Torture, Depression, and Things to Hold On To

The American torture system used the theories of ‘learned helplessness’ in order to better dismember its victims’ minds (via Obsidianwings, who has been writing a lot about American torture).

It’s not all that often that I get really emotional over politics – I try to keep with a style of calm and thoughtful analysis. But, fuck. This makes me mad. Let me explain where I’m personally coming from here.

‘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.

The theoretical elaboration connects this with depression; that some sort of process like this, of ‘learning’ that suffering can’t be controlled, helps to produce depressive mental illness, with all the misery and self-harm and suicide and destroyed relationships and broken lives that that involves, of which I have a little personal experience.

So I learned about this idea in a sort of medical context; that here’s a mechanism involved in this horrible curse, which we are struggling to understand so that we can reduce it. And I suppose it was illogical to not immediately connect it with government policy and torture. But I didn’t.

And then it turns up again here, and this link appears between something where I basically felt that humanity in general, ‘society’, was on one side, and depression was on the other, and this political situation where it’s the other way around.

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.

Politics, and political theory, is so full of complexities that it’s easy to get lost, to lose your bearings and not know which way is which. It is so so so easy to pick a judgement of what’s right and what’s wrong that seems nice enough and then stick with it. Of what justifies what – judgements based on the fuzziest, shakiest, most tenuous of reasoning. Because in politics, there’s not much other reasoning on offer.

We go in with things to hold onto – or at least, hopefully we do. Things that are concrete and that we cannot doubt the importance and value of. Things that stop it from being a game or a sport for debaters.

I think for me one of those things is to be against suffering, which I don’t think is as vacuous as it might sound. There are people who think every day about killing themselves, for whom the question of whether the world that they live in is worth inhabiting is a constant and open question, because in that world, failure and fear and weakness and pain are so omnipresent and so much more real than anything else.

‘Our’ response to that has to be a response of compassion and of trying to change that, and at the very least trying to be sure that we’re not making it worse, not inflicting more cuts on those people with so little blood left. A committment to being utterly opposed to that condition, both for those who experience it constantly and for those who experience it a little or occasionally.

I don’t know much about what that means in practice – the link between that sort of suffering and various abstruse points of economics and politics is very unclear. As much as I can, I try to find in gender roles and social forces and institutions, the traces and the roots of this sort of thing. But some things are much clearer. One is that mental health provision is not the social priority it should be; another related point is that leaving people struggling for basic necessities like housing is disgusting.

And another is that 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.

5 Responses to “Torture, Depression, and Things to Hold On To”

  1. Lindsay Says:

    Not much to add to this, except *YES*.

    I, too, am appalled that the findings of psychology have been used to damage — destroy — people’s minds, and that individual psychiatrists saw fit to preside over it as it happened.

    I also share your belief that compassion ought to be the source for a moral system.

    Do you think, is it too much to hope that any psychiatrist who collaborates in torture be de-credentialed by the APA?

  2. Mind-Body Dualism and Torture « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] Dualism and Torture I talked a bit yesterday about the recent release of a lot of documentation regarding the American torture system. In this […]

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “Do you think, is it too much to hope that any psychiatrist who collaborates in torture be de-credentialed by the APA?”

    Well, the A Psychological A have said that no psychologist should participate in anything contrary to international law (http://www.apa.org/releases/councilres0807.html) and the A Psychiatric A have said said that psychiatrists shouldn’t give specific help in interrogating anyone, but might give general opinions on likely effects (http://web.archive.org/web/20060622063118/http://www.psych.org/edu/other_res/lib_archives/archives/200601.pdf)

  4. Torture and Vivisection « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] and Vivisection A final post on torture. The fact which the use of psychology for torture brought home to me, but which I was already nominally aware of, is the ethical ambiguity of […]

  5. Something to hold on to: the US government is evil. « Check Your Premises Says:

    […] to hold on to: the US government is evil. At least that’s what Alderson at Directionless Bones point out, looking at the use of torture by the US government to “dismember people’s […]


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