro and flip-flops, such a disability is fairly easy to overcome, if the root of the problem is recognized. Also, it’s possible to compensate for the inability to remember sequence by prompting repetition with step by step directions until the behavior becomes a habit and there’s no longer a need to be conscious of what one is doing.

Less easily dealt with is the apparent inability, associated with the syndrome, to realize the relationship between the cause and effect of any particular action. Consequently, the individual is likely to experience negative feed-back (a verbal or physical reprimand for bad behavior) as aggression and reflexively strike back in retaliation. To the objective observer such behavior appears both irrational and disproportionate. In a non-supportive environment, such as a correctional institution or psychiatric facility, where such “self-protective” behavior is considered oppositional, such aggression typically leads to the application of physical restraints. And all because it’s generally assumed in our society that everyone recognizes the relationship between cause and effect and should expect “bad” behavior to be punished.

But what if the assumption that all human behavior is mediated by conscious thought and reflection is wrong? What if there are a whole lot of people whose behavior is simply reactive or reactionary to some outside prompt–instinctual or in response to external verbal direction? What if stopping to think before one acts is actually a peculiar trait that’s not shared by a majority of the population but goes unnoticed in a supportive, directed society?

When I first became aware of behavior that was entirely reactive (though the prompts were sometimes difficult to identify because the reaction was somewhat delayed), I thought it was peculiar to a particular person, who had been institutionalized for her non-compliant behavior and who was finally, after much trial and error on the part of her care-givers, was habituated to positive behaviors by removing all negative prompts.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

is actually effective with people who mirror how other people treat them.

The lessons learned here actually came in handy when my nearly centenarian parent began exhibiting similar disabilities (failure to complete routine tasks because the proper sequence of steps had apparently been lost), and I realized that the “short term memory loss” typical of the elderly is also accompanied by the inability to track the proper sequence of events. Moreover, it’s the failure to recall the proper sequence of events stored up as memories from long ago which produces what is commonly referred to as confabulation–i.e. real memories (one’s own and other people’s) become jumbled up and, when they are related, manifest as lies.

As far as I could tell, none of these mental lapses ever interfered with the person’s ability to respond instinctively or express emotions such as envy, jealousy or resentment. It’s almost as if, in the absence of conscious reflection and analysis (pre-frontal functions) the primitive, instinctual brain is freed to give the emotions their free rein and respond automatically to any prompt. Conversely, and this is what the McCain people seem to be suggesting, people who think before they act aren’t “ready.” Obama has bad instincts because he thinks too much?

That acting instinctively might actually be the norm in some societies occurred to me as a consequence of seeing a documentary about an Iraqi family, “The Blood of my Brother,” whose entrepreneurial eldest son was eventually killed while he was defending a neighborhood mosque. What the documentary revealed to me was that the family, unquestionably upset by his death and the deterioration of their economic situation, was apparently convinced that his death was the son’s own fault; that, if he’d followed the family’s directives and stayed home, the brother wouldn’t have been killed. In other words, it was going his own way (entrepreneur that he was) that effectively removed him from the gene pool. The documentary clearly showed the rest of the family following directions at every turn. Whatever activity they were engaged in, whether cooking a meal or fleeing from a bomb attack, every member of the family was giving verbal directions to everyone else. It was almost as if the constant chatter served as a bond and the family moved in unison, like a school of fish in a pond.

Which brings me to the suggestion that perhaps people whose behavior needs to be positively directed at all times are just a normal variant. Maybe being obedient isn’t a choice, but a natural condition. Perhaps that’s why John McCain’s advisers, who are surely able to plan ahead and anticipate the consequences of their acts, are aiming their campaign at people whose behavior is instinctual and directed by whoever gets to tell them what to do last.

When Rick Davis talks about personalities, rather than issues, being the deciding factors in the campaign, perhaps that’s what he’s referencing. And whether John McCain himself has some congenital intellectual deficit that accounts for his failing memory, his inability to answer questions intelligently and his irritability or these deficits are the result of some injury or insult is probably less important than that intellect isn’t just being dismissed as unimportant, but consciously rejected by advisers whose intellectual capacities aren’t in question.

It could be argued that fundamentalists, having confronted the knowledge of good and evil, have simply decided to just chuck knowledge and the ability to think entirely and resign themselves to their instincts and beliefs. But, what I guess I’m suggesting is that it’s not necessarily a matter of deciding even that. Perhaps, for some people, there simply is no choice at all; they just do what they’re told and whatever feels good (right) at the moment. Moreover, they can rest assured that whatever negatives they experience in this life will be made up for in the next, because their religion tells them so.

Where does the moral responsibility lie when the ability to think and restrain individual behavior is absent or rejected and obedience to another is the only rule? Who’s responsible for the million Iraqi deaths which have resulted from thousands of Americans following orders and doing their duty to honor God and country? If you’re going to be the one giving orders, don’t you have a special responsibility to prevent injury? If you’re a political consultant or adviser, don’t you have a responsibility to make sure that the person you are advising actually thinks ahead and reflects on the consequences of the directives he issues?

What are the advisers of John McCain thinking? How can they justify the deception that’s being perpetrated on the base? Is it still the failure to recognize evil when it rears its ugly head? Are we still blaming Eve for being deceived?