This is the Fourth of July, an excellent day to be un– “A-merry-can”, as the Field Negro would put it, so I choose it as yet another day to oppose the Reeducation industry and its belief in the virtues of powerlessness. Check this out:
Feeling powerless is no fun. A lack of control can make the difference between contented and unhappy employees. But new research shows that a lack of power doesn’t just make people feel disgruntled. It has a more fundamental effect on their mental skills.
In a series of experiments, Pamela Smith from Radboud University Nijmegen has shown that the powerless actually take a measurable hit to important mental abilities. Even if people are subconsciously primed with the concept of being powerless, they perform more poorly at tasks designed to assess their ability to plan, focus on goals and ignore distractions.
According to previous research, a lack of power forces people to constantly re-evaluate their own goals and monitor more senior individuals. Without authority, a person’s actions rely on instructions and may constantly change at the whim of their superiors, whose own motives and goals must be guessed at. Monkeys show similar behaviour. Studies have found that subordinate rhesus males follow the gaze of those with higher status, while dominant individuals only look in the same direction as others with greater standing.
Smith reasoned that this constant re-evaluation draws the brain’s resources away from other needs, including a set of mental abilities known as “executive functions”. The term is loosely defined but accurately named and refers to a set of master processes that govern and control more basic abilities, like attention and motor skills. They allow us to plan for the future, adapt to new situations and carry out our goals. They allow us to carry out actions that further our goals while restraining us from those that hamper them.
And yes, I know that the Reeducators will now say that this is not what they mean when they discuss powerlessness. Unfortunately they also say they do mean this, when they encounter someone who has personal power.
I think my fundamental issue with the Reeducative enterprise is its essentialism, i.e. the idea of a fixed identity and a “real you” that is necessarily the layer of yourself which has the characteristics Reeducation seeks to bring to light.
Another major issue for me in Reeducation was its negativity. For instance: the PhD I did, and the research interests I developed, grew in some part out of certain problems I had or had had. According to Reeducation that made it a bad idea.
It also seems to me that Reeducation did not give people enough credit and insisted too much that they do their worst and not their best. This is where I disagree with it most strongly.
My third major issue with Reeducation is how judgmental its denizens were.
The day I wrote this post, I took 45 minutes out of a work day to help somebody who doesn’t read well, read a legal document. I know the Reeducation people would say he was wasting my time and I was being ‘codependent,’ but I disagree. Now, they would have praised me had I done this on television, or through a national organization which would give me credit for doing this, because then I would have been “doing something for myself.”
But to just do something as a true favor or as a courtesy or out of friendship is frowned upon and I have cultural problems with Reeducation for this reason. In fact I do have the power to help this person read. In fact, armed with the information I gathered through my close reading, he is empowered to fight city hall, which he ought to do. They have no right to charge the fine on his building they want to charge, and they know it.
In Reeducation this neighbor would be told to submit to authority, admit he is powerless, and “take responsibility” for his putative error. I would be told that supporting him in his self-defense effort was “codependent” and “enabling” to him, and that identifying City Hall’s error was “blaming” them. But this is ridiculous … and it is why I oppose mainstream “A-merry-ca,” Reeducation, and the idea that powerlessness is a virtue.
And I note that Reeducation values private success but not political change. I have heard that there is a book criticizing Oprah, whom I do not watch, for helping to popularize a version of this view of the world to the masses.
I also find it very strange that in “A-merry-ca” individual Republicans are expected to feel powerless (and also “unsafe”) but also to expect the national government to exert all sorts of inappropriate and coercive power elsewhere, and that individual Democrats are expected to say they disagree with the government but are powerless to oppose it. It is these combinations of abdication of responsibility and extreme judgmentalism I find so strange.