Thursday, November 02, 2006

Smarter Than Your Average Redneck

Sara Robinson

Dave said a few things in the post below that have started me thinking. If it's OK with y'all, I'm going to do it out loud.

What got me going was his observation that many of the men drawn to white supremacists groups have a higher-than-usual intelligence. He's right, of course. In remembering the Guys Back Home, it's very true that the most committed white supremacists can in no way be dismissed as dumb rubes -- in fact, they're often among the best and brightest guys these small towns turn out. They read a lot (though narrowly); some are veterans; many run successful small businesses and are considered deep thinkers by their friends and neighbors.

So now, I'm turning that information over in my mind, in the hope that a more detailed examination of their worldview and motivations might point to a few new cracks in their walls as well. A few first hits, questions, and musings....

First: In my experience (which is admittedly more limited than Dave's, but the contacts are still reasonably frequent), this sensitive intelligence is mingled in with a toxic dose of hurt and frustration. It seems too easy to say that, in better times, they might have had better prospects, scholarships, more education, a way out. But it is true that there once was a time when small-town kids with brains didn't get stuck in place and fester, a time when American industry considered their talents too valuable to brush aside, a time when their small businesses didn't face such barriers to greater growth. So I wonder -- how much of their rage at the system is tied to this sense of lost opportunity?

Second: Dave notices that a lot of these guys have remarkable engineering and math skills. That's not insignificant. For the past 60 years, industrial psychologists have been studying the emotional and cognitive differences between the people drawn to the scientific and technical fields ("sci-techs"), and the other 85% or so of the world. This will hardly be breaking news to anyone who works or lives with engineers -- but it turns out that geeks really are wired a little differently.

Among other things, they have a stronger ability to suspend their emotions and consider a problem dispassionately. It's not that they don't have those feelings; it's just that, starting in early childhood, they're simply better at displacing them, shunting them off somewhere where they won't get caught in the intellectual works. While this is part of their genius as problem-solvers (and, in some cases, the result of Asperger's Syndrome, which is far more common in sci-techs), a few of them get so good at this displacement that they'll inadvertently override the human decency gear Dave describes as well. Morality just gets in the way of Doing What Must Be Done.

And, of course, those unprocessed emotions don't just stay locked up forever. They find other ways of coming out. Some marry wives who are extremely emotionally expressive, and then provoke them into throwing the tantrums they'd like to throw themselves. Some channel it into extreme hobbies. Some...well, maybe some direct their displaced rage on other targets. I'm looking at all of this, and wondering if Dave's onto a correlation that means something.

Third: Most modern Westerners have been taught to take a rather mechanistic view of the world. It's a pile of parts. If the thing's not working right, you find the broken part, and replace it. But people with a sci-tech worldview can sometimes break away from this, and take a more holisitic systems approach to problems. The world is a collection of parts working in relationship to each other; and if you want to really fix the problem, you have to change the system in a way that re-shapes the relationships between the parts so they don't keep breaking.

Generally, good systems thinking makes people far more insightful and adaptable. But in these guys, this gear, too, seems to get stuck in place. They put a lot of energy into studying extremist descriptions of "the system" (and talk a lot about it, too). They realize -- not wrongly -- that merely replacing the parts (that is, elections) doesn't change much. So they go to the other extreme, and insist that the whole system must be destroyed and rebuilt -- preferably deleting all the most "problematic" parts -- if real change is to occur.

The problem is: their map of the system is incomplete, and faulty. White supremacist leaders paint a very distorted picture of the way power flows in the world -- the kind of distortions that can only be made by people who've never seen the realities of money or politics or power up close and personally. This results in holes in the model big enough to drive the Wehrmacht through...and a whole lot of magical thinking to grease the gaps. (Who besides these guys really thinks African-Americans have near-total political power in America?) Most especially, they fall into the common fallacy of attributing to malice what can far more easily be ascribed to stupidity.

Fourth, in my experience (and Alice Miller's) these guys were nursing some deep personal hurts -- harsh family lives as children, disappointing divorces as adults, something that broke their compassion and jammed the "human decency gear" into immobility. There's an idealistic, almost totemic belief that finding one pure thing -- a woman, a family, a race -- will heal what wounds them. Of course, as Dr. Ahktar pointed out, there's nothing in the world that remains that pure for long, so this, too, becomes a source of repeating disappointment and rage.

First guesses only here -- a set of questions aimed at Dave and others, in the hope of refining my picture of the motivations at work here. As always, I'd like to proceed in the hope that maybe if we understand what broke, and why, and how, we'll do better at fixing it (or preventing it) in the future.

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