Understanding Collective Barriers and Facing Them Together

With all the injustice going on in the world right now, some people might be wondering why more people haven’t stood up to fight, It is easy to judge others, but what many people don’t realize is there are legitimate reasons and barriers why more people do not push back against oppression. Some of the reasons are psychological and go deep to the core of who we are as human beings and how we respond to stress and perceived threats at a systemic level.

As capitalism advances and wealth inequality grows, more people are struggling just to get through the day. If workers fight back or complain, the owners of production and the government — who work in tandem to maintain their hegemony and hierarchy — work hard to suppress us.

It seems harder nowadays to put up a resistance of any kind. Protesters from the Occupy movement to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri have been beaten, sprayed with pepper spray, shot with rubber bullets, and arrested for simply demonstrating their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly. The police have become militarized and can easily get away with abuses of power. People who bravely choose to fight back could face violence, jail, or both. That’s enough to keep most people in line and far away from resistance.

Social control is out of control. People saw what happened to those involved in the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, and to the Black Panthers. Many were systematically murdered, systemically suppressed, and systemically eliminated. Any threat against the established order, economic exploitation, and capitalist rule is crushed, creating a state of fear and paralysis. Scare tactics are effective tools of suppression; it’s enough to create apathy and acquiescence. People give up and give in when faced with overwhelming forces.

If people feel powerless, they are powerless. It is very much a mind game. If people feel they lack control, they will lack control. This is at the very core of social control: Those in power know how psychological warfare works, and they use the media, the police, and other tactics, to keep people hopeless.

Social, Structural & Systemic Shackles

Class oppression, economic inequality, institutionalized racism, sexism and patriarchy, homophobia and transphobia are all examples of social, structural, and systemic forces that work together to keep people down.

From in-your-face discrimination to everyday microaggressions, people are made to feel in no uncertain terms that they going to be judged and punished for who they are. These forces are marginalizing and ostracizing, keeping us locked into our own social circles and avoiding stepping out of our comfort zones due to fear and anxiety.

Many people have shut down as a form of self-protection and self-defense. They no longer trust other people. Since any social movement is based on mutual trust and solidarity, those who have built brick walls around themselves to avoid pain are not likely to participate. So many people are just trying to survive that helping to save the world is just too much of a burden to bear.

The Walking Wounded

It is my assertion that many people are the walking wounded. More people than we can imagine are suffering with from the effects of trauma: The National Center for PTSD estimates that 7-8 percent of Americans face Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and 60 percent of men and 50 percent women experience at least one trauma in their lives. Most people think PTSD is something soldiers develop as a result of experiencing combat, but PTSD is a common reaction to any major trauma. In fact, the National Council on Disability reports that foster children have “twice the rate of PTSD” than combat vets.

Besides social systems creating trauma, people’s personal lives, every day experiences, and struggles have traumatized them. According to Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services, one in three women and one in six men have experienced sexual trauma. Those who experience abuse, neglect, rape, or are in a situation where their agency is taken away from them can suffer the effects of trauma. A survey of “ inner-city kids” by the Family-Informed Trauma Treatment Center revealed that more than 80 percent have experienced one or more traumatic events.

Many of us face a constant, grinding stress just trying to survive. There is so much effort required to feed and house ourselves and loved ones: getting up early, working hard and laboring for long hours takes a toll physically and psychologically. The exploitation and indignities that people face in the workplace – low wages and lack of power — wear down our self-worth and compounds over time. There is only so much a human being can take.

Collective Social Trauma & Learned Helplessness

As a society, we may very well be suffering from mass collective social trauma.

Algerian psychiatrist Franz Fanon spoke of collective trauma while studying colonial war through the eyes of his patients. He noticed there is social component of trauma: He saw a lot of depersonalization, a condition in which people feel like they have no control over themselves, as if they are observers watching what happens to them. This can happen as a result of chronic stress and trauma.

Fanon’s experiences led him to believe that force and aggression are used to instill fear in people and to make people feel as if it were pointless to fight back. This leads to deep cynicism. Fanon also realized that decolonization did not necessarily free people a colonized mindset of otherness and internalized hatred. This is akin to mental slavery.

Fanon believed that collective trauma is passed down through generations, an assertion shared by Dr. Joy DeGruy, who developed the Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS) theory. On her website, Dr. DeGruy states that PTSS is made up by “multigenerational trauma together with continued oppression,” and “the absence of opportunity to heal or access the benefits available in the society.” These conditions were created as a result of slavery, Jim Crow, and other systemic problems rooted in racism. The results are negative self-esteem, hopelessness, depression, self-destruction, a propensity for anger and violence, and racist socialization or internalized racism This is a powerful, real-life example of how collective social trauma creates helplessness in people. However, African-Americans are not the only ones who face this sort of internalized learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon, which can happen to anyone who has tried and failed for far too long to make any kind of needed change. It simply means that people feel like they no longer can influence the outcome of any situation so they stop trying. This theory was developed by Dr. Martin Seligman, who tested animals by putting them in situations. At a certain point, the animals stopped trying to find a way out and just gave up. This applies to human beings as well. Many people have tried to change their circumstances, but if they don’t see results, they “accept” that they cannot do anything about it. Learned helplessness is also directly tied to stress, anxiety, and depression.

Cognitive Dissonance

In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon wrote about cognitive dissonance. He noticed that at times “people hold a core belief that is very strong” that even when they are “presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted.” The feeling of discomfort this creates is called cognitive dissonance. Fanon noticed that people experiencing cognitive dissonance “will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”

Cognitive dissonance keeps a lot of people from acting differently and participating in meaningful social change. Questioning your own privilege, racism or sexism means you first have to believe you could be racist or privileged. But if you believe that you’re a “good person,” then you won’t readily accept that you could possibly be bigoted, discriminatory, or have an animus or bias. Thus, if you don’t believe you personally don’t need to make changes, it would be difficult to convince you to work towards transforming society.

Can’t Breathe?

Many people are not willing to risk their lives to fight class oppression, but that does not mean there is not resistance building. Eventually people will be willed to act; they will have no other choice because they will be literally fighting for their lives. As Fanon said, people “revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.”

Until that day comes, we must find ways to heal the collective trauma we have all experienced. We need to recognize our common struggles, stand and organize together, support each other, participate in individual and group therapy and reflective listening, utilize mutual aid, and work together towards a non-hierarchal egalitarian society based on transformation and collective liberation.

It is only through the elimination of oppressive forces such as capitalism that we can free ourselves from mental slavery. Moreover, we must have compassion and empathy for those that feel so beaten down that it even hurts to care, let alone act.

When we feel too tired to fight back, we should take a break and get support. But we must regroup and live on to fight another day because social justice doesn’t fight for itself. We can allow outside forces to control us, or we can realize we are not powerless — especially when we band together. It is the solidarity of our comrades that will inspire us to try and try again.

Always remember: You  are  not  alone  in  your  suffering and you are not alone in the struggle to overcome it.


Tina Phillips

is a social worker who enjoys writing, advocacy, good food, and thrifting. She lives in Oakland, CA with her partner, Rachel, four cats, and their dog, Miss Piggy. You can read more of her writing on her blog at http://tinasradicalrant.blogspot.com/.

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