Trauma Begets Trauma
The political expediency of holding one’s nose

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 28 October 2022

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I’m seeing the same pattern repeating in nearly all the great, progressive, countercultural, or justice inflected organizations that I’m working to support: infighting. Someone says or does something that “triggers” someone else, and then an internal struggle over righteousness or purity or even just appropriate engagement ensues.

Meanwhile, the overt problem we were gathered to address — racism, capitalism, climate change, violence, homophobia, oppression of women, student debt, you name it — ends up ignored, or at least postponed. Worse yet, the “other” side (the folks taking away women’s rights, stalling climate remediation, or selling government to the highest bidder) continues unchallenged. That’s because we’re too busy figuring out who among us deserves to remain instead of how to establish even provisional solidarity in order to face collective challenges.

This problem doesn’t just infect the progressive Left. Liz Cheney — one of the staunchest and most consistent conservatives in Congress — was canceled by her own party for rejecting Trump’s fantasy that he won the election. While I doubt more than 2 or 3 percent of Republican congresspeople genuinely believe Trump won, a great majority of the party recognize that feigning such beliefs makes rhetorical and emotional sense. And it prevents them being subjected to “The Trump Card,” the former President’s ability to direct his followers’ wrath at whoever doesn’t buy in. Yet it also stymies their efforts to address the economy or geopolitical affairs from a pro-business or conservative perspective. The closest thing to a traditional Republican today is Joe Manchin.

I suspect the problem here — at least for progressives — is that ideology is quite simply incompatible with practical activism. Perfect is more than a mere enemy of good; it is anathema to any progressive agenda. As the word “progress” implies, things get better over time. We try to make positive changes, see how they work, and then keep going.

When we cling too fervently to our ideologies — whatever they may be — it prevents us from making strange if necessary bedfellows with people who still hold opinions and prejudices we do not like. They may be pro-choice, but they still don’t understand why what YE (aka Kanye) said is a problem, or why picture books where a kid has two moms is not. Or they may already understand all this, but express their agreement in language that betrays their still-developing awareness of their own racism, antiSemitism, or homophobia.

It’s tempting to call them out, or at least call them in, and challenge the way in which they are trying to agree with us. This “yes but” approach to solidarity may be great for the seminar room, but doesn’t work as well in building coalitions. People want to feel accepted by their group. That’s partly how they heal from trauma, and warm up to ideas that may at first seem challenging.

What would a spirit of acceptance look like for progressives? It’s tricky, I know. It may require our leaders to comport themselves as the most progressed, rather than the most oppressed. Each newcomer, however apparently un-woke or early on their journey to social justice, needs to be welcomed and acknowledged for having made the choice begin the process of awakening, rather than punished for all the many ways they are still missing the plot.

I remember when I met Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, and challenged him on the cynical linguistic methods he used to get voters to support whichever conservative cause had hired him. His response: “Do you want to win?”

While we shouldn’t distort reality in our messaging or promote baseless conspiracies in order to win votes, we have to at least accept that most voters are still operating with only partially evolved consciousnesses. I would venture that even the best among us would be regarded by future progressives as inexcusably exploitative. What? You bought computers and smart phones even after you knew that enslaved people mined for the rare earth metals in them? You used air conditioning even when your life didn’t depend on it? You bought stuff from China even though they kept Uyghur people in prison camps? And you were aware of all this yet still did nothing?

As we are approach midterm elections in the United States, many of us will have to go into the voting booth holding our noses while we vote for what feels like the lesser of two evils. Most of the people reading this will likely feel forced to choose an ineffective moderate neoliberal over a an authoritarian, anti-democratic, climate and abortion denier.

I’d suggest that rather than hold our noses, we accept that—at least for now—this is air we are breathing. It’s filled with impurities and noxious fumes, even when we’re among our most trusted friends and colleagues. Our real choice is how we respond. And while I’m not suggesting we passively accept cruelty or abuse, I am coming to recognize that our responses may have less to do with whatever someone is saying (or meaning) than how it triggers our own memories and prior traumas. Yes, we want others to adopt a comportment more conducive to collaboration and solidarity, but people have baggage and very often that baggage looks like the same suitcase someone clobbered us with in the past.

We must ask ourselves, is it enough of an offense to cost them their seat at the table, or to make us get up and leave? Perhaps. But it may also simply be a set of beliefs we want to relieve them of over time, if we can keep our own reactions in check for long enough to do so. Chances are, their prejudice or lame belief is just an artifact of their own trauma and confusion. Rather than rejecting them entirely, we may just have to help them metabolize it. Holding our nose, if necessary, during the process.