22 Jan The Real Cause of Everything
The word responsibility comes up a lot when you have a 12-year-old daughter. It also comes up a lot when you’re working on a movie about issues related to healthcare and emotions. The other day I wrote something about the relationship between poverty and asthma, which raises several questions about responsibility. These questions have both cultural and political implications. From a cultural perspective, the worldview that we hold, which is shaped by both our community/cultural milieu and our experiences, has an impact on where we place responsibility. In simplistic political terms, people who identify themselves as conservatives tend to place responsibility with the individual and people who see themselves as liberal tend to place responsibility with the group.
For years, studies have revealed that people who live in poverty have much higher rates of asthma. When viewing this data, a conservative person, looking for individual responsibility, might make unconscious assumptions about the causes of asthma for people who live in poverty that relate to things the individual has control over. For example, this person might assume that people who live in poverty are less likely to keep a clean home and eat healthy food. The liberal person might view the data and look toward the government to make regulations to ensure that pollution in poverty-stricken areas is held in check, and that people have access to healthy food. Social scientists have confirmed that many of our judgments about responsibility conform to our political and cultural frames. What happens then, when this connection between poverty and asthma is discussed, is that everyone misses the most basic connection of all, the causative nature of the inherent stress that comes from living in poverty. This is not only the stress of having to find money to live, but also the profound stress that comes from being pushed into a lower position in society. There’s a lot of data about how our relationship to a group, and specifically lower status within that group, leads to the kind of stress that makes people unhappy and unhealthy. In regards to asthma and poverty, it becomes clear that the answer has as much to do with emotional problems related to living in poverty as it does to with clean homes or with clean air.
Unsurprisingly, when we default to the kind of frames that make it possible for us to function efficiently we often lose sight of the surprising truths that lie just outside of our awareness. Margaret Heffernan writes elegantly about issues related to “Willful Blindness”, a legal term that confers responsibility upon those who should have seen things – or said things – about crimes that took place under their watch. For example, the chief executive of a company like BP, while clearly not directly responsible for making sure that safety protocols at an individual plant are followed on a daily basis, might be legally liable for creating an environment where these protocols are abandoned. The argument is that even if he might be able to prove he didn’t see it happening, he should have known and is therefore responsible. From a legal perspective, this might make corporations or people more apt to look a little bit harder if they are going to be held responsible. The term might also be applied to the townspeople living just outside of German concentration camps in the 1930’s who wrote letters requesting that the camp better shield them from the noise and the smells. The term, however, also relates to the individual. In Heffernan’s book, she also discusses an instance of sexual abuse where a mother misses all of the clues that the abuse was taking place until the problem was revealed to her. She tells another story of a wife who simply doesn’t see her husband is a raging alcoholic when everyone else is well aware of it.
From a psychological and neurological perspective, we are able to function in the world because we make so many unconscious, automatic decisions. When we are faced with facts, issues, or studies that don’t conform to our own worldview, or to the view of the group to which we belong, we tend to not acknowledge them – especially if they are directly challenging to the views we strongly hold. For example, when we were making our previous film “Battle for Brooklyn” – which focuses on the fight over the government’s use of eminent domain to seize private property and transfer it to a private developer – we were surprised to find how many liberals were willing to overlook clear evidence of dishonesty by the government because the project was supposed to provide jobs and housing to those in need. The evidence was also clear that the jobs and housing were unlikely to be provided, but people who held the worldview that government should take care of those in need failed to recognize that. In the end, the project did not provide any jobs, and 6 years after groundbreaking there is no housing. Our desire to have something be true often clouds our ability to see the facts that undercut our belief system. That view is also clouded by the information that we get via the media, which is further clouded by information that the media gets from biased sources. For those who challenge these systems, the road is a rocky one. When the film was completed, we had great difficulty getting it screened. However, once the Occupy Wall Street movement came along, people had a better context within which to understand the story, and it was eventually short-listed for an Academy Award. [Just today, the speaker of the state assembly in NY was arrested on corruption charges. He was speaker for 20 years and everyone knew he was corrupt. He was one of the “three men in a room” who approved the project at the heart of our film]
The ideas of responsibility and willful blindness intersect in a recent article that hinted, “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It’s Not What You Think”. No, the answer isn’t poverty, but poverty is clearly a causative element on some level. According to Johann Hari, who wrote a book chronicling the War on Drugs, the real trigger is a deep human need for community and companionship.
Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find – the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding’. A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.
So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.
This story is intimately connected to our film “All the Rage”. In addition to featuring Gabor Mate, the book also references research we wrote about last week. Hari cites figures related to the high number of US soldiers returning from Vietnam who were addicted to heroin overseas, and the low number who stayed addicted upon their return. NPR covered this story on Veteran’s Day, and pointed out that all of the assumptions that people had about the chemical dependency of drugs were challenged by what happened when the Vietnam soldiers came home. Unfortunately, it has taken a long time for people to make sense of this data, and it also took a long time for people to put it into play in regards to treatment. In general, the book makes the case that the War on Drugs has failed, not because drugs are inherently powerful and corrupting, but because the cause of the problem, societal disconnection, has been ignored.
There is an alternative. You can build a system that is designed to help drug addicts to reconnect with the world – and so leave behind their addictions.
This isn’t theoretical. It is happening. I have seen it. Nearly fifteen years ago, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe, with 1 percent of the population addicted to heroin. They had tried a drug war, and the problem just kept getting worse. So they decided to do something radically different. They resolved to decriminalize all drugs, and transfer all the money they used to spend on arresting and jailing drug addicts, and spend it instead on reconnecting them – to their own feelings, and to the wider society. The most crucial step is to get them secure housing, and subsidized jobs – so they have a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for. I watched as they are helped, in warm and welcoming clinics, to learn how to reconnect with their feelings, after years of trauma and stunning them into silence with drugs.
The fact is that power differentials created by capitalism drive intense levels of stress, as well as societal disconnection, which increase the incidence of illness and addiction. In fact, the title of Dr. Gabor Mate’s upcoming book is “Capitalism is Killing Us”. The likely cause of pain has been found, and it isn’t exclusively structural problems, viruses, bacteria, or toxins. It’s disconnection from our true feelings. There isn’t a simple solution to this problem, but as Dr. Sarno points out, if we treat the symptom and not the cause, we are going to get an epidemic. Now that we have a better sense of the problem, it is possible for us to find solutions for a lot more people, but it does mean that we might have to change more than just our diet, exercise routines, and our medications. We have to take a hard look at how live, communicate, connect, and govern.