Informed Citizen Disorder

Words can sometimes illuminate.  Bill Moyers’ recent interview with Marty Kaplan, Professor of Entertainment, Media, and Society at USC, gave me a phrase that crystalizes the sense of despair that increasingly follows attending to current events.  “Our spirits have been sickened by the toxins baked into our political system,” Kaplan says.  That’s one definition of what he calls, “Informed Citizen Disorder.”

Marty Kaplan by adamrog, CC-by-SA-3.0

Marty Kaplan by adamrog, CC-by-SA-3.0

Kaplan has an impressive and varied resume; a degree in Microbiology from Harvard; a Ph.D in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford; twelve years as a Vice President at Walt Disney Studios.  Kaplan wrote speeches for Walter Mondale and co-authored the screenplay for The Distinguished Gentleman (1992) starring Eddie Murphy.  He was the founding Director of the Norman Lear Center at USC, which studies “the social, political, economic and cultural impact of entertainment on the world.”

In the interview with Moyers, called Weapons of Mass Distraction, Kaplan spoke of the weeks he recently spent in Brazil, watching the widespread protests against “political corruption, economic injustice, poor health care, inadequate schools, lousy mass transit, [and] a crumbling infrastructure” while the government spends billions to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

One of the obvious questions Kaplan asks is where are the protests in our country?  With ills so blatant and parallel to Brazil, where is our outrage?

“Sickened spirits,” is one of his answers.  Another is misdirection; what passes for journalism often has us asking the wrong questions as it feeds us “the infotainment narrative of life in America.”  Learned helplessness is another factor that Kaplan often cites.

Learned helplessness entered the language of psychology in a now-famous experiment conducted by Martin Seligman in 1967.  Dogs were subjected to electro-shocks with no means to avoid them.  Eventually, they stopped looking for an escape and entered a passive and “hopeless” mode.  In the experiment’s final phase, when means of avoidance were introduced, the dogs did not discover them, because the helplessness had been so thoroughly learned they no longer even tried.  Researchers had to retrain them to manipulate their surroundings again.

The analogies to our situation are obvious.  Citing incidents like the lack of change after Sandy Hook, Kaplan wonders how many times can we stand to have our hearts broken?  Answering a question from Moyers on “Informed Citizen Disorder,” he adds:  

“Ever since I was in junior high school, I was taught that to be a good citizen meant you needed to know what was going on in your country and in your world. You should read the paper, you should pay attention to the news, that’s part of your responsibility of being an American.

And the problem, especially in recent years, is the more informed I am, the more despondent I am, because day after day, there is news which drives me crazy and I want to see the public rise up in outrage and say, no, you can’t do that, banks. You can’t do that, corporations. You can’t do that polluters, you have to stop and pay attention to the laws, or we’re going to change the laws.

…every time that doesn’t happen…something bad happened and nothing was done about it…the sadder one is when you consume all that news…all the incentives are perverse. The way to be happy, to avoid this despondency is to be oblivious to it all, to live in Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World.'”

Despite everything, Kaplan remains an optimist.  “I have kids,” he says, “I have to be.  The world has kids, we have to be.”  The alternative to optimism, Kaplan warns, is to “medicate yourself with the latest blockbuster and some sugar, salt, and fat that’s being marketed to you.  The only responsible thing that you can do is say that individuals can make a difference and I will try…”

Not the happy-happy answer we’d get from the “infotainment” world, but though Kaplan is an optimist, he’s not going to feed us bullshit.  I urge everyone to listen to the interview or read the transcript.  A key finding with learned helplessness that researchers discovered and Kaplan cites, is that since it is based on perception rather than fact, it can be quickly reversed.  We’re not there yet, he thinks, but maybe as people become more and more unhappy with the state of affairs around them, a critical mass is building that will lead ordinary citizens to demand change as we have done in the past.

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13 Responses to Informed Citizen Disorder

  1. This perspective gave me a little shift of hope.

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    • I like the idea of “critical mass.” We’ve seen it before – all kinds of ideas like the dangers of pesticides, Earth Day, global warming, started on the fringes and moved toward the mainstream. At a minimum, I think it’s important to listen to the voices saying what we know in our guts – that much has gone very wrong. At least it can help us see through the sleight-of-hand that would try to pacify us with messages that things are really all right Thanks for reading!

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  2. It’s all about perceptions. Slavery disappeared in people’s minds long before it was abolished by force of arms and legislation.

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    • I’m not convinced that the idea of slavery is gone. I wonder if it hasn’t resurfaced in the increasing growth of a virtual class of 21st century serfs? My assumption is that 40 years of gutting the middle class is systemic, and in many cases, systematic.

      Take the case of congressional failure to stop the doubling of interest rates on student loans. It should have been an easy fix, except of course, the big banks, who fund the candidates of both parties, stand to make huge profits. The side effect – the creation of a huge class of highly educated indentured servants – may not such an unintended side effect.

      Or the even more obvious case of the working poor who need food stamps to feed their families – nothing so crude as whips and chains, but a kind of slavery none the less.

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      • Morgan, you’re raising a different point which I have much sympathy with but I was specifically referring to Southern plantation slavery. My point was that it’s not just “learned helplessness” that is a function of perception, but all social facts such as slavery and the “highly educated indentured servants” you refer too. Once the perception changes so that people recognize the social relations for what they actually are the institution immediately vaporizes. That’s why we need to continually work on changing people’s perceptions. Another example would be the recent NSA surveillance issue. Most people still see this as some type of justified intrusion to protect them from a greater evil. Once the perception changes to that of a Big Brother spying on them to ensure dissent does not get out of hand then, the Emperor will no longer have any clothes.

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      • Thanks for the clarification – I see your point.

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  3. Rosi says:

    I was struck by Kaplan’s statement, “the more informed I am, the more despondent I am.” That can become a vicious cycle spiraling us into a place that would be pretty unpleasant. There is hope, though, always hope. Thanks for another thoughtful post.

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    • That struck me too. The words reminded me of one of Ingmar Bergman’s early films where one character killed himself because he couldn’t stand the tension of the cold war.

      Kaplan’s demeanor in the video was very different from some of the words, however – he was energetic, smiling, passionate about things – anything but hopeless.

      There is always hope. In the face of so many crises, I always think of the effort that was mobilized during the space race – as a blogger who loves micro-electronics, I cannot forget where that, among numerous other benefits began. That kind of transformation is always possible, and even probable, as necessities grow. What isn’t certain is where such endeavors will begin. These days, it’s harder and harder for me to imagine the US as a leader of innovation in the 21st century.

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  4. This post has fired me up! I just don’t know what to do with the flame. I think right and left leaning folk need to come together in a unified forum, without suspicion of the other side using it for their party’s gain. Perhaps if we discover when Google is mapping, we can all stand in our lawns, roofs, and driveways with signs, saying “Roll back government power,” or some other catch phrase we can all agree on…

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    • Not knowing what to do with the flame is one of the key problems! I personally think that watching and lending support whenever and where ever possible, even if just via blog post or email, matters. And this keeps coming to mind, a poem by William Stafford, one of my favorite poets, who wrote this in 1977, in a poem called, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.:

      …And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
      a remote important region in all who talk:
      though we could fool each other, we should consider –
      lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

      For it is important that awake people be awake,
      or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
      the signals we give – yes, or no, or maybe –
      should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

      There are always a lot of good links and information on billmoyers.com too.

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  5. rjl2727 says:

    Well now, where shall we begin? I was raised by my mom to be an avid news enthusiest and to be socially and politically aware. And, for years, I blissfully assumed others were too. How wrong! Today, I work as a mental health counselor, and as a behavior interventionist in public school. As sad as the intense disinterest of the average un-informed student is, the culpability and ignorance of our educators has me on the verge of profanity. It all came to a head this past 9/11 as I was monitoring a student with behavioral issues in his civics class. The civics teacher was going to escape teaching responsibilities by showing an hour of original footage from that tragic day. One of the young chaps asked him “what was the cause of this attack?” Our teacher was quick to launch into this by taking the class on a trip through the Old Testament, beginning with Moses and the burning bush!! It was all I could do to not scream and jump on the teacher’s throat. I thought to myself, how can a civics teacher be so uninformed and ignorant as to actually simplify it down to a lesson of biblical history and morals? Then, just before I lost control of my faculties, I remembered that a) the teacher’s title was not “Mr.”, but “Coach”, and b) we are in the Bible Belt where everything tends to be explained away by superficial Christian teaching. Much like the T.V. advert for the popular Baptist minister here, whose two-second sermon snippet plays ad nauseum: “The choice, the word of God or the world. The choice, Christ or cluture. We can choose Christ!” And I’m thinking, really, are those the only two options? And why are they mutually exclusive? Ah, I’d better stop before I become unravelled and my wife has to put me back together. There is so much to be done in our nation and world, but unfortunately, we face the uphill battle of ignorance and complaceny that is amply fueled by the tonics of easy religion, material gain, and non-stop entertainment. Keep up the good fight Brother.

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    • This afternoon, I was looking in several of Joseph Campbell’s books for references to The Wasteland. Among many other things, here is a passage from The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, published in 1968:

      “What, then, is the Waste Land?
      It is the land where the myth is patterned by authority, not emergent from life; where there is no poet’s eye to see, no adventure to be lived, where all is set for all and forever…Again, it is the land where poets languish and priestly spirits thrive, whose task it is only to repeat, enforce, and elucidate cliches. And this blight of the soul extends today from the cathedral close to the university campus.”

      In another passage, Campbell articulated “four functions of mythology.” The first, in his opinion, is to evoke wonder at creation, but pertinent to what you are talking about, one of those functions was to provide key stories to unify a culture. That seems completely absent. I truly doubt that many people believe the Bible belt mythology literally, thus the serious consequences to voicing a question in public – loss of job, risking your HS graduation, or worse.

      Thanks for the account – I’m not sure I would have been able to bite my tongue in that situation.

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      • rjl2727 says:

        Well, that could bring up a whole separate conversation where, in the Bible Belt, the essence of myth or Mythos of scripture is lost to an overwhelming literal interpretation of accounts. You’d be surprised at the bricks shit when I answer other adults, who are happily literalizing scripture, that for examle, the Hebrews did not possess a cration story of their own, and borrowed a creation myth from the Babylonians while in exile, but gave it their own twist to explain a single god, etc. And, that the Hebrew of that day would never have understood the story as a literal account. People just shake their heads and pity me for losing my way. No, our civics teacher was in no danger of losing his job in a school system where bible studies are held and Christian prayers offered at every turn of events, with no regard for students who are of other religious traditions. There may have been a slight danger of me losing my job for attacking the teacher; however, my job is to manage behavior, not intervene in the educational process. Although, it may have been worth it.

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