Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Mankind Project: Modern Man Mythologised

Warning: this is a rant. If you like the idea of rediscovering your masculinity then don't bother reading on because you will be offended in every paragraph. Later on in this post I will attempt to give a dispassionate analysis that addresses the philosophical underpinnings of The Mankind Project.

Why am I doing this? Because a friend of mine has been involved in The Mankind Project(MKP) for over 3 years and will now spend several months receiving dangerous psychiatric drugs(antispsychotics), is incapable of looking after himself, and may never fully recover.  I'm trusting my feelings on this, just as the MKP insists men should do. I'll let my feelings do my thinking. The real thinking part is at the end.

You'd think the last thing a "real man" would be interested in is myths and fairy tales but apparently not. More on that latter. I suppose real men don't need to be concerned with getting their facts straight, only beating drums, dancing naked under the moonlight, and scaring the hell out of one another. Read the link, it's a hoot! Real men don't need to think, they just need to be be prancing about in the dark. Welcome to The Mankind Project.

I had thought about trying to engage in a dispassionate analysis but as the webpage of The Mankind Project states
Many men have been taught to value thinking and to distrust feelings.
Newsflash: thinking and feeling have value, in the appropriate domains. I rely very much on intuitions to guide me but not to dominate my thinking. If feelings are going to lead to a clearer apprehension of the world than I can throw out my textbooks and maths and just learn to trust my guts. Yep, that's how modern great achievements are made. Let's see, I think it is better if we build the bridge with lego blocks than steel. That's how I feel today so start building!

Of course the other problem with their statement is "thinking" and "feelings" are very hard to distinguish, with many now arguing that the two are intertwined. But MKP have the lowdown on human nature, emotions, and cognition. I await to see the founders of MKP on a slow boat to Sweden.

The home page of MKP has a poem: The New Macho. Guess what, all of that poem could equally relate to women. It could be read as a homage to metrosexuality. I don't have a problem with that, my concerns go beyond these facile, supercilious, cognitively pusillanimous(cowardly) paradigms. I think it is ridiculous to even try and define human nature let alone Macho. Understand this: every attempt to define human nature can very easily descend into social engineering. Remember the Communists? If you're looking for insight in that regard I can highly recommend, Beyond Human Nature, Jesse Prinz. This brilliant text should be read by anyone interested in understanding why attempts to define human nature are doomed to fail. If we can't define human nature we can't define being macho.

A few snippets from their poem:
He knows how to listen from the core of his being.
Unless you have your head up your arse you cannot listen from the core of your being.
He's ready to confront his own limitations.
He should be, men who over reach have caused great strife in history. Remember Hitler's disastrous decision to go after Russia? Oh dear, I've invoked the Nazis. End of that discussion.
He has high expectations for himself and for those he connects with.
High expectations is a hallmark of depressive individuals. They often expect too much of themselves. How about realistic expectations grounded in a rational appraisal of one's strengths and weaknesses? Whoops, sorry, I'm thinking again.
He knows he is an individual.He knows that we are all one.
Stupid contradiction.
He knows that the future generations are watching his actions.
Hmmm, sounds like something out of QM, the future is already there and its members are watching us create them! Amazing. And I thought the dual slit and entanglement issues were a bother!

Yes siree, pack of intellectual giants there are MKP. Whoops, no thinking allowed! 

I AM Warrior!

 Now the word "warrior" has a clear an unambiguous meaning: a man who kills men, women, and children, and anything else that moves. Anything that doesn't move isn't safe either. Why not create a new word for a new masculinity. Something like Homo Stupiditus. 

A key feature of the MKP is their Warrior Training. So let's have a look. Their website claims that their Warrior Training will

  • You'll experience a level of energy, a quality of masculinity, a deep sense of safety, joy and laughter, anger and fear, physical challenge, and a connection to life's mystery that we can't explain to you, no matter how hard we try.
  • You'll have the opportunity to look with fearless honesty at the life you've created, and make profound choices about what you want to keep, what you want to expand, and what you want to let go of.
  • You'll discover your unique connection to manhood, explore a new way of understanding masculinity, and step fully into the man you envision yourself to be.
A quality of masculinity.
Too far back for most but decades ago there was a novel that was all the rage: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. It had nothing to do with Zen, it was this strange assertion, that many perceived as some brilliant revelation, that there are certain features in life that are not quantifiable. Well I'll be damned, who would have thought that ... 

They sure are packing the emotions into this Warrior Training. Here's a news flash: if you are experiencing all those intense feelings in a such a short period you're either using some damn interesting drugs or you are a rapid cycling bipolar. Or as a friend of intimated, echoes of Zimbardo's famous experiments occur. That is a very worrying observation. 

A connection to life's mystery. Hmmm, then why does it remain a mystery? Well there is a certain sense to that because feelings are not easily translatable into words. No mystery. 

and make profound choices about you want to keep ... 

What, with one little adventure my whole life will be determined? Yeah sure .... 

At this page they provide advice as to whether or not you are ready to undertake the Warrior training. They state 
To participate in this training, you must be in reasonably good physical condition, and willing to face the prospect of transformative change in your life.
A transformative change eh? I've always been fascinated by the conversion experience. It seems to be a sudden transformation, something akin to the "fast school" of Zen. It also reminds me of something I recently read about the development of psychosis: it is often long preceded by a period of intense emotional distress. And as Zen masters have long known bringing individuals towards a transformative experience can be highly dangerous for some individuals. Not necessarily just those inclined towards psychosis, I suspect those with anxiety problems could be very much damaged by such experiences. So to their credit they do warn:
This training is not intended for men with active mental health issues that might lead to self harming or violent behaviors. Please seek professional mental health counseling.
That's good advice but here's the problem: there will a huge self selection bias towards individuals who are already experiencing psychological problems and hence be drawn to MKP. It is ludicrous to think that an individual can always be aware of whether or not they are on the verge of developing a serious psychological disorder. As many will attest, depression creeps up on you, it may take weeks before you even recognise you are depressed(been there, done that, too many bloody times!). So MKP, once again demonstrating a remarkable lack of insight into human behavior, in the very least should be demanding that all participants in Warrior Training are psychologically assessed. Zen masters were aware of this issue centuries ago, MKP leaders are still in the dark. Perhaps if they spent less time in the moonlight and more time under the study light they might realise the folly of their ways.

In response to a scathing article in the Houston Times, on this page MKP makes the following statement:

Men who attend the NWTA are required to complete a four-page Confidential Medical Record.  This Record includes detailed questions about substance abuse and emotional and psychological problems.  We require licensed physicians from MKP to review all forms and have developed a detailed protocol to guide them.

Not good enough. Again relying on self-reports to determine the presence of psychological problems, the doctors only read the reports, do not interview the applicants. Stupid and dangerous.

On this page they state:
 In fact, in the debriefing session at the end of our training, all participants are strongly encouraged not to make significant changes in their lives for at least six months. 
Wait a minute, I thought the whole point was some "transformative experience". Oh but wait 6 months. Reminds me of that joke in Men Who Stare at Goats where the character played by George Clooney said he had been given the "death stare" 20 years ago. When challenged why he hadn't died he stated it hadn't kicked in yet.

I've exhausted my feelings on the subject but the venting hasn't helped. Perhaps I should vent the MKP way. The moon is out tonight. So now I'll turn my attention to the philosophical underpinnings of MKP.

There's an Archetype in There, and One Over There ... . 

The primary philosophical underpinnings of the MKP are derived from Jungian psychoanalysis. I studied Jung at Uni but only in one subject. I did however read everything written by Jung that I could lay my hands on. Jung is a fascinating character, I don't agree with his psychology but that's no big deal because I don't agree with any "holistic" explanation of being human. There is a fundamental epistemological problem with the way people attempt to understand behavior. I believe it is or will be possible to understand specific behaviors but even such explanations must be contextualised. That is, there is no universal model we can call on to explain human behavior in all times and places. It is perhaps arguable but in my opinion it is intrinsically impossible to ever create such a model of human behavior because we are not the causes of our behavior. As I like to say: trying to understand human behavior without reference to environmental contingencies is like trying to study aerodynamics on the moon. Long ago I read this beautiful statement which sums up my perspective on these questions:

The nature of man is thus intrinsically and eternally problematic: we must make and continually remake our own nature, we must constantly be in search of ourselves. But we cannot discover the nature of ourselves in the same way that we can discover the nature of things 'outside' us. ... The truth about people, about human nature, then, is not something that is awaiting discovery, ready made, like something under a stone on the beach: it can only be made by people in dialogue, as the product of a social act, in continual mutual interrogation and reply.
Shotter, Images of Man in Psychological Research. 1975, pp 134,5

Now I wish those who started the whole Evolutionary Psychology Mumbo Jumbo had bothered to read Shotter. It is a profound insight, one that should have steered psychology towards a "modern synthesis". Alas, as so often happens in psychology, the mob invaded the discipline and wrecked it. (Oddly enough, 3 people I know with extensive experience in psychology, both academically and clinically, are scathing of much of modern psychology. And they all very freakin' brilliant, 2 males, one female). Alas poor Skinner, the world was not ready for you. Psychology even less so.

Jung's theory of archetypes has been actively explored for decades by a great many scholars. If you are interested in his ideas there is plenty of information to be found. His books are a fascinating read, the man had a remarkable gift for communication and a keen insight into being human. Jung's theories drew on the writings of Joseph Campbell, a gifted scholar who studied mythologies across the world.

The fundamental problem with Jung, and far too many ideas in psychology, is that there is some innate modules implanted somewhere within us that drive our behavior. Now I'm not denying the reality of "biological drives" but that is something entirely different from the idea that we have some mythological impetus implanted in us. Jung I can excuse for this error, MKP and anyone today I cannot. If said archetypes do exist, and in a certain sense there is some truth to the concept, those archetypes are found not within us but within our culture.

Accordingly the whole intellectual edifice of MKP is founded on error. Let's not be too critical there, the problem is widespread. There is nothing more to be said, if the foundations are wrong the building is useless.

My Caveat

Look, I only found one study on Pubmed that addressed MKP and it is so light as to be useless. The confidentiality agreements, the tight reign they hold over their members, prevents any detailed examination of their successes and failures.

Nonetheless I am an idiosyncratic character who perceives the world in substantially different ways from the general mob. I am a freak and I use that to my advantage. There is some evidence to suggest that programs like MKP do help some people. The question is whether they do more harm than good. I am a logician and as such regard programs like MKP as just another example of the myriad ways in which people, male or female, manage to find their way in the world. Whereas I prefer to understand life analytically, others seem more comfortable with symbols and myths. It seems to work for a lot of people. So be it but understand this: MKP is a mythology, simply another manifestation of human behavior. It defines nothing, it is undergirded by conceptual nonsense. It does not define human nature or masculinity, it will only work for a tiny percentage of men, and it may well be doing a considerable number of those men harm over the long term. The secrecy of MKP, the lack of sufficient analysis of the psychological health of MKP men, makes it impossible to know the true value of this program. My *guess* is that it is a steaming pile of shit.

So what of my friend?

Some months ago I advised his father that in my opinion his son was suffering from depression. So how is it that someone like myself, with no training in psychology, who actively avoids thinking about human behavior(I prefer molecular biology), can identify an emerging crisis yet the psychologists at his MKP branch, who saw him on a frequent basis, spent whole weekends with him on whatever they do out there in the boondocks, whom my friend held in great regard, never intervened to help him? They never saw the problem. This highlights exactly the risk I outlined with respect to relying on self reports about mental health before sending people off into the wilderness to confront their daemons. If I were my friend I would give serious thought to suing their hairy asses.



febbal said...

At concerts the music makes his innards vibrate.
His environment confirmed his limitations,
He is a happy liar.
He knows knowing yourself is a contradiction and other people will tell you what they say they think they think.
He know somewhere somehow a person as yet nonexistent is watching him.

Legal Eagle said...

I am reminded of a comment by a psychiatrist friend about these kinds of organisations. She said, "Oh they're great at taking people apart emotionally, but they can't put them back together at the end."

A friend of mine got into Landmark Forum and that seemed to also involve people venting stuff about past abuse and things, with people weeping and very upset in the group sessions. I thought that sounded really dangerous, to be honest.

John said...

"Oh they're great at taking people apart emotionally, but they can't put them back together at the end."

That's a very good point. It doesn't surprise me that psychiatrists are realise the dangers here. The venting thing can actually reinforce emotional distress, it needs to be very carefully managed and without the requisite follow up to induce changes in thinking and behavior patterns is next to useless.

Anonymous said...

Men who join this group and engage in the Warrior weekends and I-groups generally become more self absorbed and continually quote "you are projecting" or that is not "my truth" or "my reality" when asked to question anything about their new behaviour. It's absolutely ridiculous and scary at the same time. Fortunately my fiancé has left the group and has had his eyes opened to the manipulation.

Anonymous said...

I attended one of these weekends and I don't think they are particularly awful, although I chose not to continue with the organization. Mankind Project is mostly old hippies and young ultra-liberals. The "tearing down" process is difficult, and perhaps more hurtful to some than others. There is something healing about being completely real and present. On the other hand, I found very little of what I define as true masculinity there. I found lots of New Age, deadbeat fathers. I found lots of drifter pot heads who never could "man-up" and achieve anything other than 'higher awareness'. I found homosexual leaders who managed to give more than one man his first gay experience. On the balance, its a dysfunctional group of damaged people (kind of like most churches). Your friend likely had serious issues prior to going. MKP doesn't shame people for any confession. It is "safe" in that manner. Perhaps it got him to face his real feelings and he found out that he was actually depressed and hated his station in life. Looking at reality is tough, that's why so many people spend so much energy and time avoiding reality by various means.

John said...

Thanks Anonymous,

You are perceptive, my friend was latter diagnosed with a serious mental illness and was probably attending MKP as a means to address that. It did not help him, I think it made him worse, it is now a long time since has been to MKP and though now under psychiatric care he is slowly deteriorating. That highlights a problem I have with programs like MKP and some churches: these are potentially very dangerous substitutes and "treatments" for unrecognised psychiatric conditions.

Anonymous said...

I attended a NWTA training in 2016 and experienced serious psychological trauma from this weekend. I wouldn't recommend MKP to anyone. It is disconcerting to know that other men will also be traumatised from this "training". A one-size-fits-all men's initiation is inherently going to benefit some men and harm others. There is a huge shadow to this work, one that MKP refuses to acknowledge.