Friday, December 14, 2012

Who is the Strongest?

It is strange the sort of things that pop into my inbox and draw my attention. An article from Psychcentral highlighted yet again why I expect mental illness treatment to remain problematic for sometime to come. The article is entitled,, "The Myth of the Strong Person."

The word "strong" is somewhat ambiguous so the first question we need to ask is it even a valid way to think about people. I think it is, the ambiguities inherent in when we use the word are largely irrelevant in everday use and the context in which the word is used typically provides additional information to reduce ambiguity. The word is descriptive, not analytic, so I am not sure why the author would wish to attempt to redine the meaning of the word when it's meaning is often contextually contingent. 

The author is very unambiguous about what she thinks the current meaning of "strong" implies:
When people refer to a “strong” person, the traits that are being pointed to as “strong” are often closer to grandiosity, contempt, rigidity, stubbornness, aggressiveness, and desire to control others. All of these traits hold similarities to bullying.
I'm not sure which people she is thinking of there but when this person refers to a strong person it can mean a number of things none of which are included in her list. The first word that came to my mind was "resilience", possibly because over the last few years psychologists seem to paying more attention to this also ambiguous description of behavior.  

What she has done is created a stereotype of what people think of when they think about a "strong person". Oddly enough she then goes on to address the dangers in using such ambiguous concepts when previously unambiguously declaring what people think about "strong people". 

I have to wonder when I read statement like this ... 
power structures are usually detrimental to relationships.
 if the author is living in some alternate universe where power and its frequent use in exploitation is not eternally endemic. We're Risen Apes, get used to it. 

Maybe I should not have read Nietzsche because I just don't understand the below
People who are perceived as “strong” tend to carry the demeanor of people who “don’t take stuff from others.” This can create avoidance and fear from others, rather than openness and connection.
 Nietzsche had a somewhat different view ... 
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
It is sometimes difficult to draw an line about when to "not take stuff from others". Each situation calls for its own judgment, time and place are as much about that decision as any golden rule. The author of "The No Asshole Rule" gave an example of that. He was with his family at an airport I think and mistakes had been made. He realised that to solve the problem he had to become confrontational and make demands. He had to become an asshole. It happens, not that often but that depends on your own circumstances. Sometimes we are confronted with assholes on a daily basis but for the most part most people just wanna get along. 

"Openness and connection." Just makes sense. Doesn't it? Not all the time. There are some people who I most definitely do not want to be connected with and I'll be about as open with them as a corporation is with the tax office. We make our choices and we tend to be careful about those choices. We play to our strengths because that is the smart thing to do. We look for those secret "Tribal Business" markers that identify members amongst the masses. We flock together because that is the smart thing to do. There is nothing wrong with belonging to a tribe except as Nietzsche advises ... 
The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently. ~Friedrich Nietzsche
But one way or the other we will make judgments. It is what we do, consciously and if some studies are right moreso unconsciously. We've got brains, useful things, and we have to make judgment calls about people in our environment because only a fools ignores potential risk or benefit. What we do to people is more important than what we think about them. The two are inter related but at the end of the day even if you hate someone with every microtubule in your body if you don't act that it is something else. We are allowed to hate people and but hurt them. Words can hurt. 

Modern Technology has fundamentally changed the potential for openness and communication, a person can now be a member of many tribes and to varying degrees of membership. The internet and social media reveal how diverse and divisive we are. Modern culture has the capacity to promote "openness and communication" in previously unimaginable ways. The hatred and spite that emanates from some internet forums is a wonder to behold. They should have "Blog Offs", where opposing blogs gather at an independent blog at a set date and time to slog out it to determine who are the bigger bloggers. That'll show 'em.

There are people with strengths. Some are strong physically, some in their ability to cope with certain adversities(though not other types of adversity), to tolerate pain, to kick against the pricks, to work to exhaustion etc etc. The author is correct, there are no "strong people" because the very concept is invalid. So I am confused when the author then goes on to define the general qualities of strong people ...

Basically, strengths show that we’re being true to ourselves and our values, while also allowing the space for others to be true to their own selves and values. And when two people (or more) come together, that there is room for some influence and compromise.
So, a big part of character strength is seeing that there is more than one’s own perspective.

 Some of our celebrated historical figures are people who would not compromise, who refused to bow down. It is trivially obvious that if one is directing others then one is already presuming those others have a different perspective. Now we have "character strengths", another ambiguity to wile away the early morning hours. "Character strengths" is a synonym for "strong person". 

The author then goes on to provide a list of qualities that "can be character strengths". However these are not specific strengths in specific circumstances but rather a general set of character qualities, a sort of idealised human  who ... [ has the]ability to accept influence from others, trusting, decisive, sees others as equals etc etc. The myth persists. The closing line of the article:
We can then look in the mirror or at other people from a healthy perspective and say, “That’s a strong person,” or, “I’m a strong person.”
Isn't that just wonderful, by simply changing the description from "strong person" to "character strengths" the author is able to engage in exactly the same type of logical error which she purports to condemn in the very title of the article. There must be some really nice fluffy clouds in some psychology degrees.

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