Is the liberal focus on individual powerlessness and trauma undercutting our own political efficacy?
Are conservatives happier than liberals?
Maybe, writes Thomas Edsall in the New York Times, rounding up the research on political beliefs and emotional well-being. And having written a whole book on feminism and happiness, I’m not surprised: Conservatives are conservative in part because they are satisfied with the way things are; liberals are liberal in part because they want things to change. Liberals look at inequality and find it intolerable; conservatives look at inequality and justify it. You’re going to feel happier if you believe that things are more or less ok, and less happy if you believe that things are unfair and need to change. Liberals embrace freedom and ambiguity, but a wider range of choices can, perhaps counterintuitively, make people less satisfied with what they ultimately choose. Conservatives embrace hierarchy and tradition; for people who already have a conservative / authoritarian orientation to their personality, following clear rules and meeting clear expectations is satisfying and imbues meaning to one’s life.
But this is one of those issues where both sides of the American political divide are losing out. Conservatives may express greater emotional well-being, but their acceptance of the status quo makes them materially worse off. Liberals are less happy with the way things are and that makes them better advocates for an improved world, which is a good thing. But the left shift away from a belief in just about any individual control over one’s life, and the reliance on the language of harm and trauma to justify much-needed change, may actually be making liberals more fatalistic than simply dissatisfied. It may decrease our ability to be effective actors for change, while also dragging out mental health down and leaving us burned out, isolated, and miserable.
Let’s start with how conservatives are screwing themselves. People in red states die earlier than people in blue states; they have lower levels of education, higher levels of maternal and infant mortality, and worse health outcomes. Red states offer their citizens fewer personal freedoms and fewer worker protections. Even on the issues conservatives claim to care the most about — marriage, family, children, freedom — red states are largely worse off than blue ones: Red states have higher rates of divorce, higher rates of teen births, and higher rates of children born to unmarried mothers. Red states boast the highest rates of children living in poverty.
None of this is an accident. All of it — health, education, worker protections, reproductive rights, poverty — is driven by policy choices. Even marriage, so often treated as an interpersonal relationship, has much more to do with economic stability than the emotions of any two people — create the conditions for marital stability and you get more marital stability. And where marriage isn’t in the picture, decent people don’t punish kids or mothers by consigning them to a life of poverty. Too many voters in red states do.
In other words, it would benefit conservatives to find a little less satisfaction with their surroundings, which are often pretty terrible. By convincing themselves that everything is fine, they may be happier, but they are also objectively living worse lives. And of course conservatives voters are making their poorer and less-powerful fellow citizens far worse off than your average Republican.
But that doesn’t mean liberals are doing it right.
For a project wholly unrelated to this newsletter, I’ve been researching resilience and life meaning (these were also themes of my first book). I really hate the word “resilience” and avoid using it in my reporting because it’s such a cliché, especially about people (usually women and girls) in poor countries — a kind of substitute for the “they’re poor but they’re happy!” trope that gets thrown around because sometimes African kids smile. It’s up there with “empowerment” for me as a word that has been so badly over-used it’s been rendered nearly meaningless.
But that doesn’t mean that the concept of resilience is useless. This New Yorker piece by Maria Konnikova is a good place to start. We know that people have different responses to stressors and adverse life events; some people are crushed by them, others manage to overcome. We know that part of that calculus has to do with the events themselves — chronic stressors are more debilitating than one-time traumas, for example — and part of the calculus has to do with the resources at hand — how you were raised, the people around you, and random bits of social luck (among “at-risk” kids who struggle with the chronic stressors of poverty and volatile family situations, kids who had a strong relationship with a stable adult relative, teacher, or mentor were more resilient than those without). But researchers have found that a lucky circumstance — bonding with a stable adult, for example — was actually less important to resilience than a child’s internal psychology. Konnikova quotes from developmental psychologist Emmy Werner, who followed a group of 698 Hawaiian kids for 32 years. Among those kids, about a third were “at-risk,” and among the at-risk group, two-thirds had issues with mental health, unplanned births, learning problems or delinquency issues by 18. But a third did not. Konnikova summarizes:
From a young age, resilient children tended to “meet the world on their own terms.” They were autonomous and independent, would seek out new experiences, and had a “positive social orientation.” “Though not especially gifted, these children used whatever skills they had effectively,” Werner wrote. Perhaps most importantly, the resilient children had what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”: they believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements. The resilient children saw themselves as the orchestrators of their own fates. In fact, on a scale that measured locus of control, they scored more than two standard deviations away from the standardization group.
Nor was resilience static. Some resilient kids were eventually overwhelmed by the weight of their circumstances. And some people who had big issues in childhood learned how to cultivate resilience in adulthood.
So what does this all have to do with liberals and conservatives and happiness?
Liberals, essentially, may be fueling not only our own unhappiness but our own inertia with a political theory of systemic power and individual powerlessness. That is: If we believe that everything, or almost everything, is the result of systems and inequities beyond our control — including our own opportunities, positions, and futures — then we cede our internal locus of control; we are primed to be less resilient and less effective drivers of our own lives and of political change.
That is not to say that liberals need to adopt a bootstrap theory of the world. To pull yourself up by the bootstraps, after all, you need boots — that is, there is a necessary baseline that people need to be able to thrive, and that too many people still lack. It is absolutely the case that the US is becoming less equal; those at the very top are accruing ever more, and the many at the bottom are fighting over scraps. This is especially true along generational lines: For people my age and younger, there are fewer good jobs, fewer opportunities for success, and so much more competition. No wonder the old bootstraps adage doesn’t resonate for Millennials and those younger than us: we’ve been pulling on these bootstraps, and a lot of us aren’t going anywhere. Bootstrap theory also handily blames individuals who are not able to succeed in a system stacked against them. It suggests that we simply aren’t working hard enough, not that there aren’t tangible barriers in the way.
But here is the rub: The systems we want to change are in fact made by, and made up of, individual people. For individual people to change inequitable systems, we have to believe that we can change those systems, and for individual people to feel powerful enough to do so, we have to believe we have significant individual agency.
In other words, if liberals want to be effective political actors (not to mention reasonably happy and mentally well human beings), we have to believe that we have significant control over our own lives and our futures, even while we also recognize that we are operating in an unfair system, and that no individual’s lack of achievement is reflective simply of a lack of willpower or hard work. We have to do both at once: believe in our own individual power, and understand individualism’s broader limitations. Believing everything is just random luck, or that the mountain is so high for most people with marginalized identities that it is insurmountable, is a recipe for apathy.
We also frankly collectively benefit from a national narrative of individual possibility: the more people believe that individual effort results in positive outcomes, the more people expend that effort in the service of things they care about. The problem isn’t that the ideals of individualism and meritocracy — that there is a relationship between effort and outcome — are wrong; it’s that meritocracy never truly existed, and the effort / outcome relationship is increasingly tenuous. The progressive response has been in part to try to change unfair systems (good), but also to attack the ideas of individualism, agency, and meritocracy, to essentially say that these weren’t just lies but perhaps bad ideas from the start.
Conservatives have never had their eye on changing the system to be more fair. They have instead fought to keep things as they are, or to turn back the clock to a time when things were even less fair. For many of them, the moral calculus is simple, a kind of prosperity gospel of life: Success is the result of individual hard work; hardship is either a failure of hard work, or it holds some greater purpose or lesson. Many conservatives hold these views even in the face of a mountain of evidence, and this is flatly delusional.
Liberals have, laudably, increased their focus on system inequities instead of perceived individual failures — sort of. As part of the process of rooting out systemic racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, we have in fact focused quite heavily on individuals. And we have increasingly turned to the language of harm, trauma, words-as-violence, and safety (or lack thereof) to justify our political desires and the changes we believe (and I believe) are necessary.
Some of this is good: Talking about mental health is important, and sublimating traumatic events, or simply encouraging folks to toughen up, has disastrous consequences. But I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable with how a new lexicon of trauma has crept into what are ultimately disagreements over politics, rights, speech, education, whose voices are are the fore of which discussions, and the role of ostensibly progressive or at least fair-minded institutions. I haven’t been quite able to put my finger on why I’ve found the increased reliance on trauma language so off-putting, but reading the latest in a long series of “cancel culture” stories (which vary wildly in their veracity, honesty, and proportion) centered largely on universities, but sometimes also on professional organizations, media outlets, and random workplaces, while also reading about resilience and emotional well-being, the dots began to connect.
One of the central elements of resilience, [clinical psychologist George] Bonanno has found, is perception: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic,” Bonanno told me, in December. “To call something a ‘traumatic event’ belies that fact.” He has coined a different term: PTE, or potentially traumatic event, which he argues is more accurate. The theory is straightforward. Every frightening event, no matter how negative it might seem from the sidelines, has the potential to be traumatic or not to the person experiencing it. (Bonanno focusses on acute negative events, where we may be seriously harmed; others who study resilience, including Garmezy and Werner, look more broadly.) Take something as terrible as the surprising death of a close friend: you might be sad, but if you can find a way to construe that event as filled with meaning—perhaps it leads to greater awareness of a certain disease, say, or to closer ties with the community—then it may not be seen as a trauma. (Indeed, Werner found that resilient individuals were far more likely to report having sources of spiritual and religious support than those who weren’t.) The experience isn’t inherent in the event; it resides in the event’s psychological construal.
It’s for this reason, Bonanno told me, that “stressful” or “traumatic” events in and of themselves don’t have much predictive power when it comes to life outcomes. “The prospective epidemiological data shows that exposure to potentially traumatic events does not predict later functioning,” he said. “It’s only predictive if there’s a negative response.” In other words, living through adversity, be it endemic to your environment or an acute negative event, doesn’t guarantee that you’ll suffer going forward. What matters is whether that adversity becomes traumatizing.
Is suffering a choice? Of course not. But if not faced and managed appropriately, can we also become attached to our suffering, even defined by it, to our own detriment? Yes.
There is significant danger, then, on emphasizing potential trauma of events or interactions that may be stressful or upsetting or wrong but need not be traumatizing. There is danger in making emotional harm the primary landscape on which the most important ideological battles are waged. Konnikova again:
“We can become less resilient, or less likely to be resilient,” Bonanno says. “We can create or exaggerate stressors very easily in our own minds. That’s the danger of the human condition.” Human beings are capable of worry and rumination: we can take a minor thing, blow it up in our heads, run through it over and over, and drive ourselves crazy until we feel like that minor thing is the biggest thing that ever happened. In a sense, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.
This is my concern about the increased progressive focus on the harm / trauma wrought by words and interactions we find hurtful, upsetting, or objectionable. It’s not a sticks-and-stones argument that words are harmless; that is very clearly untrue. It’s also not to say that trauma is all in a person’s head; real traumas exist, and we are better for identifying them, speaking about them, and seeking to heal them.
This is an argument, though, that we have some control over mediating our own responses to adverse events, and that when it comes to things like a professor who writes an op/ed against affirmative action or a speaker arguing that women are not as scientifically inclined as men or an authority figure criticizing a young woman’s clothing, we are potentially doing ourselves a huge disservice by telling ourselves and others that those words, acts, and ideas are traumatizing, and that the harm must be the focus of the discourse and the justification for leveling penalties. Are we actually traumatized? Or are we angry, and the language of trauma simply the strongest and most emotionally evocative we can come up with? Are we relying on the language of trauma because we want to communicate urgency, and what we really mean is, this is incredibly important and you should care about it? Or maybe: I am incredibly pissed off by this?
As it stands, I worry that we are leaving ourselves mentally worse off than we need to be. I worry we are undercutting our own ability to effectively challenge bad ideas and act in the service of better ones. Because that’s what trauma does — it makes action more difficult.
Anyone paying even a lick of attention understands that this is a fragile moment in American history. Democracy is at a tipping point; we are badly divided and cannot even agree on what the truth is; right-wing actors are effectively banning even the discussion of racism and the truth about American history in public schools. The threat is real, and I see a lot of people (often myself included) leaning into a threat response: Reacting according to what “side” of an issue someone seems to be on, and emphasizing potential harms of that side to the detriment of any other engagement or action. I worry about this here, in writing this newsletter — that my thoughts on this issue do not fit into any particular orthodoxy, the interpretation will be that I am arguing for a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” culture, or that because I think organizations sometimes do overstep and limit free expression that I am part of a secretly right-wing “cancel culture” anti-woke brigade, or that I think people who talk about trauma are all snowflake whiners and I’m undermining people’s mental health. I’ll just say that that kind of response to a real or perceived threat is not a particularly healthy way to move through life, and is a very bad way to achieve anything like political victory.
An important thing to understand about resilience is that it requires a strong sense of purpose — or, perhaps put more accurately, a sense of purpose is what helps to cultivate resilience. I don’t mean “everything happens for a reason” (although for conservatives and those with religious faith, perhaps that’s enough). I do mean that, when faced with an adverse event, finding a connection to what you find meaningful can help to work through it. You see this, for example, among some people who have lost a loved one: They focus their energies on advocating for better medical research, or less gun violence, or better laws against drunk driving. It doesn’t mean that the traumatic loss of a loved one “happened for a reason” (it probably did not). But people who connect into a sense of purpose even in the face of horrific events do better than those who don’t. And that seems useful to know. It’s also quite visible in many forms of progressive activism: The Black Lives Matter movement, and the marches of last summer, were a collective effort to create something purposeful out of so many senseless killings. I’m not sure we can say the same about the debates over free speech and expression.
In journalism, we’ve started to talk a lot about trauma. That’s important. A lot of journalists see and experience horrific things, and the old model of simply gutting it out didn’t work — too many journalists wound up depressed, or self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, or acting out in inappropriate ways, or burning themselves out professionally, or dead. But there’s danger in an over-emphasizing trauma as well. I regularly report on sexual violence, and I get asked all the time how I cope with the trauma of it. And the truth is that, while I understand why it’s valuable to talk about these things, those questions make me really uncomfortable and I hate answering them, because I believe the journalist isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the story.
I never know quite what to say.
But reading this resilience research, an answer is taking shape. I report on issues I care about, and so I have a deep sense of purpose for what I am doing. I reach out to others — my reporting partner, my husband — who understand the heart-crush of being largely powerless to help people pushed into awful circumstances not of their own making. I maintain perspective: Hearing about traumatic events is difficult, but these events did not happen to me; I am a vehicle for this story, not a player in it. And I hold onto the perhaps delusional belief that I can actually change what I am seeing in front of me, and that I am doing something important — that my work might wind up in the right person’s hands and something will shift.
I think these are good lessons: Connect to what brings you meaning and purpose. Connect with others. Maintain perspective. Believe in your own power and agency.
These are lessons progressives could internalize as we consider the most effective ways to make change.
Both political sides have potential resilience issues. Liberals may be more likely to view life events through the lens of trauma and harm, but conservatives are more likely to feel under threat. They oppose change because they feel threatened by change; they oppose greater equality because greater equality threatens their status, their perceived well-being, and their conviction that the world is organized in a way that makes sense.
Liberals tend to be less fearful, but I wonder if that’s changing as a result of so many issues being framed as traumas and existential threats.
I do not believe that people simply experience life as it is, with little or no ability to control their reactions. I do not believe people are static, that we are born who we are and cannot shift our maladaptive, unhelpful, or self-defeating behaviors — why else do we encourage each other to go to therapy? Why else are we working so hard to change the status quo? And while of course we are all shaped by our circumstances and opportunity is profoundly inequitably distributed, I do not believe that we are universally beholden to our circumstances nor universally and indelibly constrained or buoyed by our identities.
I also think we all deserve good, happy lives with opportunities to pursue what’s meaningful to us. And if we want to do that, we need to make sure everyone has a baseline off of which to build — it’s hard to seek meaning and purpose when you’re hungry or scared or don’t know if you can keep a roof over your head. If you’re reading this newsletter, you are probably in camp “make it better.” You are probably dissatisfied with the way things are (me too). If we want to change it, we have to hold two seemingly contradictory ideas at once: That things are vastly and intolerably unfair; and that we are each capable of changing not only our own circumstances, but the entire universe of injustice.
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