Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Victims and Victimizers

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So, I’ve been thnking about Janet’s’ post, and actually I’ve been thinking about the whole “victim mentality” thing for much longer than that.  It’s also  Sunday, and we’re in the middle of yet another snowstorm.  But it’s warmer than it was yesterday, which can’t hurt.

Anyway, here’s the thing.  I know the victim mentality, and I’ve seen it work, but I think that what Janet’s students and mine are really possessed of is something else–it’s the rock-solid conviction that they have a right to certain things–a happy life, to start with.

Every semester I ask all of my students to take that ‘literacy quiz” I posted here back in December, and on question 92, which ask them to pick all the rights granted to them by the US Constitution, the most common mistake is to choose “the right to be happy” as one of them.

This isn’t an unusual mistake to make about what is, after all, something in the Declaration of  Independence and not in the Constitution, but the mistake is now so widespread and on so many different levels and so many institutions, that it’s become one of the principle “social problems” of the era.  We just don’t acknowledge it as such.

For most of the time that humanbeings have been on this earth, the assumption has been that life will not be happy, or comfortable, for almost anybody.  Some very few people at the top of the social scale got general comfort most of the time, although comfort was limited even for them. 

As for happiness–the Greeks thought it was so rare that they instinctively distrusted the appearance of it.  Call no man happy until he is dead, Aristotle said, and he meant not that we’d all be better off as corpses but that circumstances change on a daily basis and what is “happy” on Tuesday can descend inot misery by Friday afternoon.

If we’ve lost the sense that death is natural and can happen to anybody at any moment, we’ve also lost the sense that life is naturally prone to miseries.  The difference, though, is that something real has changed for us in regard to death–we do really die less often, and are really less likely to die young; we have conquered many of the things that used to kill us off in childhood and childbirth and beyond.  Antibiotics mean safe Cesarian sections and cured cases of tuberculosis.

The problem with happiness is that nothing at all has changed in any fundamental way for human beings.  Happiness is not our default mode.  The same Greeks who didn’t trust the idea of happiness, or the experience of it, saw human beings as creatures halfway btween beasts and gods, and because of that continually and inevitably in conflict inside themselves.

What’s happened in the post-World War II West is that we have acquired a belief that happines is in fact the default mode, as is perfect and flawless functioning, and that any deviation from these things is either “disease” or oppression.  If we are causing our problems for ourselves, we must be in the grip of “disease.”  If we can find no way in which we are causing these problems, then somebody else must be causing them.  The idea that some of these problems–laziness, for instance, or a strong sexual attraction to the kind of men who like to cut and run when they’re asked for commitment–aren’t “caused” at all but simply a part of our nature, isn’t an idea that’s even on the radar.

Robrt suggested a couple of posts ago that I could go to fiction to understand people if I wanted to, but the “scientific” people had data and that would be safer–but I don’t agree that the “scientific” people do have data, at least not if the “scientists” involved are what populates so much of clinical psychology these days.

What these people have is an assumption that starts with Jean  Jacques Rousseau and makes its way through every Utopian scheme in the eras since and that has now come to rest as the therapeutic society–the assumption that men and women are “naturally” good and that they ar also “naturally” and infinitely malleable. 

According to Best Social  Work  Practice, as one of my students put it, being  well-organized, focussed and diligent is the default mode.  People who are disorganized, scatterbrained and lazy are either sick (ADHD, maybe) or in some way damaged (bad parenting, child abuse).

My students–and, I’m willing to bet, Janet’s–come to school convinced that not just academic work, but everything else, should be easy.

And by easy, I don’t mean “not difficult to understand.”  I mean that academic work should come naturally.   They should be naturally interested in it.  They should naturally want to do it.   It doesn’t ocur to them, or to their parents, or to their therapists, that there is anything “natural” about just hating the idea of writing a paper, or memorizing Latin declensions, or hacking away at the times tables until they become second nature. 

Life is supposed to feel good, and so many of the things we must do to achieve anything in the world do not feel good.  The students I was ranting about the other day, the good ones who take responsibility and get the job done, are almost never “happy” about doing it.  Studying is a chore for them just as much as it is for their classmates who don’t do the work.   Taking responsibility is difficult and often unpleasant and even oftener requires them to forgo something they would like to do better.  

Here’s a good reason to read–to read difficult books, too, including “old fashioned” fiction–and that’s that it will present to us the circumstances and interior lives of people who choose not to chase happiness, who choose to do what they are obligated to do intead, who do not expect that happiness is something they are just supposed to have.

I feel like I’m putting this badly.  What keeps coming into my head are all those diet commercials on television–try our diet!  the pounds will just melt off!  you’ll never be hungry!

But the truth of the matter is that, in the early stanges of any diet that’s going to b successful in the long run, you will be hungry.  You just have to put up with it until you’ve trained your body to behave the way you want it to, and you may never actually be able to do that.   Some people may “control their weight” only by constant vigiilance and never-entirely-conquered discomfort.

I don’t think that the students I teach–the passive ones, that we’ve talked about before–think of themselves as “fictims” in the sense that the various Victims Rights and Victims Studies movement define that term. 

I do think that they look on themselves and the world as a place were what is “natural” is ease and happiness, and when the world is not that way–and it neverhas been, annever will be–they think that there must be something “wrong” that somebody else must fix.  Because the bottom line in a therapeutic culture is that everything can be fixed.

I think my students are passive because the world they believe they live in does not exist.   They do not just require just being made to do their homework, but to somehow be rendered capable of wanting to do it.  They are sure that the mere fact that they don’t want to do it means that something is wrong–the teacher is boring, or the work is, or they’ve got a learning disability, or whatever.

It takes a lot of pseudo-science, complete with charts and studies and data, to conclude that ten  year olds who won’t do their homework or sit still in class have “attention deficit disorder” and that fifteen year olds who defy their parents have “oppositional defiant disorder.”  Sane people call these things “childhood” and “adoslecence,” but then sane people don’t believe that diligence, obedience and common sense are the default modes of human personality.

And it seems to me that at some point, we’re going to have to have a corrective arc here, another acknowledgement that life is not easy and often isn’t either comfortable or happy, that some suffering is unavoidable, that nobody has a “right” to be happy or even a reasonable expectation of it.

The term is about to start in a couple of days, and I am once again going to face classrooms full of students who…just sit.  Some of them come to class and some of them don’t, but the ones who do won’t have done the reading.   They tried, but they couldn’t get into it.  They’re not interested in any of this stuff.  They don’t care and they don’t see why they ought to care.  Besides, this hasn’t got anyting to do with their major. 

What I do insist is that I will not, now or later, gve in to the presumption.  I assume that every single one of the excuses they give me is absolutely true.  I also assume they don’t matter.

Do it anyway, I tell them.

They aren’t interested.  If it has to feel bad, there must be something wrong, they must have a learning disability or I must be a bad teacher. 

Because as far as they’re concerned, nobody is supposed to feel bad or bored, ever, and the only legitmate “difficulty” is the kind of thing that happens when it takes four tries to beat the next game level. 

Here’s one thing that literature will tell you the truth about, and science will not.

Written by janeh

January 18th, 2009 at 11:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Victims and Victimizers'

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  1. I blame consumerism and the relentlessness of advertising for the pervasive concept of the perfectability of life. Just buy this toothpaste and life will be good! Our deodorant will make men fall at your feet, and that beer is a babe-magnet!!

    People in general are exposed to ads in far greater proportion than they are to literature. Every ad portrays an idealized world (dare I say the idealized world your students envision for themselves?) where all homes are neat, filled with stylish decoration, clean, mannerly children, and people who are enthusiastic about whatever activity they’re engaging in. Even when the product is a toilet cleaner, one never sees the reality of a filthy toilet surrounded by a rancid, moldy bathroom, rather you see a bowl already clean enough to eat from and a woman in the throes of ecstasy over sanitation.

    Why should anyone expect that life is work? Thousands of times per day, most people are presented with the evidence that a purchase of a product will lead them into that same ecstasy. Working hard to accomplish something isn’t valued, instead we get infomercials about “I worked 3 hours a week and made thousands of dollars!”

    Those most susceptible to this flawed perception of the world are those who have the least contact with other sources of information. If you aren’t surrounded by people who work, and all you see are ads, you think that that’s the way the world *is* outside your own view. Everyone else out there is happy, fulfilled, thrilled with their lives because they bought X, or did Y, and none of it required any work. And if they don’t have that happiness in their life, sans work, they resent it, and everyone else because we’re clearly withholding it from them.

    Personally, back when I was in college, I was shocked at how *hard* it was to do original academic work. Come up with new theories (I was majoring in linguistics), research, write it up?? Hardest work I’ve ever done, no physical labor job I’ve ever had was more difficult. Now I design software, and this too can be demanding mental work. Of course it doesn’t *look* any different from browsing the Internet, so it’s hard to convince people it’s actually work.

    In many ways, not putting kids to work around the house at simple chores as soon as they can walk is a mistake. All kids need to learn that life *is* work, and if we let them lounge about until they’re nearly adult, how are they going to learn any different? How can they have a genuine sense of self-esteem unless they can learn what accomplishment consists of, as well as contributing to the family unit? The expectations of older students are trained by their experience. If they’re never asked to do anything they don’t like, and finish it regardless, why should they know how it feels to come out the other side?

    Literature may tell the truth regarding work and its necessity and value to a person, but it cannot reach as deeply into a person’s world-view as real-world experience with actually doing work. Experience is the only thing that might counteract the constant barrage of advertising and “consume your way to happiness” messages we all get.


    18 Jan 09 at 1:50 pm

  2. I agree with Jane and Lymaree on this issues. I think it ties back to popular ideas on child-rearing, which in itself has been influenced by psychological and philosophical theories. Some of them are the exact opposite of requiring a child to work as a family member beginning at an early age. I read something recently – my memory must be going, and I can’t remember what or where, but it was a side comment on the importance of developing (and teaching children to develop) good habits, meaning habits of hard work and persistance. Reading today’s posts reminded me how very different that attitude, which does not imply that children or adults naturally have or will acquire such useful attributes, from some of the common attitudes today.

    I’ll toss another element into the mix – religion, or at least some versions of some religions, do not assume that humans are automatically perfect as they are, and often present arguments for making an effort to follow a particular way of life – and *expecting* problems and discouragement en route.

    I say ‘some’ and ‘often’ NOT as a way of using weasel words to cover the possibility (certainty!) that there are religions and denominations I know nothing of. I’ve encountered Chrisitian writers who most certainly do not hold these views, and who in fact, say or imply that we’re all just fine as we are, and needn’t worry about any failings or struggles. Sometimes they imply that any struggles are a lack of faith, which to my mind seems to be a far less powerful and correct interpretation than the older ideas that they are challenges all must face in an imperfect world, or maybe even a test or trial. So the ideas we have discussed have moved into religion too. In any case, in spite of the vast amount of modern writing on Christian living, I suspect most nominal Christians don’t read it and get more of their world view from ads. The same may be true for other religions. I’ve mentioned before the books on forgiveness and the seven deadly sins, written by (I think) an atheist Jew, which takes the old ideas and shows how they apply today, which I found very interesting.

    I hadn’t thought about ads in this context until I read Lymaree’s post, but it makes sense, and would explain a lot of the expectations some people seem to have of life. Like the former student of mine who was convinced that soap operas were an accurate depiction of life outside her small hometown, people seem to think that if it’s on TV it must be true.


    18 Jan 09 at 3:30 pm

  3. How to put this? I never meant to imply that scientists can’t make fools of themselves. Many do, and “social scientists” seem to have a real knack for it. A novelist can provide different perspectives, and help us organize our knowledge in different ways. But the novelist, by his nature, brings perspectives and not facts to the debate. I’ve kicked back many novels over the years because “real people don’t act that way.” I suspect we all have. And that’s the danger. A novel–any novel–is no more real than those television commercials. We accept novels because they accord with our view of humanity. If our assessment of humanity is mistaken, then similarly mistaken novels will seem most insightful. Will Rogers was right: “It ain’t the things we don’t know that’s the problem, but the things we think we know that ain’t so.”

    It is history, biography and the very best of the social sciences which can lend us a hand there.

    As for entitlement to happiness, it seems plausible, though pretty well everyone has a point by which they have to see progress to continue effort–and rightly so. However, I am not entirely sold on environmental causes–or at least society-wide ones. I know too many members of the same family–hence presumably exposed to the same books, movies and television–with very different notions of what they’re entitled to, and what’s expected of them. Mind you, I’m generally happy enough to blame society at large, and I don’t have another plausible explanation off hand. I just have a stack of data I can’t reconcile with the notion.

    It’s the thing about facts. I can always find novels to fit my preconceptions, but some facts at least really are stubborn things.


    18 Jan 09 at 7:11 pm

  4. Neither Jane or the three previous posters seem to think much of psychology or social sciences. I share those doubts. But there may be a bit of paradox here:

    My undergraduate physics class started with 40 physics majors, 8 graduated and only half of those went on to grad school. The same sort of drop rate applied to chemistry or math or engineering and I’ve been told it applies to Computer Science.

    Lymaree said linguistics was hard. SO are all the sciences and engineering. We all learn that success requires hard work. But it seems that psychology and social science don’t accept that. Why? I have no idea.

    Now for a chicken and egg question. Which came first – the idea that people should expect to be happy or the idea that people had positive rights to such things as medical care, housing, education etc.


    18 Jan 09 at 9:19 pm

  5. “Which came first – the idea that people should expect to be happy or the idea that people had positive rights to such things as medical care, housing, education etc.”

    I’d be inclined to point the finger at someone Jane’s mentioned before – Rousseau and, by extension, the Romantics. Once you’ve got the idea of the Noble Savage firmly established, it’s not much of a jump to the idea that by nature we are all Noble (and presumably happy, kind, thoughtful etc), and if, as we tend to be forcibly reminded from time to time, this doesn’t seem to be true in today’s society, well, someone or something outside the innately noble human must be to blame!

    I think psychology, sociology etc have some interesting things to say and they have contributed to human knowledge. However, as sciences, they’re about at the level of chemistry during the time of Aristotle – and with a much more complex target of study!

    I had an education professor once who had a PdD in chemistry before he did one in education. He said that education was more difficult because all atoms of a particular kind did the same thing in response to the same conditions, but humans didn’t!


    19 Jan 09 at 7:09 am

  6. I think that there are two extremes in the US, although perhaps one is fading away. My parents instilled in me the notion that you have to keep your nose to the grindstone, your head down and work. If something was unfair, it was unfair, and there was no use bellyaching about it. So if your boss grabbed your butt, or you were passed up for a job because of your accent or gender, or if your public school didn’t prepare your for your Ivy League college, or you got yourself in credit card debt – it was, ultimately, your problem, and the answer was to work harder, get your act together and solve it. The other extreme is the “it’s not my fault” mentality. If you get blind drunk, climb a ladder, fall off and break your leg, it’s the fault of the company for not clearly warning you that ladders should not be climbed under the influence of three six packs. If you gulp hot coffee and burn your tongue, it’s the fault of the McDonalds for not warning you that coffee would be boiling hot. If you whack off your husband’s private parts, it’s the fault of PMS or his abuse. If you hold up a convenience store, it’s the fault of your upbringing or neighborhood or TV or the general culture of violence.

    The other paradigm is misery/happiness. I was also raised to believe that life is hard, work is harder, and that’s all there is to it. But now the culture is all about pain-free bliss. You visualize abundance and two hours later you get a check for $50K from a long-lost uncle. You take a pill and lose weight instantly. You write a letter and get an extreme makeover of your kitchen. You buy a ticket and win the lottery. You invest in a hedge fund and get 35 percent guaranteed.

    Obviously, both extremes are wrong. I think I would have had a happier life if I had realized that not everything was my fault, or that I could take an afternoon off work to watch a movie without feeling guilty about my to-do list. Obviously, you need to consider the mitigating factors. Obviously, you need to be able to sue the pants off companies who send their stuff out into the world without testing it. But the other extreme is also ridiculous. It eliminates individual responsibility. And it has created that sub-set of Americans who think that they are entitled to money/fame/happiness without actually taking any action to get it.

    [Pathos warning] I keep reminding people of the exact words of the Declaration of Independence. Among our unalienable rights were not “life, liberty and happiness,” but “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” You don’t have the right to be happy, you have the right to pursue happiness – and that pursuit is going to involve effort, and concentration, and hard work. On the other hand, if someone puts up obstacles to your constitutional right to pursue happiness – if they discriminate against you, if they sell you crappy drugs, if they don’t provide you with a decent education — that is, if they don’t fulfill their part of the bargain — you should sue them, fight them, shame them, humiliate them and do everything in your power to be given a chance to pursue your vision of happiness. But you also have to make the effort.

    In the end, I think that if my parents had to err one way, I’m glad they erred the way they did. From what you all write, I think it’s easier to learn entitlement than to unlearn entitlement, and to learn to relax than to learn to work hard.


    19 Jan 09 at 4:15 pm

  7. OK, I am probably the odd man out here, but this I know from teaching dog obedience classes (a multitalented person am I). You just can’t tell people who bring their incorribible dogs to class to ‘get another dog’. You’ve got to train the dog at the end of the leash because that dog is the only dog you will be able to get your hands on.

    After 38 years of hearing (some and only some) of my colleagues ask the admissions department to ‘send us some different students, some BETTER students’ (this always means students interested in MY field, or students wanting to work harder than the ones I have, or students who want to study in the humanities (my little college leans a bit toward the ‘hard sciences’)), I beleive that that will never happen. Frist of all many, many college teachers who are dissatisified with their students (and this is NOT aimed at jh) are dissatisified with those students because those students are not like them (I LOVED my philosophy classes, found the library a haven, lived for intellectual discussions with profs and upper classmen).

    Most of the students I get are NOT like me. Most come to college because it has always been expected of them. Most see the degree as the first in a longer paper trail that will lead them to the best job, or the noblest profession. Perhaps I’m a cynic, but I beleive the ‘disinterested pursuit of knowledge’ is a myth. My kids tell me that they rarely took ‘homework’ home with them. Most of the assigned high school work could be done in study halls. Being expected to do do 2 hours work out of class for every hour spent in class is inconceivable.

    I agree that students have no ‘real sense of history’ (though all of our on campus NY Times had been snapped up by 9 (however, lest I be too smug, the anthropology prof told me that she nailed a couple kids trying to sneak off with 50 copies to sell ‘as souveniers’)). I also profoundly agree that all have enormous expectations of what their ‘rights’ are and equally large expectations that ‘someone else’ is responsible for delivering them. The concept of human rights has become dissassociated from that of human responsibilities. My students often lay claim to rights that 40 years ago (and maybe even today) were only privileges)…the ‘right’ to drive, to have a house, to go to college, to be ‘fairly’ treated (for many of them this means that whatever individual traits, quirks, differences must be not only respected but accomodated for). Yet when I ask them what their responsibilites are, they can rarely name even one other than the romantic ‘being true to oneself’ one.

    That’s who they are. I do beleive they can change and they do change. This year more of the students here got politically active than I have seen in all my years of teaching. More voted, more did some sort of on campus or off campus political activity. I think that’s true nationally too. I have always used ‘politics’ as a theme for my freshman writing course and virtually every student groans when I announce that the NY Times (or the Washington Times) is part of every day’s assignment. But at the end of the 15 weeks I always have some who tell me that although they didn’t like the work, they are pretty proud of themselves when they go home and can participate knowledgeably in political discussions around the family holiday table. I’ll take that.

    I gotta that the kids they send me in college just like I gotta take the dogs they send me in dog obedience. With dogs, what works is convincing people that they need to figure out what makes sense to the dog (as opposed to makes sense to them). Once that happens good communication begins. I think that’s true of freshmen too…only, for me at least, dogs are easier.

    Janet Lewis

    20 Jan 09 at 12:01 pm

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