Why we sometimes feel "harmed" even when no one has harmed us
I had thought to write something about the Russell Brand matter, though I think plenty has been written already. I do especially wonder, though, how many of those who were so eager to proclaim a verdict in either direction have ever found themselves thrown into the really unhappy position of needing to proclaim one.
I have, multiple times, in fact. And it’s awful, and easy to get wrong, and impossible ever to know for certain you made the right judgment.
Decades ago, I needed to give a statement for a domestic abuse case. I knew both people (a woman and a man) involved, though not well enough to claim intimate knowledge of their inner worlds. What I definitely knew was that it was a very awful relationship that shouldn’t have ever started. They were constantly nagging each other, insulting each other, and also hitting each other.
I hadn’t actually seen the assault itself, as it had happened with no witnesses. When I heard about it, it had seemed both shocking and also unsurprising. The verdict in the end had seemed correct, and I was most of all glad it meant they’d no longer be anywhere near each other. At the same time, it was difficult to be aware of the violence both had enacted on each other before that incident and then to feel fully confident that justice had been accomplished.
A little before all that had happened, I’d been drugged and raped. This was when I had been homeless. During that time, I often traded sex for a place to sleep, so it wasn’t very easy for me to delineate the boundary between what I was agreeing to and what I wasn’t. Earlier feminists wrote often about this problem, leading many of them to conclude that prostitution could never actually be voluntary. From my own experiences, I tend to agree with them: I’m not sure I’d have chosen to have sex with many of those men if I’d had other options besides sleeping in alleys or in parks.
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It was quite hard to really understand what had happened to me. Even talking to a friend about it the next day, I couldn’t find the words for it until she said, “honey — you were raped.” I cried when she said it, as I knew it to be true, though for years afterwards I could never fully believe it. I doubted my memory of the experience, and wondered if I’d really told him “no” enough. Only encountering the person who’d done this to me, years later, and then hearing him tell me he’d regretted what he’d done allowed me to feel I’d not been crazy.
Having had that happen to me has colored the way I see other situations, and I’ve always tended to be biased against the accused in favor of their accusers. Long before social media was full of the repeated chant during the #MeToo days of “believe all victims,” I’d already been thoroughly convinced.
“Believe all victims” sounds good. Actually, it sounds “Good,” an impossible-to-deny moral imperative. No one with even a modicum of human decency would argue we ought to do otherwise. Except, of course, there’s no guidance in that statement as to how to decide who is a victim and who is not. For me, that meant I found myself always siding with whomever appeared to me to be the underdog, the less likely-to-be-believed party — almost always women.
Unfortunately, this had led me to be wrong several times. I doubt many actual judges — those who’ve been trained to decide the truth of such incidents — are always fully certain of their verdicts. I’ve no training in such things, yet still have found myself in the awful position of needing to make a judgment. In at least one situation — and possibly more — I helped punish a wrongly accused person.
It took me too long to admit that an accuser might also lie.
There are absolutely false accusations. There are also very true accusations that seem so impossible that very few even try to listen. But there is yet something stranger still, something so perplexing that we rarely speak of it.
We do not need to have actually been harmed to have a memory of having been harmed, and it’s very difficult for us to tell the difference.
Looking over my initial contract with Repeater Books for Here Be Monsters, I was reminded that the manuscript had once had a different title and a different proposed direction. It was previously named “The Trace,” and the proposed thesis of the book had been ressentiment’s relationship to identitarian conflict. Instead of composing an entire such book, however, I dealt with it in only one chapter, The Vampire:
An injustice (perceived or real) has occurred, leaving a traumatic “trace” within the victim. This trace festers and grows until the person is overcome with the sense that they cannot experience happiness, success, fulfillment, or any other goal because an “other” possesses a vital essence the person does not.
The “trace” is not an easy concept to explain, which is why I’d originally intended to write an entire book about it. The simplest way to understand it is as a kind of impression or imprint on our memories, a bit like a photo negative. In French, the word also means “track,” like that which is left by an animal or a cart that has passed over wet dirt.
Another way to think of it is to imagine the grooves in a record. Those grooves are not the actual sound that you hear, just a physical track that reproduces the sound when a needle passes over them. Those grooves of the record are the trace of the music, which then makes us hear the music.
Except: we’re never actually hearing the original music, only a reproduction of it.
That’s one way of looking at memory. Each experience leaves a trace of itself into our soul, and then sometimes we replay that trace to conjure it up again in our consciousness. It’s never actually the original event repeating, though; just the impression we had of the event through our limited perception.
Why this is interesting — and also a bit horrifying — is that a memory of being harmed, abused, betrayed, or otherwise “victimized” will feel the same way to us whether or not it actually happened.
I’ve experienced this many times myself, especially in the feeling that everyone is “making fun” of me or shaming me. I was a very fat teenager, and really uncomfortable with my body. At school, in grocery stores, or just walking on the sidewalk, I was always certain that everyone who looked at me was judging my body. I thought I could “hear” them laughing about me, thinking aloud how disgusting I was and how ashamed I should be of ever being in public.
Objectively, no one probably thought those things, but it was impossible to convince me otherwise.
This tendency to feel something that hadn’t actually happened didn’t really go away until the first year after I joined a gym, and the first few months were really hard because of it. This is an incredibly common problem, something quite a few others have confessed to me. Initially, you feel as if everyone is looking at you, judging you for being out of shape, for not having taken care of yourself, for not knowing what you are doing, for being so fat you need to go to a gym. Every time you look up from whatever exercise you are doing, you think you’ve just caught someone’s late-averted jeering glance. You hear someone laugh and you think it was about you — in fact, you think everything there is about you, a kind of perverse narcissism that makes you the tragic star of a sadistic comedy. It was such a crippling feeling that I almost cancelled my gym membership out of shame.
Working through those feelings was maybe one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but it's also what taught me what I needed to know about the trace. In all those cases, I was obviously projecting my internal fear onto an external source. Yet I couldn’t access that truth, and I couldn’t remember those situations in any other way. Because I felt at the time that everyone had been judging and shaming me, I could only remember being judged and shamed.
That feeling of being harshly judged by others leaves a trace of having actually been harshly judged. The day at the beach or the hour in the gym is thus remembered as a moment of public shaming, and it becomes harder and harder to remember it otherwise.
Without some intervention, the trace of feeling harmed, or shamed, or having been wronged cuts deeper and deeper. The needle of our recollection constantly runs across that same track, repeating the unresolved feelings and shaping the way we experience other events. Especially, if we felt ourselves a victim then, we will feel ourselves a victim again, and again, and again.
This is the core engine of ressentiment. It’s what happens when the trace of harm (real or imagined) has cut so deeply that the track can no longer be changed. Every new experience is encountered as a repetition of the previous trauma, so that we don’t actually even have new experiences.
And this is how unresolved ressentiment shifts quickly to identitarian-thinking. We seek explanations for why the experiences seem to repeat. If you feel everyone is shaming you because of your body size, “fatphobia” and “skinny-privilege” become useful explanations, as they were for a time for me. It also gives you a way to put off the really hard work of wrestling with your inability to feel happy with who you are.
We can feel like we were aggressed upon by people who actually did nothing to us at all. Not recognizing this leads to many of the accusations of “micro-aggressions” and other claims of non-physical harm or violence on social media. Identitarian-thinking easily feeds into this sense, giving us a ready-made explanation for why we feel harm without ever being able to point to who harmed us or how we were actually harmed. At the most extreme edges of this comes the certainty that another group is trying to “genocide” you — whether that’s “white genocide” or “trans genocide.” Blaming one identity group for all the problems in society is the corollary of that way of thinking, and is just as destructive.
As I argue in Here Be Monsters, the only antidote to ressentiment is agency. The person in ressentiment feels they cannot act and are only acted-upon. It is as if the track can never be changed, only repeated in each new situation. The story for them is always the same, and they have forgotten how to — or even that they can — narrate their own lives.
Agency was once the core “medicine” of both anarchism and Marxism. Both reminded people that they actually had the ability to change their material conditions and affect the world around them. Both asserted that the rules of society were not actually natural laws, but just norms crafted by other humans. What you are told is possible is much smaller than what is actually possible, and often times the prison cells we find ourselves in have been unlocked the entire time.
What this means for the matter of accusations about harm or abuse is that we need to “stay with the trouble” of ressentiment. We need to recognize that sometimes accusers can tell a falsehood without even realizing they are lying, because for them, as Nietzsche wrote of them saying, “everything hurts.” Sometimes, everything is a symptom of a greater pain that cannot easily be named, and the cause of that pain is no longer even there — if it ever even was.
I can think of no easy way for such a reckoning to occur, but it must. There is no perfect way to sort out false accusations from the true ones, nor to divine whether or not claims of harm had an external or an internal cause. We’ll often get this wrong, but we’ll get it more wrong if we rely on simplistic rules like “believe all victims” or the deference politics of “always listen to X identity group.” These are merely the inverse of the biases they were meant to address, not their solutions.