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.