I am trying to make sense
of an impression that Thais are becoming angrier, and with more violent results
than a quarter of a century ago. Stories in the news, from first hand
observations and from friends can distort reality. What I have confidence in is
the idea that levels of anger correlate with crime. Anger rarely brings out the
best in us; quite the opposite, it is likely to lead to a rash, irrational
response against the object or person responsible for triggering this emotional
state. Laws are part of the security shield the state provides to protect us
against the violence ignited by anger.
The union of anger with
crime makes for an unhappy marriage right around the world. Every week there are
reported cases where some became angry and punched, slashed, shot, kicked or
shoved another person. Parker, the criminal in Richard Stark’s series drew an
audience, in part, because the character had no discernible sense of fear. If
Parker had been fearful but lacked a sense of anger, we would have a quite
different criminal personality. It is likely that emotionally wired Parker would
never throw a punch. Such a character would be more like Mr. Bean than Parker–an
object of amusement. We laugh with our heroes, not at them.
When reading a crime novel
it is an interesting exercise to ask how the author handles emotions such as
anger, how anger has explanatory power, and whether anger satisfies the reader’s
sense of fairness, justice, and equality.
A lot of criminal novels
are built on characters who are angry and that emotion feeds and motivates their
Anger is the opposite of
Anger is the subjective
experience of mind. It is pure emotion and short cuts off access to rational
thinking. It’s physiological and neural. Insults, threats as well as physical
violence are common reactions anticipated from an angry person.
Frustration, resentment, cheating are three examples of events that trigger
Looking at the building
blocks of anger, one that stands out is scarcity. Most of life is a competition
for mates, examination marks, jobs, promotions, honors, reputation, and status.
Such resources are scarce and unevenly distributed among a community. Excluding
or denying someone what they believe is their entitlement, or removing something
they already have can lead to anger. And anger leads to revenge and
I started the essay with
an assertion that I thought Thais are angrier today than they were in the late
1980s. It is not based on good statistics so the observation is subject to being
modified if not rejected with solid statistical evidence. That caveat stated, my
impression is with the vast increase in cars, trucks, motorcycles, and the
relatively slow building of additional modes of transportation alternatives,
road space has become more scarce. Drivers are no better trained or skilled than
before but there are more of them, and they compete for the same lanes on jammed
roads. Nam jai or ‘water heart’ is a Thai expression used when someone gives way
as a courtesy to another, a small act such as waiting and allowing someone else
caught in a blocked lane of traffic to enter the moving lane in front of you. I
still find acts that qualify as nam jai when driving but like a rare form of
wildlife, it is becoming rarer and on the road to extinction.
A couple of cases—one from
December 2012 to February 2013 illustrate circumstances where anger leads to
“Man killed for jumping
queue” – A Shan-Burmese man and his wife went to a temple in Chiang Mai for free
food. The food he had gone to obtain for his child. The Burmese man saw a queue.
Rather than join the queue, he cut in front, causing two teenagers to blow up
with anger. One of the pair used a broken beer bottle to slash the man’s throat.
The man died at hospital. The police are gathering more evidence before seeking
arrest warrants, according to the Bangkok
Anger flaring in road rage
has been more commonly reported in the Thai press. A couple of recent cases
serve to make the point that the emotion of anger is a dangerous thing, an
instrument looking to inflict violence to dissipate the emotional rage. This
kind of anger leaves the person without self-control and thrust him into fight
A YouTube video circulated
in Thai social media caught a 48-year-old man claiming to be a law lecturer
beating up on a small young woman after their cars were stuck in a small soi.
Frustration erupted as neither would give way. A Thai newspaper Thai Rath reported graphic
(with pictures and the video which was taken by a bystander) that the young
woman had picked up her girlfriend and was driving out of the small soi when a
black Mercedes Benz came in.
She could neither pass nor
go back. The young woman felt that the Benz driver might have a bit of nam
jai as she saw he had a bit of room to move, so she asked him to squeeze in
the lane and let her pass. He refused and insisted that it was she who had to
move. She said she couldn’t and he threw the car key at her face and stalked off
to his friend’s house. The young woman returned to her car and called her
relatives for consultation as to what to do. In the middle of the phone
consultation the Benz driver returned in rage, shouting, ordering her to reverse
her car, while slapping, pushing and shoving her. The young woman’s girlfriend
came out to intervene and was shoved. Now fearing the escalation, the two women
ran back to their car and started driving in a long reverse to let the Benz go
to its destination. The confrontation captured on video has been circulated for
days in Thai social media.
Recent reports are the
lecturer was fined Baht 1,000 for the assault and he apologized to the woman he
assaulted. End of case.
In another incident, the
Post reported two
women were in a car accident. A Thai man between 30 to 35 years in the other car
got out and repeatedly struck the 36-year-old woman who appears to have been the
driver of the first car. One car hits another. The occupants of each car
apparently got out to inspect the damage and became angry at each other. In this
case the anger boiled over into physical violence—the Thai man knocked out the
other driver. He left her unconscious on the scene. And in the time-honored
tradition of people who do bad, he fled the scene.
Anger and rage in crime
becomes more interesting when someone in uniform spits the dummy (Australian for
blowing one’s stack, eruption of Anger with a capital “A”).
Post reported a
story involving a military officer was unhappy with the driving of the car in
front of his, saying later that the car was straddling two lanes, so he couldn’t
pass. He flashed his high beams at the car ahead to move into the slower lane.
But the car stubbornly refused to move into the slower lane. Finally the officer
seized an opportunity passed the car, and then apparently positioned his car so
as to stop the car he’d passed. When he saw three people inside, he took out his
gun and fired three shots. Self-defense. He was outnumbered and felt
The event in this case was
also captured on video and later uploaded on the internet, and that caused the
person uploading the video to receive a number of threatening and hateful
comments. It seems a video was viewed as twisting the truth. That’s the problem
with a netizen videos, they capture a moment of anger, snatch from the jaws of
reality, and those involved have little room for the usual defense of
‘misunderstanding’ or ‘it didn’t happen that way, they pulled a gun first’ or
‘who me, someone else in another car fired a gun.’
A day ago in Phuket, the
driver of a mini-bus followed a car driven by a woman. She had made an illegal
turn. She had braked suddenly, causing the mini-bus driver to brake as well. He
became angry and raced after her in his bus. After he caught up (the traffic was
moving slowly) he jumped out of the bus and ran up to her car and pointed a
handgun at her. He returned the mini-bus, drove on, phoned his office to say he
has other pressing business, and they should send another driver. The driver left
the bus and
disappeared. The police said, “We have a warrant for his arrest and
he faces multiple charges relating to attempted murder, criminal damage,
carrying a gun in a public place, and issuing threats. We believe we will catch
him soon.” The police are continuing to look for him.
Such stories are appearing
more frequently in the Thai news. Road rage has been imported into street and
highway system in Thailand. The physical confrontations are pretty much
recognizable to someone from another culture. It seems that anger—while its
triggers and reactions have a cultural component—has a common, universal aspect
that is transcends cultural difference. In Thailand, like elsewhere, the
road rage cases are increasing and if you were to substitute Bangkok, Phuket or
other cities appearing in datelines for news stories and inserted either
Chicago, Toronto, or London, little else would need to be changed to localize
You can draw your own
conclusion on what cultural biases make it permissible for men in the heat of
rage to physically attack a woman. Beating up women deserves a closer
examination as an extension of dysfunctional behavior in the land of anger. I’d
start with the theory that in any political/social system which provides
extensive impunity for members of the elite class, those deemed inferior in that
society such as women, immigrants, handicapped, or peasant class are the object
of violence because their failure to acknowledge another entitlement means the
other person must automatically yield.
The insults, threats, and
violence attributed to the angry person create a universal
brotherhood/sisterhood—road rage, domestic violence, pub brawls, or that moment
when your computer hangs and you lose a week of work that should have been
backed up but wasn’t. We’ve all experienced such moments.
There is a correlation
between anger and criminal conduct. Acts of violence are outlawed. The criminal
and civil laws patrol the emotional borders to deal with angry people whose
emotional fuel motivates them to commit acts of violence.
Anger is the father that
begets much violence. When the flash of anger leads to a squeeze of the trigger.
Each culture tries to control that space. To diffuse the anger, to teach
self-control, and to provide substantial punishments and other disincentives for
the angry whose emotion causes them to harm others.
The lack of capacity to
control anger is a major reason to carefully restrict gun ownership. Anger,
alcohol and guns are a lethal combination. In big mega cities as resources
become scarcer be prepared for more violence generated by angry
Emotions like anger are
human behavioral stuff that will ensure that crime writers in material for
several life times. It is one thing to write about anger, it is another to
experience anger whether exploding inside your own head or inside the head of a
person charging at you with a handgun because you stepped on his foot and caused
him to lose face in front of his face.
If you think that escaping
into the digital world you can avoid anger, think again.
Hate is an offspring of
anger. You can find him in many places on the Internet. Online expressions of
hatred are the digital equivalent of a handgun waved in your face. Next time you
want to know if someone is angry with you on line, check out
The digital world has
emoticons for anger: :- | | :@
Richard Stark a.k.a. Donald Westlake started a series only after his editor convinced him to change the ending of the first novel. In the original ending, Parker was killed.
Apparently, so the story goes, Westlake’s editor changed literary history and crime fiction hasn’t ever been quite the same since that first novel was published. Parker changed the face of crime fiction for many readers and authors who later came down the line.
Parker is a professional thief. Thug. Gangster. A killer. You get a glimpse of each persona as you read the series. Crime is his business, it is how he supports himself. He doesn’t have friends. He has associates he works with on a specific job. He lives outside of society. And he’s forever planning where to leave a stash of money, and finding that his money is running low and it is time to return to plan a job. In the early books, Parker lives alone but he doesn’t work alone. His women often come to a violent end. He carefully hand picks members of a team for each job.
In each of the 24 novels in the series, Parker goes through a process of selecting the members for his team, matching their skills to the demands of a particular heist. He runs the team like a military commando unit officer. A job sometimes is brought to him by an insider, and this stranger, a non-professional—his head dancing with riches—finds his way to Parker. He or she is usually a small time non-professional motivated by greed and handicapped by an overweening ego. Most of these heists go sour. Violence follows.
Parker has had conflicts with organized crime members and bosses who have tried to cheat him out of owed because he was a ‘little’ unconnected guy. Big mistake. They underestimated Parker, his determination, a kind of post-human persistence in a mission, and the lack of fear in pursuing his goal.
I like Parker. Sometimes I’d like to be more like Parker. I suspect that Parker makes lots of people wish also they could live without ever feeling a cold steel blade of fear touching the back of their neck. There is something compelling about his absence of fear in situations where the vast majority of people would be pale, speechless, paralyzed. Not Parker. But I’ve been asking myself lately whether Parker’s lack of fear should cause us to feel revulsion. Here’s the case against liking Parker. After you’ve read a half-dozen of the Parker novels there is a pattern of reality that fits into the category of pocketbook fascism.
Parker is never afraid.
Parker is a deliberate, calculating, logical, analytical planner. He’s not snatching gold chains or mugging old ladies on security check days. Parker thinks big. The heist he chooses share a common link—they present large risk of failure but a corresponding large payoff if successful. Parker carefully chooses his team for their experience, competence, and trustworthiness. He’s often worked with them before on prior heists.
But Parker can’t always control new members—often the insider who brings the idea to Parker—and all the planning can come undone when an incompetent, cheating, and lying member of the team threatens the operational goal or the dividing up of the loot after a heist.
Parker has no sentimentality. When some double-crosses him, he has no hesitation to kill them. Not out of hatred or anger, but out of a violation of his conduct for doing business. Never double-cross Parker. It is a line drawn in the sand. His regular team members understand the code. For those who violate it, there is no learning curve for the next job. There is no next job. They are dead.
Killing people is Parker’s way of controlling destiny, punishing those who are disloyal. Fascists show no emotion in erecting kill paths and demand absolute, unqualified loyalty. You find a similar mindset in men like Rumsfeld, Cheney, and McNamara. Violence and body count is their way of exerting authority and control. Violence shows who is the man, who deserves respect, and who must yield. Violence and intimidation flash the signal—you are either for us or against us, and either way we aren’t afraid to take the fight to you. There is no neutral ground.
Removing the emotion of fear in a mindset produces a powerful, relentless and brutal force that becomes an object of fear and hatred for others. And where the person who uses deliberate violence lacks fear, such a person unbounded by fear becomes an existential threat. This is doubly troubling—we admire Parker’s qualities, but find ourselves uneasy that absence of compassion and empathy rob him of his humanity.
Parker is a deliberation machine dedicated to planning successful criminal ventures. Instead of blood, he has sequence algorithms running through his veins. Parker is anti-hero who never suffers from doubt.
Parker’s game depends on detailed planning and ruthless execution of plans and loyal team members define his personality. The emotional side of Parker is held in check—or it may be non-existent. Parker never has sex when in the planning stage of a heist. Sex, friendship, drinking, fun are all distractions and they are sidelined until the crime is committed. Then Parker, off screen—as the novel has ended—spends the next six months spending the money before finding a new heist.
Parker might fit into a CEO position to run a Forbes top 100 company, a Wall Street investment banker, or slip into high level government position—though most of these people would be hard pressed to remove sex and fun from their lives to achieve their mission.
Parker sees emotions as an enemy of forward planning. They are a distraction, a nuisance, and can get a man killed. Parker, as a survivor, spends a great deal of time planning the details of the heist, assigns the specific jobs to members of the team, and gathers the materials and resources, scouts the location, looks for getaway cars, untraceable guns, hideouts, and alternative exits. He’s thorough, cold, calculated and when the plans hit the unpredictable forces of reality and fall apart; he is quick to find ways to shore up the broken scaffolding. It is Parker’s steadfastness, his belief in keeping promises, and his workarounds when plans come unstuck, that are part of his appeal.
Parker is a man who can control and overcome his emotions. Secretly many of us wish we had this ability. As we don’t, Parker gives us the vicarious thrill of inhabiting a character that is a sociopath. When we enter Parker’s mindset, the feeling evokes a sense of admiration and power and we can forget that Parker’s cognitive abilities are dangerous and deviant.
The heart of the Parker novels is his ability to meet the challenges of the uncertain, unpredictable world of crime where all planners must face the reality the plan isn’t working, the outcome is in doubt, and an inventive alternative plan must be created on the spot. Otherwise Parker gets arrested. Or he is killed.
Back to the Parker persona as an example of fascism, he employs whatever means, including violence, to achieve his goal. Nothing or no one who signs on can expect mercy if they fall short of Parker’s expectations. Parker’s heart never does anything other than pumping blood. It’s never soft. Until he gets his money, nothing short of death will stop Parker from coming after someone who has cheated him. He kills not out of hate. He kills people without feeling. Killings are simply part of his job. Plans don’t call for a murder, but circumstances may make it necessary for the plan to succeed. This is the way Parker thinks; how he perceives the world. Parker is like a drone, hovering for hours in the air, observing, calculating, seeking his best shot for a direct hit. Collateral damage is unfortunate. Planners have bigger fish to fry. The little ones blown out of the water is just one of those things that happens on the way from the kitchen to the dinning room table.
Parker is a man of deliberate violence. He has a steel rod for a spine. A man who hasn’t shared a beer with a man named regret. Parker represents that most human urge for control over others and reality. Like good poker player, Parker figures the odds of his hand, looks at the cards on the table, the other players seated around him and makes a calculated gamble. If someone is cheating, they’re dead. Parker plays for keeps. There is no fun in the winning or losing. Getting the job done, the money, getting out and back to a good hotel, somewhere warm, in his swimming trunks, a drink in hand, he finally looks at a woman and decides it is time. The 24 Parker novels continue to sell, and 8 Hollywood films have been made from the books. It seems the original editor had a scent of something special about a Parker series.
Richard Stark a.k.a. Don Westlake had the right instinct when he wrote the first Parker novel. Kill off this guy. Parker’s death would be applauded by the reader who’d spent hours with inside his head. But Richard Stark’s editor saw the opportunity for a series and that required keeping Parker alive. Economically, politically and socially the decision-makers elect, like Richard Stark’s editor, decide to hire and keep Parker alive. They think having a Parker running things is useful. Such a planner can be relied on to ensure the outcome happens. They also think such a man (or woman) can be kept on a short leash. But a man who knows no fear can never be controlled. He takes control, and when that happens, what comes next?
Read a newspaper, watch the news on TV, walk down your street, look around you and you find that you are living in a world where Parker has become the model of success. It’s too late to kill Parker off. He’s on automatic pilot. And he’s in your future for years to come.
Galileo has much to teach
us about the nature of fear. He found out the capability for suppression and
intimidation that an alternative worldview can be brought to bear on the
messenger of such a possibility. Belief systems rest on a unified, consistent,
and cohesive set of ideas. Galileo, the Wikileaks front man of his age,
championed the theory that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. The idea
originated with Copernicus twenty years earlier and it was a revoluntionary one
of its time—the sun was at the center of the universe and the earth and other
planets revolved around the sun.
In 1633 Galileo was
charged with heresy. No doubt that beyond his scientific knowledge, Galileo knew
a thing or two about the kind of torture that his heresy might unleash if he
failed to repudiate his view. He had a choice—continue to advocate the
Copernicus heresy or face torture. Love of knowledge and the emotion of
fear of pain and suffering must have dueled inside Galileo’s mind as they have
inside the minds of countless men and women ever since.
He endured the Inquisition
and was found guilty of having been “vehemently
suspect of heresy” for his support of the Copernicus view of the
universe. The verdict required Galileo to “abjure, curse and detest” Copernicus
view. After he recanted, his sentence of imprisonment was commuted to life long
house arrest. His book Dialogue was banned and he was forbidden to write
anything in the future. That ban wasn’t lifted until 1718.
heliocentric view of the universe, the Christian belief system and the
institution of the Church had not been destroyed. The fear of the alternative
theory of the cosmos had been irrational. But that is the nature of
Last week I wrote about
the campaign in Melbourne, Australia by government authorities to use the image
of a rhino to provoke a sense of fear of people driving and walking near the
tram system. What does Galileo have to do with the rhino campaign in
What links the concept of
fear when authorities such as the medieval church sought to preserve a belief
system about the nature of the universe and the intention of authorities to
manufacture a belief of fear when none naturally exist?
The answer is existential.
In the case of Galileo, the church feared that if an alternative to its
worldview would be allowed to go unchallenged, its authority, status, and role
might be not just undermined but destroyed. Suppression and intimidation by
authorities to preserve a worldview is their way of signaling that there is no
legitimate alternative worldview allowed. Belief in the absolute view is the
only legitimate way of understanding, explaining, and accepting the universe,
political, social and economic life. As Galileo discovered that while science
looked at objective facts and if those facts led to a conclusion that the
worldview required revision, which crossed an official line and demolished a
central tenet of the belief system, something had to give. And it wasn’t going
to be the true believers.
Galileo support of the
Copernican universe caused church authorities to experience an existential
crisis. To the mind of the official church Galileo’s view was intolerable. There
were a couple of reasons for this fear. First, was the loss of control over
describing the cosmos. That had been a Church monopoly and cartels don’t easily
open up to competition to outsiders. Second, the possible acceptance of this
alternative view of the universe made them fearful their beliefs and Church
would be destroyed. Allowing Galileo to proceed with his Copernican logic caused
the fear of something like the meteorite that stuck the Yucatan Peninsula 65
million years ago, causing massive extinction. In the face of the
potential oblivion of their belief system, its institutions, the rituals, the
priesthood and the community founded upon belief and ritual, the Inquisition
turned to repression. When faced with loss of controlling the message turning
the screws on the thumbs of the messenger is a time-honoured
The threat, the fear is in
the alternatives to any belief or institutions resting on a set of assumptions.
There might be a better explanation in the alternatives to an existing belief
system. Established institutions found their legitimacy on beliefs that are
static, eternal and absolute. That is a dangerous game. It means someone,
somewhere, whether Galileo or someone like him, may ultimately succeed in
presenting compelling evidence contrary to the established
The conflict between old
beliefs and new evidence exposing flaws or overturning the old beliefs entirely
is a mortal battle. In this struggle, the existing authorities have the
advantage of power which are used to defend to the death the old beliefs and
When institutions and
their infrastructure of beliefs are under attack, their back to the wall, and
with a sense of survival of an entire system at stake, there is no surprise that
brute force and threats are in the short run effective to silence the Galileos
and their information, data and evidence.
Galileo must repent. Or
Galileo will be imprisoned, tortured, exiled, murdered, disappeared, or sent to
Room 101 and strapped into George Winston’s chair.
Officials who patrol the
borders of belief system based on absolutist principles looking for the next
Galileo aren’t pluralists or open-minded—such qualities of thought are not
suited to finding and eliminating all ideas that represent existential threats.
They scan the Internet like astronomers scanning the horizon for the killer
meteorite on a head-on collision course.
True power rests with
those who have authority to characterize an idea and label the messenger an
apostate. Once the patrols appeal to the necessity of protecting their
beliefs, and most people go along, it is only a matter of time before it becomes
apparent that those on patrol are difficult to control or restrain—as any hint
of criticism, dissent, questioning, or challenging brings the Galileo
Fear us. Fear our ability
to make you change your mind about the alternatives you have proclaimed to our
beliefs. It is up to you. After all, it is your big, new idea or the water board
(which by medieval torture methods would have been viewed as benign). History
has been hard on Galileo for his submission to authority, his official
recanting. Would you have gone to torture chamber for an alternative vision of
the universe? Would your reservoir of courage have drained as your saw what
waited for you inside that chamber?
The larger question is why
fear triggers this existential threat and the terrifyingly strong and powerful
emotional reaction against who feel threatened? My theory is evolution equipped
us with a basic, if not primitive (just good enough) response system to deal
with what in our early environment were indeed existential threats. Predators
saw us as part of their food chain. Mistakes in dealing with predators and
strangers often proved fatal. Outsiders, strangeness, unusualness, all triggered
a fear response. We inherited this alarm warning system. Unfortunately it hasn’t
been upgraded from its original purpose and imported into the world of ideas and
In modern times,
governments employ an assortment of laws to monitor, identify, and suppress
modern Galileos—including censorship, blasphemy, computer crime laws and
lèse majesté or its equivalent. The common thread is based on the
existential fear that unrestricted exchange of information or data will
undermine and fatally wound the belief system, which may have remained unaltered
for centuries. The longer the duration between updates of beliefs to match the
current state of knowledge and information, the more repressive the laws and the
response of authorities enforcing the laws.
Technology has brought
more information, more channels to disseminate and access information, more
people connected, rendering geographical location largely irrelevant. Innovation
and technology is disruptive. It threatens to replace existing institutions.
People inside and outside of institutions are fearful. Their lives have never
been less certain. Control over new information used to create alternative
theories and principles remains unresolved. One side promises answers from their
belief system to all questions, the other side makes no promises and demands an
acceptance of uncertainty and ambiguity as the nature order of
We are in the midst of a
new Inquisition in many cultures. Like medieval European elites who processed
Galileo, their successors are playing out their hand in a last ditch effort to
suppress alternative information messengers from challenging the official belief
system. There is fear on both sides of the knowledge equation as each side seeks
to draw supporters to its reality-based bias. Those with a vested interest in
absolutes butt heads with the modern probabilistic thinkers. In this tango along
the edge of the event horizon of fear, it is unclear who will blink
Controlling who has access
to gathering, assembling and disseminating information and knowledge are crucial
in a belief system seeking to preserve itself. The more out of date the
worldview becomes, the more likely that more and more resources will be devoted
to suppression and intimidation. At some stage, the main preoccupation is
reduced to internal fear management.
As an example of resource
allocation to patrol the digital borders where belief systems are challenged by
access to vast quantities of information, Chinese authorities have mobilized a
“At yesterday’s municipal
propaganda department meeting in Beijing, Vice Mayor Lu Wei implored 60,000
propaganda workers ‘in the system’ and over two million ‘outside the system’ to
‘use Weibo.’ According to official records, Beijing has a population of more
than 20 million–from Lu’s statement, one out of every ten Beijingers is a
With new advances in
software, it is much easier for regimes to track the modern Galileo’s, shut down
their websites, charge them, and imprison them. The essence of fear which began
as an individual response to survival in a hostile environment where most were
relatively defensively has morphed into an institutionalized fear monitoring
system to preserve existing societal arrangements, beliefs, and customs against
possible alternatives other might find more equitable, transparent, and fair.
Most governments wish to avoid that discussion. Room 101 will likely not be
closed any time soon. Nor has the last Galileo been forced to recant his
alternative worldview vision.
It is said that fear is
our friend. But when fear is scaled to institutional size, it has every tendency
to the same emotional, intuitive, gut feeling that all alternatives are
existential threats. As George W. Bush famously said, ‘you are with us or
against us.’ And here lies a key point. Old belief systems lasted because of
their commitment to an absolutist view of the worldview. We have moved into an
era where probability analysis rejects absolute outcomes as automatically
flowing from existing beliefs.
That idea is as dangerous
as Galileo’s heliocentric universe. As it leads others to hold all beliefs as
tentative possibilities open to better questions and better information. It
assumes we are likely to find that we change our minds about all kinds of
arrangements and relationship as we sift through information, finding new and
novels patterns and explanations in information and altering patterns of
existing beliefs along the way.
For now, we are at a stage
not much different from the one of Galileo’s day. New information is the cause
of fear. We experience certain events, activities, and signals as an existential
threat. Scaled to the institutional dimension, fear mongers will likely continue
down the time-honored path that worked on Galileo.
I have a feeling Galileo
would recognize much of repression that routinely occurs in various countries
today in the name of national security or preservation of the faith as variation
of the age-old desire to maintain the earth at the centre of the universe. We
are some ways from the day when Room 101 is converted into a computer room with
an Internet connection to anyone with a sense of wonder and curiosity about the
nature of the cosmos and our place in it.
Fear is one of the basic
emotions that springs automatically from a threat. It can be a real threat or a
symbolic threat. A lion charging at you is a real threat. The story about a lion
charging creates a symbolic threat. Our heart races in both cases. Evolution has
equipped us with a fear mechanism that is triggered in circumstances where the
risk of our survival is at stake. For a couple of hundred thousand years it
served the purpose of focusing our attention on the threat and escaping the
threat. The old proverb that says fear is your friend has a large element of
We don’t do a very good
job of processing modern reality where the threats are new and novel. Fear like
most emotions makes for an automatic, unthinking reaction. We think fast when
threatened. In the case of the charging lion that is a good thing. In modern
cities the chances of being attacked by a lion are small. But the chances of
being run over by a bus, car or truck are much higher. But we don’t fear them.
And that is a problem. I have been in Melbourne recently and have used the tram
Yarra Tram in Melbourne
I noticed signs on
platforms with a “Banksy-like” image of a Rhino on what looks like a skate
board. (Actually Banksy used rats but his motive wasn’t to stop people from
being run over by trams in Melbourne). There is a larger sign on the side of a
tram depot with has the rhino ballooned up in size and with the ‘word’ rhino
translated into a couple of dozen foreign languages.
The sign informs us that a
Tram is 30 times the size of a Rhino and you should be careful crossing Tram
tracks because one of those enormous rhino’s in the form of a tram might run you
Later I found the “Beware
the Rhino” advert made by the Yarra trams on YouTube. It certainly brings the
scary 30 Rhinos message to life:
There’s also “Beware the
page which has
some 3,000 likes.
I thought about the
message. BEWARE THE RHINO. FEAR THE TRAMS. The government in Melbourne has gone
into the fear creation business in order to provide safety to its citizens. I
suspected that years ago there must have been a number of accidents involving
people being run down by trams and some bright spark said that people were
oblivious to the dangers of the slowly lumbering trams. (A quick research
revealed that the Beware
the Rhino campaign started in May 2011. It was aimed
at tackling car to tram accidents.)
How can we get people’s
attention so they will focus on trams when they crossed a street in Melbourne?
That must have led to the inevitable series of committee meetings and public
hearings, and inevitably quite a lot of money paid to an advertising agency
However it happened, finally someone must have asked what are we afraid
of, what ignites the fires of fear and alerts us that we might be eaten? No
doubt the reply was that trams don’t eat people. That is the point. Rhinos as
far as I know don’t eat people either. The room must have been jumping as to
creatures that cause us to be fearful: rats, cobras, cockroaches, elephants,
lions, tigers, water buffalo. No doubt there were divisions and disagreements
over the appropriate animal to strike fear into the citizens of Melbourne as
well as tourists coming to the city for the first time.
Whatever political dealing
went on behind closed doors, we know that ultimately those in support of the
rhino prevailed as it is on every warning sign in the complex and extensive tram
Whether it has reduced
accidents as intended is not readily clear, but the campaign has certainly
achieved a notable recognition as far as advertisement campaigns go. It has won
“Postcard of the
Year” award for
The Melbourne tram rhino
got me thinking about the role of government in the fear business. Whether we
like it or not, governments have two major fear related policy tools. In the
case of the Melbourne tram rhino, the government manufactures fear. They take an
activity, a situation or an event which they believe may cause harm because
citizens have not evolved a fear reaction. In these circumstances, the
government’s policy is to artificially create a fear by association. Trams = 30
Rhinos. You wouldn’t want to ignore a rhino on the streets of Melbourne, would
you? Of course not, then you certainly would want to pay attention to a machine
30 times as powerful as a rhino that is on the streets daily, rushing up and
down like a charging wild animal.
How do you feel about
having the government manipulate your emotions? To manufacture your fear button
even though it is for your own protection, safety and welfare? The answer is
governments, pundits and private corporations do this all of the time. We become
immune to fear creation. We fear our health will suffer if we don’t take
vitamins though the scientific evidence is inclusively whether your daily dose
of vitamins actually does anything to protect our health and extend our
longevity. Pundits in the political election season pump up the fear of their
audience: elect Mr. Brown to office and you will lose your right to carry an
assault weapon. That means you can no longer protect yourself, your family and
friends against the Rhino like crazies who threat you on the street. At
There is a second aspect
to the fear business in politics: it is fear containment.
Unlike the first case
where there is no natural fear and one must be manufactured, in the second case
fear is irrational, and cascades through the population, and citizens demand
protection. The bird flu or other contagious disease quickly spread through an
Internet connected population. Governments react swiftly with vaccines,
quarantines, closing schools, and providing medical advice. In this mode, the
government is seeking to contain fear as generalized fear running out of control
is as dangerous as the problem that ignited the fear in the first place. Public
safety has always been a powerful political tool to gain votes and to cast an
opponent in a negative light. No politician wants to be labelled as soft on
The shoe bomber is a
classic case of fear containment. One man with homemade explosives in his shoes
resulted in fear contagion that governments contained by restricting civil
liberties of citizens. In the name of containing this fear of a shoe bomber,
plane passengers by the millions remove their shoes, their belts, empty their
pockets, walk through a metal detector or x-ray machine. By containing fear,
governments have found a way to increase their authority and power over
citizens. As far as I know, no one in government produces an annual report
listing the number of shoe bombs discovered in the shoes of millions of airline
passengers. One suspects they have found none. If they’d found even a single
shoe bomb, that fact would have been revealed to indicate people should remain
fearful and the containment policies were working. We are suckers for fear
containment because it seems so reasonable to buy into at the time, and so
difficult to unwind when most people agree that making and enforcing government
policy based on an irrational emotion isn’t in the best long term interests of
Once people look to the
government to contain irrational fears, they create a monster that is more
fearful that the original event that generated the initial fear that cascaded
through the population. How does anyone unwind a fear containment policy once it
has been funded, people hired, institutions created and inertia settle in? If
you have the answer to this question, please let me know. This is a modern
problem. We end up fearing the wrong things, events, and people and we pay a
high price for our irrationality.
Returning to the fear
creation side, we can understand the role of government is once again being
pitched as falling into the public safety category. Are the rhino signs in
Melbourne effective? Has anyone done a comparative study with other tram systems
that lack such signs or may be use a giant spider rather than a rhino to make
people fearful? Because citizens don’t think much about the sign, perhaps it
works on an unconscious level. We process the rhino in a part of our brain that
makes us instinctively more alert to the danger of stepping in front of
I’ve been told the
authorities in Melbourne are considering increasing the security on tram
platforms at night. Apparently the evidence indicates that a tram rider is at
greater risk of an assault during daylight hours than at night. But if we know
one thing as crime fiction writers, it is that night is noir, and night is dark,
our vision is compromised, there are rhinos in those shadows. So even though the
best allocation of resources to protect public safety and welfare would be to
increase security during the day, that is too rational. Our irrational mind
ignores the actual evidence, and falls back on the primitive instinct that the
night is always much more dangerous than the day. That’s why we invented fire.
And that is probably why the authorities in Melbourne will ramp up the security
at night even though they know the actual benefit will be less.
Apophenia sounds like the
name of a band from Macedonia sent to perform at the annual Euro Song
Contest. The term was coined by Klaus Conrad in 1958 to describe a
psychological state of a person who spontaneously made connections between
unrelated events, people, object and infused that connection with a powerful,
abnormal meaning. Apophenia began as a term to characterize a type of mental
Over the years the
definition of apophenia has broaden from a specialized medical condition to be
used as a more general description of the mental states of gamblers, paranormal
believers, religious believers, conspiracy theorists, lotus and mushroom eaters.
The underlying impulse is the search for causation. It is difficult for a person
to accept that randomness kicks out all kinds of events that aren’t casually
connected. Promise a casual connection and you’ll find an audience for the
connectedness you are pedaling. Politicians and economists exploit this mental
In Thailand, when someone
famous is killed in a car crash. Thousands of people will buy a lottery number
based on the number of the registration plate on the crashed car of death.
Apophenia. Parliament is opened after consulting astrologers or monks (or both)
for the auspicious time for the opening. Or a new cabinet minister wishes to
arrive at the office at the most auspicious time to start his job. Apophenia.
Thai culture is no different from most cultures. Cultures around the world,
politicians, pundits and priests tell stories riddled with apophenia. It is a
behavior so ingrained that we no longer see it for what it is.
And of course, apophenia
is necessary condition state of mind for writers of fiction (and non-fiction). A
mild case of apophenia is a novelist’s secret weapon that brings readers and
literary success. We spend our working days seeing spontaneous connections
between unconnected events, people, and lives, and weaving meaning into those
We experience a scene, a
smell, a sound or a taste and our automatic impulse is to fill the patter into a
story. Think of the last time you were on a train at 10.30 p.m. in a major city.
The rush hour has flushed down that the time drain. People on the train that
time of night are different from the rush hour crowd. Have you looked around and
thought about possible connections among the strangers riding in the same
There’s a middle-aged
woman holding a boutique of flowers leaning in a space near the door. She could
sit down as there are empty seats. But she stands with her flowers. Across from
her is an older man. They are likely strangers. But you see a connection. They
have matching gold bands on the third finger of their left hand. You suddenly
tell yourself they are married. They are poor. They don’t have a car. They’ve
been out celebrating a wedding anniversary but it didn’t go well. They had an
argument and aren’t talking. He gave her flowers earlier, and now they are a
mockery of the silence between. That’s apophenia. They are actually strangers.
They’ve never met. They will never meet. Except in your mind.
Seated down the car are
three workers in matching light blue uniforms with dark blue collars. There is a
company logo over the front right pocket. The three women are in their late
twenties. Two of the women are slightly overweight. They sit together. The third
woman, who is prettier, sits four seats away between a retired man and a
teenager with a New York Yankees T-shirt. They are going home from work. They
are office cleaners. The two women sitting together have received pink slips
from the company. This is their last day. The money in their pocket is all the
money they have. The woman sitting apart has kept her job. The two women who
have been laid off believe she has been giving sexual favors and that is why she
has been kept on. In fact, when the three got on the train, there were not
three empty seats together. They were separated not by choice but by
availability. They haven’t been fired. It is another workday, and they
will be back on the job tomorrow.
That is a simple train
ride. Someone with apophenia makes these spontaneous connections throughout the
day, in every setting, and out of all the unrelated people, events and objects
that she has experienced. If your mind automatically switches into this method
of assembly of people and events to tell a story, then you have the right mental
stuff to be a writer.
There is a bit of insanity
in a writer. Normal people—meaning those who rarely write out of imagination
(except for expense account vouchers) live in a different mental world. One
separated by how one goes about interpreting patterns, meaning, and purpose from
ideas, thoughts, images, objects, the driftwood of materials that lands on our
beach each day.
Apophenia is our brain
trying to make sense out of unrelatedness of things and people we experience. We
recoil from randomness and chaos. We don’t go around telling ourselves there is
a pattern in everything, and that, if one peers long enough, there is a
connection of meaning. But our behavior suggests that we don’t have much free
will to do anything but continue to make such connections. What appears to be
‘noise’ in the system is merely an invitation to an artist to interpret the
‘noise’ as have a relationship among the parts and those parts put into a whole
suddenly are meaningful.
Most people can’t resist
being seduced by such connections.
People who claim to see
images of religious figure in a toasted cheese sandwich or in clouds are an
example of apophenia. It isn’t only religious people who suffer from this
condition. So do gamblers who see connections that aren’t there. Astrologers,
mystics, drug users, and others occupy a world where the lego bricks of reality
are all around them and they spend their time assembling castles in the
Films like the Twelve
Monkeys and The Matrix tap into our inner desire to embrace
apophenia. Blue pill, red pill choices of how much apophenia you can handle is
an enduring metaphor of The Matrix. Films like these tapped into that
apophenia that lurks below the surface in many people, drawing connections
between all kinds of unrelated persons, events, and places with patches of
non-linearly woven into the fabric of the story. Philip K. Dick, the science
fiction author, took drugs, which he claimed opened a gateway to a secret
knowledge or insight into an underlying, unseen casual agent that connected
everything, fleshing out a deeper meaning. He also thought that he saw a stream
of gold light radiated from a fish necklace. Drugs. Did I mention, Philip
K. Dick linked this vision with the drugs he’d taken?
Mystics and religious
figures take apophenia to the logical extreme—all of the world is information
and all of that information is interconnected. Seeing this unified oneness is
An epiphany is making a
connection between two unrelated events that illustrate a deeper meaning, and
underlying casual connection others have glossed over or ignored. Science has
A powerful emotional
experience can create the need to creatively connect that experience with
unrelated events. Kurt Vonnegut’s novels are an example. During WWII Vonnegut
had been a prisoner of war in Dresden. He was in the city when Allied bombers
fire bombed it turning “the cellars where 135,000 Hansels and Gretels had been
baked like gingerbread men.” Slaughterhouse Five was his way of
connecting the unconnected into a meaningful story of massacre. Other novels
danced around that event, drawing from that experience.
What vests a fiction
author with the mantle of credibility over another author who can turn a phrase
just as well in the contest to attract the attention of readers? Many factors
come into play. But one element does matter when we read a narrative that asks
us to believe in the connection between people, events and it can be summarized
in three words: “I was there.”
I bear witness to the
experience. I saw the bodies, experienced the terror, suffering, pain and
horror. On the train, I saw the woman holding flowers on her way somewhere. I
connected her, the flowers, a stranger across from her into a story. Other
people in the train had their faces in their iPhones or iPads, with the
connections uniting their world being made online for them in a digital world.
The nature of what we mean by ‘experience’ is evolving from the world of Kurt
Vonnegut. We shelf life fire exercises for computer simulated games. Predator
aircraft for manned fighters. Slowly we are removing ourselves from the world of
first hand experience where all that unrelated, confused, and random bits float,
collide, bounce off each other, waiting for someone to connect the
Readers still seek to know
the meaning of unrelated things and events. We thrive on clean, cool, compelling
connections, ones that give us a sense that our ideas of causation have not been
violated. Chaos makes us frightened and lack of casual connectedness frightens
us even more. Evolution has wired apophenia into us allowing us a convenient way
to experience the world. Even though some of the attributed causation may be
false, or the connections turn out to be dubious and phony, apophenia is what
gets you through the day and night. Rather than a definition of insanity, at the
least in the mild forms, it may be a precondition to remaining sane.
We look to the imagination
of an eyewitness to bring us to where he or she stood and we want to know what
it was like for the small golden fish to radiate the meaning of the hidden
universe where all things are connection in a vast empire of
Next time your financial
advisor or best friend emails you with a surefire way to make a financial
killing, you can reply that you are waiting for the average rainfall in
Vancouver in October to correlate with average number of tourist arrivals in
Bangkok for the month of December in order to trigger a sell order for your
shares in Apple and to execute a buy order in gambling casino business in
After you finish this
essay, pick up any newspaper, go to any blog read what the writer has to say, or
flip (or scroll) through the book you’re reading and give the author a rating on
the apophenia on a scale of 1 to 10. Assign a ‘1’ is for no connections of
unrelated events or things. Give a ‘10’ for so many such connections and
offering a causal bridge linking them all that the person is insane or
enlightened. Remember the greater speed in making patterns from data, the higher
the IQ. That’s right. This is what is tested when given an IQ test. We have a
cultural bias that we all buy into—slow pattern-making means a person is
mentally less capable, less bright, and less able to pull together, assemble the
correct pattern in front of him.
It seems we suffer either
way. When a person finds it difficult to draw patterns from unrelated symbols,
events, or experiences, means he has a low IQ. But the person who easily finds
the underlying causes that spontaneously brings meaning to unrelated things has
a high IQ. How effectively you deal with such pattern making determines whether
you are crazy, stupid, or on drugs. Finally ask yourself, what rank would you
assign to yourself in the way that you connect unrelated events and
After all, one thing is
certain: Only you can say “I was there.” And only you can also say that in
Twelve Monkeys and The Matrix only an imagination created that
space. No one was ever ‘there’ and the Hansels and Gretels gingerbread men are
not the same as a 135,000 people who had been incinerated while Vonnegut had
survived. The science fiction inside Vonnegut’s head didn’t spring solely from
his imagination; his way of connecting events came from the way things had been
connected during his WWII experience. Everything Vonnegut wrote connected back
in one way or another to his experience of the firebombing. He had been there.
And he took us there with him, connected us to those events through his