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Amor Mundi 05/22/16

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Trauma and Society

Sebastian Junger has a far-reaching essay on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Junger explores PTSD in its connection to rape trauma and asks why it is so prevalent today, at a time when wars are less lethal than ever. One part of his answer suggests that at least some of the source of PTSD is found less in war than in the civilian society into which soldiers return.

“Any discussion of PTSD and its associated sense of alienation in society must address the fact that many soldiers find themselves missing the war after it’s over. That troubling fact can be found in written accounts from war after war, country after country, century after century. Awkward as it is to say, part of the trauma of war seems to be giving it up. There are ancient human behaviors in war—loyalty, inter-reliance, cooperation—that typify good soldiering and can’t be easily found in modern society. This can produce a kind of nostalgia for the hard times that even civilians are susceptible to: after World War II, many Londoners claimed to miss the communal underground living that characterized life during the Blitz (despite the fact that more than 40,000 civilians lost their lives). And the war that is missed doesn’t even have to be a shooting war: “I am a survivor of the AIDS epidemic,” a man wrote on the comment board of an online talk I gave about war. “Now that AIDS is no longer a death sentence, I must admit that I miss those days of extreme brotherhood … which led to deep emotions and understandings that are above anything I have felt since the plague years.” What all these people seem to miss isn’t danger or loss, per se, but the closeness and cooperation that danger and loss often engender. Humans evolved to survive in extremely harsh environments, and our capacity for cooperation and sharing clearly helped us do that. Structurally, a band of hunter-gatherers and a platoon in combat are almost exactly the same: in each case, the group numbers between 30 and 50 individuals, they sleep in a common area, they conduct patrols, they are completely reliant on one another for support, comfort, and defense, and they share a group identity that most would risk their lives for. Personal interest is subsumed into group interest because personal survival is not possible without group survival. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s not at all surprising that many soldiers respond to combat in positive ways and miss it when it’s gone.”

Part of the problem that veterans have, Junger suggests, is that our individualist and lonely society is so foreign to the comaraderie of wartime life. He worries that western societies don’t touch children enough and live too separately, or at least that in keeping our distance we are being untrue to our animal needs, needs that wartime better meets.

Hannah Arendt might be suspicious of Junger’s turn to evidence from primates to argue for the need for more intimate ways of living, but she would clearly recognize his claim that western individualist societies are not as happy as they claim to be. For Arendt, we have increasingly lost sight of an essential part of human happiness—what she calls public happiness. Public happiness is the joy and thrill experienced when one acts together with others in public. It is the happiness we experience when, amidst a crisis, we work together to stack sandbags with strangers or save someone from a burning building. It is also the feeling of joy felt by participants in Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party when they act together to occupy and run a public square or organize to take over a local town council.

Arendt would not have psychologized the feelings of alienation from society as Junger does. But she also sees that we are increasingly alienated from our world. World alienation, in her telling, has its origin in the scientific revolution—the insight that the common sense world of our eyes is not to be trusted, that it deceives us. From that fundamental scientific insight, scientists like Galileo and Descartes shifted the locus of truth from the world to the individual mind, alienating man from the common world.

What Junger is touching upon in his essay is the way that the experience of war re-creates the kind of non-alienated common world that Arendt hopes to keep alive through public action and politics. What both Junger and Arendt understand is that amidst the action in concert of war and politics humans are able to bear suffering and sacrifice because they act for a purpose. Man can bear all suffering, Nietzsche writes, if he thinks it has a purpose. As the purpose of life is attenuated in our individualist society, we lose sight of what Arendt calls public happiness. And we also lose our ability to confront and live with the very real traumas of war and also of rape. This does not diminish those traumas, but it may help to think about how we can better learn to live with them. —RB

 

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Research Corrupts

In an article surveying the field of contemporary social science inquiry into the nature and psychological effects of power, Matthew Sweet (perhaps inadvertently, or perhaps not) reminds us that research is its own kind of power relation:

Who, then, is right? Are powerful people nicer or nastier than powerless ones? How can we explain the disparate answers yielded by these two sets of data? It may be that rich people are better at disguising their true nature than poor people. If being generous in public brings rewards, then rich people might be more inclined to help old ladies across roads. Selfish driving is consistent with this idea: the anonymity of the road means that aggressive petrolheads need not worry about damaging their reputations. And Keltner points out that the data come from people’s accounts of their own charitable giving, and not from watching them in the act. “We know from other studies that the wealthy are more likely to lie and exaggerate about ethical matters,” he says. “Survey self-report data in economics and face-to-face data in psychology capture different processes. What I say I do in society versus how I behave with actual people.” But it is also possible that the problem lies not with the survey data but with the psychological experiments. Over the past year, this possibility has become the subject of bitter debate. In August 2015, the journal Science reported that a group of 270 academics, led by Brian Nosek, a respected professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, had attempted to reproduce the results of 100 psychological studies. Ninety-seven of the original studies had produced statistically significant results. Only 36 of the replications did the same. Those numbers threatened to undermine the entire discipline of experimental psychology, for if a result cannot be replicated then it must be in doubt. In March 2016 a panel of luminaries claimed to have detected serious shortcomings in the methodology of Nosek’s paper. The inquiry was led by Dan Gilbert, a Harvard professor with a history of hostility to the replicators. (“Psychology’s replication police prove to be shameless little bullies,” he tweeted in 2014, defending another researcher whose work was questioned.) When a journalist from Wired magazine asked Gilbert if his defensiveness might have influenced his conclusions, he hung up on them. Psychology’s “Replication Crisis” might not yet be over. In September 2015, five social psychologists and a sociologist published a paper in the Journal of Behavioral and Brain Sciences that suggested why psychology might show privileged people in a bad light. Left-wing opinion, contended Jonathan Haidt and his co-authors, was over-represented in psychology faculties. This, they suspected, might be distorting experimental findings – as well as making campus life difficult for researchers with socially conservative views. “The field of social psychology is at risk of becoming a cohesive moral community,” they warned. “Might a shared moral-historical narrative in a politically homogeneous field undermine the self-correction processes on which good science depends? We think so.”

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Let’s Talk About Power

Something happened on February 3rd that has never happened before, and in contrast to the event that provided the circumstance for its happening, it is almost a footnote in our discussion of what we really witnessed that day.

Superbowl XLVII was held in New Orleans last week. It was an awesome game filled with unique shows of strength, human agility and competition, and momentum swings. I have always loved sports for this reason, they can showcase the apex of physical discipline, potential, and unity. They are an active metaphor — literally, of action.

Football may be the most apt war metaphor we have. A team is a conquering nation set upon invading the other teams turf. No individual effort of strength or force can bring victory. A win is a team win, brought upon only through clear unity. But last Monday these representations became even more pronounced. Just after halftime Jacoby Jones, a speedy receiver who now plays for the Baltimore Ravens and is a product of New Orleans, took a kickoff 108 yards for a score. The guy was flying, clearly the fastest man on the field that day. Don’t tell me that in part he was not driven by the energy of performing back on his hometown. The man represented the city in this game. It was a triumph for New Orleans. There was a cheer beyond the Stadium. Frankly, most in the stadium were outsiders, only visiting the city for the event, unaware of the fact that Jones was a native. Just after Jones scored the power in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome went out. Oh yeah, the Superdome has been renamed the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, because that changes things… Anyway, according to Entergy, the energy company supplying the power to the stadium, the outage was the product of a glitch from outside of the Superdome. Does anyone else find this oddly poetic?

I know, who wants on the festive day of the Super Bowl, with all its earning potential, both inside and outside of the city, all of its ability to showcase the most celebratory elements of the crescent city, who wants to return to the conversation of race, gentrification, education, and power, and their relationship to one another? But we are not over it. New Orleans is not over it. Yes, thousands of people descend upon this city for the Super Bowl to spend millions of dollars in the most extravagant of ways. The restaurants stock up on expensive meats. Champagne and Courvoisier VSOP are flowing. The private escort sector brings in outside recruits and stocks up on Bolivian marching powder (I mean, come on, do we really think that’s not happening?). Thousands of locals pay their rent and grocery bills through this commerce contract. But is this not an opportunity to re-examine what happened?

Katrina was a stark reminder of the inequality within our county. It awoke the common shout of the forgotten. This lens is not only applicable to the gulf region. It was an opportunity to zoom out and see where else this glitch is taking place. But that of course takes action. An action of self-inventory on the part of the power institutions in this county, as well as individuals. And for the most part these institutions have proven themselves anything but ‘powerful‘ at least in terms of Arendt’s vision of the word. They are money-strong and possess the weight of force, but these alone can lead only to a politic of totalitarianism. “True power,” again, “is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”

Have we done that? Have we, as a nation, conducted the self-inventory necessitated by Katrina?

For thirty four minutes the power in the Superdome was out. The images of the players stretching on the field were an odd, ironic, peculiar, haunting flashback to the Fall of 2005, when the turf of the Superdome became the staging ground of a mismanaged relief effort, and another reality TV show for so many around the county watching it on television.

I do not mean to say that people were not moved to action by Katrina. On the contrary, the country united in the wake of the storm and at the shocking disclosures of our government’s impotence. But, possibly we have let a great part of the story go, cataloguing it under ‘what happened” We have disbanded. Labeled what happened in New Orleans as “there” and thus divorced from the “here.” We have allowed ourselves to become disempowered. I’m just saying, just asking, have we moved beyond our active, democratic right (and even mandate) to diagnose the source of a power outage?

It was a great game though. After 34 minutes of sedation the momentum shifted. The San Francisco 49ers almost pulled off a historic comeback, before the Ravens defense finally held its ground on a last down goal-line stance. It was a pretty game. A show of individual strength, a collision of forces, an art brought to being in the action of power.

For 34 minutes the fans at the Superdome, as well as the hundreds of millions of people watching across the globe, waited for power to come back. Advertisers, of course, lapped up the extra T.V. time. In between the commercials images of players from both teams laying or sitting and stretching on the turf of the Superdome were broadcast out to the world.

Let’s talk about power…Hannah Arendt writes, “Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”

In addition, Arendt makes a clear distinction between power, force and strength. Power is the only of the three that in order to exist requires a union of people, “and vanishes the moment they disperse.” It is only in the “public realm” that power meets its “action potential,” and what “first undermines and then kills political communities is loss of power and final impotence.” Cease to actualize, and the power is out. In this sense democracy is the products of power, and legitimate, firm standing, only in this active action of its members, and not on the collection of force or display of strength.

In many ways New Orleans has moved beyond Katrina. The rebuilding, re-conceptualizing of the city is well, well on the way. Much of this movement has come from grass-root structures, as well as political institutions, though the latter are often mired in a economics based debate over what New Orleans ‘should‘ look like. And yet the discussion of what happened here and what still happens is often brushed aside too quickly. In 2005, a glitch from outside of the city, outside of the congregation space, had completely disempowered it.

-Nikita Nelin