More Support for the Opposition to the Putative Virtue of Powerlessness


This is the Fourth of July, an excellent day to be un– “A-merry-can”, as the Field Negro would put it, so I choose it as yet another day to oppose the Reeducation industry and its belief in the virtues of powerlessness. Check this out:

Feeling powerless is no fun. A lack of control can make the difference between contented and unhappy employees. But new research shows that a lack of power doesn’t just make people feel disgruntled. It has a more fundamental effect on their mental skills.

In a series of experiments, Pamela Smith from Radboud University Nijmegen has shown that the powerless actually take a measurable hit to important mental abilities. Even if people are subconsciously primed with the concept of being powerless, they perform more poorly at tasks designed to assess their ability to plan, focus on goals and ignore distractions.

According to previous research, a lack of power forces people to constantly re-evaluate their own goals and monitor more senior individuals. Without authority, a person’s actions rely on instructions and may constantly change at the whim of their superiors, whose own motives and goals must be guessed at. Monkeys show similar behaviour. Studies have found that subordinate rhesus males follow the gaze of those with higher status, while dominant individuals only look in the same direction as others with greater standing.

Smith reasoned that this constant re-evaluation draws the brain’s resources away from other needs, including a set of mental abilities known as “executive functions”. The term is loosely defined but accurately named and refers to a set of master processes that govern and control more basic abilities, like attention and motor skills. They allow us to plan for the future, adapt to new situations and carry out our goals. They allow us to carry out actions that further our goals while restraining us from those that hamper them.

And yes, I know that the Reeducators will now say that this is not what they mean when they discuss powerlessness. Unfortunately they also say they do mean this, when they encounter someone who has personal power.


I think my fundamental issue with the Reeducative enterprise is its essentialism, i.e. the idea of a fixed identity and a “real you” that is necessarily the layer of yourself which has the characteristics Reeducation seeks to bring to light.

Another major issue for me in Reeducation was its negativity. For instance: the PhD I did, and the research interests I developed, grew in some part out of certain problems I had or had had. According to Reeducation that made it a bad idea.

It also seems to me that Reeducation did not give people enough credit and insisted too much that they do their worst and not their best. This is where I disagree with it most strongly.

My third major issue with Reeducation is how judgmental its denizens were.


The day I wrote this post, I took 45 minutes out of a work day to help somebody who doesn’t read well, read a legal document. I know the Reeducation people would say he was wasting my time and I was being ‘codependent,’ but I disagree. Now, they would have praised me had I done this on television, or through a national organization which would give me credit for doing this, because then I would have been “doing something for myself.”

But to just do something as a true favor or as a courtesy or out of friendship is frowned upon and I have cultural problems with Reeducation for this reason. In fact I do have the power to help this person read. In fact, armed with the information I gathered through my close reading, he is empowered to fight city hall, which he ought to do. They have no right to charge the fine on his building they want to charge, and they know it.

In Reeducation this neighbor would be told to submit to authority, admit he is powerless, and “take responsibility” for his putative error. I would be told that supporting him in his self-defense effort was “codependent” and “enabling” to him, and that identifying City Hall’s error was “blaming” them. But this is ridiculous … and it is why I oppose mainstream “A-merry-ca,” Reeducation, and the idea that powerlessness is a virtue.

And I note that Reeducation values private success but not political change. I have heard that there is a book criticizing Oprah, whom I do not watch, for helping to popularize a version of this view of the world to the masses.


I also find it very strange that in “A-merry-ca” individual Republicans are expected to feel powerless (and also “unsafe”) but also to expect the national government to exert all sorts of inappropriate and coercive power elsewhere, and that individual Democrats are expected to say they disagree with the government but are powerless to oppose it. It is these combinations of abdication of responsibility and extreme judgmentalism I find so strange.


26 thoughts on “More Support for the Opposition to the Putative Virtue of Powerlessness

  1. It seems to be a way of deferring to the idea that one is part of the “body” of the political state but not part of the mind thereof. It’s an extreme form of mind-body dualism, written at a level of the body politic. To think, therefore, is wrong, for it is not to be docile but to risk opposing that status quo and the rightful masters.

  2. YES. And put that way, that is my problem with the current state of academia, as well…

  3. I am convinced that there are some people — whole societies in fact — that are simply “undead”. You can’t afford to make any sudden moves with them, because they don’t know how to process the meaning of it. They will attack you, instead.

  4. Truly, it is necessary to recognise when you are dealing with such people. You know how Erich Fromm speaks about the fact that the “neurotics” of society are still fighting the good fight not to abandon their freedom. The undead are those who have given up their freedom and accepted, in its stead, an ideology, as cold and dead as they are. That is why they feel frightened, threatened and angry with those who persist in their freedom.

  5. I think the undeadness comes from a training to accommodate modernist [industrial and post-industrial order] and to think in terms of categories compatible with the machine. Actually it is kinder to humans — more humanistic — to think of ourselves and others in terms of an organic metaphor, yet the late industrial system forces the association with the machine. [I believe that is why I am always saying something like, “Those westerners, their whole mode of thinking seems to be based upon pushing you into an a priori category of identity and keeping you there, come hell or high water.”] Machines are efficient, consistent, and do not change. Organic entities are always growing, changing, transforming. To accept that one is a machine is to be undead.

  6. OK, I tried to fix the wink! Yes – and I note I do from time to time fall into thinking one should be able to function like a machine – one really is taught this, it is quite interesting to see it.

  7. I think it comes across in this way — when people see you as a machine, they seem to fly into a mode of having to slam their foot down, or to suddenly flick a switch on you to get you to behave differently. (I see this, from my own rather different cultural perspective, as a lack of communication skills on their part.)

    However, you can still modify the behaviour of someone whom you see in a more organic light. You can tease them, as the tendrils of a vine, towards a more productive outlet, you can trim bits here or there, and you can nurture and inspect. The latter mode is the “colonial” mode that I was more used to — which makes those of the mechanistic mode look boorish by comparison.

  8. I see your hair … I’ve often been treated like a machine … I’ve also tried being nice to ‘undead’ as you put it, and it doesn’t work – !

  9. The undead don’t respect niceness — they respect power. They undead have lost their way and have no internal light to guide them. They have switched off from themselves and from their intuition. They are frightened sheep who are waiting for a loud voice to command them. They respect only the loud voice of authority that alleviates their pain for a few hours.

  10. I know it is hard to believe, but I found out about such people when I did tutoring for an agency. It was so weird — but actually not weirder for me from a cultural perspective than a lot of behaviour of West Australians. Only the religious households had a different attitude, where they actually respected the authority of the teacher, and expected they would get the exchange they were paying for (eg. an Egyptian client). The rest of them were out to sea in terms of their understanding of what private tutoring was and what was expected in order to make it effective. To the last person (except for those I mentioned) they all through that PAYING for tutoring was the actual panacea. Once they had begun paying for it, they could then check in a few weeks to see if they got results. If they didn’t then the panacea wasn’t working and somebody apart from themselves was to blame. So weird! There was a total state of mental and emotional divorce from the notion that learning takes effort, and that no amount of money will lead to a student learning something if they’re not prepared to learn.

    However, I also noticed that part of the panacea that seemed to enable me to cross the line between keeping the job and not keeping it was whether or not I adopted an authoritative tone. This meant that my pronouncements had to be in the vein of Absolute statements, rather than conditional ones. I had to make claims that I didn’t actually believe in, in order to make the panacea seem to work.

  11. Yes – this is the attitude toward tutoring and also university studies I see a lot of.

    But I am wondering how many of my relatives are part of the undead. It is interesting because these undead see conditional statements as the scary, bossy ones, and absolute orders as kind.

  12. The undead see the conditional statements as scary because they remind the undead that they do not have a capacity to think in nuances or to negotiate life on the basis of its complexities. I think my parents used to be quite alive, but gradually reverted to the ranks of the undead, when they saw they did’t have a lot of choices in life anyway, and came to think that reflection was an activity of pointless vanity.

  13. The absolutist approach is kind of like the 1950s idea of authentic manhood. You know, you tell the woman what she ought to do and what she ought to be thinking. That is the only way to save her from her own hysteria.

    It really seems that this is what those here who do not have at least a bachelor’s degree seem to want. They want some harsh rule setter to come down from the sky and tell them what is what. They want the authoritative recipe for life’s success. And yes they do see this as kind — even godlike.

    By contrast, they read an enlightened approach to learning as so much dithering and uncertainty. The conditional statement is read in this way. It is not read as a statement of knowledge (in the positive sense) but as an emotional statement (in the negative sense). The absolute statement is read as the only form that a statement of knowledge can present itself in.

  14. And, actually I think that what I’ve said above explains a lot to me about all sorts of things, upon even closer reflection.

    Making absolute statements that I don’t actually concur with is very stressful. You adopt a posture that is totally unnatural in doing so. No wonder this took all my energy and then some. Always to check oneself that one does not make a natural feeling statement, but the expected unnatural one, is tiring. And no wonder I used to rebel, and sometimes let out a number of conditional statements and then look around challengingly to see the response. Ah! It is difficult to have to fight oneself in this way.

  15. Yes – it’s tiring !!! But it is true that the majority want these absolute statements, consider they are knowledge, etc. It is amazing.

    It also amazes me that this more or less sums up the deep structure of Reeducation: “The absolutist approach is kind of like the 1950s idea of authentic manhood. You know, you tell the woman what she ought to do and what she ought to be thinking. That is the only way to save her from her own hysteria.”

  16. Yeah well it is a mode that suits those who have given up on the possibility of thinking for themselves because they consider it to be too frightening, too arousing of superego, or just too difficult.

    I saw The Iceman Cometh last night. I’m still thinking about the ambiguous message it imparted, concerning giving up one one’s dreams and embracing death in order to find peace. It seems to be the state of being that a lot of people find themselves in.

  17. I *need* to see The Iceman Cometh, I never have. Giving up dreams and embracing death is a *value* of certain people I know.

  18. Giving up dreams and embracing death seems to me a very ambiguous formula. I actually wonder whether Marechera saw the movie (which he references indrectly in his work). Perhaps he thought it might have been a good idea on some level — that is, if he gave the proposition a metaphysical rather than psychological reading.

    In the book on Lacan I have just read, the author says that Lacanianism was about realising that the ego is empty. This is, I would say, akin to Buddhism, which also counsels a certain ascetic indifference to life’s possibilities. However, I can also see how this idea as per Lacan can be very healthy too, if you are in a society which is generally sick, because it is better to have a calm mind and a nurtured indifference to how others see you than to chase after all sorts of things that you just “have to have”. If you are genuinely gifted and talented it is better to cut your losses so far as social awards and recognition goes — and just let it happen.

  19. Yes re cutting losses. Lacan, I still don’t think I understand – only while I am literally studying, then he evaporates for me. Ambiguous formula, why? Doesn’t the one lead to the other … ? It’s what Reeducation recommended: accept reality and kill originality. It’s common, although people don’t admit that, which is why I want to see the play … or am I missing something?

  20. Well Lacan thought that language (or, from what I have read, more accurately — “words”) are the map of the unconscious, and there is only an empty hole for ego. So, in effect his writing is an elucidation of the unconscious, which disappears, like mist, once one starts to become conscious. (I once made a joke of this nature about Marechera’s Black Sunlight, and I was considered mad. I was not, though. Merely being sharp about my subject matter.)

    Yeah, I think the ambiguity in the iceman’s formula would be if the embrace of death was really a metaphysical one — one that gave you peace of mind in a magical sense, rather than in the sense of actually killing oneself inwardly (which would be the psychological sense of it).

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