Relating your own personal trauma to strengthen or expand existing laws dealing with sexual violence achieves little towards systemic change. As only individual perpetrators are targeted in these subjective and moralizing first person narratives of good vs evil, more pertinent factors addressing the material conditions underlying these situations are overlooked, while the causes of collectively experienced trauma (loss of income, livelihoods, access to healthcare, environmental impacts . . . ) go unexamined. If anything, a compelling account of a traumatic incident delivered by a sympathetic and “credible” source only re-affirms class-based hierarchies, leaving poorer, less media savvy victims of sexual violence to remain sideshow attractions in a media spectacle.
Trauma politics really only favor the privileged, and singles out the most “relatable” among them – at least to the consumers most aggressively targeted by the New York times et al. Such media outlets provide something similar to a glam-enhancing filter for its readership, enabling them to echo elite influencers’ power-serving opinions by re-tweeting and sharing them. Thus tribal affiliation with the ruling class is established, and conveyed throughout the social media sphere as a kind of currency. These aspiration-enabling mechanisms help us to internalize the suffering of our oppressors, and ‘relate’ to it. Through this process of false identification with celebrities and their struggles, we direct our outrage at the trespasses against these individuals, while overlooking the collective trauma that inflicts damage far greater than Harvey Weinstein.
Unless you can afford complete public disclosure about a graphically sordid sexual encounter, “poor decision making” will factor into your narrative, and your motives for speaking out will be questioned, if not maligned. Just ask former Senator Joe Biden’s accuser, whatever that lowly, “Trump-enabling” intern of no consequence’s name is. What passes as “left” in American political discourse is particularly prone to dismissing “ill-timed” testimonials from sex abuse victims that implicate its preferred political candidates. As the prevailing “feminist” discourse moves away from its broader political aims of wealth re-distribution, over-sharing personal information has become the “movement’s” political and economic underpinning. Individual trauma within this narrow framework supports the idea that predators are independent of predatory systems, and can be politicized with the now academic language of radical movements to advance a centrist agenda.
In a recent essay on the subject of trauma politics, author Mila Ghorayeb lays out its “three untenable components”:
“First, it arbitrarily favors those that are more comfortable sharing their personal history. Second, the personal nature of this form of political discourse makes contesting facts a matter of personal attack rather than genuine truth-seeking. And last, it forces us to contend with one’s personal and subjective narrative rather than material social and political circumstances”.
Ghorayeb uses the example of the first Gulf War when the testimony of a surviving witness to an event that never happened helped to get a reluctant American public on board with bombing Iraq. Crying in front of Congress, “nurse” Nayirah al-Sabah’s scripted testimony about Iraqi forces tossing Kuwaiti babies out of their incubators was instrumental in shoring up support for American military involvement in a border dispute between Kuwait and Iraq. Ghorayeb illustrates a worst-case scenario resulting from harrowing first-person accounts of lived experience to make a very valid point about the unintended and mostly neoliberal consequences that come with personalizing politics.
Today a similar pattern is emerging in the Southern Hemisphere as Venezuela’s growing number of economic refugees in the region have taken to social media to highlight their plight, and urge the US to bring about “regime change”. People in dire financial distress can be relied on to adopt a hardline attitude against contextualizing their suffering or implicating its unseen architects, making them ideal spokespeople for the forces that oppress them. Still, we tend to consider the language – as opposed to the actual tenets – of civil rights movements as sufficient evidence of a “good cause”, and will gladly sign a petition to further destabilize a socialist government, having been emotionally manipulated by an individual who fits the bill of the “oppressed”, whether a political prisoner or a former US presidential candidate with a womb and ties to Wall Street.
With the focus wholly on the personal failings of individual perpetrators like Jeffrey Epstein, the more sinister State players of this now forgotten saga elude scrutiny and evade justice. Depending on their present position on the political and financial food chain, the bigger fish wriggle free from law enforcement’s flimsy dragnet, leaving small fry to fester under the dimming glare of the media spotlight. Undoubtedly, the personalized testimonies from Epstein’s victims helped to catch a predator, but also overshadowed the greater forces still at play who empowered and profited from a suicided patsy’s blackmail operation.
For her bravery and service to the truth, Anita Hill was rewarded with ridicule, and consigned for decades to being a punchline in a plutocratic Minstrel Show, where the foregone conclusion of a useful idiot’s nomination to the Supreme Court was momentarily stalled by a ‘fly in the anointment’ process. Hill’s subsequent vindication is not so much a victory for trauma politics (which Hill was not engaging in) but proof of the efficacy of window dressing corrupted institutions with people from traditionally marginalized sectors of the population to deflect blame in their role of creating these inequalities in the first place. Ms Hill, disadvantaged by default by the very power structures that today identify as “feminist”, lacked the financial resources and social clout to defend herself from this bastardized movement’s mostly-male progenitors.
If believed, Hill’s testimony against her former boss Clarence Thomas could have made a difference in the real world. For better or for worse, Supreme Court decisions, unlike the court of public opinion, impact the lives of millions. For this reason, her high profile detractors had to put out a hit on her character, just as it did Bill Clinton’s less photogenic line up of accusers. How do we differentiate between unvarnished truth telling and a carefully curated narrative, rhetorically ‘on brand’ with the prevailing, pearl-clutching mores of millennial jurors in the court of public opinion? You only have to look at the results of such testimony. The former will bring about meaningful systemic change to ameliorate the effects of collective trauma, the latter will yield a disgraced celebrity’s mugshot on TMZ.
Power’s willingness to listen is incumbent on an outcome that will not implicate it in any meaningful way, but credit its superficial, short-sighted solutions – usually in the form of more strictly enforced HR manuals – as progress. The further infantilization of workers through a regimen of ‘woke’ bullet points on a lunchtime slide presentation represents the pinnacle of societal advancement, especially one creeping towards totalitarianism.
De-platforming, the preferred instrument of the techno-class to maintain not just their monopolies, but monopolistic control over discourse, empowers the swarms driving its algorithms by deputizing them as Keyboard Cops. With license to ‘cancel’ a presidency just days before its official expiration, or a cash-strapped teen wearing a “culturally insensitive” prom dress, online murder hornets can exercise the power denied to them offline as furloughed workers, disenfranchised voters, involuntary homeschoolers . . . burdened by debt and imbued with hopelessness. In the more enviable role of homicidal Hall Monitor, they can rhetorically cleanse the internet of content that disrupts machine learning. Think of the AI chatbot Microsoft swiftly recalled after its human trainers on Twitter turned it overnight into a racist, obscenity spewing cyborg bent on planetary destruction.
It wasn’t long after this failed experiment in public participation in the creation of an entity that would eventually replace the public that social media platforms started purging users whose yielded content was ideologically in line with the MAGA-tized chatbot. As much as you don’t want your human replacements to spout anti-Semitic conspiracy theories instead of tracking Amazon deliveries, you don’t want them declaring their support for Palestinian rights, or mobilizing Amazon’s customers to turn it into a public utility under a democratically elected Socialist government. For now, Microsoft’s own version of Marjorie Taylor-Greene is licking its wounds in cyber purgatory with Armie Hammer and Marilyn Manson.
Newly unearthed revelations that Manson didn’t limit his ghoulish predations to lowly groupies, but also inflicted them (allegedly) on an actual human being are trending on Capitol Hill, where select victims can put a vanity plate on a new law, and say “Suck it, Brian”! Luckily for Brian Warner aka Marilyn Manson, the swarm has already moved on to devour the cannibal actor, confident that the handsome maniac will never strike Syrian targets, or continue poisoning Flint’s water supply.
A new civil rights movement has emerged from individuals seeking “justice” in Schadenfreude, and getting Congress to act by outlawing bad boyfriends while remaining inert on actual structural reform. Ultimately, this means Brian Warner has been condemned to buy his lipstick from a discount drugstore chain. Take that, Patriarchy! Meanwhile, more enviably situated actors will only achieve improved working conditions in an industry already poised to replace them with uncomplaining CGI replicants.
Within this extrajudicial realm, media and tech giants most notably, exercise powers that the government has ceded to them. Where the State cannot make a case against a ‘criminal’ for lack of evidence, a company can step in to minimize the damage to its own bottom line by aligning itself with the accuser and imposing the punishment she/he demands. You might even say the private prison industry has expanded into the creation of private tribunals that double as PR events for the executioner class to showcase their virtue.
As for Manson, (or even Johnny Depp) Establishment liberal feminists laud an outcome that leaves no longer relevant goth clowns flattened under a bus, where the material conditions that compel so many to internalize colonial aggression and cosplay the Imperial plunderer in every aspect of their lives, are swept under as well.
Giving corporations the power to impose justice in the form of de-platforming individual offenders will only result in these entities eventually punishing you should someone be ‘triggered’ by your opinions, or even presence on social media. Movements like #metoo only fulfill an individual quest for self-affirmation within a neoliberal capitalist framework. It combines early cinema tropes of ringleted maidens about to be ravished with later revenge fantasies like “I Spit on Your Grave”. The line separating Hollywood “survivors” of trauma and all the unacknowledged victims to a predatory economic system reveals a widening class divide. This unbridged gap, now designated an “inclusive” zone, allows a platform for Taylor Swift to wave a rainbow flag, or Michelle Obama to collect millions in speaker’s fees. There is no “intersectionality” connecting celebrity-led social justice movements, and your own experiences getting fucked, so to speak, by a system that prioritizes its profit margins over your well-being, or even your ability to survive within it.
A nation founded on the violent expulsion of its original inhabitants, built by enslaved people, and permanently at war to replicate these conditions elsewhere, is hardly the sphere within which conversations about trauma can take place in good faith, especially when they prioritize histrionics over historical analysis.
‘Trauma’ has come to mean in its most degraded and banal form, as being shaken by a rupture in the sort of norms one comes to expect when playing by the rules of capitalism. Most people will have a convulsive reaction upon discovering that it sees little difference between you and someone it has bombed and displaced elsewhere. Trauma, by this definition, is a defense mechanism against actual realization that the forces that prey on vulnerable populations worldwide will eventually target you. Your best and only line of defense is to join the marginal and dispossessed in solidarity, rather than align your beliefs and values with the forces that made them that way.