The Transformation of Social Trauma: Power-Under and Politics


The Transformation of Social Trauma:
Power-Under and Politics

Article / SiuCho      Editor / Sandy      Translation / Happy

In the past few months, many directly experienced an unprecedented story of political oppression: numerous unexplained deaths, hundreds of people facing charges, thousands of people arrested, commonplace tear gas, sponge rounds, and rubber bullets. Every Saturday and Sunday, scenes after scenes of blood-covered faces flooded social media platforms. No matter online or offline, people have been puzzled about how this social movement will end and eager to devise solutions.

During these war-ridden days, no one, right at the frontlines or back in the living rooms, could evade from feeling restless and worried. As arrested protestors were released or put into court, where some were abused, some even raped, the dreadful damage to our body and mind brought by the long-winded social movement had gradually surfaced. How collective trauma affects our political behaviour is an urgent political matter to be discussed. Steven Wineman’s book, Power Under: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change (2003), might shed some light to us.

What are we shouldering? Trauma is not an isolated single phenomenon  alking about Trauma, an average person would think of it as an individual’s psychological damage from bodily illness, change in relationships, sexual violence, verbal or physical violence. Yet, in fact, its definition covers more than this common notion. Psychological trauma originates from traumatic events, which can vary in forms but all have some commonalities (Yoder 2005):
  • Threats to personal safety or survival
  • Inducing immense fear and helplessness
  • Weakening a person’s or a crowd’s ability to respond to threats
  • Obliterating the sense of control of one’s life and external environment
  • Disrupting a person’s or a crowd’s meaning of life and sense of order
  • Depending on age, races, biography, religious beliefs, and the extent of involvement to the event, we endow different meanings to a life-threatening and physically and psychologically traumatic event. Hence, concerning trauma, one has to consider an individual’s idiosyncratic experience, the intensity of the trauma, his or her tolerance to stress and susceptibility to post-traumatic stress disorder, the forms of expression of the trauma, and the subsequent reactions.
    In the past, we tended to perceive trauma as being triggered by a single event, such as a traffic accident, an earthquake, and a hazardous fire. In reality, long-term persistent exposure to life-threatening or violent situations could also leave lingering damage.
  • Living in war-ridden sites
  • Living in places that are currently or possibly occupied by terrorists
  • Surviving under absolute poverty and being consistently malnourished
  • Extremely lacking basic health care and constantly facing risks to be infected
  • Being ruled or colonized and silenced by autocratic leaders
  • Facing systematic discrimination, such as slavery and racism
  • Since these damages are not caused by a single event but rather by a prolonged misery, we could call it ‘cumulative trauma’, ‘continuous trauma’, or ‘multiple or plural trauma’. Additionally, as these traumas concern a group of people or even the whole society and are constituted by a specific combination of culture, history, and political system, they are sometimes named as ‘social trauma’ or ‘collective trauma’. During these months of protest, what we are shouldering could be a type of social trauma. Those who are facing psychological damage do not have to be direct victims of the protest; The witnesses of the others’ affliction could also feel standard stress reactions, such as intense fear, panic, anger, or helplessness. For instance, paramedics, medical practitioners, social workers, and even the audience who watched live videos of violence could suffer different extent of damage. The soldiers, police officers, guards and correctional service officers who inflicted pain to abide by their superiors or the criminals who hurt their victims for money or revenge could also face trauma.

    What constitutes trauma? / Trauma is an ‘overwhelming experience’

    From Chi Fai’s interview, we could see that our body and mind exhibit a series of changes upon threats, including an increase in heart rate, rapid breathing, iris dilation, and adrenaline excretion, in order to prepare for the moment of an instantaneous event. However, if the situation did not allow a flight or fight response, this threat would induce an unbearable psychological pressure, preventing the anxiety response triggered by the threats to be completed. The internal energy that energizes us to take action and manage the threat would be frozen and turn into trauma. Just as Bessel van der Kolk described (1996),trauma is an ‘overwhelming experience’.

    In other words, human beings have a series of complicated bodily reactions to threats, including physiology, emotions, thoughts, and behaviour, to prepare for a fight or flight response. Traumatic events would dismantle the series of complex and interconnected reactions, such that even when the risk dampened, some of these triggered reactions would continue, causing burnout, alertness, emotional numbness, dissociation (evading traumatic memories out of consciousness), and amnesia (having no or incomplete recollections of traumatic events, or even experiencing flashback, where the person involuntarily recall or dream of the traumatic event in detail.

    How does social oppression cause trauma? / Rage and Numbness Trapped in a Cage 

    Social and political oppression is a common but omitted source of continuous trauma. Marilyn Frye, a feminist, used a metaphor of a bird cage to describe this type of oppression. She added that if one focused on a single metal bar, one might think bypassing it for freedom is easy, but if one stepped back and observed, one would see the cage, forming a constrained space limited by multiple bars. We could infer from the word ‘oppression’ that ‘presses’ a person, rendering him or her unmovable.

    This is the workings of an autocracy, which simultaneously controls the media, judicial system, education, economy, and the parliament, and legitimizes their violent suppression to protestors, thus limiting and intruding the people’s freedom systematically. Just like being in a bird cage, the room for resistance is scarce. In this social and political environment, those who resist oppression are trapped in a situation where they could neither advance their ideals nor run away from the status quo and, hence, faces immense psychological pressure.

    What Hongkongers are experiencing is similar to this dilemma. When on one hand, we are objectively the underdog against the powerful and on the other, we subjectively feel having no exit and independence and even being imminently eradicated, we would then experience two conflicting forces. The first one is an onerous sense of helplessness and the second is a survival instinct and a strong yearning of dignity, independence, and security. The fight between these two forces would create a psychological state unique to trauma: at some moments, one would feel enraged by external stimulus and at other, dissociation, numbness, and denial to the events would arise, causing a person to jump between hyper-alertness and psychological detachment.

    What Effects does ‘Traumatic Rage’ have? / The prolonged deterioration of ‘Power-Under’

    Traumatic rage is different from quotidian anger.In particular, its episode is eruptive, with the sufferer to have a reduced window of tolerance and react more extremely than usual.Common symptoms are nightmares, recalling the details of the traumatic events, mentally revisiting the site of trauma, and being touchy to the others’ opinions, body gestures, or touch. These feelings may invoke the traumatic patient to re-experience the moments when the trauma formed. They then could not help but release their wrath at once, which to many seems disproportionately intense and thus attracts the others to condemn them as being over sensitive or abnormal.

    Although this intense fury is apparently full of energy from its expression, it will inevitably strengthen the sufferer’s helplessness. Because of the easiness of being triggered by anger, these people may subjectively feel out of control of themselves. In this state, regaining the sense of control, security, and integrity becomes unbearable, further intensifying the sense of helplessness.

    When traumatic rage is triggered, one feels helpless, as if struggling to breathe while suffocating in water, trying to grab upon something around to float to the surface. The process of struggling could be obviously bothersome to the people around, especially when the person in rage wreaks their emotions on those who have less power to them and inflicting long-term damage. Steven Wineman named this explosive energy originating from social trauma as ‘power-under’.

    For instance, Helen Epistein (1988) interviewed the children of Holocaust survivors on their growth. Many formerly incarcerated Jews would reprimand their children for menial issues with a level of rage disproportionate to the children’s behaviour, or even completely unrealistic. Facing their parents’ traumatic rage, these youngsters, who depended a lot on their parents, had very limited resources and choices and resorted to receive the punishment. The traumatic rage of parents would bring about new trauma through a home environment that was full of extreme threats and a lack of self-protecting power. This succession of trauma could continue across generations without an end.

    The Political Risk of Power-Under

    According to the idea of power-under, riots are usually the result of triggered collective trauma. When the people feel helpless and uneasy in stopping political oppression and changing social rules and when the complaint and suggestions route within the system and peaceful protest are both futile, they will subjectively feel powerless and trapped while longing for survival, dignity, security and independence. Riots, in this case, would be an expression of the rage from collective trauma to respond to the unbearable living situation and social pain.

    Similar to personal traumatic rage, collective trauma could also bring about harmful energies, including (1) denying the humanness of the authority and the violent, (2) being unwilling or incapable of observing one’s own oppressive behaviour, (3) over focusing on the social comparison of the degree of oppression suffered and losing sight of building a legitimate and stable alliance, and (4) creating a situation where the others are either an ally or an enemy, which breeds constant infighting and discord and weakens the power to advance the social movement.

    Wineman has suggested an inspiring idea: Possessing power objectively does not mean a subjective feeling of being powerful and advantaged. Contrastingly, people could descend into a victim role, feeling being surrounded by enemies and raising the possibility of traumatic rage. Wineman believes such situations with objective dominance and subjective powerlessness being combined to be the most lethal.

    Ariel Dorfman said, ‘Nothing more dangerous … [than] a giant who is afraid’ (as cited in Wineman, 105). If riot police officers equipped with powerful weapons felt they too could be acted upon and forgot their advantage and privilege of owning power and arms, they could experience traumatic rage too and express it through attacking protestors and weaponless bystanders, causing a blood-ridden humanitarian disaster. Additionally, the autocracy, in order to suppress the people’s resistance, might start rumours or even fabricate false attacks against the soldiers and officers and lead them to believe that the danger they face is more intense than the reality. When these soldiers and officers are suppressing the people more, the more the people feel helpless and the stronger they desire to risk their life against the authorities. The law enforcers would then obtain evidence that they were truly surrounded and thus to defend themselves, they would boost their suppressive power by dehumanizing or even killing the protestors. The two parties then would fall into a cycle of violence.

    How to react to personal and collective trauma is an inevitable social issue

    Understanding the form of social trauma in the political field not only enlightens us on why the law enforcers would abuse their power and armory, but also offers us another point of view to comprehend and overcome progressive parties’ internal and inter-party conflicts. Many social movements involve people who once had trauma and take action to solve the problems, which in the process of involvement, they might bring their personal trauma into the collectives and organizations. Therefore, to build a strong and large-scale progressive organization, how to react to personal and collective trauma is an inevitable issue. On this matter, Wineman has the following suggestions:

    1. Acknowledge that social trauma is a political issue and ‘call it by its true name’. In other words, in order to respond to the effects of trauma, one has to see through it and develop a common framework to analyze the political significance and concrete form of expressions of trauma, especially how traumatic rage may obstruct the fight of social change;

    2. Protestors should learn to identify different political scenes that might causes trauma and the early signs of traumatic rage episodes, as well as the ways of responding to these signs

    3. Understand the psychological state of the people being in an organization with people who are political underdogs in a society and the subsequent social dynamics. On top of this is the multi-facet characteristic of oppression, which renders the line between the oppressors and the oppressed blurred. The very same person or group of people could be simultaneously both, such as the gender, class, and racial oppression in a politically oppressed community

    4. One should maintain being wise and benevolent. Sharp judgement is needed in a political environment while a benevolence to see through everyone’s trauma and the concomitant effects is required for a better caring of the wound.

    Transforming Traumatic Rage into Constructive Rage

    One way to overcome the dilemma of being power-under is to transform traumatic rage into constructive rage. Upon injustice, feeling angry is normal and necessary. Hence, the issue is not whether to suppress the anger, but how to consciously use the emotion to contribute to the social movement. Gandhi has once told his grandson that anger is beneficial as it is the fuel of a vehicle, which purports us towards a better place. Without anger, we would not have the motivation to grow stronger and overcome obstacles. At the same time, if we did not utilize anger well, it would be as if we were careless in using electricity, which could end up disastrous. (Gandhi 2017)

    Wineman has provided a number of rule of thumbs for rage transformation:

    • Being clear with goals and expected results and aware of the possible effects of taking actions
    • Aligning the goals with the methodologies without abusing power
    • Keeping benevolence at heart to oneself and the others and paying attention to the possibility of being oppressed and oppressing the others
    • Connecting actions with a concrete and positive vision by saying no to injustice and clearly depicting the ideal society as imagined. At every step, we should remain conscious of the possibility of positive alternatives for a more just world and keep posing ourselves with the question: How can my actions improve the conditions against which I am enraged?
    • Nurturing a subjective sense of power and learning to be always aware of it during action. This implies a belief that no matter how bad the situation is, you always have a choice as conscious decisions are the manifestation of possessing and using power. If this mental state is not maintained, the intensity of the sense of hopelessness may influence how damaged our mind is.
    • Committing to an equal power relationship. Our ideal society entails sharing power, but not taking over to be another dictator and remaking current relations of oppression
    • Cultivating the non-violent resistance of transforming rage into a steadfast will, without repeating the damage done by the oppressors and not turning them into our oppressed victims.

    To illustrate, Nelson Mandela, who had led South Africa out of apartheid, had had a life sentence and spent twenty-seven years in Robben Island. As a lawyer, he pro-actively made use of every opportunity to provide legal aid to the other cell mates and successfully reversed a number of verdicts. When the government wanted to disbar him, he employed all the available resources in the system and wrote an apologia. He had also written letters and personally complained at the jail managers about the difficult living situation in jail, further asking for improvements.

    Although not every move he took was successful, he used every little action to nurture and maintain her psychological will.

    Power-under is inevitable. As such, the issue is how we can gather resources for our own and the society to transform the collective trauma created by oppression and energize our resistance to march closer to our ideals one step at a time.


    • Arun Gandhi, The Gift: Ten Spiritual Lessons for the Modern World from my Grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi (New York: Penguin Random House, 2017).
    • Bessel van der Kolk, Alexander McFarlane, and Lars Weisaeth (eds), Traumatic Stress The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body and Society (New York: Guilford Press, 1996).
    • Carolyn Yoder, The Little Book of Trauma Healing: When Violence Strikes and Community Security is Threatened (Intercourse, Pennsylvania: Good Books, 2005)
    • Helen Epstein, Children of the Holocaust (New York: Penguin Books, 1988).
    • Jack Saul, Collective Trauma, Collective Healing—Promoting Community Resilience in the Aftermath of Disaster (New York: Routledge, 2014).
    • Marilyn Frye, “Oppression,” in The Feminist Philosophy Reader, edited by Alison Bailey and Chris Cuomo, 41-51 (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008).
    • Wineman, Steven, Power Under: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change, (2003);
    The Transformation of Social Trauma: Power-Under and Politics
    Scroll to top