Part 2: Instrumental Mind

Author’s Note:  First, some revisions have been made to Part 1 to include a brief discussion of the connection between corpse factory culture and the exploitative work culture of the United States. Secondly, this essay is somewhat more technical than the first since it includes some ideas from constructive-developmental theory as well as some (simple) physics concepts. The ideas and terminology introduced in this essay provide the foundation for understanding the social dynamics of white supremacy which will be elaborated on in subsequent essays.


instrumental plane

The Instrumental Plane

The objectifying, minimizing gaze of whiteness occurs along an axis of interaction which I call The Instrumental Plane. I call it this to reference both the fact that this kind of perception minimizes and objectifies humans as tools (note that the healthy person is literally looking down on the robot), but also to reference the instrumental stage of knowing as described by Kegan’s constructive-development theory. In this theory instrumental knowers are defined by their self-centeredness, obedience to rules, and their tendency to appeal to authority.

The instrumental plane is essentially the objectified version of what I call the instructional plane, which is the ordinary axis of interaction that occurs between parents and their children or teachers and their students. The primary difference between the instrumental and instructional axes is the role of empathy, which is absent in the former but present in the latter.

Representationally speaking, the presence of empathy could be reflected in a diagram with a far shallower valley than that which is in the uncanny diagram, and child replacing humanoid robot.

instructional plane

But, before I present that argument in full, let me say more about Kegan’s constructive-development theory and its relevance as an analytical tool for exploring the social dynamics of white supremacy.

The Instrumental Mind

Black people often complain that white people are immature in their thoughts and behavior when discussions turn to racism. Indeed, in the last couple of years much has been made of the phenomenon called white fragility which is one articulation of this particular problem.

While white people might feel that this complaint about immaturity is merely a kind of slur against them, a closer analysis reveals that a cogent argument can be made for the idea that the internalization of white supremacy really does retard cognitive development in white minds (and, to reiterate, white minds are not actually limited to white people). In fact, there is a rising body of empirical evidence that supports the idea that racial bias is correlated with reduced cognitive ability. Analyzing these cognitive issues from a developmental perspective offers some insight into what is happening and why.

developmental stage

While adult minds can be at an instrumental stage of knowing, instrumental knowers are most commonly pre-adolescent children. The average adult is usually at the third developmental level, socialized knowing,  or between the third and fourth (self-authoring knowers).

Socialized knowing is predicated on the ability to empathize with one’s peers and therefore engage in effective relationship building via perspective-taking. As such, socialized knowers are characterized by being focused on others rather than on themselves and treat people as ends rather than as means. Moreover, their interactions with others take on a more spontaneous and nuanced character as they respond to the individual’s cues rather than hard and fast rules of interaction.

Instrumental knowers on the other hand have difficulty with attending to their own and other’s perspectives simultaneously, operate from a much more self-centered perspective in which people are viewed as means rather than ends, and are extremely rule-bound when compared with socialized knowers.

Given these developmental differences, my conjecture is this:

A key characteristic of white minds is arrested development at a more instrumental stage of knowing in relation to black people because of their internalization of the uncanny perception-cognition schema.

This selective, race-based arrested cognitive development occurs because white minds lack the ability to fully empathize with black people which is a prerequisite for becoming socialized knowers. This lack of empathy prevents white minds from developing a complete theory of mind that includes black people,  and thus they are literally unable to engage in perspective taking when interacting with them. This instrumental orientation is reflected in the white mind’s tendency to apply blanket rules (i.e. stereotypes) when interacting with black people, as well as the tendency towards abusing and exploiting black people.

This arrested development problem is initially specifically operational in relation to black people due to the unconscious internalization of uncanny perception and cognition. I say initially because as I will argue in a future essay, over time there is a tendency towards erosion whereby individuals with white minds eventually start to regard all people as instruments to serve their own needs regardless of their race.  This inevitably happens because race isn’t real, therefore the artificial line drawn in the mind to justify differential treatment cannot be fully sustained due to the feedback from material reality.

Split Cognition

While their cognitive development is arrested in relation to black people, white people with white minds are able to progress along the developmental continuum in their interactions with other white people because their empathy for white people remains intact.

This race-based difference in cognitive schemas, instrumental for black people and socialized for white people, reflects a split in cognition; and, it is this split cognition that black people are noticing and reacting to when they describe white minds as being duplicitous and untrustworthy. We also see artifacts of this split consciousness phenomenon when people with white minds project whiteness onto black people who do not match their instrumental cognitive schema. This is reflected in comments like “you’re not really black”.

While white minds will no doubt reject the notion that they are actually doing this kind of mental toggling between cognitive schemas based on race, black people who are subject to this kind of interaction know all too well the subtle changes in expression, energy, and mood that washes over the white mind when it switches from interacting with a white person to interacting with a black person.

Black people with white minds also display this split cognition which bears some similarity to the double consciousness coined by Du Bois, however the primary difference I see between the notion of double consciousness and what I call split cognition is the level of awareness of the afflicted individual. While black people are generally conscious of their double consciousness (i.e. the difference between white people’s racist perceptions of them versus their perceptions of themselves), those who have white minds are generally unaware of their own manifestations of split cognition. Moreover, much like white people with white minds, they tend to also go into denial and/or become emotionally fragile when artifacts of their split cognition is pointed out to them.

Mutuality & Normalcy

The instrumental/instructional plane can be conceptually contrasted with another theoretical plane which I call the horizon of mutuality. The horizon of mutuality is the axis of interaction used with people with whom one both empathizes and view as equal in status to oneself.

mutual plane

Now here is where a touch of physics enters the analysis. Note in the diagram the line perpendicular to the horizon of mutuality labeled “normal”. This is a reference to a concept in physics called the normal force which is essentially the upward force generated by a surface. I am purposely conflating the normal force in physics with our ordinary usage of the term normal.

Where mutuality exists (a feature of socialized knowing), one develops a theory of mind that fully includes the other person. That is, one is able to attend to simultaneous perspective taking which enables one to recognize that the other is like oneself. This recognition of the self in the other leads to a subconscious allocation of personal/mind space between self and other that is relatively equal. Note that the presence of the mirror neuron response enhances this perspective taking capacity, which is why the absence of it is an impediment to developing this way of relating to another person.

By contrast, the normal created by the instrumental/instructional plane (normal forces are always perpendicular to surfaces) leads to an unequal self-other allocation whereby the self is allocated more space while the other is allocated less space. Moreover, the normal axis of the instrumental/instructional plane can be seen as literally invading what would be considered the the personal/mind space of the other under normal mutuality. Additionally, as one moves from an instructional to instrumental orientation, the allocation to self increases and the allocation for other decreases.

instrumental invasion

I should again make clear at this point that I am not merely using these ideas as an explanatory framework. I am actually making the stronger argument that this underlying architecture is actually embedded in our consciousness and is used in our unconscious process of sense-making. We are simply unaware that we are using such constructs to perceive and understand our interactions with the world.

While the unequal allocation of the instructional/instrumental plane is obviously highly problematic when applied to adults who actually are relatively equal, this orientation is not inherently pathological. In fact it is both normal and appropriate in the right context, namely in empathic relationships between adults and children (instructional), and the objectified relationship between humans and tools (instrumental).

Instruction & Immaturity

The immaturity of children is such that they lack the mental capacity and complex cognition of adults. Therefore, if adults are to fulfill their duty to care for and develop children, they must recognize and inhabit their status as adults which includes invading children’s personal and mental space when necessary in order to shape their behavior and thinking via instruction.

While it is fashionable these days to pretend that children are simply mini adults who should be viewed as equals, they are not. Children must be molded by competent adults if they are to develop into competent young adults. Indeed, in later essays I will argue that the arrested cognitive development associated with white supremacist culture often leads to a failure of adults to fully inhabit their roles as adults in shaping children, which over time leads to what can be thought of as a “crisis of adulthood” wherein adults feel and are increasingly ill-equipped to manage the complexities of adulthood. As an astute reader might surmise, I believe that the United States is currently in the midst of just such a crisis.

The instrumental orientation which regards the “other” as a tool is also entirely appropriate if one is interacting with non-living objects or with living things with which only minimal empathy is possible. One does not worry about violating the integrity of a kettle before picking it up, nor of offending a carrot by uprooting it. That is, it makes perfect sense to minimize and erase the personhood of the other if the other is not actually a person to begin with.

Instrumental Objectivity

The instrumental and instructional orientations only become pathological when applied inappropriately to people. The instrumental orientation is particularly pathological when misapplied to people because it violates ethical norms which affirm that people should be treated as ends rather than means and is associated with more extreme abuses of power.

Problematic interracial interactions as minor as a white person touching a black person’s hair or as major as violently manhandling a black child are everyday examples of an instrumental orientation. The condescension associated with white paternalism and “whitesplaining” can be seen as a manifestation of the instructional orientation.

At this point feminist and womanist readers are likely noting that this notion of the instrumental and instructional plane are also highly useful analytical frameworks for explaining the pathology of misogyny including rape and sexism. Indeed, it was my noticing the parallels between white supremacist abuse of black people and patriarchal abuse of women several years ago that first led me on this path of critical analysis.

Invasion and Erasure

When black people speak of being minimized from a psychological or social perspective, or of “erasure” by white people, they are actually making a direct reference to their implicit perception of this invasive dynamic associated with the instructional/instrumental plane.

In fact it is common rhetoric these days for black people to speak of their right to “take up space“, and to chastise white people for their tendency to “take up too much space”, whether that be actual physical space or simple air time during the course of conversation. I will again note the parallel between white supremacist abuse of black people and male patriarchal abuse of women. Women have long chastised men for similar reasons.

Additionally, when black people talk about “pushing back” against whiteness they are unwittingly referencing this unconscious mental construct; that is, they are actually speaking of pushing back the axis of invasion of the instrumental plane to the normal axis of mutuality.

This invasiveness associated with the instrumental plane is vividly referenced in the film Get Out where the theme of psychic invasion by white minds is the primary source of the psychological horror that the film inspires. As already mentioned, the angle of the instrumental plane is not fixed, rather, the degree of invasiveness depends upon the level of power being abused. The greater the power and violence being used, the greater the invasion and subsequent erasure of the other.

When supremacist ideology becomes totalizing as in fascism, the near total erasure of the other is the end result. Diagrammatically this is associated with a nearly vertical instrumental plane as shown below. In material terms this erasure usually equates to acts of extreme violence such as enslavement, lynching and genocide, but it can also manifests as militant minimization designed to erase salient differences. The radical trans movement’s ongoing agenda of erasing the reality of sex is an example of this kind of totalitarian erasure via militant minimization of differences.

instrumental erasure

In Part 3: Dynamics of Disequilibrium, I will examine how the underlying cognitive structure of the instrumental plane leads to cultural conflicts and the eventual collapse of the social order.