The Six Main Points of Cultural PTSD Theory in Outline
Here is the outline form of the theory of Cultural PTSD. The main points in the outline will be discussed in much more detail and one by one in their corresponding chapters in the upcoming book.
This theory is meant to describe what appears to happen -in broad terms- in cultures considered to be part of or greatly influenced by “Western Civilization.” The term Western Civilization is clearly quite broad and nebulous, and it includes many separate cultures that share some understandings. For the theory of Cultural PTSD, one of the more important issues is that Western Civ cultures share is that virtually all of them colonized Others, or were colonized at various time.
The first four points are explanatory theory, and points five and six are recovery oriented. So the theory, as it is presented here, is not a purely academic theory, but sort of a hybrid of explanatory theory along with two practical “what to do about the problem” starting points. It is also a work in progress, and has evolved and continues to evolve -hopefully towards better articulation and deeper understanding over time.
1) Human history abounds with trauma
Natural and human made trauma has been with us for the entirety of human existence. Humans have always dealt with it in the best ways we knew how, whether through superstitions, victim blaming, scapegoating, or through various rituals. But (speaking in terms of Western sciences now), we didn’t know much about how to effectively resolve trauma until lately. As a result, important aspects of our cultural environments are in large part formed by collective responses to theses traumas, which may or may not hav been healthy responses.
2) The extent and impact of our historical cultural trauma is not currently recognized.
We don’t see the cultural impact of trauma for many reasons, several of which are explored in some detail in the full book. Because we have not recognized the way traumas have impacted us, we do not see how trauma based reactions color our approaches to a multitude of problems.
Several core reasons why we have not previously linked our current malaises to trauma reactions include a) the natural tendency to avoid thinking about trauma, (indeed, some symptoms of avoidance must be present in individuals in order to diagnose PTSD) b) the fact that cultural constructs are notoriously difficult for humans to perceive when they are living within them, c) the fact that social facts get watered down into “ideology” on a regular basis in ways most “hard science” facts do not, d) the recognition that illnesses in general whether physical, mental or cultural make us self absorbed and slower to comprehend what might otherwise be obvious to us when we are in optimal health, e) the very structures of how various social sciences have evolved (after all these sciences are products of cultural norms and constraints, and certainly not purely logical evolutions of knowledge- as tempting and reassuring as belief in that would be).
3) We have, at the cultural level, formed assumptions, beliefs and attitudes that very closely resemble common maladaptive responses that individuals have to trauma.
In short, we have something that could be called Cultural PTSD-and for the most part, it is completely unrecognized as such.
It needs to be noted that not all people who suffer from trauma go on to develop PTSD. In fact, the majority of people don’t develop PTSD because they end up resolving trauma in “healthy enough” ways.
In similar ways, many cultures appear to have avoided the fate of developing overly aggressive, power hungry, imperialistic norms. These cultures would have had less all consuming focus around having “power over” as an unspoken underpinning of cultural norms.
While healthier resolution to power and control needs, are certainly a plus, it is quite possible that the lack of many (probably trauma born) aggressive norms put the many less power obsessed cultures at a disadvantage when first encountering cultures and people steeped in competition and “power over” mindsets. Indeed, it’s pretty easy to look back and see how thoroughly exploited less power obsessed cultures were by cultures utterly steeped in ideas where the accumulation of wealth, status, and control were seen as important.
For cultures that did develop responses we can call Cultural PTSD, numerous norms affecting everything from an over emphasis on military “solutions”, to intrusive levels of surveillance, to the mind numbing effects of how work is structured, to the reckless greed and quests for money, power and control we see in many corners of business, religious doctrines, and politics can be traced directly back to typical trauma based reactions, once the connections are made.
Indeed, many cultures developed dynamics rooted in force and coercion in order to gain and maintain dominance. This “need” for dominance stems -in large part- from maladaptive ways of addressing of the completely normal fears after hardships and needs to regain power and control after experiencing traumas.
Since we live within these cultures, it can be very difficult to see our own norms and assumptions. This reinforces our already almost complete blindness to how we have unwittingly been trying to deal with historical trauma through our cultural values for eons. It also masks the pervasiveness of the current cultural norms, assumptions, and values we hold that appear to have been directly born from trauma based reactions.
4) PTSD, by definition, can and does seriously impair people’s abilities to reason, function and cooperate with others at productive levels.
PTSD in individuals is a serious disorder that often gets worse over time if untreated, unlike some other disorders which tend to dissipate over time. The same is true of PTSD at the cultural level. That we are having extreme difficulties on the collective level with conflict, oppressive and coercive attempts by some to maintain power and control is not an accident. It is a result of our cultural illness getting worse. For example, in the U.S. in 2022 we are witnessing bans on educational materials that show how inhumane humans can become towards one another (including but not limited to so called CRT bans), extensive voter suppression efforts, the Jan 6th insurrection, etc.
All of these attempts to exert control in unhealthy ways hinders our abilities to resolve other critical issues such as climate catastrophe and the incredibly large and dangerous wealth inequities (inequities that stem directly from obsessive quests to consolidate wealth/power by any means available, regardless of how millions of others are affected).
In individuals, the symptoms of PTSD conspire until people become decompensated, that is they become less effective in problem solving and regulating themselves. We are seeing obvious corollaries at the governing level in the US, which appears to be a direct result of our cultural illness.
5) PTSD of any sort is treatable.
PTSD can be difficult to treat, but it’s treatable. Cultural PTSD is a variation on the general theme of PTSD. Some tools to help us are already available. Once pointed out, beginning to see correlations between PTSD symptoms at cultural levels and our political approaches to problems is pretty easy for most people. As with most things culturally related, the impacts of Cultural PTSD touch us on both the personal and the political levels. The persistent problems between various political groups of people begin to make a little more sense when we look at cultural level assumptions related to power, control, safety and distrust just a little differently: namely, as ways they manifest as common symptoms of PTSD. This is not meant to excuse the actions of oppression at all. Accountability for oppressive and abusive actions is a crucial and often missing piece at the cultural level due to various factors. The lack of accountability is speeding our cultural illness along. But, there is still hope that we can recover from the symptoms of this cultural illness.
6) We need to recognize our symptoms and treat ourselves in order to recover from Cultural PTSD.
The time is now. Recognition of the existence of Cultural PTSD and acknowledging the substantial role it has been playing in the impulses some have to oppress and abuse Others can help us thwart it. More consciously understanding how trauma based reactions can affect us at the cultural levels can help even more of us to transcend the primitive ideologies based in of authoritarianism, and to thwart the intentional proponents of it.
To successfully address our problems at the policy level in the 21st century and beyond, we need to start recognizing how many fear and trauma based reactions are currently embedded in how we perceive the world and our social issues. We need to think in terms of trauma informed care in all affected spheres. And finally, we need create policies that are not based in unconscious trauma based responses (e.g.: relying on military solutions to social problems).
See “Cultural PTSD, the Super Condensed Version” for more about how trauma twists our perceptions and uses of power.