Let’s talk about control–who has it, and who does not. When individuals feel they have control over themselves and their lives that’s called an internal locus of control in the psychological literature. Those who see and feel that the world controls them have what is called an external locus of control. Think about it like an internal-external (I-E) continuum, rather than a this-or-that set of black and white choices. Internal control (IC) refers to the belief that events are contingent on individual actions and that people can shape their own fate. External control (EC) refers to the belief that events occur independently of an individual’s actions and that the future is determined more by chance and luck.
In the U.S., research finds that high internality correlates with attributes highly valued by U. S. society, such as mastering one’s environment, superior coping strategies, higher achievement motivation, etc. Other research on generalized expectancies of locus of control suggests that non-white folks, socio-economically disadvantaged people, and women score significantly higher on the external end of the locus of control continuum. Using the I-E dimension as a criterion of mental health would mean that people of color, females, and poor people would be viewed as possessing less desirable attributes.
The problem with an unqualified application of the I-E dimension is that it fails to take into consideration the different cultural and social experiences of the individual. While the framework from which the I-E dimension is derived may be very legitimate, it seems plausible that people of color, women, and the poor have learned that control operates differently in their lives relative to how it operates for more privileged sectors of society. Powerlessness may be defined as the expectancy that a person’s behavior cannot determine the outcomes or reinforcements they seek. A strong possibility exists that externality may be a function of a person’s opinions about prevailing social institutions.
And telling minorities, women, the mentally ill, and the poor to just “pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” doesn’t help much, though it seems to have helped Seth, and more power to him. In point of fact, power is something he already has quite a lot of as a college-educated, white Mormon male that is upper middle class (just guessing, given he has enough resources to go on a LITERAL odyssey). If the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps rhetoric really worked for everyone, we’d have racism and sexism SOLVED. Instead, systemic, structural responses to aid those who have not had access to the kind of power Seth does have often proven more helpful. For example, the home state of Seth’s faith, Utah, just did an amazing thing to reduce homelessness. Did they just give folks two spoonfuls of “You CAN CHANGE!” motivational speeches? Nope. The state reduced homelessness by 74% in 8 years by simply giving homeless people an apartment and a case worker, and asking questions later. Now that’s empowerment.
Let’s all be a little gentler with ourselves and each other: agency is contextual, it depends on your environment, beliefs that abusers, racism, sexism, etc have molded onto you, and, of course, poverty. Unpacking all those restraints on agency isn’t as easy as “snap out of it, you’re in control!” It takes time and resources. And at the same time, I’m all for folks unpacking their privilege as well. I highly recommend this oldie-but-goodie on how to do that, here. This is tough stuff, folks. But it is also necessary if we want a more empathic, compassionate society and communities.