There is no shortage of things to protest when it comes to this small Middle Eastern country. From the raging war next door, to its repercussions, to the rampant corruption, human rights abuses, the disappearance of elections, rising unemployment, emigration, crippled institutions, and pollution -the grounds are endless. However, when one looks at Lebanon, protests are virtually non-existent on a large scale at least, not since the 2015 garbage-fueled summer demonstrations -which were an exception to the rule- died out.
At every turn of events we witness as those directly impacted take to the streets in small numbers. It is a rarity to see any significant form of consequential solidarity on the advent of crises. Take the kidnapped Lebanese soldiers debacle and the resurfaced waste management disaster for instance. The only protests that occurred related to these issues were those organized by a handful of citizens even though the repercussions of said crises are wide-reaching.
In a bid to better understand what has been repeatedly described as a self-induced state of perpetual sleep, I revisited some studies pertaining to cognitive behavior in high stress environments. While I may not be an expert in the field, these models that I am about to present certainly struck a chord.
Dissociation: The Hidden Epidemic
This seemingly somnambulistic behavioral pattern as exhibited by many Lebanese when it comes to civil rights may in large be due to what psychologists refer to as dissociation.
Dissociation is “an adaptive defense in response to high stress or trauma characterized by short or long term memory loss and a sense of disconnection from oneself or one’s surroundings.” (After all how many times have we questioned our attention span and our collective memory?) According to Marlene Steinberg and Maxine Schnall, the authors of “The Stranger in the Mirror: Dissociation – The Hidden Epidemic,” dissociation is a defense mechanism employed to detach oneself from the emotional stimuli that victims have been or are continuously being exposed to. In other terms, it helps us cope with stressful situations, which may otherwise feel overwhelming.
Dissociation can happen in varying degrees, from mild to aggressive. In fact it is so wide-ranging that many of us remain oblivious to our very own dissociation -a vital part of our ingrained survival system. Ever driven a car to a destination only to realize upon arriving that you cannot remember a large part of your trip? That’s mild dissociation; a disconnection from part of oneself to the environment.
In Lebanon, anecdotal evidence suggests that this pattern seems to have been adopted as the general mode de vie, whereby even the most abhorrent of circumstances can just make their way into becoming another addition to the myriad problems already at hand. As a result, a feeling of powerlessness ensues. It’s a vicious cycle that feeds itself.
Dissociation and PTSD; past and present:
Dissociation is a sub-type of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event and most commonly diagnosed in war veterans. Several studies indicate that a significant part of the Lebanese population who lived through the 1975-1990 Civil War carry the trauma of the bloody years that saw the killing of over 250,000 civilians and thousands of forced disappearances.
According to studies, rates of PTSD and depression reach a staggering 30% in some areas, affecting many children and adolescents as well as adults. PTSD may delay developmental processes by causing regression, dependence on substance abuse and dissociation, putting the brain in a perpetual state of self-defense.
When the brain is in defense mode it exhibits symptoms that include amnesia (loss of memory for short or long periods of time), depersonalization (feeling detached from one’s body or one’s emotions), derealization (feeling detached from one’s surroundings or people), identity confusion (uncertainty, conflict about who you are), and identity alteration (alterations in personality and behavior).
Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?
Dissociation reduces motivation:
As mentioned above, dissociation occurs when confrontation with overwhelming experience from which actual escape is not possible alters consciousness in a way that allows those affected to continue functioning under fierce conditions. In other words, and under a state of dissociation, when inconvenient situations are ignored, sufferers are afforded the illusion of their disappearance if only momentarily. Another addition to dissociation is depersonalization, which means that if calamity does not involve one’s group directly, it can be easily swept to the side.
Dr. Susan Rosenthal, author of Power and Powerlessness, says “dissociation mentally disconnects us from intolerable experiences. When thinking brings pain, dissociation helps people to move through life without thinking; we shut out the world or imagine it to be much safer than it really is. By numbing fear, anger and pain, dissociation creates a false sense of safety, reducing our motivation to remove the dangers that threaten us.”
“Severe dissociation numbs compassion and empathy, making it possible for people to do cruel and monstrous things that they would never do in a non-dissociated state.”
Perhaps this can explain why the Lebanese party scene thrived as Israeli bombs ravaged parts of Beirut and South Lebanon during the 2006 war, or why people now feel paralyzed in the face of countless problems. It also explains everyday behavioral patterns that allow many of us to continue functioning when cataclysms, such as terrorist attacks or remote conflicts, occur.
Dissociation, the media and politics:
According to Dr. Rosenthal, the media encourage mass dissociation when calamities such as war are covered in a sanitized manner and include commentary that “drips with lies.” “Doublespeak”, she says, promotes dissociation to make the unacceptable acceptable. “Invasion is defense; civilian deaths are collateral damage; a freedom fighter is a terrorist working for us; and a terrorist is a freedom fighter working for them. Politicians revel in doublespeak.”
“Dissociation separates contradictory experiences to avoid internal conflict, making it possible to love our own children and support wars that kill other people’s children; to want freedom and support wars that deny others their freedom. To feel outrage at being robbed and support wars that rob the people of other lands.”
Dissociation in the face of terrible injustice is mistakenly perceived as a lack of caring instead of what it really is: a psychological defense against feeling powerless, Rosenthal concludes.
In Lebanon, press institutions are structured around a fundamental schism. On the one hand, there is media that act as a profit making enterprise, gravitating towards neutrality rather that objectivity in order to safeguard access to the powerful, and thus investing heavily in sensationalism in order to increase viewership. On the other, there is media that act as a politically affiliated initiative and is devoted to contextualizing the truth in a way which is beneficial to their party. This media model relies heavily on donations from politicians or well-connected individuals, even though such a thing is against the law.
The result? A weak democracy and an even weaker electorate, fueling a never ending cycle of dissociation and powerlessness.
Dissociation feeds oligarchy, systemic powerlessness:
American presidential nominee Donald Trump can easily be likened to any of our homegrown Lebanese politicians with his tax-evading shenanigans, sexist statements and racist gabble. Like local lawmakers and executives, Trump relies on fear and the power dynamic. In other words he makes the dissociated powerless feel more powerful and in that context nothing else matters. In Lebanon dissociation and powerlessness are the prevailing tropes, and ordinary citizens rely on a structure that supports a multitude of mini Donald Trumps, or what its commonly referred to as the “za’im” (meaning: leader).
While this system predates Lebanon’s 1975-1990 Civil War that reintroduced dissociation en masse as a method of survival, it thrived throughout the bloody years and continues, alongside the ingrained powerlessness of the people, to be the modus operandi of the national political landscape. Without dissociation and an overbearing feeling of powerlessness many Lebanese would not have taken part in the bloodshed that lasted so many years, nor would they have sworn allegiance to leaders on the premise of momentary power in an otherwise helpless situation.
Years after the end of the Civil War dissociation and powerlessness remain the dominant force at play. The powerful leaders of that war are currently the country’s Ministers and MPs thanks to an amnesty law that allows them to remain in power, widening the gap between the wealthy elite and the people. This structure has largely remained unchallenged even in the face of rampant corruption, culminated in the worst era of governmental performance yet.
Poverty, pacification policies seal the deal:
Material wealth equals power and as Lebanon’s economy continues to nosedive, so do its people become more powerless. This isn’t the case for the ruling oligarchs and their circle of elites who keep their riches out of state coffers through a ‘Wealth Defense Industry’: a cadre of professionals hired to lobby government and advise ways of hiding wealth, often through keeping it in tax havens.
The Wealth Defense Industry’s main objective is to maintain and increase the power and wealth of the elite. In turn, and as part of maintenance works, those in power implement pacification policies, and band aid to bullet wound fixes. They keep things barely running but not bad enough to ignite a revolution. The only way out of poverty comes in the form of making connections with the major game-players. To do that one has to swear allegiance and undying loyalty in exchange for a price or a job. This artificial system (which the Israeli government is widely known for using) ensures that a segment of the population is comfortable enough to suppress any potential uprising. To protect the status quo this segment would find it difficult to abandon privilege for the sake of larger national goals such as restorative justice. As a result, helplessness again prevails and feeds the dissociation mechanism.
How to break free:
The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. Lebanon cannot move forward without adequately dealing with its past. Anything short of that is leading us to the same results. Although there is a general attitude that seeks to bury the wounds of war, it is counter constructive to continue to pretend that these scars do not exist. The ghost of the events that occurred in the past are still haunting us today; they are on our televisions, in our media, inside parliament and inside our minds. They are being passed down from one generation to the next, feeding the cycle and the broken system; feeding dissociation, separateness and powerlessness. To overcome this we first must agree to openly discuss trauma, mental health illnesses, and inherited and learned behavioral patterns without restraint, without shame.
The overall mental health state of a society is a determining factor in its functionality. Mental health issues and self-serving behavioral patterns in Lebanon have long been dismissed as farce at worst and survivalist at best; our general attitude sees them as both contradictory and coexisting weaknesses and strength rather than obstacles, and for that we are paying a high price. Our mental health system is broken and badly funded. (According to a WHO assessment, the budget for Mental Health in Lebanon constitutes only 5% of the general health budget.) Our capacity for sound judgement is clouded with confusion and misinformation. As a result, these alignments continue to reinforce a system that is disintegrative and exploitative.
Combating oligarchy and dissociation is no easy business, especially when external threats that first reinforced those patterns -war and conflict- loom. According to Jeffrey Winters, author of “Oligarchy,” the mechanisms needed when fighting such a system on a technical front include reducing the power of money in shaping politics, ensuring equal opportunities for escaping poverty, and the redrafting of a tax system that invests in creating widespread prosperity and growth. In other words, wealth needs to be redistributed as a first step towards democratizing a nation and strengthening its institutions. Unfortunately our very own institutions have come to be weakened and polarized between the one for the poor and one for the privileged. This polarization reinforces oligarchy and inequality. Without strong institutions, the people come to rely more on their za’ims, and are coerced into favoring privatization (which serves the zai’ms and their inner circle) over restorative public policies. This is turn feeds the cycle of powerlessness and separateness.
On another front, our education system must include civic engagement, and the development of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make a difference through political and non-political processes. We must learn to overcome our differences in a civil manner, to empower the electorate, to inform the young and old and to contribute positively to an issue even if the issue does not affect us personally. This will restore a sense of community and nationhood.
The current system at play is unsustainable at best and self-destructive at worst. Policies of pacification, separateness, poverty and dependence wreak havoc on both land and people. The less engaged, less aware the nation is, the heavier it is on its environment and well-being. This unmistakably affects the quality of life for current and future generations, ensuring a bad ending especially with the threat of climate change, population growth and climate migration. The time to look at that stranger in the mirror has come; deflection is no longer a luxury we can afford.
14 thoughts on “Lebanon’s hidden epidemic: Why are so many silent when things are so bad?”
Although I agree with everything you are saying in this article, I wanted to point out (as a clinical psychology student) that dissociation is a more extreme defense mechanism than what you describe it as, and it is unconsciously undertaken. For example: a child undergoing sexual abuse blacks out and does not remember the events that took place (i.e pain, abuser’s face, etc.). Although you mentioned that it ranges from mild to aggressive forms, what you refer to in the driving example are called automatized procedures in cognitive psychology. The exact definition of dissociation may be inconsequential to the point your making – and I did enjoy your article – but my education leads me to believe that the Lebanese people are consciously (vs. unconscious in dissociation) choosing not to do anything about the issues they’re facing. Instead of acting, they would rather sit around smoke argeeleh and complain, as is the case with many other countries today.
Hello Salman, thank you for taking the time to comment as the point of this article is to start a discussion on the matter at hand. I would just like to say that all the information posted in the article is referenced and hyperlinked in the post (you can refer to the studies by clicking on the bold characters) and none is based on my own interpretation. For the sake of making your life easier I will post the two main ones again here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/the-brain-in-defense-mode-how-dissociation-helps-us-survive-0429155 | http://www.counterpunch.org/2007/07/14/war-and-dissociation/. Please read them fully and let me know what you think. I found Dr Rosenthal’s description of dissociation to be very convincing especially in relation to war and conflict. Here’s an excerpt:
“When Tina Turner sang, ‘Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken,’ we all knew what she meant. In a world filled with pain, nature provides a defense against suffering called dissociation.
Experiences that are too horrible to be integrated into our understanding of the world are split off from conscious awareness. Dissociation provides a mental escape when there is no physical escape.
The barbarism of the Iraq war is creating mass dissociation in Iraq and America. Iraqis are going out of their minds with suffering. So are their tormentors, the American soldiers who are themselves tormented by what they have seen and done.
Ordinary Americans must also dissociate in order to live ‘normal’ lives while a horrific war looms menacingly in the background. Such dissociation provides temporary comfort, while allowing the war to continue.”
(Relevant remaining quotations are mentioned in my article above.)
So yes, while dissociation may be extreme (black out) in the case that it should occur as a direct reaction to pain and abuse, Rosenthal says that it is also a normal reaction that can come in milder forms (shutting out the world, shutting out negative thoughts).
As for your final statement “but my education leads me to believe that the Lebanese people are consciously (vs. unconscious in dissociation) choosing not to do anything about the issues they’re facing. Instead of acting, they would rather sit around smoke argeeleh and complain, as is the case with many other countries today” I honestly believe that it is not as simple as that and this is what actually triggered me to write this piece. Looking at my parent’s generation (what is known as the war generation) one can observe that there is a sense of despondency. Their lives were robbed during what should have been the golden years, and so if they are less than enthusiastic about fighting the system, I understand their sentiment. Many also from that generation are struggling to survive; a great portion is impoverished and lack basic services like healthcare. A greater portion is is either suffering from anxiety or depressed and consume anti-depressants at a staggering rate. As for the younger generation, can we honestly say that they haven’t inherited the trauma? If that were not the case then we would not have seen so many political polarities among today’s youths. While it is true that many may be purely lazy, I do not believe that this is the general case at all. 2015 stands testament to that. Those protests failed because of many reasons, among which was the rising judgement against political partisans who compose a large segment of society. Another factor was the hostility towards security forces and of course the vicious crackdown of the authorities. Honestly? I think we are a battered and bruised people. A trip to the most underdeveloped areas in Lebanon is enough to demonstrate that.
Excellent Article! Could not agree more.
Thank you for getting back to me with a thorough response, Nadine. I read through both links you referenced and realized a trend. Although I do not claim to be more of an expert on the matter than the authors of those articles, I’m afraid that they both integrated intellectualization with dissociation. The issue may just be that intellectualization is a newer concept, although I need to check that. It refers to removing your emotions from a situation while remembering the ongoing events. This can be applied to having knowledge of the horrors of war but accepting the war as necessary, or talking about seeing someone suffering without attaching any emotions to one’s narrative. Both are effective defense mechanisms included in our mind’s arsenal of responses to anxiety, fear and high levels of stress. Dissociation is closely tied with extreme trauma and amnesia related to the events that occurred in that trauma. I still believe that the Lebanese people are not dissociating, but rather staying silent due to the belief that standing up will not result in real change, among other reasons. Mass dissociation is most likely occurring in Iraq among the children and highly traumatized adults, but not in the states (where intellectualization is occurring). I completely understand your sentiments regarding the war generation, and the impact of their experiences on the younger generation. But my position remains that the majority have not forgotten what happened to them; it may be disenfranchisement and distrust in the system which has led to the current inaction. As far as the younger generation goes, my personal opinions lead me to believe that they are engaging in displacement (another defense mechanism) by using the party culture to redirect their unhappiness at current situations. All in all, dissociation does not have much to do with your message other than in a contextual manner. I realize that it may not matter that much after all, as you are not sending your article in for peer-reviewing. I just thought I’d chime in with my current education on the matter – whatever purpose that may serve – as your article was centered on dissociation. Thank you for your time, and I am looking forward to hearing any other remarks you may have.
Thank you Nadine for the article. It resonates well with what is happening on the ground. Mr. Shaheen. you may be right or wrong, personally I don’t give a hoot, I acknowledge your education, but I don’t agree with your argument that went beyond what Nadine wanted to say to deep analysis of the word.
As you said, “this is not for peer reviewing”, I put it as a general description of the situation, for the record.
Hello Nadine .
I am with you 99% . you can check my articles ,posts & tv interviews on my face book , Ayad Nasser .
We are talking the same language, but the 1% difference is that now we are moving towards a beautiful solution , lobbying a responsable civil society .
Please check my face book and let us get in touch in order to help fixing the problem , I can add a solution message to all arabs too : We are the change
My fellow citizens,
Will Lebanon ever change? Will we find a solution to all our problems, one day?
We all ask ourselves these questions every day.
We all say this country is doomed, and that there is no hope for change.
But what we do not realize, is that change cannot come from the outside. It has to come from the inside.
It has to come from us.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Our greatest mistake as the people of Lebanon, is that we are not behaving as Lebanese people.
We are living our lives as if we are foreigners on our own lands.
We do not care about the waste crisis, we’d rather let our corrupt politicians handle it.
We do not care about fraud in elections, we’d rather let the world laugh at us.
We do not care about poverty in our country, we’d rather let NGOs help them.
It is time to wake up.
We have made so many mistakes, but we have the capacity to learn from them, we will learn a lot today.
Let me tell you a bit about myself.
I was born in Lebanon, in the 1970s.
Respecting others; helping others, caring about others, being at peace with others.
Yes, I am a peacemaker. I am the devil’s advocate. I am in between both parties. It’s a win-win situation. If you’re happy, then I am happy.
That is how I have always lived my life. I accepted loosing knowing I would win at the end I made others happy, I gave others priority. And even though I had nothing, it felt like I had everything.
I succeeded by placing people’s joy, happiness, and satisfaction before mine.
Today, I am very satisfied with the results.
That is why I’ve been thinking that we should start implementing and generalizing this mentality in our country.
Giving to others, before taking from them.
Many if not most Lebanese politicians, elites, and celebrities have been taking everything from us.
Do you realize that 0.3% of the Lebanese population own more than half of the country?
How can we hope for a better Lebanon when such a small number of people practically own it, and don’t want to change it?
If our proud billionaires start by contributing with as little as 5% of their wealth towards the common good in Lebanon, the country will change.
If they pay to clean our public beaches, instead of building expensive resorts, Lebanon will change.
If they pay to fix and build side-walks, instead of useless bridges, Lebanon will change.
If they pay to fix water shortage, instead of harmful dams, Lebanon will change.
If they pay to provide electricity 24/7, instead of collaborating with the generator mafias, Lebanon will change.
If Lebanon changes, the people will be happy, appreciative, stress free, positive.
It’s a cycle, so let us fight to give, and everyone will follow…
People won’t be selfish anymore, they won’t be egocentric, or liars, or corrupt… Why? Because you’re providing them with the basics that any other country would provide.
Let us help Lebanese people live with dignity and comfort. Let us show them how we can change the country, so that they can start changing it too.
If at first we don’t succeed, let us redefine success.
Because we are the change.
We have the power to make everything better, but we’re lacking courage.
We need to find it in our hearts, and start acting.
Nothing comes easily, change is not only through words, it is also through actions.
And the time for us to act has come!
I do not usually comment about this issue or these issues in our society but everyone can identify the problems and try to explain them in a rational way to try and understand why the neutral (not affiliated with any political party) Lebanese citizen is not trying harder. But the matter of fact and only issue that needs to be addressed and solved is division vs unity. The Lebanese are divided into tribes and sects, followed by the illusion of being better than each other. The citizen has no power because of these divisions, therefore nothing can be solved by the citizen. You want change, unity creates change. How to bring about unity among the people? That’s an illusive question. Usually it comes from a common interest shared by all the citizens. We have many problems affecting every citizen in lebanon and they are of common interest to all of us. Yet we are still divided and no one ever talks or tries to emphasize on division vs unity which is the crux of our problems.
The “Lebanese War” (1975-1990) impact on the Lebanese people left them FURTHER “Dissociated”… So, really, this attitude is far more complex spanning history.. social structure..economy.. education…etc. but most of all it has to do with the way Lebanon has been run as a “Country(?)” since its inception as an independent sovereign.
Unless we have a sincere serious change in the governance of the country, nothing will happen. The futile example(s) of the “Young Generation Movements” we saw recently uprising for change & getting minimal support from the community at large, is a vivid picture.
Lebanon must undergo a change in its governance. To begin with, it must follow modern codes & regulations as a proper state… not as a bunch of benefiting collective families & sects reaping the “Cheese” & making sure that stays continuously on. Even political parties in Lebanon protect their members having done something for their personal benefits at the expense of the country (the community). Worse, political power supersedes the law, even the Constitutional Council??? You may run a business affair like this, but you can’t run a country like that …. very soon it will break down. This is what’s going on in Lebanon. It is breaking down.
Thank you Nadine for the realistic article .
Our country is breaking down my friends, let’s wish ourselves good luck; we need it badly to go back in time to what we have been before.
Indifferent to our immigration hosts, with them we lead passionately toward a bright future.
It’s ironic how we are pushed away from our homes and may never return and the lucky rest of us that kept their homes are pushed away from themselves and may never return to what they have once been before …
Beside the perseverance we need Good Luck …
Dear Nadine it felt good to read your article and the comments and the conversation that it generated.
Two things came systematically to my mind:
– the total absence of the psychological dynamics of reconciliation and forgiveness immediately after the war; the one partake was based on a theatrical staged show, coordinated between the religious and political figures, aiming at consolidating religion and professionalism as the solid foundation of the post war Lebanon, and churches, mosques and religious shrines were the first reconstructed edifices for their symbolism in identity polarisation and affiliation.
– Dr Samir Khalafs study about the kitchen lebanese life style during and after the war, that confirms the dissociation phenomena of the population.
We definitely crave deep rehabilitation and healing, as a population, as groups political and religious, but mainly as human beings…
Confessionalism, not professionalism
Kicth not kitchen
Auto corrector mistakes
So, where do we go from here…??
We have to be pragmatic. As a reminder, again, I refer to the recent youth movements which, up till now, didn’t lead anywhere.
Pragmatism says we have to change our representatives in governance (the 100’s of them, the corrupt out there in Parliament.. Government.. Political parties.. etc. the whole stuff). I believe it starts with the election law. If we get an election law that is (e.g. 40% modernised) … further efforts along its lines will make the next election term improve exponentially. Therefore, we should proceed with every effort possible to push for better, more modern election law.
Certainly, this requires effective public campaigns against people electing out of sect favoritism or the local “Zaim” bias… Then, steps would catch up in “cleansing” those 100’s & 1000’s of the corrupt in governance.
The people of Lebanon are not powerless, they are either distracted or adore their slavery or they do not know that they are slaves.
Thank you Nadine, this article is amazing.
The most important part of it is the acknowledgement of our past and the role of every single actor (all of them). It is also important to stop blaming foreign interference and influence because at the end of the day there was always a lebanese group involved in the establishment this influence.
I am convinced that the only solution is through a secular educational system that teaches laicity and strategical peace instead of strategical violence. An important part of the education reform should mainly focus on teaching the war in history classes, through qualified teachers and an objective textbook that illustrates the destruction and damage of the war, and recognizes that all fighting factions had an part in it.
Psychology will play a big role in recognizing the roles on an personal level, and acknowledging that lebanese people were responsible for this war; and especially that the individuals to blame aren’t aliens, but our fathers, brothers, family, friends, etc. The palestinians are equally responsible, but the lebanese people chose to handle the case in probably the worst case possible, and turn it into the bloody conflict that still affects us to this day.
The other main issue we suffer from is political religion (confessionalism) that incites violence and irrational governance. This is mainly causing two main sociological problems in my opinion:
-The constant fear and illusion lebanese are being fed that their religion is under attack by another religion who has a project of complete dominance;
-The idea that fighting religious extremism should be done with an opposite religious extremism, instead of a laic union that regroups more factions and stands behind a unifying group that defends the entire state (the government, the army, etc.)
It’s hard to decide if there’s still hope or not in Lebanon after reading this.
Once again, thank you for the wonderful article!
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