Middle-class America sees any unusual behavior through a pop-psychological lense; a folk version of child psychology and behaviorism where childhood explains every aspect of who you are. Because of this view, society defaults to looking to your childhood to explain abnormalities, the assumption being that if you hadn’t experienced some kind of bizarre childhood event, you would have came out being like everyone else. Flaws with this view aside, the unstated irony of trauma is that while it can help readily explain and make socially acceptable any of your quirks, those quirks do not actually become acceptable. They become “understood” – what I mean by this is boxed in – and the quirk is still considered a flaw, but the whole interaction is written off.
Trauma, in other words, is a means of trivialization. The attitude regarding trauma in middle-class America (and especially educated middle-class America) is one where trauma temporarily renders the victim of trauma a non-person; a cartoon character or participant in a fictional narrative. This is counter-intuitive, because the default view in society is that a person in society who has experienced trauma needs sympathy, or at the very least comfort. The view that trauma can be a source of trivialization, however, is only counter-intuitive once you hold the assumption that people care about your trauma beyond a social obligation to honor one’s trauma as a horrible event. When you assume that the vast majority of people care up to their level of social obligation, trauma as trivialization makes much more sense.
Quirks exist with varying levels of social acceptability, but more extreme quirks – say, exhibitionism or collecting sex toys or a propensity to make hyper-offensive jokes – are usually disapproved of by a significant minority of the population, if not a majority. That is, if a person had these behaviors, a significant portion of society would say that there is something wrong with the person doing these things. If someone works as an adult film star, for example, many in society see this as wrong, for a variety of reasons.
Suppose that a person who stars in adult films does this as a result of trauma. The person with this behavior is no longer someone engaging in wrong behavior, but a victim of horrible circumstances. This does not mean that the person is vindicated – only that there no longer needs to be any consideration that what they are doing might not be wrong. The trauma removes their agency, which means that there isn’t any need to consider their actions a rational choice or something otherwise voluntary.
Embedded above is a clip of porn star Sasha Grey on Tyra Banks’s talk show. You will notice that both Tyra and the audience are eager to find a reason, any reason, that Sasha Grey could be having sex on film for money as a result of childhood trauma. For Sasha Grey’s films to be a result of her own actions would force Tyra and her audience to consider the reasons why someone would voluntarily engage in this activity, which means that there is a door open in which this activity may be done by a reasonable person. Trauma in this case renders the victim of trauma irrational in this domain, removing any reason to consider rational the actions as a result of trauma. It is socially acceptable irrationality.
Actions without trauma are threatening. To seriously consider a behavior’s acceptability requires one to consider the person engaging the behavior is at least possibly justified. The implication here, then, is that this requires one to consider that they are at least possibly wrong for deeming the behavior in question so unacceptable.
Take, for another example, a person who sincerely and passionately holds a particular political view and deems this view extremely important in society’s political landscape. It could be anything from feminism to gun rights, but the view itself isn’t important. If this person acts belligerently when this issue is brought up because this person finds it essential that this view isn’t ignored, it is likely that the belligerence itself will be a target of criticism, because belligerence in general regarding a view is a highly-disapproved of behavior in society. And if it is revealed that this person was bullied as a child, suddenly the behavior makes sense in the way most beneficial to you – the behavior can’t possibly be right, because the person is behaving this way as a result of trauma. So there’s no need to consider a world where this behavior is actually right; the view is discarded, and your thought process is immediately turned off.
Certainly, there are some in society who legitimately empathize with trauma, who do not regard it as a means to discredit, who take seriously both the arguments presented by victims of trauma and the trauma itself. This is not the focus of this article, however, because humanity in general is selectively empathetic. One only needs to look at the world’s history of wars, public executions, and interest in tabloids to see how easily empathy can be turned off, especially when empathy conflicts with self-interest. And belief protection is definitely self-interest; if an audience of women watching a porn star on Tyra Banks enter believing pornography corrupts young women, they are not going to give up this belief easily. They want to know someone has been traumatized, because it provides an explanation (read: resolves their cognitive dissonance) for why someone would enter pornography and removes the possibility that someone could enter the industry because they enjoy it.
There is actually a term in informal logic categorizing trauma-as-trivialization: circumstantial ad hominem. Specifically, trauma-as-trivialization is a type of circumstantial ad hominem. Someone makes a circumstantial ad hominem when they discard a person’s argument by attacking the circumstances that would predispose one to make that argument. A person who argues for budget cuts starting with a football team, for example, should be responded to by arguing the effectiveness of these cuts in question. A circumstantial ad hominem, however, would go like this: “this person was just bullied in PE class and wants to get rid of football because they were traumatized by it.” Instead of attacking the reasons, it attacks the motivations.
Trauma-as-trivialization is exactly that: an attack on motivation. When applied to a behavior, it allows for easy dismissal of that behavior, provided you disagree with it. Society does not truly empathize with trauma. It likes trauma, because it provides a means of explanation. The explanation, however, is not of the behavior of the trauma victim; it’s an explanation of the cognitive dissonance trauma is helping resolve.