Cultural Psychology

Cultural Attention Deficit Disorder and the ‘Cup of Stupor’

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Cultural Attention Deficit Disorder and the ‘Cup of Stupor’

For several months I’ve been thinking about making a post on what could be called ‘cultural attention deficit disorder’.

Lately it seems that people in the US are suffering from widespread malaise, confusion, worry and demoralization.  At times it seems like a complete loss of focus — disorientation.

If you’ve ever visited some really devastated area — a war zone or ghetto somewhere — you might have seen the kind of thing I mean.  People acquire a general loss of focus.  They walk around dazed.  This even shows in the expression of their faces and eyes. I’ve seen this in poorer areas of the US, but what’s strange now is that one finds it increasingly everywhere.

A recent pop-up comment on CNN news, which was displayed while callers discussed contentious US Senate debates, asked “Is the government dysfunctional?”  That’s a valid question — but an even more appropriate one would be, “Is American society dysfunctional?”   If the government is out of control, isn’t the real problem is that we, as citizens, have let that happen?

The idea of a society becoming confused and dysfunctional is scarcely new.  Read these verses from the Old Testament (Isaiah, 51:17-18):

Awake, awake!
To your feet, Jerusalem!
You who from the Lord’s hand have drunk
the cup of his wrath.
The chalice of stupor
you have drained to the dregs.
She has not one to guide her
of all the sons she has borne,
not one to take her by the hand
of all the sons she has reared.

Would I be the first person to suggest that drinking from the “chalice of stupor” is a good image for what’s going on in the country lately?  Christians and Jews would regard these verses as divinely inspired, but even an agnostic or atheist should take them seriously.  Even if one views the Bible as literature, it is literature that has stood the test of time, and so must be deeply revealing of human nature.

How, then, might this Biblical image apply to modern Americans?  Understood literally, Isaiah is saying that the cup of stupor is a punishment for the moral transgressions of society.  Could we not interpret this passage allegorically, and suggest that, when people turn sufficiently far from right ways of living, their consciences punishes them with impaired attention, a ‘stupor’?  It seems evident that we have fallen slack as a society in the pursuit of virtue and higher aims.  We have not only failed to produce a culture of peace and prosperity, we have even stopped trying to do so.  To the extent that we are organized at all (which seems considerably in doubt), we have rallied our energies around the two themes of (1) war, and (2) economic growth.   An exaggerated emphasis on these two things is not far removed from being a society directed by aggression (or fear) and greed, respectively.

Now the concept of ‘sin’ is central to all this.  The word “sin” arguably carries many  obsolete and inappropriate negative connotations.  But that doesn’t make the entire concept irrelevant.  Could it just be that when our ancestors came up with the notion of sin they were onto something?

I suspect so.  Indeed, while we might not like to call it “sin”, certainly the idea of moral error is present in virtually all religions, as well as in modern theories of psychology.   At its most basic level, sin, in a psychological sense, corresponds to some flaw or habit which prevents or obstructs natural happiness, mental health, and self-actualization.

The noted American scholar and critic, Paul Elmer More, suggested that at the root of what we call sin is what the Greeks termed rhathymia, mental laziness or a slackness of the intellect.  Understanding this concept of rhathymia might go a long ways toward explaining what cultural attention deficit disorder is all about.

This is, admittedly, a very sketchy post, but I hope the main point comes across:  (1) we do seem to be experiencing something like a pervasive cultural attention deficit disorder; and (2)  we should be willing to consider the possibility that this relates to moral failing.   Have things like greed, fear, materialism and egoism taken over our culture?  And if so, what can be done about it?

I hasten to add that, while people must always take primary responsibility for their own mental state, certainly we can see many social institutions that seemingly wish to promote or exacerbate widespread attention deficit.  Governments and corporations are of course delighted to see citizens turned into ineffectual consuming units, without the confidence or mental coherence to challenge the status quo.  Television and mass entertainment obviously feed the trend.

I believe, though, there is one sure-fire answer to counter this:  that is for people to READ.  Nothing strengthens the mind and attention more than reading.  And not trash novels:  read the classics.  What’s a classic?  See my Thomas Jefferson Reading List page for examples.

The strengthening of the attention by reading solid material, in turn, leads to greater inward attention and self-awareness, and from that to better moral choices, and greater moral integrity.

I close with the feeling that this post is only half-completed, and may return to it again.


Written by John Uebersax

December 24, 2009 at 10:44 pm

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