Learned Helplessness.

Learned Helplessness. February 10, 2014

I was reading a couple of different things that suddenly converged and made a singularity in my mind this past day or two and I wanted to share the idea with y’all. Namely, I wanted to talk about helplessness.

Christians are generally very fond of calling themselves children of their god. I can understand a little of why; Jesus kind of talked about it off and on in the Gospels. I’ve mentioned before how I’ve heard them exult in being toddler-like in faith and calling their deity “Daddy God.” There’s even a book whose title uses that specific term, and suddenly I understand why I’m hearing about it all the time lately; DUH, obviously a popular book came out with the term. I should have guessed. At any rate, I find the term “Daddy God” repulsive, and even some other Christians think the term verges on presumptuousness. (Oh, okay. Hey, you think?)

Taking back one's own control feels a lot like this looks. (Credit: Paxson Woelber, CC license.)
Taking back one’s own control feels a lot like this looks. (Credit: Paxson Woelber, CC license.)

My objection to the term is that it infantilizes adults in a really creepy way. Infantilization is a term that means “to make an adult into a dependent, incompetent little child.” If you’re arguing with someone and suddenly that person starts calling you something like “kiddo” or “little girl,” you’re hearing an attempt to infantilize you. Done to a non-consenting conversation partner, infantilization is a way to cut the other person down to size and to try to make an opponent doubt his or her competence. It functions as a quick method of asserting dominance and authority over a person. For some reason, bigots, racists, and sexists just love this tactic; a big part of their self-image is that they have an inborn, inherent authority over those they are lording it over, and when these “inferior” folks refuse to accept that authority, infantilization is a very quick way to try to remind them who’s really superior and in charge. It’s a demand to “shut up and let Daddy drive.”

In a civilized society, it seems to me that the best way to go about solving conflicts is to treat folks like adults. It seems to me that true reconciliation can’t happen while someone’s being treated like a child. But this dislike of infantilization goes deeper for me. A parent who tried to keep a child dependent and helpless forever would be rightfully seen as abusive and horrible; the whole goal of parenthood is to get children to the point where they can live independently and handle their own lives–like adults, one might even say.

With all that in mind, why do Christians think it’s so awesome for a god to treat adults like children? If it’s mean and nasty for humans to do it, why does a god get a free pass? Why isn’t his goal the same as a human parent’s goal is in the real world?

When Christians go on and on about being children, they think they’re glorifying the endless capacity for imagination and love that children have, not to mention children’s limitless ability to maintain rock-solid belief in utter and complete nonsense without even questioning any of it–which isn’t something all children do, but enough of them that the stereotype exists for a reason. Not for nothing do creationists consider getting their religious wackadoodle pseudo-science into classrooms to be their primary goal and overriding ambition. But there is an insidious other side to being a little child, and that is helplessness.

There is an entire fetish built around adults who dress up like babies specifically because that helplessness appeals to them. (No, I am not linking you. Lrn2RedTube like a normal person. Just make sure you aren’t at work when you do it.) When you abdicate your adult-ness, you’re basically asking another person or being to take care of you, and that nurturing can feel really good if you’re into that kind of thing (YKIOK). Even away from the fetish world, I can’t imagine someone who is sick or otherwise in need not really loving it when another person just steps in to help them and “do for them,” as the Southerners would put it. It’s okay to sometimes go that route, as long as you’re not being a bother to someone who didn’t consent to be put into the role of Designated Adult.

But think about how the Judeo-Christian god looks to followers who envision themselves as helpless, dependent little toddlers. Think about how powerful and beyond-cosmic, how galactically-stupendously-big he’d seem to someone who seriously envisions him- or herself as a baby in his hands.

To outsiders, the main facet of that god is that he seems pretty puny to many of us; for all his “oh hey check this out, I created the whole cosmos” omnipotence, when it comes down to it, he looks like a pretty small, tribal sort of godling. He’s jealous, punitive, prone to fits of violence and lashing-out in rage, needs the blood of innocent animals and people to satiate his outraged sense of justice, and is vitally, hugely concerned with what people do with their private parts and–for men–what those private parts look like. The symbol of his covenant involves infant genital mutilation. And oh boy does he ever hate pork. The New Testament amends much of that small-mindedness and brings an element of grandiosity that was somewhat lacking in the Old, but this god still turns out sounding an awful lot like an adolescent with a serious anger-management problem.

Christians like to call their god omnimax, meaning he is thought to be omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent (all-loving), but outsiders know he is not all of these things; he could not possibly be, and the world look like it does. Chances are he isn’t any of them, if he’s anything like other gods–and there’s no indication he is not, except for the insistence of his followers in absence of any proof of the idea. It was realizing he couldn’t possibly be omnimax that started my path right out of the church. It was the insistence of Christians around me that he was these things, and realizing that the world revealed a very different story, that made me start questioning. I couldn’t maintain the dissonance forever–that insistence that he’s omnimax, but that glaring reality pecker-slapping me in the face every moment that he is not. Now that I’m out of the religion, he looks so very small to me, and not any different from any other pantheon-type god.

And there is a reason why outsiders might envision this god as being way less powerful and less grand than his followers see him. We are not helpless before him, and we do not consider ourselves little bitty toddlers before him. We finally have a little information about just why this vast gulf in perception might exist.

First, check out this fascinating piece about how angry opponents look bigger and more threatening to men who are tied up. Think about that: men who feel physically helpless and restrained view potentially dangerous opponents as even more dangerous than they would if they were just sitting down in the chair or even if they were standing up.

Now, to clarify, this experiment was done at UCLA and its victims–er, subjects–were undergraduate men. That means they were all college students, with a mean age of about 23. Because this was done in a college setting, the researchers would have had to have cleared the experiment with UCLA, so you know nothing too nasty was going to happen. These guys knew that Peter Venkman wasn’t going to be shocking them or doing anything really harmful. Those kinds of experiments don’t tend to get approved. Indeed, all that happened was that they were tied up (or not tied up), shown pictures of angry, potentially violent men, and asked to assess how strong and how tall they thought the other men were. As you might expect, men who were tied up thought the men they saw were taller and stronger.

A second related follow-up experiment along the same lines was done to see if it was just the unfamiliar situation of being tied to a chair that maybe sparked the results. (See, that’s how real science works: we make a prediction, devise a way to test that prediction, get results, then try the experiment again, maybe a teeny bit differently this time, to see if the results are valid. Checkmate, creationists.) This time, the researchers recruited men at a mall, took them to a private area, and had them balance on a balance board while rating the images. And they got the same results. If you want a good chuckle, read the link to the full study; their efforts to manage suspicion and malingering are pretty funny in their way.

Though this is just one study, the implications are very clear, at least for men: when you’re helpless and at a serious physical disadvantage, your perceptions of potentially challenging situations can get a little skewed.

Can you see why I’d see that and think immediately about religion?

The second thing I saw that made me realize I really needed to write about this topic was a heartbreaking letter on an advice site from a young woman who was, at the time anyway, involved with an absolute cad of a man. Over a period of time, he’d convinced her that her own responses and intuition couldn’t be trusted, and she’d almost learned that she was helpless before his Superior Romulan Weaponry of self-serving faux-“rationality.” (Major TW of emotional abuse, but be happily advised that she got instant and profound support from that community, and has dumped her King Asshole.)

This man had not just infected her with an STI; he had not just subjected her to numerous physical risks from street drugs. He had almost made her helpless and completely dependent upon him to frame her entire view of reality and her entire paradigm of interaction with the world. And in so doing, she had very nearly gotten to a point where she couldn’t even really function under her own steam anymore; she needed the validation and affirmation he gave her, and she trusted his view of things almost more than she trusted her own. In the end, she listened to her own instincts and DTMFA, but it sounds like it was a bit of a narrow scrape.

Her situation reminded me of my own failed relationships with a couple of “rational” men. Oh, they were “rational” all right. They used completely fallacious reasoning. They gaslighted me, making me doubt my own feelings if those feelings didn’t seem convenient to them, telling me I was crazy if I felt an unapproved emotion. They punished me ruthlessly for communicating my needs, if those needs didn’t mesh with whatever they thought my needs should be. One was an alcoholic, drug addict, and thief. The other was just a controlling, paternalistic twit (an evangelical Christian who I saw pop up in music ministry a few years after our association). They often lost their shit and screamed at me–like red-faced, screaming-till-veins-stand-out-in-their-necks screaming at the top of their lungs, till their voices cracked, over stuff that even now seems pretty inconsequential, like where to eat dinner. But somehow I was the irrational one and they were the rational one. They were men, and therefore they had to be rational. If they were screaming, then obviously I was the irrational problem child.

There are a couple of “red flag” phrases for me when it comes to men’s self-descriptions. I’m betting most women know to avoid men who describe themselves as “Nice Guys,” but there are a lot of other terms that many of us have learned through trial and error to step really carefully around. They might not even be red flags for everybody, but I think that each person has a set of these flags that mean something intimate and special for that one person. “Open and honest” is definitely a red flag for me–it generally implies that these men think they’re open and honest, but what it usually works out to is that they are either insensitive boors or else that they punish attempts to be honest if that honesty doesn’t fit in with what they want to hear. Men who rail about “selfish” women are another big one, obviously; it almost always means they get a sad when the women around them refuse to put themselves last all the time. But “rational” definitely stands out in the list, and there’s a reason for it.

I think I was drawn to these men at the time because they provided structure and a framework for viewing the world, and even after leaving Christianity, I still needed that for a little while longer. It was realizing that they were far from rational that helped me kind of get over Christianity, actually–rejecting their implicit entitlement-minded lordship over All That Is Definable Reality made me think a lot about how I’d rejected Christianity’s similar attempted takeover of my mind and faculties. I began to relate how I’d become slowly more and more helpless in the grip of my boyfriends’ pseudo-intellectual “rationality” to how I’d become more and more helpless in the jaws of my onetime religion.

People sometimes can get really helpless. We can start thinking of ourselves as trapped. Our problems can start to eclipse everything else about our lives. We start thinking there’s just no way out.

But there is. We just get into this tunnel vision and start believing all the stuff we’re hearing from our abuser, and we start to think we’re just helpless and can’t even see any avenues of action except the one our abuser has thoughtfully lit up for us–the one that leads straight to the Train Station of Craziness.

Between these two things–the tendency of a helpless person to see a threatening person as way bigger and tougher, and the tendency of someone with an abuser to start seeing him- or herself as much more helpless and dependent than is really the case–I’ve begun seeing religion in a whole new light. It’s helped me make sense of my own time in Christianity, but it’s also helping me to understand why it might be that I see that god as significantly less amazing and powerful than his followers see him. And I think this idea offers some hope to those who are unhappily stuck in religion: right now they might be there and languishing and wondering how they’ll ever live without this mindset, this paradigm, and I’m here to tell them that once they’re out, once their heads are clear, they’ll see that god in a whole new light. And they might have trouble, as I did once, seeing how they ever thought that god was powerful or omni-anything when very obviously he is not.

We’re going to talk next time about curiosity. We discovered that thing about helplessness because we were curious. That’s how humans answer questions–we start with true curiosity. It’s what marks us as human and what lets us make the amazing discoveries that we make all the time. But for some reason, religious zealots don’t really like curiosity. We’re going to talk about why that might be, and discuss what real curiosity looks like. I hope you’ll join me.

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