“What can you do?” Often said under a deep sigh, it’s something I’ve heard even more often than “What happened?” recently. People venting their anger have become a staple on the evening nooze, but resigned apathy remains a much more common emotion in response to the Depression. It’s the economic Depression made into a personal depression, matching the lack of income with a sense of helplessness. It’s understandable, yes, but countering it is the most important task we have ahead of us.
“Learned Helplessness” is a condition named by Martin Seligman in the 1970s. He had done some research with dogs to find out how they respond to an impossible situation. The short version is that dogs were hooked up to a device that periodically gave them an electric shock, but a pedal allowed the dogs to make it stop. The dogs quickly learned to hit the pedal (and, if they are like my dog, plot revenge for later). Another set of dogs was given a shock that came and went more randomly without their ability to control it. When they were moved to a situation where they could easily put a stop to the shocks, most of them simply lay down and whimpered.
The dogs subjected to this exhibited all the usual signs of depression once they gave in, including a lack of motivation to do anything. Some of the dogs were strong enough to resist “Learned Helplessness”, however, and eventually were able to become normal through “Learned Optimism”. That’s where it gets interesting.
Imagine, for a moment, that you and your family have spent your entire life under a terrible dictator like Saddam Hussein. Everything you might do to get ahead only makes you stand out, so you’ve learned to be careful. You don’t speak your mind because you can name many people who paid dearly for these acts. Society itself becomes sick, collectively depressed and apathetic. Learned Helplessness settles in until something happens to change things.
Often, that change happens on a generational basis. People who haven’t been around long enough to be beaten down for decades start to demand something better, as they are now in Iran. While some people can overcome Learned Helplessness, the situation is more likely to change when people come along who haven’t really learned to be helpless.
In our nation, things aren’t quite as bad as in other places. But after generations of consumer culture, where people’s main connection to their world is through what they buy, has left many people feeling rather helpless beyond the comfort of consumerism. When you are used to simply buying whatever product you see on teevee, whether it’s Pepsi or Republicans, Cheetos or Democrats, there isn’t anything obvious that you can do to change the situation. You just have to wait for a product you really do like to come along.
As is typical in these situations, it was primarily a new generation gleefully chanting, “Yes, we can!” that propelled Obama into the White House. Now that the new administration has settled in, protesters that aren’t usually very young have vented their anger in streets and town halls to take up the opposite side. It may not look like a good way to run a nation, but it certainly beats apathy. It often takes a strong emotional reaction to break through the Learned Helplessness, but it does happen. It could even be the start of something useful, if channeled properly. As Paul Wellstone said, “Sometimes you have to start a fight to win one.”
What counts is that people need to believe that there is something that they can do to make a difference – not just in their own life, but in the world around them. That’s far more rare than it looks on the nooze at night. A free people do more than to choose among the things that are offered them – they organize, fight, and hopefully learn how to see a win in a compromise at the end. First, however, we have to get past the Learned Helplessness that is nowhere near sexy enough to appear on the nooze. It’s still the most common reaction that I run into as we all work to get by and get through.