Phrase of the Week: Learned Helplessness

How is it that I could have seen this phrase in almost everything I've read over the past few days? Is it a sign? What I am supposed to do with this idea?

It's shown up twice in Harper's, once in an article on on our political situation*, once in an article on psychology**; and once in a email from Lisa Brown on sports psychology. I'm sure I've seen it more than that, but I've been surfing a bit so I can't quite remember where. The reference is to a famous experiment done in the late 1960s by Martin Seligman, who subjected dogs to electric shocks and noticed that after awhile, when it became clear that there was nothing they could do to stop the shocks, the dogs gave up, even when later they were given the opportunity to turn off the shocks.

Apparently, this state afflicts pretty much everybody in our current society: liberals, athletes, you name it, we have a hard time believing that there is anything we can actually do to change our circumstances. My puppy seems to be having a hard time learning it--there she goes, trailing the leash that was supposed to keep her tethered to me until it stopped raining enough for me to take her out for her mid-morning poop--but the rest of us are curled up in balls just like Seligman's tortured dogs.

And why shouldn't we be? You wonder that I don't post much about what's going on in the world around us. Well, look at the options. I could be writing about the idiotic brouhaha going on about the former Cordoba Intiative, now Park51, but if even the founders have pulled back from describing it as an Islamic center, who am I to champion their religious freedom? Or I could say something about the hysteria of the claims that the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are making about our culture and its (God help us) "traditional values", but would anybody but those who already agree with me actually listen? It makes me want to curl up in a ball just to think about tackling such heated and hopeless debates.

Nor does it help that there are those in my own field who don't seem to want to listen to me. Not to name names or anything. Which is another form of helplessness: even in my own field I've started to believe that there are things I simply cannot say or, that if I do say, will go unheeded. And then there's the stuff going on in my family. Ah, well, I guess I can't get away from that, can I? Why do I feel so helpless? Because we are all damned to silence about what everyone has been getting up to these days. I really have to find a way around this or I'm going to lose my voice entirely.

*Kevin Baker, "The Vanishing Liberal: How the Left Learned to Be Helpless," April 2010.
**Gary Greenberg, "The War on Unhappiness: Goodbye, Freud, Hello Positive Thinking," September 2010.


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