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4 May 2022

How “trauma” became a front in the culture war

The academic Nick Haslam discusses the complexity around defining psychological harm.

By Sophie McBain

When Nick Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, published a paper in the academic journal Psychological Sciences in 2016, he didn’t anticipate it would create such noise, or that he’d find himself dragged into the culture wars. And why should he? “Random academic psychologists don’t expect to have big impacts on anything outside of their discipline – or even in their discipline,” he said drily when we spoke on Zoom.

The paper was entitled “Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology”, and it explored a trend that Haslam had observed over more than three decades of work: that since around the 1980s negative concepts such as trauma, abuse, bullying or mental illness were becoming broader. Take trauma: originally, this term applied to physical injury. When psychiatrists studied trauma, they were concerned with the psychological effects of brain damage. But in 1980, post-traumatic stress disorder became an official diagnosis, entering the psychiatrist’s textbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). With this shift, trauma came to be recognised as a psychological injury that could be caused by distressing events, absent of any physical damage to the brain. Haslam describes this process, by which a term starts to be applied to a different context, as “horizontal expansion”. Another example is the broadening of the term “abuse” to include emotional as well as physical acts. 

[See also: Are premonitions more than coincidence?]

At the same time, Haslam argued, there has also been “vertical expansion”, in which psychological terms are used to refer to less severe events. Initially trauma was seen as caused by situations that were “outside the range of usual human experience” and that could be expected to evoke distress in almost everyone. The DSM listed examples such as rape, torture and military combat, and excluded marital conflict, chronic illness or bereavement. Subsequent updates to the DSM amended the criteria to be more subjective – a traumatic event was one that provoked “intense fear, terror and helplessness” – and noted that it might affect people who were not the direct victims of a catastrophe: witnessing someone die could cause trauma, for example. Now, some practitioners argue that infidelity or sexual harassment can trigger trauma responses too, while concepts such as intergenerational trauma suggest it can be experienced at a distance.

When the paper was peer reviewed, Haslam was “taken aback” by the response. Psychologists his age (Haslam is 58) or older loved it. Anyone younger seemed to hate it. He felt they assumed he was criticising people who apply the term trauma broadly (he wasn’t). He hadn’t intended the paper to be a “reactionary provocation”, he told me, and yet people seemed intent on interpreting him that way. His work was championed by the political right, who took it as yet more evidence that leftists were becoming “liberal snowflakes”, oversensitive and pathologically committed to psychological and intellectual safety. Haslam said he has “blocked out” some of his memories of the initial public response. “I was quite… shocked by it,” he said.

In the paper he writes that a “balanced evaluation of concept creep” would fall between “conservative reaction” and “liberal celebration”. He discusses the downsides of broadening psychological definitions of harm but also the positives, which he was keen to emphasise in our interview. “By having a sensitive definition of harm, we identify forms of distress and misbehaviour that we had previously tolerated – and that’s a good thing,” he said. The expanding of harm concepts has underpinned developments such as the criminalisation of emotional abuse and coercive control in relationships, or the recognition of the ways we are affected by sexism, racism or other forms of prejudice.  

[See also: “I’m the patron saint of the dumped”: Florence Williams on the science of heartbreak]

Haslam’s subsequent research has suggested that the “liberal snowflake” caricature is not quite accurate. It is true that political orientation is a strong determinant of whether someone holds broad or narrow definitions of concepts such as abuse or trauma, with the liberal left more likely to adopt an expansive view of what constitutes harm. But far from being overly self-regarding, people who hold wide concepts of harm tend to be more empathetic and more sensitive to injustice, even when it doesn’t directly affect them.

Perhaps unexpectedly, age is not a strong predictor: it isn’t only students who want to stretch the definitions of words such as violence or trauma. There is, however, some correlation between being anxiety-prone and having a broad definition of harm – “which makes sense, because you’re more sensitive to threats”.

As for the negative aspects, Haslam believes the price we pay for a humane expansion in the kinds of suffering we recognise, and the number of people we consider deserving of support, might be a reduction in resilience. “One of the downsides of a broader definition of harm is that more people define themselves by the harm they experience, the suffering they experience, and that can lead to ‘virtuous victimhood’,” he said. He believes broad harm concepts can drive political polarisation: labelling interactions as abusive “turns up the temperature” and fuels a sense of “moral outrage”. Concept creep is one of many forces that are “leading us to see the world as populated by caricature villains and victims”, he argued. Haslam wonders if by broadening the definitions we might be watering them down: if a verbal insult and a sucker punch are both described as acts of violence, do we unintentionally minimise the latter? (He said he was working on a paper that suggests that we do.) 

Haslam might have been caught off-guard by the response to his paper because Australia’s campus politics are not as febrile as those in the US – or even the UK. He has taught at the University of Melbourne for more than 20 years, but before that spent time in the US. He completed his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, where he shared an office with the psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind (2018), which argues that universities are becoming narrow-minded and intolerant of challenging ideas, and is now a prominent figure in the campus wars. At the time Haidt was studying disgust responses and was forever bringing items such as plastic turds into their shared lab – that their interests have converged is pure coincidence. Haslam went on to teach at the New School for Social Research in New York, leaving shortly after 9/11, when the city was “collectively traumatised”. 

Would he define the pandemic as a collective trauma too, I asked? Haslam preferred to stay on the fence – the answer, he said, depends on how broad your concept of trauma is. What is interesting, however, is that the pandemic has prompted a renewed interest in what trauma is – and isn’t. The landmark 2014 book The Body Keeps the Score by the psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, who studies how trauma is imprinted on our bodies, has remained on the bestseller list for years. But there are also signs of a cultural reassessment of how we think about trauma. In a widely shared New Yorker piece published last year, the critic Parul Sehgal interrogated our cultural preoccupation with trauma, and criticised a trend for books with “trauma plots”, featuring protagonists whose distressing pasts are used as a cheap substitute for a fully developed character and rich inner lives. In December 2021, the US magazine Harper’s ran a cover story titled “Against Trauma”, which argued that “everything has become trauma”. 

“It’s healthy for there to be some interrogation of these changes, for people to think critically about it, and to become aware that maybe you can stretch a concept too far,” Haslam said. “Or at least, if we’re going to adopt this new broader concept of trauma, maybe we should think really hard about it.”

[See also: Is reality a hallucination? The neuroscientist Anil Seth thinks so]

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This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future