Learned helplessness image

Learned helplessness

November 17, 2016

Reading Time: 15 minutes.

The CIA are masters of interrogation, techniques they exported far and wide, used by their friends and their new enemies.  Torture can take many forms; water, sleep, a commercial meat slicer, the rape of your child in front of you.  It comes in many flavours, the most brutal of which is no doubt anything to do with the information required, just base terror.  In CIA interrogation manuals they discuss the issue of helplessness,  characterised as “apathy”, the result from prolonged torture, stating “If the debility-dependency-dread state is unduly prolonged, however, the arrestee may sink into a defensive apathy from which it is hard to arouse him.”  The technical term for this is ‘Learned helplessness’ the result of inescapable ‘aversive stimuli’, the result being the subject gives up the fight and simply becomes the victim.

Genghis Khan was one of the first rulers to really grasp the power of psychology over an enemy, that they could be defeated by a weakness of the mind rather than a weakness of arms, a necessity when Khan’s adversaries outnumbered him.  Khan’s weapon of choice was simple terror, creating a myth that moved before them, of the juggernaut of crazed fighters, an unstoppable ‘horde’, no army or city able to resist, whose dictum was, “surrender or die”.  In reality, Khan was highly exposed and could often have been defeated, especially from the rear, having no army to hold what he had already captured, his empire at its height twice as large as Rome’s.  Early in his campaigns, Khan would make an example of a city that resisted, killing everyone once he gained entry, then make the most of this investment in time by pushing the few survivors forward before the army.  This way the news of Khan and his bloodthirsty horde, drinking blood (they did, but only of their horses) and eating babies, was carried from city to city as refugees tried to escape.  He further defeated his enemies by having his men drag ropes behind their horses in order to create huge clouds of dirt, giving the impression of a much larger army, as well as his men always lighting three torches at night, not one.  The ability to defeat vastly larger and more sophisticated armies by boys on horseback by the simple terror of the mind was equally well employed by ISIS in Iraq, a ragtag army of 600 jihadi fantasists in Toyota trucks defeating a modern army of 6000 in Ramadi in 2015. Some say Khan killed 20 million people during his reign or 11 percent of the world’s population, and maybe he did, but maybe such a figure simply demonstrates the power of terror, that 800 years later it still does him great service.

The use of propaganda in modern warfare (the word propaganda first used extensively by the Catholic church in the 16th century: ’ Congregation for Propagating the Faith’) came at the beginning of WW1 with the ‘Rape of Belgium’.  Most of the population saw the war as nothing to do with them or their countries, a Serbian archduke murdered of no concern, especially to Americans.  But after the German invasion of Belgium, again of little concern to the British or Americans who were used to small European wars, it was Charles Masterman’s, Propaganda Agency’s ‘Report on Alleged German Outrages’ that galvanised world opinion, switching focus from a power play of kings and queens to a “highly stylised” telling of murder, rape and torture of innocent women and children, later viewed as containing “perverse sexual acts, lurid mutilations, and graphic accounts of child abuse of often dubious veracity”.  Within it the Germans army was described as “one vast gang of Jack-the-Rippers”, with passages describing in graphic detail a governess being hanged naked and mutilated, the bayoneting of a small baby, the “screams of dying women”, raped and “horribly mutilated” by German soldiers, accusing them of cutting off the hands, feet, or breasts of their victims.  The eagerness to fight Germany by the mass of the population, rather than just the political class, can be primarily laid on this single pamphlet.  By the end of the war 38 million people were dead.

The use and sophistication of propaganda and psychological warfare, which we now call Public Relations, has increased exponentially since 1918,  Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels its next masters, Hitler aware the German army had been partly defeated by propaganda, seeing how he would need its power to coerce the German people to his cause. Through the power of words, of radio and film and print he could sell the people a myth, a fairy tale, with simple slogans and ideas, room to live.  We’re all children really, all love fairy tales, complicit in the stealing of our free will, and who could resist when the greatest talents of the age were set against us? Again both the desire to fight had to be sold, as well as the desire to fight back in wars far from your home or your own self-interest.  By the end of this war 60 million people were dead.

The Vietnam war was a turning point in the business of control, popular media taking the fight out of the population, the realities of war, its base nature beamed direct, a ‘live’ war.  The youth had minds perfect to mine, still half children, that solid belief in a man coming down the chimney once a year still fresh enough to be replaced with other illusions. The old know certainty is unaffordable, that truth is a compromise of competing realities, but not the young. They are always in search of revolution and new meaning, happy to opt for the simple explanation that ‘the man’ is behind it all.  And so the Americans were not defeated by their enemies over there, but the effectiveness of the propaganda of their enemies at home.  It was the overthrow of the old by the young.  But one day those agitators for change would grow old, take power themselves, and be forced to find new ways to defeat such childish ambitions. 

In wars to come, the Gulf wars in particular, but also Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Palestine, control was reinserted, lessons learnt.  Media was either coerced: had to get with the program, intimidated (most media of the twentieth century was either a shop window or a game of sausage selling so that was easy), sidelined or crushed (a bullet in the head, the slandering by media already corrupted).  The news became entertainment, emotional porn, bought and sold, combined and amalgamated.  Now there are two narratives, left and right, two realities that few seem able to traverse.  Journalists are just workers, they have kids and families and mortgages, wanting to move up, they play the game, after all, who wants to speak the truth if all they have is a blogger with 100 followers and life at home with their mum.  As Adam Curtis stresses in all his films a simple narrative was created in the 80s for incredibly complex relationships, the reason being they were an easy sell to people without the time to think.  Ask yourself how much difficult material can you sit down and watch these days, Curtis’s HyperNormalisation documentary beyond most people’s attention spans.  We just have too much to do to think (but what is it we think we’re doing)?

A prime example of how the system worked was Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance pieces in San Fransisco’s Mercury News in the ’80s.  In this he exposed how the CIA was funding Contra rebels in Nicaragua by selling Columbian crack cocaine to black communities in LA, leading to the ‘crack explosion’.  At the same time, CIA was engaged in selling weapons to Iranians (against their own arms embargo), in return for the release of American hostages, the funds from these sales going to the Contras.  Gary Webb’s efforts to expose a monumental and criminal abuse by the state met with little support from the major newspapers, his reporting criticised and undermined.  Webb was destroyed as a journalist, and in 2004 he was found with two bullet wounds to his head, which led some to believe he’d been murdered by the CIA, but such simplistic readings let off ‘the system’ and how it works (again, a simple narrative).  Webb Wrote: “If we had met five years ago, you wouldn’t have found a more staunch defender of the newspaper industry than me… And then I wrote some stories that made me realise how sadly misplaced my bliss had been.  The reason I’d enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn’t been, as I’d assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job… The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress… ”  In 1998 the CIA Inspector General revealed that for more than a decade the agency had covered up a business relationship it had with Nicaraguan drug dealers in LA.

And now to these future wars, Syria and Ukraine, the war for global power (as seen in the EU Brexit and Clinton vs Trump), wars whose propagandists have difficulty in figuring out how to use propaganda against you but have an almost limitless supply of money and talent to try.  Gas attacks in Syria by Assad, complete with dead children is straight out of the Rape of Belgium notebook, a ‘line crossed’ etc, but who takes the time when that one fizzles out to go back and find the rebels gassed their own?  Have no doubt that - and yes I sound like a conspiracy theorist here - the fourth estate (TV and print media) is utterly corrupted, both by the nature of being only shop keepers, but also because we have been fed propaganda so long we are like robots.  A BBC journalist living in London or Manchester has to be locked into one way of thinking, otherwise, they just cannot fit into the ‘correct way’ of thinking.  Have you ever wondered how in free media we have to choose between left and right channels, why we can’t get both from one source?  It’s because people take sides to fit in.  There is rarely any consideration that their position could be wrong. 

To have thoughts and ideas from someone else’s code is almost impossible.  We are blind to our conformist thinking, a clever trick indeed someone must have played on us, the moment we find anything that does not fit in this landscape we’ve created (my old dogma of certainty) a button is pushed.  Our response, if analysed logically, betrays how well we are manipulated.  You start any debate with someone, try to break their grip on this reality they’ve been sold, and almost immediately their warning lights go off, their sensitivity so heightened to any danger to what they’ve bought into.  I disagreed the other night with someone’s piece of writing, a feminist reading of the normal interactions of men and women in climbing.  In the space of one paragraph, she had jumped from accusing me of ‘mansplaining’ to women being murdered and raped, a subtle charge idea that to even reject what she was saying could make me either a rapist or a murderer or complicit to that end.  One thing, in this war, is that we are being divided very effectively, men against women, old against young, rich against poor, the faithful from the faithless, black against white, broken down again and again, by some hand.  The politics of identity are utterly self-defeating to the greater aims of man (how do you feel about that use of ‘man’, does it offend, why is that?).

And now we have the fifth estate, the web, a place that is much harder to sideline, a place once ‘out of control’.  The system is trying to exert control now, first by using the classic three techniques of white, grey and black propaganda: white: omissions and emphasis, grey omissions, emphasis and racial/ethnic/religious bias, and black commissions of falsification. It is also applying pressure on organisations like Facebook, Twitter and Google to rig the code, from banning users and so denying them a platform (on a charge of hate crime most usually), or choosing what is seen and what is not seen.  The web has been flushed with false information, false news, false fact, so many sites defending their side while attacking the other you cannot trust either.  Try doing a search for ‘Google Manipulates Searches ‘.  First of all, what are you searching on?  Google right, yep that’s an issue there!  Try doing a search on Google and then on Bing and you’ll get very different results.  Up there you’ll find the snopes.com site, and scrolling down you’ll see a big red X to show it’s not true. But then many fact-checking sites that are popping up are not impartial.  Now I don’t believe this story is true but it demonstrates the technique of disinformation, nothing is true. 

And now we are bombarded, day by day, second by second, by stories of hate, violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, that “Not all Trump supporters are racist, but all racists voted for Trump”, that with a single election all laws were abolished, that Kristallnacht fell just like that.  51% of Brits are bigots (including the black and Asian ones), people wearing pins of support for the newly oppressed. People are ashamed to be white in a country that is 62% white, but then if you’re a woman then it’s ok, you’re simply suffering from “internalised misogyny”.  You get Jean-Luc Picard saying this is the worst thing to happen in a 100 years and rational people agreeing with him, Sir David Attenborough saying of Trump “We could shoot him”.  The news is full of stories of rape, of football teams, texting bloke crap, idiots calling Michelle Obama an ape making it to the front page.  There are people tweeting stuff like “My one-year-old asked if we’re all going to die mummy?”, a slow but steady drip, drip, drip into societies ear. Hate. Pain. Anger. Sadness. Tears. Share. Retweet. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.  And so people begin to switch off.  They log out.  They stop taking notice.  It’s just too painful.  But what is the ‘system’?  We are.

And how do you feel now? 

Empowered or helpless?


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