Saturday, March 29, 2014

Timmy the Fox, Treadwell, and the Illusion of Insight in Modern Academics

This entry is in response to a radio broadcast 3/28/14, available via podcast at WHMP's website:

Umass Psychology Professor Rich Halgin: in a broadcast of The Bill Newman Show on 96.9 WHMP Northampton, you spoke with stand in host Josh Silver about Timothy Treadwell and the film Grizzly Man. The question you purported to address was "Whether or not Timothy Treadwell was: a nature lover, a narcissist, or mentally ill."

Your host Josh Silver started this interview with you by saying of Treadwell, "The guy's clearly nuts, although I'm no psychologist." Mr. Silver later made a bizarre and pointless claim about the anal glands of beavers, further eroding any hope I had that the two of you would produce anything of substance on this radio program. In my opinion he did not ask one provocative or challenging question, and instead created an insipid and sycophantic tone that brought the unfortunate listener virtually nothing of value, as far as I could tell. This was an ill conceived and pointless inquiry, and as I will show below, your attempt to link Treadwell to narcissism was not only hazy and weak, it was exceedingly ironic given the conditions he felt so motivated to address: conditions we are all responsible for.

Treadwell's passion for grizzly bears and lifelong commitment to them resulted in the loss of his life. If you think this fits the profile of a narcissist, you perhaps ought to review your notes from college. You stated that environmental advocates "sometimes do radical things." Unfocused, propagandized and confused minds seem not to note something crucial in this world: the most extreme, most radical and radically disturbing reality is the unchecked abuses, degradation and destruction by humans of this beautiful planet of which we should be stewards, not rapists. It's ironic that you so weakly attempted to link Treadwell with narcissism: it is clearly an extremely narcissistic Western culture that has allowed and encouraged rampant corporate greed along with the atrocities of military profiteering and imperialism that threaten every fragile life on this planet. We live in a radically toxic and cruel time in human history, a cruelty and toxicity hidden just below the surface in many cases, so that those inured to it seem not to notice. Those who do may be called radical.

It is proof of the Orwellian absurdity of our times that we speak of "environmentalists." You are the environment. Without it you'd be dead in minutes. The only question then, is whether one has the character and humility to love and care for one's own mother, or is a rapist and destroyer of her. It’s clear where Western culture falls on that spectrum, a fact you may not have noticed. Our culture, with its out of control militarism, corporate fascism and culture of numb, self-serving narcissism is akin to a sociopath child in utero, slashing at the mother with a knife; destroying the host that selflessly and kindly sustains it. That is the culture of narcissism, Professor Rich Halgin. I'm surprised you missed it. Instead you project half formed diagnoses and bland assertions onto a man who spent every summer for thirteen years in the Alaskan wilderness and died for the animals he cared for so much. Whatever humanissues Timothy Treadwell had, he showed real sincerity and took real risks, far outside of this self-serving culture, to be of help in this world. I wonder why that threatens some people so much, and why they are so quick to render judgment, as you and your host did so lifelessly. If Treadwell did cross a line from passionate to pathological, he showed courage, dedication and feeling in a time when these qualities are exactly what we need. I regret that you and your host did not have the humility or character to ask what you might do to achieve the same. You and Josh might have used your airtime to discuss Monsanto, Roundup, dioxins, the military's use of Depleted Uranium which is an atrocious crime and environmental holocaust; instead you found time to criticize Timothy Treadwell. It is easy to find fault, especially with a man who's now dead, and no longer able to explain or defend himself. Not very admirable, though.

We are not lacking in data about the degradation, pain and horrific destruction our culture and its unchecked aggression and corporate greed is perpetrating on this fragile planet. We do not lack the manpower, ingenuity or ability to address it. What we lack is the ability to feel anything about it. A sensitized and conscious society wouldn't tolerate these abuses or governments that aid and profit from them for a day, let alone many decades. Thus, though it appears you may have missed this, Treadwell's awareness and sensitivity to the effects of an unconscious and increasingly brutal and destructive human species is what you should speak about following that movie. Will you instead serve yourself with your weak and pointless assertions about his psychology? Though he was far from perfect, the sensitivity Timothy embodied is the one human quality that could turn this around; a quality you and your host showed little of. In one scene, Timothy declares his love for a honey bee; in another for a baby fox. When a longtime drought threatens the livelihood of the grizzlies, Treadwell prays intensely for rain. My point here, and this article is dedicated to it, is that this is exactly the sensitization the Earth and its creatures call on us to achieve, without which we will continue self-serving destruction and defilement of this beautiful blue jewel of a planet. I'm sure those inured in a numb and stupefying culture of destruction will find Treadwell odd and threatening.

You said nothing of any understanding or commitment to prevent ecological catastrophe or heal unthinking cruelty to the Earth and its creatures; though you spoke of how you used Psychology to help the Umass Hockey Team achieve greater competitive advantage. Treadwell volunteered to speak to children in elementary school classrooms. His intent was to raise sensitivity to animals and the environment, and bring his love of bears to these children for the sheer joy of it. I don't believe you or your host mentioned this fact. If students show up for the screening of Herzog's movie, I hope you will raise more meaningful issues than you did today. How we might bring more loving kindness into the world and heal this situation, for example. A far more worthwhile topic, in my opinion.

Professor Halgin, I'm sure you can identify real issues with a man who is no longer around to explain himself; your host did so too, blithely and without insight. But if we look out at all that calls out for justice and urgent help in this world, at the extreme abuses wreaked by narcissists and sociopaths in government and industry, wouldn't there be a more constructive use of your time? There have been many movies in the past decade that dealt with the extreme and widening disparity in wealth and economic opportunity in the US, lack of justice for the poor, and the blatant power grab by massive corporations and Wall Street, driven by sociopathic self interest not only of those executives and corporations, but by the legislators who approve it. A worthwhile topic for a Psychology professor who had any desire to be of help in this world.

You could screen a film about the tobacco industry, and then discuss how these US based corporations along with our own legislators force governments of emerging nations like Thailand to allow them to market their products to children. Yes, billboards and adds marketing cigarettes to fourteen year old girls, many of whom will soon become pregnant. They do this because the government is not strong enough to resist the force of lucre and political pressure. You might point out that our own legislators would never allow this in our country, and yet tolerate and even profit from the exploitation of children in economically weaker nations. Tobacco companies also commit horrifying abuse against beagles by the way, daily, these dogs chosen for their innocent and kindly nature for cruelty and torture so severe it breaks my heart to think of it. I urge you to Google this issue right now, take a look at the pictures, and see if you have any feelings about it, or desire to act. Surely you could apply yourself in a far more meaningful way in this world. Thank you for your time,

Tristan L Sullivan

Amherst, Massachusetts