Trauma at the Institutional Level
Role in Societal Breakdown
*Note: I refer throughout this article to left and right brain hemisphere states, but the arc of the narrative doesn’t depend on the strict definition of these states. Depending on the concepts you are most familiar and comfortable with, you can just take my use of "right hemisphere" as a metaphor for "ventral vagus", "parasympathetic", “relaxed”, “socially engaged" or "safe" nervous system states, and "left hemisphere" as a metaphor for "fight, flight or freeze", "sympathetic", “defensive”, “withdrawn” or "danger/threat" nervous system states.
My discovery of the work of Dr Iain McGilchrist, author of the books “The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World” and “The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World”, about the very different ways in which our left and right brain hemispheres attend to the world, was literary life changing for me. It helped me profoundly, not only to know myself, and what I needed to change to heal, but also gave me understanding of other people, and what I saw happening in society.
The extension of this by Bonnie Badenoch, author of “The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships”, to include trauma, bootstrapped my new understanding considerably. In particular, the concept that when we are in defensive nervous system states, our right hemisphere's way of attending to the world gets shutdown, leaving our uninhibited left hemisphere to run rampant. This results in us becoming deaf to any thoughts or ideas, arising from other brains, that are contrary to our own current beliefs.
The hallmark of the left hemisphere's way of attending to the world is a state of being utterly and intractably convinced that we are correct in our thinking, and that we know everything there is to know. It takes the intercedence of a right hemisphere's way of attending to escape the hall of mirrors created by the left. An active right hemisphere is thus absolutely essential to being able to integrate new knowledge and ideas, to admit we when we are wrong, or to change our minds, and to prevent ourselves becoming traumatized when we are shocked by reality.
Once in defensive mode, we therefore tend to dig in, become even more entrenched in our positions, and pull up the drawbridge firmly against contemplating anything contrary to our own current worldview. Without the supervision of the right, the left hemisphere will justify anything to protect itself from such contemplations. Those purveying alternative worldviews become threatening and dangerous "others".
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It is my observation that when two people already in highly defensive states with opposing worldviews, come in to contact, their left hemispheres will go to entrenched war, with no possibility for negotiation or resolution. It takes the presence of at least one brain with an ascendant right hemisphere to intercede and bridge the gap, to bring calm, understanding and concession.
It is therefore really unfortunate that, in the UK and US in particular, it seems our institutions have become so very locked in to institutional forms of defensive states, devoid of any supervision from right hemispheres' way of attending. Institutionalized left hemisphere attendance indeed! By “institutions”, I am referring to our political, news media, corporate, academic and medical systems. I see these as having become self-selecting and amplifying of, and hence largely made up of people with, certain trauma survival styles.
The manner in which our institutions are communicating with the folks they are meant to serve, is itself, in my view, clearly very triggering to large sections of the people, and is driving a lot of people into permanent, heightened defensive nervous system states, thus spreading left hemisphere overactivation. At the same time, the institutions are also clearly reacting very defensively when the worldview of lots of people is contrary to the institution's own narratives.
Unfortunately, our institutions are now resorting to blaming and shaming the very people that ineffective messaging and lack of good communication skills has already triggered into defensive states. The fastest way I am aware of for rapidly escalating defensive states is through shaming and blaming. One reason for which is that the left hemisphere also does not accept responsibility for anything.
In this way, it seems to me that we have entered a cycle of increasingly explicitly threatening rhetoric, and the resulting increasing entrenchment against or resistance to the messages.
There is also an awful lot of "Epistemic and Testimonial Injustice", defined as "exclusion and silencing; systematic distortion or misrepresentation of one’s meanings or contributions; undervaluing of one's status or standing in communicative practices; unfair distinctions in authority; and unwarranted distrust", arising from our institutions.
What I feel is now needed is the intercedence and negotiation skills of the right hemisphere’s way of attending to be introduced at all the institutional levels. We are all urgently in need of calm, conciliatory, understanding voices, to de-escalate us from the brink of the entrenched societal and cultural warfare we now find ourselves in.