Power-Under: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change

On Power-Under:

The expression of powerless rage is like the flailing of someone who is literally drowning. The survivor, who is reenacting the moment of trauma, is caught up in a desperate struggle for psychic survival. Someone in such a state cannot possibly gauge the impact of their actions on others. And to someone who is feeling powerless, acted upon, and profoundly victimized, it is typically inconceivable that we could be posing any threat or danger to others. Yet the flailing of a drowning person poses a very real danger to anyone who approaches, and so can the expressed rage of a survivor in a traumatic state. The irony is that someone acting from an internal state of sheer powerlessness can have an enormously powerful impact on anyone in their path. This is the dynamic that I am calling power-under.

On Nonviolence as Self-Protection:

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 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?

On Power-Under in the Aftermath of 9/11:

The sense of victimization and subjective powerlessness that so many Americans understandably feel in the wake of September 11 stands in stark contrast to the overwhelming dominance that the U.S. actually wields globally in the economic, political and military spheres. The aftermath of September 11 offers an illustration of the lethal pairing of subjective powerlessness and objective dominance, in this case played out on the stage of world politics. The sense of being acted upon, and the levels of terror and rage that it evokes, simply drown out the relevance or significance of American dominance for many people. In turn, the intolerable sense of subjective powerlessness that underlies traumatic terror and rage creates an exceedingly fertile base for popular support of counter-aggression that can be defined as self-protection and self-defense.

The more we are able to speak to people's experience of vulnerability and powerless rage in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks - not instead of, but in addition to a critique of American dominance in the world - the better our chances of reaching people and persuading them of the wisdom of peaceful responses to terrorism.

On Breaking Cycles of Violence:

We all have an understandable tendency to be incisively aware of our own victimization and to deny our own capacities to cause harm. As a result, we tend to describe neat divisions between victims and perpetrators, between oppressors and the oppressed. But we do so at the expense of an accurate description of political and personal realities; and our perceptions of ourselves as pure victims, and of oppressors as inhuman Others, can set the stage for continued cycles of violence. Conversely, if we can take hold of more complex versions of reality, in which we are willing to describe ourselves and others as both victims and perpetrators, both oppressed and oppressors, it can be a path toward the kind of awareness and compassion that we need to break cycles of violence.

On Humanizing the Oppressor:

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.

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.

On Men as Perpetrators and Victims:

Understanding the ways in which men are victims can deepen and amplify our understanding of the ways in which men act as perpetrators. "Victim" and "perpetrator" do not represent separate and unconnected pieces of male experience: the socialization to dominance requires the crushing of men's emotional capacities; and the experience of powerlessness and trauma, together with societal values and structures which place men in dominant positions, has a direct bearing on male violence, brutality, and predatory behavior.

In order to view men through the single dimension of power-over, we have to find a way to factor out the truth that all men were once children, that as children they were helpless and vulnerable and acted upon, that some were sexually abused and nearly all were physically abused, that their capacities for empathy and human connection were systematically uprooted, that they were ridiculed and shamed for any display of vulnerability and any non-aggressive emotional expression. If men begin to become conscious of the ways that sexism has traumatized and oppressed us, and if we start to seriously believe that we benefit from the expression of a full range of emotions and from the capacity for empathy and for emotional connection, we could begin to dismantle some of the lynch pins of male domination.

On Trauma and Right Wing Populism:

Trauma has something to tell us about the appeal of right-wing populism in U.S. politics. People's sense of victimization is commonly played out politically through the mobilization of fear, hatred, and scapegoating of targeted groups (or institutions or nations) who in various ways are identified as threats to their well-being and as sources of their victimization. The major actors on the right surely understand the vulnerability of traumatized people to populist appeals for mass scapegoating - though undoubtedly they would not describe their politics in these terms. The manipulation of traumatic victimization into political expressions of rage and hatred downward at stigmatized and relatively powerless targets - rather than upward at power elites and at structures of domination and oppression - is one of the lynch pins that sustains the status quo.

Any strategy for countering right-wing populism needs to take into account the breadth and depth of traumatic experience in our society. The challenge for the left is to develop a populist politics which can resonate with people's experiences of victimization and trauma, but can do so in ways that direct rage upward at the real forces that make people powerless and devalued, and which offer people options for the constructive expression of their rage.

On Trauma and Social Change:

Examining psychological trauma contributes to the capacities of movements opposing oppression to achieve lasting social change. It is only by unmasking trauma as a major factor affecting social change efforts that we can develop the tools we need to address it on anything like a consistent basis. The first step, both simple and incredibly daunting, is to name the issue. This means identifying the connections between every kind of oppression and the traumatization of individuals on a mass scale. It means a willingness to recognize trauma in the lives of those we identify as oppressors. It requires the same kind of willingness to examine trauma in our own lives, in whatever configurations "we" are set off against "them." It means recognizing traumatic rage as a force of enormous political magnitude, and the posing of myriad strategic questions about the mobilization of that force.

Updated Jan. 2008