What’s the use?

Wayback Machine has copy of this story with comments

Last week I had an email from a person writing an anger management manual, who wanted permission to quote my old posts about using anger as a weapon against helplessness.

In the posts, I wrote about Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman’s research into a cause of depression he termed ‘learned helplessness’–where a person internalizes their inability to control a situation so much so that even if a method of change does present itself, they don’t see it. Seligman has based his entire career on techniques to fight this destructive perception.

As serendipity would have it, Joel Spolsky of Joel on Software just released his list of book recommendations for programmers and it featured Seligman’s book on the subject. This list, though, led to an ironic development, because I’ve been fighting my own sense of ‘learned helplessness’, and Joel’s book recommendations just added to it when I noted that not one of the books featured was by a woman; not even a co-writer.

I have become increasingly sensitive to this because not long after receiving the email from the anger management person, I had a chance to see pictures of employees of a company that provides services central to weblogging, and was disheartened to see that of all the pictures shown, over 20, only one was a woman–and she was in a non-technical position. This started me searching among all of the tech companies associated in some way with weblogging. In all, regardless of the nature of the business, there are very few women employees; of those, most are either in business or support positions.

For instance, O’Reilly Publishing has several women in key positions, but if you look at the senior editing staff, there isn’t one woman–at least none that I can see, and I looked, hard. People have said that women at O’Reilly do play a major part in the O’Reilly conferences, but from what I’ve seen in the past, they’re behind the scenes, not up on the stages. And where are the women authors? Where are the women who write the articles, and the books? Are there none of us left? Not at the new O’Reilly weblog–and rarely in the photos.

How many women are engineers at Six Apart? I know that the support staff is primarily women, but how about the engineering staff? How many women engineers with Google? How about Yahoo? The other major companies associated directly or indirectly with weblogging?

(I hope you all return with “lots”. It would give me fresh hope.)

I wrote in an email to a friend last week that rather than empower women, especially women in technology, I’m concerned that weblogging will ultimately prove harmful to women. Why? Because technology companies are looking more to the weblogs and to those who are more ‘vocal’ in this environment for new recruits for their companies. When you consider that most of the people doing the hiring are men in their 40′s or less, who tend to read others of like frame of mind, particularly those who have more notoriety, what happens, then, to the more traditional recruiting process?

Rather than post a job notice to Monster, or to local recruiters or in whatever local newspaper, these same people send emails out to the bright, enthusiastic, vocal, usually younger men who dominate the technology weblogs. The end result is that technology companies associated with weblogging tend to have a male-female ratio out of synch with the demographics of the rest of the country. So what happens, then, if this continues as a trend, as more and more companies enter into the world of weblogging?

This is a chilling prospect, especially to us older women in technology who haven’t secured a comfortable position. I ran from this in fear a couple of months ago when I took what little money I had on a trip to Florida to try and discover a new career in travel writing and photography. I was desperate to find hope, and instead, found a timeshare.

That’s not to say that I haven’t had interviews. Two weeks ago I had a phone interview with a major player in this field, and the interview did not go well. Everything was fine until he started giving me the technology quizzes — the questions that techs tend to ask to see if you ‘really’ know this stuff. As soon as he started I froze and had difficulty answering any of the questions. It wasn’t that I don’t know the stuff — it’s just that I have never been particularly adept at these types of interviews. When I was fresh out of college, true; but not lately.

When he asked how he could assess my technical abilities, I suggested he read my writings and look at my resume. He was very personable and very pleasant, but it did leave me feeling even more depressed.

These thoughts rattled around in my brain this last week, and with each new photo published online featuring primarily all men, or each new radio show or company almost exclusively all men, I became more depressed — I was fast approaching an internalized view that women in technology are a dying breed, and there is little we can do to change this–and I was one of the first old dragons being booted out the door.

Normally in times past, I would have written a blistering note about this issue in my weblog, and felt re-energized and ready to battle this particular demon. My anger sustained me and made me strong. Not this last week, though, I just felt quieter. Every time I would go to write something, I would lose interest almost immediately. I focused instead on working on Wordform and playing with Greasemonkey, and other odds and ends; even then, I didn’t feel like writing about what I was doing.

“What’s the use,” I told myself, and therein is the statement that lives in the core of learned helplessness.

The three most deadly words are not, “I hate you”, but, “What’s the use”.

I had a second interview with another major player on Friday, and this time, I felt very good about my answers. Rather than quiz me on specific uses of technology, he asked what I would do in this circumstance or that. Now, these are the types of questions I am very comfortable with, and which are equally good about determining how familiar you are with the field, the technology, and even how much you’ve thought about it and where are your interests. More than that, it was in a specific use of technology that has been important to me and my enthusiasm for the work was such that I probably could have talked his ear off for several hours.

I have no idea if either of these recruiters will follow up after the interviews. I have learned not to get my hopes up too high (being realistic is not being helpless). Regardless, though, I felt good about the second interview and this gave me a boost.

Looking around I see debates on technology and other topics that I want to be a part of, and though I have to fight my growing tendency to say to myself, “What’s the use”, I counter this with noting that if I’m ignored by the players, others are also ignored by the players and that sex isn’t always. the determining factor. This helps chip away at the helplessness when I realize that the ‘problem’, as such, doesn’t necessarily reside in me, as much as it resides among the players and the environment.

I am also getting more requests for help with individual and smaller company sites, so I am gainfully employed (thanks in no small part to the requests and recommendations I’ve received from many of you), and this helps break me out of not only the cycle of worry about money but a growing despondency. Even if I have to find work outside my field in order to make it month to month, this isn’t a sign that I’m not good at what I do or a failure in my field; it is a sign that times are tough. Most importantly, I can’t look at others and their successes and allow this to make me feel a failure–each of us has different times in our lives when things work…and when they don’t.

I actually want to find that point again where I get angry–furious–at what I read. I want to write scathing retorts and blistering diatribes, and sincere though strongly worded commentary. Then I’ll be the bird that burns, and people will be pissed and link and de-link accordingly, and I’ll just smile toothily at the results because anything is better than “What’s the use”.

But I don’t think I’ll ever burn quite as brightly again: over the last few years, I’ve had my deepest confidence in myself and my future shaken; there will always be a part of me ready to throw in the flag, a tiny voice ready to cry out, “What’s the use”. When you’ve gone down this road, you’re marked. It’s now up to me to make sure this was a one-time journey and not a repeat trip. In this effort, I’ll use any weapon, up to, and including, walking away from something important to me if I feel it gives harm.

Now I’ve aired my dark thoughts and my doubts, and time to focus on the light and the wonder, and there are new and interesting debates on the semantic web emerging, and I don’t think I’ve chastized the Men of Weblogging enough this week–and my cat wants me to play. Thank goodness for cats, chocolate, friends who can handle soggy shoulders, cuddlesome moments, nature, small children, music, good books, and new toys we can’t afford–not necessarily in that order.

Learned terrorism

Michael sent me a link to an editorial that talks about Learned Helplessness and its association with the current ‘war on terror’. The author. Kriselda Jarnsaxa, writes:

The experience of the last 15 months here in America seems to be producing a nation suffering from learned helplessness. Fear is induced through the constant, but oh-so-vague, warnings emanating from the government. Another attack is imminent, we are told, they may be coming to blow up our banks, our hotels, our apartments, our holiday celebrations. They may be coming in hidden on boats, or scuba-diving to our shores. They may already be here, hidden among us, and we don’t even know it. They may use suicide bombers or shoulder-mounted surface-to-air misses can knock planes from the sky. Crop dusters may be used to spread biological agents, or they may load a conventional bomb with nuclear waste to spread radiation throughout a large city. May… may… may… may. The list of horrors is nearly endless, as is the imagination of those whose job it is to come up with new warnings, it seems. We see no escape from this fear, and are told our only hope is to sacrifice our freedoms, our cherished liberties, our very way of life, on the altar of security, so we do – willingly, it seems – and never realizing that maybe, we should be afraid of our government, too.

I didn’t think to equate my country’s seeming inability to wake up and see the nightmare with Learned Helplessness. An interesting twist.

This follows on Bush cutting federal employee pay raise, because, as he says, the money is needed for the War on Terror:

In a letter sent Friday to congressional leaders, Bush announced he was using his authority to change workers’ pay structure in times of “national emergency or serious economic conditions” to limit raises to 3.1 percent.

Of course, one can ask why Bush doesn’t roll back the tax cuts, which only benefit the wealthy.

I don’t know why we just don’t send the Congress home. Bush has been given powers that allow him to alter or change any law he wishes in the ‘name of national security”, and Congress lets him. The American public lets him.

As long as Bush plans on bombing Iraq and, we presume, to follow through to other countries such as Iran (Israel’s personal favorite), and Saudi Arabia (the US personal favorite), the voting public of this country seems indifferent to what Bush does. However, I don’t think the public reaction (or lack of same) is based on Learned Helplessness: I think it’s based on equal parts fear, retribution, greed, and a desire to show the world that the US is top dog and can kick anyone’s butt.

Cry “Havoc!” and let loose the dogs of war

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

The value of anger

To get my degree in psychology, I had to establish a specific hypothesis and then design and conduct experiments to either prove or disprove it. I based my hypothesis on the work conducted by Dr. Martin Seligman on Learned Helplessness.

Dr. Seligman’s theory is that an organism (dogs, rats, college sophomores, or other), when exposed to circumstances beyond their control will eventually give up trying to effect change. That doesn’t sound remarkable – why try to change your circumstances when they’re beyond your control? What is interesting, though, is that even when circumstances change and the organism can effect change, they don’t because they no longer have the ability to even recognize that they now have control. They have literally learned how to be helpless.

The end results of learned helplessness can run the extremes of resigned acceptance and indifference to incompetence and burnout to severe personal depression.

Dr. Seligman and others continued this research and further expanded the theory to conclude that the level of helplessness a person experienced was directly dependent on how much they internalized the cause of the helplessness. In other words, if a person attributed the lack of control to something within themselves, they’re going to experience learned helplessness at its most extreme. They’re going to get severely depressed.

For my work, my hypothesis was that the degree of helplessness a person experiences can be mitigated by another emotion – anger. The way to cure helplessness? Piss the person off.

Sorry. I know you all wanted me to say something along the lines of “learned optimism”, enabling personal empowerment, love, joy, or some other form of positive emotionalism. No can do. In the work I conducted as a senior in college and in my own experience, I have found that, at times, there is no healthier or more motivating emotion than anger. And anger, more than any other emotion, is the one most suppressed by society.

Is a loved one ill? Accept that it’s God’s will. Job sucks? Accept that only a few people have good jobs. Has a disaster hit? Accept that it’s a result of bad karma. Don’t waste your time trying to fight back and, whatever you do, control your temper – you’ll live longer if you do.

Anger has become socially unacceptable.

Well, that’s just bullshit.

Revolution isn’t based on calm reason, but the fact that enough people became angry at the status quo and fight to effect change.

People don’t fight injustice because, in a moment of love for humanity, they decided to devote time to fighting the injustice. The people saw something that made them angry, and their love of humanity helped channel that anger into positive results.

If we all followed the dictate of “accepting God’s will” as an explanation for illness, we wouldn’t have doctors – we’d have more priests. And a lot more dead people.

Now, anger can be destructive, as we witnessed recently with the shootings at LAX. Usually, though, this type of out of control anger is based on the very thing that we’re fighting – learned helplessness. Except, instead of becoming internally self-destructive, the person externalizes the destruction, literally going ballistic.

Healthy anger isn’t out of control – it’s not red-faced screaming accompanied by acts of unpurposeful destruction. Healthy anger is not shooting innocent people at a ticket counter, nor is it road rage, or abuse of loved ones.

Healthy anger is passion and purpose, determination, and change.

Anger led to the Civil Rights movement and stopped the Vietnam war. Anger prevents corporate monopolies and brings down corrupt politicians. And anger can heal.

Anger applied effectively and appropriately, is not only healthy for an individual – it’s necessary for a thriving society. If it’s angry people that forge a new society, it’s the gently melancholic, the intellectually pessimistic, and the complacent and indifferent people that destroy it.

Go ahead, get mad. You’ll feel better.

An archive of this page, with comments, is at the Wayback Machine

More angry voices

From the archives, Wayback Machine has an entry including comments from 2002

Interesting comments on the Value of Anger posting. As I expected, this is not a subject that people tread lightly. However, I was surprised at how personally some people took this posting.

For instance, Dave Rogers disagrees, strongly, with the concept of “healthy anger”, writing:

Anger isn’t some transcendent experience. It’s a temporary (hopefully) abnormal condition. Let it go.

Frank Paynter was actually “pissed” because Mike Golby and I talked about the healing power of anger. He wrote:

Anger is a bad thing. It comes from fear, and it inspires fear. Fear has a proximate cause. Root out the cause, displace the anger. Anger sucks. Angry people rationalize inhuman behavior. Angry people foster hostility and resentment in others. Angry people haven’t learned a loving acceptance that transcends helpless acceptance. Angry people are stunted in their personal development.

And both Jonathon and Dorothea saw themselves as “gently melancholic and intellectually pessimistic”, taking exception to the line If it’s angry people that forge a new society, it’s the gently melancholic, the intellectually pessimistic, and the complacent and indifferent people that destroy it.

Considering that I was wrote this line after reading a book based on a period of time 1000 years ago, I wasn’t expecting immediate identification. However, this shouldn’t be surprising. No matter how technologically advanced we get, no matter how we see ourselves advancing as a species, we’re still nothing more than humans experiencing human emotions. Love. Hate. Joy. Compassion. And Anger.

Anger is a part of us. It’s been a part of us before we ever attached a name to the emotion so that we could discuss it rather than act it out. To deny anger is to deny ourselves. Might as well deny love – it, too, can lead to destructive actions.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I have no interest in being a saint. And I have no interest in denying my capability for love or anger. I would hope that I expend my love on those that return it – to do otherwise leads to a great deal of pain. And I hope that I can control my anger and use the energy it generates for something productive, such as fighting the current political administration.

Mike had it right – anger is sharing.