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January 4, 2000
School Violence Program
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Newsletters: Volume 1 No. 1

"You have truly put a great amount of time, effort and knowledge into your curriculum and the accompanying CD-ROM. Your work with Progressive Awareness Research in the field of cognitive behavioral modification and development of 'Whole Brain InnerTalk' subliminal technology reflects the expertise that you have developed after working many years in the psychotherapy and hypnotherapy fields. Your research work with universities and organizations is impressive and you have truly made significant contributions to helping to resolve the issues related to violence."

William Modzeleski
Director, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program
Office of Elementary and Secondary Education
United States Department of Education

Child Violence:
The Screen Language of the Mind:
Learning and Unlearning Emotional and Semantic Disturbances

by Eldon Taylor


From the outset, I wish to note that it is my opinion that emotional disturbances are more or less equal to semantic distortions. For simplicity, it could be written this way: EDSD where ED refers to emotional disturbance and SD to semantic distortion. Further, there exists today a direct linear relationship between semantic distortions and our ever increasing environment of negativity. In the sense of this work, the word negativity refers to anything and everything that degrades the human capacity for love, understanding and compassion.

It was my original intention to expose the limit of one's ability to think or communicate at the highest level due to semantic distortions. However, after the original publication of my work in this area, the tragedy at Columbine High School urged me to expand the article in order to show this direct and linear causation.

The issues presented herein are many. From the personal esteem and success of ordinary people to the demented acts of disturbed children. The fact is, to some extent, almost everyone is impacted by an environment that fails miserably when it comes to empowering the full human potential. This can be a matter as straight forward as one's attitude toward learning, or it can be as complicated as a deep neurotic or phobic disorder.

I wish to share my ideas and thoughts with you in the sincerest hope that they may be of service to you. To that end, the expanded article together with its introduction is included in our new resource guide.

It Won't Stop Until It Stops!

With the increasing juvenile violence, particularly that in our public schools, the question everywhere is, "Will it continue? Will there be more?"

To answer this question a predictive capacity must exist; an instrument, a method of measurement, a means of analysis, and so forth. In order to predict, one must first have some theoretical framework that, at least arguably, provides an explanation for the behavior and gives some insight into the past. If this framework fits well with historical fact and possesses explanatory power, then a theory may evolve that gives rise to predictive ability.

It is the admitted bias of this researcher that our society, particularly our younger generation, has been systematically desensitized in relationship to the value of life, respect for self and others, and at the same time has been provided a model for conflict resolution that overtly encourages violence. These distortions are both explainable and lead to predictive value. They presuppose other known and well documented factors regarding juveniles including those biological factors such as the waves of testosterone that bathe male adolescence, the attending mood swings and the need for acceptance.

It is the opinion of this researcher that the prognosis is not good without major changes in our general system of child guidance. However, with some initiative, including required student orientations aimed at diminishing peer pressure and rejection, the current trend can be halted. Later in this work I will suggest some rather sweeping changes and propose both a measurement means that should identify at risk students and assist teachers and parents in dealing with boundary issues before they reach crisis level. Indeed, it is my sincere hope and belief that much of the problem can be alleviated by rather modest changes in the way we relate and communicate with each other.

A Little Theoretical Framework

Education for the extended maturation of the young is about self empowerment and this implies self discovery. All self discovery methods, self empowerment means and goals, are inherently tied up in the meaning of words. This should be obvious, but it is not always so. Our language is built on words. Words have meanings, and where we should all agree on the meanings, we often don't.

All forms of self improvement, including the rather tight area we refer to as education, seek to alter our self image, our verbal descriptions of ourselves and often our environment. These methods are diverse and may involve everything from eye movement to body posture. Nevertheless, the aim is to somehow replace a shabby or partially broken opinion about oneself with a mended healthy life view. This healthy self image is provided in part by the acquisition of skills gained in the classroom. The aim of all teachers should include providing the factual and theoretical material in a context that has meaning and adds value to the individual. These aims are a product of communication, the bulk of which falls on words, both literally and interpretive. Words that must provide both information content and meaning. Words that must prime confidence and build esteem.

What's In A Word?

A frequently asked question of myself and staff goes like this: "Why is priming the mind with positive statements so important?" Years ago I wrote a piece titled, "Sticks and Stones Will Break My Bones but Words Will Slice and Dice Me." The thrust of the article bared a penetrating observation: for most people words do more damage than things. It's not the sanitary word itself, Webster's definition, that's damaging or fearful, it's the emotive value attached to words.

It's easy to note the fear of many when it comes to words of rejection, words that make fun of people or are excessively and inappropriately critical, words that condemn, words that are negative labels such as ugly, stupid, loser, failure, and so forth. Words, however, have still other emotional domains that they either anchor, or that are like search words in a web browser, when inputted they trigger a host of related sites stored deep in one's memory. Indeed, due largely to our educational system and culture, most words can be said to have values. Think about it, even so-called innocuous descriptors such as color have values attached. Some colors are preferred over others, some colors are simply obnoxious, and for some, an emotional disturbance or trauma can be connected to a color.

Our thinking system is such that we all have been taught relative values, judgements, that are reflected in our description of everything we know about ourselves and the world around us. For most, at least in the Western culture, we generally think of words of at least being capable of accurately describing the world of shoes and ships and sealing wax, including ourselves, our feelings, our thoughts, our reasons.

Our world is so dependent upon words, semantics, that it is hard to imagine thinking without them. Indeed, thinking seems to presuppose semantic possibilities, for how else would we ever be able to communicate or understand our thinking? Even the images in our dreams are thought to be better understood when we can explain them. So dominant is this thinking priority, this semantic communication necessity, that a failure to be able to linguistically communicate an idea, a feeling, an urge, an intuition, an image, a sense, etc., is thought to be the result of either inadequate education or basic genetic equipment. After all, where would we be if we couldn't ask such meaningful questions as: "What did that mean to you? How did that make you feel? What do you mean by that? Describe the sense or feeling or image or how do you know it's a valid intuition and not just fanciful thinking?"

Not only is our world known through semantics, linguistic communication with self and others, it is modeled by each of us in just this same way. Now to say that knowing the world through words is quite different than knowing the world through actual sensing participation, is just obvious and trite. To say knowing oneself, or better still, modeling oneself and their behavior through this same word lens should be even more conspicuously ridiculous. Still, for most, it is precisely through the lens of words that both self and the world are known.

We know much more than we know, at least about ourselves. We all came into this world knowing how to naturally sense our environment, how to explore and provide honest feedback about our feelings, how to allow our imaginations to just deliver intuitions and images without challenge, and then to feel them for that value alone. Ah, but alas, we all learned to be educated and to cherish thinking, and not just free thinking, but thinking according to the taught order of correct thinking (e.g. mathematics, logic, etc.). Once the rules of thinking were learned we were graded on our ability to reproduce the method in our every walk and talk of life, including how we talk to ourselves.

One day, incorporating our learned methods of thinking with our acquired meanings or values to events and words, we subverted our natural selves to the higher order of being what we should be╚unnatural. Our extended dependent maturation made us particularly vulnerable to basic needs such as protection and nourishment, and therefore additionally vulnerable to supplanting ourselves with the personification of what was expected, what was accepted, what was tolerated, what brought reward and delivered punishment. To that extent, even in rebellion, we formed a bond with a self that was perhaps alien to our true selves. Moreover, we anchored all of this emotional memory in and with words and then we explained ourselves, at least to ourselves, using this vocabulary.

As semantic descriptions (sd) are built, semantic reactions or responses (SR) are encoded and a semantic belief (SB) system is coherently hinged, to the degree that coherence is possible within the rules of thinking as we have learned them. When incoherence is obvious, a defense mechanism is employed to mask the failure and semantic distortions (SD) are created. The outside world, together with the inside world, have at this point become more or less a series of semantic anchors (SA) composed of sd, SD, SR, and SB, all seamed together like a fisherman's net with semantic references definitionally reenforcing each other.

Our world, to use the words of Alfred Korzybski, has now become often, perhaps more often than any sane person would like to admit, both false to facts and often distorted. As Korzybski puts it, the difference between sanity and insanity can be found in false to fact distortions that are semantic in nature. Ergo, it is precisely the mechanism of semantic distortions that underlies thinking processes which are or become neurotic or psychotic. It is also this very same mechanism that gives rise to self sabotaging behavior and self limiting beliefs. This very same mechanism, and mechanism is a good word since the process becomes so automatic that it operates without conscious awareness, martials our defenses to action whenever our sd, SD, SR and SB are challenged. In fact, the unconscious pervasiveness of the mechanistic nature of these sd, SD, SR and SB is such that even the most knowledgeable of specialists on the matter must maintain a constant vigil to guard against them. This may explain why an individual can be very successful in a given field and fail miserably in others.

Our language usage, the value and meaning one attaches to words, can literally blind rational thinking. One could effectively argue that genius escapes this language barrier in order to be genius, to go beyond the boundaries, to see the common differently, to gain a perspective not formerly found. For our world not only assigns values to words but insists on a sort of "isness" property that is somehow supposed to give the word an existence of its own. The label, noun, becomes the thing. The verb may even vicariously become the action.

We all can be fooled by word propositions that address definitional meanings, isness and rules, the so called logic of our methods and use, or should I say misuse, of language and thinking. A theist could argue that God is all powerful while the atheist might refute this claim with a question such as, "Can God create a stone so large He can't lift it?" Word traps and their confusion can and literally have led to many atrocities.

It's easy to forget the nature of personal truth when it masquerades in an argument of reason. Logic and linguistics make assertions about many things that are simply false to facts. For example, a gallon is equal to a gallon. This is simply not true. Not true from many perspectives including the most obvious. A gallon of water added to a gallon of alcohol does not equal two gallons of combined fluid. Ergo, 1 + 1 = 2 is not necessarily so of the "real" world. No two things are alike in every way. Additionally, it is not possible to know the so-called "total" of anything. Words are not the things they represent and what they are supposed to represent is much more, and much less, than could ever be written. Indeed, as has been said many times, probably in its most noteworthy form by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whatever we say about something, it is also not that. Words are not things and word things such as a griffin do not necessarily exist.

Behavioral scientists basically agree that there are four basic drives: fight, flight, feeding and the propagation of the species. In order for a drive to operate there must be an underlying urge, even urgency, what I shall just call arousal. There are different thresholds of arousals relative to differing stimuli. Often the threshold requirement is met without conscious awareness. William James asserted over fifty years ago that we see a bear, run, and are afraid. For years this statement was criticized. We see a bear, consciously determine that it is life threatening, and then flee. Fear followed our conscious comprehension of the threat. Modern research shows rather clearly that the fact is just as James described it. But then, for years students were also taught the so called limbic system as the emotional center of the brain. Today, the best of modern technology has failed to locate any such limbic system or center, at least as described. In fact, one of the preeminent scientists in the field, Joseph LeDoux, flatly insists that there is no such thing. LeDoux's research clearly suggests that most, if not all, emotional memories, for that matter, emotion itself, is amygdala dependent. "Good old cortex," as one of my teachers, Professor Carl LePrecht, used to put it, "is at its best when inhibiting a response."

Cortical inhibition works well when the system is rational. However, since almost all cortical inhibition is word driven, irrational SA, supported by SD and irrational SB, not only fails to properly inhibit an irrational emotional response but indeed only further distorts or reenforces the existing SD.

The human condition needs arousal. As John Kappas puts it, "modern man has chiefly substituted fight and flight for anxiety and depression." Words produce anxiety and certainly can lead to depression. Words spoken by another and words spoken to ourselves. For many, sd are more often SD (distortions rather than descriptions). The arousal level necessary to produce chronic anxiety and clinical depression requires a semantic distortion. True fight/flight responses are rare for most in today's society, but if they do not really exist in the neighborhood, then they can easily be fulfilled from our entertainment. Vicariously experiencing some outrage and revenge is what much of our television, videos and movies are all about. Violence, sex, arousal╚that's entertainment.

Where feeding and breeding are concerned, everyone recognizes quite readily the required arousal stimuli. What is most interesting to me is to watch the threshold of arousal in our day and age seem to systematically require more and more stimuli. A patient suffering from anorexia-bulimia is a classic example of one with SD. (Semantic distortions therefore fail us in some real descriptive way and thereby handicap our judgement. It also suggests that semantic distortions are emotional and fundamentally irrational).

SR are further distorted given that the human condition has both a need for arousal and that today it is virtually immersed in a constantly ever more stimulating arousal oriented environment. It should come as no surprise that our society is built more on irrational expectations and threshold needs than ever in recorded history. Our semantic responses (SR) are systematically altered by the combined effects of our arousal need (AN) and our increasing arousal threshold (AT) as effected by our semantic expectations and environment (SE). The impeachment of Bill Clinton is evidence of at least one aspect of this interactive function. The daily discussions of oral sex and other acts, as nationally televised, were to many disgusting, titillating and outrageous. To some, they were all of these things at the same time. The charges seemed, to most, to stem from a pernicious investigation that entered into an area believed to be personal and private. Today there is nothing outrageous about the reporting and little concern about the acts that led to the news story. The early sensationalism gone, what remains is the damage in the psyche of the mind and in the precedent allowed investigators, journalists and so called spin meisters. Without this desensitization, it is highly unlikely that NBC would have aired the alleged rape story, that although apparently could not be disproved by NBC, could not also be proven. My point is neither political or moral, it is rather an illustration of how easy and quickly our SR can be manipulated, or conditioned, by our environment. The media creates much of our environment through the images portrayed of adventuresome heros, comely lasses, romantic encounters, sexual fantasies, and the like. It also operates on us in just this same way through less obvious means such as the news or the latest so-called health report, which itself is designed to create the expectation of illness and sell the remedy. After all, this all only reflects the "normal" condition of the average person╚doesn't it?

What is normal? Perhaps Karen Horney describes normal in her book title, "The Neurosis of our Time." Perhaps as Robert Lange says it in his fabulous work, "The Politics of Experience," "the condition of the normal man is one of self alienation, where he loses himself in order to become normal." We do live in challenging times. Violence, sex and feeding are just as dominant today as ever. However, in my view, a fifth force has been added. Today we want more. More and more and more╚more sex, more violence, more scare, more thrill, more things, more of everything. I don't want to admit that for myself, let alone find a single kernel of truth in the statement. Yet, deep down, I know that for me it is often true. I am aware of my need to constantly defend against the input of ever increasing changes in semantic relationships, ranging from arousal stimuli to definitional impingements, on feeling and thinking.

Is it possible to arrange all of this in a series of simple relationships? I think so and I think it might also be helpful. To that end, here goes:SASB & SDSB & SRSD. Therefore: SR SD SB. Arousal Need (AN) and Arousal Threshold (AT) are "hard wired" in the species and then interpreted and reinterpreted according to semantic conditioning (SC). Since the threshold must by definition be approximately equal to the need for there to be an arousal, we could say ATAN and SR, SD & SB are functions () of SC. Further, we should rightly conclude that the manipulation of AT and AN vary proportionally with SC. As such, we can therefore say SCATAN (semantic conditioning is an increment of arousal threshold which is approximately equal to arousal need).

It is worthy of noting something often overlooked in the literature. The so-called drives of the human condition (fight, flight, feeding and breeding) are reward related functions. That is, the reward for escaping danger is a sort of high, the reward for winning in battle can be manifold despite the wounds that may be suffered, the reward for feeding can be as simple as a feeling of fulfillment or much more complex, and the reward for breeding needs no discussion. The point is this: the system is rewarded for responding to drive related needs. Any so called punishment that may follow is not a wired in necessity like the neuro-chemical response that follows from danger. For example, eating brings the pleasurable feelings of taste and fulfillment, which are purely biological. Any accompanying feelings of guilt related to food are due to societal impositions. It could be argued that over-eating brings its biological punishment, but like the systematic desensitization to violence and horror, the body adjusts and is generally able to consume more. The combined forces of biological adjustment and SD can often be seen hand in hand as with our earlier anorexia/bulimia example. This is important, particularly when trying to understand why the human condition seems so driven toward such things as violence and violent entertainment. The answer is obvious and simple, the human animal finds reward in these things. Just as a bungy jumper finds the thrill addicting, a marathon runner may find the pain addicting. The fact is, the human animal is made in such a way that the brain will adjust, compensate, and produce pleasure. Indeed, evolution has provided a selective advantage in the human animal to the confrontation of fear, and fear accompanies all drives as the polar opposite to reward.

There are always opposites. Fear is an interesting emotion, particularly within the context of the human animal, for only this animal seeks out fear experiences. The human animal is also probably the only animal that fears the future. Humans have the cognitive ability to wonder and worry about such things as death, dying, mutilation, and so forth. It is this very ability that leads the human to explore the limits of their fear threshold.

All animals have evolved to react to danger. The brain learns from experience. This learning is a part of the preparedness required to both succeed and survive. Throughout nature, mock battles between young illustrate at least one level of the built-in need to learn and prepare. It would seem that the human urge to meet and challenge danger (fear) is both totally natural and adaptive. The survival basis of evolution is based on adaptation. The fit adapt. It's easy to imagine an early band of humans confronted by danger. It's as easy to imagine a leader emerging willing to confront the danger. In fact, it's difficult to conceive of human evolution complete with most, if not all, of its early technological advances, devoid of this danger force.

The modern human practices facing fear, just as their ancestors did. Instead of ritual dances and rites of passage, perhaps they indulge in horror movies, play violent virtual games, join motivational fire walks, and so on. The important point here is that the human condition is essentially driven to explore and practice fear responses. Equally important is the evidence that the primitive brain responds to synthetically produced danger just as it would to a real danger, despite our various so-called "protective frames" that inform modern brain, cortex, the danger is synthetic. The amygdala reacts, blood pressure and cardio functions alter, skin conductivity changes, body temperature drops, etc. Further, the brain usually rewards the danger/play with euphoria.

Now all of this is not as tangential to SDs as it might initially appear. The built in desire which exists in the human to explore and evaluate fear thresholds literally frames much of a child's development and underpins a large part of societies entertainment, recreation and identification. It is this identification with which the semantic environment enters.

A well known theory originally set forth by Robert Ardrey (1966) known as the territorial imperative, asserts the need all animals have to establish a space that serves basically two needs: center and boundary. The center is the place of family, nourishing, rest, etc. while the boundary is the limiting edge of that space. Research has repeatedly shown that an animal behaves differently within their boundary than when on the outside. While within the boundary, a territorial aggressiveness is portrayed, but when on the outside, a non-assertive, non-aggressive posture and action is assumed. Territorial fish have actually been demonstrated to literally change from aggressive to non aggressive as they were moved about in an aquarium. The so-called dominant became non-dominant when in another's territory. Eligio Stephen Gallegos makes an interesting and compelling argument that the human ego has its like territory in his book "Animals of the Four Windows" (1996). In his words, "In the structure of a human identity we find such similar dimensions and functions that I can only conclude that the substructure of identity is territoriality. However, in the human identity words and concepts have come to play a dominant role in binding elements around conceptual space. This is what I call a conceptual territory."

Conceptual territories often occupy nearly the same space. Take, for example, a modern crowded High School. Many students fill the halls, share lockers, bump into each other on the stairways, push and shove each other and compete for attention, peer acceptance and grades. Each student has their own ego (conceptual territory) and their need to both assert and protect its boundaries. If SDs form the basis of the territory, then violations of that same territory may well be met with extreme or irrational defenses. Due to much of the current violence in schools and the work place, it is imperative and essential that this conceptual territoriality is understood. It cannot be understood without first coming to grips with the nature of distortions underpinning the semantic content that defines the territory. In other words, the verbal account of self is a territory. This verbal account sets out the boundaries. Gallegos believes that language may have evolved for largely this purpose. In his words, "It is also possible that thinking itself originated from the establishment of territories. After all, the territory is a kind of abstraction that is in fact created by the animal and his relationship to that terrain; it does not exist as a separate entity in itself. In treating this space as an entity the animal is in fact thinking, although not in words. . . Perhaps language as a coherently interrelated aggregation of sounds had a lengthy origin in the animal's need to announce and protect a territory."

And just as with any animal, the edge of an identified territory would be a place of constant potential danger and threat. This would of course produce an ever alert state that may well give rise to some simple explanations as to why some people take innocent comments as threats. Further, however one describes themselves, a polar opposite exists. If the description is strong, then weak opposes it. Wherever there is opposition, there can be a need to defend. A proud mother describes herself to a new acquaintance as a full time mother. The acquaintance responds with a comment such as, "I went to college so I work at the hospital." Proud Mother becomes defensive, "I graduated from college. I choose to be a mother." This first meeting is headed down hill fast unless someone is alert to the nature of semantic distortions (SDs) and boundary defenses (territoriality).

Words as threats. Words as territorial imperatives. Words as self defining/self fulfilling boundaries (egos). Words to fight over. Words to inspire. Words leading reality » Lewis Carol and his rosy colored lenses. Distorted words, distorted reality. Systematically distorted? Has the human condition come to a point in its history where the distorted is normal? Have young people become systematically desensitized to violence through constant exposure and framed distortion? Have identities been created around distorted perceptions of what it means to be male or female? Has film and entertainment, technology and information, unwittingly joined forces with primal drive functions in such a way as to reenforce distortions as desirable? One might think so when they think of the gross violence and senseless killings the United States has recently seen in its schools. Words define our territory, they describe our self image formed from experience and after models, they prompt our danger rehearsals, they both temper and enlarge our fears, they map, and in some ways, have become who we believe ourselves to be » our ego.

So, what's in a word? It seems that a great deal is in both a word and the words we choose to understand ourselves and the world around us. The words that go round and round in our heads, from the lyrics of songs to the self talk of doubt and fear, those are the words that mirror our beliefs, predict our responses, fulfill our needs, meet our arousal standards, in short, perhaps they are who we have become. Perhaps the isness of words is more similar to the isness of who some of us have become than we would like to think. The real question is will the real you stand up?

In summary, the human animal has basic evolutionary drives and biologically related functions. The human primitive brain thrives on arousal. The system is set up to reward arousal with pleasure. The human maturation requires education, experience, practice. Danger stimuli both satisfy arousal needs and provide practice, education and experience with fear. The human animal is the only animal that actively seeks out fearful stimuli, usually within the context of a safety net or "protective frame." The human animal defines itself, its ego, in classical territorial terms. Its territory, identity, beliefs and behavior is built from the description of experience. The human animal imitates just as other animals, but often the imitation is of a false to fact reality as that provided in much of our film entertainment. The need for arousal may remain constant while the arousal threshold, continually saturated with more and more stimuli, ever increases. This increasing threshold is in fact a systematic desensitization of lower older thresholds. A simple curve illustrating this can be easily depicted from our history of sex and violence in the cinema (see below).

All of this leads to distortions inherently semantic in nature. These semantic distortions delimit our experience and our ambitions. They decide what and who is acceptable. They decide when we will find peace with our selves and our neighbors. They are the criteria upon which mankind builds its sanity. And for many, this sanity is a special form of modern neurosis full of false to fact descriptions of oneself and reality.

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