June 24th, 2006

ozarque figure

Emotional weather; hopelessness and hope; part one....

I've been re-reading your comments, and sorting them out into sets, and going back over the correspondence and conversations that started me worrying in the first place, and a few glimmers of light are starting to work their way into my head. I don't think I'm going to be able to explain those glimmers in any organized fashion, but I'm going to start anyway.

One set of comments that struck me most forcibly came from leora. Like this one:

"So, all these people are talking about giving hope to people, despite the fact that they aren't offering necessarily founded hope with real chances for improvement to the problems causing hopelessness, and ignoring the fact that they might be doing something incredibly cruel and dangerous if they succeed. They assume the people would be better off with hope. And they could be quite wrong. What argument is there that these people would be better off with hope?"

I kept reading that and thinking "There's something important here. Something I've been missing. Especially in that question: What argument is there that these people would be better off with hope?"

And one thing I've been missing, I think, is that "hopelessness" is the wrong word -- the wrong emotion; it's not what I've been observing in these people who've been approaching me. (Let's call them "Group X," so we can discuss them more conveniently.) It doesn't fit properly. I don't know what the right word is, and for all I know English doesn't even have a word for it. Whatever it is, it's a truly negative emotion, and it's contagious, and it's dangerous. But "hope" and "hopelessness" aren't the right words. I need to back up and describe the situation differently.

A number of your comments expressed your bewilderment that Group X seems to be blind/deaf/numb to the good things they have. Running water that's safe to drink. A car that runs, or a bus that runs regularly and goes where they need to go. A bed of their own. A job. A tree to look at and sit down under. The right to complain, without going to prison for it. And I agree with those comments, and with that bewilderment.

But when I look at the correspondence and the conversations, what I see is that Group X has done what linguists call "internalizing a false rule." Remember the Chinese graduate student I told you about once long ago, whose spoken English was of near-native fluency, but whose written English baffled me with its oddness -- until I discovered that she thought written English had a rule that went 'If a verb can be made passive, it must be made passive'?" That's internalizing a false rule; as soon as she understood that no such rule existed, her written English stopped being odd.

In my interactions with Group X, I find example after example like this one. I say something like, "But you have a good car -- it's reliable, and it gets you where you want to go." And I get a response that goes something like this: "Uhuh. And you know what will happen if I'm sucker enough to start feeling good about that? The car will break down, that's what will happen."

That is: the members of Group X have a solid conviction that goes like this: "Only bad things are going to happen in my lifetime. And if I'm stupid enough to think something good is happening or has happened, something bad will happen to show me how stupid that is." From which they have learned a rule that goes like this: "Never take a chance on a positive emotion, because a positive emotion will make something bad happen." This, it seems to me, is something new.

dteleki asked, in a comment, if Group X had somehow "gotten to" me -- if perhaps I was catching the contagion they were carrying. The answer to that question is no. Faced with a claim that only bad things are going to happen -- at least in my lifetime, perhaps in my children's and my grandchildren's lifetime as well -- my reaction is to start by applying Miller's Law. Assume that it's true, and try to imagine what it could be true of. Assume that what's going to happen for the foreseeable future is tornados and hurricanes and wildfires and floods and plagues and famines and wars and global warming and terrorism and corrupt governments and so on. My reaction is, "Suppose that's true. There's a reason for it. It's a puzzle to be solved. What could it be true of? It could only be true of a world in which something is badly broken somewhere." My reaction, if what Group X is saying is true, is that we have to try to find what's broken, so we can try to fix it.

Group X's reaction isn't "We need to find what's broken and fix it," it's "FREEZE. Don't move!" leora said "the loss of hope is a defense mechanism." I think that's a clue.