Behavior Modification Culture: Steve Bannon

What problem does beheading someone solve?

Yesterday, I saw something in the news that just blew my mind. Steve Bannon, the former Trump advisor and campaign manager, said that Dr. Anthony Fauci and Christopher Wray should be beheaded. Numerous sources, like The Independent in the UK, have quoted Bannon as follows:

Second term kicks off with firing Wray, firing Fauci, no I actually want to go a step farther but the president is a kind-hearted man and a good man. I’d actually like to go back to the old times of Tudor England. I’d put their heads on pikes, right, I’d put them at the two corners of the White House as a warning to federal bureaucrats, you either get with the programme or you’re gone.

Wow. I thought this was America, not Iran or Afghanistan. As dramatic as Bannon’s words are, I think first, we should note that the rest of the civilized world is watching. That’s why I used a foreign source for the quote (note the spelling of “programme”). I sincerely doubt that a kind-hearted and good man would submit anyone to beheading for making a mistake as Dr. Fauci and Mr. Wray may have done. Everyone makes mistakes. Even Mr. Bannon.

It’s important to remember that this man was hired by Trump to do a job that has had an enormous effect on us as a nation. Do the people who voted for Trump share Steve Bannon’s beliefs about Dr. Fauci and Mr. Wray? I should hope not.

Dr. Anthony Fauci was appointed as Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases in 1984 by President Reagan. Christopher Wray is Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and he was appointed by Donald Trump. I doubt they have committed any sort of treason for they were both appointed by presidents who were considered to be very conservative patriots.

This “solution” proffered by Bannon is evidence of our behavior modification culture. What is behavior modification? According to Wikipedia:

Behavior modification refers to behavior-change procedures that were employed during the 1970s and early 1980s. Based on methodological behaviorism, overt behavior was modified with presumed consequences, including artificial positive and negative reinforcement contingencies to increase desirable behavior, or administering positive and negative punishment and/or extinction to reduce problematic behavior. For the treatment of phobias, habituation and punishment were the basic principles used in flooding, a subcategory of desensitization. (footnotes omitted, emphasis added)

In sum, behavior modification is a regime of punishment and rewards in order to modify behavior. This is a very popular way to raise kids around the world. Some people call this Plan A. The first thing we turn to when dealing with unwanted behavior is punishment to stop the behavior with Plan A.

I see a lot of Plan A with Trump and the way he runs the government. He’s punitive, confrontational and he plays favorites. I have to say that just rubs me the wrong way. I was raised like that. I had to do a lot of work undo that kind of thinking. As a father, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand this very simple concept: punishment doesn’t teach any skills. In Bannon’s case, he doesn’t seem aware of what he’s promoting. He doesn’t understand that killing someone doesn’t teach them any skills. So I presume ignorance before malice, even if someone is full of bluster.

Here is the difference. If I know that someone is making a mistake, I try to point out the mistake and help the other person recover from the mistake. People who work in customer service do this. I work in customer service. I do this. My customer is paying for a service, not punishment. My heart sinks when I see people talking badly about customers, too. That customer dependence is job security. If I solve a problem for a customer without judgment or condescension, and I teach them how to prevent the problem from recurring, that’s value. Customers and teammates come back over and over for this. This attitude works well in all human relations, and especially so with kids.

Steve Bannon is only doing what he knows how to do. I would never hire someone like that for customer service. I fear for any woman who is with him when he has that kind of attitude. Even in Bannon’s case, I would not punish him. I’d certainly restrain him as Twitter has done. If receptive to some training, I’d use Plan B on Mr. Bannon.

“I’ve noticed you have trouble restraining your impulses during interviews. What’s up?” And then I’d drill down to see why Mr. Bannnon would be so impulsive as to wish for beheading someone aloud, in an interview that he knew would go viral. To say something like that is challenging behavior at the least. No one that I know condones violence like that. I don’t have any friends that condone violence. But I wonder about Mr. Trump.

And once I have an understanding of the problems that give rise to Mr. Bannnon’s behavior, then we work on solving those problems, just like I already do with my kids. When my kids get challenging, I work with them later, when there is no stress, to find out what’s going on. I work with them to figure out what problems they were trying to solve. And then we work together to solve them. You might think this kind of thing is not appropriate for a man like Mr. Bannon, but when I see an adult talking fantasy about beheading someone, I see a child in an adult body, and that adult body can really hurt someone.

Mr. Bannon’s remarks will only serve to rile up another group of people who believe in retribution, punishment, and rewards. They honestly believe that with enough applied punishments and rewards, they can extract the behavior they desire from other people. I don’t believe that. No one likes being told what to do. No matter how much punishment or reward you put in front of people to get them to behave, they can’t do what you want them to do unless they have the skill and capacity to do it. This why I presume ignorance before malice.

I really don’t want to live in a country that is based on punishment and reward, but I do. I see behavior modification everywhere now. I see it in Mr. Bannon, Mr. Trump, and in much of our popular culture. I even see a little bit of that in Nate Silver’s response to criticism of his predictions about the election when he says, “Fuck you, we did a good job.” That statement right there is more evidence of behavior modification. A retort like that assumes that the “punishment” will change the behavior of the recipient. Retorts are never sweet.

This behavior modification culture is what I really don’t like about Trump and many in the GOP. I see some of that in Joe Biden, but he seems to be more interested in bridging the divide and bringing the country together. I'm skeptical, but I really hope he is. But what I really hope for us that we can all step back and really figure this thing out. We’re here together for a reason.

Are we here to punish each other for our mistakes forever and ever? Or are we here to learn from each others’ mistakes and to teach each other how to solve our problems together? I’d say that the fate of humanity rests on our decision. I really hope that we can learn to err on the side of peace when we make a decision about how to respond to other people when they act in ways we don’t like. I’d say that’s our only hope.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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