Saturday, February 18, 2017

Degradation Ceremonies and the Goldwater Rule: A note on clinical diagnosis, community, and moral indignation.

My vigilance and preoccupation with the incompetence, bluster, and threat pouring from the White House is exhausting.  I should have better things to think about.  Worry and indignation coerce my attention, stink like dog shit I can't ignore or avoid. It needs to be cleaned up.  

I am a clinical psychologist with license to diagnose and a citizen now over-disposed with indignation. No doubt Trump comes across as deeply disturbed, but my provoked distraction is that he's so god-damned disturbing. Although it may be ethically problematic for me to diagnose from afar, I'm on firm moral ground writing about my disdain and disgust.  Frankly, a diagnosis might suggest disability, a sort of excuse that lets Trump off the hook. I don't find that satisfying or adequate when it comes to our President. (I just avoided the impulse to write "so-called" but that fits the degradation ceremony I have in mind).

Two years back, writing about monsters and evil, I wondered about the differences of moral, legal, and clinical language. This is relevant now.  Earlier, I wrote, "Clinical language is appropriate when the goal is to avoid the moralistic stance of blame and to facilitate empathy. We appeal to clinical language when we examine the personal history of the character in question. This can help our understanding. It provides the mitigating facts. It facilitates psychotherapy, disclosure, and confession. We use clinical language to explore a performance under the guise of not being judgmental.

But at times judgment is called for. Clinical and moral language may cover the same performance but with different intent and significance.  Moral language is appropriate when blame is at stake and where agency is treated as irreducibly given. Moral language is employed when we judge a person's place in our community. We employ concepts such as evil when we make the judgment that a person's actions reveal they are not, and perhaps never were, one of us in good standing."  

On February 13th, a letter to the New York Times, co-authored by an old classmate of mine, Lance Dodes, and signed by 34 other mental health professionals argued that, 

"Silence from the country’s mental health organizations has been due to a self-imposed dictum about evaluating public figures (the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 Goldwater Rule). But this silence has resulted in a failure to lend our expertise to worried journalists and members of Congress at this critical time. We fear that too much is at stake to be silent any longer.

Mr. Trump’s speech and actions demonstrate an inability to tolerate views different from his own, leading to rage reactions. His words and behavior suggest a profound inability to empathize. Individuals with these traits distort reality to suit their psychological state...."

The next day, that letter provoked a response from Allen Frances, the chairman of the task force that wrote the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV. Frances replied,

"...Most amateur diagnosticians have mislabeled President Trump with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. I wrote the criteria that define this disorder, and Mr. Trump doesn’t meet them. He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.

Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy. 

..... Psychiatric name-calling is a misguided way of countering Mr. Trump’s attack on democracy. He can, and should, be appropriately denounced for his ignorance, incompetence, impulsivity and pursuit of dictatorial powers.

His psychological motivations are too obvious to be interesting, and analyzing them will not halt his headlong power grab. The antidote to a dystopic Trumpean dark age is political, not psychological."

It is arguable whether Trump "does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder."  I don't have first-hand clinical data, but I stand with shared certainty when Frances writes, "Mr. Trump causes severe distress..." And when he points out, "He can, and should, be appropriately denounced for his ignorance, incompetence, impulsivity and pursuit of dictatorial powers.... The antidote to a dystopic Trumpean dark age is political, not psychological."   

Here's what I think. The sterile, ostensibly nonjudgmental use of clinical language, the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, misses the point, whereas my judgmental and degrading appraisal of Trump as a thin-skinned, ignorant, self-absorbed, entitled asshole doesn't. This doesn't violate the Goldwater rule. I can make that judgment based on the effect of his public performance, regardless of the state of his psyche. Clinical language gets in the way of confronting his effects on others.  A more honest option, moral condemnation, directly addresses his standing in community. The place of moral language is when judgments of disgust and indignation, of community violation and outrage are appropriate. This our call. 

We are all in a position to assert, as an act of community, an affirmation of the essential shared values of truth and justice.  As a
community of Americans, apparently still a majority, we have the standing to witness, denounce, and judge this vile perpetrator. Regardless of whether Trump eventually requires the legal language of "treason" and "impeachment", for now moral language fits. It does the trick. It brings us together.

Degradation and accreditation ceremonies require a community that honors shared values required to remain a member in good standing. Isolation and lonely preoccupation are insufficient, inadequate as antidote when the dilemma "is political, not psychological".  And community is essential not just to address the political but as a remedy for the psychological.  We are facing an extraordinary psychological stress. With the possible exception of the days that followed the Kennedy assassination, and maybe during the Watergate hearing, I've never witnessed this much anxious attention and preoccupation with the state of America and American leadership. The point of good governing is to be free to attend to other things. Many of us are not.

For far too many, America does not feel like a safe place.  When those in charge who should be adult look mad and incompetent, the unresolved vulnerabilities of childhood awaken. This vulnerability stokes personal fears and traumas and an unsettled memory of mine.  

An October midmorning in 1962, I was twelve and scared, pacing the playground and refusing to go back to class, needing to listen to the transistor radio I'd brought to school after hearing the factory my father worked, Lithium Corporation of America, was a potential target of rockets headed for Cuba. This last month I've felt glimmers, uncanny resonances from that day. 

The bombardment of lies, absurdity, and threat has been relentless since January 20th. The signal to noise ratio hard to decipher. With friends, family, and clients, I've never seen so much preoccupation or defensive avoidance.  A tense sense of necessity undermined by helplessness. Only a month in, and already many of us face exhaustion, demoralization, or numbed indifference. So what can we do? 

I avoid crowds. I don't like to be in the midst of large groups of strangers. I love fireworks but spending a 4th of July on the Esplanade is now unthinkable. But the Saturdays of the Woman's March and the demonstration that immediately erupted in the wake of the Muslim ban offered me comfort and joy, hours of restoration. A companionship of strangers sharing the vitality of united indignation. One sign in particular evoked laughter and hope, "Listen asshole, we can do this every week!"

Demonstrations are not enough, but a necessary first aid. Demonstrations also scatter seed crystals that can organize larger, stronger structures. We need many structures, communities of separate and overlapping interests to harden rock-like to smash the threatening tyranny. Action, participating in what we intrinsically value, provides satisfaction. We'll need a lot of that to resist and persist.  

Here's a practical guide to community action: INDIVISIBLE

Take part. As Woody Guthrie said, "Take it easy, but take it."

All together now, Sing!

Some related thoughts On Choice, Sickness and Evil  and on Degradation Ceremonies.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Degradation, Accreditation, and the Community of the Deplorables.

Today the Boston Descriptive Psychology Study Group began with
the case of a 13 year old boy whose school system was isolating him as a sexual predator. A smart kid with an elaborate but flaky explanation for his actions, he seemed unmoved by scorn or guilt.

A small bit of context. He is growing up on the undesirable outskirts of a mid-sized New England town in a family that for a number of generations has been considered a clan of deplorables. Well known and ridiculed, their family name is an insult hurled among grade school children. Getting called that starts fights. I knew a few kids from families like that where I grew up in the South. Those kids never stood a chance. Born to lose; treated as losers.  As far as I know, none of them did well. Most are now dead.

So we starting talking about the understandable and likely consequences of being born into a degraded family.  As a Southerner, I am familiar with the lore of Kallikaks and Jukes, not as a sociological tale regarding eugenics, but as an image of marginal white families with yards filled with soiled diapers, chained mangy dogs, broken car parts, and rusted wash machines. People treated as trash, uncouth, considered incapable of civility or redemption. Thought of as inbred, violent, and sexually wanton; a danger to society managed through ridicule and arrest.

Such families are rarely happy and seldom have the economic or psychological resources to provide good enough care. Nor are they cared for. Depression and mental illness follow these families who never become members-in-good-standing with their local community even though they share the common ethnicity and religion. They could be one of us but aren't. This is different from the degradation that attends racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. The difference is profound. 

Here's some of the difference. This morning a member of the study group pointed out that "everyone needs a code to live by." People need a code, a set of significant values that potentially establishes a through-line that provides the evidence they are persons of integrity. An integrity both honored and witnessed. 

Communities have their honored and required social practices, the policies and choice principles people must follow if they are to be recognized as authentically one of us.  So what can groups of people who have learned to expect disrespect do?  They can turn the table. And here's an important social consideration. Groups of people large enough to function as a community have an option unlikely to be successful in an isolated family. With sufficient shared identification, people in marginalized communities have the potential to celebrate their own values especially if they make their implicit code explicit and act politically. Expect conflict. Expect values and practices at odds with those with the previously established power to inform and remind the broader culture what is acceptable and treasured. 

The marginalized and disrespected have good reason to resist degradation. Why wouldn't they? They know they can't expect the established elites and their media to help them feel good about themselves. The code most useful to disparaged folk intentionally undermines the establishment. One way people counter degradation is to discredit those with the power to discredit them by invalidating the judge and affirming the values previously degraded.  What had been deplored becomes a source of pride and membership, of righteous indignation and opposition. Collectively engaged, antagonism becomes an act of integrity and a source of satisfaction. Collectively saying fuck you is defining and establishes the boundaries of community. But this only works when there are sufficient numbers to effectively affirm actions that reflect the values of difference and opposition.  In-your-face anger, rage, protest, and indignation becomes an antidote to counter depression and demoralization. But it takes a community acting together. 

A community can resist degradation more effectively than an isolated family. A community has political power. Degradation and accreditation require valued judges and witnesses with the standing to make such appraisals.  Parents recognized as part of a broader community can feel the affirmation of each other, their children, and their neighbors. An isolated family has only each other to assign the values of success and failure. When pathology and degradation are already part of the picture, life is not likely to unfold well. Self-regulation is too restricted.  Still, people will do what they can to maintain or improve their position, to feel good from their perspective, whether or not that perspective is shared and validated by others. Individuals are idiosyncratic, communities set standards. An individual's self-valued idiosyncrasy may appear crazy and pathological but when done as a community practice is simply the way we are.  

Depression and demoralization go hand in hand with isolation.  Isolation makes it hard to establish a code to live by enacted successfully and witnessed by others who share those values. Whether we like it or not, it matters what other people think, how we feel we look in their eyes.   Some of what we require to feel good rests on significant others seeing it so.  I am thinking of depression and demoralization as the consequence of a degraded personal world, of a severely restricted expectation and achievement of the satisfactions of successful engagement in the world of a valued community. Still, even in isolation there is an alternative in a sort of lawless indifference, a guiltless disregard for other people's established values.  This is a generalized fuck you; a version of if I ain't got nothing, I've got nothing to lose.  I wonder if this speaks to the adolescent boy we discussed today, his predation his way to feel some effect and power whether or not his behavior is considered OK by his family.  We don't know whether he even treats his parents as valued judges given what he knows about how his family is seen.

It takes an affirming village to become a citizen even if that citizen's community is at odds with others. Families in isolation are insufficient unless invited in and can play by the rules.  

                                                                        Tula, Roberto Luti and the Playing For Change  Band 

A link that further elaborates: On the Degradation Ceremonies of Everyday Life.  

Anthony Putman's Parametric Analysis of Community provides useful reminders of what constitutes the moving parts of a system capable of successfully assigning and maintaining values and codes of membership and conduct.

Communities = <M, SP, S, C, Lc, CP, W> 
M: The Members eligible to participate in the practices of the community. 
SP: The Social Practices of the Community that members engage in when they are doing the community's "done thing."
S: Statuses are the places (roles, jobs, behavior potential, etc.) a member may have within the community.
C: Concepts are the distinctions that members are expected to competently appreciate. 
Lc: Locutions are the verbal behaviors, the general and technical language employed by competent members of the group in engaging in the practices of the community.  "Baseball talk."
CP:  The Choice Principles typify the decisions usually made in acting as "one of us".
W: The World is the domain of objects, processes, events, and states of affairs germane to acting as a member of the community. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Trump requires an admiring mirror. The politics of malignant narcissism.

The object relationship framing this affect expresses concretely the desire to destroy or dominate the object. An almost unavoidable consequence of hatred is its justification as revenge against the frustrating object; the wish for revenge is typical of hatred. Paranoid fears of retaliation also are usually unavoidable accompaniments of intense hatred, so that paranoid features, a wish for revenge, and sadism go hand in hand.  Otto Kernberg

Last Saturday, Trump ended his "Thank You Tour" in Mobile, Alabama. His intent was to entertain his base and bask in their reflection. Since he's good at this, we can expect a lot more to follow. He needs to play his strengths. Get ready for a permanent campaign where he avoids the informed press, dodges critical negotiation, and ignores the disgust he evokes.  He will constantly rally but not govern.  Akin to an angry, hungry infant, he doesn't care what he doesn't know and his thin-skinned defensiveness will keep this ignorance unchallenged.  And it's much worse than that. Infants mature.  At this late date in his game, Trump apparently can't afford to acknowledge his glaring intellectual and emotional weakness and incompetence. 

Demagogues and fascists require an admiring mob, and Trump thrives in co-dependence with an undereducated, aggrieved crowd who will never call him out.  They reflect well on each other but it's a devil's bargain:  this mob needs their feed. Watch him fan their impotent rage and wink and nod at nativism and white supremacy.  Where there aren't enough Muslims to attack, anti-Semitism will do. He'll continue to employ misogyny and hate to distract from his nepotism and theft. He plans to make out like a bandit.  He brags there are no laws to stop him.

He'll reject ethics and embrace kindred demagogues, foreign and domestic, who support his malignant narcissism and greed.  Those who resist collusion can expect revenge.  Watch our president-elect's handlers, Flynn, Putin, and Bannon, get the last laugh. 

I hope I've got this very wrong.

a continuation of The Man in the High Tower: Thoughts on Accreditation Ceremonies and Trump's Narcissism.

No surprise from the Washington Post:  Trump Attempts a Reset with a Rally

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Man in the High Tower: Thoughts on Accreditation Ceremonies and Trump's Narcissism.

An unhappy followup to Burning down the house: Trump, mobs, and narcissistic rage .  Apologies to Philip K. Dick.

Trump is president-elect. Where do we find hope? 

Our Alt History, The Man in the High Tower, opens with an unmoored executive branch, a broken one party Congress, and the absence of a working Supreme Court. The sequence starts with adoring crowds gazing upward at a towering glitz then pans to brown faces hidden behind drawn shades. Interspersed are headlines, The Markets Wobble, and night vision shots of Russian irregulars crossing borders, and in Massachusetts and California people too stoned to hear the loud knocking on the door.  

So where can we find hope when the world's most significant Accreditation Ceremony degrades practically everything so many of us value?  

Parallel to a Degradation Ceremony’s denouncer, witness, and perpetrator, an effective accreditation requires the witness of a community that shares common values, an affirmation of the newly accredited, and an acknowledgment by the affirmed.  If there is a glimmer of hope it might come from Trump's narcissism and the people who support it.

Trump's thin-skinned vulnerability might have a mitigating upside that comes with his continuing need for admiration.  Caught now in the sticky web of dysfunctional government, soon to be hearing  “show me the meat”, where will he turn?  For months, Trump's closest circle’s been sycophants skilled in dark and nasty branding, successfully marketing his off-message rants as manna from heaven.  In the corridors of power, that message will not fly. There will be no wall, no mass deportations, no religious bans.  He will have to stop grabbing pussy. But, unless he's a fundamentally changed man, an unlikely possibility, he'll still need his narcissistic feed or face his emptiness. He won't be hanging out with his about to be betrayed base.  Soon enough, they'll know they've been screwed again. 

He’ll need skilled operatives to manage the machine and will require their adoration. He'll need to feel respect from significant international players. Whoever these folk turn out to be, this is where he'll turn. Let's hope he's not an ideologue committed to the darkest desires of his base but a brilliant manipulator with an unquenchable thirst for admiration. 

It will boil down to his inner circle of advisers. Let's hope he has more in mind than getting the trains to run on time. 

We have no real choice but to stay tuned.  


Looks like POTUS, LLC a division of The Trump Empire, is his bottom line. That, and filling his narcissistic void. I posted this on Facebook after reading that Trump will not go after Clinton and sees no illegality, ethics aside, in attending to his businesses while in the White House. 

"Smart move to normalize Bannon and distract from what should actually outrage. Clinton was never going to be prosecuted. Trump's masterful manipulation with his misogynistic rant excited hate and now its retraction will appear presidential. Meanwhile, his abortion of liberal democratic and cosmopolitan values runs rampant. His goal, a nepotistic kleptocracy. A derailed focus on his corruption will continue hardly checked. He'll seem more human when he concedes that he can't deport the 11 million and that Muslims have Constitutional protection. Unless he profits from the concrete, the wall isn't going to be built. Looking for eight years, he'll keep the Democrats in line with infrastructure pork and maintain his alliance with Republican reactionaries by appointing to SCOTUS judges who take a primitive Federalist view of the Commerce Clause. Hello state's rights, goodbye voter rights, LBGT protection, Roe v Wade. Inequality will widen, dynasties will prevail, and the white lower middle class will remain screwed. Meanwhile the slime that's slithered out from under the rocks will comfortably don their hoods and find it much easier to recruit. I hope I am so very, very wrong.".


A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.  Joseph Goebbels

Effective propaganda rests on the absence of a free press and the constant promotion of "alternative facts".  Discrediting the independent press is an effective first move to enforce propaganda and indoctrination. Spicer and Conway are Trump's tools of fascism. They've started to silence the watchdog agencies. They cannot tolerate independent credible voices. Given our low information, post-fact and angry population, this will work well for Trump's base. It got him elected.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Burning Down the House: Trump, Degradation Ceremonies, and Narcissistic Rage

A person will not choose less behavior potential over more.  Peter Ossorio, Place

If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.  Matthew 18:9

A group is impulsive, changeable, and irritable. It is led almost exclusively by the unconscious.  Sigmund Freud agreeing with Gustave Le Bon, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego

Narcissistic rage is characterized by the relentless and ruthless need to exact revenge and rectify a perceived injustice, accompanied or proceeded by intense shame or humiliation.  Auchincloss and Samberg, Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts

"Blinded by Medieval Vampire"  Ashley Sinclair

The great analyst of narcissism, Heinz Kohut, quoted Matthew to describe the intensity of rage against a self that sees its fall.  I'm going to use it another way: The urge to destroy the witness of one's humiliation and the denouncer who pointed out the awful deed.        

We're watching the rise and expected defeat of a grandiose narcissist for the Presidency of the United States claim he's being cheated, denying what should evoke shame and humiliation. Apparently immune to mature guilt, Trump's entitled and thin-skinned grandiosity cannot tolerate the insult of being seen for what it is: a compensation for God knows what. Here is a man who has mostly gotten away with it. But what will happen when he doesn't?  And what will happen with his most vulnerable supporters, folk without advantage who've been taken along on his ride, identifying with his promise of greatness and revenge? For many of them, Trump shouting his free associations tells it like it is and evocatively gives voice to their understandable but suppressed desire for vengeance. Justified with grievance, inflamed by betrayal, what will his base do with their frustration when he loses and they've been told the election was rigged? Impotent to redress real social and economic problems, will they seek satisfaction in the spasm of the mob? Trump is inviting this.

We are watching the spectacle of Degradation Ceremonies played out across the American community. Harold Garfinkel described the ritual of the degradation ceremony as involving a denouncer, witness, and perpetrator. The denouncer and witness present themselves as community members in good standing, represent the community's values, and indicate that the perpetrator's actions are both a violation of those values and a true reflection of character not to be explained away or otherwise excused. The effective degradation demonstrates that in some significant way the perpetrator is not one of us. From where I stand, Trump is a perpetrator that deserves a degradation ceremony. 

There are various ways a perpetrator can regain good standing in the community or undo their degradation.  The normal path to regain status is repentance and reparation but that requires authentic guilt. There are darker options: in reprisal, the degraded can attempt to discredit the denouncer, blind the witness, or blow the whole thing up.  

Regardless of merit, a degradation ceremony can be effective or ineffective, accepted or rejected.  And don't forget that the actions one community finds degrading, another may affirm. Turning the table on his denouncers, a charismatic perpetrator like Trump may attempt to change the community's acceptable values or remain within the crowd, now organized, of those who already value what others despise. Here the perpetrator becomes the denouncer and Trump's base the witness. A Trump media platform and a third party would serve this goal.

When this election ends, there's going to be a large population of painfully insulted, angry, and betrayed people. And their Leader who needs adulation to compensate for injured pride.  Trump will want someone to degrade to feel whole. His crowd will want to direct their rage, and Trump has been pointing the targets out.

Continued in November's The Man in the High Tower....

Dana Milbank writing in the The Washington Post added  Trump Can't Just Be Defeated. He Must Be Humiliated.

On Trump's vulnerability to humiliation: What Drives Donald Trump? Fear of Losing Status, Tapes Show

Trump is vulnerable to Degradation Ceremonies and this suggests he will have profound reason to undo humiliation by establishing a media platform and perhaps a third party. He needs to keep admiring attention. And violence committed in his name, vengeance for his "stolen election" would also serve this narcissist's grandiosity. Where Trump support remains a large part of a population, support that isn't fundamentally anti-Clinton but instead an identification with Trump's racist and ultra nationalist rants, targeted violence is something to worry about.

Trump will not admit defeat if he can claim he was robbed. From the 10/16/16 NYTimes on Trump's claim that the election is rigged.

This from the Washington Post: Trump supporters are talking about civil war.  Could a loss provide the spark?

Earlier I wrote about Degradation Ceremonies in Everyday Life.

And on what turns an American Conservative into a reactionary: A Note on American Reactionary Politics.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Transgression, Denial, and Keeping Two Sets of Books

She is profoundly aware of the desire she inspires, but the desire cruel and naked would humiliate and horrify her. Yet she would find no charm in a respect which would be only respect.... she refuses to apprehend the desire for what it is; she does not even give it a name.... But then suppose he takes her leave her hand there is to consent in herself to flirt, to engage herself. To withdraw it is to break the troubled and unstable harmony that gives the hour its charm.  The aim is to delay the moment of decision....  We know what happens next; the young woman leaves her hand there, but does not notice that she is leaving it.    John-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

I work with people who start by telling me they don't understand their transgressions since they have a "strong moral compass". It should be no surprise that the subject is sex. (If not sex, it tends to involve money or violence.) When caught they act bewildered, maybe panicked, and claim their action was out-of-character, a result of seduction, or coercive pressure. I think they are giving lip service to ideals they say guide them while not acknowledging what they actually do when sufficiently tempted or when the chips are down. 

They may claim, and I believe them, they don't want out of their marriage, that they love their spouse and family. The intense distress they exhibit when caught speaks to a recognition of what they have to loose. Often enough, they deny understanding why they got involved in the first place. 

I'm not talking about the people who betray their vows, want to get away with it, and know damn well that when sufficient opportunity occurs, they'll go for it.  They are not fooling themselves even while they make excuses or claim innocence. They know they are lying. 

I'm interested in the people who don't know they're lying to themselves. With them, I offer the image two sets of books, an accounting concept for hidden assets. One ledger is filled with the ideals they say count heavily, their "moral compass", while the second, hidden from sight, is only opened reluctantly but carries greater weight. When denying or not acknowledging the significance of this second text they engage in the self-deception that Sartre called bad faith. 

This hidden ledger contains active desires and denied values, motivations suppressed from immediate awareness that can't be acknowledged without guilt, anxiety, or shame; and a disposition to notice transgressive opportunity that won't be refused.

When acting from denied motives, it's unsurprising if the outcome is bungled and unfortunate. This unhappy outcome is often the initial reason they come to my office where my job is to empathetically invite the hidden, deceptive, and disowned to become available for examination and negotiation. It would be negligent not to. The struggle to owe up to this self-knowledge is the heart of the analysis of the resistance, a fundamental activity in psychoanalysis. Sometimes this involves confronting unconscious motivation but more often, I think, motivations we're reluctant to see, but could. We resist knowing and acknowledging these facts about ourselves (and others) even as our defensive negligence incurs a high cost. 

Why? It's natural, at times, to be at odds with oneself, to have values hard to reconcile where we can't have it both ways. We're defensive about this when our goodness and morality are at stake.  Here's a self-serving example.  Some weeks ago, mid morning, I was enjoying the frustrations of fishing inside the bay below the gut on Cape Pogue.  After hours of casting, I reeled in a beautiful but wee too short striped bass. I love the taste of bass in the morning.  There's no one else on the beach but my wife and dogs. My grill's in the back of the jeep. Did I mention I was hungry? Reluctantly, very reluctantly, after measuring the fish and confirming what I already know, three inches short of the legal twenty-eight, I eased the poor stripper back into the water. I'm conflicted. I'm hungry. I love grilled stripper. Knowing I can get away with keeping it, I throw it back just the same. Why? Because I'm a surfcaster who honors the conservation rules. They've worked to restore what had been a dangerously diminished stock. So I tolerate mixed feeling: the pleasure in the catch and the frustration and satisfaction in the release. (It is satisfying to do the right thing in a tradition I respect. Fishing ethics matter to me.)  It would be different if I was starving. It might be different if I was much hungrier, I can't be sure.  So I smiled at my wife, asked the dogs to shut the fuck up, and had enough bars to call the Shanty in Edgartown.  I'll settle for their lobster rolls and a Bloody Mary.  

I was working from one playbook that morning, motivationally conflicted or not. At odds with myself, but not that much. And I knew it. (Plus, now I can use it as an example here to illustrate my point and to show what a sportsman I am).

I started this posting with Sartre's famous example of bad faith. Versions of this involve sexual transgression with elements of denial, argued as out-of-character and not understood.  Often the acts seem out-of-character only to the perpetrators. This corresponds to their refusal or inability to open the second ledger where the actual weight given the pleasures of the erotic and the affirmations of being desirable might be inscribed. Finding that you're desirable is powerfully motivating when it's compensation for doubt or other significant kindred loss. Or when it seems the best thing you've got going.  This works many ways.

Are sexual transgressions all that mysterious? Consider the nature of actual human motivation. Why do people do what they do? The simple answer is that circumstance present opportunity. (What makes it opportunity is that it is something wanted, valued). Of course, the circumstances that provide opportunity have more than a few moving parts. We recognize pros and cons, or should. And not all pros and cons carry the same motivational weight, regardless of what we claim about our character. The actual weights, stable, subject to revision, claimed, disowned, or unconscious are a fundamental feature of our individual differences, whether we acknowledge it or not. Our neighbors and intimates will carry the burden of our neglect.

Some Descriptive Psychology, Psychodynamics, and a bit of Freud.

The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Mark 14:38

A person's reasons for action can be grouped into four categories:  Hedonics, Prudence, Aesthetics, and Ethics.  Moral standards will find a place in both our prudential and ethical concerns. The four are intrinsic motivations, understandable without further justification. Having an intrinsic reason is having reason enough to do something. These motives have a complex and dynamic relationship to each other as a person weighs what to do in any given circumstance.  This weighing of values can be immediate, a matter of careful deliberation, unconscious, or some combination. 

Why is problematic sexual behavior so often a feature of self-deception? (I'll turn to violence and money in a later posting). The simple answer is the motivational category of Hedonics, the fundamental, often powerful and intrinsic value of pleasure, and the compelling, often automatic pull of the erotic.  Add to this a common polyerotic disposition that comes with our primate body.  Sexual desire is not always countered or balanced by prudent self-interest or the ideals that a person claims as their ethics. To make it more complex, the actual weight given to ethical standards may require the recognition of choice. Such mindful recognition might not be as immediate or compelling as the erotic.  

We don't ordinarily choose what turns us on. Over time most of us learn to exercise prudent caution regarding tempting circumstances and mortifying outcomes. These recognitions sometimes become automatic and immediate and part of how we see things.  Even if not automatic, we can, if our moral-ethical perspective counts enough, turn away from desire even as it aches. The complication is that renunciation is a deliberate action, involves choice, requires self-knowledge. To the extent a person's actual motivations are, for whatever reason, unavailable for self-examination, they are apt to result in problematic acting out with bungled or otherwise unfortunate outcome. What isn't self-acknowledged cannot enter into good-faith negotiation. What isn't acknowledged cannot be the focus of reconsideration or the socialization of sharing with a trusted companion. What is motivating but unacknowledged confounds emotionally competent judgment and compromises life. It's hard to self-correct what isn't considered in the first place. 

The Psychodynamic Judgment Diagram

Here's an illustration called the The Psychodynamic Judgment Diagram that parses out the components of judgment or appraisal that results in an action. Domain 1 corresponds to the open book. Domains 2 and 3 to the less acknowledged ledger.

If you're interested, the posting Bad Faith, Self-Deception, and Unconscious Motivation: Restrictions in Effective Choice explain and elaborate this model. 

In a similar vein, Sex and a Person's True Colors.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Authenticity and Emotion: A note on the satisfaction of being "well-cast".

Our culture tends to regard the mere energy of impulse as being in every mental and moral way equivalent and even superior to defined intention. Instead we should consider an idea that once was salient in western culture: the idea of making a life, by which was meant conceiving human existence, one's own or another's, as if it were a work of art upon which one might pass judgment.... Sincerity and Authenticity  Lionel Trilling

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself....  Teach Your Children  Graham Nash

Since you are free to choose, you're free to make inauthentic choices as well as authentic ones, and that's why some people, indeed, are living inauthentic lives.  There is nothing that guarantees that you make the right decisions for your life.

Where does authenticity show itself? Primarily in social relationships. Not in the way you sit in the corner by yourself, but in the way you interact with people.  Personality and Personality Theories   Peter Ossorio

What Is It to Act Authentically?

A few weeks ago in the New York Times, Adam Grant wrote a piece titled, Unless You're Oprah, 'Be Yourself' is Terrible Advice.  The gist of the article was that authenticity is hazardous, that "nobody wants to see your true self".  By way of example he wrote, "A decade ago, the author A. J. Jacobs spent a few weeks trying to be totally authentic. He announced to an editor that he would try to sleep with her if he were single and informed his nanny that he would like to go on a date with her if his wife left him. He informed a friend’s 5-year-old daughter that the beetle in her hands was not napping but dead. He told his in-laws that their conversation was boring. You can imagine how his experiment worked out.  He went on to add, "Deceit makes our world go round... Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse."

Grant is confusing authenticity with stupidity and boorishness.  Authenticity, being true to oneself, is not some mindless 'let it all hang out'.  And deceit is beside the point, not the central issue. Refraining from blurting all one's urges is not deceit,  nor is it being inauthentic. It's being emotionally competent. 

Authenticity is one of those wastebasket terms that collects much worth discarding.  Nonetheless, it has use in understanding how behavior and the course life provide satisfaction. 

Let's start with what we all know:  A person's actual behavior follows from their particular values, knowledge, and competence, and takes place in a more or less recognized set of circumstances. Notice that "values" is plural. Ordinarily, in any given circumstance, we have a multiplicity of values in play, with some being more intrinsic and dear than others.  

Here's what I want to keep in mind: Authenticity and satisfaction go hand in hand. The values held most significant define the through-lines of character linking authenticity, personal integrity, and satisfaction. Personal integrity is a matter of grit and resilience, of maintaining the centrality of one's fundamental and intrinsic values in the course of life's pressures and coercions. To the extent a person's intrinsic values hold sway, to the extent compromise does not violate integrity, life is authentic and satisfying. That's how I see it. 

The Descriptive Psychologist Anthony Putman in his essay, Being, Becoming, and Belonging provides a vision of authenticity that avoids Grant's caricature and respects the heart of the existentialist idea that authenticity is not acting in the bad faith or false consciousness of restricted choice.  Authentic action is true to a person's actual freedom within their world.  Known choice matters. A person's  choices within constraint and the pattern of enacted values define this understanding. Paradigmatically, what identifies an individual as a person is their ability to engage in deliberate action in a dramaturgical pattern. Deliberate action follows the motivational weight people give their specific reasons to do one thing or another. The specifics, the individual differences people show, are largely a matter of what they encounter and are actually able and disposed to value, know, and know how to manage. Over time, given a world of circumstance and "thrownness", this constitutes life's drama. 

Here are a few excerpts from Tony's essay

Every day, as we go along being and doing in the world, we experience actions ranging from ones that seem straightforwardly an expression of “who I am”, to ones where we are just going through the motions and know it. We are interested here in the ones that are not an authentic expression of “who I am.” “My heart says one thing, but I do another.” “My job (school, church, marriage) requires me to act in certain ways, but that’s not the real me.” Some of these instances drop out of the picture as soon as we acknowledge that a person can deliberately choose to engage in an action which she knows is not an authentic expression of who she is. These choices are often made on prudential grounds (“Better not burn that bridge just yet”), moral/ethical grounds (“The fact that it’s true doesn’t outweigh the harm I would cause by saying it”) or even hedonic grounds (“Let’s just take the easy way this time.”) If these choices are inauthentic at all, they are at most “garden variety inauthenticity” and not likely to cause too many sleepless nights so long as they are balanced with a sufficiency of authentic acts. 

...we can understand authenticity as referring to the situation where 
a person is well-cast in the status she is being. Who she is and knows herself to be, is a good match for what the status requires her to be; what she is called upon to do in this status gives her good opportunity to express who she really is; as she “be’s” this status, she feels like her “true self” because the version of her this status calls for includes some of her most important personal characteristics.

Inauthenticity can be seen, then, as miscasting. The status he knows... he must be, is a poor match for the status he in fact is being in the world.... He is called upon to act on personal characteristics he in fact does not have, or which are weak in his overall scheme; the version of him this status calls for includes little of central importance to him. (As the Wizard of Oz said to
Dorothy: “I’m not a bad man. I’m a very good man. I’m just a bad wizard.”) Small wonder, then that he feels phony or inauthentic or empty....  One can take only so much of this miscasting before beginning to wonder, “Who am I, really?” because it has been a long time since “I have felt like myself” – that is, “since I have been well-cast in a status where the version of me I was being included important aspects of me, and matched well what the status required me to be.” “Real self”, then, is how we refer to a particular state of affairs. A person is his “real self” when who he is at the a good match for who he is called upon to be by the Status he is currently being.... 

Authenticity is not in the expression of all one feels but of being well-cast, of finding roles and communities where one's intrinsic values count.  Compromise is the nature of real life, but a person can act authentically when necessary compromise does not violate personal integrity.  Participation that facilitates authentic expression is inherently satisfying. 

Emotional Action and Authenticity

We tend to view emotional presentations as revealing something authentic about a person. Emotion as a spontaneous expression may be taken to reveal "true feeling" free of guile. A sort of "now I see how you really feel!"  But does it?  The answer is yes and no. The Descriptive concept of emotion as felt and immediate intentional action may clarify this.  Emotional behavior involves the learned tendency to act on an appraisal of a situation without deliberation.  We don't think it through and then decide what to emote. It's more immediate and impulsive.  But, this is not to say that some balance, a simultaneous recognition of what is appropriate or effective, isn't seen immediately or in retrospect. The balance, and the accuracy of the initial appraisal, contribute to whether the emotional response is performed competently or not. And, no matter the immediate reaction, the valued balance may require further reflection. 

Emotional reactions are not necessarily the best evidence pointing to what is authentic.  My immediate response may not necessarily reveal "the true me".  The "true me" can change.  Over time, the satisfaction of authentic expression may come more from reflection and reconsideration.  People are, after all, deliberate actors capable of reconsidering and reordering priorities.  Some circumstances require a considered response that overrides an initial reaction of fear, hostility, lust, and the like.  We're able, more or less, to change our mind.  The second thoughts that protect a person's integrity are as much a feature of true character as anything else.

A satisfying and happy life requires understanding and competently dealing with the sort of natural complexity and ambivalence that accompanies the inter-dependency of intimacy, friendship, and family life, to point to an obvious few.  Is it inauthentic if I show my concern without reminding my beloved that her broken toe came from choosing the wrong thing to kick?  The time may come for that, but need it be said while I apply the splint? 

Two Descriptive Psychological tools

Two Descriptive tools, the Judgment Diagram and the Emotion Formula, can help us sort these issues out. Let me show you. 

The Judgment Diagram 

The Judgment Diagram is a format for understanding how a person weighs his or her circumstances, forms an appraisal (with or without deliberation), and acts accordingly. A central reminder here is that the overall circumstances (the big "C") can have many relevant considerations.  The varied reasons (from the small "c")  can work well together or can conflict.  In sum, they create the dynamic we call a motivational hierarchy.  A person's "true colors" are revealed by the weights they give their various reasons to act one way or another. This diagram also serves as the basis for the Psychodynamic Judgment Diagram where unconscious and under-examined motives are included in the judgment.

The Judgment Diagram can be used to illustrate a temporal or sequential process of thinking over the circumstances and reasons to do one thing or another. (She loves me, she loves me not?)  Or, it can simply list the features of the recognized overall circumstances, immediately seen as such. A person does not have to think through what they already recognize as the case. People differ in their sensitivity and understanding of their overall circumstances. A person's grasp of the "big picture", the differentiated nuance they simply see, is a way to conceptualize intelligence, emotional or otherwise. 

Circumstances provide reason to do one thing or another. Some of these reasons might be represented by the "unless clauses" of the emotion formula. 

The Emotion Formula

The Emotion formula is a special case that applies the behavioral logic of The Relationship Formula.

W:  What the actor Wants to accomplish.
K:  What the actor Knows, distinguishes, or recognizes in the circumstance that is relevant to what the actor Wants.
KH:  What the actor Knows-How to do given what the actor Wants and Knows about the relevant circumstance.
P:  The procedural manner or Performance of the action in real time.
A:  The Achievement of the action.

Emotional behavior involves a leaned tendency to act without deliberation.   Deliberate action and the process of deliberation are not the same although they share the common feature of recognized alternatives.  What I recognize in an instant can be complex and nuanced and simply how I see and know how respond.  Or, on the other hand, circumstances can give me pause and reason to think it through. Deliberation is a useful option when the consequences of my action are not what I want. Given what I hold dear, my sense of integrity, I might want to rethink my priorities or the manner I've implemented my intentions. 

Or consider this mundane example. 

A young, beautiful, and smiling colleague brings to my desk a problem she wants to clarify. I don't have to think about the boundaries and possibilities of this encounter. I know who we are to each other and how to act accordingly.  I maintain eye contact and don't look her up and down. I've learned to act this way.  In my pleasure to be in her company, I drop what I am doing and engage her question. She clearly shows her appreciation for my shift in priorities.  I don't spend time thinking about any of this. I'm simply present for her. Do I need to think through that I'm old enough to be her father, that I'm married and her advisor.  That whatever the sexual tension, it's not the business at hand? (OK, probably mine, not hers.  I try not to be an old fool.) 

My immediate happiness, my emotional response, is from being in her company and of valued service. After all, here's an opportunity to share my wisdom. (Be nice now).  Her beauty is icing on the cake. I don't have to think it over. Are their similar situations where I might think about other possibilities, real or imagined? Sure, but not this one. During this encounter the overall circumstance includes her beauty, youth, and sexuality. All this carries weight in balance with my other valued dispositions and recognitions.  I know all this without having to think.  Authenticity does not require commenting how hot she is. She'd find that creepy.  We're not well-cast for each other this way.  Here, authenticity is expressed by doing a job I intrinsically value, enjoying her company, and not pretending otherwise.  

Is authenticity necessarily a good thing?  It depends.  What works in some circumstances can be deeply troubling in others.  Consider current presidential politics.  What to make of a demonstration of authentic unbridled narcissism, racism, ruthlessness, and entitlement?    

Authenticity can lead to boorish and unconsidered disregard.  Moral and clinical language, like jerk or personality disorder, gets at this. Usually such casting doesn't work out well. We've our own integrity to maintain in dealing with such folk.  

But unless you really are an asshole, being yourself is probably something to attempt. Although it might not be easy, try to find roles that fit your intrinsic values, try to find relationships where you're well-cast, circumstances where necessary compromise won't violate your integrity. Try to find it. If you do, I'm pretty sure you'll find life satisfying.

Emotional competence is explored in the entry,  Emotional Competence, Self Experience, and Developmental Patterns. 

More on satisfaction in the construction of ones's world: Satisfaction, Narcissism, and the Construction of Worlds.

Totally antithetical to the above but in character.  "Let it all hangout!"

7/10/16   Adam Grant responded with this corrective arguing that sincerity works better: The Dangers of Being Authentic.  Not the same conceptualization as a concern with being well cast but with useful reminders.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Through-Lines and Dogs. Significance in Dog Psychology.

You can trust a dog with your life...but not your lunch.  Stephen Huneck

Maxim 1. A person takes it that things are as they seem unless they have reason enough to think otherwise.  Peter Ossorio

A through-line description is, paradigmatically, the description of a non-contiguous sequence of a person's courses of action as having a shared significance.  For me, that's sufficient formulation.  Greg Colvin 

A friend asked what through-line descriptions I could give of my dogs. Dogs are impulsive. Maybe not the highly trained, but the dogs I know are.  A student of mine remarked that dogs are like children with impulse control issues.  She went on to suggest cats "are sort of on the spectrum".  Certainly my dogs could do a better job at restraint and the cats I love seem a bit indifferent.  

What follows are thoughts about dogs and their personable ways.  I'll use the Descriptive Psychological Person Concept, the interdependent concepts of Individual Person, Behavior, Language, and World. I'm going to make a point of invoking person qualities where they seem appropriate.  I'm aware of the hazards of being overly anthropomorphic.  We might argue about this.

I think no one in their right mind doubts dogs have personalities, with individually different abilities and dispositions. If you know a dog, you recognize a character. While never knowing exactly what a dog will do, we come to know what they find important. They sometimes surprise us, but mostly they act in-character in their dogged ways. 

I am certain dogs are intentional actors, consciously aware and often deliberate.  If you seriously doubt this, my bet is that you relate to them differently than I do. (And that's too bad. Here, I'm thinking “I to Dog” akin to “I to Thou”, in contrast to “I to It”.  My dogs are family members, not property.  This is a topic for a different time.)

That dogs have personal characteristics and engage in intentional action, paradigmatic intentional action, carries the logical requirement that their behavior involves courses of action with significance. Their lives have through-lines organized by what they hold important.  I think this is the case for all animals. The through-lines descriptive of humans may seem more complex but that claim may be an artifact of a failure to recognize the nuanced sensitivities and forms of life that matter to our canine companions. Obviously they hear and smell beyond my competence to judge what they appreciate. These sensitivities inform their natural needs and provide significant information beyond my ken. Why do they roll in dead worms with such obvious delight? 

All personal characteristics develop from an individual's prior capacities (e.g., in-born and developed sensitivities and body based needs) and their intervening experiences. Dogs and humans alike find themselves in an environment of restricted possibilities where they find, create, and practice their individual ways. Dogs are usually more restricted than humans. We keep them this way.

It's appropriate to think of a dog as a sort of person. For this to make sense I need to explain how I'm using the concept. By person I mean an individual whose history is, paradigmatically, a history of Deliberate Action in a Dramaturgical Pattern, a pattern that makes sense the way stories do. A person's actions follow from their individual characteristics and their circumstances, reflecting what they try to achieve given their values.  Having values means being able to want some state of affairs over others. This in turn produces the patterns I call through-lines, a form of description that identifies an individual's significant concerns.  Along with the ability to engage in deliberate acts, paradigmatic persons also have language, an ability to deliberately share symbolic representations corresponding to their world, states, and practices. 

Deliberate Action is a form of behavior in which a person (a) engages in an intentional or goal directed action, (b) is Cognizant of that, and (c) has chosen to do that.  A person is not always engaged in a deliberate action but has the ability to do so.  A human being is an individual who is both a person and a specimen of Homo sapiens. This last sentence carries the reminder that non-human individuals could also be persons. By paradigmatic I am referring to the method of paradigm case formulation that allows for variations and transformations in the paradigm, including the deletion of elements.  Paradigmatic refers to a full or undoubted case, a case where all competent judges likely agree. Some judges may find some attributes more essential than others, but by starting with a paradigm where we agree, it's simple when elements are transformed or deleted, to know where we disagree. Dogs, to me, are deficit case persons. 

Intentional action involves something an individual recognizes and wants, and knows how to achieve. This corresponds to a performance, an observable implementation of trying to achieve what desired. Intentional action has significance, ultimately grounded in the actor’s intrinsic, done-for-it's-own-sake values. The reasons for an intentional action are ultimately or finally justified by something intrinsic.  (In a baseball game, the pitcher by throwing a pitch, is trying to strike out the batter, by trying to strike out the batter, he is trying to win the game, by trying to win the game, he is doing what baseball players do if they are actually playing baseball.) Keep this in mind, because a problem in understanding the behavior of dogs is we can't simply ask, "what are you trying to do by doing that?".  Nor can we ask, "what didn't you do?"  This last question makes it difficult to judge if the behavior was chosen, i.e., deliberate.  This doesn't mean it wasn't deliberate, it just means it's hard to gather the evidence that comes with a verbal description of choice.  Choices are easiest to see when the speaker can tell us what option wasn't selected. We will return to this since some reasons for behavior, especially those that involve ethical or aesthetic values, require the ability to engage in deliberate action, the ability to decide not to go down a particular path.  Choice can involve renunciation, "the high road or the low road?" 

Significance, as I am employing it in it's Descriptive Psychological sense, is grounded by something intrinsic. Humans, paradigmatic Persons, are able to successfully justify an act as significant given their intrinsic and specific Hedonic, Prudent, Ethical/Moral and Aesthetic concerns.  I'll return to this in a bit.  I have no trouble arguing dogs have hedonic and prudent concerns.  Clearly they're pleasure seeking, pain avoiding, and self-interested. I don't doubt they are cognizant and deliberate, but I'd have trouble making a strong case that dogs have ethical and aesthetic values, even though I think some might.  I treat my dogs as deficit case persons, worthy of respect, but they're dogs so I don't trust them with my lunch (but then again, I might not trust you either). 

Do dogs have an ethical sense?  A 2008 study in The Proceeding of the American Academy of Sciences found that dogs respond to unfair treatment, cooperating less when they witness a partner dog getting a bigger share of food. Since I don't know of a case where a dog has acted to make sure another dog gets a fair share, this seems more a matter of self-interest than an ethical concern with fair distribution. Perhaps they only really care when they are at the short end of the stick. But I can't speak for what the dog is actually considering. 

Dogs are clearly less competent than humans in language use, although I don’t write them off completely. (Another point to argue). Their limited verbal repertory along with the importance they give hedonics and prudence, with an apparent lack of ethical and aesthetic perspective, keeps them deficit cases in my book. But here are all sorts of reasons to argue.  I argue with myself about this.

Some Limitations to a Dog's Through-Lines 

Dependency, rapid maturation, and an extraordinary awareness of smell and sound, inform and shape a dog's all too short life.  In the span of human growth from infancy to adolescence, most dogs live their entire lives. By the time a human has just begun to understand what they find significant, a dog has come and gone. This makes for shorter through-lines.  As a human with a limited ability to appreciate the nuanced world my dog senses, the through-line descriptions I offer are less complex and differentiated than those I construct for a human I know well. My limited appreciation limits my competence to adequately describe what they find significant. This, I suspect, is also partly why dogs are sometimes described in ways we talk about children.  A dog's life and a human's youth span a similar number of days. And dogs, like human children, are domesticated, bred and socially shaped to fit the worlds of persons and our ways. 

Since children and domestic animals are dependent on the support of a more mature human community, their through-lines, informed by their idiosyncratic discoveries, largely concern their standings with each other and with their keepers and providers.  We watch them sort out whether to lead or follow, whether they've been individually recognized, and whether they're in good standing.  This and food seem front and center. Maybe more for dogs. By food I include the crap they constantly try to snap up and swallow.

The through-lines I can construct for my dogs are descriptions of how they manage their dependency and the imposed restrictions on their lives.  Since through-lines are an observer's construct, the descriptions I develop center on how I see them interact with me, each other, our family, neighbors, and the other dogs, strangers, and other animals encountered on walks.  

The trick with describing their through-lines is finding a nuance that captures the pattern.  So here's some for the dogs I live with. 

Hart, a dachshund rat terrier mix:  

Tirelessly keeping his eye on the "ball", he seeks potential allies incessantly imploring them to play his game so he can show off his varied moves and respond to acknowledgment. 

Sweetly obstinate, heedless of the other's power and direction, he makes a show of a resistance to follow. Knowing he will eventually come along, he digs in his heels and delays any attempt that distract him from a mission to sniff and mark where he's been. 

Here's two for Banjo, a dachshund lab: 

"Following from ahead of the pack", insistently eager to connect and please, he seeks acknowledgment and a secure place where he'll not be bothered. 

Disregarding the consequences, if it smells palatable, it's to be gobbled. (Actually, this describes both Banjo and Hart). 

Not paradigmatically competent with language, but very communicative, both dogs mix and string sounds, phatic and evocative, along with body gestures that convey meaning. My understanding of their intended meanings, varied and sometimes complex, is vindicated by their response. If I respond with what they want, they stop imploring. The signal to noise ratio seems largely signal. If there is grammar to what they convey, it is simple and conforms to the forms of life, the practices, that matter to them. It seems to me that if I keep my vocalizations short and relevant to their concerns, they mostly respond accordingly, unless they don't want to. But that's the case with everyone I deal with. 

It is when I play with Banjo and Hart that I find reason to think they have a limited ethical and aesthetic perspective. Hart, at some point nightly, will stand in front of me, catch my eye, and bark. Then he'll stare. Banjo will run in from the bedroom, check out the scene, and for reasons hard to fathom, remain or return to the bedroom where he rearranged the pillows and snuck some item of my wife's clothing, never mine. I usually try to ignore Hart because I have my own agenda. But if he can hold my eye, he'll bark again, make a puppy whine and then turn his head to the mantle where his toys are almost hidden. He'll try to catch my eye and when he does he points to the balls.  He moves his eyes from mine to the mantle and eagerly waits.  I know he wants to play.

If he's caught me in the right mood, I take one of the squishy balls and toss it. Grounders, popups, fakes to the right or left. Gleeful mid-air catches and in-air toss backs. This goes on and on and on and on. When Hart makes a particularly artful catch he wiggles the way he does when excited and praised. He catches better than he throws, I'm lazy, so if he hasn't tossed the ball right to me I'll say something that amounts to "not close enough".  He'll look at me again and if he wants to continue will nudge the ball closer.  Sometimes he doesn't want to give it back, especially if Banjo intrudes. Banjo, awkward with the game, mostly runs interference. If he can, instead of bringing it back to me, he'll steal it and return to the bedroom inviting chase.  

This is a game. It has shared rules of fair and foul, and the happy appreciation of the beauty of a well executed play. Seeing it this way, acting accordingly, makes it work. 

but if dogs could talk....

Here's links to "What is a Person? And how can we be sure?" , where I examine the question of non-human persons,  and  "The Person Concept",  the foundation of behavioral science.
And on the Descriptive concept of "through-lines".

And what you already know that your dog knows, your dog understands the meaning and significance of your relevant language.