Why haven’t cultural level trauma based responses been recognized before this?
First and foremost, an entire category of symptoms of PTSD revolve around avoiding the subject of trauma. In other words, in order to be diagnosed with PTSD, people have to show some symptoms of avoidance about trauma. Really!
Even people who do not have “full” PTSD, but with unresolved trauma will routinely go to great lengths to construct stories of their lives that avoid much -or any- emphasis on trauma.
Why would we expect this to be different at the cultural level?
Cultural Levels of Denial
Many people mistakenly think they are protecting themselves when they refuse to look at the impact of trauma on their lives. This strategy of suppression and denial is also found across many cultures.
The fact is that dealing directly with trauma is very frightening and painful. So people often do their best to “bury the past”.
Cultures do the same sorts of things by minimizing or sanitizing their histories. These kinds of strategies rarely work in the long term, either in individuals or in the larger cultural contexts.
Up until the past few decades, mainstream history was almost fully blind to its numerous cultural biases. Mainstream historians routinely constructed stories that created heroes out of oppressors and failed to acknowledge or explore the traumatic fallout from the oppressive behaviors of colonizers.
Up until very recent decades it was perfectly acceptable to portray colonizers and conquerors as supremely heroic and righteous peoples. Various social movements have begun to help us develop other -badly needed- perspectives that show colonizers and conquerors in less flattering light and as significantly more primitive and barbaric than they’ve been previously portrayed.
Cultural PTSD says: When we look critically at our history as a species, one of the first things we can’t help but notice is the extent of the trauma and our violence. The degree of past and current violence in human history has produced an incredible amount of trauma.
As individuals and as a species, examining and resolving our own trauma based responses is very difficult to do. Avoidance is a natural response.
By ignoring past trauma, people are simply attempting to protect themselves from acknowledging pain and suffering. Unfortunately, this strategy emphatically does not work in the long term.
And again, why would we expect this to be any different at the cultural level?
Avoidance and Patriarchal Values
When we face danger or react to trauma, we have two main categories to pick from: fight or flight.
It appears that traditional gender roles have assigned mainly “Fight” type reactions to become part of “what a man is”. In the pre-feminist movement days, women were socialized to act out and believe in “Flight” reactions. Women have had the last 60 years of feminism and have erased some of the restrictive and problematic norms, but the socialization of boys and men have NOT gone through similar changes.
In a culture that still sees “male” norms and values as the default, it only makes sense that the larger culture contains lots of elements of “male gender role” norms and values.
Noting these as culturally problematic norms and beliefs is not an indictment against men, but it is most definitely an indictment about the ways we have collectively defined masculinity and have socialized men to try to become unfeeling fortresses of hardness with highly restricted emotional repertoires and options for expression.
Indeed, many of the behaviors and beliefs that are part of our current symptoms of Cultural PTSD unfortunately and unavoidably line up with hyper masculine endeavors and values. Here are a few examples:
Valuing might makes right ideologies (Huge empires/fortunes/companies must be good).
The very common practice of remaining hyper competitive in business to the point that executives try to deny scientific data when it risks too many profits.
Thinking in terms of “conquests” and in conceiving of relationships in terms of “power over” rather than “collaboration with” others.
Cultural obsessions with the military and weapons in general.
Entertainment industries filled with violent video games, oversized 4wd trucks (the better to dominate the earth with), and enjoyment in violent sports (think about how many movies have pushed the relentless normalization of violent male models like Rambo, and The Terminator).
Creating New Normals
Because these norms and values are so common, we see them as “normal”, “natural” or part of “human nature” and forget that they have been created by humans. We don’t recognize them as cultural constructs and so we are able to avoid thinking about them because they are as “natural” as going shopping when we are out of milk.
The facts still remain that whether the behaviors are seen as “masculine” or “feminine” or un-gendered, these culturally endorsed behaviors are at their roots, fear based reactions to our uncertainty about our environments. And because they are knee jerk, not fully conscious strategies, they are also usually pretty primitive reactions. And yes, many of them are seen as traditionally masculine.
Once the majority of us can see fear based actions and reactions for what they are, and certain norms, assumptions and actions as symptoms of a larger illness, they can and will become easier to account for and eventually circumvent. Trauma informed awareness can easily lead us, for example, to solutions such as choosing to consciously shift to using compassion based strategies.
However, avoidance and denial is an integral part of our problem. It’s the inability to see how trauma based reactions and decision making have contributed to our problems that is probably the largest stumbling block in resolving or mitigating the cultural level problems we face as a species.
The problem is so large that in earlier drafts of my outline for this theory I wrote this:
1. Humans have endured a tremendous amount of trauma as a species.
2. The extent and impact of this trauma is not recognized at all in our cultural level thinking.
3. Trauma can and does by its nature produce altered ways of perceiving in individuals and in groups (fear based thinking prevails: the world becomes divided into safe and unsafe, quests for power become outsized).
4. As a species we are acting in ways that very closely resemble how people with PTSD act. Many of our cultural norms also mirror how people with PTSD think and act (arms races, building walls, xenophobia, reckless acting out, etc.).
5. We need to recognize this and begin to treat ourselves as trauma survivors recovering from cultural level PTSD.
6. Some people (caught up avoidance symptoms) will not be able to understand or accept a word of this.
7. It’s still true anyway.
I still think that formulation of the theory of Cultural PTSD sums up our problem rather neatly, but I have altered the theory to a slightly different state to so that it produces the beginnings of how to address the issue.