Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Stockholm Syndromes R Us

Stockholm Syndrome describes a state of positive psychological attachment to a dangerous authority figure who has life-and-death power over the person(s) in question during a period of captivity. The defining quality of this attachment is survival via love, appeasement, and support of the captor(s) and their aims. This fear-based ‘love’ emerges in the captive person to mask their terrifying vulnerability by improving their chance and quality of survival at the feeling level. In this post, I argue that growing up, as defined previously, requires of us all that we first identify and grow beyond our own generalised Stockholm Syndrome.

Of course I am taking a few liberties to lend this metaphor poetic validity. For example, less than one in ten people in hostage/kidnap situations are said to develop the syndrome. In this piece, I am suggesting that a far larger percentage of non-elites are subject to this state of being, though to varying degrees. Rough caricatures might be the obsequious and/or vociferous supporters of the status quo; more timid types afraid to ask probing questions and thus positively supportive of the Powers That Be; or apparently rational people who have logically deduced that eggs must be broken to make omelettes and are thus supportive of Tough Love, Hair Shirts and Tightened Belts in the interests of law and order. I am also suggesting that a captor, or group of captors, need not be physically present or even explicit in their endeavours, they need merely be generalised as an atmospheric and internalised threat. In other words, I am here casting the state as a monopoly of force in the role captor, with all us citizens as its captives.

The threat represented by the state is an omnipresent network of nodes: all mass-media outlets; on the streets as the police; on billboards and road signs; in schools, colleges and universities; and in the mere existence of money as a requirement for survival, whose concealed workings hardly anyone understands. At home, we are raised from birth by caregivers whose own upbringings were steeped in this generalised threat of force, who internalised it, and who then dutifully prepare their progeny to adapt to its Hobbesian reality in an unending, ‘it’s always been this way’ Groundhog Day. It’s the air we breath and water we drink, mostly without noticing. 

Some are angry at The System, some not. Either way, the vast majority of us obey so deeply that our obedience is unfelt.

We are all living complexes of beliefs about How Life Is, imbibed unconsciously during our childhoods. Bringing the details and origins of our belief complexes into focus is very difficult. Insecurities, phobias, biases, reflexes, predispositions, preferences and received wisdoms are the unexamined ground we walk, the concealed trellis that structures, or delimits, our ‘maturation’. What is barbaric and what civilised? What is humane, what cruel? What is tame, what wild? What is national pride? What is matter and what is consciousness? What is love? And who has the time to properly delve, in a spirit of open-minded scepticism, into these deeper areas of what we each severally believe?

To take on that task means to dare to be different, to be weird. The Great They are watching. The threat of force is an internalised spy network monitoring our every thought. We are social animals. Expulsion from the group is terrifying, an existential danger. The group has life-and-death power over us. 

This combination of very human elements means that we hold our familiar group and its beliefs so dear and at such depth we can barely tell this is so. Wiser to love the devil we know than to fight and drown in an endless struggle against the river’s vast reality. Going against the group’s flow takes great and seemingly unending effort, and is also the source of real existential risks.

Is this not the essence of Stockholm Syndrome? Isn’t developing the syndrome the price we pay to remain safely ensconced in the system we know best? My view is that history plainly tells us this is so.

Unavoidably, when a belief complex meets the end of its utility, change is required. When that complex and its many siblings together structure a loosely affiliated ‘society’ of peoples that spans the globe – materialism, capitalism, statism, paternalism, etc. –, effecting the required change appears impossible. It isn’t.

I suggest that the vast majority of us want a healthier system. We hunger for justice, authenticity, honesty, transparency, dignity and respect because these things resonate in us as good, as that which is best about being human. And yet we are never going to birth a system that honours them all – by design – while we remain afraid, rendered inactive and compliant by our unexamined Stockholm Syndromes. 

Courage is the antidote. Courage flows from a love-based approach to our existence, one oriented around a heart-felt desire to do what’s best for the other guy, for all the other guys. Both love and courage are sustained by knowing, profoundly, this truth: “As we do unto Other, so we do unto Self.” I have found starting with an honest acceptance and examination of my own Stockholm Syndrome to be very helpful in staying true to this challenging path towards health and love.

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