A few years ago while working as an undertrained, underpaid, undersupported case manager, I found myself struggling with a nasty case of secondary trauma. It is difficult for me to even talk about it without going down the rabbit hole of psychobabble and self-doubt. The best way to describe it is to describe one of the most startling symptoms: every time I saw a mother and child, a couple, or really any kind of family unit, without being fully conscious of it, I would try to move out of earshot. I was working in domestic violence, and eventually I realized that I wanted to avoid seeing the display of verbal or physical abuse that I had begun to assume must be occurring in every family. In other words, when I saw a hetero couple strolling together down the street, I assumed that the man would begin calling the woman names or hitting her at any moment. Fucked up, right?
Anyway, one of the major problems I’ve had with acknowledging and dealing with secondary trauma is that it occurs because of intense empathy for others’ pain (which is not to say it is inevitable). Because of this empathy, it is really hard for me to acknowledge my own pain—the secondary trauma—as legitimate. I mean, what could be more whiny-first-worlder than to complain that other peoples’ problematic lived experiences are so bad that they are traumatizing me? Those people had to actually live it, not just hear about it!
It seems to me that there is something in there that has a lot to do with broader struggles for social justice and wanting to recognize one’s own privilege. My understanding of the world suggests that while I am oppressed by certain systems (capitalism and gender, for example), I also benefit from others (race, class, sexuality, and nationality are all systems that privilege me and my experiences). What gets tricky for me is balancing being a good ally and trying to notice when my experiences are being validated a little too easily, but also feeling ok acknowledging my own pain and–dare I say–oppression.
Maybe this is part of what generates so much defensiveness around intersectionality on the left (I’m thinking especially of feminism here–just check out the comments on this post to see what I’m talking about). I suspect that sometimes I get defensive because acknowledging my privilege can feel like it requires downplaying my own pain. But (and here’s where the rabbit hole starts) then I worry: how can I tell the difference between the need to validate my own feelings and simply feeling threatened by the loss of privilege? Is there one?
It definitely doesn't look like this.
I followed the trail from this post at Feministing today to Jessica Valenti’s post about pay for activist work. Pretty interesting stuff to think about. Certainly I’m often infuriated at the way that social service work is generally done by young women who are expected to do incredibly draining care work for an income that almost qualifies them for food stamps (no exaggeration there, really). This shows so little respect for the work, for the women who do it, and especially guarantees that the low income communities of color that constitute the client base will continue to receive inconsistent and inexperienced assistance at every agency where they are supposed to be supported. [Mind you, this is an insider critique; I’m not saying young women are incapable, just that a balance of age and experience would generate better service provision as well as less burnt out, more effective social service workers.]
On the other hand, I find myself stopping short of wholeheartedly endorsing Valenti’s points because I’m wary of the entire system of activist superstars. I wonder if it might not be better to work toward eliminating the uppercrust of nationally known activists in favor of building activist capacity more broadly. It seems that Nonnie Ouch is already a kick-ass activist in her own right–why does she need Dan Choi to come inspire her peers?
And someday soon there will have to be a post on money and Marxist alienation.
In Direct Action, David Graeber describes anarchist spaces in New York as being always in a state of construction and becoming. He sees this as an important anarchist value, wanting to be in the place “where the spectacle itself is produced” (p 279).
I think about this and other aspects of anarchist culture a lot, because I don’t know if it’s just me and my own insecurity or what, but it’s things like that that make me constantly feel strangely out of place among anarchists in the US. Despite more or less wholeheartedly sharing values, I just don’t get a lot of the cultural stuff. Even though I love Johnny Cash, I love wearing bright colors. Even though I get that most standards of cleanliness were propagated solely to sell more chemical cleaning products, I still feel better when I take a shower every day.
It’s important and legitimate for me to understand and acknowledge the importance of my own happiness, and so I try to balance changing the world with sometimes taking the easy (or comfortable) way out.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to hang around with all black wearing dirty punks. I do. But somehow I end up feeling like an aged hippie among such folks, as if they are the only authentic anarchists and I’m nothing but a liberal. Sometimes I think this is partly the result of an age difference: I wonder how many of the punk anarchist kids will remain committed to anarchist ideals in the long run versus how many will gradually reintegrate into yuppie life because they set the anarchist culture bar so high for themselves. I wonder if the conflation of youth culture and anarchist culture is really endemic to anarchist ideas, as Graeber thinks, or if it’s because anarchist spaces are overrun with kids just looking to rebel. I like “Anarchy in the UK” just as much as the next punk, but when it comes down to it, I have to reject the late 70s punk vision of “anarchism” (which is actually more like capitalism-fueled nihilism) and remain committed to the vision of love and solidarity that I find so compelling.
On the other hand, I know that age is a form of hierarchy and a way for me to claim a bit of rank on my anarchist comrades. And while it is a legitimate critique to hope that white folks aren’t just slumming it as anarchists for a few years of their late teens, it is deeply unfair of me to assume that they are.
I guess what I’m trying to say is: I’m in the market for a long-term, sustainable kind of anarchist community for myself and I’m having trouble finding it. Is it because I’m missing something?