Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Politics of Powerlessness

There are many times when the personal and the political cross paths in life, leading us to seek answers to deal with individual and/or collective grievances. Less seldom though comes the opportunity to quickly understand the roots and solutions in a way that's immediately helpful and enlightening - allowing you to think outside of the box by realizing a paradigm shift that's actually practical and useful.

I was lucky enough to have one of those moments today.

The idea of writing about the politics of powerlessness struck me after posting what should have been a rather benign personal admission on my blog yesterday in reaction to Budget 2007.

I wrote:

I hesitate to add this because some might think it's selfish or that I'm unable to see the impact on society of some of the larger measures announced but, as a mid-40s woman on permanent disability living well below the poverty line, there's nothing I can see in these announcements that will have a directly positive impact on my daily life or standard of living. It's been that way every year for a long time now. I think too many of us are too often forgotten...

Now, I'm not naive enough to believe that, as a poor person, I could write something like that without being attacked for it. You see, the only people who have the right to comment on government budgets are those in the business community, the middle class, CEOs, financial consultants, politicians and anyone who pays taxes. They are the acceptable spokespeople who have that right in this society. If you are poor and sick, somehow you forfeit that right and any comment coming from you constitutes whining and ingratitude, especially if you live on a social assistance program provided by the government (regardless of how pathetic the amount may be.)

That attack came in the form of insults from someone who knows me personally - someone who hasn't said anything they included in their now deleted comment to me in real life. Someone who is in a position of power over me. That is being dealt with privately.

I was already feeling crushed by powerlessness last nite after writing about the 4th anniversary of the Iraq war - a war that those with governmental power seem in no mood to end anytime soon. I'm a strong person. I'm also antiwar. I had thought that when the Democrats regained power, they would move as quickly as possible to use the power that they had in every way they could to end that illegal and immoral war. They haven't. So, when insult was literally added to a pre-existing injury on Monday nite - that feeling of despair was compounded. It was agonizing. Yes, I do have weak moments. We all do.

That brought the intersection of politics and powerlessness that I've grappled with the last 24 hours.

In the Budget 2007 thread, one of my regular, invaluable and very knowledgable commenters named Scotian expressed exactly what I was feeling:

I can relate, oh how can I relate. While my medical condition is different than yours the overall similarities you and I both experience in the referenced quote above is basically identical. To look at me one would not know aside from the fact I walk with a cane that I had much wrong with me since all the damage is to the soft tissues and the nerves and circulatory system. I just love when people start trying to tell me they know how I feel because they had a surgery, or some minor long term disorder, why is it some people feel the need for pissing contests as to who has suffered the most pain or is the most impaired/disabled/etc? I mean really, what is up with that? I am sure you know of exactly what I am referring to in your own life.

A week without pain, eh? These days if I work up without feeling any pain I'd be terrified I was dead, it has been my constant companion for so long. Seriously though, I know what you mean. Watching the way these budgets leave people like you and me to fend for ourselves is not exactly a comforting feeling, is it. Like yourself I never asked to be incapable of working/providing for myself, and I hate having to accept "charity" from the taxpayers, but it is either that or literally death for me, so what else I am supposed to do? Yet that is enough for many to brand me as some sort of parasite and a waste of tax dollars, which is one of the reasons I rarely mention my own health issues. It is not worth the grief.

I am so tired of having people tell me I should be so grateful I get to live without working, that I am so lucky. Well, they should try living what I term a standard of existence (not living, that is much better than mere existence) or being a single person living on 7,000 a year or a married person on 12,500 a year and then they can tell me how privileged I am and how lucky I am. Blogging and being able to keep my mind active via the use of the internet is really all I have going for me, and my health is one of the main reasons why I can be so sporadic at Saundrie and indeed overall online. There are days that while I can handle the reading I know better than to write because the pain I am in will infect my work/writing and that to my mind does me no service/favours.

He knows my challenges because they are his challenges too. Reading those words was like reading an echo of my life. We share the same frustrations about those who somehow seem to think they know by osmosis what it's like to live in our bodies on a daily basis. They have no idea. And, you see, we're not supposed to talk about it because a) people think you're just complaining; b) don't want to hear about it; and then c) think they then know regardless about what's going on in our lives based on what they're able to see.

It seems that unless you have a large, visible wound or a tumour you can flash on an x-ray, they simply cannot accept that you might actually suffer from pain and other equally annoying symptoms every day. And, even if we did have those things to show them, they seem to always come up with a story - either theirs (which is not similar) or someone else's (like Lance Armstrong's amazing feats, for examples) as proof that you should just get over it, rise up and live a normal life. You're either a loser or a hero. There is no middle ground. Oh, and the fact that you can write a few words on a blog is apparently proof of your power to have a career in journalism or professional writing. (Little do people know about the agony that intermingles those blog posts).

They're wrong.

The effect that sort of attitude has is the infliction of oppression. That's the broader topic here - that there will always be those with more power who use it to demean and attempt to control others.

As I struggled with this today, I came across a free online book called PowerUnder: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change by Steven Wineman which I've begun to read because it deals with both of the issues that brought me down: the personal and the political effects of powerlessness.

This is a psychological and political place from which we are incisively aware of the ways in which we have been acted upon, victimized and harmed, but from which it can be difficult or impossible to gauge the impact of our enraged behavior upon others, or even to maintain our awareness of the core humanity of those defined
as Other.

As someone who has closely watched the Amercian big blog scene, I have had several online conversations with people who have been shunned for various reasons as being "other" than. People who are seen as too liberal, too radical, too ideological for thinking that non-violence and an end to war are actually possible. People who don't fall into the privileged, middle-class white man class. Women who have been marginalized and written off as being hysterical. Latinos and African-Americans who have been ignored or horribly slighted and offended. Foreigners, like myself, whose opinions on Amercian politics are unwelcome. Poor people - well, just look at what happened to the people who suffered in NOLA after Hurricane Katrina to figure out how they are seen. You'll notice that they're conveniently invisible again. People of faith, especially Muslims, who have been lumped together in monolithic groups for paranoid, hateful people to loathe and mock as belonging to a death cult.


And when those others dare to have an opinion, those who need so desperately to maintain the status quo because they believe their very survival depends on it (see the outcry against same sex marriage, for example), the knee-jerk reaction is that they must be suppressed and oppressed to keep the balance of power - a power that destroys cultures.

So, where does all of this come from and what's to be done about it? That's what was on my mind today.

Wineman's short book reminds us that we are all victims of trauma in our lives to varying degrees - yes, even those middle (and upper) class white guys who hold most of the power. We know that there comes a point in life when those who have been oppressed by someone else will either continue to be a victim, will become a perpetrator or will choose to do everything possible to heal. What's harder to distinguish, however, is who will choose (subconconsciously or consciously) which path to take.

He uses the example of the effects of what happened on 9/11 as a partial example of how trauma affects people differently. We all saw the outpouring of sympathy from the world bestowed upon America after that horrible day. But we were also witness to how those in power reacted when they decided how to deal with it. (Who knows what previous traumas people like Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld might have been playing out once they found themselves with the ultimate power to exact revenge in a situation many felt could have been dealt with as a police action). They launched their wars. They assumed they'd be victorious. They became oppressors. They perpetuated more trauma and powerlessness and refused to allow a terrified Amercian society to heal by continually reinforcing that everyone ought to live in paralyzing fear of the other who might show up to blow up their shopping malls or their childrens' schoolbuses. There was no opportunity to heal - not while America's sons and daughters kept dying for a lost cause in far off countries. So, there was trauma compounded by trauma. And it served a very useful purpose by those who held the power because they were then able to use that oppression to strip away civil and legal rights as they slowly tore up the constitution. The traumatized, the fearful were kept in a convenient state of shock and terror to enable that process. That wasn't an accident.

Those of us who refuse to take that path of revenge, who actually believe in things like the courts (the open courts), justice, human and civil rights, diplomacy, the power of dialogue, the understanding of root causes, the need for peace, the use of reason over might, quickly became the radicals, the traitors, those who gave comfort to the enemy. We became the enemy. The Other.

What Wineman tries to point out in his book is that we all need to recognize our life traumas and how they impact the choices we make every day.

There has been a lot of discord in the American left recently due to tensions surrounding the seeming inability or unwillingness to address the crimes of the Bush administration.

Wineman writes:

Understanding trauma can help us to overcome divisions that chronically plague progressive social change movements. The left has been repeatedly weakened by internal divisions and fragmentation,[16] both in the form of in-fighting within social change organizations and through the inability of different oppressed constituencies to form robust and sustainable coalitions. There are many reasons for these divisions that have nothing to do with trauma. These range from principled ideological differences to unprincipled power struggles; from the complex ways in which multiple oppressions create divisions in our society to the divide-and-conquer strategies utilized by forces aligned with the status quo in the face of unrest and social change activism.

I believe we could benefit from adding trauma to this list, not as a competing explanation but as one that is typically ignored to the detriment of social change movements. If we can recognize that social change movements and constituencies are made up largely of traumatized people, many of the difficulties we encounter dealing effectively with difference and conflict become much more understandable. Internal conflicts blow up and become unresolvable in part because we lack a common language and framework for recognizing the effects of trauma, and lack practical tools for managing the traumatic rage that we all too readily direct at each other.

When trauma is unnamed and unrecognized, its presence – at once palpable and invisible – can cause an enormous amount of damage. We need to develop shared understandings of the politics of trauma that bring awareness of trauma into the room in the same way that feminism has brought awareness of power relations involving domination into the room. By this I mean an awareness that people may carry the effects of trauma – victimization, subjective powerlessness, traumatic rage, and so on – into any situation: any meeting, any organizing effort, any coalition-building project, any conflict.

It is only through the emergence of consciousness and a common language to describe the politics of powerlessness that we can create possibilities to interrupt and counteract the damaging effects of trauma within our social change organizations and movements.

I agree and I think that Wineman's perspective is vital to the success not only of progressive movements but to the advancement of individual healing as well.

The idea of the "politics of trauma" is new to me. Ironic, since I've been dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for over 10 years now. The focus of that healing, however, has been personal and there was a connection missing with relation to how that affected my political dealings and beliefs in a broader sense - except that I always knew that my compassion for powerless people came from a strong, personal identification of that status in my own life due to my personal experiences which I've had to explore and come to terms with.

I'd recommend that others read Mr Wineman's book and ponder how it might apply to the many conflicts we are all trying to deal with in such a hyper-charged political atmosphere. As I've written, he notes that all of us - even those who have power - eventually express various aspects of our lives according to those unresolved or unrecognized traumas that continue to haunt our current decisions and actions. It's not easy to have compassion for people who so obviously abuse their power but if we're going to move ahead with any sort of clarity, we need to at least be able to understand them. That's one of the hardest challenges, next to acknowledging how we express power and powerlessness in our own lives.

I believe that everything happens for a reason - in everything there is a lesson. I'm grateful to Mr Wineman for making his book available free online so I could find it when I sorely need it. It's helped me to find at least a measure of peace. I don't know anything about him besides what I read on his site today. I suspect there are political ideas we disagree about. Regardless, his ideas about trauma and powerlessness have helped me to move outside of myself and my anger and that's been invaluable.

I've also been reading another, older book recently: Skid Row: An Introduction to Disaffiliation by Howard Bahr. As someone who used to work with homeless addicts/alcoholics, I found Bahr's examination of various "skid rows" across America very insightful. Even though much of his data came from decades preceding the 1970s, he writes about disaffiliation and "internal colonialism" in a way that still, unfortunately, applies today. It seems social change in some circles moves at an absolute snail's pace - especially for the invisible people. I doubt anyone would disagree with the idea that a society is judged by how it treats it weakest members. Making the leap to actually rectify the wrongs however is an ongoing struggle of massive proportions. The powerless cannot be continually ignored without consequence. That is the lesson that still needs to be learned.

As I'm fond of saying: compassion is not a vice.

Related: For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence by Alice Miller. Excellent book.

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