03 March 2015

The Stockholm Syndrome and the dimensions of our slaveries

I learn so many things everyday.  This morning I heard for the first time about something called ‘Stockholm Syndrome’.  The name of the ailment was coined by criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot and draws from the Norrmalmstorg robbery of Kreditbanken at Norrmalmstorg, Stockholm, Sweden in which the bank robbers held bank employees hostage from August 23 to August 28, 1973. It refers to a psychological condition in which a hostage emotionally bonds to his or her captor. Got me thinking.

The word ‘hostage’ immediately reminded me of some 300,000 individuals dragged across the Wanni by a fleeing and cornered LTTE leadership in the first few months of the year 2009.  These hapless individuals were used as a human shield, a fact that shrill whiners about the plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka carefully and deliberately edit out of the many sob stories they relate to naïve or mischievous sections of the international community. 

The word ‘hostage’ implies the use of force or the application of threat to exact compliance, but the situation of these people was more complex than that.  Fed by Eelamist claims which included the construction of the Sinhala Bogeyman, confronted by security forces who showed little discretion and much cruelty especially in the eighties, living a reality of friends and loved ones being part of the LTTE’s military machine regardless of convictions and circumstances of recruitment and the apparent invincibility of ‘the boys’, it was natural for these people to fee ‘attached’ emotionally to their captors.  By April 2009 all illusions had crumbled and even though a collective of people living on one glass of rice-kunjee a day (courtesy the LTTE) later complained about ‘conditions’ that was far better than what non-refugees elsewhere enjoyed, when the moment of truth arrived in the form of Army personnel risking and sacrificing lives to save them, there was bewilderment as well as gratitude.

That’s however just one kind of hostage.  The Stockholm Syndrome, it appears to me, can take other forms as well.  We are prisoners of many things.  If you think about it, we are all constrained by so many restricting lines that we are essentially a caged species, wrapped in many forbidding bars, all invisible of course and, strangely, made of material that induce unconsciousness. 

We are slaves to laws and constitutions.  We are held prisoner by flawed rules that are skewed in favour of rule-maker, based on his/her preferences and informed by his/her fears.  We are held hostage by the ideologies we uncritically embrace and the political parties and individuals these choices persuade us to become members of or associate respectively. We are prisoners of our professions, career goals and professional jealousies.  We are hostages of our circumstances.  We are slaves to the expectations that others have of us.  We are crippled by both our dreams and our nightmares.

And yet, strangely, we are for the most part not only unaware of these fetters, not all of which are imposed on us, we adore them, decorate them, sing their praises and defend them to death.  And we say, moreover, ‘we are free’. We say ‘this is my choice’, not pausing for a moment to ask ourselves if ‘choice’ was actually free and not framed by certain conditions.  Of course none of us are totally free, but there are degrees of freedom and therefore degrees of enslavement as well. The issue is whether or not we are conscious of these limits, whether we feel we cannot push the boundaries outwards and whether we actually make the effort to do so.  It is doubly hard when we form attachments to the enslaver, the conditions of our imprisonment.  We are all, to a greater or lesser degree, victims then of the Stockholm Syndrome, are we not?

I do not know if Nils Bejerot or anyone else offered a cure for the psychological aftertaste of the hostage condition and the possible emotional attachments to the captor.  It is doubtful that the psychiatrists treating people suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome would worry themselves about the other hostage-scenarios described above.  Indeed the world would never have enough psychiatrists to treat all victims. One might add that the psychiatrists themselves would require therapy.  There are no easy answers, but perhaps the wise words of Siddhartha Gauthama might help us if we became aware of our relevant incarcerations and desired freedom. 

When I heard about the Stockholm Syndrome and contemplated the extrapolations my thoughts went directly to the Kalama Sutra or the Buddha’s Charter on Free Inquiry which not only gives us eyes to notice fetter but the methods of avoiding them as well as escaping from them as the case may be.  The All Knowing One advised the Kalamas in the following manner.

‘Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.'

Consciousness is all important and critical thinking a must.  The conclusions that are produced by the intersection of observation and reflection must be reassessed when factors of time and space change and reaffirmed or altered through the consistent application of the critical faculties.  

The following words penned by my father in 1984 in an article for a Scout Souvenir are a good antidote to the Stockholm Syndrome, I realized: ‘It is hard to put down (read ‘hold hostage’) someone who has opened himself to perceive the eternal verities.  Therefore if it is not prudent to stand ramrod straight in the face of storms beyond your strength, you must let them pass over you.  Stand firm if you can, retreat if you must.  Above all, never panic!’ 

At some point we need to understand that we are both captor and captive and that we often tie ourselves up, submit to capture and/or reject the freedom option.  We are not always masters of our fate.  Neither are we powerless in the matter of unfettering.  We take ourselves hostage and fail to acknowledge the fact.  That’s something to think about and in this the Charter on Free Inquiry would be a Kalyana Mithra (A good friend), I believe.

This was first published in the Daily News, March 2, 2011.  Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com


sbarrkum said...

Made this comment sometime back
Contrary to the commenter, I think the last 50 years or so of history was an aberration, where the populace had a say in the politics of their country. The oligarchs and industrialists initially did not know how to respond and keep control of the general populace. Now oligarchs and industrialist Worldwide have figured out mechanisms to grab control into their hands. Using laws and loopholes in laws which they "sell" to the general population as in for their own good power is consolidated in a few as in most of history.

So called "Freedom" etc in the West (50's to 90's) was because of secure economic future and rapid changes in the ability to disseminate information. The rulers did not have the ability to control that info.