Anomie Society: Disengagement, Dissociation and Attention Deficit

Yesterday’s article on the disengagement of half of the US population has me wondering, again, whether the cause of this, and some of the other strange manifestations of our time, is stress — too many people jammed unnaturally close together struggling over scarce resources and enormous and conflicting psychological pressure, much of it stemming from causes that no one has any real control over. I think Canadians and Europeans live in a somewhat kinder, gentler society where these pressures are less pronounced, but I sense some of the ‘anomie’ I referred to here as well, especially in our young people. I wonder whether it is behind the kind of mindless violence that boils over in English soccer stands, in the poor, segregated French suburbs, and perhaps even in the furious outrage of a billion struggling people over a bunch of cartoons.

I wonder, too, whether Americans’ insatiable appetite for more and more violent films and ‘reality TV’ that wallows in and laughs at the most extreme forms of human misery (both of the inflicted and self-administered variety — these ‘idol’ elimination programs revel in cruelty and ridicule far more than they celebrate any kind of talent) are outlets for this growing detachment that requires more and more powerful shocks to register above the numbness. The media pandering to this accelerating tendency seem to be trying to address not attention challenges caused by information overload, but an attention deficit caused, perhaps, by an unwillingness to even register information that is seen as utterly meaningless and relentlessly boring.

A while ago I threw out the idea of a magazine that would suggest possible individual actions at the end of each article and would allow you to detach, organize and file the articles you were personally acting on. While I still see this as valuable for the socially and politically engaged, I now wonder whether half the population would see this as a preposterous exercise in self-delusion and personal hubris.

I find myself suffering from mild symptoms of this attention deficit: Lack of concentration, to the point I now find reading a complete work of fiction intolerably frustrating. And a constant restlessness during social events (I find myself ‘browsing’ the crowd in an often futile search for a conversation that can hold my focus). Some people tell me I have developed an annoying habit of not looking at people while I’m talking with them, as if something more important is preoccupying me. I notice these symptoms, and more pronounced, jarring ones as well, in others, especially young males, for whom conversations seem like a discontinuous mental journey in and out of reality, as if they’re engaged in a constant internal struggle for any kind of connection and attention.

I wonder if this disengagement isn’t symptomatic of a more profound underlying problem of dissociation in our culture. Dissociation is generally a defensive reaction, to trauma or chronic stress or extreme anxiety, a coping mechanism. In advanced cases it can lead to psychopathy, where the person emotionally distances him/herself from the consequences of his/her actions, becoming wildly impulsive, remorseless, deceptive, easily bored, and prone to blame others (this diagnosis has been, quite seriously, made of George Bush, whose inability to string together a coherent sentence is attributed not to illiteracy but to dissociation). Dissociation isn’t always the result of some extreme childhood abuse or injury, or severe post-traumatic stress. It can result from much subtler, but chronic stresses — thekind many of us face in our modern world every day.

This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Anomie Society: Disengagement, Dissociation and Attention Deficit

  1. “I wonder if this disengagement isn’t symptomatic of a more profound underlying problem of dissociation in our culture.” Add addiction to your list of symptoms Dave. Addictions of one kind or another are epidemic in the US.

  2. theresa says:

    About the idea of a magazine, I wonder if there isn’t or couldn’t be a part “my space”, part “Newsvine” site where the more politically engaged – or frustrated – could track and tag issues and articles that they wish to act on.

  3. Jon Husband says:

    Apologies in advance for such a long comment .. I am copy-and-pasting an article written by one of the hall-of-famers of the OD world whom I have had the good fortune to spend some time with in the past. This article, written by Roger Harrison at the end of a long and illustrious career as an innovator and leader in the OD field. speaks deeply and movingly to the longing I believe we all feel for a saner and less stressful way to go about the game of *busy-ness*.I think we all tend to forget that we live in a system, and with activities, that *we* created, and that it just DOES NOT HAVE to be this way. That said, I continue to believe that we cannot change this system incrementally .. it has gone on too long, is too complex, and reflects the accumulated layers of bandaging that we have put on a system of fundamental assumptions that was created in another time, for a different set of conditions/I am moved to share the article here becaue it moved me very very deeply when i first read it .. in fact, I have never been the same since. And i think many of us could replace Roger’s focus on business and consulting with our own focus on (or deep quest for) work/doing something we feel is meaningful and purposeful, other than making the money to pay the bills.I think what scares me more than anything when i face the next 30 (hopefully) years of my life, is the felt sense I have that almost everyone is cynical or anomic to some noticeable degree now .. i think I stopped believing I could have much positive impact, regardless of rational thinking or any skills I might possess, somewhere between 5 and 10 years ago, and I still struggle with it all the time, because to know and feel anomie more than once in a while is not an enjoyable thing.What frustrates me more than anything is that i actually believe that a significant majority of people would prefer living in less competitive societies, where not as much emphasis was put on productivity and performance, measured mainly by some form or other or monetary results. But we all feel like this is the way life is, because the institutions that hold some form or other of power over us say this is the way it is. A Time For Letting GoThis paper is written for those who sometimes question the meaning and consequences of their work as consultants to business organizations and corporations.In it I share the dilemmas which have caused me to falter in my commitment to our profession, along with the beginnings of a new vision of my own work. My intent is to provide a useful map of territory I have been exploring in my thoughts and conversations with others for about ten years. What I have to say here is, I believe, coherent. It is certainly congruent with my own experience. Whether it is “true”, in the sense of being a useful map of the territory, each reader will have to decide. The Consultant’s JourneyI began my career in 1956, when American busines organizations were at the top of the world heap. Their managers tended to be smug and self-satisfied, taking credit for the good times which had succeeded the disorganization of the Depression and the scarcities of World War II. I received my initiation into what soon became Organizational Development (OD) through participation in T-groups. I was inspired and uplifted by these experiences, and they embodied the ideals which animated most of my subsequent work. Most of my work since has been animated by three aims:

  4. Jon Husband says:

    Please note that Roger Harrison’s article was written before 911 happened, and does not address nor repond to the major changes visited upon all of us by the now-overwhelming and all-encompassing vigilance regarding security and the prevention of terror.One could argue that things generally have gotten weirder and more stressful since this article was written (’97).

  5. Rob Paterson says:

    Hello DaveI am with Jon on this. (Hi Jon and great to see that piece – it helped me so much – thanks )I recall meeting Paul Hawken for the first time in 1995. He had broken up with his wife. He had been kicked out of Smith and Hawken and had just published the Ecology of Commerce, where he had spent years looking at the damage that we are all doung to our world. He was in a terrible place where he could not see what he could do while being certain as you and Jon and I are that it was all coming down.What helped him in the end and me is that he began to see that it was not up to him to save us and that there is maybe an essential aspect of what will happen to us. This has not made him fatalistic, he continues to write etc, but it has given him back his life.However he, I and you can no longer suffer fools.

  6. zach says:

    growing detachment that requires more and more powerful shocks to register above the numbness. hello again Dave.. I felt like commenting on this. I think that underneath the detachment lies all kinds of painful emotions (fear, anger, hate, despair, etc). The easy to deal with such pain is to divert your attention to (focus on) something else (writing, thinking, chess, or even drugs, alcohol. The better way to deal with pain is to face it and let it go, the usual way to do this is deep sustained meditation, and probably some psychotherapy for most people. The emotions come up, you experience them (this is the hard part) and then the emotions leave. This requires a great deal of honesty with yourself and with others. Calming the mind goes hand in hand with this process. This has nothing to do with the external world. Don’t you suppose your experience of the world is a subjective one? i.e. all that really matter’s is how you feel about life? Other thoughts I had lately… A corollary of “there is no one in charge” is “there is no they.” (Think of walking down the street in downtown Toronto and ask yourself, how many of these people know each other?) So how are all your solutions going to work when there is no they?

  7. zach says:

    …and a result of this continuous diverting of attention in order to avoid painful emotion is attention deficit. (Focus on something else -> habituate -> focus elsewhere -> habituate -> etc.) And the mind becomes like “a wild monkey jumping from branch to branch,” occasionally stopping to fling poop at someone.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Dick: Agreed. So now we have a lot of symptoms. What’s the diagnosis and treatment?Theresa: Excellent idea. I wonder whether we can be comfortable doing this online, or whether the old-fashioned notion of loose-leaf binders for tracking and annotating the pertinent articles by subject, and organizing the action plans, might be better. Maybe I’m showing my age ;-)Jon/Rob: I didn’t think it was possible, but Jon surpassed Medaille for the longest reader comment on my blog. An excellent article, and one that strikes close, as you know, to my heart. Jon, I hope to meet up with you on your upcoming trip to Toronto, my friend. To both of you: Fare forward, voyagers.Zach: Lots of interesting stuff here. I can understand the emotional pain of engaged progressives, and, thanks to Lakoff, the emotional pain of engaged conservatives. But I cannot understand, intuitively, emotionally or rationally, what pain, addiction or other malady drives the 51% disengaged from our society. I don’t understand indifference, escapism, infatuation with violence, sexism, ostentatious consumption, and anomie. Is it brutally honest or completely dishonest, a charade? What causes this strange dissociation, this emotional detachment? And what can we do to heal it? As for ‘there is no they’ the complex system approach is to invite ‘them’ to join ‘us’ so that ‘we’ can allow approaches and ways of coping to emerge.

  9. zach says:

    I have been thinking on the theme “the protector and the protected” (child/parent, employee/company, citizen/country, human/God) lately. These relationships all exist for safety and security, therefore when you look through the layers of our hearts and minds we are still emotional children always desiring a protector (i.e. parent). So its really all about fear. The dissociation is the refusal to face the pain and fear. The bad stuff is an attempt to find comfort and love. I see something wonderful and innocent in this. Thats roughly my thought, it would require a lot more effort to explain fully I think.

  10. Siona says:

    I merely wanted to leave a very belated note of appreciation for this piece, and, too, for the article that Jon posted. I found myself nodding–and my heart welling–at every paragraph.And I wanted to say that for all this, meditation helps. Presence is a practice, and involves practicing, and while it’s not easy, neither are most necessary things.

Comments are closed.