Sunday, April 9, 2017
Revenge is Best Served Cold
Donald Trump’s base would follow him into a raging forest fire. They like him for all the traits that plague his opponents: aggressive, personally insulting and the opposite of politically correct, a bully and a self-proclaimed asshole, not interested in reading (TV and the Web are more than enough), contemptuous of professional bureaucrats and educated elites, willing to destroy anything in his path to implement his rather under-researched positions.
Remember this campaign quote from an Iowa speech in January of 2016: “They say I have the most loyal people,” Trump said, “where I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?” He was basically saying, “I’m an asshole,” while Hillary, was calling many Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables”… in other words, “You are assholes.” Interesting perception. For those who support him, Donald is “their” no-holds-barred asshole. A barroom brawler ready to fight the “bad guys.”
Why are Trump supporters, especially those on the lower socioeconomic rungs of the income ladder (the “deplorables”), so fiercely behind him? They believe every word he says, adore it when his attackers are beyond enraged by what such liberals see as completely unsubstantiated fabrications. Even though those particular followers stand to be deeply negatively impacted by Trump’s proposed changes to and cuts in federal programs designed to improve their lives – from healthcare to social safety nets – they stand fiercely behind the man who has pledged to “drain the swamp” they call Washington, D.C. He is an elite-killer, even as his rich cronies and his own family thrive as elite billionaires. They will even tolerate self-harm along the way. Why?
The “deplorables” buy Trump’s strategy of blame, his anti-immigrant, anti-globalist approach… because the other side has abandoned them. After all, they and their ilk have been rather personally attacked by the liberal elite, which negotiated globalization treaties, fights for equal rights of the very minorities who are challenging their way of life and seem to champion a challenge to their traditional views and dreams at every turn. Change – global competition, rising employment requirements, rapid technological change, automation, and profound changes all across the social/media spectrum – has simply left them behind in a seeming scrapheap of obsolescence and modernity. And they are angry at those they hold responsible for their abandonment: that liberal elite and a federal government that has allowed the one percenters to make fortunes as these “deplorables” struggle to find solid jobs and make a living they once took for granted. Immigrants and foreign powers.
Perhaps “anger” is an understatement; “rage” may be a better word. Walk into the rust belt where Donald Trump swept the vote, and just say the words “Hillary Clinton” and see what happens. They are so committed to Donald Trump that the mere thought of his not being in power is completely unacceptable to them. And they treasure their guns. Not a good mix. As they watch Donald Trump slice and dice the Washington elite, they are satisfying one of the deepest human emotions, not well-understood by most: revenge.
“Revenge is a powerful emotional trigger that mobilises people into action. ‘It's this very pervasive experience in human lives, people from every society understand the idea of getting angry and wanting to hurt someone who has harmed you,’ says evolutionary psychologist Michael McCullough, of the University of Miami, who has spent over a decade studying revenge and forgiveness.
“It drives crime – up to 20% of homicides and 60% of school shootings are linked to revenge, studies show. And it shapes politics too. Donald Trump's presidential victory, for instance, came as a result of ‘revenge of working-class whites… who felt abandoned by a rapidly globalising economy, according to an article in the Washington Post. The same sentiment is echoed by many other outlets.
“While the topic of aggression is well-studied – its triggers include alcohol, being insulted and narcissistic personality traits – revenge is lesser understood. It is not easy to untangle from violent behaviour, making it a difficult topic to study. David Chester of Virginia Commonwealth University was initially studying aggression but quickly realised that there is often a lot more going on before a violent interaction. He refers to the emotions involved as the ‘psychological middlemen’ – the thoughts and feelings that come between a provocation and an aggressive outcome. ‘I was curious, how do you take something like [receiving] an insult and how do you go from that to an aggressive response.’ The key, he believes, lies in the desire to retaliate. ‘So by the nature of trying to understand aggression I started studying revenge.’…
“First he, along with his colleague Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky, discovered that a person who is insulted or socially rejected feels an emotional pain. The area in the brain associated with pain was most active in participants who went on to react with an aggressive response after feeling rejected. ‘It’s tapping into an ancient evolved tendency to respond to threats and harm with aggressive retaliation,’ says Chester.
“In a follow-up study he was surprised to find that emotional pain was intricately yoked with pleasure. That is, while rejection initially feels painful, it can quickly be masked by pleasure when presented with the opportunity to get revenge – it even activates the brain's known reward circuit, the nucleus accumbens. People who are provoked behave aggressively precisely because it can be ‘hedonically rewarding’, Chester found. Revenge it seems really can be sweet…
“One 2006 study found that men get more pleasure from the idea of revenge. Male participants were found to have more activity in the reward circuit of the brain than women when they saw cheating opponents receive an electric shock. In another 2008 study, Ozlem Ayduk of the University of California, Berkeley and colleagues, found that those with specific personality types were more likely to act violently after rejection. She found that certain individuals had higher levels of ‘rejection sensitivity’ – who were more likely to expect rejection based on past experiences.
“These individuals were also found to be more neurotic and to show anxiety and depression. ‘They have this tendency to see rejection even where it doesn't exist. Rejection is an existential threat, so that expectation [of rejection] actually prepares – both mentally and physiologically – the person to defend themselves,’ says Ayduk. Retaliatory aggression for these individuals was therefore a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to feeling rejected.
“It is important to note that not everyone who has the ‘rejection sensitive profile’ has violent tendencies. Some deal with their feelings of rejection in other ways, such as self-harm. ‘Somehow this makes people feel that they are in control of something. Aggression is only one of the responses,’ says Ayduk…
“The question then becomes, why has this seemingly destructive behaviour persisted in our evolution if it can cause us so much trouble?... The answer is that far from an evolutionary mistake, revenge serves a very useful purpose. Michael McCullough puts it this way: although people might say seeking revenge ‘is really bad for you’ – that it might ruin your relationships, for example – the fact that it exists at all is a very good thing. Its main goal is to work as deterrent, which in turn has clear advantages for our survival. Consider prison or gang culture, where if you meddle with the wrong person, revenge attacks are a sure consequence. ‘If you have a reputation for someone who is going to seek retribution, people are not going to mess with you or take advantage,’ says Chester. In Leonardo DiCaprio's Oscar-winning performance in The Revenant, so powerful is his desire for revenge that it keeps him alive. With broken bones and open wounds, he drags himself through a hostile and dangerous terrain to avenge his son's killer.
“Even the threat of revenge might deter an attack, says McCullough. ‘The individual who responds to that harm is going to do better than the individual who takes the slap on the cheek and lets the bad guy have his way.’ Just like hunger, he considers it a primal urge that needs to be itched. Only then can the avenger move on ‘because that goal has been fulfilled’, in a similar way that we only stop feeling hungry after we have satiated our appetite.” BBC.com, April 3rd. Emotions and feelings of nothing left to lose fueled our own Civil War in the middle of the 19th century. Rage – producing revenge – has fired parallel emotions all over the earth today. Revenge, even with dire consequences for those expressing that emotion, has become one of the driving forces in the 21st century.
I’m Peter Dekom, and understanding the underlying emotional forces behind today’s political realities becomes essential in making sense of the chaos that clearly surrounds all of us.