"The world is simultaneously infinitely horrible and infinitely wonderful, and…one truth does not cancel out the other."
The Buddhist concept of turning poison into medicine2 - or what Thich Nhat Hanh calls "turning garbage into flowers"3 - captures the spirit of the strategic approach to trauma that I aim to develop in this chapter.
Oppression is a social toxin which, through the mechanism of trauma, literally makes people sick.4 It is a sickness that causes massive personal suffering, and when left to its own devices it is self-perpetuating and severely impedes efforts to achieve social change. We need to understand how groups of people who have been traumatized by oppression can harness our traumatic experience in ways which enable us to build effective social change organizations and movements. We particularly need to find ways to transform traumatic rage into a constructive force - one which can serve both individual recovery and societal transformation.
I will propose the concept of constructive rage as a framework for addressing this challenge. I attempt in this chapter to present strategies for how to contain the destructive potentials of traumatic experience and power-under, and how to harness the power of traumatic rage as a force for liberation.
There is always an interrelation between individual change and social change, and between individual and organizational process. This is certainly true in the area of trauma. The capacities of our social change organizations and movements to act effectively rest on the capacities of the individuals who make them up; and the abilities of individuals to collaborate effectively, to sustain activism, to resolve differences and to act in the world in ways that can change hearts and minds rest on the strength, cohesion, and politics of our organizations.
I therefore will try to address both individual and organizational behavior and attitudes that are affected by trauma. The same need to contain and harness traumatic rage exists in the privacy of our homes and in every kind of public and political expression of unrest, and any strategy which can mobilize people's traumatic experience toward constructive ends will be mutually beneficial for individuals and for social change organizations.
Nonviolence stands at the heart of the strategies I propose. If we are to act constructively with our rage, we need to fully grasp the humanity of those who too easily become defined or treated as Other. The fundamental principle of nonviolence is that the basic value and integrity of each human being are non-negotiable. Commitment to that principle, and to the practices that flow from it, offers a starting point for turning the poison of power-under into something medicinal.
In the wake of September 11, our need for strategies to transform traumatic rage into a constructive force is starkly defined and urgent. This is true in society at large, where mass experiences of victimization and powerless rage are being manipulated to generate support for war, global empire, and the deep erosion of civil liberties. But strategies for the constructive mobilization of trauma are also pointedly needed within progressive social change organizations and movements, which continue to be vulnerable to internal divisions and fragmentation either caused or exacerbated by the dynamics of power-under.
We are in a political moment when there is a crying need for the emergence of a powerful and more unified left. Developing strategies for dealing with the impact of trauma on our social change efforts is one of the ways that we can try to build a robust and effective progressive movement.
It is neither realistic nor desirable to seek to eliminate rage from radical politics. Outrage at the profound injustices created by existing conditions has to be a wellspring of social change movements. The key question is not whether rage will continue to play a pivotal role in radical politics, but whether and how we can consciously shape our expression of rage to serve social change.
I have argued that rage is a natural and inevitable response to the trauma of powerlessness - but that in its raw and often unconscious form, powerless rage defeats effective movement building and can lead to destructive behavior ranging all the way from substance abuse and self-injury to rioting and dehumanization of the oppressor.
There is no way to legislate against power-under, and as long as oppression exists it is inevitable that powerless rage will be present and will be expressed in a variety of ways within social change movements (and throughout the society). The open questions are with what frequency we encounter power-under, what resources we have to respond to and contain it, and to what extent the constructive expression of rage can serve as a counter-force.
What does rage look like when it is expressed and organized constructively? Key factors include:
· We express rage nonviolently and humanely.
· Our expression is focused and strategic, allowing us to maintain awareness of the effects of our actions on others and to consciously assess the possibilities that our actions will produce desirable outcomes.
· Our means are consistent with our ends. We are ethically and practically committed to not acting abusively, regardless of - and in resistance against - how we have been abused.
· We maintain compassion for ourselves and compassion for others,5 despite our unflinching awareness of our own capacities to act as oppressors, and despite our unflinching awareness of the volume and magnitude of abuse and oppression enacted by others.
· Our actions are linked to positive visions and programs. We affirm the validity of our outraged "no" in reaction against our own mistreatment and in reaction against broader conditions of social and political injustice. But we also take responsibility for translating that "no" into ideas and possibilities for a more just society and world. At every step we try to remain conscious of the need for positive alternatives and to pose ourselves this practical question: How can my actions improve the conditions against which I am enraged?
· We act from a subjective sense of power. Knowing that this is far easier said than done, we consciously struggle for clarity that we are not powerless in the present, despite the ways that we have been overpowered by abuse and trauma. We seek to maintain awareness that, as adults, we can always exercise options.6
· We act from a commitment to equal power relations. Our conscious goal is to share power to the greatest extent possible - to step outside of the oppression paradigm which constantly places people in subordinate and dominant roles.
Nonviolence From the Head and From the Heart
In previous drafts of this section, I wrote about principled nonviolence and how it serves the transformation of traumatic rage into a more contained and constructive force. I analyzed the impact of values on behavior. I talked about the cornerstones of nonviolent political theory - consistency of means and ends, nonviolent non-cooperation. I looked at questions of political strategy and argued for the practical effectiveness of principled nonviolence.
All of these are valid, even indispensable points of analysis. But after each successive draft, I found myself dissatisfied with how I was approaching the question of nonviolence - for me a core political issue in this book. I finally realized that I was coming too much from the head, and not enough from the heart.
Commitment to nonviolence is something I
feel in my bones. When I learned of the
terrorist attacks on 9/11, my first reaction was stunned horror. My next reaction was to be terrified of what
I know that last line sounds like a political slogan. And it's true that it came out of many years of political thought and action, out of my own identification with nonviolent politics. But the point is that it was a gut reaction, a felt response - a heart response as well as a head response.
At a very different level of politics, I don't hit my child because I feel so deeply that it would be wrong. It is the depth of my values that makes hitting or any kind of physical attack not an option for me, no matter how desperate and out of control, how victimized and powerless I feel - and I have felt all of these things as a parent a lot more often than I wish were the case. My commitment to nonviolent parenting, which certainly is something I have thought out and analyzed at great length, lives in my body.
I could say that when I don't hit my kid in moments of rage, it's an act of love, and it would be true. But there are many, many parents who love their kids as much as I do - and who hit their kids. Nonviolence shapes the way I'm able to use my love for my child. It gives me a very tangible resource for containing the most destructive potentials of power-under, in the moments when I am most at risk from the lethal combination of subjective powerlessness and objective dominance.
What I am trying to describe is an impassioned commitment to nonviolence. Something that includes rational analysis, but that also pierces the surface of ideas to the depths of how we define ourselves and how we want to be in the world. I think it takes something at this kind of depth to counteract or re-shape the enormous force of traumatic rage.
At the level of personal identity, nonviolent resistance allows us to channel our rage into an impassioned determination not to act like the people who have hurt and oppressed and traumatized us, and not to let our oppressors turn us into destructive people, even in the ways that we struggle against them or in our attitudes toward our perpetrators. Aurora Levins Morales offers a moving example of the effective use of this kind of non-cooperation to maintain personal and political integrity in the face of torture:
As a child…[f]or a period of several years, without the knowledge of my parents, I was periodically abused by a small group of adults who practiced physical, psychological and sexual tortures, mostly, though not exclusively, on children. It was clear that their treatment of me had several goals. They deliberately confused and intimidated me so I would not reveal what was happening, but they also were attempting to reproduce themselves in me and the other children, to separate us from our own humanity enough to turn us into torturers as well.
Because I was already a highly politicized child by the time they got hold of me, because I already knew about political torture and resistance to it, I was able to develop a strategy that defeated them. They managed to keep me from telling, but I did not continue the cycle of abuse. I figured out that I was powerless to prevent what they did to my body but that I could safeguard my spirit. I understood that the first step in becoming like them was to learn to dehumanize others and that part of the goal of their cruelty was to make us hate them, make us want to hurt them, make us see them as monsters we would be willing to torment. To plant in us the seeds of their own pain.
Part of the way I prevented this was to envision my abusers as young children, before they became this cruel. I would imagine that imprisoned within the adult bodies that hurt me were captive children who had themselves been tortured. I would pretend that I could catch their eyes, send them signals of solidarity to give them courage. Imagine how horrified they were at the actions of their grown-up selves. This was what enabled me to survive spiritually.7
Levins Morales, a "highly politicized child," was clearly using her ability to analyze her situation and apply her political values to her struggle for self-protection. But her understanding enabled her to act from the place of her deepest humanity. Knowing that she could not protect her body, her struggle was for her spirit. Knowing that dehumanization destroys the human spirit, she developed an impassioned determination to connect with the mangled humanity of her torturers - enabling her to break a cycle of violence. This stands as an extraordinary expression of nonviolence coming from the head and from the heart.
At the level of movement politics, I think we saw that same quality of impassioned commitment to nonviolence in the civil rights movement. Nonviolence was a critical part of the civil rights movement's strategy. But it was also part of the movement's spiritual bedrock. This is particularly significant if we are willing to recognize that African-Americans were massively traumatized by Jim Crow practices in the South and by the entire legacy of slavery.
The civil rights movement achieved extraordinary success in mobilizing traumatized people to act constructively in the face of terror and rage. I think that this is largely attributable to the power of nonviolence as a response to trauma - not only as a principle, but as a living and breathing practice that people feel is connected to their own integrity as human beings. I will return to the civil rights movement at more length later in this chapter as an important example of constructive rage.
In my view, nothing short of a radical re-emergence of this kind of nonviolent politics can stem the cycles of terror and counter-terror that have been unloosed in the world.
Nonviolence as Self-Protection
Aurora Levins Morales, as a child in the hands of torturers, knew that though she could not protect her body, she could protect her spirit. I take this to mean that she could take active measures to protect her human integrity, what was most essential and important about her as a human being. Her strategy for self-protection was to actively exercise nonviolence - to recognize, to fully respect and value the human core of her torturers. This was a conscious act of resistance. Levins Morales understood that her torturers wanted not only to attack her body, but also to crush her capacity for human connection. She fought them, and fought for herself, by staying connected to her own humanity and to theirs.
Self-protection is the precise spot where the politics of trauma and the politics of nonviolence intersect. The experience of abuse, violation, and traumatic powerlessness inevitably raises a core and enduring question in the lives of trauma survivors: how can we act effectively to protect ourselves? All too often, in the throes of traumatic reenactment and subjective powerlessness, we believe the answer is that we can't. As chronic victims, the ability to act effectively on our own behalf is what we most deeply want and need, and yet our subjective experience is that it remains beyond our grasp. Our need for self-protection, fueled by rage and distorted by traumatic powerless, too often is expressed in the kind of desperate lashing out I have described as power-under.
Violence is readily understood as a means of self-defense, and it is undeniably true that physical violence is one way of trying to protect ourselves from physical attack. Because we live in a society that legitimizes many forms of violence in many contexts, the seemingly straightforward notion of using physical violence in self-defense merges seamlessly with the use of verbal violence in self-defense, with the "pre-emptive" use of violence, with acts of retaliation and revenge, with many types of aggressive and predatory behavior, and with all forms of dehumanization and oppression.
Wherever we find violence, we find people
subjectively trying to protect and defend themselves. This runs the gamut from parents hitting kids
to expressions of racism and homophobia; from male batterers who experience
themselves as victims to justifications for
What's less obvious is the damage caused to ourselves by acts of violence. I am using violence in the broadest sense of acts and attitudes that treat people as Other, that dehumanize, that reduce people to objects, and that fail to recognize and affirm the core human value of the Other. In the process of treating others as less than human, we violate something essential about our own humanity.8 Thich Nhat Hahn writes that "[d]oing violence to others is doing violence to yourself."9 This is exactly what Aurora Levins Morales realized in the hands of her torturers: that her human integrity was at risk from the impulse to dehumanize those who were dehumanizing her.
Even at the level of self-defense against physical attack, violence is a precarious strategy at best. If the attacker is physically bigger, stronger, and more aggressive, which is often the case, violent self-defense is likely to fail. Even worse, violent responses often evoke escalating violence from the attacker, placing the victim at greater risk. What passes for self-defense is often an impulse for retaliation in the aftermath of an attack, rather than an action which could actually ward off the attack and protect the victim.
In many cases nonviolent measures are more likely to protect the victim physically. These range all the way from fleeing or hiding to calling for help to talking calmly to the assailant to the use of nonviolent physical self-defense techniques that aim to stop an attack without hurting the assailant. Once I was approached menacingly by a man who, holding a lit cigarette, came up very close to me and asked me if I fight. We were in a narrow hallway and I could not possibly have gotten away from him. I answered, simply and honestly, that I did not fight. He looked baffled and said, incredulously, "You don't fight?" I again told him that I didn't. He regarded me, hesitated, then turned and walked out the door.
In many other circumstances, no self-defense strategy will stop an attack. It may happen so abruptly and be over so fast that there is no time to respond in self-defense. (If the man who approached me had put the lit cigarette onto my face or punched me, rather than trying to intimidate me verbally, I would have been defenseless.) The imbalance of physical strength and force may be so overwhelming that physical self-protection is simply impossible, as is particularly the case when adults abuse children. The perpetrator may use means of violence - a gun, a bomb, an airplane crashing into a building - against which there is no feasible physical defense.
This is particularly important because most violence committed in the name of self-defense actually happens after the fact of the attack to which we are responding. This may be a matter of seconds: Someone tells me, "Fuck you"; I say "Fuck you" back. I may think that I'm responding in self-defense, and I may honestly be trying to protect myself. But what I'm really doing is counter-attacking. By the time I respond, the verbal attack against me is done. No amount of violence on my part, verbal or physical, will undo it. I may believe that by saying "Fuck you" back I'm protecting myself against a further attack. In fact I'm much more likely to be provoking a further attack.
The gap between the moment of attack and
the use of violent self-defense is often much longer. Examples range from acts of personal
retaliation or revenge to the state's use of the death penalty; from the cycles
of terrorist attacks and counter-attacks by Palestinians and the Israeli
government to acts of war by the
In all cases when violence is used as a strategy for self-protection after an attack is an accomplished fact, it cannot possibly succeed in protecting the victim from an attack that has already happened. This seems so obvious that it would not need to be said - except that so many of us are driven so relentlessly to try to defend ourselves against the violations we have experienced in our pasts.
This is critically related to the dynamics of unresolved trauma. One of the key lessons from the study of trauma is that the effects of traumatic powerlessness long outlive their causes. As I have tried to show in Chapter Two, internalized powerlessness is a living reality for many trauma survivors. Subjectively, the moments of trauma are not simply "violations we have experienced in the past" - we experience them as an on-going reality in the present. This makes the use of violence to try to defend ourselves against traumatic powerlessness understandable. But it does not make it functional or effective.
If we are willing to expand the question of self-protection to include personal integrity - the safeguarding of human spirit and our capacity for human connection10 - the futility of violence becomes blatant. The more we dehumanize the other in the name of self-defense, the more we diminish our own humanity.
Even in the moment of attack, the question of how as victims we can protect our humanity is vitally important - not in place of, but in addition to the question of how we can best protect ourselves physically. But in the aftermath of attack, the challenge of self-protection shifts decisively to the area of personal integrity, of wholeness of spirit and the humanization of our experience. Whatever has been done to us physically cannot be undone. Counter-attack (verbal or physical) is likely to make us more vulnerable to future attacks. What we can do, in conscious resistance to our abuse, it to take active steps to treat others - both perpetrators and those who might become the displaced objects of our rage at our perpetrators - as full human beings. By doing that we actively and effectively protect our own humanity.
This is the realm in which nonviolent resistance is extraordinarily relevant to the situation of trauma survivors. In most cases the lasting, major damage caused by abuse is not physical but emotional and psychological - the crushing of human spirit. Efforts at self-protection by trauma survivors that demonize or dehumanize the Other - through physical violence, verbal violence, or other acts and attitudes that diminish the human value of those we experience as threats - unwittingly and tragically compound the damage to our own spirits. A central challenge faced by trauma survivors is how to resist malevolence and violation by valuing rather than diminishing human life.
Nonviolence redefines the terms of self-protection. It poses an entirely new set of questions: How can I safeguard my human spirit? How can I try to defend and protect myself physically without compromising or crushing my own humanity? How can I resist acts of abuse and oppression without dehumanizing my oppressors? Or anyone else? How can I maintain human connectedness in the face of overwhelming malevolence? How can I take in and let myself feel the pain of what has been done to me rather than evading or numbing that pain through an act of violence? How can I take in the almost intolerably complex truth that I have been abused, demeaned and disregarded by valuable human beings?
The strategy for self-protection that these questions point us toward is as relevant to mass politics as it is to personal recovery from trauma. For example, imagine a collective response to September 11 along the lines of Aurora Levins Morales' response to her torturers:
We understood that there was nothing we could do to prevent the mass destruction caused by attacks that had already taken place. But we figured out a way to safeguard our collective human spirit. We tried to envision and let ourselves feel the human suffering that could lead people to become terrorists and could allow them to destroy human life on such a massive scale. We particularly understood how much they were diminished by not valuing the humanity of the people they destroyed. We committed ourselves to not letting the attacks diminish or destroy our own capacities to value human lives as broadly and as deeply as possible. We understood that this was how we could defeat terrorism.
The ability to actually use nonviolence as a means of self-protection - either personally or at the level of mass politics - is a matter of struggle. I write this as someone who has done my share of diminishing the human value of the Other over the years. The very forces of trauma that make nonviolence such a compelling strategy for self-defense are constantly moving us in the direction of violence. Dissociation, traumatic reenactment, terror, and unyielding subjective powerlessness are the crushing of human spirit and lead directly and incessantly to demonization and dehumanization in the name of self-protection.
Simply saying that nonviolence protects us better does not make it so. Nonviolence is something we need to learn to open our hearts to, and that is a long and hard-fought personal journey, and one which above all requires the willingness and the capacity to open ourselves to our own pain and to the pain of others.
For nonviolence to become a living and breathing reality - something that comes from the heart as well as from the head - also requires cultural, social and political support. One of the reasons that the civil rights movement was able to mobilize the traumatic rage of African-Americans so effectively in the service of constructive social action was that the movement made the values of nonviolence so visible and prominent as a political force. It created a public context, something that people could readily grasp and take hold of.
I believe that we need to rebuild that kind of visibility and political articulation of nonviolence as a force for both personal and political change. September 11, both despite and because of its horror, has created an opportunity for a new dialogue about breaking cycles of violence. How to protect ourselves from violence is a conscious, urgent question for virtually everyone. The more we are willing to publicly discuss and explore nonviolence as a resource for self-protection, the more possible it becomes for people to entertain it as a value system, as a guide to actual behavior, and as a way of coping with traumatic rage.
Nonviolence and the Health of Social Change Organizations
Imagine progressive social change organizations in which:
· There are no personal attacks.
· There are no opposing camps.
· No one is treated as an enemy.
· In the face of disagreements, we maintain full respect for each other as valued human beings.
· People listen well to each other and actively consider the possible validity and value of other perspectives - particularly the perspectives of those with whom we disagree.
· People have effective conflict resolution skills.
· There is a robust capacity to deal with differences based on class, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and other kinds of life experiences.
· Even when confronted with behavior we believe to be oppressive, dominating, or in other ways unacceptable, we maintain full respect and resist that behavior nonviolently and with compassion.
This of course is an ideal description of a healthy social change organization - one that realistically is not entirely achievable. The practical question is how close we can come to achieving it, and what kinds of resources can enable us to come close enough to have robust, well-functioning organizations and movements.
To develop useful resources along these lines, we need to identify the sources of organizational dysfunction. Trauma - particularly in its expression as power-under - is one of the major obstacles to the healthy functioning of social change organizations (as I have tried to show in Chapter Four). I am thinking specifically of the ability of our organizations and movements to weather crises, to resolve in-fighting, to forge wider alliances and coalitions, and to humanize our adversaries.
It is important to remember that traumatic stress is not a steady state. It flares up at critical moments when we are triggered by events which evoke our deepest experience of powerlessness and violation, and which therefore lead us to states of traumatic reenactment in which our subjective experience of powerlessness is vivid and overwhelming. It is in these triggered, actively traumatized states that we are most at risk for power-under behavior and the expression of powerless rage.
In the lives of social change organizations, it is at moments of strategic floundering or defeat, moments of internal conflict or impasse, and moments of direct confrontation with identified enemies (internal or external) that we are most likely to be triggered and thus most likely to engage in destructive expressions of powerless rage. While this virtually never results in physical violence, it is all too likely to result in name calling, insults and other highly personalized attacks, in splits between polarized camps and positions, in the cutting off of dialogue, in activists walking out on organizations and movements, and thus in the diversion and draining of organizational energies, resources and momentum.
It is in these kinds of circumstances that commitment to the practice of nonviolence within our social change organizations has the potential to constrain and to reshape powerless rage. If there is a shared understanding among activists that "nonviolent social change" means a program of life-affirming behavior and action that guides how we treat each other and run our organizations, it can help us to maintain mutual respect, foster dialogue and the willingness to listen to disparate perspectives and to the truth of others' experience, and to curtail personal attacks and other destructive behavior.
It is surely the function of the stated principles of social change organizations not only to serve as the foundation for political action, but also to guide the internal development and growth of the organization. By espousing the practice of nonviolence, our social change organizations can serve many purposes, one of which is to create internal conditions that maximize (though they cannot guarantee) the constructive expression of rage.
This would particularly be the case if the practice of nonviolence were combined with conscious attention to trauma as a movement building issue. The kind of awareness of power relations that feminism has brought to social change organizations could be broadened to include awareness of traumatic reenactment and powerless rage. Many of us have been attempting for the last 30 years to monitor and curtail dominating behavior and patterns in meetings and in all aspects of organizational life. We could develop within our organizations the same kind of effort to monitor and curtail power-under, with a common language and evolving understandings of the power relations set in motion when people act out subjective powerlessness.
Principled nonviolence could serve as the basis for creating concrete strategies within organizations for responding to power-under. These could include non-cooperation with personal attacks and other abusive behavior, structured dialogue aimed at mutual understanding of people's subjective experiences, specific conflict resolution techniques,11 explicit appeals for adherence to established guidelines for the expression of rage, and a range of empathic responses to the traumatic experience underlying power-under behavior.
This is comparable to familiar strategies for dealing with domination within organizations, such as leadership rotation and meeting facilitation techniques which aim for broad participation and shared power. These strategies surely don't eliminate all possibilities of domination, but they do enable us to name the issue and give us a reasonable set of tools for trying to do something about it. I envision the same kind of capacity within social change organizations to try to do something about power-under, based on shared understandings and values and using a common language of power relations by which to name and address the issue.
If nonviolent strategies can be of particular value for trauma survivors dealing with conflict within social change organizations, trauma is one of the factors that can make it particularly difficult to actually put this approach into practice. Resolving differences based on common interests is not conceptually difficult, but there is a huge gap between our knowledge of cooperative negotiation and our practice, which too often locks us into entrenched positions, camps, in-fighting, personal attacks, and unresolved conflicts. In addition to all of the generic difficulties that we encounter when we try to shift from a competitive to a cooperative paradigm, cooperative conflict resolution is emotionally challenging, in large part because of the effects of trauma.
We have been traumatized historically in situations that are totally contrary to the conditions necessary for the cooperative resolution of differences. Negotiation with a perpetrator is impossible. There is a drastic imbalance of power, and the notion of common interests either does not apply or is rendered hopelessly abstract by the imposition of the perpetrator's will upon the victim. Unilateral action for self-protection, to whatever extent this is possible, is the only reasonable and practical response to abuse.
In their classic Getting To Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury acknowledge that it is not always possible to achieve a win-win outcome, and they discus the importance of having a "best alternative to a negotiated agreement" when cooperative negotiation breaks down or is not feasible.12 In more political terms, there are individual and institutional oppressors with whom we need to non-cooperate rather than trying to negotiate.
The problem is that when we are triggered in the present, we can much too readily act as if we are dealing with a perpetrator with whom negotiation is impossible. One of the enormous challenges for trauma survivors is sorting out our historical experience of trauma from our present circumstances.
The survivor's emotional need for a proximate villain, which I have discussed in Chapter Two, can lead us too quickly to conclude that the other party or opposing faction in a conflict is to blame, has betrayed our trust, and is impossible to deal with. The profound vulnerabilities created by trauma can make it unbearably difficult to stick out a process which requires listening to and engaging with others whom we experience as threats. This is made considerably more complicated by the fact that abuse can happen in the present, and that it is entirely valid for us to protect ourselves from others, including political allies, who actually are acting as perpetrators in the moment.
One of the things that this means is that we need to pay conscious attention to maintaining personal safety in order to have any chance of widely utilizing a cooperative or nonviolent approach for resolving differences. This is equally the case in personal relationships and in social change organizations. We need guidelines and agreements about unacceptable behavior, such as personal attacks, as well as guidelines and conscious attention to our procedures for resolving conflict.
We need to talk to each other about how to sort out when it is appropriate to resort to a "best alternative to a negotiated agreement" and when it's worth the effort of sticking out a demanding conflict resolution process. We need to develop cultures within our organizations which foster this kind of dialogue and mutual support around issues of conflict and trauma. We also need the skills to implement cooperative negotiation, which means attention to training and to learning from each other and from our own successes and mistakes.
Nonviolence as Political Strategy
There is of course a long and well-developed tradition of principled nonviolence as a strategy and ethos for organized political action.13 I have attempted to build on that tradition by looking to nonviolence as a strategic resource for containing traumatic rage and transforming it into a constructive force.
I want to briefly address the larger question of nonviolent political strategy as it relates to the ability of the left to achieve greater unity. Doctrinaire disputes about issues like nonviolence are classic fault lines along which the left is constantly dividing and fragmenting. I have suggested that adherence to nonviolence can help to build more robust and less fragmented progressive movements. Yet my own passion for nonviolence has a decidedly doctrinaire edge to it.
practical matter, I think it is widely recognized throughout the left at
present that violence is a hopeless social change strategy in the
in many social change organizations, the use of peaceful protest has not been
accompanied by explicit endorsement of the principles of nonviolence. And in regard to foreign policy, in recent
years there has been considerable disunity within the left about the legitimacy
A new Gandhian-type movement is in fact exactly what I think we need. In my view, nonviolence is uniquely consistent with the goal of creating a just society in which the value of all human life is recognized and affirmed. This is a matter of deceptive importance. No matter how remote the prospects appear for the left to gain political prominence and achieve fundamental change, I think we have to proceed on the belief that social justice can be achieved. Otherwise we doom ourselves to falling short of our most important goals.
If we take seriously the possibility that we can radically transform our society, then we also need to take seriously the relationship between our means and our ends. There is overwhelming evidence that violent means produce violent results, at every level from spanking children to violence between nations. Consistency between nonviolent means and nonviolent ends is a practical strategy for long term success, if our goal is to achieve a peaceful society in which all people are equally valued.
But I also think that those of us who deeply believe in nonviolence can advocate for it without becoming needlessly divisive or sectarian. What we most need is a nonviolent process for discussing and, when necessary, disagreeing about strategic questions of the legitimacy of violence.
Part of what can help this to happen is the honest recognition of practical realities that cut across doctrines and "correct" lines. On the one hand, I have known activists (myself included at times) who have espoused nonviolence in theory but who have acted in ways entirely inconsistent with nonviolent practice - including personal attacks, unwillingness to consider opposing perspectives, and the acting out of traumatic rage in ways that vilify, diminish, and dehumanize targeted human beings.
On the other hand, there are activists who assert the validity of certain kinds of strategic violence, but whose personal practice is respectful and constructive. This is the case for example with Nelson Mandela (whom I will discuss at length later), who advocated violent struggle but whose practice was almost entirely consistent with nonviolent principles and yielded enormously constructive results.
Nonviolence is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Lots of people who believe in the legitimacy of violent self-defense under certain circumstances are nevertheless open to the validity and practical value of nonviolent resistance in a wide variety of other contexts. We desperately need to cultivate areas of common ground and respectfully talk about our differences, rather than letting differences about the validity of any use of violence under any circumstances becomes yet another wedge that needlessly divides us.
There are always valid questions that can be raised about the impact of theory and values on practice - and practice is what matters most. To the extent that individuals and organizations do not espouse principled nonviolence but are able to enact their personal and political rage constructively, their practice is far more important than ideological quibbles, and we have lots to learn from them. Constructive rage is a practical issue, and what we need is open dialogue and exploration of what works.
Humanizing the Oppressor
Nonviolence and humanizing the oppressor are mutually enhancing principles. One of the cornerstones of principled nonviolence is the belief that all humans - including those identified as adversaries or oppressors - are intrinsically valuable. One of the results of recognizing the full humanity of oppressors is that it becomes difficult or impossible to intentionally inflict harm on them.
Violence and other forms of abuse virtually require the objectification and dehumanization of their targets; this is the function of the enormous range of derogatory names and labels that we apply to our enemies, giving them non-human status before we attack or kill them. If we insist on the human status of the oppressor, it means that we can no longer view him or her as "the Other" - as an object or figure with whom there is no possibility for human connection. This fundamentally changes what is possible in how we approach and behave toward "the oppressor," who is now a person. It constrains tendencies toward violence and counter-abuse; it points toward strategies for struggle and non-cooperation which maintain full respect for our adversaries; and it also opens us to recognizing our own capacities to act as oppressors.
I have described nonviolent resistance as a determination not to be like the people who have oppressed and traumatized us - and thus a refusal to dehumanize our dehumanizers. The paradox is that part and parcel of my determination "not to be like them" is my acknowledgment that there are ways that I am like them. This is a tension and a complexity which we do not have to resolve, but simply live with. If we carry our resolve not to be like our dehumanizers to the point of insisting that we have absolutely nothing in common with them, then we begin to treat them as the Other - as inherently different, and inevitably less valuable, than us. In fact, nothing could distinguish me more effectively from a dehumanizer than my willingness to acknowledge that I have the capacity to dehumanize, since consciousness of my destructive capacities is the first step toward controlling and containing them.
Humanizing the oppressor is important not only as a strategy for containing powerless rage and for making the means of liberation struggles consistent with our ends - it is also important because liberation requires self-transformation as well as structural transformation. All of us unavoidably internalize major aspects of our social conditions, including the capacity to dominate. The oppressor within14 is not simply a theoretical construct; it is a living reality in virtually everyone's life forged by the multiplicity of available oppressor roles, by social experience which is saturated with patterns of domination that we internalize, and for many of us by the dynamics of powerlessness and traumatic rage.
Dehumanizing the oppressor forces us to deny the oppressor within, to insist that "I could never possibly be like Them," and thus prevents us from undertaking the kinds of personal transformations that are indispensable steps on the path to liberation. When we humanize the oppressor, it enables us not only to recognize the oppressor within us, but also to maintain compassion for ourselves as we struggle to contain and transform our own destructive capacities and potentials.
Awareness of Dominant Roles
Liberation from oppression requires more than a global recognition of our capacities to behave destructively; it also requires a much more specific, finely tuned analysis of the dominant roles that each of us occupies. As a white, heterosexual, professionally trained, middle-aged man I am set up to dominate along lines of race, sexual orientation, class, age, and gender: I hold the privilege, the means, and the societal legitimization to exercise power-over in concrete ways in each of these areas in the course of my daily life. As a trauma survivor, I face multiple challenges if I am to consciously work toward self- and structural-transformation around each of these types of domination:
· Being traumatized by oppression does not cancel out dominant roles. I must resist the understandable urge to declare myself an Oppressed Person to the exclusion of any dominant roles - the temptation to convince myself that the depth and tenacity of the suffering caused by my traumatic experience somehow neutralizes or renders irrelevant my access to dominance. I must recognize and hold onto the complexity of dual truths: that I have been profoundly and brutally oppressed, and that society has put me in the position to act as an oppressor in specific and concrete ways.
Humanizing my oppressors is a step toward achieving this kind of awareness, but it also requires on-going political analysis and dialogue, rooted in a compassionate determination to name and understand every political dimension to everyone's life conditions. I say compassionate because the transformation of dominant roles requires both awareness and self-compassion - a theme to which I will return later in this chapter.
· Maintaining awareness of dominant roles in the moment of rage. It is one thing to be able to dispassionately analyze and reflect on our access to privilege and dominance; it is quite another to maintain this awareness under circumstances that trigger our traumatic experience and make us feel powerless. As a trauma survivor, I am always at risk of being triggered in this way. If I allow my subjective experience of powerlessness to overwhelm my rational understanding of my dominant roles - even briefly - then in that moment the stage is set for the lethal combination of subjective powerlessness and objective dominance which I have described repeatedly in this book.
An enormous amount of damage can be done in brief moments of unconstrained traumatic rage, when our world constricts to the experience of powerlessness and we completely lose sight of the real power that we hold over anyone who is in a subordinate role in relation to us. These are the moments when we are at the greatest risk of acting abusively, both because of the force of our rage and because we have no sense of how powerfully our behavior impacts others.
We need to develop conscious strategies for maintaining awareness of our dominant roles and our access to power-over in the moment of rage, and for using that awareness to constrain our expressions of rage. One piece of such a strategy is the dispassionate analysis of our dominant roles when we are not enraged, without which we cannot possibly be aware of our dominance when we become enraged.
A second step is to anticipate and plan for our moments of rage before they occur. One of the hallmarks of traumatic experience is being taken off guard and suddenly overwhelmed by forces beyond our control. To the extent that that we are able to develop understandings of what is likely to trigger us and of what is likely to happen to us when we get triggered, we can prepare ourselves for these moments and develop specific coping mechanisms to be used in the moment.15
For example, for several years I have carried pieces of paper in my wallet that list specific things that I can do when I lose it with my child and when I lose it with my partner. These include simple measures such as reminding myself that I expected that I could get triggered in this way, taking a time out, going back and apologizing for ways that I have over-reacted to the situation, and finding non-destructive ways to express my feelings. (Obviously each person's coping measures need to be tailored to her or his specific life conditions.)
The next step is to actually use the plan in the moment of rage. In my case, if the piece of paper stays in my wallet when I get triggered - which certainly has happened at times - then the plan has not worked. On the other hand, when I am able to take the piece of paper out of my wallet, this simple act has an enormous impact on my awareness and on my behavior. It forces me to step outside of my rage far enough to remember how my behavior affects others and to reconnect me to the values and to the consciousness that I need in order to stop myself from acting destructively, as well as giving me concrete alternatives to power-under behavior.
There are probably hundreds of variations on this strategy, involving all sorts of cues and devices that make coping mechanisms available in the moment of rage. But the essential features remain the same:
· having a plan that realistically anticipates our psychological states when triggered;
· having a way to actually access the plan when we get triggered;
· and having simple options that we are actually able to make use of that constrain our destructive behavior in the moment of rage.
We also need to develop a collective approach to strategies for maintaining awareness of our dominant roles in moments of rage. Isolated individuals waging an internal struggle that is socially and politically invisible are far less likely to succeed than groups of people who can offer each other mutual validation, support, and constraint. I am thinking not only of support groups for self-identified trauma survivors, but also of a much wider range of social and political contexts - from couples and families to workplaces and social change organizations - which form the real-life settings where power-under is acted out.
This would mean developing a common language and framework among lovers, friends, parents and children, co-workers, and political allies which name trauma as a key psychological reality. It would mean reaching common understandings of the susceptibility of traumatized people to power-under behavior and of the particular damage caused when we act out powerless rage from dominant positions. And it would mean dialogue, strategizing, and conscious collective struggle to develop and implement plans for containing powerless rage.
The type of strategy that I have proposed to anticipate and plan for moments of traumatic rage is logically straightforward, but it is extremely difficult both psychologically and politically. It is difficult psychologically because we can so easily be overwhelmed by traumatic rage. It is difficult politically because there is so little existing context for understanding trauma as a political issue, and because there is so little existing context for recognizing that people can be simultaneously oppressed and oppressors, and that people in dominant roles can be subjectively powerless.
It is hard enough to persuade people to acknowledge their dominant roles, and to make sense of the multiplicity and complexity of dominant and subordinate roles - let alone to add the further complexity of trauma and subjective powerlessness. If people are reluctant to identify as dominants, they are even more reluctant to recognize their own feelings of powerlessness.
Yet without these understandings and recognitions, the lethal combination of objective dominance and subjective powerlessness will go on unabated and will continue to reproduce itself. It will go on not only "out there" - in mainstream economic, political and social life - but also "in here," in the relationships and families and alternative institutions and movement organizations of people who are trying to achieve social change.
I do not know how realistic it is to suppose that we could develop a common language and shared understandings of the politics of trauma at any time in the foreseeable future. But surely the first step is to start talking about trauma in political terms. More than anything else, my goal in this book has been to advance such a dialogue.
Dialogue - rather than monologue or pronouncement - is crucial. The politics of trauma are rife with possibilities for claims of false consciousness - for those who "know" about trauma to instruct those who are "unaware" about the "realities" of their traumatization and about subjective states that they themselves do not identify. This kind of top-down approach could not possibly move us toward liberation, and it is certainly not among the strategies I am suggesting for constraining destructive rage. There may well be times when it is necessary and useful to tell people that they are behaving destructively; but it is another thing entirely to pronounce that I know better than you do what you are really feeling, or how you are psychologically affected by oppression, or that you are "triggered" and are acting out traumatic experience that you yourself do not acknowledge.
What is needed is a political climate in which the issue of trauma, and the ways in which trauma interacts with power relations in every type of social and political environment, can be openly discussed and explored, with people really listening to each other. Those of us who identify as trauma survivors should be able to name both the personal and political dimensions of our own traumatic experience. To the greatest extent possible we should lead by example, including the public recognition of our capacities for traumatic rage and of the importance of individual and collective strategies for constraining our rage, particularly when we occupy dominant positions and roles.
Those who do not identify as trauma survivors can participate in this dialogue as allies and sources of support - and to the greatest extent possible with the willingness to inspect their own experience for signs of trauma. While we cannot instruct others that they have been traumatized, we can challenge and encourage them to re-examine their histories, their internal landscapes, and particularly to explore the psychological effects of their experiences of oppression. We can also challenge ourselves to learn from the experience and ideas of those with whom we are in dialogue. Consciousness raising in the best sense is always mutual, not unilateral, and that is how it has been practiced most successfully around issues of gender, race, class, homophobia, and so on. This is the type of open dialogue that we need about the politics of trauma.
Subjective Power / Objective Equality or Constraint
The practice of constructive rage leads to a paradigm shift which stands at the heart of liberation from oppression. The oppression paradigm continuously creates and recreates experiences of subjective powerlessness, and at the same time endlessly proliferates subordinate and dominant roles. When we occupy subordinate positions, and are both subjectively and objectively powerless, we are at the mercy of the forces of oppression and are constantly at risk of being overwhelmed and traumatized. When we occupy dominant positions, but carry the legacies of trauma and subjective powerlessness, we are constantly at risk of acting out our powerless rage on those over whom we hold power, reproducing cycles of oppression and trauma.
The liberation paradigm reverses both sides of this equation. One of the cornerstones of liberation is surely that people experience a sense of power and efficacy, and have the ability to control their own lives in a range of meaningful ways. There are both subjective and objective aspects of this process of liberation.
Subjectively, liberation from oppression involves a straightforward progression from powerlessness to empowerment. Where oppression overwhelms our capacity to cope with forces beyond our control, in a liberated state we subjectively experience a deep and secure sense of control - over our own bodies, over significant life choices and directions, and over key aspects of our environment. At every turn there is an awareness of options and of our capacity to make choices and to shape our lives in a social and political atmosphere of respect and dignity. Without this kind of subjective empowerment, there is no freedom.
Objectively, the path from oppression to liberation is more intricate and complex. The key is shared power, and whether this means "empowerment" or constraints on excessive power depends on where we are coming from on the continuum of power relations. In fact, most of us are coming from multiple places on that continuum at the same time.
To the extent that we occupy subordinate positions and roles, liberation means objective as well as subjective empowerment. To the extent that we occupy dominant positions and roles, liberation means placing constraints and reductions on our objective power. In both cases the goal of liberation is a balance of personal autonomy, shared social and political control, and mutual regulation - what could also be characterized as individual and collective self-determination.
The aspect of liberation that involves increased subjective and objective power is familiar from the point of view of "us"—oppressed people and those identified with the liberation struggles of the oppressed. The aspect of liberation that involves constraining and reducing the objective power of dominants is familiar when applied to "them" - the oppressors and power elites. What is not at all familiar is the notion that liberation may require the same person to increase power in some ways and decrease or constrain power in others - and that this complexity may apply broadly throughout society.
There are complexities within complexities. Take for example the situations of a white woman and a man of color (examples which are already artificially simplified because they do not take into account class, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, mental health, and so on). Objectively, on the continuum of race, the white woman's power needs to be constrained, the man of color's power increased; on the continuum of gender, the man of color's power needs to be constrained, the white woman's power increased.
But both the man of color and the white woman may experience an overarching subjective powerlessness, based on lifelong traumatizations which do not necessarily fit neatly into the expected categories of oppression, and which in any case affect their behavior and their politics in their dominant roles as well as in their subordinate roles. In this kind of situation, the reversal of the lethal combination of subjective powerlessness and objective dominance requires that people simultaneously become subjectively more powerful and objectively less powerful.
This only sounds like a paradox. To the same degree that subjective powerlessness sets the stage for explosions of traumatic rage by people in dominant roles, subjective empowerment is one of the key factors which can enable us to constrain our objective power over others. To the extent that we feel powerless and at the mercy of malevolent forces beyond our control, we are more likely to be unaware of the power that we hold over others and far more likely to use that objective power-over, blindly and destructively, in desperate attempts to regain some semblance of equilibrium and control over our own lives. To the extent that we are aware of our own power, and maintain a sense of mastery and control over our own lives and environments, we are more likely to realistically assess our power relations with others; we are less prone to desperation of any sort, less likely to lash out, and far less susceptible to traumatic rage; and we are also less likely to seek to meet our own needs by dominating others.
I do not claim that subjective empowerment by itself is enough to constrain or reverse the exercise of domination. There are people who are both subjectively empowered and objectively dominant. The constraint and reversal of domination is a function of any number of factors, including values, socialization, cultural norms,16 many aspects of our economic and social conditions, and above all political struggle. But I do believe that without subjective empowerment, the constraint of objective dominance is virtually impossible.
There are all sorts of examples which illustrate this. The tenacity of racism has everything to do with the extent to which most white people do not experience a sense of control over their own lives - because of how they were overpowered and traumatized as children, because of class and gender oppression, because of alienation at work, because of social fragmentation, and so on. Similarly, one of the critical roots of male domination is the subjective powerlessness experienced by boys and men, as I have discussed at length in Chapter Three. Parenting practices which dominate, brutalize and traumatize children are often manifestations of power-under by parents who are overwhelmed by their own traumatic histories and by the realities of parenting. In each of these broad areas, subjective empowerment needs to go hand in hand with any effort to curtail domination.
As far as I know, our social change movements have not paid much attention to this critical interconnection between subjective empowerment and the constraint of dominance. I think that this is one of the things that has limited our effectiveness in moving people to give up privilege and power-over. For example, when we tell men that they should stop dominating women because it is wrong - or because women will not stand for it anymore - but fail to recognize how many men already feel powerless at the deepest level of their experience, we are simply operating at cross purposes with the profound internal reality of dominating men. We are asking them to give up excessive power (objective dominance), but to them it is a demand to concede the crumbs of control that they hold in their lives (from the perspective of subjective powerlessness).
Without taking into account the subjective part of this equation, feminist politics may succeed in exacting some concessions in the form of behavior changes from men, but it cannot win men's hearts and minds - and I think that this is a fair description of what has happened over the last 30 years. It is only when we can start talking openly and with compassion about men's internal realities, and when objective power sharing can be coupled with the subjective empowerment of men, that the paradigm could possibly begin to shift from patriarchy to sexual equality for large numbers of men. Subjective empowerment is needed for men to come to believe that it is in our interest to dismantle patriarchy.
I believe that the same holds true for each continuum of oppression. You can take out "men" and substitute white people, or heterosexuals, or parents, or anyone whose class position gives her/him power over people lower on the class ladder, and in each case it is only when people attain a subjective sense of their own power that they can approach the possibility of limiting or giving up their power over others.
One of the lessons of power-under is that in many discrete acts of domination, people are not making conscious choices to behave oppressively or abusively. They are overwhelmed, driven by internal forces beyond their control - the psychological legacies of having been overwhelmed so many times in their lives by external forces beyond their control - and unleash their desperation and rage on those over whom they hold power. It is only when we experience a sense of control over our own lives, and believe at a deep level that we have options and can make meaningful choices about our lives and our relations with others, that we are in a position to control our rage and to make conscious choices about our access to privilege and power-over.
We know what it means for people to gain or concede power on the objective side of the equation. We can be quite clear about whether or not people have the right to vote, or to sit in the front of the bus; about who has the prerogative to give orders at work, and who is required to follow them; about who acts violently and who is on the receiving end; about who controls the economy and the government, and who is affected by their decisions and policies; and so on. Even where the objective power relations are less formal, we have reasonably clear ways of analyzing and describing who is dominating a meeting or a marriage or a social interaction, and we know what it looks like when these subtler power relations become more equal.
We know much less about what subjective empowerment looks like. This is the case partly because it is an internal reality, but also because there is no organized political framework to discuss and analyze and promote it.
One of the reasons that we have not distinguished between subjective and objective empowerment is that it's so easy to assume that people's subjective states match their objective power positions. When oppressed people gain power objectively, it seems obvious to assume that they also are subjectively empowered - though even this seemingly reasonable assumption does not necessarily hold, depending on the depth of someone's traumatization and the extent to which they do or do not consciously address it. But what does it mean to become subjectively more powerful and at the same time objectively less powerful? How can we know what the subjective part of this looks like, let alone promote it?
I think that the place for each of us to start to explore this question is with ourselves. It is important to insist once again that the challenge of constraining and transforming dominance is not only "out there" - among flagrant racists and homophobes, batterers and child abusers, the economic and political power elites, and so on - but also "in here," in the lives and very personal struggles of every kind of ordinary person, of social change activists, of writers and readers of books about trauma and politics. It is above all in the course of our own struggles to establish and nurture shared power in every possible aspect of our lives that we can - and need to - explore and describe the kinds of internal empowerment which enable us to reject privilege and dominance, and which in the same breath enable us to emerge from the stranglehold of traumatic rage and power-under.
This is necessarily a collective as well as an individual struggle, not only because power-with can only happen in social and political contexts, but also because our emergence from traumatic rage can only happen with support and through the breaking of the terrible isolation that is endemic to trauma and powerlessness. To the same degree, the naming and analyzing of subjective empowerment needs to be both an individual and collective process.
The concept and practice of constructive rage are of particular importance for achieving the paradigm shift from subjective powerlessness / objective dominance to subjective empowerment / objective constraint. The process of expressing and using rage constructively addresses both the subjective and the objective sides of the equation. Subjectively, we are challenged to recognize that we are never completely powerless. We always have options and the capacity or potential to make choices regarding our self-definition, values, and behavior that is consistent with our values. Regardless of how abusively we have been treated, we have the option and the ability to behave constructively in the world.
Objectively, we are challenged to attend to the real effects of our behavior on others, to pay attention to the power (including power-over) that we do hold in the world and to regulate our expressions of rage so that they do not cause harm or perpetuate cycles of abuse.
Of course, saying this is not the same as doing it. "Constructive rage" is shorthand for any enormously difficult and deceptively complex struggle to make creative use of traumatic experience - to transform it into a source of energy and motivation for crafting positive personal and social change. But it is a useful shorthand to the extent that it helps us to chart a course in the direction of this kind of transformation, and thus helps us move in the direction of liberation.
Examples of Constructive Rage
People practice constructive rage all the time in the course of everyday life. Each time parents who have experienced trauma in their own lives get angry or exasperated with their children and manage to resolve the problem without resorting to physical or verbal abuse, and maintain respect for the child's physical and emotional integrity, they are making constructive choices and are constraining the power that they hold over the child. Each time trauma survivors are able to negotiate the resolution of conflicts by listening to each other and finding ways to respect and balance the legitimate needs of each, they are constructively managing their rage. Each time traumatized people resolve never to treat anyone the way they have been treated, they are mobilizing their rage in the service of genuine social change. The same is true each time oppressed people mount any kind of nonviolent political action and struggle.
Burt Berlowe, Rebecca Janke, and Julie Penshorn in their book The Compassionate Rebel: Energized by Anger, Motivated by Love have compiled the stories of 50 people "using anger as a constructive force to change the perceived injustices they have experienced."17 These stories encompass people who have experienced physical and sexual abuse, combat trauma, and many types of oppression who have become social change activists using nonviolent means to promote social justice.
Berlowe, Janke, and Penshorn note that "the majority of the acts of compassion" chronicled in their book "stemmed from anger. When we created the psychological free-space for people to talk about their lives as peacemakers and then worked backwards toward the catalysts for their actions, we found tremendous amounts of anger."18 They contend that our ability to achieve social change is maximized when "the capacity for rage against injustice and capacity for love are fully joined."19
I think it is particularly useful to look
at two prominent and remarkable examples of sustained constructive rage at the
level of organized political struggle:
The Civil Rights Movement
The nonviolent character of the civil rights movement from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, as well as its many victories in overturning legal segregation and Jim Crow practices in the South, are well known and do not require elaboration.20 But as far as I know there has been little if any analysis of the civil rights movement as a nonviolent response to trauma, and that is what I want to focus on here.
The conditions out of which the civil rights movement sprang - also well known - included every possible assault on the value and dignity of African Americans. The unavoidable human response to such conditions was terror, rage, and the most profound trauma. A vignette from Richard Wright's classic Black Boy21 captures some of the horror that was a routine part of daily life during the pre-civil rights era.
Wright describes an incident that took
place when he was 16 and living in
Wright recounts that as soon as the fight
started he realized that "[n]either Harrison nor I
knew enough about boxing to deceive even a child for a moment." Within seconds he and Harrison were hitting
each other hard and drawing blood. "The
fight was on, was on against our will. I
felt trapped and ashamed….The shame and anger we felt for having allowed
ourselves to be duped crept into our blows and blood ran into our eyes. The hate we felt for the men whom we had
tried to cheat went into the blows we threw at each other." By the time the fight ended, Wright says, "I
This incident, which of course was only
one out of an incalculable volume of violations of the basic humanity of
African Americans, captures some of the incredible depth of suffering and
psychological harm caused by Jim Crow conditions. Wright and Harrison, unable to resist what
they knew to be manipulation by the white men, became
the agents of the whites' sadistic racism, literally doing the work of white
violence against them. Overwhelmed by
powerlessness, shame, and a sense of defilement, Wright exploded with hatred
which he directed indiscriminately against himself, against
If we multiply this one example by the incalculable number of similar instances of utter degradation and powerlessness spawned by Jin Crow conditions, it begins to bring into focus the extent to which those conditions created obstacles to any sort of constructive expression of rage, and created obstacles to political unity among African Americans.
Looked at from this perspective, the sustained unity and nonviolence of the civil rights movement for close to 15 years was an extraordinary achievement. All of the critical aspects of principled nonviolence were present: an explicit organizational commitment to nonviolence; active resistance and the strategic use of non-cooperation; a clearly articulated positive program; a persistent, visible determination not to replicate the hatred and brutality of white racists; and a public refusal to demonize or dehumanize the oppressor.
How could this possibly have been achieved given the psychic legacies of hundreds of years of slavery and savage dehumanization, and in the face of white violence, repression, and a wide range of terror tactics in response to the movement?
One answer is surely that historical conditions in the aftermath of World War II created a climate in which African Americans could grasp the possibility of social change as a tangible reality in their lives, and could grasp nonviolent struggle as a feasible and effective strategy for achieving change. This was a period in which independence movements by people of color against white oppressors were emerging throughout the colonial world, and in which Gandhi demonstrated the enormous political potential of a mass nonviolent movement. The 1954 U.S. Supreme court decision ordering school desegregation, itself the result of both changing conditions and political struggle, became a historical benchmark which ignited hope - perhaps to an unprecedented degree - among Black people and their allies. It seems clear that a climate of hope and possibility can enable people to mobilize and transform traumatic rage into constructive action.
Many other factors helped to sustain constructive rage in the civil rights movement. The commitment of movement organizations to nonviolent struggle was clearly and continuously articulated. There was a strong sense of community and solidarity, fostered particularly by the central role of Black churches in the movement.23 The movement identified achievable goals and won a series of victories which progressively dismantled legal segregation in the South, and which repeatedly validated principled nonviolence as both an ethical and practical means of struggle. The indisputable claims of the civil rights movement to morality and social justice, coupled with its repeated successes, surely created optimum conditions for sustaining a movement in which means were consistent with ends and in which destructive outpourings of rage could be contained.
But there were also forces of enormous magnitude which could just as easily (or perhaps more easily) have triggered the self-defeating dynamics of power-under. The use of violence, repression and degradation by whites at all levels of power was so pervasive and so deeply established that African Americans had every reason to experience terror and powerlessness at every turn. There is something intangible about human spirit and potential - beyond any of the specific factors that I have cited - which was harnessed and nurtured by the civil rights movement and which enabled so many traumatized people to withstand terror, to contain their powerless rage, to mobilize hope, to identify options for constructive behavior, and to maintain the discipline of nonviolent protest. I can do no better than to call this a life-force, and I think it is the same force that enables victims of all kinds of brutality and violation to survive, to struggle, and in some cases to thrive.
I do not mean to idealize the civil right movement. Its politics were limited regarding economic equality and were not even on the map regarding gender equality. Its internal structure was hierarchical, with an entrenched leadership and excessive reliance on the charismatic appeal of Martin Luther King. But none of these limitations and flaws diminish the extraordinary success of the civil rights movement in channeling the most profound traumatic experience into sustained, constructive nonviolent struggle. It is a piece of our history which places flesh and bones onto the concept of constructive rage.
Nelson Mandela's 27-year imprisonment under the apartheid regime in South Africa is by now almost universally recognized as a breathtaking triumph of both political and psychological integrity; it has also been recognized as a triumph over traumatizing conditions.24 Mandela's account25 of his stay on Robben Island (20 of the 27 years) gives us an extremely helpful illustration of constructive rage in practice. It is also useful for exploring the relationship between principled nonviolence (to which Mandela did not adhere) and constructive rage.
The political situation in
Mandela's response to these circumstances was to develop a conscious strategy for survival and resistance. His goal was to remain intact and "undiminished," to maintain his dignity in the face continual, frontal assaults on his integrity by the prison authorities. The clarity of his beliefs and the enormous strength of his determination were the lynchpins of his ability to resist effectively. Mandela also writes eloquently about the importance of social and political solidarity among the segregated ANC prisoners: "We supported each other and gained strength from each other. Whatever we knew, whatever we learned, we shared, and by sharing multiplied whatever courage we had individually."28
Mandela also was able to construct personal and political meaning in his prison activity, viewing it (as it turned out accurately) as connected to the total struggle against apartheid. "We regarded the struggle in prison as a microcosm of the struggle as a whole. We would fight inside as we had fought outside. The racism and repression were the same; I would simply have to fight on different terms."29
Critically, Mandela developed and
maintained a strategic approach to
resistance during his prison years. This
presents itself on page after page of his account of
· Mandela and a few other prisoners were lined up for photographs. Mandela, who was aware of regulations requiring written authorization from the commissioner of prisons for prisoners to be photographed, asked the warder to show the authorization. "It was always valuable to be familiar with regulations, because the warders themselves were often ignorant of them and could be intimidated by one's superior knowledge." The warder could not produce the required document. He threatened to punish the prisoners if they refused to have their pictures taken, but Mandela and the other prisoners insisted that prison regulations be followed, and the warder backed down.30
· The ANC prisoners "were always looking for ways to stand up to the authorities," and one of the ways that Mandela as an attorney was able to do this was by filing written complaints when prisoners were beaten. In one case, Mandela got word through the prison grapevine of a beating suffered by a non-political prisoner named Ganya. Mandela sent a letter of complaint to the commissioner of prisons. In response he was called to the Robben Island Head Office. "In the same breath [the prison officials] denied that the beating had occurred and wanted to know how I had heard about it. I insisted that the warder who had beaten Ganya be removed from the island. They refused, saying that there was no evidence against him. But shortly afterward the warder in question was transferred off the island."31
· On one occasion when the ANC prisoners were working at the island's quarry, the commanding officer showed up, unexpectedly accompanied by his superior officer, Brigadier Aucamp. "I decided that Aucamp's unexpected appearance was a singular opportunity to present our grievances to the man who had the power to remedy them." Mandela approached the two officers, aware that doing so was against prison regulations but choosing to take the risk in order to speak to Aucamp. The commanding officer ordered Mandela to go back to work. Mandela ignored him and addressed Aucamp, "saying I had taken this extraordinary action because our complaints were being ignored." Aucamp refused to listen to Mandela, told the warders to charge him, and he was put in isolation for four days.
writes that he learned from this
incident "a lesson I already knew but had disobeyed out of desperation" - that
publicly challenging an official's authority was not likely to achieve positive
results, and that a superior officer was particularly unlikely to override his
subordinate in public. "The best way to
effect change on
1966 the minister of justice arranged to have the Transvaal Law Society file a
motion to have Mandela disbarred because he was a convicted criminal. "[T]hey were seeking to punish me at a time
when they assumed I would be unable to defend myself….They had reckoned I would
not have the initiative or wherewithal to defend myself; they were
mistaken." Mandela made a series of
requests for conditions and materials he would need in order to prepare his
defense - to be excused from working at the quarry, to be given a table and
chair in order to be able to write his brief, to have access to a law library
· Through smuggled notes, Mandela provided legal advice to prisoners in the general section, many of whom had been convicted without legal representation. He was able to obtain records of cases, identify procedural irregularities and other grounds for appeal, and write appeals which were smuggled back to the prisoners. "I enjoyed keeping my legal skills sharp, and in a few cases verdicts were overturned and sentences reduced. These were gratifying victories; prison is contrived to make one feel powerless, and this was one of the few ways to move the system."34
What stands out for me throughout Mandela's prison account is his constant awareness that he had options, that his choices mattered, and that he could and did take constructive action which had positive results. Pinned at the epicenter of the most repressive regime in the world, there was every opportunity for Mandela to feel utterly powerless and to lapse into unfocused traumatic rage. In fact he consciously refused to adopt a position of powerlessness, and in the process he demonstrated the extent to which strategic resistance - the ability to exercise consciously constructive choices in the face of brutality and domination - can serve as a path out of trauma and toward liberation.
Some of Mandela's victories were purely subjective, consisting of his awareness of his own integrity and self-validation. Others were objective, when he used knowledge of the legal system and his tactical brilliance to out-maneuver and baffle his captors. But in many ways the most telling example was Mandela's response to tactical defeat. When he was put in isolation for defying the commanding officer at the quarry, Mandela could so easily - and so understandably - have focused on the futility of his actions, and could so easily have concluded that he was the victim of an impenetrable system of injustice and abuse. Instead, while never losing sight of the intolerable injustices he faced, Mandela analyzed the system for cracks, viewed his action at the quarry as a tactical mistake, and devised an alternative - and ultimately more successful - strategy.
If Mandela demonstrated the psychological and political power of strategic resistance, he also exemplified what I have called humanizing the oppressor. He says repeatedly that he hated apartheid, not the people who administered or benefited from it. Regarding the 1966 assassination of South African Prime Minister Verwoerd he writes, "Although Verwoerd thought Africans were beneath animals, his death did not yield us any pleasure. Political assassination is not something I or the ANC has ever supported. It is a primitive way of contending with an opponent."35 Upon his release from prison in 1990, Mandela asserted his "belief in the essential humanity even of those who had kept me behind bars for the previous twenty-seven and a half years."36
Mandela's humanism was undoubtedly rooted in his core values and politics. But I think it was also made possible by his subjective empowerment. When we are powerless at the hands of our oppressors - in the moment of trauma or in its aftermath - it becomes virtually impossible to view the perpetrator as a full human being with complexities and vulnerability, and with her or his own story which may well include suffering and oppression. It is only to the extent that we retain (or regain) a sense of our ability to exercise options and to act effectively in the world - and therefore can deeply believe that we have not been utterly devastated by our oppression - that we are in a position to take in the perpetrator's humanity.
This does not necessarily have anything to do with forgiveness, and it certainly does not mean excusing or minimizing the brutality of domination. But it does mean exercising some degree of compassion, and recognizing that oppression and domination are carried out by people who are not fundamentally different from "us." This recognition is an important part of the integrity that is needed to truly survive trauma and to move in the direction of liberation.
Nelson Mandela's unshakable belief in his own human value and in his ability to resist his oppressors - reinforced by a long series of tactical victories under seemingly impossible conditions - enabled him to affirm the human status and value of his oppressors. I suspect that the converse was also true - that humanizing his oppressors made it more possible for Mandela to think clearly and strategically about how to resist them.
I have identified principled nonviolence as a cornerstone of constructive rage - and yet Mandela openly advocated violent struggle. It is true that Mandela (and the ANC) emphasized sabotage of military targets which would avoid or minimize the loss of human life, and that eventually he aggressively pursued negotiation, concluding that a military victory was unlikely and that "[i]t simply did not make sense for both sides to lose thousands if not millions of lives in a conflict that was unnecessary...It was time to talk."37 Nevertheless, while tempered by deep concern for human life, Mandela's stance simply cannot be equated to principled nonviolence - a position which he explicitly rejected.
What is more to the point is that Mandela practiced nonviolent resistance at
In practice, the day-to-day strategic
options that were available to Mandela were all nonviolent, involving various
types of non-cooperation - work slow-downs, disobeying unauthorized commands,
legal appeals, demands for improved conditions, private overtures to the
authorities, and so on. The nonviolence
of Mandela's concrete actions at
While I have argued that there is much to
be gained from organizational commitment to nonviolence on principle, practice
is always more important than stated principles. (Another way of saying this is that
principles are important to the extent that they inform and influence
practice.) Nelson Mandela's practice at
Mandela's account teaches us that we always have options and the capacity to determine a course of action that can affirm our own human value and that can be calculated and designed to achieve positive results - even if the only such result is that we are not allowing our oppressors and perpetrators to define our identities and our values. Nothing could be more critical in the struggle to liberate ourselves from the stranglehold of trauma. Powerlessness - being utterly without options -- stands at the heart of trauma. Options mean power, and thus are the first step out of trauma.
I think that we need to resist the understandable temptation to describe, and in a sense write off, Nelson Mandela as an exceptional individual. I say this despite the obvious reality that many of his achievements were exceptional, and despite the fact that many of the personal attributes that were instrumental to Mandela's successful resistance - such as his standing as an attorney, his intricate knowledge of the South African legal system, and his tactical brilliance - cannot be generalized to victims of oppression at large.
Nevertheless, to characterize Mandela as an exceptional person (as opposed to a person with certain highly useful attributes) is to excuse ourselves from looking at our own capacities to act constructively under traumatizing conditions. The "exceptional" label is not valid partly because Mandela continuously acted in solidarity with other political prisoners and as a member of the ANC, not as an isolated individual - a point which he himself emphasizes but which is easy to disregard. But at a deeper and even more important level, Mandela embodies a capacity for constructive resistance that we all possess.
It is true that under certain circumstances there are particular types of resistance which require technical knowledge and skills that most people don't have. And it is all too true that oppressive social and political conditions constantly impinge upon our ability to resist effectively. But there does exist in each of us the capacity to act constructively in the face of the most brutal conditions. By this I mean the ability to recognize that we have options, to sort out the options and seek to choose the ones that cause the least harm and do the most good; the tenacity to maintain our own integrity and self-regard; the determination to maintain human connections and regard for others; and the capacity to treat others, including our oppressors, as full human beings.
This potential for constructive response to oppression is not a function of specialized skills or tactical brilliance. It is part of the range of the human condition. If we need to acknowledge our capacities to oppress and dehumanize in order to contain them, then we also need to acknowledge our capacities to act constructively and to humanize in order to achieve them.
Perhaps the most striking thing about human beings is the range in our potential to destroy or to affirm life. This is not a new observation, but we usually think of this range in terms of people who act one way or the other - for example the political and moral distance between someone like Hitler and someone like Mandela. So we externalize the range of human potential by associating the extremes of destructive and constructive behavior with individuals outside of ourselves, and by calling some people monsters and others saints.
We begin to close this gap and to externalize less when we shift our focus to political and economic systems, to social and cultural conditions, which have decisive impacts on individual attitudes and behaviors - conditions which cultivate or suppress inherent human potentials. But the most difficult thing to really believe and accept is that the full human range to do harm and to do good exists as a set of potentials and capacities within each of us.
This means taking seriously the notion
that each of us has a potential Hitler and
a potential Mandela within us; that Hitler had the potential to become a
Mandela, and Mandela the potential to have become a Hitler. No one stands outside the range of human
possibilities. This is what Thich Nhat Hanh
expresses in his poem "Please Call Me By My True
Names": "I am the child in
Describing oppressors as the Other and labeling Nelson Mandela as exceptional are two sides of the same coin. Both sides of the coin shield us from our own truths. One side shields us from the intolerable reality that we are capable of doing terrible things; that structural oppressions create innumerable perches from which to dominate others; and that destructive social conditions cultivate everyone's capacity to behave destructively, among other things through the mechanisms of traumatic stress and powerless rage. By shielding ourselves from this reality, we exponentially magnify the risk that we will in fact behave destructively - behavior which when it actually occurs we must either deny or attribute to forces beyond our control.
The other side of the coin (Mandela as exceptional) shields us from the intolerably daunting task of trying to realize our best potentials. It excuses us from taking control over our own lives and helps to lock us in a perpetual victim state. The path from trauma to liberation requires us to embrace, with clarity and compassion, the full range of our own human capacities to destroy and to build life, and to exercise conscious choices that constrain destructive behavior, that minimize our participation in structural domination, and that contribute to the creation of humanized social conditions and power relations from the personal to the global.
Toward a Politics of Self-awareness,
Compassion, and Personal Responsibility
The politics of hatred are built on the psychology of dissociation. In order to hate "them," whether "they" are a scapegoated group or an oppressor class, we have to believe that "they" are fundamentally not like "us." This requires us to deny, disown and split off anything within ourselves that we in fact have in common with these other human beings - and thus to dissociate important parts of our own humanity. In order to hate women, men have to deny everything within themselves associated with femininity - vulnerability, softness, most of our capacity for emotional experience. In order to hate gay people, heterosexuals have to deny our natural capacity for same-sex intimacy. In order to hate our oppressors, we have to deny our own inevitable capacity to dominate and oppress.
To avoid the pitfalls of destructive rage and to move toward liberation, we need to reclaim these split off parts of ourselves. A compelling image which captures the spirit of this idea is the notion advanced by Ken Martin that to combat racism, white people need to find the "person of color within." Martin, an African American, was responding to his experience of white activists relating to him as if he were a kind of honorary white person. He argued that in order for whites to stop treating people of color as the Other, they need to connect with the parts of themselves "which might be nurtured by the cultures of people of color. One has not truly discovered the humanity of ‘those others' until one has found those others within oneself."39
The startling idea that white people have a "person of color within" challenges the socially constructed conceptions of race40 which divide "us" from "them." It also challenges us to locate our fear and hatred of the Other within ourselves - as a projection of something we can't tolerate to face in ourselves rather than having anything to do with the human beings defined as Others.
It is a huge stretch for oppressor groups to begin to acknowledge the characteristics of the oppressed within themselves - for men to recognize their "feminine" traits, for whites to start thinking about having a person of color within them, and so on. But I think it is even more challenging for people who identify as oppressed to acknowledge the oppressor within themselves. And yet, as I have argued repeatedly, the recognition of our own capacities to dominate and oppress is crucial: because everyone occupies some kind of dominant role at some time in some area of their life; because traumatic rage sets us up to blindly dominate when we do not recognize our privileged positions and our capacities to oppress; and because humanizing the oppressor plays a critical role in social change strategies which can lead to more equal power relations and more humane social conditions.
We need to achieve the kind of political and emotional self-awareness that can move us beyond denial and dissociation - allowing us to transcend socially constructed divisions and make human connections in all political directions. This means that from our privileged perches we could look "down" and see that we are not fundamentally different than the people over whom we hold power, and from our oppressed places we could look "up" and see that we are not fundamentally different than our oppressors. In order to do this we need a politics of compassion.41
Compassion is a reasonably straightforward concept when we direct it toward the oppressed (though it is not necessarily easy to practice, and can too easily become distorted into condescension and noblesse oblige). But the idea of compassion for our perpetrators and oppressors is anything but straightforward. It is difficult conceptually because the politics of resistance and opposition to oppression do not readily integrate with something as "soft" as compassion. It is far more difficult emotionally, because of the intensity of our reactions to the brutality of perpetrators, and because of the enormous weight of our traumatic rage.
For me compassion does not mean excusing or forgiving the acts of perpetrators. There are many acts which in my view are neither excusable nor forgivable. Compassion asks a different kind of question, not about whether to excuse or forgive (and certainly not about whether to forget), but a question about how any particular person has come to be a perpetrator. Not about what the perpetrator has done, but about what has been done to the perpetrator.
Embedded in this there is also a question about myself: can I imagine being born this person who has become a perpetrator (even my perpetrator)? Can I imagine that if I had experienced exactly the same life conditions to which he or she has been subjected, I could have responded the same way and could have committed the same acts? If I seriously believe that the perpetrator and I are both human beings, that we are not of different species or made up of fundamentally different stuff, then I have to answer this question yes. And that is the root of my compassion for the oppressor.
Let's take Adolf Hitler as an extreme example. One view is that Hitler was among a category of human beings who are genetically programmed to become mass killers - an assumption for which there is no scientific basis, and which itself ironically mirrors fascist ideology about genetic inferiority and can only lead in the direction of totalitarian repression. The alternative is to believe that Hitler was shaped by his social conditions, by a culture saturated with fear and hatred of Jews, and by the brutality of his own treatment as a child, for which there is considerable evidence.42 If we can stretch ourselves further to imagine Adolf Hitler as a new-born, we would see an innocent human baby, full of life and possibility, deserving of love and affirmation, whose potentials encompassed the full range of human capacities.
What was done to Hitler, by a toxic social environment and by his particular experience of abuse and degradation, annihilated his own potential for compassion and human connection, for kindness and mutual respect, and distorted his need for a sense of power into the psychology and politics of an exterminator.43 What happened to Hitler is qualitatively similar to what has happened to the most vicious male batterers, described by Neil Jacobson and John Gottman as "Cobras," who "had come from backgrounds that more seriously crushed something very fragile that every child begins life with…"44
My compassion for Hitler rests on my willingness to entertain the very real possibility that if I had been born to Hitler's circumstances, I could have become a mass killer (just as if I had been born in Austria I would have grown up speaking German, no matter how "natural" it seems to me that I speak English). Hitler and I share a common humanity, and I am not immune to the damage and distortions wreaked by dehumanizing conditions. What is even more certain is that if Hitler had been born in a humane culture, raised with regard and acceptance and with egalitarian values, he would have become an amazingly different kind of person, one whose potential to affirm life would have had every opportunity to flourish.
One of the reasons why it is important to locate and own our links to the humanity of the oppressor is that without it, we stand little chance of locating compassion for ourselves. To the extent that we view perpetrators as "them" - as fundamentally different from "us" - it becomes virtually impossible for us to inspect and acknowledge the ways in which we also act from positions of privilege and engage in dominating behavior.
I am not speaking here only of potentials and capacities to enact oppression (which also are important to acknowledge), but of our actual behavior, which inevitably involves some degree of participation in structures of domination and abuses of power. I am thinking of the multiplicity of ways - both structural and face-to-face - in which white people enact racism; straight people enact homophobia; men enact sexism; people on various rungs of the class ladder enact classism; adults exercise arbitrary power over children; people considered physically or mentally "normal" enact ableism; and so on and so on. This laundry list includes all of us acting as oppressors in one way or another at some time in our lives.
Compassion for the oppressor makes it possible for us to locate and acknowledge the oppressor within ourselves - and then to try to do something about it. The more we are able to put our outrage at perpetrators on the same page as compassion for their suffering and for the brutalization which has stripped their capacity for human connection and led them to become perpetrators, the more we will be able to face without self-loathing the ways in which we occupy dominant roles and have the capacity to act as oppressors.
The point of this kind of self-compassion is not to excuse our bad behavior or to excuse us from struggling to transform and overcome our dominant roles and behaviors. The point is just the opposite: it is only if we can tolerate the truth of the oppressor within that we can struggle to contain and transform these parts of ourselves. If I am right that many traumatized people occupy dominant roles, and that subjective powerlessness and objective dominance are a lethal combination which account for many concrete acts of oppression and abuse, then compassionate self-awareness of our power over others and how we use it is critical for both personal and structural change.
If compassion does not mean excusing oppressive and dehumanizing behavior, it also does not negate a politics of personal responsibility. While all of us are affected and shaped and too often distorted by our social conditions, we retain the ability to make choices. Another way of saying this is that people also have the capacity to withstand and react against their social conditions; otherwise social change could not possibly happen. There is a tension between the belief that people are shaped by their circumstances and the belief that people can overcome their circumstances, but I think that both are true.
Aurora Levins Morales writes that "[t]he oppression of children is the wheel that keeps all other oppressions turning. Without it, misery would have to be imposed afresh on each new generation, instead of being passed down like a heritage of disease."45 In the long run, our ability to achieve a humane, life-affirming, egalitarian society rests on our ability to raise our children without traumatizing them.
Some pieces of children's liberation are considerably clearer than others. There are first of all the areas where children's rights to safety, physical integrity, and recognition of their basic human worth need to be established and enforced. Flagrant abuses of adult power over children - sexual abuse, physical assault, verbal derogation - simply need to stop. While we have a very long way to go to win hearts and minds and to change adult behavior in these areas, the issues and goals are not hard to define; and there is growing public attention to the issues.
Likewise the issue of children's material conditions - the soaring rates of children growing up in poverty, hunger and malnutrition, without access to health care and to reasonable educational opportunities, and so on - are at least on the political map, though enormous challenges remain to move the political climate in directions which would improve these conditions for children.
There is also an established tradition and body of work exploring radically egalitarian approaches to education, from A.S. Neill46 and Ivan Illich47 to Alfie Kohn.48 Here too we have a reasonably clear idea of the issues and the directions we need to move in, which involve making education culturally relevant and personally meaningful for kids and above all involve affirming and nurturing children's capacities to self-direct their learning and to freely explore the topics, issues, materials and activities to which they are drawn. While this is hardly the prevailing view in the world of education, it is at least a recognized counterforce, not only as theory but also as a developing practice in a range of alternative schools and classrooms.
Where the issues become much less clear (at least in my mind) - and where in many ways children's liberation has not even hit the political map - is in the area of egalitarian parenting. Public dialogue about child rearing is dominated by "experts" as a technical psychological issue or in popular literature in the form of advice books for parents. While there is a longstanding debate about authoritarian versus non-authoritarian approaches to parenting, what passes for "non-authoritarian" usually means not much more than refraining from spanking and giving reasons for limits and rules - both of which are valid and important, but do not go very far toward a truly egalitarian practice of raising kids. Given the enormous power that parents hold over their children, and given the amount of damage that is done to children at home, parenting is an area in which there is a crying need for radical voices and visions, and what we have now is virtually a blank page.49
There are many reasons for this silence. The intense privacy in which child rearing takes place reinforces its invisibility as a political issue. The devaluation of children insinuates itself even into radical consciousness, making it difficult for us to recognize parenting as an issue which occupies the same level of seriousness and importance as U.S. foreign policy or patriarchy or racism or class. When child rearing does come under a radical lens, it tends to be in the form of a radical critique of current practices, and not with a focus on the development of egalitarian alternatives.50
We need to start talking, in as many forums as possible, about how we think we should raise our kids - not just what is wrong with prevailing practices, but what are the right ways to do it - and we need to frame this as a political issue of critical importance. It is political not only because how we raise our children has so much bearing on future political directions and possibilities for liberation, but also because parenting involves power relations every bit as much as patriarchy and racism and class. This seems like an obvious point, considering the extreme power imbalance between adults and kids, but it is one which our cultural blinders keep hidden from view to a remarkable degree.
We need to take the risk of engaging in public dialogue and advocacy about radical child rearing even though at first it may seem that we don't know what we're talking about. What are "egalitarian" parenting practices? The concept of self-direction may be clear and straightforward when it comes to educational activities, but what does it mean when you're trying to get your seven-year-old to brush her or his teeth? There are hundreds of examples at this mundane level which parents and children struggle with every day and which collectively go to the heart of power relations between parents and kids once we have managed to clear away gross abuses of power such as sexual and physical assault.
We can't wish away the power imbalance between adults and kids, and even if we believe that at a certain age (what age?) kids should be able to decide for themselves whether to brush their teeth, it is still the adults who are allowing the kids this choice. If we say (as I think we should) that children are equal in worth to adults, and if we envision parenting as a process of moving step by step from the absolute power that adults hold over new-borns to the achievement of equal power relations as kids reach maturity, then an incredible volume of practical details need to be filled in about how to shepherd that process.
As parents, it is overwhelmingly in private that we struggle with the details. We need robust public dialogue about how to raise children as equals - not only at the level of mutual support and exploration, which is crucial, but also in print, at conferences, through teach-ins, and so on. This is a dialogue that needs to include children's voices as well as those of parents and other adults. I am thinking for example of multi-generational books about child rearing in which kids and adults collaborate or with separate sections by kids and by adults; of books, articles and media projects by children exclusively addressing their political situation; and of conference panels that include kids of various ages speaking for themselves.51
Finally, I think that any serious dialogue about parenting needs to come back to the issue of trauma - not only how to keep from traumatizing our kids, but also how trauma affects parents. My own experience is that there is nothing in my life that comes close to parenting as a continual trigger for my own childhood trauma, and I believe that this is not unusual. Given how many parents have experienced childhood trauma, and the extent to which parenting evokes our own traumatic histories, trauma emerges as a primary issue that must be addressed if we are to raise our children differently. It is in parent-child relationships, perhaps more poignantly than anywhere else, that the lethal combination of subjective powerlessness and objective dominance plays itself out.
If oppressed people need to find ways to contain and constructively mobilize their traumatic rage in order to build effective social change movements, the same is surely true for traumatized parents to be able to rear our children without abusing them, and rear kids in ways which enable them to flourish. No less than with social change activists, we need parents who are subjectively empowered and objectively constrained - parents who are aware of their options at all times, who recognize that they are in positions to dominate their children and make conscious choices not to do so, and instead choose to nourish their children's capacities to take charge of their own lives.
Trauma as a Movement Issue
What might happen if growing numbers of social change activists openly identified as trauma survivors? How could we benefit politically - not only in terms of bolstering our capacities to constrain and harness traumatic rage, which I have tried to address in this chapter, but also in terms of setting new political directions and increasing the effectiveness of the left?
I think that an immediate benefit is that we could expand public awareness of the ways in which toxic social conditions cause personal suffering and debilitate the quality of life for a vast range of people. Traumatic stress is by now a familiar concept. To the extent that we can show how trauma is associated with conditions that affect virtually everyone in our society, we can add in significant ways to a critique of the status quo.
Of course, for me to say that a vast number of people experience trauma in a wide range of political and social situations does not move us very far politically. What we need is public personal testimony and "bearing witness"52 of traumatic experience. In the case of women and combat veterans, this has been happening to varying degrees over the last 30 years. In other cases, such as people of color, gay men and lesbians, and working class and poor people, there has been plenty of testimony about the experience of oppression, but with little connection to trauma that I am aware of. And in other cases still, such as that of men and boys, and in some ways of children in general, we have barely any public awareness of either oppression or trauma.
The point of adding the dimension of trauma to our testimony and our public dialogue about oppression is that it conveys the depth of suffering caused by current conditions. During a historical moment which is touted by mainstream forces as marking the "success" of capitalism as the only viable economic system, when the soaring wealth of the upper strata is equated with prosperity, when poverty is ignored and the welfare poor are being decimated, when racism is declared a thing of the past and the destruction of the environment is constantly minimized and left unchecked, there is a crying need for public testimony which makes tangible and accessible how deeply people are injured by the prevailing order.
Of course, there are compelling reasons why trauma has not been widely associated with oppression and with a wide range of existing social conditions. Trauma means unbearable pain. As Judith Herman points out, there will always be a confluence of forces acting to keep this level of pain out of view53 - not only the self-protective voices of perpetrators instructing their victims never to tell anyone, but also the self-protective psychological mechanisms of trauma victims which lead us to dissociate and to deny our unbearable pain. But there are also psychological and political counterforces which create possibilities for us, individually and collectively, to overcome our dissociation and our denial and to speak the truths of our experience.
35 years ago women were not speaking publicly about sexual abuse and trauma, and sexual violence was not on the political map. This changed through the emergence of the women's movement, which created a political climate that enabled women to speak out - and in turn, women's public testimony about incest and other forms of sexual abuse served as a building block of the movement. We can at least imagine similar possibilities for public testimonies about our personal experiences of abuse and trauma across the spectrum of oppressions, in part because we have the experience of the women's movement to build on and the demonstrated courage of large numbers of individual women to draw on.
Traumatic suffering may be a particularly accessible issue in a post-September 11 world. Vulnerability, powerlessness, and terror are now part of almost everyone's conscious history, making trauma an issue that large numbers of people can personally relate to, and I think that this is not likely to quickly fade. While the tendencies to dissociate and deny overwhelming pain will continue to operate, the extraordinary prominence and visibility of 9/11 create a public context in which it is possible to raise the issue of trauma and have people recognize it in their own experience.
The challenge is to make links between the
suffering caused by 9/11 and the suffering caused by the oppressions that are
woven into the fabric of our society. To
make links between the terror so many of us felt watching planes crashing into
tall buildings and the terror so many of us have experienced when we were
attacked as children; links to the powerlessness so many of us experience in so
many different ways when we are attacked because of race, gender, class and so
on. There is a related challenge to make
connections between the suffering caused around the world by
The eruption of a global peace movement in
response to (at this writing) the threatened U.S. invasion of Iraq also is
creating possibilities for critiques of the status quo that can stimulate new
explorations of personal experience and suffering. Large numbers of people are becoming
increasingly aware that
When this kind of critical awareness of power politics happens on a mass scale and is sustained for a sufficient period of time, it has ripple effects. These can include people's willingness to critically reexamine their own experiences of oppression, and to attend more deeply and more empathically to the suffering of others. It is far from certain that the peace movement can be sustained at its current level, much less that it will broaden and deepen in ways that lead people to connect their opposition to U.S. foreign policy to acknowledgements of personal suffering. But it is possible.
There are many established formats in which public testimony can take place, from organized speak-outs and teach-ins to consciousness raising groups and community-building dialogues that take place within our movement organizations. My hope is that we can find the personal and political will to use these well-established formats for people who have suffered any type of oppression to speak out about the depth of the suffering they have experienced, and to make connections between our suffering and the structures of oppression that are responsible for it. In the process we could develop a much broader understanding of the extent to which not only the personal is political, but personal pain is also political.
There is a staggering amount of personal pain in our society. The natural human tendency to deny and to dissociate from deep traumatic experience is constantly reinforced and compounded by socially promoted mechanisms for numbing, ranging from alcohol use to addictive consumerism, from zoning out in front of the TV to the compulsive accumulation of material wealth. Our prospects for building movements which can achieve radical social change rest as much as anything else on finding effective strategies for tapping the breadth and depth of our societal pain. This means public dialogue which creates contexts within which people can critically reexamine their life circumstances, can learn from each other, and can actively participate in naming their suffering. It also requires that we find ways to channel traumatic rage into constructive action, which brings us full circle to the agenda of this chapter.
One place to start this kind of dialogue is for people who have experienced oppression to publicly self-identify as trauma survivors and to talk about what this has meant in our lives. A simple way to focus such disclosures is to try to give clear and searching answers to this basic question: "How have we experienced abuses of power in our lives, and how have we been affected?" We need to pay vigilant attention to the emotional safety of the people who choose to go public with their suffering, which in some cases may mean events that are limited by gender or race or cultural background, and in others may mean creating safety through numbers, and in all cases should mean trauma survivors taking active measures on our own behalf to educate each other and those not identified as survivors about our vulnerabilities and what we need in order to disclose safely.
To the greatest extent possible, the disclosure of traumatic experience should happen with conscious attention to strategies for subjective empowerment and constructive rage, so that what is unleashed is activism and creative forces which could define new political directions. In the long run it is the awareness that existing conditions cause personal suffering which, as much as anything else, fuels people's commitment to fundamental change.
My process while working on this book may be instructive about how possibilities can be opened up when we surface trauma as a public and political issue. When I started writing I was very clear about the concept of power-under; I had a well-formed analysis of the connections between trauma and oppression politics, and I strongly believed that these understandings could be of value to people interested in or committed to social change. I also knew perfectly well that a book linking trauma to oppression needed to have something significant to say about liberation - and I had absolutely no idea what that might be.
At some point when I was writing about the power-under paradigm, it struck me that in order to move beyond all of the destructive potentials of powerless rage, we have to find ways to make our rage constructive. There was an obvious logic to this, but it also resonated emotionally; and it was more the emotional appeal than the logic of "constructive rage" that began to open me up to actively exploring what this really meant and how it might be achieved. Then I began to connect the idea of constructive rage to my background and beliefs about nonviolent struggle, and I started thinking about the civil rights movement in the context of trauma; later I read Nelson Mandela.
By the time I started writing this closing chapter, which had been a blank page at the end of my outline, I had lots of ideas and a totally different emotional attitude than I had started with. This is not to say that all of the ideas will necessarily prove to be useful, but the point here is a different one: that taking trauma on as a political issue can lead us in new directions, and can open up dialogues that go beyond analysis and critique and pain, and that lead us to entertain possibilities and strategies for positive change.
There is certainly a level at which writing this book has been a healing experience for me as a trauma survivor. The difficulty I encountered at first in trying to imagine how a political analysis of trauma could possibly lead in the direction of liberation had everything to do with my "stuff" - my pain, my own experience of powerlessness, and the kind of deep pessimism and despair that trauma commonly evokes. Writing and the dialogues that accompany it have been a way for me to move through some (surely not all) of that stuff and grasp more possibilities in my own life for options and a sense of subjective power and the risk of entertaining some degree of hope. But it has also meant political growth - the development and expansion of my understanding of how social change can happen.
We need to cultivate this kind of synergy between personal healing and political process. Individual recoveries are not enough by themselves to change the structures of oppression, but they are indispensable to social change when they are linked to political consciousness and activism. We need to make as many of these kinds of links as we can, which means finding as many ways as we can to tap our unbearable pain and use it to expand the boundaries of what we had imagined to be possible, personally and politically.
Notes to Chapter Five
1. Jennifer Freyd, Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 194.
2. Most of what I know about Buddhism I have learned from Elisabeth Morrison.
Hanh, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames (
4. See the section on "Trauma as Overwhelming Experience" in Chapter Two.
See Burt Berlowe, Rebecca Janke, and Julie Penshorn, The Compassionate Rebel: Energized by Anger, Motivated by Love (
6. C.f. Aurora Levins Morales, Medicine Stories: History, Culture and the Politics of Integrity (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1998), p. 124.
7. Levins Morales, Medicine Stories, pp. 111-112.
C.f. Mab Segrest,
Born to Belonging: Writings on Spirit and Justice (
9. Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger, p. 70.
10. Judith Herman identifies disconnection as one of the key psychological harms caused by trauma. See Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1992), Chapter 3.
11. By now we have a considerable body of knowledge about how to resolve conflict cooperatively. The approach which has been popularized by Roger Fisher and his colleagues holds significant promise as a tool for radical social change because it is built on the subversive premise that people can resolve differences for mutual gain. See Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981) and Roger Fisher and Scott Brown, Getting Together: Building Relationships as We Negotiate (New York: Penguin Books, 1989).
12. Fisher and Ury, Getting to Yes.
13. See (out of many examples) Louis Fischer, ed., The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work and Ideas (New York: Vintage Books, 1962); Clayborne Carson, ed., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: IPM/Warner Books, 1998); Susan Gowan, George Lakey, William Moyer and Richard Taylor, Moving Toward a New Society (Philadelphia: New Society Press, 1976); Pam McAllister, ed., Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Nonviolence (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1982); and Robert Irwin, Building a Peace System (Washington, DC: ExPro Press, 1989).
14. Paolo Freire writes about the "housing of the oppressor"; see The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury Press, 1970).
15. Herman writes about the importance of coping mechanisms in a somewhat different context in Trauma and Recovery.
16. See Ruth Benedict, "Synergy—Patterns of the Good Culture," Psychology Today, 4(1): 53-77 (1970) regarding the impact of cultural norms on social equality and inequality.
17. Berlowe, Janke, and Penshorn, The Compassionate Rebel, p. 5. (Full cite at note 5.)
18. The Compassionate Rebel, p. 5.
19. The Compassionate Rebel, p. 4.
20. See for example
21. Richard Wright, Black Boy: A record of Childhood and Youth (New York: Harper and Row, 1966 [originally published in 1945]).
22. Wright, Black Boy, p. 266.
23. I am grateful to Dorie Krauss for a conversation in which she emphasized the role of the Black churches.
24. See Bessel van der Kolk, Alexander McFarlane, and Lars Weisaeth, eds., Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society (New York: Guilford Press, 1996), p. xxi.
25. Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995).
26. Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, p. 387.
27. Mandela, pp. 383-4.
28. Mandela, p. 390.
29. Mandela, pp. 390-391.
30. Mandela, pp. 394-395.
31. Mandela, p. 408.
32. Mandela, pp. 416-417.
33. Mandela, pp. 426-427.
34. Mandela, p. 469.
35. Mandela, p. 431.
36. Mandela, p. 562.
37. Mandela, p. 525.
38. Thich Nhat Hanh, "Please Call Me By My True Names," in Call Me By My True Names: The Collected Poems of Thich Nhat Hanh (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1999), p. 72. I am grateful to Susan Klimist for showing me this poem.
39. Martin wrote about "the person of color within" in a 1986 article in The Grapevine, the internal newsletter of Movement for a New Society, which disbanded in 1988.
40. C.f. Levins Morales, "What Race Isn't: Teaching Racism," in Medicine Stories, pp. 79-82.
41. See Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Boston: Shambhala, 1997) and Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger for Buddhist perspectives on compassion which, though not rooted in political analysis, are in many ways compatible with the ideas I develop here. See also Berlowe, Janke, and Penshorn, The Compassionate Rebel.
42. See Alice Miller, "Adolf Hitler's Childhood: From Hidden to Manifest Horror," in For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-rearing and The Roots of Violence (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984). pp. 142-197.
43. Aurora Levins Morales has suggested to me in a personal communication that it is useful to see destructive behavior as coming from people's "impulse to shape their experience," distorted by trauma.
44. Neil Jacobson and John Gottman, When Men Batter Women (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), p. 94.
45. Levins Morales, Medicine Stories, p. 51.
46. A.S. Neill, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child
47. Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (
48. See for example Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993).
49. Alfie Kohn does address some parenting issues in Punished by Rewards; see particularly Chapter 12, "Good Kids Without Goodies."
50. The emphasis on critique rather than vision is also true in areas which occupy much more attention on the left. See Z Staff, "This Yawning Emptiness," Z Magazine 13:6 (June 2000), pp. 4-5.
51. C.f. Levins Morales, "The Politics of Childhood," in Medicine Stories, pp. 51-54.
52. Levins Morales, Medicine Stories, p. 3.
53. Herman, Trauma and Recovery.
54. Arundhati Roy,
"Confronting Empire," The Nation