Normalisation of violence and our urgent need to heal

Unless we accept our collective and individual traumas and heal them, cycles of violence in the world will continue.

“She is staying because she likes being abused”, “Addiction is a choice”, “He is just lazy spending months not leaving his house, doing nothing with his life”.

How many times have we heard these sentences from people around us? How many times have we used these sentences ourselves? These statements lack empathy and compassion for our fellow humans. But most importantly, what they have in common is no understanding of trauma.

What is trauma?

Contrary to popular belief, trauma is not a distressing event itself. Trauma is a reaction of our body and mind to a distressing event or a series of events. When humans lack adequate internal and external resources to respond to and to process very stressful events, their bodies go into survival mode. There is no faultiness in this mechanism as one might think. Instead, this is our body’s natural intelligence helping us survive very hard experiences. However, if unhealed, we do not come out of the survival mode even after the event(s) that caused trauma are over. This will show up in all aspects of our lives such as distorted beliefs (e.g., ‘humans are cruel by nature’), dysfunctional behaviours (e.g., suppressing our emotions and/or having regular outbursts), destructive coping mechanisms (e.g., addiction to drugs, alcohol, food, work, social media etc.), unhealthy relationships (e.g., co-dependency, counter-dependency, oppression etc.) to name a few. 

Trauma can be acute (sustained from a one-time event such as a car accident) or complex (developed as a result of chronic stress experienced regularly over a long period of time such as domestic violence). Trauma can also be individual, ancestral and collective.

Collective trauma is a reaction to an event that affects entire societies, countries or large groups of people who share common social, cultural, religious, political, economic etc. variables (such as women, LGBTQIA+ community, people of colour, Muslims, people in extreme poverty etc.)

Collective trauma can develop as a result of collective stress or violence such as colonialism, racism, patriarchy, totalitarianism, wars, economic crises, natural disasters etc. Just the history of the last few centuries shows how we as a global society are collectively traumatised. Our behaviours and decisions today show how we as a global community are still unhealed.1

How does collective trauma manifest in our current behaviours?

Body and mind operate as one organism, and traumatised bodies re-enact their traumas continuing the cycle of violence from generation to generation.

A boy who witnesses his mother’s abuse in the hands of his father is more likely to repeat this destructive behaviour with his future partners. A girl who grows up in a violent patriarchal home will find it hard to leave abusive partners for myriad of reasons including socio-cultural expectations and financial constraints, but also due to her complex trauma history. In short, she is not staying because ‘she likes being abused’ or because ‘she does not like to take responsibility for her life’. She is staying because she is terrified, her body is in chronic stress and fawning is her body’s defence mechanism to help her cope with huge amounts of stress.

Some traumatised people become numb as a coping mechanism to survive being in a body that carries trauma. Numbing their own pain translates into an inability to feel the pain of others which (if unhealed) leads to desensitisation to violence.

We live in a collectively numb world desensitised to violence. Violence is the norm, while objecting to it may be seen as useless or unnecessary or trouble-making or even exaggerating.

What is your first reaction when you read about an act of violence such as femicide or mass killing? Do you feel prone to blame the victim? Do you look for a logical explanation as to why this can never happen to you? Do you minimise the situation and move on? Do you feel scared, angry or sad?

If you went for the first three answers you are not alone. We live in a collectively numb world desensitised to violence. Violence is the norm, while objecting to it may be seen as useless or unnecessary or trouble-making or even exaggerating. We are traumatised from living in a violent world for many generations. Our trauma will not allow us to feel difficult emotions such as grief, anger and hopelessness which are organic reactions to violence. Instead, our bodies will dissociate from and rationalise the situation to help us avoid the stress of our feelings. In some cases, we will victim blame to subconsciously soothe ourselves that this can never happen to us. In others, we will minimise pain which will justify violence further, because, if something is not a big deal, then why interfere or stop it.

It is no coincidence that hundreds of thousands of movies are produced annually where mass murders, blood-filled scenes, sexual abuse and domestic violence are portrayed as normal. There are also endless video games that require users to kill to collect game points. Every year these games ‘evolve’ technologically, making killings and blood look closer to real life visuals. These films and games are produced by humans desensitised to violence and are consumed by millions of other humans, including children whose bodies and minds are only developing, and this contributes to further desensitisation of our world.

Not holding abusers accountable, blaming victims, lacking empathy and compassion for those in distress and devaluing emotional pain are symptoms of a deeply traumatised, dissociated humanity.

Some of us accept that violence is ‘bad’ but believe nothing will ever change, ‘because this is the way humans are and will be’. These are those of us who were abused or witnessed abuse and felt completely helpless. Now we normalise violence because we carry past trauma of being unable to act and change the situation. And we shift responsibility from abuser to abused.

We say ‘educate girls so they do not become victims of domestic violence’ accepting violence as the norm and proposing to ‘arm’ women against it. This logic fails women as it makes them responsible for keeping themselves safe, when it is violence against them that must end and it is the world that must change to be safe for them.

Not holding abusers accountable, blaming victims, lacking empathy and compassion for those in distress and devaluing emotional pain are symptoms of a deeply traumatised, dissociated humanity.

Our language is inundated with this dissociation.

For example, we label ‘laziness’ or ‘procrastination’ as personality traits, yet these may be signs of trauma where a person is unable to move forward in life due to paralysing fear that they are carrying from childhood or from generations back.

We call addiction ‘a choice’ and load people with addictions with tremendous amount of guilt and shame, while addiction may be a coping mechanism (though a destructive one) to numb the pain that feels too heavy to carry. This makes their already hard lives even harder when what they need is access to compassionate and caring trauma-informed support.

No society can understand itself without looking at its shadow side

Gabor Mate,  In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction

“No society can understand itself without looking at its shadow side” says Gabor Mate. Unless we accept our collective and individual traumas and heal them, cycles of violence in the world will continue. Unless we stop celebrating disembodiment and punishing vulnerability, cycles of trauma will continue to pass from generation to generation. Unless we stop minimising trauma, the world will continue to be an unsafe place for most of us and we will continue destroying life on the planet.

We must heal. We must bring our bodies and minds to their natural states of feeling all of our human emotions and responding to life from a place of love. We must design systems that care for the most vulnerable among us. We must dismantle hierarchical mode of thinking, refuse competition and celebrate cooperation and solidarity. We must birth safe and inclusive communities. We must return to love, care, empathy and compassion. This is the only chance we have at surviving as humanity.

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Author: Afsana Tahirova

Image: Hierarchy (2024). Acrylic on canvas. Artist: Kafiye Eyvazova (Azerbaijan). Image courtesy of VarYox

  1. Recommended further reading on Trauma:
    The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma’, Bessel Van der Kolk
    ‘Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds’, Thomas Hubl
    ‘The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture’, Gabor Mate ↩︎