The Age of Schoolyard Politics – Trauma, Individualism and the Hope in Collaboration

Jilly Ballistic and Al Diaz_CP

By Jilly Ballistic and Albert Diaz, Photo by Yoav Litvin


America Today

Within the first month of assuming power, Donald Trump and his administration have targeted women, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQI people, Indigenous communities, the poor, the elderly, Black and Brown people, scientists and artists. They regularly villainize the media, ridicule the left, marginalize and criminalize dissent and promote an atmosphere of racism, fear and distrust that has epitomized in a spike of vigilante violence against the usual scapegoats of American society.

Donald Trump is a bully and a notorious sexual predator. He roams American society as if it were a schoolyard and picks on the different, the independent, the fearless and the delicate.

Fear empowers and arouses him.

Trump’s beneficiaries are the millionaires and billionaires, the military industrial complex, the police, corporations, the fossil fuel industry, Christian zealots and racists. Trump voters who do not belong to one of these groups fell for his con, from which they will slowly yet surely awaken, enraged and in search of someone to blame.

The diagnosis- textbook fascism. The prognosis- civil and global war, ecocide, raging inequality and gross injustice.

It is clear that America, and with it the world, face a grave threat. To deny the danger out of fear, apathy, or propaganda-induced ignorance, privilege or laziness is to cooperate with these destructive forces.

But resistance is not easy or straightforward and besides bemoaning our collective misfortune, it is important to strategize. As James Baldwin said:

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

In order to gain some insight into effective strategies to combat right-wing hatred, violence and divisiveness, many politicians, academics and historians compare the present with similar historical precedents, such as examples of fascism in Europe during the 20th century, and the long-held practices of colonialism, slavery and White supremacy.

However, we as humans within a civilization also carry in each and every one of our cells a biological history, which is an expression of our evolutionary successes and failures as social animals, i.e. of behavioral strategies that have proved efficient for our survival and procreation as a species. Thus, in order to break the cycle of abuse, violence and inequality, it is important to examine the behaviors that preserve it.

Trauma and affiliation

Being shunned or cast out can lead to profound misery. The structure and function of our brains clearly indicate that humans are social animals, and that isolation has profoundly negative effects on mood and health. Studies on prisoners who were subjected to solitary confinement show severe negative physical and psychological repercussions, which have led the Center for Constitutional Rights and the United Nations to declare it as a human rights abuse that can amount to torture.

Findings in the neurosciences elucidate the effects of trauma on the brain and can guide the discovery of treatments for its victims. Understanding the neural pathways affected by trauma can also reveal novel and creative approaches to effective movement building, justice and reconciliation.

As too many children know, being bullied is a source of despair. A growing body of laboratory work shows that chronic social defeat stress (a scientific model of bullying) can lead to profound changes in brain and behavior and that social affiliation and interaction may reverse these effects. Preclinical as well as clinical work have demonstrated that re-exposure to frightening situations and people under neutral conditions, and an embrace of friendships and loved ones can blunt fear and even heal the negative impacts of bullying.

The cycle of violence and inequality

Though our empathy leads us to focus on the misery of the abused, bullies themselves are more often than not victims too. Studies show that those who engage in abusive behavior were likely abused themselves, probably during early life. Thus, bullies naturally and tragically preserve a cycle of violence. This is applicable for individuals as well as certain societies.

But rage does not necessarily lead down a single path. Victims of abuse can cope with their trauma in two ways. They can either channel their rage toward weaker elements in society and in so doing perpetuate the never ending cycle of division and abuse, or they can stand up to their abusers, who are stronger than them. The first option of picking on the weak is easy and can be a solitary endeavor; victims become abusers and in so doing feel empowered. The second option of fighting one’s oppressors poses a greater challenge and requires courage, resolve and social skills, as abusers are usually stronger and more formidable than their victims. For this purpose, victims must join forces and collaborate with fellow victims so that together they may form a winning strategy to overcome their oppressors. In so doing they would break the cycle of violence by refusing to become bullies themselves.

Individualism as a hoax

Western capitalist society is predicated on the notion of individual mobility within a predetermined hierarchy. Success is measured by the distance one has travelled away from his/her origins, family, community and roots. Capitalism requires individuation and consequent separation and glorifies the reinvented “self-made” man/woman as its hero.

Hailed as a triumph for freedom, individualism is idealized while collaboration within an egalitarian collective is frowned upon. We are told that the pillars of our society were/are “lone geniuses” who beat all the “odds” that were stacked against them. But these notions are not only factually and historically false, as many “lone geniuses” were/are highly dependent on others for financial, emotional and intellectual support, as well as base their own accomplishments on those of others; they also go against the very nature of our humanity as a social species.

In our profit-driven individualistic society, seeking out help and guidance is considered a flaw, while failure is always personal and never systemic. As such, individualism divides people and serves as a tool for supporting a status quo whereby certain classes remain at the top while others linger hopelessly at the bottom. In this environment, the only coping mechanism left for victims of oppression is to repress those who are weaker and more vulnerable, perpetuating a societal cycle of bullying, violence and misery.

The hope of collaboration

A collective, such as a sports team provides a background which not only nurtures genius, but also provides the ‘set’ for exceptional talent to shine, giving each individual a shared channel and joint purpose. Independence within such a collective is meaningless, and therefore the individual prerogatives lost are gained as extended reach. It is only the unifying goal that enables people to achieve their potential and transforms an assortment of individuals into a winning collective.

The human race is in a state of crisis. Inequality is growing, our planet is dying and we are divided, lonely and frightened. Abandoning notions of individualism within a rigid hierarchical system and embracing egalitarian collaboration and movement building can lead to the formation of novel, transformative and sustainable approaches, which can break the cycle of violence and inequality and ward off bullies like Trump who seek to abuse and exploit others. It is past time to embrace our collaborative human nature, and selflessly place our faith in ourselves as a democratic collective with a real hope for a future on this planet.

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Yoav Litvin is a Doctor of Psychology/ Behavioral Neuroscience.  

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