Learned Helplessness


Today, I am taking part in a panel discussion at the 4th Scottish Poverty Assembly about “social justice and the referendum” #povertyassembly.  Every time I say yes to something like this, I find myself regretting saying yes until it happens and then I remember why I say yes.

Because it’s important that a range of voices are heard in this independence referendum debate and I have a habit of saying things which are more than slightly off-message but which I hope contribute something a wee bit different and at the very least thought-provoking to the mix.

And few issues get me going like social justice. Or, its lack in Scotland currently.

I doubt few would have predicted at the start of this long process to the yes vote in 2014 that social justice would have been at the forefront of the SNP’s campaign, but no issue defines more acutely the need for a fresh start, for us to have control of all the powers and levers of a normal nation state, to build a better, fairer Scotland.

Aside from the big macro-economic levers and also the infrastructure around benefits, we do, of course, have nearly all of the powers we need at Holyrood to tackle the vast inequalities which exist in Scottish society. But what we don’t have is the will.

Gerry Hassan writes and thinks much more eloquently than I do on this matter, about the vested interests of institutional Scotland, which run our country to suit their own ends, to protect the current system which sucks resources into activity and policy which ensures the gap between the haves and the have-nots keeps on growing.

He also has a great phrase which I did warn him I would appropriate – “learned helplessness”. Decades, if not centuries, of decisions being made for us, of being passive recipients of state policy fashioned by a political elite have turned us all into mendicants. We wait for answers to be provided, for someone else to do something about a problem, rather than turn to our own inner resources and resilience to make change happen.

Take snow. The reports from the island of Arran, of how the community has rallied round, how some public sector workers are going above and beyond to make sure people have food, that older people are not freezing to death and of how local businesses have kicked into action providing emergency relief centres are apparently so unusual in this day and age that they warrant copious reporting by the media.

There is no doubt that people on the island – and in the Rhinns of Galloway, my home area – have faced and continue to face severe hardship thanks to the extreme weather. But people reacting as they have done – wonderfully – should surely be the norm not the exception. And in remote rural areas like this, it largely is. Their very rurality has often resulted in a quite different approach to the notion of community and in the public sector particularly, you see a level of resourcefulness in how best to create services which work – in spite of the odds stacked against them – which is often lacking in the central belt.

This idea of capacity, of resilience, of nurturing people’s assets to better provide for themselves and their communities is essential to the idea of nationhood. It is at the heart of self-determination, yet how we have constructed our welfare state and large swathes of our public sector, diminishes people’s ability to act and think for themselves.

Yes, I’m aware that all this sounds very Tory but it’s not. Because relying on people’s and communities’ abilities to find their own solutions – the kind of community based activism long practised and preached by the likes of Bob Holman in Easterhouse – can only work if there is also a transfer of resources.

A key reason why we live in such a socially unjust society in Scotland is because resources are skewed away from those who need them most. Yes, universalism works and is the right way forward in terms of creating the base for a just and equal society. But it also has to be paid for and what we have at the moment is people of considerable wealth in Scotland – pensioners among them – who can access a wide range of benefits, yet pay no more towards the creation of those benefits from their accumulated, often worked-hard-for wealth than people on much lower incomes. Proportionately, poor people, especially people in work on poverty pay, pay more of their income for services in both the public and private sectors than those higher up the scale. There’s nothing fair about that.

And there are no easy answers to solving this conundrum either. Few are willing to face up to the fact that to become independent will involve becoming much more self-reliant, of being willing to find the answers from within ourselves – as individuals, households, communities – and of being prepared to give things up in order to create a better country for us all. Voting yes is just the start of a long, arduous but exciting journey towards self-discovery as a nation.

At least, by putting social justice at the forefront of the debate on independence, we are showing willing to make a start. The SNP’s commitment to undo the bedroom tax in independent Scotland points us in the right direction: before we can fashion the kind of welfare state we might want to create for future generations, we will have to undo the damage caused by policies like this. Deconstructing the failures of Tory, Lib Dem and yes, Labour UK Governments will be a necessary first step, but creating a just, fair and equal Scotland will take much more. Yet, this is the exciting possibility only independence offers. Only independence offers the opportunity to unlearn all that helplessness and fashion a different, better future for us all.

On 18 September 2014, we can choose to vote no and for more of the same – for more people to grow up and grow old in poverty, for more inequality, for even less social justice. Or we can vote yes, for the chance to change it all and become a very different country. The choice couldn’t be more stark or more simple.

Comments (16)

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  1. Helen Johnson says:

    ‘Learned helplessness’ is a phrase that belongs to the American psychologist, Martin Seligman (University of Pennsylvania). There’s a whole body of research that supports the idea of learned helplessness.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Hey thanks Helen – any links or references very helpful

      1. Helen Johnson says:

        Learned helplessness is a concept much used in the filed of organisational behaviour. It explains the impact of top-down relationships (like those found in bureaucracies) on the people at the bottom – how they are de-powered and made dependent (through learnt pessimistic attitudes). For Martin Seligman, try: http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu
        He’s now very much involved in positive psychology. Try: http://www.ted.com/speakers/martin seligman.html-Martin Seligman

  2. moraglennie says:

    Learned Helplessness was a phrase very much used in the 1970s with regard to women, i always felt, as a justification, for women to bow down to the superiority of big strong men, to guide and direst their activities, across the board. The notion was that, from infancy, females had learned to be weak and helpless, and, for instance, in organising meetings, action groups, even FEMINIST meetings, they needed a male to show them how to do it.Aye right, said I.
    To quite an extent this is an attitude that appears to have been perpetuated regarding community groups, especially in areas of multiple deprivation, where it requires a clever professional, better yet a TEAM of clever professionals, to come into an area and tell the local people what they need, to which I still say, aye right.

  3. annie says:

    Aye, right, I say too. People aren’t daft. Give them the resources, at local level, and there won’t be any need for overpaid, paternal, clever professionals lecturing them on how they’ve ‘normalized the abnormal’ and become helpless, lazy and apathetic robots (imho).

  4. Paul Carline says:

    Social justice, yes … but how to move towards it? Kate Higgins says the problem is “resources” – and an SNP-led independent Scotland will be committed to correcting all the imbalances she lays at the feet of the other parties. But that won’t stop the “learned helplessness” – it’s just more ‘top-down’ management with a possibly nicer face. What will stop it is to give the people the tools and resources to allow them to change their lives from the bottom up – so that they are involved in making the decisions which affect their lives (and not just as members of focus groups, while decisions are still centralised).
    It’s called ‘direct democracy’, and the Lisbon Treaty says that it’s an equal partner with representative democracy. I’d be even more enthusiastic about independence if the SNP was routinely talking about sharing power with the sovereign citizens. But that’s the big problem with all political parties: none of them want real power-sharing with the electorate.
    The stats prove it: the more direct democracy people have (i.e. the more they have a say in the decisions which affect their lives), the happier and more productive they are. The politicians need to stop pretending that they have all the answers – or even the best ones.
    Scotland can be a fairer, happier and more prosperous country – but only if the exclusive right of policy- and decision-making is taken out of the hands of the politicians and binding and effective direct democratic rights are returned to where they belong – with the people.

    1. Braco says:

      Paul Carline,
      Very interesting post. A few of us have been playing around with ideas for a governmental structure to try and achieve a lot of the democratic aspirations you write of, for an Independent Scotland.

      Blank sheet of paper stuff, but maybe you might be interested?

      We are at Wings Over Scotland website on the Quarantine thread. Just type Quarantine into the site search facility and scroll right down to the bottom of the 100 post thread and then just work your way backwards. My first attempt is dated as below, but lots of ideas and links are posted during the week or so previous to this.

      Braco says:
      18 March, 2013 at 3:55 pm


      Anyway, just a thought.

      1. picpac67 says:

        Thanks. Will take a look. Do I need to register?

  5. annie says:

    I just followed Bella’s twitter link to ‘Where Gypsy Travellers Live’

    Haven’t read it all, but I liked this particular quote, “It would save councils an awful lot of money if they listened
    to Travellers when they tell them what they need.”
    (Charlene MacDonald, a Gypsy/Traveller)

    Let’s hope the cooncils take a long hard look at this overdue enquiry.

  6. There are tools to deal with this. Universalism, a fundamental rejig of the education system and above all a guaranteed income. Can’t send link from phone but Google ‘a town without poverty Canada professor Forget’

  7. Steve Light says:

    Hi Helen,
    ‘Learned Helplessness’ as a term, I discovered a while ago linking to social anxiety, and that led me to discovering Mind Fit. I think you should look here http://www.mindfitltd.com as it has helped me and my group change in ways I thought weren’t possible in such a short time. If you want more info just give me a shout.

    Thank you,

    1. Helen Johnson says:

      Thanks for this link Steve. I’m very interested in mindfulness, how we gain control over our own minds and learn to live in the present. Try John Kabat-Zinn on Youtube; oxford mindfulness.org; mindfulnessinschools.org
      Repression, oppression, depression, it all leads to the same things: helplessness and hopelessness – and the acceptance of the power of others over us. No way!

  8. Gerry Hassan says:

    Here is the original article on Bella C which spoke of the relevance of learned helpnessness; elsewhere I have directly drawn from Seligman’s thinking on this:

  9. Reblogged this on panwalescymru and commented:
    diweddariad o’r Alban / this is a view from Scotland…RT rules apply!

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