Thursday, 31 August 2017

Will The Caged Birds Sing?

"It is said that no-one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its gaols. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest."  
Nelson Mandela

The French philosopher, Michel Foucault, in 'Discipline and Punish', wrote about the move away from the old public festivals of punishment towards a sanitised, industrialised form  that is largely hidden from the public gaze. 

The old forms of punishment were public spectacles – intended to entertain as much as intimidate the populace. Only the favoured (mostly the aristocracy) were granted a quick, clean and relatively private death. 

The ancient public rituals of judicial punishment - burning, hanging, beheading, disembowelling, flogging - have been replaced by incarceration, with its persistent surveillance, separation, solitary confinement and rigid discipline.  

Prisons that were once used either to hold debtors or political opponents or to hold the accused and condemned until they were subjected to corporal or capital punishment - have become the punishment.

With the emergence of the prison as the preferred, and more 'civilised', form of punishment, the methods of killing have also become 'scientific' and medicalised in most states that still execute their citizens.

The guillotine was considered a humane death in contrast to the ways a feudal traitor would have met his end. In hanging, the length of rope and weight of prisoner are carefully calculated to ensure, if not the hoped-for Hangman's Fracture, at least a rapid asphyxiation.  In electrocution, a wet sponge is placed on the head of the prisoner to hopefully render them unconscious if, as often happens, the electric shock does not kill them instantly.  But, it is with the use of lethal injection that this attempt to sanitise judicial killing, is at its most obvious  - to the extent that the process often becomes a macabre parody of a medical procedure.

The modern, clean, high-tech penitentiary is presented as a huge advance on the chaotic and bloody bedlam of what went before.  The very term ‘penitentiary’ came about because the institutions were intended to be rehabilitative. The criminal was incarcerated, confined and isolated in small, monastic-like cells within a larger building, not just to protect civil society, but in order that the evil-doer might reflect upon, and repent his sins.

The truth is that separation and isolation, the enforcement of a rigid discipline, the removal of autonomy, the lack of privacy, the imposition of who is socialised with and when - are all punishments that strike at the very heart of what it means to be human. 

We are profoundly social animals but we did not evolve in vast swarms.  Isolation is unnatural and stressful for us but so too is over-crowding and enforced association.

Our social arrangements - when healthy - allow us to choose with whom and when to interact, and when to be alone. For most of our social evolution those arrangements were within communities in which kinship and communal ties and the normal distribution of age and experience moderated and controlled group and individual behaviour.

Most prisons dispense with all the things that help keep us social and balanced and therefore human. As such they are inhumane - intended not to rehabilitate or even just to contain - but to punish. The State exacts revenge on behalf of the actual victim of a crime.

In the recent era, it has gone far beyond that.

The 'panopticon prison', in which the incarcerated cannot escape the gaze of their gaolers, may be seen as a reflection of the growth of a surveillance society in which the citizen cannot escape the gaze of the State.  Most of us are more surveilled today than we have ever been in our history as a species. 

 The prison's rigidly imposed and enforced daily regimen and the removal of any autonomy may be seen as a reflection of the loss of autonomy as a result of the imposition, onto private lives, of the priorities, timeframes and schedules of business.  Most of us (especially the poor) do not freely choose whether, when, where or how we work.

The modern state uses the prison to hide many of its social problems. It sweeps poverty, addiction, homelessness, low educational achievement and mental illness under a judicial carpet and locks it all away behind impenetrable walls.

It also removes from the body politic, a potent source of social unrest; alienated, angry young men who have been shut out of a world which dangles the promise of status and material rewards but denies most the means to reach them.

When a society fails to provide educational and training opportunities and to create meaningful work; when it labels the under- and unemployed as a ‘feral underclass'; when it creates mandatory and longer sentences for the sorts of crimes the poor are most likely to commit - it declares a whole stratum of people to be a social problem that can be solved - in part at least - by imprisoning many of them.  

As felons, people are disenfranchised; some remain so even after release. Ex-prisoners are less likely to get scarce jobs, which cements their marginalised status and means they are more likely to end up back in prison.  

This self-fuelling system has reached its nadir in the USA where the total number of men and women imprisoned in federal and state prisons is equivalent to almost half of the total population of NZ. Young black men in the USA are more likely to be imprisoned than to get a decent education.  They are incarcerated at an average rate of over 5 times that of their fellow white Americans and, in some states, that rate goes up to twice that. 

Black women are twice as likely to be imprisoned than white women. There are more women in prison in California today than there were in the entire USA in the 1970s. Women in prison often find themselves trapped in an intersection of class, race and sex controlled by an arm of a state that has already proven itself incapable of managing that intersection in wider society. 

The number of prisons in the USA has exploded since the 1970s - a large majority of them were opened in the eighties and nineties.  What Angela Davis called the 'prison-industrial complex' emerged at the start of the neoliberal era and it has proliferated and spread its tentacles all over the developed world.

The ethnic and the social class profile of the inmates of these modern prisons is evidence that the entire system is not only racist but is intended to control those people who have been hardest hit by the rapacious, globetrotting capital of the neoliberal era. 

It is no accident that in the same era in the USA and elsewhere, there has been a massive proliferation of corporations that provide private security services, an increased militarisation of the police, and an increase in the number and confidence of armed rightwing militias.

The entry onto the scene of private prisons in the USA is a return to the use of convict labour.  In private prisons there is an economic imperative to increase profits by cutting the cost of staffing and the maintenance of buildings and of prisoners, and by making money out of convict labour. 

In the antebellum era, convict labourers were almost all black men. The chain gang's links to the abolition of slavery were as obvious as the system was cruel and oppressive.  These days in the USA the captive, hyper-exploitable prison labour force is still disproportionately black. 

Mostly prisoners work in factories hidden from the public eye but reactionary extremists like Joe Arpaio publicly parade shackled inmates wearing chain-gang style uniforms - a public reminder of an era when black men convicted for minor crimes were subjected to conditions as bad or even worse than slavery - including being literally worked to death.

The likes of Arpaio remind us that, however clean, clinical, medicalised and scientific the modern surveillance state's prisons appear to be, there's an older, brutal reality that is played out inside them.  This brutal order is allowed and even encouraged as long as it doesn't turn on the keepers - and as long as its ugly truth doesn't seep too far beyond the prison walls. 

One of the greatest ironies is that the brutality is attributed, not to the nature of the institution, but to the pathological nature of its inmates.  The truth is not that inmates are all predisposed to behaving badly, but that the system places barriers to, and often prevents them from behaving well.  Furthermore, it is intended to do just that in no small part because prisoners who behave badly while inside and once released, serve to justify the existence both of the prisons and of other examples of the surveillance state. 

In all of this NZ is nowhere near as bad as America but that’s more a measure of the enormity of the USA's failures than it is of our successes. 

Our society creates and perpetuates the conditions in which some people are more likely to commit crimes, often because they have no real choice. 

We have differential standards for defining and responding to crimes that have been committed by the affluent and the elite, and crimes that have been committed by the poor and the marginalised.

We punish certain types of crime committed by certain types of people more harshly which is evidenced by the fact that we imprison poor and brown skinned people more often, and for longer than we do affluent or white people. 

Our incarceration rate of poor and brown skinned people, like the incidence of poverty-related child abuse, is a national disgrace and makes a mockery of New Zealand's claims to be the progressive, first world nation it likes to think it is. 

Māori are 14.6% of New Zealand's population and 51% of its prison population.  At current incarceration rates, Māori will half fill the hugely expensive new prisons the National Government is committed to building.

This ugly reality and the pretence that we are a decent, egalitarian and just society creates massive cognitive dissonance. Many Kiwis deal with that by excluding those people from the 'real' New Zealand; they label them as 'feral', as undeserving, as pathological. Their existence is deemed to be an aberration, nothing to do with real Kiwis who are fundamentally egalitarian, hardworking, decent and just. 

We pat ourselves on the back for such things as being progressive towards the LGBT community, for  having partly closed the gender wage gap, for being the first country to give women the vote, for having a young woman and a Māori man in the running to become Prime Minister and Deputy PM.  

These are all very laudable things but frankly,  while we have families that are forced to live in cars, homeless people who die of cold on the streets, 300,000 kids who live in poverty, an appalling rate of violence against women and children, high levels of horizontal violence and incarceration of men of colour at rates which match those of the most racist of American states - we have no right to be smug and self congratulatory.  

I will leave you with this thought: if Black and Hispanic Americans were incarcerated at the same rates as White Americans, the US prison population would drop by almost 40%.  

If Māori and Pacifica men were incarcerated at the same rate as White New Zealanders, we would not need 1800 new prison beds and we could be looking at better, more social and productive ways of spending 1 billion dollars. 






Tuesday, 29 August 2017

In Place of Fear

This election gets more and more interesting.  

Last Sunday, Winston Peters, leader of New Zealand First, revealed that he'd been overpaid on his superannuation. It appears that the Ministry of Social Development's calculation of his superannuation had been based on the single person's rate. As Peters is in a de facto relationship he should have received a lower rate.  The overpayment came to light when his partner applied for superannuation.  Peters sorted it out and immediately repaid the sum owing. He says he has no idea how incorrect information came to be on his records given he went through the paper forms with a senior MSD official, and his partner was present.  

Maybe there was a data inputting error but, as has been argued by National’s pollster, David Farrar, Peters should have received regular letters asking if the information on file is correct, which should have alerted him to the problem.

All I can say about that is, neither my husband nor I can recall ever receiving such a letter from the MSD. 

Peters will not waive his right to privacy to allow the MSD to comment, and why should he? His privacy rights have already been breached by the leaking of information from either the Inland Revenue Department (IRD), which administers the superannuation payments, or the MSD or, as is now emerging as a distinct possibility, the Beehive.


By going public on Sunday, Peters pre-empted the story that had been touted by Newsroom as the 'mother of all scandals' (MOAS) which was going to break on Monday. 
The co-writer of the story, Tim Murphy, former editor-in-chief of The Herald and co-editor of Newsroom, later claimed on Twitter that the MOAS claim had been 'hyperbole' to wind up Newshub's Political Editor, Patrick Gower.  

If that was true, Newsroom was about to reveal something that could end a political career and change the face of an election, yet its co-editor thought it was a good idea to wind up another journalist and set the Twittersphere on fire.

It may well turn out that the MOAS is not the Peters' overpayment and what caused it, but the use of private information in another dirty politics campaign in the lead up to an election.  If that proves to be the case, senior staff at Newsroom were either actively complicit in it, or were used as tools.  Either scenario brings their professionalism and political acumen into question and has caused some serious cracks to appear in Newsroom's glossy veneer. 

What it says about the National Party and its involvement in dirty tricks in the lead up to another election has yet to be made clear.  

What we know is that the overpayment was referred to Anne Tolley, Minister for Social Development, under the 'no surprises' rule on July 31st and again August 15th. It was passed onto the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff who says he decided not to tell the PM.  It was also revealed to the Deputy Prime Minster, Paula Bennett, who used to be the Minister for Social Development and who has been under public scrutiny for alleged breaches of MSD rules in the past; and - somehow - it was leaked to the media and went public just 3 weeks out from an election in which the subject of the leak is very likely to be a key player.

I can't understand why Peters - as a party leader, a wealthy man, a lawyer, the champion of superannuitants, a wily and very high-profile politico whose de facto relationship is well-known - would have claimed to be single on his superannuation application.  And why would he ignore letters asking him if the information on the system was correct? 

I'm not saying it's impossible, just that it seems highly improbable. 

Unlike poor superannuitants, for whom every dollar they get matters in real and pressing ways, Peters has no need to count every dollar he gets on his super and I can well believe that he simply had it paid into a savings account without stopping to think about the actual sum, and that he leaves all of his financial stuff to his accountant.  I bet he's not alone in that.
So, was this a dirty politics strategy to use the information to destroy Peters' credibility and, with the Green vote in disarray, push blue-green and NZ First voters to National to allow it govern alone with the increasingly noisome David Seymour of ACT?  

It certainly looks like it. 

And of course, there's the added bonus of softening up the public for future changes to universal superannuation - such as introducing means testing or even phasing it out completely.  After all, the rich don't need it, the affluent can manage without it, and the poor can continue to subsist on welfare benefits - or die. 

As to the claim that Peters would have known precisely what he was due, my husband and I didn't.  We assumed the people who processed our applications were competent and would understand and fairly apply their own rules.  It was only when we encountered the retributive and potentially punitive nature of the system that we felt the need to do our own research.  

What I had thought would be a simple process of lodging a claim for NZ superannuation became embarrassing and anxiety inducing when, in an open-plan office, with no attempt to ensure privacy, I was told that my husband had been overpaid because he had not updated information about my income. The member of staff said that there would be an investigation; that it would be a significant sum; that there could be penalties, and that a prosecution was 'unlikely unless it was deemed to be a deliberate fraud'. 

It was shocking and it left me feeling highly stressed. It was also wrong. There had been no overpayment. Either the information on the computer did not match that on the original paper form and this was subsequently established and corrected, or the employee was wrong in her understanding of the rules.  We suspect the latter but we don't know because we never got a formal explanation, let alone an apology. 

We thought about lodging a complaint but frankly at the time I wanted nothing more to do with the organisation. I left there feeling deeply grateful that I do not have to deal with it on a regular basis.

Our experience with the MSD was a relatively insignificant episode but it was symptomatic of most NZ bureaucracies and especially so of the MSD which, at times according to my husband, could more properly be called the Ministry of Social Destruction.  

This sort of institutional culture :

works on a deficit model of human behaviour which makes employees assume the worst about people and encourages them to look for ways that can be confirmed;

is regulatory rather than facilitative i.e. the primary function is to apply rules in ways that erect, rather than remove, barriers;

is austere in that it encourages employees to depersonalise, and actively discourages them from empathising with their 'clients;

is moralistic in that clients are often informally labelled as either deserving or undeserving; and, 

is parsimonious in that it encourages its employees to see themselves as the guardians of the public purse which is always at risk of being pilfered by the undeserving.

All of this rests on the individualisation of the social contract - summed up in the vacuous Thatcherite notion that there is no society, that there are only families and individuals who are largely responsible for themselves. If they fail it is because of their own shortcomings; if they succeed it is because of their own merits.  

The current welfare system in many ways harks back to the ethos of the Workhouse which split families by forcing men and women to live separately and which made the conditions of relief so harsh, so degrading and so cruel that any sort of work, at any sort of wages and in any sort of conditions was preferable to it.  It is no accident that the Poor Law Commissioners and the Workhouse loom so large in British history and why they were so detested. 

Of course the welfare system today is not as crudely moralistic or as cruelly and overtly oppressive but it springs from the same rootstock.  A class of smugly content haves imposes forms of regulation and retribution on a class of increasingly discontented and desperate have-nots. 

I felt uneasy about criticising the MSD because of its punitive culture and the enormous power the state wields courtesy of the knowledge it has about almost every tiny detail of our lives. Imagine how it is for people who are utterly dependent on the state for their subsistence.

One of the worst things about the Peters' scenario and what happened to Metiria Turei, is the message it sends out which is that big brother really is watching you, and if he decides he needs to, or simply wants to, he can give you the father of all kickings.  

There's an important principle here. NZ is split end to end and if we don't heal the wound it will finally kill what's left of our culture of decency and a fair go. 


Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Impoverishment of a Nation


A few hours after I had uploaded my previous post, the news broke that Metiria Turei, the co-Leader of the Green Party, had resigned. 

On August 8th Checkpoint’s Mihingarangi Forbes had done a powerful piece on poverty in Manurewa, in which local people voiced a lot of support for Metiria Turei.

The following day, someone who was described as a ‘close member’ of Ms Turei’s family, contacted Checkpoint and alleged the wider family found it 'galling' that Ms Turei claimed hardship as a solo parent when in fact she had been given a lot of support from the family, including financial support.

Checkpoint put several questions to Ms Turei in writing, which she did not respond to, but instead phoned them to say that she had decided to resign, both as co-leader and as an MP.  In an interview with John Campbell, she addressed and refuted the allegations but said it had all got too personal so she had to step down. 

It’s not known who the family member was, why they took until the day after the Checkpoint programme to reveal this information, or whether they had spoken to Ms Turei before deciding to betray her in that way. For make no mistake, it was a betrayal. I cannot imagine how I would feel if someone in my family did something like that to me. 

We don’t know whether this person had a political agenda but, whatever their motivation, they must have known what both the personal and political consequences would be.  

The only good thing about the awful situation was that the kindest journalist in NZ carried out that very difficult initial interview so for a while at least we were spared the smug triumphalism of Ms Turei's highly vocal critics.

So here we are.  A Mãori woman  - who came from a working class background, studied to become a lawyer, raised a child and ended up as co-leader of the country's third largest political party –  started a critically important narrative about poverty and powerlessness in 21st century NZ.

She drew on her own experience of living on the DPB to give that narrative a personal touch - including the admission that, as a 23 year old, she’d not been accurate about the number of people she had shared her house with.

it's obvious that admitting to what amounts to fraud, even if it was of a low order of offence and committed 25 years ago, was a very risky strategy. Given the depths of anti-beneficiary sentiment in NZ and the prevailing rightwing bias in the media, it was always going to be difficult to steer the narrative and keep it positive once that fact was in the public domain.

Subsequent revelations about a technical breach of electoral law and suggestions that she had lived in the same house as the father of her child whilst on the DPB, muddied the waters even further. 

But, the appeals to a threadbare morality from rightwing politicians and the rightist commentariat did not diminish her support among poor and marginalized people or among those who care about them. 

However, the suggestion that she had embellished her situation for effect could mean the all important core issue of poverty and powerlessness would be obscured by uncertainty.

It was there in a question posed on RNZ two days ago ‘were you really in poverty’ and in Matthew Hooton’s claim that Turei was ‘upper middle-class’ – which is demonstrably untrue in terms of her background but which gained some traction when her in-laws were factored in.

Perhaps the intervention of this anonymous 'close' family member, which was more damaging than any of the preceding attacks had been, was just a coincidence. If so, it's a remarkable one and when there is a story in the media about a lawyer who has been struck off because she paid Dirty Politics stars Carrick Graham and Cameron Slater to help her ruin her ex-partner's career, it's surely not unreasonable to ask whether Ms Turei’s political opponents had been on the look out for someone who could help bring her down.  

Even if Ms Turei did embellish her personal story a bit - which is by no means proven - it's vital not to allow the self-righteous blowhards or calculating ideologues to distract or detract from the core issue  – that poor people in NZ today are suffering real, measurable harm.

Metiria Turei struck a chord with people who have been left behind. She told people who are mired in poverty that there is a way out; that she knew from her own experience how things are for them, and that positive change is possible. It is a message that they should hear loud and clear from the Labour Party but do not. 

The idea that the chord Turei struck might actually become a song, that the tens of thousands of poor and marginalized people in NZ might actually become energized, might be encouraged to engage with the political process and become a political force that could change the face of NZ poltiics - that could not be permitted. It was imperative that she be discredited, and so she was. 

The message that has gone out to replace Ms Turei's message of hope is : 

"look what happens even to a powerful and well-educated person who challenges us; we pulled her down and made it look as though it was all her own fault  - imagine what we could do to you."

I don’t think I have ever felt more ashamed of so many of my fellow Kiwis, or more proud of some others. 





Tuesday, 8 August 2017

"Nobody should steal from taxpayers"

Rachel Stewart weighed into the Metiria Turei debate today : 

"For me, it comes down to this. Dress it up as a morality play all you like. Rich, poor, rightwing, leftwing, tax evasion, benefit fibs. Nobody should steal from taxpayers. And no amount of diversion tactics changes that fact. Turning Turei's voluntary pronouncement into some virtuous act of heroism is so far off the mark, the Greens have ended up shooting themselves in the foot. Which may explain why they are limping."

"Nobody should steal from taxpayers."   

There we have it - the classic knee jerk juxtaposition of 'taxpayers versus non-taxpayers’  which lies at the heart of all the moralising claptrap posing as rational argument and political analysis.

The divide between tax-payer and non-taxpayer is an ideological weapon - fashioned and wielded by people with a powerful ideological agenda.  

There is no simple divide between tax-payers and non-tax-payers but there is a simplistic one which is very active in the hearts and minds of those who want to demonise the poor and keep them in their place.  

The fact is that in NZ everyone’s a tax payer. The poor pay a higher proportion of their income in tax than the affluent because they have to spend every penny they receive - whether in benefits or wages - and just about everything in this country is subjected to GST.  

'Ah, but beneficiaries are paid out of what hardworking tax payers earn."

As are politicians and the police and army and teachers and medical staff and civil servants....

A lot of beneficiaries will have paid tax in the past on what they earned - and would no doubt be happy to pay tax again if there were jobs for them which paid a living wage.  Many of them will have working parents and other family members who pay tax.

Tax is a contribution to a social fund which is a vital part of the social contract that binds a society together - which enables it to function. The vast majority of tax payers get far more value from their tax than the simple sum of what they pay as individuals.

A corollary of the simplistic tax-payers versus non-taxpayers argument is that the more tax you pay, the greater the say you should have in how it is spent - which would mean that big business, as the largest contributor, should have the power to dictate social policy.  

The fact that the poorest and most marginalised in our society attract both the greatest attention and receive the most vitriol says a lot about the health of our social contract - and none of it good. 

Businesses which hide their profits off-shore; rich people who tuck assets away in family trusts so they can be eligible for the $50k+ a year aged care subsidy;  people who employ accountants to minimise family income so that their kids qualify for state assistance while at college; landlords who price gouge when rents are being paid by the state; people who avoid GST by working for cash .... they may all be said to be stealing from the public purse but that sort of conduct is accepted as legitimate or even praised for being smart.

There is a deep vein of cavilling mean-spiritedness in NZ which is the bedmate of the irrational belief that the current social order is meritocratic. 

It’s a combination that results in some seriously unpleasant conduct - which is never more on display than when someone like Metiria Turei is in the frame.

The awful fact is that a disturbingly large number of Kiwis’ reaction has been to want to give her a kicking - and make no mistake, some of them would like that be a literal kicking. 

I happen to think that Metiria made a strategic error in admitting she'd lied to WINZ. She should have anticipated the backlash and the fact that it would be used to divert attention away from the Right's delinquency.  I believe her motives were genuine - she wanted to reach out to the people she knows are hurting under the harsh regime that's been imposed by another working class Mãori woman with a similar back story to hers.   I don't subscribe to the notion that she was looking for affirmation or whatever other pop psych explanations columnists can dredge up. Perhaps she wanted to follow Helen Kelly who openly admitted breaking the law in order to highlight its iniquities. 

Whatever, if you don't get the fact that this both exemplifies and exposes the class divide which the politics of the past 30 years has been all about both opening and obfuscating, then you are a fool or an ideologue - or in the case of David Seymour, both. 


So Rachel, for me it comes down to this : you are very clever, very articulate and now very influential and you just helped put the boot into a Mãori woman who came from a working class background, and who is an environmentalist with a strong belief in social justice.  

Way to go.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Fight or flight

I found this comment on Slaterblog some time ago. It was a response to the question of who was the ‘worst politician. It has a certain currency in light of recent events.

"The too sweet to be wholesome Aussie COMMIE REFUGEE NORMAN.Also the little fat ugly frog TUREI.Two pathetic assholes who seem to think we are all stupid and we cant see their hidden agenda of turning NZ into another North Korea."

Russel Norman is of course no longer co-leader of the Greens and Metiria Turei is back in the sights of the loud-mouthed and bigoted bullies whose knee-jerk reactions are so violent they have knocked themselves stupid.

I once questioned the ethics of horse racing on a Yahoo site and I was called a 'rabid PETA whore'; another genius came up with 'granola-eating kook'. There were several in similar vein – full of sound and fury and signifying – a great deal actually.

There are significant cognitive differences between those who have liberal political views and those who have conservative political views. These differences influence and go beyond, how they vote. 

The politically liberal tend to be more open minded and open to change; they tend to want to understand phenomena and, if what they find out doesn't fit with what they think, they're more likely to adjust their beliefs and their behaviour. The extreme end of the liberal spectrum could be a relativism that prevents meaningful political action. A person who argues that we cannot stand in judgment of other cultures/religions, and therefore we cannot impose our values on them even when their values are in direct contradiction of our laws ties themselves in both moral and political knots.

The politically conservative are more likely to respond with fear or aggression to things that challenge their world view, less likely to change attitudes or behaviour and, in the absence of facts, they may make up stuff to support what they already believe. The extreme end of the conservative spectrum is an absolutism that can lead to terrifying consequences.

Studies have indicated that those cognitive differences are matched by structural differences - most notably that the amygdala (flight and fight control centre) is larger and more active in the brains of people who are politically conservative.  

Whether that's genetic is simply not known, and in any event, how any given genetic inheritance is expressed depends on the social environment.  It's not nature versus nurture, it's nature combined with nurture. 

It might also be that the size of the amygdala is not the issue but how quickly and efficiently the more evolved parts of the brain kick in and rebalance and recalibrate the system -  for the simple reason that it is not evolutionarily advantageous to exist in a state of persistent fear, rage or disgust.

The bottom line is - when we are running on adrenaline we are less capable of being rational.  All systems seek homeostasis – acute or chronic imbalances can be highly destructive. If you lack a fear / aggression response you may be less able to survive the actions of predators - from within your own species as well as others. If you are in the grip of persistent fear / aggression, you may have a short-term survival advantage in some situations, but the hormonal storm will harm you in the longer term. This harm can take the form of being exiled from your group as well as the physical damage to a biological system that is unable to restore homeostasis.

Horses are a good exemplar.  As prey animals whose primary defence is flight, they have a hair trigger flight / defence response to perceived threats. This autonomic response is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system powered by the hormone adrenaline which propels them instantly and explosively into flight. The energy maintenance hormone, cortisol, sustains effort.  It’s why we can make horses do things they would normally avoid – like racing at a flat out gallop over longer distances than any predator would chase them, leaping huge obstacles etc etc. 

But, rapid flight carries risk of injury and is energy intensive so, in horses which have acquired experience of the world, the brain assesses the nature of the threat and if it’s not worth expending energy and risking injury, the parasympathetic nervous system acts to re-establish homeostasis. 

It’s all very interesting and complicated but it has allowed me to construct a caricature to counterpose against those used against the Left, if there is a ‘loony-left’ it is only fair and just that there be a ‘ranting Right’ aka the Amygdala Brigade, the Right’s storm troopers.
I'm fascinated by the thought processes of the Amygdala Brigade.  I watch them with same sort of wary fascination as I would a 4-metre crocodile. 

Rightwing propagandists concentrate a lot of their malign energy on caricaturing environmentalists and the Left in general as 'loonies' and 'tree-huggers' or as 'closet commies' out to destroy our current -  demonstrably unfair, uneconomic, inefficient and ineffective - way of organising production. They do this to keep the Amygdala Brigade on full alert.

We should not be too surprised when the members of the AB behave as if they are totally Upminster (8 stops past Barking) when you consider that one of their most prominent members, John Ansell, in an interview with New Zealand’s premier morning news programme in the lead up to the 2014 general election, referred to Russell Norman as  ‘the Australian communist’.

Largely unchallenged by interviewer Susie Ferguson, Ansell was allowed to rabbit on at length about ‘the people who supported the thinking behind leaky homes could soon be in charge of state housing, Russell Norman, the Australian Communist (SF laughs) could be in charge of finance in 1 month’s time (SF laughs again) that sort of thing that's what the Nats are going to have to be running with (SF still laughing) the Cunliffe cabinet is going to be 1/3rd Green…”

The reason why became obvious later when John Ansell admitted he’d gifted his dubious talents to a campaign which made claims about Green politics which verged on the deranged. The idea was to damn the Greens and, by association, damn Labour, or more specifically, David Cunliffe.

Some time ago Ansell announced he was fundraising to form a single issue political party – to get rid of 'racial politics' in NZ. It seems he’d also fallen prey to the notion that Mãori are not NZ’s indigenous people because the Scots got here first, ergo the Treaty is invalid.  The Treaty is between the Crown and Mãori so in legal terms he was not on safe ground – but given the shaky anthropological ground he’d ventured out onto, that was the least of his worries.

But he was right about one thing – how to appeal to the classic ‘low-effort’, conservative thinkers who retreat to the safety of what they think they know.  They are out in full force over the recent Metiria Turei revelations. 

There’s not much we can do about them, but there are a lot of other people who are more open minded and reasonable.  What we must do is to keep pointing out to them which track National's train is really on and that it’s the shortest possible route to a socio-economic and political version of Tangiwai;  what we must not do is sacrifice Metiria Turei.