Helplessness and War

In her book “Self-Therories,” Carol Dweck describes two broad categories of students – those who display helpless responses in the face of difficulty, and those who display mastery-oriented responses. They are roughly equal in their prevalence and overall intelligence and performance, and together account for 85% of students – these are, it seems, the two basic typologies of self among students and learners. She writes,

“…the helpless response is not just an accurate appraisal of the situation. It is a reaction to failure that carries negative implications for the self and that impairs students’ ability to use their minds effectively.”

It’s not difficult to see the parallels to contemporary political discourse in this statement. On any range of issues – and on either and both side of many debates – we see the helplessness response pop up, time and again. Many committed environmentalists regard global warming as “too big” a problem to possibly even address; many Democratic activists before last November’s elections invented scenarios grand and small for why they would never be able to regain power; many social conservatives regard American culture as “too sick” to possibly survive; etc., ad infinitum.

But the blade cuts both ways, and the helpless response can also result in tremendous obstinancy, as Dweck demonstrates with an historical example:

“Richard Nixon, in the wake of the Watergate hearings, was facing almost certain impeachment and conviction. Yet for a long time he refused to give up his presidency, saying, “You’re never a failure until you give up. He was equating giving up not simply with failure but with being a failure.”

The parallels from this particular obstinancy to the present day are also obvious – as Atrios has been saying for a long time (at least a year):

We will never leave Iraq while George Bush is president, because they’ve decided that leaving is losing.

Is all politics really this simple – is it possible to explain the most important, life-and-death, war-and-peace issues based on a simple typology of childhood learning styles? I’m coming around to the belief that perhaps this is the case.


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