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The Untenable Politics Of Trauma


8 min read
This person hasn’t necessarily engaged in trauma politics, but stock images of people looking distressed are usually very loaded with connotation.

From liberal feminists comparing Bernie Sanders to an abusive ex-boyfriend to emotional police meltdowns about police brutality videos, self-victimizing, trauma-oriented language is the new way to advance a political position. 

This shift is not entirely new, but it is gaining predominance for two reasons. First, psychological terminology has entered mainstream thought and parlance as we are having more open conversations about how poor mental health negatively impacts peoples’ lives. In other words, it has expanded our vocabulary. Second, trauma language corresponds to the increasing popularity of a politic that centers lived experience, which I have previously discussed here.

As a part of this culture, the internet gave rise to a boom in personal essays. Often, these essays provide commentary that allude to a form of domination, such as sexual violence or racism, and show how certain features of our system are manifest through personal anecdotes. This is undoubtedly something worth learning about; after all, the issues we consider as leftists are real problems that impact real people. 

The nature of the personal essay is that it’s personal. It’s not journalistic, and it’s not factual. It’s about someone’s subjective experience. Nonetheless, personal essays (and Twitter threads) have fed into the economy of what I will call “trauma politics”: attempts to undermine dissent and/or seek political leverage through the invocation of personal trauma. As I will explain, trauma politics have achieved this by elevating the status of trauma and lived experience from information about how domination could manifest to a political and argumentative trump card.

Trauma politics has three untenable components. First, it arbitrarily favours those that are more comfortable sharing their personal history. Second, the personal nature of this form of political discourse makes contesting facts a matter of personal attack rather than genuine truth-seeking. And last, it forces us to contend with one’s personal and subjective narrative rather than material social and political circumstances. 

Consider the second reason for the growing popularity of trauma language: politics that center lived experience. Hearing about peoples’ lived experience allows us to understand different perspectives about how others experience the world. As such, we obtain access to experiential knowledge we may otherwise never come across. This can take a beneficial direction: we can see how the capitalist system we critique manifests in peoples’ everyday lives. 

That said, we do not typically seek knowledge solely in the experiential field alone, and for good reasons. Experiences are subjective, and accounts of experiences are sometimes unreliable. For instance, scientists are now questioning how reliable accounting an experience from memory can be and particularly the efficacy and accuracy of eyewitness testimony in criminal trials.

The more obvious problem is that people lie about grave things. This is an uncomfortable truth, particularly when trauma and pain are involved. When 15-year old Nayirah al-Sabah cried in front of congress about witnessing babies being removed from incubators by the Iraqi army, one would appear to be a monster if they called her a liar. But her testimony, which persuaded American political officials towards warfare, turned out to be false

Lying is not the only issue with trauma politics, however. Even if Nayirah truthfully attested to horrors Saddam actually committed, we would still see a troubling tactic at play. A destructive foreign policy would always have been carried out. One of its supporting pillars would be an inference that whoever can express their pain the loudest can get what they want or are right by virtue of their pain, even if that includes causing long-lasting damage to others. 

This is a common trend that anyone who has frequented political spaces can attest to. The emphasis on lived experience and trauma, along with the notion that the personal is political, makes people want to leverage personal tragedies as political lessons. There are a few problems here.

The first problem is that many of these personal tragedies do not neatly map onto politics or are not as universalizable as people believe. Gendered violence is real, and there are patterns of it in society. Still, one’s personal experience with gendered violence does not give one the authority to dictate what all abuse looks like, which manifests and adapts uniquely across various circumstances.

The growing popularity of psychological language and trauma politics, however, inclines us to get too comfortable with such universalization. 

JK Rowling’s recent piece on the “TERF Wars” is a perfect example of this problem. In the article, Rowling outlines five reasons why she feels the need to push back against modern transgender activism. One of the reasons she lists is that she is a sexual assault survivor before hastily assuring the reader that she is not revealing this information to garner sympathy.

Rowling reveals that her experience with sexual assault makes her an advocate for single-sex spaces—i.e., spaces that only include “natal girls and women” (don’t forget to bring your chromosomal analysis tests to a domestic violence shelter, ladies!). She then delves deeper into the pain she experienced from sexual violence to infer her correctness on transgender issues. 

While she may not admit it, Rowling’s deployment of her trauma here is effective: it invites the reader to empathize with her and what she is saying alongside it. No one wants to question another’s faulty logic when they get personal. However, recent “anti-sexism” discourse has ironically deployed sexism by denying that women—just like any other humans—are capable of implementing emotionally manipulative tactics to gain the upper hand. 

But there are implicit assumptions that our fixation on Rowling’s trauma will gloss over here. First, that all cisgender (or “natal”) women experience sexual trauma in relatively similar ways, or at least in similar enough ways to justify fear and systematic exclusion of trans women. There is no way to verify whether this is true: a significant chunk of women who experience sexual trauma do not publicly articulate their fears in ways that can make Rowling’s claims universalizable.

Rowling is not the only one to weaponize the power of trauma to justify her claims. More consequentially, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden recently released an ad against Medicare for All by claiming it would be an insult to his dead son. By invoking his trauma, Biden obscures his class position. He attempts to remove the idea that universal healthcare may threaten the American upper class and instead ascribes himself purer, more personal, and more sincere motives. Supporting universal healthcare is not merely a matter of policy differences or even a class concern: instead, it is a personal attack against the Bidens.

Biden and Rowling aren’t exactly leftists, but the phenomenon they exemplify is easily identifiable in leftist circles. Whether one has speaker authority in liberal or leftist spaces often depends on what is called “lived experience.” For instance, when speaking about classic left-wing issues such as poverty, racism, sexism—and so forth—there is a sometimes well-meaning desire to center voices that have experienced manifestations of the oppression leftists tend to focus on. 

However, this can just as well be used as a cudgel rather than a tool for understanding. Instead of beginning the conversation by noting that one person may be able to adequately speak to their experiences, needing to know one’s background before proceeding often becomes a tool of attack. We’re not just seeking experiential knowledge from marginalized people; instead, we are trying to shut another person down by assuming they don’t have the right experiences to speak on an issue. If it’s not done to accuse another person directly, it is done to limit the amount of pushback one can receive on their statements. If someone wants to say “I experienced this, therefore I know what I mean when I say this”—that is, if a type of experience determines one’s rightness—others that wish to participate in the conversation have to reveal private and personal information. This is an untenable path for leftist politics and organizing. 

As someone politically active, much knowledge about my identity and personal history has been demanded when I have attempted to partake in various conversations: whether I have been sexually assaulted, whether I’m queer, whether I’ve been poorer than JK Rowling once was (would I be posting my bank statements here?), whether I have ever been fat, and whether I have experienced various mental health issues. If I invoke trauma, my word becomes both more socially risky to contest and more legitimate. 

Emancipatory politics, however, should not depend on peoples’ willingness to share their private information. No one should be required to specify their personal traumas in order to partake in certain areas of political discourse. As socialists, our job is to elucidate how our relationships to production impact how society socially organizes itself. As I have previously argued, our job is not to emulate Christian asceticism and idealize society’s most destitute and traumatized individuals. 

We cannot stop others from continuing to engage in individualist trauma politics: the use of emotion and empathy is a cornerstone of both human connection and political persuasion. However, we can encourage other socialists to reject these terms of these debates in favor of materialism, curiosity, and genuine truth-seeking.

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Tags: argument, identity, trauma

Mila Ghorayeb Mila Ghorayeb (See all)
Mila is a writer on imperialism and ideology with an educational background in political theory. Twitter. Unaccepable Podcast.

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