Why haven’t cultural level trauma based responses been recognized before this?
First and foremost, recall that an entire category of symptoms of PTSD revolve around avoiding the subject of trauma.
Even individuals without 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 many people mistakenly think they are protecting themselves when they refuse to look at the impact of trauma on their lives. This is a strategy of suppression and denial that is also found across many cultures. It stems from avoidance because dealing directly with trauma is very frightening and painful. So instead people often do their best to “bury the past”. Cultures do the same sorts of things.
In the past few decades, the “science” of history has been roundly criticized for its cultural biases. This criticism has reached the point that by now we all realize that history has been written almost exclusively by the victors. 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 takes yet another (previously unexamined) perspective: 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 pain and suffering. This can and does work for some people in some circumstances. Unfortunately, for a lot of other people, this strategy emphatically does not work. In fact, most clinicians would argue that for the majority of people, their lives most often remain extraordinarily painful when they refuse to look at the ways trauma has impacted their lives. Left untreated PTSD often gets worse, not better with time.
And again, why would we expect this to be any different at the cultural level?
Fear Causes Us To Become Irrational And Primitive
It really cannot be overstated: Fear evokes a primordial response in humans, Mitigating our fears will always be the largest consideration for humans when faced with a confusing world.
Whether or not we are conscious of or acknowledge the fear is irrelevant. When we are frightened, consciously or (usually) not consciously, we act in ways that serve to protect us in the best ways we know how in the moment at hand. These are often quite primitive and brutal ways when examined objectively. Indeed it can take quite a bit of conscious effort to respond in well reasoned and carefully thought out ways when we are frightened. We train ourselves to respond intelligently to physically threatening scenarios such as those first responders encounter. But the vast majority of us are not trained to the extent first responders are. Similarly, most of us are emphatically not trained in reasonably responding to things that frighten us on emotional levels.
Avoidance and Patriarchal Values
Some of the behaviors and beliefs that are part of the symptoms of Cultural PTSD are unfortunately and unavoidably hyper masculine endeavors and values. I’m sorry for that, but facts are facts. Here I’m referring to values like hyper competition, might makes right ideologies, the idea that being an Alpha Male kind of person is a good thing in and of itself, thinking in terms of “conquests” and in conceiving of relationships in terms of “power over” rather than “collaboration with” others. I’m referring to people who seek enjoyment in obtaining and playing with hyper masculine objects like assault rifles (spurred by the relentless normalization of male models like Rambo, and The Terminator), weapons in general, violent video games, oversized 4wd trucks (the better to dominate the earth with), and enjoyment in violent sports, etc).
Noting these 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.
In simply naming those things, most of those who engage in hyper masculine behaviors and hold hyper masculine beliefs will undoubtedly be offended by these observations. I’m willing to bet a fair percentage of readers will dismiss any validity in the theory and their willingness to embrace it altogether based on me tossing out the word patriarchy in disparaging ways in a few places on this website. This is a predictable response, really. When getting close to uncomfortable psychological terrain, we tend to get defensive-this appears to be true of us as a species, at least at this point in our evolution.
Sometimes zeroing in on vulnerabilities too quickly or directly backfires (for example simply saying something like: “Patriarchal values tend to be based primarily on certain members of a group gaining and maintaining a sense of personal power over others” to certain people could completely blow up any possibility of dialogue even though the statement is undeniably true). In the consulting room, asking too many insight oriented questions too early in the course of therapy can easily result in frightened clients who tell themselves “therapy is bunk” and fail to return to therapy -usually right after recognizing in some way that yes, they were traumatized as children.
Detractors of this critique on society will (undoubtedly) find ways to use full on denial and other defenses to remain (probably loudly and crudely) adamant in their dismissal (and ridicule) of the very idea of Cultural PTSD, and will retreat to environments where others share their beliefs. So be it.
The facts still remain that whether the behaviors involve acting macho and buying hyper masculine toys, or whether it’s by remaining hyper competitive to the point that executives justify denying scientific data when it risks too many profits, these culturally endorsed behaviors are at their roots, fear based responses to our uncertainty about our environments. And because they are knee jerk, not fully conscious strategies, they are also usually pretty primitive responses. 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 responses 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. And unfortunately at this point, I believe one of the most important aspects of that inability is due to how closely most of the problematic cultural norms are aligned with patriarchal and/or hyper masculine norms.
Yet when we do not recognize these fear based beliefs and behaviors (aka symptoms) to the effects of the trauma, we will (paradoxically) remain unable to control those beliefs and behaviors effectively. 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.