Should “What Happened to You?” Apply to Nazis?
Posted on August 18, 2017
One of the best ways to demonstrate the power of the trauma-informed paradigm is to challenge people to think differently about the behaviors and thoughts of individuals who have an unresolved trauma history. The traditional paradigm is to understand actions as a reflection of the value of the person. Bad behaviors = bad person. Disorganized and illogical ways of thinking about the world = crazy person. Racist, heterosexist, anti-Semitic, nationalist thinking + violent behavior = Nazi.
The trauma-informed paradigm challenges us to look deeper. It shifts the questions from “What did you do?” or “What is wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” As the trauma research expands our deeper scientific understanding, it shows that violent, hurtful, criminal, and other “bad” behaviors result from childhoods dominated by traumatic experiences and dysregulated family systems. Illogical thinking and harmful actions are seen not as a reflection on the person’s real self. Instead, they are symptoms of adverse childhood experiences and trauma.
Which brings us to Nazis, White Nationalist, and the Ku Klux Klan, these people make it very easy to view them as the “them” or “enemy” that “us” must fight. It is easy to see “them” as evil, stupid, rednecks who need to be removed from any society for it to be safe and civilized. Do these self-proclaimed Nazis desire us to step back from our anger and hate and ask, “What happened to you?”
I just want to yell: Hell No!
Forget empathy, compassion, and understanding. We must organize and fight these racists whose beliefs are the worst mix of hate and stupidity (who glorifies and identifies with the greatest losers of history!). Under the old paradigm, I can quickly judge behavior and belief while knowing that I am on the right side morally and logically.
What if I could regulate my anger and sadness for the dead and injured long enough to ask, “What happened to these Nazis that lead them to their violent behaviors?” Pulling back, I can start to see hundreds of years of cultural influences, I see poverty, I see them growing up in cities who thought it was okay to put up monuments to those who fought for slavery, I see communities that never racially integrate in meaningful ways, and I assume I would find that many participating in the violence in Charlottesville were victims of violence in their childhoods.
Pulling back further, I can see why these people feel empowered by our current political environment. The nationalists of the Republican Party have become a powerful influence across the country. How far of a leap is it from nationalist populism to white nationalism? Even if the “mainstreamed alt-right” claims not to promote racism, bigotry, or heterosexism; in the last few weeks the White House has gone after transgendered people servicing in the military, encouraged police to be “rough” with suspects, launched an effort to fight “white racism” and affirmative action, all this before Trump’s comments this week supporting many of the racists in Charlottesville. If it is easy for me to associate this language and policies with the racism and bigotry of white nationalism, of course, those who subscribe to this ideology feel like their moment is now?
Combine a history of traumatic experience, a historically bigoted and racist cultural experience, permission to come out of the shadows, and the fight response that broke out during the protest and the result is a person using their car to murder and hurt. One struggle we are very familiar with in our work is finding value in the individual even as we disapprove and even hate some of the behaviors our clients and students are exhibiting. I don’t expect the Nazis or Klan to spend their next blog post on how they need to learn to have a deeper understanding to act more compassionately towards people of color, Jew, Catholics, and anti-fascist counter demonstrators.
However, isn’t this the call of our work? Can we despise the behavior and label it evil and also ask, “What happened to these people that make them so racist and hateful?” Our calling to understand does not prevent us from marching and working against this hate, but we can’t let our ignorance get in the way of real solutions that only come when one side is regulated enough to step out of their emotional reaction and address larger societal causes.
I must admit, this post was nearly impossible to write. I want to sit in my anger, I want to judge, I will march, and yet I know my reaction is not constructive. Those Civil Rights Heroes of decades past held back their anger and found the courage to confront ignorance and violence with regulated and peaceful action. Can we find the strength to follow their example?
What are your thoughts? Should the “What happened to you?” question and the trauma paradigm apply to Nazis?