Learned helplessness

I got hit by a ‘double whammy’ this weekend. First, I watched The Trotsky on the plane to Kelowna (well, part of it – it’s a 30-minute flight). The premise of the movie seems a bit silly – a teenager who believes that he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky stages a coup in his high school in an attempt to organize the students into a union. It’s ostensibly a comedy, and is definitely a really funny film – the scenes where he woos a lawyer 10 years older than he are absolutely priceless. At the same time, the climactic scene (where the students charge up to the school with protest signs and righteous fury) fucks me every time I watch it, and my eyes start welling up like I’m a 6 year-old with a skinned knee.

Add to that a long conversation I had with Edwin Hodge about the heights of ridiculousness of post-modern thought (I more or less took Natalie Reed’s position – that post-modern thought can function alongside skepticism to help us critique the ways in which our own experiences and perspective affect truth claims), and whether or not political movements were undermined by the way in which postmodern perspectives can splinter populations that, from the outside, should share a single goal. The point I made to Edwin was that one doesn’t blame a CT scan for discovering problems we weren’t looking for. Postmodern ‘splintering’ is oftentimes simply the exposition of real divisions that exist, and provides a method by which groups who are not commonly represented in the majority group’s interests can keep their needs from being overlooked.

The problem of course is that the infighting that seems to happen – feminist atheists against anti-feminist; anti-racists against those who wish to ignore racism; trans skeptics against gender essentialists – all stem from a common route: the idea that the issues of the minority are not the real problem. Again, this is certainly an idea with easy appeal. After all, if we are a movement of atheists (for example), then our fight is with religion, not an esoteric crusade against systemic misogyny. The problem of course is that one cannot examine problems in isolation, and some issues cannot be extricated from larger, more diffuse problems. What ends up happening is that once the movement solves the “real” problem, the minority goes back to being ignored, having lost those who were allies of convenience.

These two experiences, happening as consecutively as they did, got me thinking about the difficulties inherent in trying to push against the great, immobile edifice of social structures, tradition, and history. We in the skeptic/freethought movement are constantly railing against painfully destructive ideas and practices that are the fruits of human ignorance and laziness. Religion, pseudoscience, misogyny, racism – these things are what happens when we allow our brains to simply sink to the bottom, and rely heavily on the easy route of heuristic thinking rather than the much more labour-intensive path of carefully scrutinizing every single thought that passes through our brains.

The most galling aspect of these types of thought processes is that it is very easy to find consensus, especially among those who are completely ignorant of the subject matter. Colour blindness, for example, certainly seems like one of those things that could work, provided you don’t bother to think it all the way through in a rigorous fashion. So too do the objections to evolutionary theory, or binary gender roles, or the mechanism behind homeopathy. These are what happens when you ask a mind with limited resources, limited information, and low motivation to examine truth claims – the first thing that seems plausible becomes the thing we adhere to. Once we arrive there it’s a tough job to move people toward the evidence-based conclusion unless they are particularly interested in being wrong.

Pushing as we do against these offspring of bad brains, especially those which are deeply ingrained in our culture subconscious, the task can seem so monumentally large as to cause us to abandon optimism. After all, people have been fighting against religion for centuries – what could we hope to accomplish? Wouldn’t it be easier to simply compromise or just demand that it stay in its corner and quietly play nice? Can we find similar ‘middle’ ground with racism, transphobia, pseudoscience, conservatism of any stripe? Are we really going to change anyone’s mind? How do we even start with problems that are so large, diffuse, and deeply rooted in neuroscience?

It is perhaps that last one that is the biggest source of frustration and discouragement – when we are talking about these massive, systemic problems that often act subtly and do not have obvious, simply fixes, how on Earth can one single crusader hope to have any kind of meaningful impact? How indeed, when the realities of the conflicts within movements often loom larger than the issues that the movement is trying to change? Can we ever hope to succeed when we behave like crabs in a barrel – constantly seeming to pull each other down in our struggle to reach the top?

I can certainly understand the frustration from both sides – from those who wish the infighting would stop in favour of solidarity, and from those who are tired of being ignored by those who call themselves ‘allies’ but act like anything but. At times when my despair at making progress threatens to overwhelms my desire to keep going (and I will readily confess that this doesn’t happen too often – I’m a pretty upbeat guy), I remember the small victories – the person who e-mails me to tell me they like my writing; the conversation I overhear where someone uses one of my arguments, the pingback I get when someone links an ignorant friend to one of my posts – the little things that let me know that I am making an impact, even if I am not necessarily changing the world by myself.

My love for Orwell prevents me from invoking any trite advice about journeys of thousand-league length, but the advice in that adage is sound. The fights we are engaged in are going to be long campaigns of attrition, and it is easy to get discouraged. It may seem as though, sometimes, we are expending too much effort going after each other to have anything left in the tank for the larger effort. When those thoughts loom too large, it is important that we learn to find the fuel to continue wherever we can.

I guess what I’m saying is, when you send me e-mails, you give me gas.

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  1. David says

    “one doesn’t blame a CT scan for discovering problems we weren’t looking for”
    I assure you, such people exist.

  2. says

    I’m not talking about the physical disability of not being able to discern certain colours – I am talking about an approach to anti-racism which revolves around the central idea that if racial differences are ignored, everyone will be treated equally.

  3. mrp says

    Ah, that makes sense. I’ve never heard of the term in that sense and was such mightily confused.

  4. Kate Chopin says

    Thanks for this good sir!

    It winds up being particularly relevant to me after the shit-show I experienced this weekend in another forum as the result of a feminist topic -again. It is disturbingly frustrating when every other topic passes by without even a whiff of shit.

    There were so many P-Bombs (Privilege Bombs) getting dropped…I missed the allies.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  5. palaeodave says

    Consider this my message of thanks and encouragement! I don’t have a lot of time to read blogs (I’ve got a thesis to write!) but I make a point of checking yours, Natalie’s and Pharyngula every day and I’ve learned a lot along the way.

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