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Excerpt from Endgame

Why Are We Doing This? (p. 69)

From chapter "Irredeemable"

Ever since I was a child, I’ve been asking: if this culture’s destructive behavior isn’t making us happy, why are we doing it?

I’ve come up with many answers so far. All of them, unfortunately, point toward the intractability of this culture’s destructiveness. In my book A Language Older Than Words, part of my answer was that the entire culture suffers from what trauma expert Judith Herman calls complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or complex PTSD. By now most of us are familiar with normal PTSD, if not in our bodies then at least from having read about it. PTSD is an embodied response to extreme trauma, to extreme terror, to the loss of control, connection, and meaning that can happen at the moment of trauma, the moment when, as Herman puts it, “the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force.” This force may be nonhuman, as in an earthquake or fire; or inhuman, as in the violence on which this culture is based: the rape, assault, battery, and so on that characterizes so much of this culture’s romantic and childrearing practices; the warfare that characterizes so much of this culture’s politics; and the grinding coercion that makes up so much of the rest of this culture, such as its economics, schooling, and so on. Herman states, “Traumatic reactions occur when no action is of avail. When neither resistance nor escape is possible, the human [and the same is clearly true for the nonhuman] system of self-defense becomes overwhelmed and disorganized.” Traumatized people, she writes, “feel and act as though their nervous systems have been disconnected from the present.” They may experience hyper-arousal, sensing danger everywhere. Certain triggers may stimulate “flashbacks,” so that a child who was beaten by a parent while on a water skiing trip, for example, may even as an adult become terrified or full of rage when faced with this stimulus. The same may happen to a woman who was raped in a certain make and model of car. And the adult may wonder at the source of this sudden fear or anger. Those who have been traumatized may go into a state of surrender. Having been brought to the point of powerlessness, where any resistance was futile, this feeling may continue later into life. Faced with any emotionally threatening situation, these people may freeze, failing to resist even when resistance becomes feasible or necessary.

This entire culture is so violent, so traumatic, I argued in Language, as to render most all of us to one degree or another shell shocked, and therefore incapable of realizing or even imagining what it would be like to live a life not based on fear. This fear, in fact, runs so deep that it has become normalized in this culture, codified, made the basis of the entire society.

I am sure you can see these symptoms not only among those of your friends who may have been grotesquely and obviously traumatized, but in the culture at large: the culture is certainly disconnected from the present, else we could not possibly kill the planet (and each other) for the sake of production; it certainly sees danger everywhere, even when there is none (the culture’s politics, science, technology, religion, and much of its philosophy are all founded on the notion that the world is a vale of tears and danger); it just as certainly manifests in an otherwise incomprehensible rage at (and fear of) the indigenous everywhere, as well as the natural world; and of course those of us who hate the destruction consistently fail to resist in anything approaching a meaningful fashion.

But there’s more to it than this. Judith Herman defined a new type of PTSD. She asked, what happens to people who have been traumatized not in one discreet incident—for example, an earthquake or a rape—but instead have suffered “subjection to totalitarian control over a prolonged period (months to years)”? Or, I would add, for the six thousand years of civilization. She includes not only hostages, prisoners of war, and the like, but also those who have survived the captivity of long-term domestic violence. Concerning this latter, she asks what happens to those whose personalities are not only deformed by extended violence, having suffered it as adults, but to those whose personalities are formed as children in such a crucible of totalitarian violence. The answer is that they may suffer amnesia, forgetting the violence of their childhood (or, I would once again add in our larger case, the violence on which, to choose just one example, white title to land in North American is based). They may suffer a sense of helplessness. They may identify with their abuser. They may come to perceive mutually beneficial relationships as impossible, and to believe instead that all relationships are based on force, on power. They may come to believe that the strong dominate the weak, the weak dominate the weaker, and the weakest survive as they can.

The understanding that the entire culture could reasonably be said to be suffering from complex PTSD helps to make sense of many of the culture’s otherwise absurd actions and philosophies. Our hatred of the body. The certainty that nature is red in tooth and claw. The long-standing movement toward centralized control. The neurotic insistence on repeatability (and control) in science, and the insane exclusion of emotion—which means the exclusion of life—from both science and economics. Using the lens of domestic violence to look at civilization’s unwavering violence helps to make sense of all of these symptoms, but the important thing about using this lens as it pertains to the sixth premise of this book, that of civilization’s unredeemability, is that perpetrators of domestic violence are among the most intractable of all who commit violence, so intractable, in fact, that in 2000, the United Kingdom removed all funding for therapy sessions designed to treat men guilty of domestic violence (putting the money instead into shelters and other means of keeping women safe from their attackers). Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, that country’s largest single provider of support to abused women and children, said: “I am not a hardline feminist and I am not against men receiving help, but in many years of experience I have known only one man who has changed his behaviour.” The Guardian put it simply: “There is no cure for men who beat their wives or partners, according to new Home Office research.”

If perpetrators of domestic violence cannot be cured, they must simply be stopped. If you believe, as I think I sufficiently showed in A Language Older Than Words, that familial violence within this culture is in many ways a microcosm of the violence the culture tricks out on the larger stages of history and the landscape, the implications for the culture—and its human and nonhuman victims—are, I think, sobering. As well as exploring the psychological irredeemability of this culture I discussed in that book many of the reasons for the culture’s death urge—its urge to destroy all life, including our own—and the reasons for this urge’s intractability.