Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Reflections on victims and bullies....and the oscillation between the two

 Writing in The New Yorker, Jan. 3 & 10, 2022, Paul Sehgal, in a piece entitled, “The Key to Me,” decries the prevalence, indeed the universality of “the trauma plot” in contemporary fiction.

Here are some of his words:

The prevalence of the trauma plot cannot come as a surprise at a time when the notion of trauma has proved all-engulfing. Its customary clinical incarnation, P.T.S.D. if the fourth most commonly diagnosed psychiatric disorder in America, and one with a vast remit. (Merriam-Webster #4: to give relief from suffering)…How to account for trauma’s creep? Take your corners. Modern life is inherently traumatic. No, we’re just better at spotting it, having become more attentive to human suffering in all its gradations. Unless we’re worse at it—more prone to perceive everything as injury. In a world infatuated with victimhood, has trauma emerged as a passport to statue—our red badge of courage? The question itself might offend: perhaps it’s grotesque to argue about the symbolic value attributed to suffering when so little restitution or remedy is available….During treatment for P.T.S.D. after serving in Iraq, David Morris was discouraged from asking is his experience might yield any form of wisdom. Clinicians admonished him, he says, ‘for straying from the strictures of the therapeutic regime’. He was left wondering how the medicalization of trauma prevents veterans from expressing their moral outrage at war, siphoning it, instead, into a set of symptoms to be managed.

Perhaps, as a “creative writing” instructor at New York University, Sehgal’s primary interest in literature might tend to focus his attention on the literary productions filled with trauma, and potential therapeutic “recovery”…when it might be feasible to assess that his real core complaint is with the dominance of the therapeutic model, the DSM (is it now #5?) that has emerged as the universal diagnosis and solution to severe pain whether emotional, physical, sexual or even criminal, in the literary, military, political, criminal and even the ‘spiritual’ world.

There is a deeply enmeshed transactionality to this archetype: it demands symptom, microscopically identified, and then compared with similar symptoms, clustered by those whose lives are dedicated to the relief of emotional and physical pain, as if they are so similar, if not actually identical. Agency of the interventionist, toward “healing” the psychic wound, is analogous to the surgeon who inserts screws into a severely broken arm or leg, permitting it to grow to something akin to its original strength and deployment.

Trauma, however, does not reduce so easily to an identifiable “symptom” that can, with the right intervention, be healed. Indeed, the medical model may, in fact, be counter-intuitive to an appropriate intervention. And the literary model, tracking the immense popularity of the medical model, itself tracking the “transactional” model of business, science, politics and the economy, all of which disciplines perform as if they each have the “cure” for whatever ailment is currently possession the individual or the body politic. Education too, in the form of classical conditioning, exhibits a similar “product” expectation, especially measured by behaviour that can and is measured by testing instruments that, themselves, possess an inherent bias of the designer.

It is as if  Pavlov’s dogs, so responsive to the bell/food conditioning experiment, have come to serve as models for human “interventions” on the micro and the macro scales. Professionally trained clinical whatever’s, have their theories and their scientific papers based on other theories and papers, including renowned experiments, that demonstrate the effectiveness of specific kinds of interventions.

 Whether through cognitive-behavioral, Gestalt, immersive analysis, or mere “mirroring” or any of several other models, clinicians (emblematic of the “doctor” in the white coat) probe for the “presenting symptom” and then drill down to find how the “client/patient” has been able to survive similar if less penetrating and debilitating trauma, in order to assist with the recovery of that strength. With military conflict, compounded by economic collapse, climate change and the resulting existential threat of global extinction should we not commit to the curtailment, or possible elimination of carbon and methane emissions into the atmosphere, individuals as well as cumulatively and collectively, defining the first two decades of the twenty-first century, it can hardly be a surprise that those most deeply susceptible to the rhythms and the ebbs and floes of the psychic vibrations in the culture, the artists, writers and creators generally, would both mirror and expose those vibrations.

Victimhood, as an archetype, has a compelling dramatic universality, given that we have all gone through some form. And in order to “belong” it is our shared (albeit very different, in cause, in events, in symptom and in depth of impact) experience of being wounded. And victims need bullies, in order to categorize themselves (ourselves) as victims. Given the prevalence of bullies, themselves unconsciously agonizing, inappropriately, about their own woundedness, and taking their deep and unresolved anger and frustration out on the nearest, and most “stereotypical”  weak-one….the outsider, however that archetype is defined in the immediate culture. Childhood trauma, inflicted by a parent or a family member or family friend, is often enacted ostensibly as a “healthy parenting” or even a “game” thereby protecting the ’victim’ from a full realization of the impact of that trauma. Early interactions in a young person’s life, take on a “how-am-I-doing” motivation for the child/adolescent, given that performance, grades, goals, touchdowns, bell-beating 3-pointers, scholarships, trophies and public acclaim offer and provide motivation linking both child/adolescent and parent/teacher/coach. Classical conditioning is then in full bloom.

Even somewhat mature adolescents will (have) question why we are stuck with “you are not the best teacher for us who are not the best students” in a ranked allotting of students relying on previous grades. Perceiving an injustice, and projecting that injustice onto the instructor, illustrates a simple form of bully/victim dynamic.

We have all learned what it is like to be bullied, and likely in our darkest and most secret moments, have even explored, either literally or imaginatively, what it must be like for the bully. A middle-of-the-night scribbling, in dark felt black ink, using a bright orange pen, blurted what was a vain and poorly crafted spewing down a page, so infested with anger at a colleague, that, I imaginatively entered the pattern of Brutus, when faced with the prospect of killing Caesar. At no time, afterward, did I have any emotional reaction to that person. At another time, faced with a peculiar submission of a male “coach” who had bought into the “talking” therapy as a necessary discipline for all males, I blasted a screed arguing that men and women were not the same in this regard, and that even among men, we each have our unique and respectable differences. His reply noted a “shot across his bow” and I have never heard from him since.

Oscillating between victim and bully, however, is far too familiar a pattern, especially among those who have not had/taken the opportunity to excise the boil of their psychic wounds. And, ironically, especially in the entertainment world of popular culture, those “super” heroes, who can and will accomplish the impossible, while extremely attractive to young people, are at risk of implanting feelings of desire, aspiration, dreams and even actions in emulation of those “heroes” whose actions can veer into bully-hood.

Corporate executives, sometimes called “drivers” given their tightly held responsibility to make good things happen among unwilling pawns, can and do qualify too often as bullies, leaving the archetype of victim on the shop or office floor. Professional athletic leagues, tightly controlled by top-down owners and executives, manipulate their “actors” (players, coaches, managers) as if they were merely another piece of metal for a production line. And the preferred line of interpretation of that behaviour runs something like: “If he is a man, he will accept these decisions, without complaint, without revenge, without sulking and will keep his head high and continue to perform at his highest capacity.” Are the athletes victims, or does that apply only to those like Colin Kaepernick,  who took a knee to protest racial injust, and has never thrown a pass in the NFL since, and likely will never throw another pass.

It is our capacity to discern the real victims from the faux victims that really matters, and yet in a culture in which “FAUX” trumps “real” and “authentic”, and alternative facts outwrestle, out shoot, and even erase real factual, scientific and credible information, that capacity is in jeopardy.

However, we cannot claim to be victims to that dynamic. After all, we are directly complicit in the developing background of that culture theme, whereby selling the “sizzle” and not the steak has been a montra for marketing professionals, for decades. Appealing to human emotion, especially those emotions that make one feel inadequate, frightened, small, unpopular, unwelcome, different, awkward, dumb, of the opposite gender, powerless, impotent….these are all magnets of the advertising copywriters’ vernacular. And whether or not those feelings actually exist, in any given target market, the opinion polls, the market research, the ‘opponent research” and the increasing detailed volume of that data, along with the hourly curating of that data, render each of us vulnerable to those highly seductive pitches.

Are we victims of that seduction? Many of us are, at various times.

And then there are social and political movements that arise when a group of people consider themselves “at a red line” moment, when they feel that something they regard as highly significant for them, is being eroded, evaded, dismissed, or even ignored. Victims and victimhood begat more victims and more victimhood. It is like another “mass movement” another pendulum swing of social attitudes, that vacillate from one extreme to its opposite.

The Americans renounce putting “boots on the ground” in Ukraine, in the face of Putin’s war-sabre-rattling on the Ukraine-Russian border, after twenty years of American debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, no matter how “honourable” was the service of those thousands of service personnel in both theatres. Reverting to isolation, as the former president did, is dramatic evidence of his need to “manipulate” (ride the evidence of the polls) appearing “strong” and “principled” and yet unwilling to acknowledge his inherent weakness and insecurity. The paradox of the victim/bully in incarnate in the presidency from 2017 through 2021 in Washington.

Oscillating from one pole to the opposite, however, is no way to run a railroad. We are not, individual or collectively, assigned to or resigned to a single archetype. We are all more than victim/bully. However, without acknowledging our uniqueness, our individual talent and perspective, not in a Hollywood-cheerleading manner, as “special” and capable of “anything” but rather in a much more modest and  realistic, “grounded” in our deepest intrinsic personal feelings and motivations, and seeing and respecting both the limits of our “uniqueness” and the limits of our capacities, we run the risk of over-stepping our personal boundaries.

Those boundaries, unlike the sidelines on the football field, or the ‘key’ on a basketball court, are not marked out on our individual pathways. They have a tendency to emerge only after we have over-stepped them, when someone else yells, “Stop!” And it would seem, at least to this observer, that we are not very good at touching the arm of one who might be about to over-step a boundary, for which act s/he might live to regret for a very long time.

The institutional culture, the leadership culture, in all of the powerful offices and board rooms, have a singular responsibility to own and to acknowledge when they are abusing their power. That dynamic or theme, however, is in very short supply, in too many quarters where the occupants definitely know better. Whether they are hiding behind tradition, rules that are “absolutely right” for this institution, including the institution of the church in all of its many forms, or protecting their own “ass” by defining their modus operandi as “the end justifies the means”…in a wild-west, tyrannical exercise of testosterone (by both men and women)…or as the result of expectations of their perceived investor list…or for some other reason, they are really the prime mover of most of the victim attitudes and actions….even among novelists, playwrights and creators.

Tilting too far one way, as in physics, however, has the predictable impact of trending back to the other end of the pendulum. And it is this oscillation that we have to come to recognize, and to slow its pace and compress its compulsion, if we are going to stabilize otherwise intractable forces and individuals.


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