My herbalist friend Cascade tragically passed away earlier this month. I'm posting this video demonstrating her wonderful storytelling skills as she recounts parts of our trek through the Himalayas back in 1978. Enjoy!
My herbalist friend Cascade tragically passed away earlier this month. I'm posting this video demonstrating her wonderful storytelling skills as she recounts parts of our trek through the Himalayas back in 1978. Enjoy!
“....(trauma is) a breach in the protective barrier against stimulation, leading to overwhelming feelings of helplessness.”
- Sigmund Freud
One powerful impact of the contemporary information explosion is increased exposure for all of us to traumas happening throughout the world. The Newtown shooting. The violent murders of public officials. Soldiers committing suicide either when they’re still serving or when they return home. The horrific consequences facing those impacted by environmental disasters. We are reminded daily of these and other traumatic events primarily by two sources: the media and politicians.
That would be fine if these reminders were intended to encourage us to have empathy for the trauma experienced by the principals in these stories, or to consider ways to change the circumstances that resulted in the trauma in the first place. What politicians and the media often do instead, however, is the opposite: they sensationalize and emotionalize traumatic events. First they offer up a thin veneer of concern, and then use the traumatic impact of an event (and its aftermath) for their own advantage. A sensationalized story allows the media to sell more papers. It allows politicians and the media to manufacture fear: to project horrific consequences for the future as a result of the story. When a population is gripped by fear - as was the case after 9/11 - it’s a short step for politicians to take from that fear to the justification of irrational, invasive policies such as the Patriot Act, or immoral wars such as the Iraq war.
This ease with which this happens may seem befuddling until it’s recognized that manufactured fear leads to another, more serious consequence: it re-triggers individual traumas a person has experienced in his own life. When a politician exaggerates the potential consequences of an enemy's behavior, the audience is often having deeper, more personal fears triggered: maybe having been sexually abused, or bullied, or of nearly drowning in a boating accident, or of experiences in combat. Traumatic events such as these have been experienced by a majority of people, yet very few of those people have done anything about it other than bury it and hope it goes away. Such experiences don’t all automaticallly result in PTSD, but that doesn’t mean trauma hasn’t occurred. Through structuring one’s life carefully to avoid trauma triggers, a person may project the impression of being fine; they may even get compliments for their resilience from those who know them. But often they are only able to maintain this facade because they have minimized the impact of the trauma not just through avoiding triggers but in other ways: denial, drug or alcohol use, dissociation, busyness designed to “outrun” the trauma. But unresolved trauma percolates quietly in the body of the person traumatized, and in his memory. When politicians or the media manufacture fear, this trauma can easily be re-triggered. It’s naive to think politicians don’t know this; of course they do. They also know that if they successfully re-trigger trauma they can incapacitate people. It’s a short step from there to securing more power and influence: people are less apt to fight against a policy when they feel helpless. And because trauma in the general population is as widespread as it is, the media and politicians have worked out how easy it is to reproduce the sequence of trauma: 1) Threat, 2) Emergency Response, 3) Freezing, 4) Re-experiencing of rage and terror. That sequence of trauma leads to another sequence: the one activated by the predatory politics that 1) manufactures fear, 2) finger-points and blames others to create an identified enemy, 3) proposes ill-conceived policies to punish that enemy under the guise of being a “protector”, 3) pushes overreactive policies through legislative bodies, and 4) paves the way for enriching and fortifying their own estates.
There are plenty of examples of how this plays out, but one from the mid-1990s illustrates how blatantly callous and sinister trauma activation can be. That example comes from the former president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic chose to “reactivate the chosen glory” of Prince Lazar, a Serbian hero who been killed 600 years earlier by Muslims at the Battle of Kosovo. He had Lazar’s bones dug up and passed from village to village as a means of evoking hatred and a desire for revenge amongst Serbs towards their Muslim neighbors. He used this to create a war atmosphere, to justify torture and brutality, and to enrich his own circumstances and those who were allied with his cause. This example is illuminating because it points out how easily trauma can be re-triggered, even when the event referred to occurred 6 centuries ago. Responses to reactivation will include irrationality, impulsivity, hyperarousal, helplessness, anxiety and insomnia: all of which can be deftly steered towards a politician’s end of violent retribution towards identified enemies. The media colludes with this emotionality through overwhelming a person’s sensory systems with the incessant reporting of horrific events, and combining this with emotive, opinionated reporting styles.
For people to counteract the trauma continually generated by nature, politics, war, and crime is challenge enough. To have to deal with the additional burden of having trauma merchants continually retrigger individual trauma by the irresponsible use of the public domain is unconscionable.
Remember the first time you did something you weren’t supposed to do as a kid, knew it was wrong, and were scared about the consequences? If you remember that, you probably also remember that your first thought immediately afterwards was probably something like “How can I make sure nobody finds out about this?”
It’s a fact of life that we all make mistakes. It’s also a fact of life that our fear of facing up to our mistakes frequently leads us to making another, more serious mistake: that of covering up our actions, even though doing so may bring considerable harm to others. If, in spite of our mistakes, we instead make the effort to make things right, we drop into a universal narrative of reparation: one that transcends culture, nation, race, or gender. A narrative that doesn't hide mistakes, but faces them. Staying on the winning side of this narrative is the inspiration behind the vast majority of music, literature, and film we take refuge in to remind ourselves of how high we can soar, how low we can sink, and what we need to consider if we're to sustain our courage during what could be a long journey. Whistle blowers are one way people are forced to face the mistakes they have made whether they want to or not: and, at the same time, are given the opportunity to participate in the narrative of reparation.
That's why most people who heard about Scott Proudy's decision to release his videofile of Mitt Romney's "47%" comments during the recent electoral cycle immediately knew it was important. Their assessment would have been confirmed once they learned about Scott Prouty’s conversation with himself in the middle of the night....the one in which he looked in the mirror and recognized he’d see himself as a coward if he didn’t release and later acknowledge this videofile. Similarly, people old enough to have lived through the VietNam war knew instantly how critical Daniel Ellsberg’s publication of the Pentagon Papers was in unpacking the hypocrisy of the American government in that war. We all recognize the importance of such events because we know that if our society is to remain accountable, how it operates when noboby is looking matters. We also know that the nastier side of our nature usually requires intervention from outside if destructive behavior is to be stopped.
So it's unsurprising that the majority of people recognize the importance of a whistle blowing event - regardless of whether they agree with the whistle blower or not. The problem that emerges then is that despite this recognition, people also know that our societal institutions are more threatened by the act of whistle blowing than they are welcoming towards it. In addition, they suspect - rightly, usually - that government, corporations, religions, and even the media are also asking themselves How can I make sure nobody finds out about this? (whatever their "this" is)
The herculean efforts institutions and individuals make to hide wrong doing reflects three aspects of fear that are important to understand if we are to collectively reverse our pendulum swing towards hyper-individualism back towards a more communitarian perspective. The first understanding is that fear grows stronger in the dark. The second is that hidden fear eventually strangles conscience. The third is that both of these factors sabotage community.
This becomes clearer when considering the fear of a whistle blower next to the fear of a wrong-doer. The fear a whistle blower faces - having his own life and those of loved ones ruined or ended by standing up to an injustice - is a “moment of truth” fear. It is nerve-wracking, sleepless-night-inducing, riven-with-anxiety fear. What will I do with what I now know? How will the larger community I'm a part of respond? It’s a fear perfectly capable of swallowing a person up in one big gulp.
As de-stabilizing as whistle blower fear is, it’s a vision of health compared to the fear of those in power. Why? Because if a person desperately seeks to remain invisible (the CEOs of tobacco companies before being outed by Jeffrey Wigand) or fervently defends himself with psychopathic bluster (Dick Cheney on the virtues of going to war in Iraq), he is either losing or has already lost his battle with fear. He may not think so because outwardly it may look as though he has successfuly pummelled his fear into submission. So much so that he may not even feel much fear anymore: he may have heart attacks instead, or just be numb to all his emotions. But this pyrrhic victory points to that fact that access to his own conscience, and access to a wider community, has been terribly eroded: sometimes to a point of no return. Despite this - as Hannah Arendt brilliantly pointed out in her groundbreaking studies on the "banality of evil" - a person whose conscience and connection to a wider community has been eroded this way still looks “normal” to folks on the outside. He is often quite "successful" in terms of traditional definitions of that word. But behind all of this, he likely lives in dread of the kind of fear a whistle blower experiences. He has no real confidence in his capacity to still be standing at the end of facing such fear, and insufficient courage to find out.
All of which means that society’s collective concern about the ability of our institutions to make decisions that reflect the common good - including decisions that protect and encourage whistle blowing when something is wrong - is well-placed. In fact, we’ve structured many of our institutions in such a way that “getting to the top” is usually easier for isolated people without a functioning conscience (studies of the increasing number of pscyhopaths heading up corporations seem to confirm this).
But changing the course of a meta-narrative always takes time and persistence. We swing from agony to ecstasy as we do so in part because we can feel fear, and because we impel ourselves to find ways to deal with it. At our best we keep pinching ourselves out of the trances we fall into despite our best intentions, picking ourselves up off the floor and turning back to our conscience again and again for guidance.
The way Scott Prouty, Daniel Ellsberg and a whole historical string of whistle blowers would want us to do.
Many have already seen this powerful video animation/poem, but in case you haven't.....
One question that has come up more and more in conversations I’ve been having lately is how society’s power brokers - in both the private and public sector - have been so successful in avoiding consequences for their increasingly bad - and often brazenly bad - behavior. Two particular examples in the U.S. come to mind: 1) A president with a “kill list” and 2) Wall Street barons responsible for a catastrophic financial meltdown walking away unpunished five + years after they brought the rest of us to our knees. How could this happen? is the question that most comes to mind, a query that reflects movement so fast, so contrary to the discourses most people are having with each other and so disconnected from the plight of the vast majority of people that it feels impossible to keep pace with it all. If that’s how you feel, you’re not alone.
It’s not as if the activist responses to bad behavior have disappeared. The organizing, protesting, and communicating people are doing to stop abuses of power are moving ahead and are just as passionate as ever. But there’s still a sense of “untouchable-ness” that seems to shield the powers that be: a shield that looks thorough, well established and, some would say, impenetrable. The laws and regulations various societies have adopted over the years to protect their citizenry from corruption, exploitation, and dangerous behavior seem to be consistently failing in the face of this shield - so is it truly impenetrable?
Despite appearances, the likely answer to this question is NO. Whenever systems change, 3 things happen to mask that change until the moment comes when it all tumbles down: 1) Polarization between the powers that be and those outside that power increases. The increasing wealth divide between the haves and have nots rampaging through society right now is a good example of this. 2) Lots of people become passive, but the ones who remain active and continue to advocate start breaking through occasionally. So while a large number of folks are getting lost in their iPads, it’s also true that the effectiveness and persistence of advocacy for certain causes (equal rights under the law for gays, for example) begin to get traction. 3) Slowly but surely, the dialogues the society needs to have in the broader community outside a specific advocacy group starts happening. Right now in the U.S., the dialogue about how we need to reconcile our constitution with the huge number of gun deaths is a primary example of a conversation slowly becoming more relevant. That relevance will need to move well beyond our laws - which will have varying degrees of effectiveness - to our culture. Can a culture with a strong fear-based, paranoid strain shift to one that cultivates trust and connection to each other? Can the hyper-emphasis on individualism so valued by gun rights advocates move to a point where community interests in safety and the well-being of children receive equal weight? Meta-narratives take a long time to shift.
The only hope we have in discovering answers to these questions lies in the quality of the dialogue we are able to have about them, something we all intuitively know. Cultural dialogue that examines what we collectively value at this point in time, and how we are going to value it.
If the dialogue on guns, or climate, or corruption, or the economy, can move to that level - if we can actually have important conversations on these matters - that seemingly impenetrable shield that protects the power brokers will, all of a sudden, fall over.
And then all those tortoises who put their necks out and their feet in motion will cross the line....perhaps sooner than we think.
One of the most powerful indications that a person has not compromised his mental flexibility is his capacity to change his mind about something. Of course, changing your mind can also mean confusion or timidity or a number of other things, but that's not what I'm talking about here: I'm referring to changing your mind because you've used it. Changing your mind because you are critically thinking, and have opened up other possibilities. This is a foundational skill if we're ever to move beyond ideological thinking.
I came across this article today about a staunch environmentalist who was radically against genetically modified foods and now supports them. Because this topic is so volatile, I plan to keep monitoring it because it's one of those subjects where moving to the opposite side of the spectrum if you're a public figure means you're going to catch considerable flack. That doesn't mean you've necessarily moved from "wrong" to "right", but it does mean you've done some thinking (I'm discounting the cynical option of someone being "bought off", of course - which happens, but isn't something I assume as a first option). I'm not knowledgeable enough about the wisdom of moving towards genetically modified foods (I question whether anyone is, given the number of variables), and I live in an "organic nation" environment where opposing GMOs is much more common than considering them as viable....which gave me all the more reason to take a look when someone in the middle of that debate publicly went the other direction.
Have you had ￼this sort of conversation with people you know?
You: How’s your business going?
Friend A: Well, I’m struggling. I’m spending all my time marketing, and I hate doing it.
Friend B: Me too. It’s crazy! The people who promote me/advertise me/publish me/own the gallery/etc. are making money, but it’s getting harder and harder to earn a living from the stuff I’m making/writing/creating.
There’s many things to say about this trend, but one of them is this: the image of something is becoming more important than what the thing actually is. And that makes people much more susceptible to ideologies. The trend to purchase things for their brand and/or image has been a train in progress for decades. We are spending more and more of our dollars looking to grab representations, looks - things that remind us of something else we’ve lost or at least feel we are losing.
Consider Facebook. The time we spend using it increases all the time, and the convenience of it is indisputable. But what happens to real friendship when more time is spent electronically connecting to a person than is spent face-to-face?
Consider Books. More widely available, in different formats, books continue to sell: but what kind of books? Are you more likely to see people reading A Tale of Two Cities or How to Decorate Your House at Christmas? The latter sort of book has always been more popular, even before the internet explosion, but the gap between reading something that may lead to self-knowledge vs. reading something that keeps our image-making machinery running continues to widen. In addition, much is being written suggesting that the exponential increase in the time people are spending in front of screens is significantly affecting sharply qualities that help them stay tethered to reality: concentration; time spent with others; critical thinking. Those concerns have raised their head every generation (“These calculators make it too easy! Kids don’t know how to add anymore.”) But that doesn’t minimize the risk: as entertainment increases its dominance on capturing and sustaining a person’s attention, what is unreal becomes more interesting that what is real. Bob Woodward gave a great example of this at journalism conference recently, when he commented that his contemporary audience mostly thinks that researching the Watergate scandal could be replicated today by “googling it”. Just as privacy and ethics are being redefined, so is the value of real things rather than their representations.
And the ideological danger inherent in that is simple: people are more easily persuaded, more compliant, and more likely to spend their times in like-minded belief bubbles.
Ideology is front and center in the news this week, with two powerful examples. The first is the NRA press conference advocating armed guards be posted at every school, rather than enacting gun
control legislation designed to lessen the number of guns in public hands. The second is the inability of House Majority Speaker John Boehner to be able to convince his caucus to back an alternative fiscal cliff plan that includes raising taxes on people earning above 1 million dollars a year, simply because it involves some tax increases on the rich.
Both these examples illustrate the intransigency of groups who have crossed into territory where they no longer have the ability to think outside their beliefs. Their only strategy is to keep holding those beliefs, win or lose. In this case, the group in question is the Republican party, now largely controlled by Tea Party Extremists who threaten to “primary”(i.e. run a more conservative candidate against them) anyone who does not agree, absolutely, to never raise taxes and to never support gun control.
Absolutely is the key word here to understanding this process. When an ideology is dying, it fights for its cause with greater fierceness. It does this for 3 reasons: 1) Ideological persons conflate their identity with their beliefs. They see who they are as the belief itself, so if the ideology is threatened, so is their existence. 2) The firewall between those who believe in the ideology and those who do not becomes impenetrable. Reason, critical thinking, compassion, tragedy cannot penetrate it. 3) The firewall between the belief and psychological stability, on the other hand, disintegrates at a faster rate. Psychological health is based on capacities such as the ability to relate to others different from you, to resolve conflict, and to hear and respond to different ideas without succumbing to all-consuming rage, psychological - and sometimes physical - violence.
Another way of saying this: when an ideology is in its last stages, everything intensifies. After all, with identity and belief equivalent - and belief threatened - how else can things be seen other than as a fight to the death? When critical thinking, compassion and the impact of tragedy (Newtown, recession) is sidestepped, what tools remain for reasonable people outside the ideology to use in order to engage with an ideologue? When psychological stability disappears, what replaces it? Fear and paranoia, and all the behaviors associated with that.
So how does the next act play itself out? Not pleasantly, and not without a lot of messiness. The original Humpty Dumpty, after all, was a huge canon which, when it was hoisted on top of a wall, was too "fat" for the wall to sustain so down that wall came. The walls that will tumble down now will do so because ideological narrowness has grown even more narrow, because reactionary responses to perceived “otherness” are becoming even more vehement, and because stripping away psychological stability means stripping away a person’s sense of responsibility for his actions: anything goes when an extremist movement is under threat. The more power an ideology has over people, the worse the result. Examples? The Inquisition. Stalin’s oversight of between 6 and 20 million deaths(depends on who you ask) of his own people. Hitler’s execution of > 6 million Jews and other "non-Aryan" groups. The Armenian Holocaust conducted by the Turks in the early 1900s. Jonestown. And more, as you know.
But it’s important to remember: extreme outcomes do not appear out of nowhere. They result from years of people turning away from growing trends in their midst: allowing pieces of ideological intractability to be institutionalized; allowing charismatic but corrupt leaders to have their way; absorbing the abuses ideologies inflict on them by adapting instead of fighting. Adapting to ideologies means accepting injustice as a matter of course, without ever connecting in meaningful ways with others to attempt to stop it.
What’s both exciting and scary about what we’re seeing in the U.S. at the moment is, in fact, a more robust willingness to stop adaptation. A willingness to draw a line, and fight back. That willingness is not sudden, either: social justice groups and others have been doing this for decades, but historical timing has created a tipping point giving them momentum. But if they are to prevail, they have to fight for their beliefs just as strongly as those who oppose them are fighting for theirs.
So if they do that, what makes them any different from those they oppose? In some cases, nothing. Sometimes one ideology replaces another and it turns out to be just as bad, even worse. I vividly remember attending anti-VietNam war meetings in the 1970s that had people attending (left wing ideologues) who were just as extreme in their views - and who would be just as damaging if power were in their hands - as those they were opposing. This is a primary challenge of our times: to oppose things because we know they’re wrong, without compromising our critical thinking, our compassion, and our willingness to constructively entertain doubt about our beliefs. That’s hard.
But one thing does help. Ideologies are like Humpty Dumpty: they become so over-stuffed with their beliefs that they collapse their own foundations. They crumble suddenly. I expect to see that in relation to the Tea Party down the road.
But not without a battle, and not without a lot of collateral damage first.