Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Quote of the day

[I know this is a second one: I haven’t posted in a few days and have a bit of a backlog.]
“The more fundamental question is what it means for society, for politics or for personal life stories, to operate according to certain forms of psychological and neurological explanation. A troubling possibility is that it is precisely the behaviourist and medical view of the mind – as some sort of internal bodily organ or instrument which suffers silently – that locks us into the forms of passivity associated with depression and anxiety in the first place.

The question of how we explain and respond to human unhappiness is ultimately an ethical and political one, of where we choose to focus our critique and, to be blunt about it, where we intend to level the blame.

Treating the mind (or brain) as some form of decontextualized, independent entity that breaks down of its own accord, requiring monitoring and fixing by experts, is a symptom of the very culture that produces a great deal of unhappiness today. Disempowerment is an integral part of how depression, stress, and anxiety arise. And despite the best efforts of positive psychologists, disempowerment occurs as an effect of social, political and economic institutions and strategies, not of neural or behavioral errors.”
- Will Davies, The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being (2015)

(I was expecting something different from this book, and was, in general, pleasantly surprised. I do have some problems with some of Davies’ arguments, particularly as they’re distorted by speciesism. He notes, for example, that Jeremy Bentham, with his emphasis on pleasure and suffering, found sympathies with other animals – who also experience pleasure and suffering – and included them within the sphere of ethics, which Davies seems to regard as (vaguely) positive. But then he goes on to assume that an ethics and public policy that encompasses both humans and other animals necessarily has to be based on a simplified and attenuated vision of humans. Psychological traditions that reduce human experience and needs to pleasure seeking and pain avoidance, to simple calculations of utility, to a one-dimensional material idea of “happiness” are guilty, he argues, of treating humans like animals; a valid psychology would appreciate what’s distinctively human about us – in other words, how we differ fundamentally from all other animal species, including the white rats, dogs, and monkeys on whom psychologists in these traditions have so often experimented.

But this argument has it backwards. Rightly rejecting a ridiculously attenuated view of human psychological experience, it leaves unquestioned a ridiculously attenuated view of the psychological experience of other animal species. A valid psychological-ethical-political approach, in fact, would remain inclusive of other animals. Rather than understanding humans in terms of a degraded view of other animals as mere responders to stimuli, though, it would understand that other animals have emotions, desires, needs, social relationships, and so on. This isn’t a radical view: it was recognized by Darwin and has been extensively documented over the past decades. There’s simply no way human psychology and politics can be approached validly without appreciating it.)

(I’m also at a loss as to why he would ignore virtually the entire tradition of political-humanist-liberation psychology – Fromm, Horney, Fanon, Martin-Baró,…)

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