Trauma is a psychological dimension of
oppression. This is true not only in
relation to patriarchy and gender, where the traumatic effects of oppression
have been most widely explored, but in relation to all forms of
oppression. James Baldwin's famous
statement that "to be Black in the
Oppression, which is the systemic abuse of power, renders people powerless. In turn, powerlessness is the hallmark of traumatic experience. It is therefore inevitable that trauma will be pervasive in a society organized around domination, both because oppression creates countless discrete acts of domination and because institutionalized oppression in itself creates powerlessness and trauma.
This is the case with every organized system of privilege, power and inequality: racism, xenophobia, class oppression, ableism, homophobia, and ageism as well as patriarchy. The breadth and depth of domination in our society generates an extraordinary volume of recurring traumatic experience. Virtually everyone routinely runs up against forces on one continuum of oppression or another - individuals in dominant positions, images, written words, institutional arrangements, cultural norms, laws, policies - which demean or degrade or devalue or humiliate or violate or arbitrarily constrain them, and in the face of which they have no sense of efficacy or control. This happens at work, at home, at school, on the streets, in stores, in the media, and in the macro-structures of economic and political power. The result is endless, chronic opportunities for people to experience themselves as victims and to experience traumatic rage.
Traumatic rage is both valid and inevitable, and identifying as the victim of oppression is an absolutely essential step in the political awakening of any oppressed person. But when people become entrenched in victim status and in the expression or acting out of power-under, traumatic rage defeats social change. This happens when our identification as victim prevents us from recognizing our own oppressor roles. It happens when unfocused expressions of rage lead us into acts of dehumanization. It happens when we succumb to competition over the legitimacy or importance of different oppressions, and to organizational in-fighting. At the other end of the spectrum, identification as victim creates vast opportunities for right-wing populism, which is a crucial mechanism for sustaining the status quo.
We have considerable discourse on the important concepts of "identification with the aggressor" and "blaming the victim." In this chapter I explore the political costs of static or chronic identification as the victim. This analysis in turn points toward strategies for making victimhood a transitional identity, for finding constructive expressions of traumatic rage, and for a process of change which can achieve liberation.
Identifying as Victim: Obscuring Oppressor Roles
One of the distinctive features of our social/economic/political system is the way in which it parcels out privilege and power-over. While there are enormous concentrations of wealth, status and power at the top, there are also infinite gradations of economic, social and political standing throughout the rest of the society. The result is that while virtually everyone is oppressed in some significant way, almost everyone also has access to some type of privilege and to one or more oppressor roles.1 This is an aspect of what Aurora Levins Morales calls the "interpenetration of institutional systems of power."2 The kinds of complexity I have explored in Chapter Three on the continuum of gender - the ways that patriarchy creates conditions under which both men and women are both oppressed and oppressors - are mirrored and multiplied when we broaden our scope to include class oppression, racism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, and so on.
Consider for example the positions of:
· white women;
· men of color;
· white working class men;
· gay professional men;
· upper class children.
Each of these examples combines an aspect of privilege and an aspect of oppression in the situation of the same person. Thus the example of a white woman, dominant by race and oppressed by gender, or a man of color, oppressed by race and dominant by gender - and so on. But even these examples vastly over-simplify real life power relations and people's actual experience. Gender by itself can contain both oppressor and oppressed roles, as I have argued at length in Chapter Three. So can class, with hierarchies that create many middle-level workplace roles in which the same person is at once a boss and a subordinate,3 and a social structure in which people who are nowhere near the top of the ladder learn to define their worth by their superior standing relative to those on the lower rungs: professionals who look down on working class people, who in turn look down on the welfare poor. So can race, with rankings which assign different degrees of stigma to people in different "non-white" categories (Latino, Haitian, Asian, Native American, African-American, and so on) and "shadings" which rank people of color within the same group based on skin tone and based on the extent to which they adopt "white" language and cultural mannerisms.4
Each continuum of oppression, complicated in its own right, interacts with every other continuum of oppression in the experience and social standing of each person. Thus it is misleading to speak of a white woman who is oppressed by gender and dominant by race because so much is left out of the picture: a white woman of what class position? of what sexual orientation? of what age? of what physical ability? of what ethnic background? A white welfare mother and Hillary Clinton are both "white women." A woman who is a WASP country club member and a Jewish woman who is a Holocaust survivor are both "white women."
The same kinds of questions need to be asked about people in each of the categories I listed before - and about anyone - if we want to locate people on a political map that charts the full realities of their power relations and social standing, their experiences of privilege and their experiences of victimization. A man of color of what class background and current class position? Of what sexual orientation? A professional gay man of what race and age and physical ability? By speaking only of "women" or "people of color" or "gay people" or "trauma survivors" we too readily narrow our focus to the ways in which people are oppressed and victimized. Broadening the focus to look at where each person stands on each continuum of oppression enormously complicates the picture. But it is a complexity which is indispensable if we are to understand the totality of oppression and assess the obstacles we face in achieving political and social change.5
A narrow focus also too readily identifies one-dimensional enemies and oppressors. Eli Clare illustrates this nicely in her discussion of loggers in the Pacific Northwest.6 Environmentalists have portrayed loggers as enemies in their struggle to save old growth forests and endangered species - as accomplices of the timber companies whose narrow interests are captured in the bumper sticker reading, "Save a logger, kill a spotted owl."7 Clare also notes the racism, homophobia, and sexual violence prevalent among the white male loggers. Yet she insists on the complexity of these men and their situation, which not only includes their economic exploitation as workers, their poverty, and their desperation when their jobs are threatened, but also their intimate knowledge of the forests and the deep connection that many of them have with their threatened environment:
A few of these loggers and mill workers write about their work to complete assignments my mother gives them [at the community college]. She says some of the essays break her heart, essays written by men who love the woods and the steep hills of the Siskiyous, who fell and buck the trees, and know the tension between their work and their love. They also know the two aren't diametrically opposed. Their long days outside, the years of trudging up and down impossibly steep hills, chainsaws balanced over their shoulders, feed their love. And in turn their joy at the morning fog lifting off the trees, the sound of woodpeckers and gray squirrels, bolsters their willingness to do the dangerous, body-breaking work of logging. Other essays make my mother grind her teeth: pieces about conquest, the analogy between felling a 300-year-old Douglas fir and raping a woman only thinly veiled, both acts to be bragged about…All these loggers are fighting poverty, struggling to pay the rent, the mortgage, the medical bills on a paycheck that has vanished.8
Looked at either from the point of view of oppressed constituencies or oppressor constituencies, simple distinctions between "us" and "them" - between dominant and subordinate, perpetrator and victim, ally and enemy, oppressor and oppressed - continuously break down. In their place we have a maze of criss-crossing, interpenetrating oppressions: loggers who love and destroy forests; exploited white workers who are racist and homophobic; victims of racism who commit acts of sexual domination; victims of patriarchy who have class and race privilege; abused women who abuse children; white gay men who hold class, race, and gender privilege; white male executives whose emotional capacities have been decimated by abuse and who in turn practice domination economically, politically, and socially at all levels.
Within this maze, how people identify is of crucial importance for maintaining the existing social/political/economic order or for creating possibilities for transformation. When people identify with their privilege - or with their aspirations for privilege - it is obviously a major factor that legitimizes and perpetuates the status quo. We probably see this most clearly in the case of class and wealth, where dreams of upward mobility and identification with the rich have always been driving forces in American economic life.
But there are also prevailing tendencies for people to identify with privilege and with dominant roles along every continuum of oppression - surely among the people who occupy the dominant positions, and also in significant ways among oppressed constituencies. Thus not only do white people identify with all of the spoken and unspoken superiorities attributed to "whiteness" by racism; but people of color learn that virtually any kind of social, economic, or political success in the dominant culture requires that they assume white language,9 mannerisms, and cultural assumptions. And thus the position of women who aspire to succeed by climbing into the traditional male roles of boss and breadwinner.
What is crucial about this kind of identification with privilege and power is that it does not mean consciously identifying as an oppressor. Doris Lessing observes that "the ruling strata of a country, a state, are identified with their own propaganda…they are identified with their own justifications for being in power, always self-deceiving ones. When has any ruler said ‘I am a wicked tyrant'?"10 I believe that Lessing's observation applies not only to people at the top, but also to ordinary people who hold crumbs (of various sizes) of power-over and identify with the system that allocates some degree of power and status and wealth to them. Most white people and most heterosexuals and most able-bodied people and most people who hold wealth beyond their needs simply think of themselves as normal, and think of their privileges as something that they have earned or that they deserve or that give them some modicum of social value and self-respect. People from oppressed constituencies who aspire to privilege and dominance surely do not think in terms of aspiring to become oppressors, but in terms of achieving statuses and positions from which they have been categorically excluded.
At the other end of the spectrum, when people identify as victims of oppression, it can all too easily block their willingness or ability to recognize the ways in which they also hold privilege and dominant roles. Levins Morales writes that in her organizing efforts, "I kept encountering the same desperate refusal of most people to examine the places in their lives where they were privileged. The easier place by far was the place of rage…[t]he high moral ground of the righteously angry victim…"11
There is an over-abundance of reasons why this would be so. To begin with, it is difficult for any of us to acknowledge in ourselves statuses and categories that carry pejorative labels and that we associate with our political enemies: privileged, dominant, oppressor. Or even more pointedly: racist, sexist, homophobe. It is true that for a long time it has been conventional wisdom in white anti-racism organizing and education that all white people, no matter how consciously committed to racial equality, carry racist attitudes and assumptions. But I don't think this has been widely accepted or internalized, even among progressive white people, or that it has transferred to any significant extent to other continua of oppression - such as men acknowledging their sexism or people acknowledging and examining their class privilege. So the understandable tendency is that when you try to talk to people about their racism or privilege or dominant roles, they feel attacked and respond by defending themselves.
It is equally understandable that people who do identify as oppressed become preoccupied with their conscious experience of oppression. The recognition that you belong to a constituency which is systemically and institutionally treated as inferior - and that your inferior status is constantly reflected and re-enacted in your treatment by members of the dominant group in the course of daily life - creates a psychological reality of enormous magnitude. It is a reality that does not easily integrate with an awareness that there are also ways that you have access to privilege and dominance, and that you have the capacity and means to act as an oppressor.
There is also virtually no political or cultural context to support people to identify as both oppressed and oppressors, as both subordinates and dominants, as both victimized and privileged. To the contrary, our culture and our politics are saturated with the tendency to split and dichotomize, to think in terms of enemies and Others, and to define our identities and identifications without consciousness of complexity.
This tendency to dichotomize and to see the world in terms of identified victims and enemies, or as neatly divided into oppressed people and oppressors, is significantly compounded by the effects of trauma. The essence of victimization is that you are acted upon against your will. In the moment of trauma, as victims we experience no agency, no capacity to act effectively. We are forced to rely on desperate survival mechanisms, such as "freezing"12 and dissociation,13 which both reflect and reinforce a state of profound immobility. In the moment of trauma, the victim's world is constricted into a stark and unbearable dichotomy between the passive recipient of injustice and a malicious oppressor - whether the oppressor is a specific perpetrator, an institution, or a social or economic or political structure.
To the extent that "the moment of trauma" persists as an active reality in the lives of oppressed people, it stands as a huge obstacle to achieving any kind of recognition that we could also act as perpetrators or oppressors. In order to acknowledge yourself as a dominant or an oppressor, you have to see yourself as an actor - as someone with the capacity to act upon others. If the essence of your experience is that you are acted upon in the world, it becomes difficult or impossible for you to conceive of yourself as having anything like this kind of capacity. If the essence of your psychological reality is that you are small and powerless, how could you possibly hold the power or the sense of agency to be able to dominate or harm anyone else?
In fact trauma victims are all too capable of acting as perpetrators and oppressors when we occupy dominant positions, as I have argued repeatedly and have tried to show with examples ranging from Holocaust survivors to traumatized batterers to mothers who hit their kids. But the psychology of trauma severely obstructs the capacity of survivors to recognize our dominant roles and behaviors. The extreme example of this is the situation of the male batterers described by Neil Jacobson and John Gottman who feel victimized in the very act of assaulting their partners.14 But it is also true in less dramatic ways and to varying degrees among the entire range of trauma survivors whose experience of victimization remains a core subjective reality. Raising social consciousness about the effects of trauma is therefore critical to promoting a broad-based political awareness that almost all of us occupy both oppressed and oppressor roles.
Identifying as Victim: Left-Wing Dehumanization
One of the most daunting problems faced by left politics is how to succeed in seizing power and fostering structural transformation without re-creating top-down power relations, new elites, and renewed structures of oppression. In relatively mild (though still problematic) forms, the re-creation of political inequality by the left has meant socialist countries with leaders-for-life and associated entrenched ruling structures. In extreme forms it has meant totalitarian states and the massive destruction of human life.
Achieving a level of political success
which could create possibilities for abuses of power may seem so far removed
from the current state of the
I think that many people associate socialism with the authoritarian imposition of economic and political constraints by central government and party elites on the large majority of the people. This perception surely is one of the legacies of the enormously effective anti-Communist propaganda strategies of the cold war, one aspect of which was to reduce all forms of socialism to Stalinist assaults on individual freedom and human dignity. But there has been enough reality to left authoritarianism that the issue cannot be dismissed as only a matter of propaganda. In any case, one of the major challenges for the left is to articulate a program for economic and social equality which can convince ordinary people that "equality" would not paradoxically be jammed down their throats, that left politics are not antithetical to personal freedom, and that the enactment of a left program would mean the humanization of economic and political life rather than massive dehumanization.
Left wing dehumanization and its alternative, radical humanization, are issues of enormous significance and scope, and traumatic victimization is only one piece of this much larger puzzle. But it is a piece of some importance, and one that has received little attention as far as I am aware. What is at issue here is how as progressives or leftists we characterize and behave toward the Others whom we identify as enemies and oppressors, as the flagbearers and agents of the status quo. I believe that when we treat our political adversaries as anything less than full human beings, we lose sight of the interpenetration of different types of oppression and lose important opportunities for organizing and coalition building. Even more critically, when we treat our adversaries as Other we also are committing small but significant acts of dehumanization - acts which are cumulative in nature, which plant seeds that can ultimately corrupt social change efforts, and which also defeat the emergence of a radically humane left program and politics in the present.15
Entrenched identification with victim
status can lead quite directly to this kind of dehumanization of the
adversary. I want to offer some examples
of this tendency, which I believe abounds in
Almost 30 years ago I worked in a group home for emotionally disturbed children which was part of a larger treatment center. The parent agency was a traditionally run, hierarchical organization; but the group home was run as a collective, and for a period of time we had enough autonomy to function as tiny alternative institution within the larger conventional structure. My own identification was as what Barbara and John Ehrenreich called a "radical in the professions."16 I believed that the development of radically egalitarian counter-institutions was one of the key ways to achieve social change, and I understood my work not only in terms of the services we were providing to the disturbed kids, but also as a political effort to create workplace democracy.
As a tiny alternative institution we were deeply vulnerable to the established power structure, both within the parent organization and in our relations with the larger human service system. This was played out in a number of ways, eventually including a decision by the executive director of the parent agency to remove our autonomy and to put us under the direct control of an administrator who practiced an explicitly top-down approach, effectively defeating our effort to achieve workplace democracy.
Shortly before this decision was made, we had a particularly nasty run-in with a social worker from a funding agency who overrode our approach to working with the mother of one of the kids in the program and ordered us not to allow the kid to have visits with his mother. At a long, unproductive meeting in which we attempted unsuccessfully to appeal this decision, I felt that the social worker from the funding agency treated me with great disrespect and at the same time complained that I did not respect her essentially because I was disagreeing with her. A psychologist from our parent agency, whom I had invited to the meeting to support our position, wound up siding with the social worker from the funding agency.
For a variety of reasons, this run-in became a focal point for my rage. An approach which I had known to be effective in many other cases was being proscribed by administrative fiat, leaving me and my co-workers powerless to do our work in the way that we believed was right. This violation of our ability to control our own work became fused with the much larger violation of the entire character of our workplace in the decision which followed on its heals to strip us of our autonomy and to impose a conventional hierarchical structure on the group home. In both cases I felt that my co-workers and I were the victims of professionals in power positions who used their power to impose top-down decisions on us that violated my basic values and beliefs.
Eight months after my run-in with the social worker from the funding agency, and shortly after I had quit my job in protest against the centralized administration of the group home, I wrote a long letter to the social worker expressing my outrage at her actions and at the decision she had dictated to us. Near the beginning of the letter I summarized her positions and cited some of her statements at our meeting; then I wrote,
You finally told me that what really made you ‘bullshit' was that I didn't respect you. At that point I baled out, realizing belatedly after three dreadful hours that you held all the cards - so many cards that you could even afford to be honest with me. (Honest to a point. You never said how much you disrespect me.) I could not afford to be honest then; now I can. You were right. I honestly don't respect you. In fact, I think your head is so far up your ass it's coming out your lungs.
At the time I understand this episode in explicitly political terms. Later in my letter I wrote about power relations and hierarchy, and I argued that decisions should be made "by those who actually do the clinical work." I described the social worker as an oppressor, and described myself as "trying to create an existence which is neither exploited nor exploitative." I had no inkling that this goal, which really did express my deepest values, was starkly contradicted by telling an "oppressor" in a state of rage that "your head is up your ass." To the contrary, I saw this as a small act of militance, something which I was proud of.
It did not dawn on me that I might be acting destructively toward the social worker, or that there was another dimension of this interaction which involved me as a man talking abusively to a woman, or that treating another person this way could not possibly be a step of any sort toward reducing the amount of exploitation in the world. I could only see myself as the social worker's victim, and could only see her as someone in a power position who had used her power arbitrarily and destructively. To me the social worker had become a figure, not a person, and my letter to her was a small but real act of dehumanization.
It was in the same breath an acting out of my traumatic rage. It is too simple, and misses an important part of the point, to say that the social worker's behavior toward me had triggered my childhood abuse at the hands of my mother, and that in my behavior I was acting out my rage at my mother. There is considerable truth to that way of looking at what happened, but it is not the whole truth. In fact the social worker was in a power position, did use her power arbitrarily and destructively, and did traumatize my co-workers and me by making us powerless. Present-time power relations do not reduce to triggers or re-enactments of childhood trauma; they often are triggers, but are also important - and can also be traumatizing - in their own right.
But what is also true is that I had no understanding of myself as a traumatized person - either regarding my childhood trauma or in terms of what was taking place in the present; and I had no understanding of how my unresolved childhood trauma was affecting and in many ways guiding my reactions and responses to the present-time events. There is a difference between identifying as a political victim and identifying as a trauma victim or survivor. A political identification as victim without a corresponding recognition of trauma can itself be a trigger which unleashes (or helps to unleash) the unfocused and destructive expression of rage - the treatment of adversaries as Others, as political figures rather than human beings - and this was certainly the case in my situation.
Unfortunately, my behavior in this episode is far from unusual. It is all too easy to find examples of the politicized expression of rage in which our adversaries are reduced to something less than full human beings. This has been done quite literally with the political use of the term pig - as a name for the police, as a term for chauvinist men, as a description of capitalists, and so on. By calling people pigs we are explicitly transforming them into a non-human status, paving the way for any kind of treatment of them which serves the expression of our rage and of our sense of victimization.
The same is true of the famous slogan that was current at the height of the Black Power movement, "Up against the wall, motherfucker" - a motherfucker, not a person. During that same period I remember seeing two left-identified women literally jumping for joy when they heard that J. Edgar Hoover had died. A letter published in a recent issue of Z Magazine refers to one political adversary as "an asshole" and to the "slobbering ass-kissing" of another.17 Eli Clare writes about environmentalists who "use language and images that turn the loggers into dumb brutes. The loggers are described as ‘Neanderthal thugs' and ‘club-wielding maniacs'…To clearly and accurately report unjust, excessive, and frightening violence is one thing; to portray a group of people as dumb brutes is another."18
The dehumanization of the oppressor by victims of oppression is both understandable and, to some degree, inevitable. Why wouldn't African Americans, with a legacy of 500 years of the most extreme subjugation, brutality and dehumanization at the hands of white people - not to mention the specific history of white men raping Black women - in turn characterize white people as motherfuckers? Why wouldn't women think of men as pigs? The seething rage which is generated when people are chronically violated and made powerless expresses itself in these and similar terms of counter-contempt. To expect victims to spontaneously humanize their oppressors - to spontaneously treat their oppressors with compassion, deep respect, and understanding of the causes of their oppressive behavior - is unrealistic unless there are political, social, and psychological contexts and supports which can enable us to do so.
But in the absence of such contexts, the unchecked and dehumanizing expression of powerless rage cannot possibly lead in the direction of a more just and humane society. In its milder forms it results in name calling, in the alienation of potential allies, in lost opportunities for mutually respectful dialogue, and in polarizations in which the more powerful segments of society are likely to prevail. In more extreme forms it leads to unfocused violence, rioting, and to the conscious use of violence as a means to an end - to the destruction of human lives because they are not valued as fully human; because they are characterized as pigs or motherfuckers or assholes or brutes or thugs or as other reduced political categories rather than as people.
Understanding ourselves as trauma victims and survivors, and developing understandings of how trauma affects us, is a first step toward countering tendencies to dehumanize our adversaries from the position of the victim. It is not by itself enough, because we also need strategies and methods for the constructive expression of rage - ways to defend ourselves from attack, ways to stand up for ourselves and to oppose oppression in all its forms which at the same time enable us to maintain compassion and full respect for the humanity of those whom we identify as oppressors (including at times ourselves) and those whom we oppose in any given struggle.
But identifying and understanding trauma in our own lives is an important first step because it can give us language and a conceptual framework to be able to name the process that leads the victims of oppression to respond by dehumanizing the oppressor: the language and framework of traumatic rage and power-under. These understandings can also help us to build the political and psychological contexts which could support the constructive mobilization of rage, in ways that I explore in Chapter Five.
Identifying as Victim:
Competitive Oppressions and Organizational In-Fighting
Disunity and fragmentation are major obstacles faced by progressive and radical social change movements. Divisions - or the potential for division - are everywhere and are constantly impeding our capacity to build and sustain major movements that can have real and lasting political impact. The fault lines within and between left-identified movements and organizations mirror and re-enact every significant form of oppression; and so we have deep distrust and inability to communicate based on differences of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, and so on. There are important moments when alliances are built that enable us to act effectively, such as the mobilizations of activism against globalization and the current anti-war movement - but always with a degree of tenuousness which threatens, and too often defeats, the viability of social change movements.19
There are many reasons why this would be so. Given a dominant culture and economy which foster competition, individualism, and social fragmentation, it is hardly surprising that these tendencies are played out in left organizations and movements (as they are played out across the political spectrum and in all of our social and economic institutions). The kind of concentrated wealth and power which holds together the major political parties, and which to some degree also fuels the more extreme right, is not available to (or desirable for) the left.
The varying ideological bases and social change traditions of the left - Marxism, anarchism, feminism, pacifism, the labor movement, the civil rights / Black Power movements, the anti-war movement, the environmental movement, and so on - inevitably create tensions and conflicts in political analysis, in vision and goals, in organizing strategies, and in approaches to building movement organizations. The multiplicity of oppressions is certain to cause divisions, compounded by the tendency which I have already discussed for people to identify variously with their privilege and with their oppressed status in ways which constantly reinforce these divisions. There is also the strategic use of tactics by elites to create and exacerbate splits among actual or potential social change constituencies, particularly when movements become strong enough to actually threaten powerful interests.
In the context of this entire range of factors, traumatic identification as the victim also plays an important role. In the constricted world of a trauma victim, there can be little or no room to take in the reality or the magnitude of the suffering of others who are perceived as fundamentally different from you. As victims we are understandably preoccupied with our own experience of being acted upon in utter disregard for our worth as human beings. Our suffering unavoidably fills up our entire psychological landscape and - to the extent that we are politically conscious of oppression - our political landscape. The overwhelming impact of trauma can make it difficult or impossible to believe that the suffering of other oppressed groups could be as serious or as profound as our own.
This is compounded by an all-too-acute recognition of dominant roles of members of other oppressed groups. For example, a straight man of color may look at a white gay man and see a white person; a white gay man may look at a straight man of color and see a heterosexual. If as a traumatized person you perceive someone who claims to be oppressed as your oppressor or potential perpetrator, it becomes that much more difficult to respect his or her claims of oppression.
When the entrenched, unbearable suffering caused by trauma is understood and expressed through conscious political identification as the victim of oppression, it readily translates into the belief that the type of oppression from which you (or those you identify with) suffer is the most fundamental, pervasive, and destructive and therefore is the political root of what must be changed or dismantled. From this perspective other oppressions are at best secondary, do not deserve the same degree of political attention and action, and will necessarily crumble when the root oppression is overturned. The psychology of trauma thus feeds ideological competition and divisions over the relative importance of different oppressions. What is probably even more important is that trauma impedes the capacities of oppressed people to bridge differences, to engage in constructive dialogue, to notice commonalities and build coalitions, and to affirm the validity of the suffering of others.
Trauma also feeds the tendency toward in-fighting in left organizations. As I have observed in Chapter Two, it commonly serves the immediate psychological needs of traumatized people to identify and lash out at a proximate villain - someone who is known, who is within reach, and who can be blamed for the intolerable pain and sense of injustice that the survivor experiences. Within movement organizations, it is fellow-activists who can readily become the objects of our rage - over heated ideological or strategic differences; over the more mundane frustrations and conflicts that arise in any organization; and, perhaps most poignantly, when we believe that people with whom we thought we held shared values are acting outside of those political principles.
The sense of being betrayed by those we had trusted to any degree is enormously evocative and triggering for trauma survivors. In the context of social change organizations this can lead to truly internecine and irresolvable conflict, to vicious circles of rage and counter-rage: the "enemy," who was supposed to be out there in the larger society, is suddenly perceived as being in the room.
One prominent example of this kind of
internecine conflict was the struggle for control of Pacifica Radio between
1999 and 2001. While the substance of
that conflict was significant, for here the relevant point is how venomous it
became. According to a recent account,
"Some activists attacked each other at every possible opportunity, especially
on email…and displayed an insensitivity to diversity
issues that left the movement constantly open to race-baiting by
The intensity and viciousness with which
activists attack each other can understandably appear baffling or
incomprehensible - and can also be incredibly frustrating and
demoralizing. Thus one observer writes
about being "fed up with folks at
An understanding of trauma and the
dynamics of power-under can, at the very least, make this kind of in-fighting
and mutual vilification among activists more comprehensible. This can help us not to be taken by surprise
when internal conflicts erupt and are waged in the manner that occurred at
If I identify not only as a victim of oppression but also as a traumatized person, it may give me a new perspective on my reactions and feelings toward members of other oppressed groups. This may be as simple as being able to recognize that it is hard for me to appreciate the suffering of other oppressed identities at least in part because of my own traumatic experience. If I identify as a traumatized person and have some understanding of the psychological effects of trauma, I may be able to take a step back from my rage and sense of betrayal at (for example) the dominating behavior of other activists and note that my reaction has to do with my own history of trauma as well as with their behavior.
This does not mean that I should accept dominating behavior, but rather that I can respond to it more effectively if I am not overwhelmed by traumatic rage. Consciousness of trauma does not necessarily prevent rage or the impulse toward divisiveness; but it can temper these responses by offering us a conceptual framework that gives us a new perspective on them. It can also offer a basis for dialogue, and a language to dialogue with, among oppressed constituencies and within splintered movement organizations.
Identifying as Victim: Right-Wing Populism
Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism,23 written from a left perspective when the Nazis
came to power in
I think that the left faces a similar kind
of question today - not in the extreme form raised by the political triumph of
fascism, but at a time when mainstream U.S. politics have moved steadily to the
right. The last 20 years have seen both
major parties embrace reactionary policies, ranging from the decimation of
welfare and affirmative action to the massive upward redistribution of wealth;
from globalization and the re-establishment of military intervention as an
acceptable tool of
How to explain the success of right wing politics over the last quarter century?
One answer is that values and attitudes remain widespread which lead people to tolerate or actively support the right - racism, xenophobia, class contempt directed variously at the working class and the welfare poor, sexism, homophobia, ableism, contempt toward children, and so on. But this answer invites the same basic question: why do so many people who are themselves oppressed in significant ways tolerate or endorse the domination of others, and identify with values and politics which maintain intact a total system rooted in oppression and domination?
Conventional left explanations focus on
extreme concentrations of wealth and power, which in turn place control of the
electoral political process and of the media and other vehicles for propaganda
in the hands of economic and political elites.
The ideological legacies of anti-communism, and the political impact of
the fall of Soviet empire, have further bolstered a climate in which capitalism
is portrayed as the only economic option and the
Trauma also has something to tell us about
the appeal of right-wing populism in
Consider for example the politics and the psychology of the anti-abortion movement, which has been a mainstay of the right for the last 30 years. Defining fetuses as human beings, anti-abortion activists have repeatedly dehumanized women seeking to exercise reproductive rights and health care workers offering services related to abortion, with tactics ranging from verbal harassment to threats and acts of violence.26 While it is a fringe of the anti-abortion movement that engages in or actively supports the use of physical violence, acts of verbal violence and intimidation are considerably more common; and the demonization of pro-choice women and health care providers is pervasive among the right's popular base.27
The attitudes of this movement toward women - and toward children once they are born - as well as the widespread use of verbal violence and sporadic physical violence all flagrantly contradict the professed devotion to the sanctity of life as represented by the fetus. I don't doubt that in part this reflects hypocrisy and demagoguery among right wing politicians and "pro-life" movement leadership.
But what about the ordinary people - women as well as men - who comprise the popular base of the anti-abortion movement? I take at face value that by and large these are people who honestly and deeply believe that abortion is the murder of a human being. If that is the case, how can people so passionately value human life (in the form of fetuses) and in the same breath so passionately devalue human life (in the form of women, children, and health care workers)? One part of the answer surely has to do with the values and ideology of the Christian fundamentalism that informs and inspires large segments of the anti-abortion movement and the resurgent right as a whole.28 But I believe that another important and overlooked piece of the answer rests in the politics of trauma.
Anti-abortion activists deeply identify with a perceived victim who is tiny, totally helpless, and at the mercy of forces of annihilation. This is the basic theme of traumatization. For these right-wing activists, abortion is a personal issue - it becomes their own violation. Of course I cannot know with certainty how many of these people have been abused and traumatized, and are playing out their own experience of trauma through their identification with the threatened or annihilated fetus; but trauma is such a pervasive experience in our society (as I have tried to show in Chapter One) that it is reasonable to believe that something of this sort is true for many of them. Even apart from projecting their own experiences of helplessness and victimization onto the fetus, deep identification with a class of victims can create a kind of secondary traumatization, which I think many leftists have also experienced in our identifications with groups of oppressed people.
It is a very short step from identifying with the victim - or identifying as the victim - to dehumanizing the perpetrator. For a moment let's take this question out of the context of abortion and identification with the fetus, and place it into the context of situations in which we are being acted upon, malevolently and brutally, against our will. In the moment of trauma, it is virtually impossible for any of us as victims to maintain a sense of the perpetrator's humanity. Through the eyes of the victim, the perpetrator is not acting like a human being. How can those who rape two year-olds, or who make lamp shades from human skin, or who in countless other ways commit atrocities which strip every vestige of humanity from their victims be viewed by the victim with any degree of compassion or understanding - as anything but the malevolent Other? Even in cases of less "extreme" violation, I believe that for trauma victims the same question applies. When someone makes you powerless and denies your humanity, the natural and understandable tendency is to view the perpetrator as inhuman.
If we now return to the anti-abortion movement, the framework of trauma helps to make sense of the political stance and actions of "pro-life" activists. What is blatantly inconsistent or contradictory rationally is coherent psychologically and subjectively. If you honestly believe that women who have abortions and the health care workers who perform or facilitate abortions are murderers, and furthermore murderers of the most innocent, vulnerable and powerless forms of human life, it follows all too easily to define those associated in any way with these "murders" as inhuman monsters - not as human beings.
If in addition you carry your own legacies of being brutalized and acted upon against your will, your own festering traumatic rage finds a readily available target in those who would annihilate the unborn children with whom you so deeply identify. Subjectively, the unleashing of this rage is entirely about self-protection and the protection of the helpless and defenseless fetus against overpowering destructive forces. It is difficult to overstate the extent to which the imagery of abortion captures and evokes the themes of traumatization - the experience of being small, helpless, powerless, violated, coerced, overpowered, annihilated - given the premise of the fetus as human life.
The same theme of traumatization runs through many of the right's staple populist appeals. The attack against "big government," which has always been a smokescreen for an agenda of shifting federal priorities from social welfare to the military and to the active promotion of corporate interests, has played well politically in part because it resonates so deeply with so many people's experiences of being overpowered by "big" forces that are beyond their control. The same is true of attacks against "tax and spend liberals" who are portrayed as victimizing over-taxed working people.
The old depictions of the communist menace, replaced in recent years by "rogue states" and particularly since September 11 by the demonic figures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein - appeal in very similar ways to our fears of being victimized and overwhelmed by malevolent Others. Reaction against affirmative action has portrayed white people as "victims" of "reverse racism"; no matter how bogus these claims, they are effective politically not only because they give a legitimate face to white racism, but also because they offer ordinary white people a place to direct the rage that is rooted in the real ways that they have been victimized and made powerless in their lives. In situations where government policies really do make white people powerless, such as forced school busing, the venom unleashed against people of color has been sharply focused and brutal.
It is the genius of right wing populism to politically manipulate traumatic rage into support for reactionary policies by mobilizing people around causes that direct their rage downward at oppressed and scapegoated groups. As Jean Hardisty observes, "[w]hen the right mobilizes intolerance against a minority or an out-group…, it blames and demonizes the hated group and, at the same time, draws anger away from the real sources of social ills. By displacing anger onto such decoys, the right allows for greater dominance by elites, while creating the impression of increased empowerment for those expressing their intolerance."29
The targets of right wing populist appeals are people of color (including immigrants), the welfare poor (also stereotyped as non-white), third world countries (also largely non-white), gays, women exercising reproductive rights. In each case, there is an enormous amount of social training, political propaganda and fundamentalist religious ideology which predispose people who identify in varying ways as mainstream (white, non-poor, male, straight, Christian and so on) to define these groups as the Other and to gain some sense of legitimacy or self-validation from their dehumanization. But these reactionary appeals are emotionally compelling because they resonate so deeply with so many people's actual experiences of victimization and trauma.
While the specific claims of these appeals are bogus, they tap themes and images - of being small and powerless, of being acted upon against your will, of being threatened by alien and malicious forces - which evoke the real (and often unacknowledged) traumas in people's lives. If it is true, as I have argued, that virtually everyone has been abused and traumatized as a child, and that childhood trauma is compounded and reinforced by lifelong experiences that make people devalued and powerless through a criss-crossing maze of institutional and interpersonal domination, this creates an almost endless potential for the political scapegoating set in motion by right-wing populism. Despite widespread public cynicism about politicians, when they present themselves as standing up for "little people" against Them - people of color, foreigners, big government, terrorists - the appeal is strong because it gives many people a legitimated outlet for their for rage, a sense of being able to act on their own behalf, and the illusion of protection against the overwhelming forces that threaten them.
To build more effective social change
movements, we need to develop a much more sophisticated understanding of why
right-wing populism has been so successful.
It is critical to expose the demagoguery of
I think that any strategy for countering right-wing populism needs to take into account the breadth and depth of traumatic experience in our society. The challenge for the left is to develop a populist politics which can resonate with people's experiences of victimization and trauma, but can do so in ways that direct rage upward at the real forces that make people powerless and devalued, and which offer people options for the constructive expression of their rage.
Linda Stout's account in Bridging the Class Divide of the
organizing efforts of the Piedmont Peace Project in
The strategy of the Piedmont Peace Project is "to deal with oppression up front. We talk to folks in the community about how our own oppression can destroy us as a mobilized force moving toward social change." Before beginning an organizing project, organizers are "up front" with people in a community that they make links between oppressions based on class, race, gender, and sexual orientation. They anticipate the ways in which one oppressed constituency may scapegoat another, and they work proactively to raise critical awareness of potential divisions in order to prevent them. "We have full discussions and only then do we go forward with the work. We include some kind of training on oppression and internalized oppression at every gathering, at every board meeting, at every conference."31
"Victim" as a Transitional Identity
Radical politics are only possible if enough people become aware of themselves as victims of the existing political, economic and social structures that shape their lives. But, as I have tried to show, the victim identity is severely double-edged, because it can so readily lead to destructive behavior and to counter-productive results. Without a left perspective - by which I mean an understanding of how the concentration of wealth and power leads in myriad ways to the domination and victimization of individuals - identification as victim feeds right-wing populism, is expressed through the political scapegoating of disenfranchised groups, and bolsters the status quo.
But even with a left perspective, chronic identification as the victim is unlikely to serve as the foundation for social transformation in the direction of equality and radical humanization. It is a stance in the world which is too prone to unfocused rage and dehumanization; too self-absorbed and too preoccupied with suffering to build inclusive coalitions and embrace the suffering of others; too entrenched in being acted upon to act constructively and effectively in the world; too insistent on the innocence of the victim and the malice of the oppressor to accept and work with the complex political reality that virtually everyone houses both oppressed and oppressor roles. In the language I have developed in this book, power-under - no matter how understandably and inevitably it emerges from traumatic experience - cannot serve as an effective mechanism for social change.
What is needed is a political context which enables people to move through consciousness of victimization as a transitional identity. But transitional to what? You do not stop oppression in your life, or the traumatic effects of oppression, by simply saying that you no longer think of yourself as a victim. Nor is identity necessarily a matter of the words we use to describe ourselves. The kind of transition in identity that I am thinking of has to do with making a shift from being acted upon to being an actor; from subordinate to equal; from power-under to power-with.
In order to move beyond the victim identity, we need resources that enable us to act constructively at every level - psychological, personal, social, organizational, and political. It is the task of Chapter Five to explore strategies for developing these resources.
Notes to Chapter Four
1. I have developed a detailed analysis of interlocking oppressions in The Politics of Human Services (Boston: South End Press, 1984), Chapter Five.
2. Aurora Levins Morales, Medicine Stories: History, Culture, and the Politics of Integrity (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1998), p.122.
3. See Barbara and John Ehrenreich, "The Professional-Managerial Class," in Pat Walker, ed., Between Labor and Capital (Boston: South End Press, 1979).
4. See for example Michelle Cliff, "If I Could Write This In Fire, I would Write This in Fire," In Barbara Smith, Ed., Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983).
5. C.f. Levins Morales, "Circle Unbroken: The Politics of Inclusion," in Medicine Stories.
6. See "Clearcut: Brutes and Bumper Stickers" and "Clearcut: End of the Line," in Eli Clare, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1999).
7. Clare, p. 45.
8. Clare, p. 50.
9. See June Jordan, "Nobody Mean More to Me Than You And the Future Life of Willie Jordan," in On Call: Political Essays (Boston: South End Press, 1985). Linda Stout, in Bridging the Class Divide (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), describes a similar discrepancy between working class language and "acceptable" middle class language, and her need to learn to speak middle class language in order to be taken seriously by middle class progressive activists.
10. Doris Lessing, Afterward
to The Making of the Representative for
Planet 8 in
11. Levins Morales, Medicine Stories, pp. 93-94.
12. See Peter Levine with Ann Frederick, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1997).
13. I discuss dissociation at length in Chapter Two.
14. Neil Jacobson and John Gottman, When Men Batter Women (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998); see my discussion in Chapter Two.
15. C.f. Levins Morales, "Torturers," in Medicine Stories.
16. Barbara and John Ehrenreich, "The Professional-Managerial Class."
17. Z Magazine 13:4 (April 2000), p. 2.
18. Clare, Exile and Pride, p. 46.
19. For example, see Robin Hahnel, "Speaking Truth To Power: Speaking Truth To Ourselves," Z Magazine 13:6 (June 2000), pp. 44-51, for a discussion of the challenges faced by the movement against corporate globalization to forge and maintain unity.
20. Andrea Buffa, "Pacifica Radio Crisis is Settled," Z Magazine 15:4 (April 2002), p. 20.
Douglas, "Is There a Future for
22. Quoted in Buffa, "Pacifica Radio Crisis is Settled," p. 20.
Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (New
York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970
[originally published in 1933]). Reich
was an extremely supple political thinker who grappled with crucial questions
about both the rise of fascism in
24. Jean Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).
25. Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment, p. 8.
26. See for example Bill Berkowitz, "RU-486," Z Magazine (December 2000), 11-13.
27. See Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment.
28. See Hardisty for an analysis of the relationship between Christian fundamentalism and the right-wing popular movement.
29. Hardisty, p. 51.
30. Stout, Bridging the Class Divide, p. 90.
31. Stout, pp. 102-103.