In Recovery – from Moral Trauma

In public writings and private conversations since November 8th, we’ve been trying to come to terms with shock and awe (whether you think it is awful or awesome). It’s more difficult for those whose side lost, but we should not underestimate the effect on all Americans who have been watching this election cycle: We have been suffering a painful moral trauma.

Trauma is a much-used and sometimes misused word, so let me say how I understand it: Trauma is a physical or emotional injury that overwhelms a person’s normal responses, such that the response does not reach successful completion. The threat of injury activates fight/flight mechanisms, but if you cannot protect yourself by fighting off the danger, and cannot successfully flee, the third alternative is “freeze.” Animals have natural mechanisms to do this. For humans, thawing out takes time and has complications, which we’ll talk about below.

In trauma, the not-fully-processed experience gets embedded neurologically and reactivates under certain stimuli. (An example familiar from psychology is “flashback” memories in post-traumatic stress disorder.)

But what is a “moral” trauma? To understand this, we need another concept. Each of us has a “moral sense” that recognizes threats to our personal integrity and our social integrity. We used to call it “conscience,” a good word because it suggests knowledge (scien-) that we share (con-, meaning together). Conscience or moral sensitivity includes a fundamental awareness of ourselves and other human beings as deserving of dignity and respect.

This moral sense alerts us when others encroach on our boundaries by trying to harm, robb, or kill. We also recognize through our mirror neurons when it is happening to others; this generates sympathy (feeling-with). Across religions and humanistic systems, this moral sense is the basis for the principle of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It undergirds all criminal law with negative prohibitions like “don’t steal,” “don’t kill,” and reminds us of the need for self-restraint. On the positive side, the moral sense encourages practices that support equality and fairness.

You may say, “but humans don’t act like that; they do hurt each other.” Often true. But even so, even when we know we have sometimes “gone against our conscience,” even when we have given in to a group mentality in spite of our own deeper convictions, we still register violations of basic human dignity. When we see videos of beheadings or starved concentration camp survivors, we have visceral reactions. We “can’t watch,” we turn away. We vicariously share the helplessness and shame felt by the victims, and we react against what we call the inhumanity of the perpetrators. We “know inside” that it’s wrong.

Some might argue that, in such cases, gruesome images are the source of our revulsion. But we experience something very similar when we see humiliation in our daily lives. If you have ever watched an angry parent loudly berate a 3-year-old for his behavior in the grocery store, you probably know what I mean. Even if you agree the child needed to be reined in, you cringe inside when you watch the powerful parent’s rage overwhelm the frightened child. (And many of us who are parents will recognize the guilt feelings about the times we have done it ourselves.)

This is verbal and emotional violence. If not corrected through apology and understanding, and if repeated often enough, it can do damage.

I grew up with the saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” My generation learned to say it to the schoolyard bully as self-protection. But it’s not true. We can be very much hurt by words alone, by tone of voice, by gesture and innuendo.

Further, when demeaning speech is delivered in public, it causes embarrassment. The Jewish sages say, “Embarrassing a person is like murder.” Why? It destroys our self-image among our community, on whom we depend. We feel as if we want to disappear into a hole. Even if the person who speaks badly also looks like a fool, the imprint of the damage remains.

The sages also point out that when “evil talk” about a person occurs, it’s not just the person slandered who is hurt, and not just the speaker who gets a bad reputation, but everyone who hears it suffers. Why? First, we feel vicarious shame by means of sympathy. But then we also fear hurt for ourselves (what might this person say about me?). We may be tempted to get on the “winning” side by agreeing with the stronger person, even if nothing she says is true. We learn bad habits.

Now to the election. Professor Kelly McDonigal, in an article written during the campaign season, argued that the events we were watching and reading about created “a molecular memory of moral distress.” Moral distress is in her words a “potent combination of moral outrage, worrying about harm that may be done, and feeling powerless to do anything about it.” The flood of images and words that were on our television screens, in our online communications, from sarcasm and name-calling to disgusting language and inciting others to do the same, were causing us all to suffer morally. She described it as “eroding social trust.”

I’m calling it trauma specifically because we felt trapped and “powerless to do anything about it.” For example, in the debates: We’re on the other side of a television screen, a passive audience. We’re watching the debates as concerned citizens – fulfilling a moral duty. The debates are organized by the presidential election commission as a nonpartisan social service. We come with a basic trust that the participants and moderators will obey the implicit and explicit rules of civilized debate – basically stay with the issues and work to convince the voters you are right and others are wrong.

But then we see one candidate ridicule others’ physical stature or appearance, label them with schoolyard nicknames, and grandly describe their views as totally wrong and their work as disaster. Phrases like this stick in our memories much more than policy questions: Little guy, look at that face, biggest liar, his mother should be running, nasty guy, nasty woman, disgusting animals, you should be ashamed.

Beyond the debates, it became even worse. Whole groups were castigated, and any appearance of weakness or disability was ridiculed, from a disabled journalist to a former POW, and women were demeaned, from “blood from wherever” to “she can’t make it to her car.” My nausea starts again when I begin to put all these on paper, so I won’t go further.

In all this, we were caught in a moral paradox from which we couldn’t escape. If we turned away and ignored it, we were violating our civic duty to be informed; if we watched it, we were subjecting ourselves to scenes of anger, shame, degradation of other human beings over and over again.

Trauma happens in a “fight / flight / freeze” situation. We were experiencing moral distress, but as a passive audience, we couldn’t “fight” back directly. We couldn’t “flee” without evading our duty, so we could only endure it. Most of us probably went into “freeze,” a temporary state of emotional immobility. Later we talked, shouted, wrote, mostly to the people who were sharing the same feelings – because that is what humans do.

But then it would be repeated the next week, and the next, with no end in sight till November. For people who had memories of similar traumas, the horror was multiplied, as we saw most clearly when the candidate was revealed as a sexual predator, and thousands of women responded.

What about the people who supported this candidate? Were they undisturbed? Not necessarily; in fact, many members of his own party cut themselves off from him as an act of protest. But for many, if you could identify with the image he projected of “winning,” positive feelings could override the moral sense. That’s where group identity comes in again – if you’re on the winning team, it begins not to matter how you got there, what you had to suffer, or what you had to do to others. Or it doesn’t matter till later, when it may surface in other symptoms.

At the same time, humans are expert at rationalization: “Oh, that’s just his personality, I only care about policies.” “I wasn’t voting for him, I was voting the party.” The mind can easily turn to serve the emotions, creating a logical scaffolding for what has already been decided and put it all to rest.

Both sides were highly invested in an election victory, not only for the usual political reasons but for our collective moral distress to be resolved. For the winner, it would be resolved in euphoria. For the loser – well, losing was unthinkable ahead of time, and the prospect was made worse by the candidate who attacked “losers”: loss would be utter defeat in the moral realm. When the loss became reality, it revived our feelings of trauma and accentuated them with despair.

For me, the despair was about the shifting ground underneath our common moral commitment, as Americans and as human beings. Most of all I didn’t want to “normalize” the behavior we had seen, or as Leon Wieseltier wrote in a recent essay, to accept the media’s sudden “prettification” of a person who had behaved despicably.

But I don’t necessarily agree with him that we need to “stay angry.” That also takes an emotional, moral and physical toll.

So are we stuck forever? No. We have to distinguish what we need to do to recover from trauma from what society will need (reforms, protests, laws, protection for the weak). If we don’t resolve the trauma, we’ll be reactive when similar situations come up again. We will be vulnerable to a new round of fear-mongering; we might even be tempted to shift our moral compass and accept bad behavior. In short, we won’t have the balance and resilience that we are almost certain to need in the future.

The prescription is, then: Allow yourself a period of recovery. Recognize that grief and mourning are okay. Seek help and support when you need it. Respect your own physical and emotional reactions, because the complex body-heart-mind entity that is the human person has its own wisdom. (Animals come out of “freeze,” by the way, through trembling. It’s a healthy sign.)

We also know from trauma work that “taking it slow” is a good idea. It’s uncomfortable to go back and process your feelings and thoughts and images, but do it, preferably in the presence of a sympathetic person. Take your time. Intersperse your difficult memories with quiet things in normal life to remind yourself of the beauty of nature, your friends and loved ones, your favorite foods or music.

After you’re calmer, notice if you find yourself getting ‘hyped up’ again, and learn what helps you feel centered and alert.

And remember that resolving trauma is not giving up or giving in. For all of us, it’s coming back to our core being so that we will each recover our own moral sense, so we will recognize our deep common humanity, and we can respond from our best selves in resuming the long fight for human dignity and equality.

This essay also appeared as a contribution to the Huffington Post on November 14, 2016.



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