Trauma and collective healing

An innovative form of protest condemns sexual violence in a creative and healing way

A few years ago there was a lot of controversy (especially in the U.S. but also in the U.K.) around the issue of trigger warnings and safe spaces on college campuses. Underlying this seem to be certain assumptions: that experiences of sexual and racial oppression lead to widespread psychological trauma, and that victims of trauma needed to be protected from any stimulus (“trigger”) that might evoke that original trauma. This seemed to be based on a rather sketchy understanding of the science of trauma. The concern I had at the time was that, in the name of protecting students’ mental health, institutions were protecting students from (and students were demanding to be protected from) difficult and distressing material, which might include for example stories of sexual or racial violence, in a way that would blank out significant parts of history and contemporary reality and render students depoliticised, passive victims.

My concerns were increased by the more recent decision of George Washington High School to paint over a mural of the life of George Washington, which included a panel depicting white men walking over the body of a Native American. The artist Victor Arnautoff had intended the mural to show the full reality of the white colonisation of North America, including its more brutal side, but many of the students objected to it. Once I started looking into the case, more nuances started to emerge: a lot of the complaints about the work were about how it was not being contextualised by the school, so that it came over simply as oppressive images of domination rather than as a critique of oppression; Arnautoff’s intentions may have been good, but the practical impact was different. If, as it seems, the opinion of the majority of students was that the murals should be covered, then I would support that; student autonomy is important in this context.
(The decision to overpaint was subsequently rescinded; as a compromise the school decided to cover the mural with panels instead, so that Arnautoff’s work is preserved.)

Not that I take the issue of psychological trauma lightly. In Bessel van der Kolk’s excellent The Body Keeps The Score he shows how persistent psychological trauma is, and difficult to work with. When human beings are faced with an event so traumatic that it overwhelms the mind’s capacity to process it, then the experience seems to become deeply embodied. One of the key factors in recovery is the ability of the traumatised person to regulate their recall of the traumatising experience (it’s actually very difficult to predict what will trigger a traumatic flashback: it can be some quite incidental detail, which is why I think trigger warnings have a limited value).

All this has been in the back of my mind as I have followed the “Un Violador en tu Camino” protest as it has swept around the globe. Originating in Chile, it is a mass performance, a kind of political flashmob, condemning sexual violence against women and the complicity of the state. It’s a startlingly creative form of political expression; it has an emotional power way beyond conventional political demonstrations. What’s especially interesting for me is that at one point the performers squat three times, representing the degrading position arrested women have allegedly been forced to adopt for body cavity searches, often while stripped naked. Is part of the power of the performance that it allows women to reconnect with their embodied experience of being traumatised, but as part of an empowering, collective experience?