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Understanding 'Post-Traumatic Ass Disorder': The Tendency to Turn into Complete Buttheads After Trauma

Why is it that so many people have the tendency to mount their high-horses after or during a trauma and never dismount again?
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Christos Georghiou

 
 
 
 

An old Jewish Joke:

Louie:  Moshe, is that you?  You’ve changed so much! You used to be so tall and now you’re short.  You used to be so fit and now you’re fat. You used to have a full head of hair and now you’re bald.  What happened? 

Murry:  I’m not Moshe, I’m Murry.

Louie:  You changed your name too??!

I’m reminded of this joke when I fall into heated debates with fellow alumni from Akiba Jewish Day School, where I spent seven mal-formative years, grades 1-7.  Now rabid right-wing rabbis, my old school chums are the most black and white thinkers I know. The subtleties of world politics boil down to a war between pure good and pure evil, and you can guess which side they think they’re on.  They’re as sure that they know who’s evil as Louie is that he knows who’s Moishe.  No quantity of evidence could persuade them otherwise.

Post-election, I asked one Rabbi if he had softened in his support for Romney even a little.  He wrote back succinctly “ Obama is destroying the economy.  You are supporting a treasonous monster.” 

Policy aside, his way of reasoning in our debates sounds to my ears a lot like that of the traumatized Germans post -WWI in the prelude to Nazism’s rise, sure that the Jews were destroying the economy, and that anyone who supported them was a treasonous monster.

Of course there are real treasonous monsters in this world. I’m not one who thinks that we should assume the best in everyone, never accuse, and forever ban accusations that someone is “Hitler-like.” Gaddafi, Assad, and Hitler were Hitler-like.  We must call spade spades. 

Still, I am very interested in how we wield such accusations.  My rabbis are, to my ears pathologically swift and self-certain in their wielding. Their justification seems to be that our kind were victims of the Holocaust, and so must judge all policies and policymakers on their support of us. 

Once a victim; always a victim.  We Jews are officially the oppressed in perpetuity, with never the possibility of becoming the oppressors and therefore no need to introspect about our own motives.  Anyone who doesn’t support us to the utmost is an oppressor as sure as Murry is Moishe, damn all evidence to the contrary. We are the chosen ones, chosen once and therefore forevermore.

So the reasoning goes, reasoning we hear from anyone who once suffered deep hardship--the once-persecuted Christian, formerly fed to the lions, the once-persecuted Muslim, victims of the crusades, the once persecuted Mormons consolidated in their faith, less by their creative cosmology than by early persecution. Fundamentalists of all stripes self-designate as the chosen, forevermore on the side of good against evil , labeling as evil anyone who disagrees with them.

Perhaps the biggest question before humankind is how to finish the sentence, “When the going gets tough...”  In a pinch, what do we do? 

For the going will get tougher—that seems clear. And how will we react?  We hope toward greater collaboration, not toward escalated tribal warfare, since the infighting within humankind will be the death of us all.

But what do we do really, for example when our nation’s economy tanks, when oil becomes scarce or climatically toxic? In a pinch do we become more selfish or selfless?

When the going gets tough, some move toward charity, helping anyone regardless of tribal affiliation.  But a greater number harden, never to soften again.  When the going gets tough, it seems the majority toughen fearfully and vengefully. That seems the fatal human impulse.  

Take the strident intransigence of the self-certain libertarians, surging in sync with our recession.  Even if you are a deficit hawk, notice the good vs. evil pathology in how the Tea Party delivers its message. Imagine this in parallel. You and your partner both spend too much money and you’re now in credit card debt.  Your spouse moans about the problem and says you must act together, but denies any contribution to the problem. It’s all your fault.  You’re the evil one who brought on this debt.

Would you trust that your partner really cared about lowering the debt you created together?  When your priority is collaborating to solve a problem you co-created, you don’t undermine collaboration with political sideswipes and potshots.   When our going got tough the Tea Party just got tougher and tougher to talk to, more self-certain on their high horses.

For the past few decades I’ve been trying to figure out the most succinct and simple recipe for countering the tendency in all of us, me included, to turn into complete buttheads post-trauma, unreceptive to evidence, 100% certain we know we’re good and others are evil.  Call the problem PostTraumatic Ass Disorder, the tendency to mount our high-horses after or during a trauma and never dismount again.   In my next article I’ll provide the best treatment I’ve found so far for preventing PTAD, an affliction that can overtake any of us, a potential plague we, as a species can’t survive.

Jeremy E. Sherman, a contributor to Psychology Today, is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making. Dr. Sherman holds a Ph.D. in evolutionary theory.

 
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