‘Learned helplessness’ is a phrase and an idea that I know from studying psychology, in particular from the psychology of mental illness. The basic finding that the theory is based on is that if you expose someone to suffering they can’t control, then they internalise that lack of control and won’t make use of any control that they later gain – and that moreover they will develop things like passivity, lack of pleasure, lack of motivation, inward-turned aggression, and emotional disruption.
I never learned very much about this theory in particular, nor was I much involved in the course, but something of my reaction might be conveyed, scaled up greatly, by imagining some idealistic young doctor going into a cancer-treatment practice, and, inspired by her horror at the suffering of the cancer patients they saw each day, striving alongside other doctors to find ways of treating or curing the illness – and then finding out that those other doctors with whom she, as she saw, ’struggled against cancer’, had used their research to develop a weapon that would be used to infect target groups with cancer.
The fact that research which I had thought of as ‘how do we treat mental illness’ has effectively been used to inflict mental illness…fuck. It feels like a betrayal, a sudden pulling back of a curtain or removal of a mask. The Hippocratic oath turned upside down.
… I don’t want to ever be part of something that sets out, deliberately, calculatingly, to tear apart someone’s mind and knowingly produce, immediately and in the longer term, that kind of suffering.