Do we have the power to overcome our ‘learned helplessness’?

People all around the world feel powerless. This has left our institutions ineffective. diegodiazphotography

To what extent are we encouraged to think of ourselves as free and self-determining individuals, whilst in reality being restricted both overtly and insidiously by our institutional frameworks?

If this is our state in contemporary society, are we losing our capability for true freedom of thought and action? Do we defer to institutions for leadership and direction to guide our personal thinking and acting?

What if institutions provide direction to suit their own interests rather than ours, or society’s generally? What if, in the face of extreme conditions, they are incapable of responding effectively?

Will human beings’ expression of individual freedom of thought and action, particularly in relation to extreme or “big” issues, be manifest in thinking that institutions will respond for them?

At the same time, will institutions themselves succumb to indecision and paralysis as individual members within them follow the same train of thought?

If all of these seem reasonable propositions – noting that they are not posited as “the truth” or “reality” – do we face the prospect of human societies more and more paralysed by “learned helplessness”?

Learned helplessness is a term that originates in animal biology, referring to eventual loss of mental capability to respond to some discomforting stimulus when the physical ability to respond is removed through repeated cycles of constraint. In human psychology, it describes the loss of the individual’s ability to respond to _any _situation, “with the eventual result that people give up without even trying”.

Examples of human failure to respond to extreme circumstances abound, where individuals fail to leave burning buildings or sinking ships, seemingly paralysed by fear.

However, it can also be argued that humans have abandoned their ability to act independently in relation to a wide range of matters, even where they consider themselves to be free agents. Do we exercise individual choice as consumers when we buy a car, a television, or the latest iPhone? Or, are we merely selecting between different institutional offerings that we accept that we must choose from? We _must _consume because it is expected of us and we comply.

You may think at this point that events of the past year show these ideas to be nonsense. We have, after all, followed the “Arab Spring” on our news bulletins throughout 2011. We have seen individuals and societies challenge and topple their institutions. Contemporary Western culture encourages us to think of ourselves as individuals – free spirits who can make our own choices through self-determination. New youth cultures in emerging and developing economies pick up on this individualist tendency, even within some of the strictest regimes.

Yet, as individualism has developed as an espoused aspirational value, the institutional frameworks within which we must function – even in the most liberal of liberal democracies – appear more and more restrictive.

Our lives are monitored from birth to death by governmental institutions. Our day-to-day life is dependent upon, influenced and, some would say, controlled by commercial institutions. While applauding the Arab Spring, how have most in the non-Arab world thought of the Occupy movement? Has the “99%” been motivated to challenge the institutions of Western democracy?

At the extreme, our institutions demand uncompromising adherence. George W Bush and Tony Blair epitomised such thinking in the lead up to invasion of Iraq. Those that were not with them fully were de facto against them – the “enemy” within as well as without.

Everyday party politics in modern democratic states appear to many to be grounded in ideological conflict. Electorates are forced to choose between different “right” positions, with little compromise on their different value propositions. Yet, it is also argued that there is little to choose between parties.

Constraints on individual thought and action range from formal, governmental and legislative frameworks to informal, peer pressures.

Most if not all of us would no doubt agree that murder should be proscribed and punished severely. Opinion on issues like cannabis use is divided within Australian society, whilst both legal rules and societal norms on matters of freedom of speech and dress vary widely across nations. But, I would argue that the thinking and acting of the majority of individuals on all these matters is moulded by some set of institutional norms more than by individual freedom and choice.

To what purpose do I offer this discourse? There are major challenges facing contemporary societies. These include global issues of climate change, resource depletion, accelerating socio-economic disparity, environmental degradation and over-population.

They also include seemingly intractable local problems such as how to “correct” the Northern Territory intervention, what is the key to the Murray-Darling basin’s sustainability, and how can the Wild Rivers of North Queensland be managed for the greater good?

I suggest that, at present, there is little real prospect of most if not all of these issues being resolved because we are in the throes of a global “learned helplessness” pandemic, in which individuals see themselves as powerless and unable to act, and key institutions are paralysed by indecision and inaction. What appears to be action and change in the short term turns out to be a chimera.

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