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It's Nelly's World

Or Else

alec vanderboom

A book that has become one of the most important foundation resources for a certain set of dog trainers does not even contain the word "dog" in the index. It mentions everything else in our human world--our social structures, religion, law, family life--and this is the basis of its power: it seems to explain everything. It is a Bible for comprehending, and divining, why we do what we do, and the often enormous prices we pay for living such unexamined lives.

The book is Coercion and Its Fallout by Murray Sidman, a behavior analyst who published it in 1989. Have you ever heard of it? Yet it is the kind of work whose stunning truths--in every sentence!--floor you, and then immediately after, when you've picked yourself up and are dusting off your knees, you wonder, Why did I discover this so late? Why is it not on the bookshelf of every household, or better yet, every school, court, church, and therapist's office, in America? Why did I first learn of it from clicker trainers?

Of how many books could it possibly be said that its precepts, if followed, could effectively eradicate a majority of crime, personal woe, war, and even . . . workplace inefficiency? That must be, then, why the ideas in this book must be generally ignored. And don't ask me for further reason why, because I don't have the big answers; I am liable to say something like, "Maybe it's change? We don't like change?" (But of course, Sidman himself gives the answers, and they have to do with the way we are essentially coerced into accepting, and perpetuating, coercion.)

But since this book is based on the explorations of B. F. Skinner into the mechanics of how we learn, which is to say, how we live, and because Skinner has been so completely and apparently willfully misunderstood and reviled, something in it clearly scares us. I will also leave the "why" out of this for now, and perhaps forever: I am supposed to be writing a book on this very subject, but for now I will simply avoid crossing the wide ocean in my dinghy and instead stay on the shore, letting the wavelets tickle my feet.

I am, after all, no Sidman: I can't explain it all between two covers. As soon as I say one thing, I see the lines radiating out from it like fractures on struck glass, and I don't know which to follow first. For instance, just above, I was going to launch into a subject that's been dancing around in my head for some time: the equating of the behavior analyst's view of psychology (and with it the solutions to our problems) with, say, the Democrat's. And the Republican's with--what? The tarot card reader? The flat-earther? Opposed in solutions, because opposed in basic understanding.

But rather than pursuing that, I'll let Sidman speak a bit, in his unpoetic, concise manner, on various topics. It's hard to pick. See, I jump up and down at practically every sentence in this book:

* "From both a practical and personal point of view, perhaps the most significant thing to remember
about the first side effect of coercion is that people who use punishment become conditioned punishers
themselves. Others will fear, hate, and avoid them."

* "Acceptance of coercion is so pervasive that some will find it hard to believe they could influence others
effectively with positive reinforcement, without threats of dire consequence. Our own experience with
coercion gets in the way, making us more secure in our ability to punish than to reward. An overworked
and incorrect bit of folk wisdom pronounces the carrot to be of no avail unless backed up by the stick.
But the carrot can do the job all by itself."

* "When used effectively, positive reinforcement is the most powerful tool we have. Many teachers know
this, even though they barely heard it mentioned during their training."

* "Intuitively recognizing separation and divorce as escape, children often blame themselves for a parent's
departure. . . . Escape from the family has a way of perpetuating itself."

* "Verbal warnings have not sufficed to keep up the level of avoidance that the original atomic explosions
generated. Behavior analysis provides good reason for this slippage. It is characteristic of avoidance
that success breeds failure. As we go longer and longer without a shock, avoidance automatically
seems less and less necessary."

Behind every example Sidman gives, and the fundament of all the knowledge contained in this book, is science. That is, quantifiable laboratory results. Laboratory experiments on animals other than humans.

There. There's a big answer for you. The reason for the marginalization of life-changing ideas. We will do anything to differentiate ourselves from other animals, even if it means consigning ourselves to a prison cell of ignorance, unhappiness, and fallout. And Republicanism.

This is at the root of one of the more disturbing bits of news in the paper last week: a report that all the states that carry out the death sentence do so using an antiquated and difficult to administer three-chemical dose that can result in intense pain. And why? Because the single-dose alternative, known to consistently provide a "humane" death, is the one that is used for animal euthanasia. (See, maybe, poem below.) We don't want to treat one another as if we were pet dogs, do we?

Unconscionable.

This is also the way I feel about my own coerciveness. It causes a wave of revulsion deep in my gut to recognize the ways in which I have sometimes emotionally battered my loved ones because I was overcome with my own sense of frustration or fear. It goes against everything I believe, everything I know, everything contained in this book. I am so deeply sorry for every instance, I could weep.

That is how it was when I saw it this week in a perfect microcosm. As usual, Nelly showed the way. I got on my coat and went to the door, and Nelly went too, as always. She looked worried; there was the possibility that I might leave and not take her too. This happens on occasion, actually. She voiced her discontent (did I mention that Nelly is a screamer?). To convey the news that she was not going this time, I reflexively made that "no" sound deep in my throat. Didn't even have to open my mouth: "un-hnh." She looked at me and stopped. Then her head dropped lower, her tail sunk. She turned and walked away, dejection all over her body.

The sound was a conditioned punisher. And she turned away. She escaped the unpleasantness that long familiarity with that sound--how could I be so little aware of how often I use it?--has taught her will ensue. And the unhappiness of this necessity made me unhappy, for her and for everyone else I have ever punished too.

Seeing that I do this makes me feel lower than . . . an animal.

With Nelly, at least, I can offer a marrow bone. And the promise to do better, to be more conscious. I am hoping that will do the trick. It'll be a new one for me.