Student Perceptions of Social Trauma: The Judicial System

This blog post clearly illustrates the dangers of brainstorming via public venue.  My assertions below aren’t very coherent and they aren’t supported through outside sources.  But writing this indicates a couple questions I need ask/address as I continue my research:

  1. Is there a relationship between the individual experience of trauma and the ability to perceive/understand the traumatic experiences of others?
  2. In what ways does racism affect our ability to empathize?
  3. Standpoint theory establishes that privileged individuals are less likely to perceive the detrimental effects of social difference than outsiders within who occupy marginalized positions in the society.  How does this impact classroom interactions?  My perception is that many minority students are reticent to speak up in class, likely because of the enhanced awareness of the negative ramifications that can attend social responses – could this be an effect of cultural trauma?  However, white students who are aware of the existence of racial issues may either be insufficiently aware to comment appropriately, or they may be afraid to speak for fear or speaking inappropriately.
  4. Can autobiography be used in the classroom to help students bridge these gaps in cultural understanding?  Or, rather, to establish interpersonal bridges of communication that overcome the socially enacted barriers between groups?

Addressing the social perceptions of trauma can be complicated and difficult, particularly in the classroom.  I would argue that this is one of the biggest complaints of students who would not be identified as “survivors” of trauma – the types of students we categorize as middle class, suburban, with the comfortable “support” of helicopter parents.  (The case of the young man found “innocent” of drunk driving deaths due to “affluenza” comes to mind.)  Among these students, we assume, the perception of trauma would be limited.  But this inability to relate to the suffering of others is hardly limited to a single group of students – and it’s ce

In the humanities and social sciences, any in-depth study of the human condition must at some point acknowledge and interrogate the historical and ongoing prevalence of socially-inflicted trauma.  My Lai, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Trail of Tears, Abu Ghraib – I feel it’s impossible to fully understand the social contexts of our major historical eras if we do not address the causes and ramifications of such examples of socially-sanctioned violence.  However, the definition of what “counts” as violence is a highly contested issue politically.  The Turkish government’s absolute refusal to categorize the mass death of the Armenians as genocide is one example – another would be the general ignorance among Americans about the direct U.S. role in the deaths of many more millions of Native Americans.

Then we must also consider issues of contemporary social justice – the exceptionally high incarceration rate of African Americans is clearly a “problem,” but whose problem?  Who is traumatized by this?  One could simply say that poverty creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of criminalization, and that socioeconomic marginalization is the clear source of trauma.  But then we have people who talk about being being “tough on crime.”  We have advocates for victims’ rights.  There are questions about recidivism and juvenile incarceration and nutritional standards.  Fundamentally, however, we run into issues of perception.  Those who want to be “tough on crime” often fail to understand the ways in which socioeconomics have severely affected access to education and employment among many African American communities.  But in cases where a violent crime has been committed, justice is demanded.  Yet as the numerous death row exonerations have shown, “justice” sometimes shows little regard for finding the actual perpetrator of the crime.  And from what I’ve seen, minorities from lower income brackets have been disproportionately imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit.  It isn’t that whites are never wrongfully imprisoned (this happens, too) – instead, it’s that white defendants with the financial resources to mount an effective legal defense are far less likely to be wrongfully convicted.  Basically, the presumption of innocence generally works better if you have the money for a good lawyer.

But this isn’t limited to incarceration.  We also see this effect in cases of police brutality (particularly when unsuspecting individuals are shot multiple times in situations where no crime has been committed.)  I would argue that there is a small but undeniable percentage of police officers who simply do not relate to their “suspects.”  It could be that they don’t care, it could be that they operate on the assumption of “you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t already guilty,” it could be that they truly are unrepentant racists.  However, I suspect that there is something deeper going on – something at the neurological level that is related to trauma.  Yes, there are racists, but for a police officer to simply gun down a man in broad daylight (regardless of race), there is something deeper going on.  This is not to exonerate the behavior.  Instead, my theory is that a combination of fear, disregard for the humanity of “the other” (i.e. minorities), and unchecked confidence leads certain officers to use deadly force without remorse.  So, in saying this is “related” to trauma, I don’t know whether past trauma causes this behavior (such as in a cycle of violence), or if instead there’s simply a failure to relate to external points of view.  This seems to likely be somehow tied to narcissism – or perhaps to even provide the definition.

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