Monday, October 12, 2009

We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us

After a while, writing a blog like this, there are certain things you find yourself talking about over and over again. In the blogosphere, those simply become "tags" for your writing. But some themes are more than tags -- I'm talking about the posts your write where you have to go back and look to make sure you hadn't actually written that post before, because it all sounds too familiar. That's how I'm feeling, today, about the issues of distancing and blame.

It seem like coverage of trauma in the news separates itself, rather neatly, into two categories: stories that are tragic but point out the various reasons this tragedy could have been avoided, and stories that express shock that such a thing could happen. These are two sides of the same coin. Saying an incident was avoidable implies that we will be able to avoid it happening to us. Expressing shock implies that it is anomalous -- that things like this are not "supposed" to happen to people like us, and therefore won't in the future. From these stories, we get a very interesting picture of what a victim of trauma or a perpetrator of crime is and is not "supposed" to be like. If you pay attention to the news, particularly the coverage of traumatic incidents, you will find the following:
  • Victims of trauma -- those who die in traumatic incidents -- are supposed to be poor, not white, and live in cities. They are supposed to be stupid and preferably morally questionable. They tolerate domestic violence and marry entirely the wrong people. They don't have the sense to ask for help when they need it. If they are children, then the adults in their lives fit this description.
  • Perpetrators of trauma -- those who cause death by crime or even by negligence -- are supposed to be poor, not white and live in cities as well. They are supposed to not have jobs and to drop out of school. They are supposed to be male. They are supposed to have a history of drug use and have been abused as children. They are supposed to care about nothing but the almighty dollar, and view women as inherently subservient.
Anything that deviates from these patterns is branded as shocking and unpredictable. At best, it is labeled part of a "troubling trend" that you have probably never heard of before reading the article, even if it truly is on the rise. Anything that fits these patterns is described as yet another statistic in a long line of predictable, horrible incidents. The fact that there is a pattern goes without saying.

There are many problems with this way of thinking, of course. The virtual codification of racism, classism and sexism they demonstrate is at best disheartening. Because they sort tragedies into categories, they help us deny the humanity of those affected by trauma. They make it easy to blame.

Fundamentally, they also do a tremendous disservice to our preparedness for trauma. Part of how we become resistant to traumatic stress and resilient following an incident is by having a realistic expectation of what might happen to us and how we will feel afterwards. While it is not healthy to live in fear of rare events, it is also not healthy to believe they are significantly rarer than they are. Perhaps if we were not so busy convincing ourselves that trauma happens somewhere else to someone else, we might be able to face what our actual risks are and prepare to cope with them.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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