Tag Archives: survivors

Victims, Trauma, Spinoza, and Butler

5 Jun

 

Trauma Narratives. University of Zaragoza

 

I’ve never met anyone whose ambition it was to be a victim, though I don’t doubt such people exist.

Victimhood is not considered an honourable state, rather it’s an abject one, shrouded in shame and often guilt: had I done something differently, been a better person, had more sense, (insert your favoured self-blaming admonition) this thing wouldn’t have happened to me and I wouldn’t be a victim.

Victims are frequently blamed by others and victims frequently blame themselves, so all in all, no one in a healthy state of mind would desire the experience. In the current economy of victimisation, the victim is always deeply in debt.

Being confronted by your own vulnerability isn’t an easy experience: many of us spend an inordinate amount of energy convincing ourselves we aren’t vulnerable, which is entirely unrealistic as we are, every minute of our lives, vulnerable to something or someone. Vulnerability is one of life’s inescapable conditions.

I suspect, though I have no proof, that one of the elements of victim blaming is anger at a being confronted by a victim’s obvious vulnerability that can’t help but remind us of our own precarious state in the world, a state many of us would rather not admit to. It doesn’t bear thinking about, the things that can happen to us, and victims can make us think about it.

If the injury can somehow be made to seem their own fault that makes us feel safer. We have control: we just won’t do what they did. These convoluted self-delusions are a sorry waste of psychic energy: denial is ultimately exhausting and it’s entirely unfair to project our own vulnerability onto someone else, rather than learn to live with it.

When I visited the doctor last week we got into a conversation about the 17th century Sephardic/Portuguese philosopher, Baruch Spinoza. I’m not sure why this topic came up but anyway, we talked about how Spinoza was banished from his Jewish community for what were perceived to be his heretical views. A cherem, or herem was declared against him, a form of shunning and ostracism employed as punishment for his refusal to accept god as some kind of divine human with emotion, intention, and desires. For Spinoza, god was Nature, and there was nothing beyond Nature and the laws of the natural world.

Spinoza also argued passionately for freedom of thought and speech: it is permissible to speak any thought, although not necessarily permissible to act upon that thought. Forbidding speech causes resentment and an inevitable backlash against the deciders, and only sends thought underground. No wonder Spinoza remains relevant hundreds of years after his time.

This conversation about Spinoza reminded me next of Judith Butler, American philosopher and gender theorist, who in 2002 gave the annual Spinoza Lecture at the University of Amsterdam. This lecture morphed into the book Giving an account of oneself, in which Butler examines, among other things, the concept of injury and victimhood, and what new ethical possibilities these experiences open up for a subject, what she calls…the moral predicament that emerges as a consequence of being injured…

From the traumatic and unpromising site of injury and desire for revenge or redress, Butler argues that …a model of ethical capaciousness… might emerge. This model of ethical capaciousness, she continues …understands the pull of the claim (for retribution) and resists the pull at the same time, providing a certain ambivalent gesture as the action of ethics itself.

As Spinoza’s thinking suggests, ethical capaciousness is permitting the thought without taking the action, a moral victory perpetrators outstandingly fail to achieve.

Much taken with Butler’s notions of un-willed injury as a site of ethical possibility, I wrote a paper that I gave at a conference at the University of Barcelona in 2008, titled The Experience of Being Injured: An Otherwise Perspective. The conference was about myth, history and memory, and I was exploring how traumatic injury and its aftermath, both societal and individual, are contained within these frameworks.

All of this has come  flooding back to me as a consequence of the last post I wrote on Sheep about memoir and trauma. There are, it’s alleged, too many people writing about their personal traumas; public accounts of private trauma will not bring about political change; must we have one more “misery memoir” and why aren’t these things kept private. These are some of the objections to what has over the last years become an outpouring of first person accounts of traumatised lives.

They are the objections of the very privileged, and they are both ignorant and pointless: trauma is not going away and one of the ways assaulted individuals attempt to deal with distress is to give their personal pain expression. This is a way of clawing back some of the agency lost when another exerts silencing power over you.

Criticising traumatised people for doing something that assists them is victim blaming. Unlike the victim, the consumer has the choice not to enter that world: it isn’t a victim’s obligation to stay silent in order to avoid disturbing bourgeois sensibilities.

Granted some media have seen an opportunity and set about exploiting it: take that media to task, not the authors of traumatic narratives.

The sheer volume of traumatised people on the planet is breathtaking: from stateless and displaced refugees escaping wars, to defence personnel, to paramedics and police, to those traumatised in childhood by sexual abuse; domestic violence, and sexual assault. Trauma and post traumatic stress shape and dominate societies and relationships. The effects of PTSD are crippling, not only on the sufferer but on everyone around him or her. The costs to society are astronomical.

Butler’s concept of the moral predicament anyone faces as a consequence of being injured can help shift one out of victimhood into agency. What actions does the injured party take or not take as a consequences of the injury? What does one do about the natural desire for revenge, for redress, for acknowledgement, apology? How far can one go before becoming a perpetrator?  What if the law will not assist you, or fails in its attempts?

The moral predicament that results from un-willed injury is an opportunity to regain the agency that is lost when someone is used by another as a means to an end. It is an ethical possibility that rises out of the ashes of an immoral act. Very often the first step on this alchemical progression is the externalisation of personal trauma through artistic expression.

It’s ludicrous to expect that a memoir or a thousand memoirs of personal pain will bring about political change, then complain when it doesn’t happen. What actually does change is that instead of one or a thousand people crippled and without agency, some will make a partial or whole recovery as they struggle with their moral predicament and give that struggle expression. Every victim experiences a form of cherem, of shunning, of banishment. Having no voice is one form such exclusion takes.  If we find a voice with which to paint the trauma, or write it, or compose it for piano, who cares, if the outcome is functional, productive people?

Expression of our personal pain is indeed a blow for justice: that it may not be someone else’s notion of what justice is and how it ought to be attained is irrelevant. Traumatised people have usually done enough of what other people want the way other people want it done. We don’t have to do it anymore.

And most of all we do not have to observe the bourgeois values of “privacy” that silenced many of us in the first place, and made our abuse possible.

 

 

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The conservative sexual crusader wants kilos of McFadden’s flesh

3 Mar

At Melinda Tankard Reist’s website today there’s a list of tweets from the hapless Brian McFadden, promising to donate money to rape crisis centres, and saying he’s sorry that his lyrics have been misunderstood.

He reiterates that he intended them as an intimate song for fiancee Delta Goodrem, and not as triggers for women who’ve been sexually assaulted while drunk.

I’m inclined to believe the bloke. I don’t think for  minute he wrote that song with the intention of glorifying or encouraging the rape of senselessly drunk women.

But his apologies and donations are not enough for Melinda Tankard Reist. Not a truckload of money, she writes, will make up for the damage he has done to women.

Even in a court of law, intention counts when you’re passing sentence. But not in the courts of Christian sexual conservatism.

MTR also holds Delta Goodrem partially responsible. Why didn’t Delta check the lyrics before allowing Brian to record them, she asks. Is Delta so inured to sexual violence that she didn’t even notice what Brian was on about?

This would be unfortunate, MTR implies, as Delta is a spokeswoman for Avon Voices, a group that raises awareness of violence against women.

I guess the sexual conservatives also hold women responsible for what the men they live with do.

Personally, I think that’s a pretty low and unnecessarily malicious swipe.

Then there’s a letter from a victim of sexual assault whilst she was drunk, telling how McFadden’s song has brought it all back and is severely distressing her.

Nina Funnell then writes a long reassuring response to the victim, and I hope the woman follows this up with counselling.

There are triggers that cause memories of sexual assault, and many other traumatic experiences to flood back into consciousness, often without any warning.  This is very hard for the survivor to deal with.

Triggers can be almost anything. I once worked with someone whose flashbacks were caused by pieces of green soap with a particular smell. Triggers are impossible to predict, extremely individual, and powerfully connected to the original trauma.

As much as the survivor would like never to have encounter these triggers, it is literally impossible to clear the world of them.

In some instances they may be so particular as to rarely emerge. Sometimes they aren’t known until the moment they strike. In many instances the triggers are all too common, and people have to deal with them on a daily basis.

It would be a foolish therapist indeed who recommended total avoidance of anything likely to act as a trigger. That would be condemning the survivor to a miserable life.

What we can do is teach cognitive behavioural techniques that can be used to manage the distressing flashbacks. This has the added advantage of empowering the survivor, both with the skills to handle bad times, and with the sense that she or he has some control over circumstances that can feel uncontrollable.

Given the proliferation of sexual topics in popular culture, it’s unrealistic to blame any artist for triggering a survivor’s flashbacks. As the triggers are so individual, its impossible to know what they might be.

As stupid as you might think McFadden’s song is, blaming him for activating post traumatic stress disorder is wrong. You might as well blame the manufacturer of green soap, and I believe McFadden, in his intentions, is as  undeserving of blame.

The world is not an easy place to live in when you’re suffering post traumatic stress disorder. Many people don’t understand it, and have a low tolerance of sufferers who can seem difficult, withdrawn, moody, angry, weepy, and generally not interested in much. It’s tough, having first to withstand the trauma, and then to spend your time dealing with the aftermath.

The most difficult part is working with people towards an acceptance of their experiences, in the sense that they cannot be changed and must be lived with, as must the aftermath. The survivor has to take responsibility for learning to do this. This is the cornerstone of recovery. It can take many years, and nobody can do it for them.

I don’t think it helps survivors to be encouraged to look for someone to blame in the world around them. Nobody deliberately triggers someone’s flashbacks, unless they are entirely sadistic and know the survivor well enough to be able to do it.

If a creator of any kind must first consider if something in their work will cause distress to someone somewhere, and then abandon it in case it does, then nothing will be created.

I think Tankard Reist’s crusade against McFadden, and now Goodrem as well, is bordering on the vicious. She wants what she wants, which is an abject confession that they’ve caused immeasurable distress to women everywhere by recording the song. If she doesn’t get that, she will hound them, of that I’m certain.

She is displaying all the signs of the outraged self-righteous good Christian woman bent on vengeance, not only on him but on the woman he loves, and that is not a pretty sight.

And let’s remember, he isn’t a rapist. He wrote a song.

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