Cultural Relativism in Trauma

Trauma is a highly individual concept. Whatever your life story, you have certain conceptions about what “counts” as “awful enough” to merit sympathy or pity as opposed to disdain.

One goal reform pedagogy or “progressive” traditions would be to expose students to a wider scope of human experience, to help them better relate to experiences outside their own.  And the teaching of traumatic historical events such as the Holocaust or Wounded Knee would naturally play a role in this.  But the issue I see is the degree of personalization – or perhaps personification – that’s required if we want students to not only learn about other experiences, but to fully engage in the significance of such traumatic events in shaping the lives and perspectives of those who were affected.  But if we do this, we risk potentially traumatizing our students, habituating them to the extremes of suffering, or leading them to even reject these narratives as “impossible” or otherwise untrue.

A major consideration here is the fact that certain groups and cultures have specifically adopted narratives of the past which exclude the fact of trauma, thus reinforcing the marginalization of less privileged groups.  For example, many Americans are simply unaware of the mass extermination of the Native American populations following as a direct result of Euro-American settlement of the Americas.  Even more rare is to see any acknowledgement of the purposeful role ayes by the U.S. Government and other white Americans in “civilizing” the frontier by expelling the indigenous tribes through threats, starvation, and military force.  Instead, I’m under the impression that many people see the replacement of Native settlements with “American” settlements as a “natural” transition akin to Darwinian selection.  Which it is, in a way – except that we avoid accepting the power and responsibility our forebears took on.  Which allows us to avoid any sense of guilt or shame as the beneficiaries of the American genocide.

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