While we may experience traumatic experiences as isolated events, unpredictable and shockingly distinct from "normal" experience, statistical aggregates of these separate acts point to clear patterns. Significantly higher rates of sexual abuse for females suggests the relevance of gender in understanding the dynamic in this form of violence. The high proportion of teenage boys in urban neighborhoods whose violence-caused injuries force an emergency room visit tells us something about life in urban neighborhoods. The higher proportion of child abuse cases found in impoverished families implicates the stressor of economic deprivation in the etiology of child battering.
What we can say about psychological trauma, in fact, is that there is an intimate connection between traumatizing behaviors and the social conditions that support them. As the culture wrestles with definitions of date and acquaintance rape, for example, awareness of these acts of violence grows and the society's tolerance for them diminishes; women may expect a day when they have less to worry about from an intimate partner. Parental behavior that used to be accepted or at least tolerated is now considered abuse. The growing awareness of the incidence of child abuse should lead to a growing intolerance of such behavior and a greater willingness to actively protect children. Through an organized education campaign, law enforcement agencies have become more sensitized to the issue of domestic violence and more willing to actively offer protection for the battered woman rather than turning away from the “family squabble”.
But social conditions can also foster the occurrence of trauma. The social ideology that has defined children as their parent’s property plays a key role in the freedom adults still have to batter and abuse children. Our refusal to understand the importance of providing emotional support for each other establishes a climate of cruel disregard for other’s feelings. Gender images of women as inferior, less capable, submissive, emotional and stupid and men as superior, more competent, dominant, rational, and intelligent have supported deeply sexist assumptions and practices that are extremely detrimental and even dangerous to healthy human functioning. Racist images of African-Americans and other minority groups have supported cultural perceptions of these population groups that have generated a host of threats to their existence.
In the jargon of trauma theory, we call social practices and trends that cause, encourage or contribute to the generation of traumatic acts, traumatogenic forces. As outlined in the pages on attachment theory, for example, certain conditions make for optimal infant and child development. In particular, opportunities for nurturance from adult caregivers are critical for mental, emotional and social development. But in a culture where parenting is not an activity supported by the society, parents must do it as a hobby or a forced necessity and find time for nurturing only after basic bread and butter needs have been satisfied if at all. We may say of the culture's failure to support the work of parents that it is a traumatogenic force in that it makes more likely the neglect of children's attachment needs. And then there is poverty, which in and of itself is not necessarily traumatic, but the circumstances of poverty make it more likely that adverse childhood experiences and other traumatic events, will occur.
The organization of society may support or mitigate the individual’s experience of crippling psychological trauma. There are indications that in some ways, society responds in a deliberate effort to reduce the incidence of trauma. It was the recognition that segregated schools were inherently inferior that led to a massive cultural effort to insure more respectful handling of minority children's minds. And certainly, what we now define as child abuse was defined as normal child rearing in the past.
Accepting the trauma perspective, then, is loaded with implications for the organization of our society. In the folk saying, 'what goes around comes around', we understand in a new way the relatedness of social justice, psychological trauma and cultural habitability. In a very compelling way, being 'against' violence means that we must be ‘for’ the humane treatment of all other human beings. We neglect conditions which foster mistreatment only at the expense of the general climate we live in.
Bloom, S. L. and M. Reichert (1998). Bearing witness: Violence and collective responsibility. Binghamton, NY, Haworth Press.