According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is defined as “the emotional response someone has to an extremely negative event. While trauma is a normal reaction to a horrible event, the effects can be so severe that they interfere with an individual’s ability to live a normal life. In a case such as this, help may be needed to treat the stress and dysfunction caused by the traumatic event and to restore the individual to a state of emotional well-being.” Collective trauma is when a certain distressing event, such as an environmental catastrophe, world war, genocide, terrorist attack, mass shootings, financial crisis, mass job losses, oppression, poverty, disease, or political crisis, has a traumatic psychological effect on a large group of people, a community, or an entire country or countries. The most frequently cited collective traumas include: WW I and WW II, The Holocaust, Slavery in America, and the 9-11 terrorist attacks. The concept of collective trauma was developed by French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim noted that values, rituals, and norms were the bonds that held society together — they provided solidarity, social cohesion. A collective trauma severs these bonds, destroys the social order, causes people to feel disoriented and disconnected, evokes a collective feeling, and can alter a society’s culture and mass actions. Sociologist Kai Erikson, author of Everything in Its Path (about the devastating Buffalo Creek flood of 1972), described how survivors were in a permanent state of shock, and struggled to find meaning and purpose in life. Sousan Abadian, a former fellow at the MIT Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformational Studies, notes that “collective trauma [is] at the level of culture — that culture has been damaged, meaning institutions, cultural practices, values, and beliefs.” Psychologist Jack Saul, author of Collective Trauma, Collective Healing, adds “[Some] of the features we often associate with collective traumas [are]: social rupturing and a profound sense of distress, the challenging of long-held assumptions about the world and national identity, a constricted public narrative, and a process of scapegoating and dehumanization.” Sound familiar?
In his thought-provoking article for The New York Times, “Are Americans Experiencing Collective Trauma?”, sociologist Neil Gross argues that the election of 2016 is a classic example of a collective trauma. Gross writes: “[The 2016] presidential election has collective trauma written all over it…. Mr. Trump’s victory signals that that world, with the assurances it offered that there were some lines those seeking power wouldn’t cross (or that the American electorate wouldn’t let them cross), is no longer. Rightly or wrongly, memories have been activated of historical traumas linked with anti-democratic politics, such as the emergence of fascism in interwar Europe and the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.” Tulane psychology professor Charles Figley also believes that the 2016 election is a collective trauma: “First and foremost it’s on everyone’s mind and it’s discussed frequently. There are signs and symbols associated with it. Mentioning a particular slogan or singing a particular song simply connects people to the phenomenon and reminds everyone they are in the same boat.” And unfortunately, Figley observes, there is a nasty side effect: racism and xenophobia; he elaborates: “People tend to separate from people that are different from them, connecting with people that are like them, and share their concerns, and vilify the opposition.” Yale sociologist Ronald Eyerman, who co-edited Narrating Trauma: On the Impact of Collective Suffering, believes that the recent presidential election felt less like losing a election, and more like the assassination of a revered leader, like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, or Harvey Milk. Eyerman explains, “[Milk’s] death was first collectively mourned in a massive march through the streets of San Francisco… The [killer’s manslaughter] verdict was interpreted by many in the collective, the San Francisco gay community, as a betrayal, a failure of American institutions, in this case the courts, the police and the justice system as a whole to do justice to an aggrieved group. This betrayal and loss of faith in American institutions threatened the very foundations of collective identity.”
Is there a path of healing for those communities that suffer from collective trauma? Most experts agree that collective trauma will remain chronic and reoccur if social causes are not properly addressed and if perpetrators are not held accountable for their actions. With respect to historical collective trauma, mental health experts typically identify four required steps for healing: confronting trauma, understanding the trauma, releasing the pain, and transcendence. Joy DeGruy, author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, emphasizes the importance revisiting and studying the initial behavior/event rather as opposed to denying that it ever occurred. Armand Volkas, a psychotherapist and child of Holocaust survivors, explores the potential perpetrator in all of us, as a way of humanizing the enemy, and bringing people together. Figley believes that people eventually figure out a way out of collective trauma: “When a community collectively experiences a trauma, people ask each other questions about what happened and why it happened, who caused it whether it will happen again. Over a period of time there is an accommodation to loss, stock-taking, and gradual acceptance, and then creating new things in the wake of these changes that you didn’t want. People figure out what to do to feel safe again — physically or psychologically.”
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For further reading: www.nytimes.com/2016/12/16/opinion/sunday/are-americans-experiencing-collective-trauma.html