Understanding Trauma and Threat Responses Can Help the US Face Our Past and Foster Reconciliation

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wo of my nation’s primary national traumas are the subjection of blacks (and other non-whites) in the effort to create a permanent slave caste, and the genocide and exile (and sometimes enslavement) of Native Americans. By understanding the psychology of trauma, we can better understand the hard work of facing this history and fostering healing. We can also better understand the vociferous and often violent resistance to these efforts, and how to overcome it non-violently.

As with personal trauma, national trauma affects both the victims and the perpetrators. A lot of the psychological mechanisms that get activated by trauma are the same for both victims and perpetrators. This in no way dissolves the moral difference between perpetrators and those who survive them, although it can be a part of the self-blame that survivors feel. In an attempt to cope with the horror of what has been done, people naturally engage in denial, dissociation, and a range of other behaviors that disconnect us from the painful reality in order to help us keep going. When we open up traumas, these various defenses get reactivated or activated. The bad faith and vicious euphemism of Confederate and neo-Confederate lost-causers (up until today) is a great example of denial and dissociation in action at the level of our society.

When we move from the personal scale to a broader social scale, there are emergent features of our standard trauma responses that also help groups cope at scale. Many of the responses that disconnect individuals from their own experience as perpetrators also help groups mobilize in order to perpetrate wrongs. For example, denying what happened also protects the group that is engaged in denial from self-doubt (not to mention legal action), and helps mobilize the group to fight in a frenzy of self-righteous anger. The conflict spirals that this produces are free of concerns about the underlying reality (who did the wrong, what must be done for reconciliation to happen), and this can be useful in the short run. Instead, these responses orient people toward the more immediately practical social reality: groups are preparing for increasing conflict, up to and including the possibility of total war.

In a crisis, hypocrisy is a feature and not a bug. Please don’t misunderstand: it is also a bug more broadly because it disconnects us from reality, and that has all kinds of negative consequences down the line. It is just that in a conflict situation where you are a perpetrator it is handy to have all the hypocrisy you need, and human psychology provides it automatically and quickly and in limitless supply.

So when you point out a problem and partisans engage in hypocritical (and even false) accusations, what you’re seeing is a standard threat and even trauma response. There are a lot of different terms for the related falsity-fostering behaviors: whataboutism, tu quoque fallacies, gaslighting, hypocrisy, and more. These are useful terms for naming the problems and the ways in which they disconnect people from certain realities. What is important to understand is that these aren’t just random mistakes, and addressing them requires something that includes, but goes well beyond, pointing out the falsehoods they foster. What we need to understand is that these “fallacies of hypocrisy” are themselves sometimes adaptive coping mechanisms for both individuals and groups in high conflict situations. But like other coping techniques, they easily become over-generalized, maladaptive, and even integral to self-fulfilling prophecies.

People and groups who go around in a cloud of whataboutism and tu quoque fallacies are like guys who get drunk and belligerent all the time: they live in a world in which they are constantly being punched and kicked and elbowed because they are always picking fights. And so they end up reinforcing the high threat, high violence, high conflict scenario that they wrongly feel is the real essence of life. And so they press deeper into the patterns of maladaptive coping, the denial and dissociation that feeds their whataaboutism that feeds their belligerence that feeds their high-threat life experience that reinforces their maladaptive coping and spreads the trauma around.

What can be done about this? All kinds of things! We’re fortunate to live in a moment when a lot of new breakthroughs have been made in understanding these mechanisms, how they work, and how to turn these vicious cycles around. A lot of this work is being applied to really substantially help individuals who have grown up in abusive situations, so they can change their patterns and heal. Some examples include Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, EMDR, and a wide variety of other approaches that help people identify problems, feel safe and reconnect with reality, including the lived reality of their bodies. For a wonderful and highly readable review of some of this work, I recommend The Body Keeps the Score.

If we are ever going to deal with our national traumas, their memories sliced painfully open and put on display for the world right now, I think that we need to understand the psychology of personal trauma and how it relates to social trauma. Things like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa provide an inspiring illustration of how we might start these processes. What is exciting and what gives me hope is that this sort of work is just the beginning. Even as we face new threats and agonies and new backlashes against facing the reality of our history, we also have new resources and models and insights to help us understand what can be done about it.

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.

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