In these polarized times, it would be difficult to find a person who has not noticed how upset and irate people get when talking about hot button issues in the media. Deep friendships have been lost over politics, families fractured. People view each other with mistrust and suspicion. Physiological changes happen when we get upset- our hearts race, our breathing gets shallow, we become tense jawed or clench our fists.
There are numerous topics that bring this up, and almost all of them have to do with differing perceptions about oppression (which is about power and control) or what is needed in order to remain safe: Racism, sexism, homophobia, religious differences and religious encroachments on public life, gun rights, diplomacy vs. war strategies, military budgets, surveillance by intelligence agencies, the role of TSA, crime and how to address it, the militarizing of police forces and use of force by police, the Patriot Act, the sexual objectification of women, the importance of and levels of violence in professional sports. These are all topics hotly debated and they can become polarized rather quickly. And now we have unapologetic censorship of governmental agencies that pursue science to add to the list- which is clearly oppressive.
Perhaps less obvious correlations to oppression or how to remain safe are the ideas of corporate citizenship, corporate welfare and tax breaks for the wealthy or poor, and staggering income inequities. Climate change, regulation of business, pollution, destroying the natural environment in order to pursue business, causing extinctions of flora and fauna, these are all linked to differing perceptions of what constitutes oppression and violence.
These are all items that are difficult for people to approach civilly. It’s difficult to write about civilly. I see many many instances where my writing becomes strident as my fierce worry about these issues and their roots lead me to want to frame these topics in certain ways or use strong words. We become physiologically aroused when we talk about these subjects with people who have differing views or even when we just read an article where we disagree with the philosophy or beliefs of those who differ from us.
We Argue About Power and Control And Safety
To emphasize again: the most passionate differences we have seem to be around differing perceptions of what is or will produce oppression. We all want a sense of power and control over our lives, it is a basic human need. It is also a huge component in trauma responses. As are our differing perceptions about what is needed for our safety. It is interesting that we encounter so much conflict around these basic needs. If we were not mistrustful of those that are different from us, we could find ways to compromise and support each other in our quests. If we were not stuck in mentalities born of traumas that happened long ago, we could more easily recognize that enacting different policies and being good stewards of the land will actually not harm us in any way. But as it stands now, we have intense reactions to certain topics that revolve around safety and oppression.
Recall that regaining a sense of power and control is the first need a person has in the aftermath of trauma. Recall that when people are in the grips of any illness, they tend towards self absorption and not being -able- to see or understand others as well as they might.
These dynamics are not choices. They are natural response we have as human. And in the aftermath of trauma and when we are not able to see others fully, they are often produce very ill thought out reactions that work momentarily in the short term. In the long term knee jerk TBRs are clearly not healthy. But to recognize this, we have to consciously face ourselves and realize what is driving us. We have to consciously make choices to recognize our own over reactions and to focus and see others fully when we are ill.
Physiological Responses to Tension
Tension and anxiety affect people’s reasoning abilities. Thanks to neuroscience, we now know that our brains literally don’t function as well when we are under a lot of stress. Our abilities to think divergently decrease (significantly). When trying to problem solve, the number of of options we can create decreases by quite a large percentage. We become more rigid in our thinking, meaning we move to simplistic either/or thinking. When a person is under a lot of stress, failing to consider compromises, failing to see merit in options we don’t immediately agree with is common. Why would we expect this to be different on a cultural level?
And again, physiological changes are not made by choice. We can counteract some of them, but only if we recognize we are in the grips of them.
Safety at Any Cost
As tensions and anxieties rise, simplicity and entrenchment kick in -big time. Fight Freeze or Flight responses emerge. Fueled by an overactive amygdala, normal humans can become inflexible reactionaries, our brains actually incapable of seeing the fallacies in our own arguments. People will double down on absurd arguments, believe the most outrageous lies and promulgate them if we are in the grips of PTSD. At this point, large amounts of cognitive energies are being consumed by thoughts that the world is unsafe. People in the grips of PTSD are mistakenly believing that there is constant danger. If a person is in this state, if -we- are in this state, we are in a state of survival. In survival modes, other people’s rights do not matter very much to us. When we are operating within a culture wide trauma based decision making system, it can become much more difficult to see other people’s perceptions as valid.
Seeing the world in terms of threats is such a routine act in people with PTSD, that we honestly sometimes don’t even know we are doing it. Paranoia becomes a normal response. A sincerely meant compliment sounds suspicious. No one can be trusted- spying becomes essential for safety reasons, never mind anyone’s objections. Rationalization of over the top tactics comes easily. Does any of this sound familiar? And again, when in the grips of a trauma based response, we are not consciously making choices to view others with suspicion.
Hot Button Topics Are Linked
Recall again that the first and primary thing a person NEEDS to do after a trauma is to regain a sense of power and control. Outsized needs for power and control are exceedingly common trauma based responses.
Virtually all the major problems we face today, have become or were always, issues of “power over” each other or “power over” domains. Differences we have over how to treat nature and animals are related to conflicts about the perception of “dominion” over. Differences over how to regulate or not regulate actions for the safety of the planet and for the freedoms of business are differences about how “power over” is used. Race and gender issues continue to be hot button topics based on how much power people have or perceive they have vis a vis other people. Income inequities can easily be seen as the unequal distribution of power. Issues over living wages are related to regulation, which is essentially “power over” manifested via statutes and laws. Conflicts over gun rights are oh so obviously related to both perceived needs for safety and perceived senses of power and control.
How to govern has always been necessary. We need ways to have discussions and make decisions about how to create and maintain public spheres, and interact publicly. But the reality these discussions become (consciously or unconsciously) about gaining power and then deciding how to use power in culture after culture that have strong senses of hierarchy*.
Our Positions Are Seen Ideologies not as Psychological Needs
Unfortunately all of these topics become framed as ideologies rather than conflicts around gaining and regaining a sense of control. We recognize we have difficulties talking about these topics civilly. But we don’t see CLEARLY that the conflicts we have are, at their centers, about power and control. We further do not see how these topics are naturally going to be touchy if we -at deep cultural levels- are feeling vulnerable about how much power and control we have.
Until we understand the complex ways both people and cultures respond to trauma, we will have faulty assumptions (that we are only dimly aware of) that will hinder us from making wise decisions about how to live together.
*When I use the term hierarchy, I am almost always using it as a euphemism, soft pedaling and not using the word I want to say (patriarchy). That word appears to smack of ideological dogma to some. I am avoiding much use of the word precisely because I want to talk with not shout at those who may shut down when the word is uttered. I want to support us all in transcending fear based TBRs and in being brave enough to actually listen with an open mind to what is being said rather than dogmatically insisting the stances are political. It may not work, but I am trying.