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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Learned Helplessness / Learned Despair

Despair - Edvard Munch
Despair - Edvard Munch

(A quick note: While doing my standard cursory "research" to make sure I have my terms right, I ran across the Wikipedia entry on Learned helplessness and was reminded once again of the despicable nature of Behavioral Psychology research. What Seligman and Maier did to those poor creatures, in order to gain insight on what a simple fucking thought experiment will accomplish, disgusts me.)

"Learned helplessness," as applied to the state of political apathy here in the United States, is a meme I've been running across with increasing frequency here in cyberspace. The idea is that we - those of us who are not in that special class of uber-wealth - have become so disconnected from the mechanisms of power, so disenfranchised from the influence of our representative democracy, that we shrink from contemplation of, let alone action against, the insults heaped upon us by "the system," much as like Seligman and Maier's battered dogs.

I like "learned despair" but, to depart from the rigors of behavioral psychology, "helplessness" is instructive in the political context. We are well-indoctrinated in individualism in this country. While it serves the capitalist model to have us adhere to a up-by-the-bootstraps, personal productivity ethic, it also serves those exploiting that model to atomize us into little islands who are out for ourselves. Money is needed in order to safely navigate this societal model we have trapped ourselves within. In such a milieu, it is much more difficult for people to come together - to help each other - in pursuits outside of the imperative of securing a reliable income.

We have lost the ability to be for each other outside of the pursuit of a particular agenda. This is an artifact of our training to pursue the primary agenda of securing ourselves. And agendas, no matter how "kumbaya" they may be, chafe against each other - witness the devolution of liberalism into special-interest conflicts. Each of the "special" interests are admirable and seductive, but the end result has been a cacophony of competition for limited political resources. We are not for each other as a prime directive, even as many of these interests purport to move us towards communal concern.

The problem is not the interests - it's the fact that they are pursued without the necessary eye on the true prize. We atomize our concerns without realizing that they are empty if the primary concern - that of enabling a sense of "helpness," of the reliability of my neighbor. We glance suspiciously sideways, afraid that perhaps "Save the Whales" might get more funding than breast cancer research.

This is an extraordinary benefit to the hierarchical capitalist model. It keeps us in competition even as we yearn to come together. Learned helplessness and despair is the only possible result of such an irony.
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I wanted to write about this because in contemplating the Snowden & NSA affair, I found myself in stunningly conflicting emotional states in back-to-back mornings on my morning bus commute.

One morning, I had on my shit-colored glasses and was weary with depression over the encroaching surveillance state, and its attendant cynicism. Also, I thought of Edward Snowden holed up in his no-man's-land at the Russian airport, and the clouds loneliness and conflict that most certainly move across his inner landscape in spite of his stoic and heroic protestations. He is a human being just like you and me, and as such enjoys the love of acceptance - and suffers any rejection as any sane primate must do. Why, oh why, must there be such "heroes?"

The next morning, I was feeling a buoyancy while contemplating the very same thing. Chris Hedges often speaks of the expression of humanity being preserved in acts of goodness, however futile they may be. In the acceptance of defeat and failure, and to insist nonetheless on right action, to refuse to acquiesce to the system even if it means a crippled life, actually shines a light on what it is to be truly human.

This candle will never blow out.

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