Friday, October 30, 2015

Can one exist alone?

I've been thinking about something that's touched upon in the efforts of a number of authors...a phenomenon called transgenerational trauma. That's a clunky sounding phrase that looks at the fact that harm to someone doesn't necessarily stop or stay contained in the primary victim. The definition on wikipedia reads:
Transgenerational trauma is trauma that is transferred from the first generation of trauma survivors to the second and further generations of offspring of the survivors via complex post-traumatic stress disorder mechanisms.
What I've been wrestling with is the notion of the seemingly complimentary concept of transgenerational responsibility. And by that I mean, just as the initiator of violent acts is culpable and responsible for those acts...does that culpability and responsibility end at the person of the perpetrator or does it reach across generational lines and posit itself with the subsequent generations of the perpetrator?

There's a related notion that requires more consideration...that's for later or for someone else to do...and that is, simply put, can you harm others without harming yourself? I don't think so...but I don't know. Obviously the manifestation of the harm would likely differ...killing someone else doesn't kill the perpetrator like it does the victim but...that doesn't mean some sort of harm to the initiator doesn't occur. Violence/oppression might be thought of as being something like an explosion. In an explosion the waves of destruction spread in all directions and anyone/anything within the zone of damage gets hurt/injured/wounded/harmed. An explosion isn't unidirectional...it's omnidirectional. I may toss a bomb at someone's feet and it blows up...but that explosion can harm not only the victim...but me...the tosser. This seems to merit much more thinking/feeling about than I can do here and now.

The mechanisms (sort of a misleading word but I'll use it here, living beings really don't do "mechanical") of the transmission of transgenerational trauma is hypothecated to be...in the definition above...associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd). Interestingly enough, the idea of ptsd is fairly new. Humans have noted for some time that wars (orgies of violence against humans by humans that we, the "intelligent" species periodically engage in) result in damage beyond physical destruction. People get emotionally wounded by the violence of war in addition to being physically harmed...and...not only can the victims experience emotional harm but so can the perpetrators.

In WWI these sorts of manifestations of emotional damage were called shell shock, WWII saw a name change to combat stress reaction...it was only as a result of the Vietnam experience did the name ptsd emerge for this complex cluster of reactions to violent mayhem and terror. The increase in attempts at understanding this stuff that came with Vietnam also resulted in an expansion of the notion to include all sorts of situations of trauma including those not associated with war. I'm not going to go into further detail about it here, that's not what I'm trying to write about and...in truth...I wonder about how well and thoroughly we understand this...even though many very bright and concerned people have devoted much time and attention to trying to comprehend it. 

What I'm wallowing around with is more general in nature. A question of ethics, maybe? A question of symmetry? What I'm wondering is if it is the case that transgenerational trauma can occur doesn't it follow that transgenerational culpability would exist also?

What if, as a result of that violence/harm, there is a benefit. Like, for instance, a human kills another human and steals stuff from them. They then take the stolen goods and give them to their children and their children give them to their children...and on and on. Do those children, and their children's children have any ethical or moral obligation toward that original victim...or to the children or children's children of that victim...who were deprived of that which was taken from their predecessors? 

But beyond that tangible benefit thing...what about responsibility for the harm? Does it stop at the actual perpetrator or does it ripple or cascade down onto the children and children's children of the killer? In regard to the children and children's children of the killed victim? I wonder.

We're big here, in U.S. America, on the individualism thing. It's sort of like we pretend we're all self contained little packages floating around and what we do is what we are responsible for (when convenient) and we're not responsible for what anyone else does...or for what went on before we popped out from between our mother's legs. It's a whopping big part of the ideological lens we get fitted with here in U.S. America. What's funny is we tend to confine it to white people (maybe only white men)...if you think about it.

Groups of humans not identified as white skinned males...Indigenous peoples, African-American peoples, Asian-American peoples, women peoples even, tend to get looked at as if their actions and attitudes reflect on and are indicative of everyone in the particular group they are consigned to. They tend to not get seen as individuals...but rather as representatives of and proxies for their group. The same thing goes on for those beings who aren't human...one cat tends to be seen as a representative of all cats, same for dogs, cows, bats and so on. (I've slowly come to comprehend that such ways of thinking are markers of membership or non-membership in dominant or subordinate groups in this western euro horror story that influences all of us)

But, generally, not white men...white men are seen as kind of magically individual packages blithely floating along, self-contained and somehow disconnected from all other white men (and...mostly everyone else for that matter). I must say, the more I apprehend this weird viewpoint and the more I become able to sometimes spot it when it is presented...the stranger and more bizarre it appears. One rule for white men (individuals)...different rules for all other humans (representative of their socially assigned group) and for all other Earthlings who aren't human ones too. It's even more convoluted than that at times...but that's too involved to go into now.

Joy DeGruy and Michael Yellow Bird and Eduardo Duran and others have all written and talked about the notion of transgenerational trauma (maybe not using that phrase though) and implicit in their thinking/writing is the idea of transgenerational responsibility (again, not using that phrase either). If you want...you can learn more about these ideas by referencing their efforts. I would especially encourage you to watch this presentation by Joy DeGruy. She wrote a book about this sort of thing that details some aspects of these ideas. I cannot recommend your reading this book (especially if you are identified as a white U.S. American) unless you are willing to risk losing a number of comforting and reality denying illusions.

Sensei Aishitemasu references this sort of thing in a video she created. She wasn't, by name, referencing transgenerational responsibility or transgenerational trauma...but...she was talking about aspects of those notions and she did it in such a way that it was sort of funny and sort of sad simultaneously.

Here's an excerpt from the writing she did to accompany this video. She's referencing racism but in her addressing that abomination she points out the sort of magical notion that somehow white people are exempt from all known dynamics of cultural transmission or of ideological comprehension and viewpoints (and, we might infer, corresponding behaviors and/or responsibilities and/or culpability). Her words:
You can't opt out of the system. You can't opt out of your privilege. You can't opt out of its benefits if you're born with white skin.

And it's funny how we understand this when we're talking about other forms of pathology. We understand that people growing up in abusive households have higher chances of being impacted by abuse. We understand that soldiers coming back from violent war zones have higher chances of being affected by post traumatic stress disorder. We understand that people in certain environments will be psychologically impacted in certain ways.

But start talking about learned racism and, all of a sudden, everything we know about the human brain goes out the window because every white person is a unique special snowflake (with the magical mutant x abilities to not be influenced by their surroundings and the constant barrage of racist, white supremacist propaganda).

Dear white people: You are not omega level mutants able to control things with your mind. You are not Jean Gray. You have been born into this racist, sexist, capitalist, white supremacist society and from birth you have been imbued with its beliefs.
All of the resources I'm listing here have to do with humans writing or talking about human doings to other humans. But...it's all about oppression...one group with more power doing large and small awful things to other groups with less power for benefit of some kind or other. Beings belonging to a powerful group harming beings belonging to a less powerful group.

Maybe, in those portraits of human injury and wounding and harm we can dimly apprehend processes of oppression and their similarities from one group of victims to the next...and the similarities of the processes of oppression...from one group of perpetrators to the next. Maybe we can do that.

In the doing though there is danger...and risk...it must ever and always be held in awareness that the lived experience of oppression is unique and individual to each victim (or, maybe in some ways, each group of victims) and great care and caution must be exercised in the face of any temptation to meld or conflate those experiences. While oppressions may look very similar, indeed...they may be similar, that doesn't mean the experience of those targeted is the same.

Using verbal shorthand phrases like "people of color" does great harm to comprehension unless it is kept in mind that the experience of harm (and sometimes even the form of the harmings) differed depending on which minoritized group was being targeted. The circumstances and experience of Native Americans was different than the circumstances and experiences of African Americans and the circumstances and experiences of Asian Americans was different than either of those groups. (It is to be understood that this uniqueness of experience holds for all groups who are oppressed/harmed even if they're not specifically named here)

About the only thing that can be said in general, with some element of accuracy, is that European ancestored white males (and often the European ancestored white females too) pretty much treated anyone who wasn't assigned to their socially constructed group, horribly. And...that many of the processes and dynamics of harm emanating from European white peoples of the past continue to operate in the present.

Well...one other thing can be said, in general, with some accuracy and that is that understanding all this demands much more sustained thinking and comprehending than U.S. American culture tries to make us believe. It's rather embarrassing to realize how incredibly ignorant most of us (I include myself) who are identified as "white" are regarding many things really...but especially those destructive processes encompassed by the term racism. What's even more excruciatingly dismaying is how many of us who are so woefully ignorant are just as likely to have amazingly strong and certain opinions about that which, we are in fact, almost totally clueless. Being both ignorant and certain about something is an ugly and dangerous combination. 

Hiding the horror and the complexity and the suffering and the nuance and the processes...processes like transgenerational trauma...keeping all those out of awareness and visibility is part and parcel of how they are kept in operation. And...interrupting them...changing them...opting out of them...is virtually impossible until they are more fully and widely known and understood and recognized...by those who are members of dominant groups. Those who belong to the targeted groups know what's going on...it's those who do the damage who evince ignorance and obliviousness.

So...in furtherance of the goal of getting through the thicket of obfuscations and obliviousnesses and invisiblities of oppression...the question that I'm struggling with is whether it is possible to have transgenerational trauma without also having transgenerational responsiblity or transgenerational culpability?

In other words...if harm carries across generations...doesn't it follow that responsibility for that harm also carries across generations? It seems to me that it would...and does. But...it may be that I'm being misled and confused by words or language or skewed logic. I don't know. I don't think so though.

Note: I'm writing and thinking this from the position of an older European ancestored heterosexual male...which means I've been well indoctrinated in obliviousness...for decades. Hence, it is likely I've committed profound omissions and errors or distortions in my efforts to express my thinking on this topic. Anyone choosing to assist in correcting my ignorant or unintentional error making in this post will have my gratitude. Thank you.
 

5 comments:

Have Gone Vegan said...

No, I think you're right about transgenerational trauma and culpability going hand in hand. Let me give a specific example.

About a year ago, one of my nephews was charged with domestic assault. Didn't surprise me in the least, as he grew up with his dad (my brother) who is a domestic abuser and a bad-tempered bully if ever there was one. (He's also a by-law enforcement officer and a respected elder in his church.) Now my brother (and the rest of his siblings) grew up in a household with no physical abuse, but tons of emotional/verbal abuse and neglect, and a lot of anger, which we weren't taught how to express appropriately.

As it turns out, both my parents were also abused in their respective families of origin, and surprise surprise, THEIR parents suffered abuse as well. So who knows how long this pattern goes back in time, and since people tend to unconsciously partner up with abusive spouses if they don't get to the root of their own abuse first, the pattern continues.

In my case, I decided at a very young age to try and stop the cycle by not having kids of my own. Good thing, because (and I'm embarrassed to admit this) in my early twenties I nearly strangled my cat in a fit of pure blind misdirected rage. Sadly, I understand the impulse to harm and destroy firsthand, and the cycle of anger build-up, explosion/release, ensuing calm, and gradual rebuild-up all too well. Let me also add that I've learned over the last three decades to express and channel anger more quickly and effectively, and at least direct it to inanimate objects on the rare occasions when it does build up and surface.

But who is therefore responsible for the abuse my nephew heaped upon his wife? I would say, my nephew, my brother, his parents, and their parents all share parts of the blame, and until my nephew learns how to deal with his own anger issues (he has had some counselling), there's a danger that his kids are going to continue the cycle as well. So yes, in the specific instance of domestic violence, culpability is transgenerational for sure.

veganelder said...

Thank you for courageous commenting HGV. Transgenerational transmission of patterns of familial violence is way too common and your efforts to interrupt such destructive behaviors is commendable. Males are especially prone to to be taught that violent behaviors is a part and parcel of "being a real man". Sadly, way too many mothers learn the same ideological distortions and subtly or not so subtly encourage and support such destructive ways of living.

It's all very sad and painful and I salute your efforts. Thank you.

Have Gone Vegan said...

My brother's response to the situation was to represent his son in court, and dismiss the whole thing as trivial by saying, "You can't even touch a woman on the shoulders these days without being accused of assault." Sadly, more than one family member agreed with him. As does a large part of society no doubt. So much work to do... :(

Christine said...

This is a very interesting and thought provoking article. Transgenerational trauma fascinates me and I most certainly consider it a valid idea.

Transgerational responsibility is though a new consideration for me, at least in a more general sense of wrongs done by past generations, such as slavery, over which I had no control.

I believe that if we harm others, unless we are sociopaths or psychopaths, we are harmed psychologically. However I would not feel consciously responsible for the harm caused by previous generations. Though there may be a sense of guilt or shame for the past wrongs of previous generations (white people) who I think are the main instigators in most of the misery in this world, including that inflicted on other animals, other races and the environment, and general destruction that takes place in the world both past and present.

I agree that racism is learned and although we may know on a conscious level that racism is wrong, as is specism or any other discrimination, subconsciously such thoughts have been instilled since childhood even if the instiller (parents and other influential adults) did so subconsciously. I abhor any find of discrimination but at times unwanted thoughts may arise as such thoughts do about anything and which have to be ignored. These thoughts are the result of upbringing by parents and influential others. Though my parents were anti racist and taught me likewise racist vocabulary reared its ugly head in quite a dramatic way when a neighbour of a different race seriously provoked my mother.

Yes I agree that racism can be unlearned to some degree but upbringing will always rear its ugly head. At least if you know that such thinking is wrong and is not representitive of how your really feel it is a good beginning. Maybe things can change in time and slowly new generations will become less and less inclined to racism as attitudes change. A slow process I rather fear. People make racist slurs and that is shocking but maybe as a result of simple ignorance and habit, hopefully as time goes on this will be a thing of the past. Racism needs to be stamped out and groups such as the KKK should be outlawed or political parties such as here in the UK the UK independence party UKP and the National front.

We can’t change the past but we should feel some responsibility to change the present to bring about a better future for all beings regardless of race, gender, religion or other wise, species, age, intelligence and any other conceivable discrimination

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting Christine. You touched on the question I am trying to grapple with in the post when you wrote: "I believe that if we harm others, unless we are sociopaths or psychopaths, we are harmed psychologically. However I would not feel consciously responsible for the harm caused by previous generations."

Part of that last sentence..."I would not feel consciously responsible..."...specifies an aspect of what I'm grappling with. I'm thinking maybe we are responsible for the behavior of previous generations but we've been induced by the western european brainwashing associated with "individuality" to not be consciously aware of that responsibility.

It seems weird to me that previous generations of my group could do awful atrocities to those not in my group and my generation could benefit from those atrocities...but...my generation feels no "conscious responsibility". I'm struggling with comprehending how that is possible without something peculiar going on.

Something seems askance in all that.