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The horse and the elephant

It is not natural for a horse to wear anything. And being able to flee at any moment has been essential for their survival, so they don't like the idea of being tied to something. So, I had thought that it is a slow process to teach Raiku to pull a sleigh. Well, but Saturday morning I somehow felt that I'll see how it goes. I chose the lightest sled I have and placed it in the middle of my yard. I went to fetch Raiku, and all so slowly I put the harness on her. She was calm and relaxed as I adjusted some straps - it was the second time she ever wears a harness, but she seemed like she had been doing it all her life. Then I took Raiku to sniff and to look at the light sled. No problem with that. We went standing in front of the sled, so that it was right behind Raiku. From there I slowly asked Raiku to walk backwards, step after step. The poles of the sled were lying on the ground, and very carefully Raiku placed her feet in between the poles. Such a wise horse! I cheered her and gave her a piece of dry bread as an immediate reward. Then I asked her to stand still, so that I can attach the poles to the harness. The first one went well. But then I realized that in all of my preparations I had forgot one essential part of the harness. So, I had to disconnect the pole, and I asked Raiku to follow me as I went to collect the missing piece - wide belt-like straps connecting the collar to the rest of the harness. I attached those straps, and we were ready for a second try. But this time Raiku refused to place her hindlegs in between the poles; when I asked her to step backwards, she turned her hindquarters away from the poles. I took it easy, we just took again couple of steps forward, I smoothly asked her to again stand so that the sled is directly behind her, and once again we backed up. We had to repeat this three times, and then she just walked straight in between the poles with no problem. I believe that right from the beginning, reading my bodylanguage, she knew that this is what I'm asking her to do. She just needed a bit of experimenting to see if it really is a safe thing to do.

So, there we were. Raiku was standing still, and I attached both the poles to the harness. After a short while I walked a bit ahead of her and asked her to follow me. She was listening to the sounds the sled made, but that was all to it. She had absolutely no problem to pull the sled. There was no panic, she didn't try to break free nor did she feel a need to escape the strange thing which was following her right behing her. Three or four meters walking was enough - it is always better to stop when things are smooth and easy. This way the horse is left with a pleasant and nice memory associated with pulling a sled. She will feel that there is nothing to be afraid or worried about, and later on we can return to learning more and doing a bit more of work.

Now this might sound like a simple thing, just a practical detail in a life of a hippie living in the woods. But let's take a closer look at it. Why didn't Raiku protest? Why didn't she follow her natural instict to flee from any strange thing - especially if they are lurking behind? Why she was so quick to learn? I believe that one of the keys is that at no point did I force her to do anything. Like, if I was thinking anything like: "okay, this is likely to be a problem, as this is a new and a strange thing and a lot of horses spook and try to break free when connected to a sled for the first time" - then she would have sensed that energy in my behavior, already preparing herself that something dangerous is about to happen. And things would have gone differently, as we both would have been tense and spooky. Also, had my energy been: "Now I'm the alpa-leader here and I tell you to step backwards, so do it - now - no excuses - you just take a step backwards because you have to, and you have to because I say so!" - with many horses, in many cases that attitude works, as it indeed is natural for horses to behave according to a herd hierarchy. But the thing with this kind of alpha-leadership is that it is not what I want. And, also, I firmly do believe that we get things done in a smoother way when our co-operation is based on mutual trust and honest communication. I ask Raiku to take a step backwards, and she does because we are friends. If she feels unsure or nervous she tells it to me, and I offer her peace and tranquility. So, slowly she has learned something like "that two-legged mammal is a nice fellow - he listens to and sometimes also undestands how I feel, if I'm afraid or worried I can turn to him and his presence will make me feel cozy. And sometimes he asks me to do some work or to learn new tricks. That is sometimes a lot of work, but it still is a nice thing to do, well, just because most of the time I like being with him, so we both go smoothly respecting each other." With that kind of attitude things just flow in an easy way. Most of the time.

Yesterday I finally got myself to properly start reading a book a friend once lent to me. It is "The Righteous Mind : Why good people are divided by politics and religion" by Jonathan Haidt. I read the first part of the three, and my head is already buzzing with a whole lot of comments and spin-off questions and ideas to write about. But I try to focus on the central insights to keep this entry relatively short and readable =)

Based on empirical studies Haidt argues that our moral views aren't that much based on our rational reasoning. Instead, we have a gut feeling, an quick an intuitive emotional reaction telling us if a certain thing is bad or good, acceptalbe or avoidable. He sees this as emotional information processing, kind of a shape-recognition analogous to visual shape-recognition which happens instantly, usually without any conscious effort. And rational reasoning comes only after that. He uses the metaphor of an elephant and the rider; it is the elephant who decides where to go, and the rider is there just to serve as an "inner lawyer", offering a justification to what the elephant choses to do. So, if the elephant has already decided that "the Maidan protest at Kiev is something disgusting, I don't like it", then the rational mind is not going to change that basic judgement. No, instead the rational mind goes on picking all the arguments which support that view. Haidt cites a number of scientific experiments showing how good people are at inventing aruments to support their initial view, and how little they pay attention to counter-arguments, and how often they refuse to change their opinion even when all the rational arguments fail.

And I'm afraid this is the very process in effect, with devastating power. During the past days I have seen many educated and rational persons adopting all kind of strange beliefs about the situation in Ukraine - and to me it seems that these people are not reading the news to better understand the situation, nor to find the truth. They are just picking those pictures and those pieces of text they can use to support their pre-made emotional judgement. If they believe that Maidan is a bad thing, then they are ready to pick any piece of propaganda which supports their view. And this goes to higly illogical extremities. For example, some people have an initial feeling of "USA is bad" - and from that they go on reasoning that "the opposite of bad is good, and USA is bad, therefore the opposite of USA must be good - and Russia is the opposite of USA, so Russia must be good. OK, I'll disregard anything what the western media says, and choose to believe in what it says in the Russian media." Even when it is clearly exaggerated propaganda, fuelling fear and anger towards the interim goverment of Kiev, these rational and educated people are happy to believe in that propaganda, just because it supports their initial emotional judgement "Maidan is bad! I saw there one thing I don't like, so I conclude that the whole thing must be totally evil!"

Let's stop here for a second. Once again we see these two basic tendencies of human thought - first, to see people as homogenous groups (each member of the certain group shares the same attributes), and then seeing different groups as complete opposites of each other. With these two powerful tools we can infer things like: "Among the thousands of peaceful people protesting at the Maidan I saw one or two neo-nazis pointing a gun towards a police officer - therefore the whole group of those people are violent fascists, and the whole protest is a violent coup - these people are bad - now they have the Kiev - next they are going to cause trouble to Russian speaking minorities - so the opposite of Maidan is good, therefore I support Russia". Anyone with a basic skills in logical thinking should see that this reasoning is plainly wrong. Yet this kind of reasoning happens all the time, and a lot of highly educated people do it all so often. Why? I think because this logic takes place already on the level of emotional processing. We don't perceive the world as a neutral data, then using our rational apparatus to bestow meanings like "acceptable" and "bad", based on some rational principles. No, our emotional processing is powerfull and sophisticated enough to offer us a meaningul interpretation of the world. We perceive things as "disgusting" or "desirable" - and on top of that we can offer a whole lot of verbal explanations designed to justify to ourselves and to the others why this certain thing actually is "disgusting" or "desirable". And, I believe that in many cases that emotional processing is operating with simple categories. Once again I use the horse as an example. Horses are prey animals, and the survival of the species has been largerly based on their ability to flee preadtors. If a horse detects a sudden, unidentified noise or a glimpse of unexpected movement, the first natural reaction is to spook and to run away - only then will the horse stop to take a proper look to evaluete the situation. Failing to detect a predator when there actually is one would lead to death - therefore it is better to have a lot of false alarms, to spook first and to investigate later. Well, I believe that we humans have a lot of similar processes - imagine a primitive man seeing his fellow eat a yellow mushroom and then die - instead of thinking "Maybe I should find out which yellow mushrooms are safe and which are poisonous" he just goes on thinking "all the yellow mushrooms are bad! Never touch a yellow mushroom!" There might be 9 types of edible mushrooms yellow in color, and only one which is lethally poisonous. But for the primitive man it is also more safe to have a lot of false alarms - thus labelling all the yellow mushrooms as bad is more effective than stopping to investigate further. I guess you get the idea; our evolution has shaped our emotional enginery so that we tend to label things like "I saw one bad instance of X, therefore every X is bad!". But does the primitive man automaticall think that "because yellow mushroom is bad, then the opposite of them must be good! now the opposite of yellow is.. umm.. is..." Not very likely. I guess this comes from the social sphere, from our need to belong to a group, to bond with one's own group. And a simple but effective way to enforce this bonding is to perceive one's own group as "us good" and all the others as "them bad". All this is natural, but given all the modern technology and advanced weaponry it suddenly becomes extremely dangerous to go on doing the world politics based on primitive information processing.

But if that kind of processes are natural and shaped by evolution, then we can't do anything about it? Haidt says: "If you want to make people behave more ethically, there are two ways you can go. You can change the elephant, which takes a long time and is hard to do. Or [...] you can change the path that the elephant and rider find themselves traveling on. You can make minor and inexpensive tweaks to the environment, which can produce big increases in ethical behavior. You can [...] design institutions in which real human beings, always concerned about their reputatios, will behave more ethically. (Part one: Vote for Me (Here's Why)"

Now, this might not be a surprise for you, but this takes me back to the horses. As, a lot of horse-training is based on exactly the latter method - offering praise and rewards when the horse does what we want, and offering negative feedback when the horse does something we don't want her to do. And this way the horse learns that it is more beneficial to do what humans ask, to behave according to a certain set of expectations. That works, especially when there is someone around to give positive or negative feedback, and when the horse cares of that feedback. But since I was kid I have felt that this approach is limited, and that we get better results if we take the time and the effort to work with the elephant. It might not even be so hard as Haidt seems to think. I think this somehow illustrates the way I see my methods of training a horse. Sure, I do give feedback, but it is not centered on what the horse does. I communicate with her emotions and intentions. If she bares her teeth and makes a biting gesture towards be, most of the horsetrainers would say that it is undesirable behavior and I should give her immediate feedback to show that it is not acceptable to do that. But I choose to listen to the emotional content of her gesture. With her bodylanguage she is telling me that she feels insecure and nervous. And with my own bodylanguage I tell her that I see how she feels, offering her safety. This way it is not just her behavior which changes - she also learns new emotional patterns. That way, the next time we are in a same kind of situation, she is not just controlling her behavior becuse she has learned to do so - she is actually perceiving the whole situation in a new way, experiencing it as less frightening and more safe and comfortable. And when we go together rigind in the woods, she doesn't feel being alone in an unknown forest, as she feels that I'm able to communicate with her, and I know the terrain. And if she sees or hears something which makes her nervous, she can always ask me if I think that we should flee, or if it better to stand our ground and take it easy.

So, sure do we need social institutions which are so designed that they promote more ethical behavior. But personally I think that we could also use some inner growth as well. For example, our emotional level might be evolutionaly pre-wired to divide the people into groups of "us good" and "them bad". But I firmly do believe that our psyche is well capable of growing and re-organizing. Once we become conscious of that emotional pattern, and the many ways it is reflected in cognitive and political processes, we can see that it is not actually very healthy way. It might have served us well in the primitive times, but nowadays we could use something bit more sophisticated - being more able to see that in each group every individual comes with a lot of unique attributes and only some attributes are somewhat shared, and that different groups aren't that much different after all, and that instead of strongly opposed "good vs. bad" we just have different groups with different points of view. And that with a good discussion we can find ways to get along, both with "us" and with "them". (And, that, if we really stop to think about it, we might see that actually the group we belong to is The Biosphere. Our lives depend on this single planet, we are all part of it, and if the planet suffers we suffer too. So, there is no "them", there is only "us", the children of the planet.) But how to do that? If the rider ponders about all this, it doesn't make the elephant change its mind? Sure, but this the metaphorical level of all of my writing about working with horses. As the horse is also like the elephant - our own emotinal side. If I, as a human, can train a horse to communicate and to co-operate with me, then pretty much with same kind of methods it is possible to help our own emotional layer to learn new things. Just like Mariska's voice seeps into my soul and helps me to let go of my inner fears. It is all about he same fundamental process of rebuilding the emotional layer; learning to feel and to perceive the world in a new way.

Such a wise horse!
Such a wise horse!
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Comments

Nice thoughts, but as long as psychopaths are running the world nothing will change.

I'm afraid you're right.

On the other hand, it somewhat depends on how one defines *nothing*. Bit more that 20 years ago I reasoned that since I can't do much to affect the world history, all I can do is to focus on my own life, trying to make it better. Pretty soon I realized that in order to make my life better I also have to work with my own personality, seriously rebuiling emotional and cognitive patterns I had adopted in my earlier life. It's been a long ride since that, but I definitely feel that at least something has changed in the small sphere of my personal life. - Now, one could easily reason that compared to the big events of world history one single personal life equals to *nothing*. Sure thing, but deep down every rock star, poet, military officer, business tycoon and president are made of the same flesh than all the rest of us. They have their emotional and cognitive patterns too, and they make their decisions based on those same patterns. Their decisions might affect millions of people, but the fundamental layer is still the same - either you go with the patterns you already have, or then you seek inner growth. So, all those political processes and agendas are far too complicated for me. I'm just a slightly escapistic hippie living in my own small alternative reality =)

But, sure, thinking of world history and future it is rather easy to be pessimistic. To me it looks like that as a mankind we have only two options; either we manage to change our ways, or then we face a global crisis of some sort. Like Titanic - their choices were either to change the route to avoid collision with an iceberg, or then to face the unavoidable consequences of failing to react.

The dictators are probably better people than any of us in basically any respect. More intelligent, more likable, more moral, better looking etc. After all they've managed to win so many people to their side.

However, they are afraid. There's a limit where you suppress the people and opposition one time too much and reach the point of no return where you can't let it slip anymore lest you find yourself shot in the gutter. After that you have no choice but suppress even more or die.

As you see, this has a lot to do with Erkka's horse training. When the horse realizes the big ape doesn't seem to be threatened by its existence but only wants to do weird stuff with it, it has less reason to be afraid itself. The horse might think an ordinary horseman as a psychopath, albeit mostly a benevolent one, while the horseman only tries to get along with a potentially dangerous big animal. Its the same with dictators.

Tommi, as provocative as always, yet with a bright point =)

To rephrase myself: I see little point in asking if the dicators are good or bad humans. The question is: how does their way of governing work, what side-effects does it have, and what is necessary to keep things running. And then the next question is: Is this what the dicator really wants? Is this what the people are happy with?

In horsemanship there is a strong tradition of "alpha leadership", which is more or less based on idea that the horse should be a bit afraid of its owner, showing respect by not questioning the leadership of the owner. That works extremely well, but it has quite a many side-effects which I'm not personally happy with. (And, if you ask me, in many cases it is also the horses who aren't all that happy with that kind of handling.) So, I prefer to go with smoother methods.

In a human society dicatorship (in the many forms of it) works, too. But as Tommi points out, it is based on (mutual) fear. The dicator is afraid of a violent coup, the people are afraid of oppression and state-run violence. If we want something else, we'd better seek different models of organizing the society. But I'm not going to start a protest movement demanding anything like this - I prefer my personal escape into the woods, coping with the society but otherwise minding my own business =)

The reason for cruelty and oppression is almost always fear, not having an absolute power over the victim or not caring about it/him/her as non-rational people imagine and write.

Actually people very often treat things better they don't care about because caring is basically dependence and feeds fear. Even doctors make better diagnoses the less they are emotionally involved with the patient.

As it is with power. If you can't control something you might have to push it down in order to avoid it becoming a problem.

People are too lazy to crush things and objects just because they think they're somehow inferior. Combs and flowers might be useful or not but not many of us have the energy to destroy them only because we feel we are smarter and stronger than they are.

I'm writing this because I believe the wrong ideas of the reasons of oppression and violence only feed them.

The horsemanship here is a good example. If Erkka was "caring" too much, he'd be thinking "boo hoo the horse doesn't love me" (basically everyone I know who regard their dogs as their friends react this way and yell at their pets all the time) while now he can reason "it's an animal and it reacts this way probably because... I'll better try this..."

Actually he's a good horseman because he's a "psychopath" i.e. nothing the horse can do can hurt his feelings and consequently can't make him angry and lose his rational attitude towards a fine animal he owns.

... I was anyway planning to write about emotionality and rationality (and the philosophy of mind). Let's see if I get my words together any day soon =)

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