Hierarchies, self-determinism, and PTSD.

There is a popular conception that PTSD mostly affects veterans, and a recent Internet posting sought to spread more awareness of the widespread nature of PTSD. The graph that was reblogged presented the following statistics for PTSD frequency:

Suburban police- 13%
Firefighters- 15%
Military veterans- 30%
Raped adults- 36%
Battered women- 45%
Abused children- 50%

The reference for these numbers doesn’t seem to exist any more, and I think this was more of a compilation of statistics. Either way, I took a look at individual studies by the NIH on PTSD and the numbers seem to be generally true.

Some people have looked at this study and said, look, soldiers are not by far the only ones who get PTSD, despite the popular narrative that says PTSD is mostly a military affliction. Yes, that’s a very good point, but I think there’s a lot more to look at here.

One thing I find particularly interesting is that, in almost all these cases except firefighters, we’re talking about situations where the people who get PTSD are in a position of complete lack of self-determinism:

* Abused children and battered women are being psychologically and physically controlled by someone who is generally stronger than they are.
* Raped adults may not be in constant relation with their rapist, but the situation again is one where the victim has little to no control.
* Soldiers and policemen have more control over themselves, but they are subservient to a strict hierarchy which imposes codes of conduct on them in a quite absolute way. Please do not interpret this as sympathy for such people, I am merely stating facts (incidentally, 40% of policemen are violent at home, which means they themselves inflict more PTSD on their wives and children).

To this list, I would also add cult members and prisoners, with the caveat that we don’t have clear statistics in either case. I have been unable to find any study regarding PTSD inflicted by cults, but it seems prevalent. In the case of prisoners, we have statistics ranging all the way from 4% to 48%, so the case isn’t clear. But these are both settings in which, again, people have no self-determinism and where PTSD occurrence is at least much higher than the average.

So what is the nature of this connection? I don’t think lack of self-determinism itself gives people PTSD, but what people make others do once they take control of them. You don’t take control over people to make them do things they’d do anyway, you take control over them to brainwash them, brutalize them or make them brutalize others. They say it takes religion to make good people do evil things, but I think any system that removes your self-determinism can do the trick. Religion just happens to be the most widespread one.

So that’s one perspective, but there’s another interesting set of studies concerning other primate species. Here they’re measuring stress levels, not PTSD. We find that they experience stress in a way that depends on their place in the hierarchy and how much control they have over their lives, in the same general way that humans do.

But there’s one interesting addendum. In his observation of baboon troops, Robert Sapolsky saw a troop get decimated by tuberculosis, killing the dominant males. The troop reorganized itself around a flatter and less aggressive hierarchy, and all the members saw their normal stress levels go down.

Another experiment done by Frans de Waal consisted of mixing up individuals from two species, one that lives under a strict hierarchy, rhesus macaques, and one that lives under a more loose hierarchy, stump tail macaques. The result was that the rhesus macaques eventually adopted the stump tail macaques’ social attitudes. This is only one experiment, but it seems that, at least in this case, lower stress was more appealing.

In general, the more strict the hierarchy, the more stressful, and one’s position in the hierarchy determines how stressful it gets (in profoundly unequal hierarchies, the subordinates are more stressed, while in flatter hierarchies the elite are more stressed).

In light of these results, the position that humans are hierarchical by nature doesn’t make much sense. If we were adapted to be in hierarchies, then they wouldn’t cause us so much stress. It seems more likely that some level of organization was adaptive but that stricter hierarchies arose from that out of purely social processes. Strict hierarchies cause stress because they put pressure on the individual to conform, to struggle for dominance, and to constantly keep one’s interests in check.

The connection between hierarchies and lack of self-determinism is not too surprising. Hierarchies are held together by control mechanisms, and control is only needed in order to make people do things they otherwise would not do. You can’t control someone into having more self-determinism, you can only control them into having less.

Now, there are plenty of cases where self-determinism can be momentarily taken away without there being a stable hierarchy behind it: usually small-scale crimes like a mugging or a break-in, for example. Likewise, not all cases of PTSD originate in hierarchies, and not all hierarchies cause PTSD. The more likely connection is that strict hierarchies are needed to bring into effect the attacks on self-determinism needed to put people in situations where they will get PTSD.

I imagine non-radicals may argue that there’s nothing inherently wrong with hierarchies, and that this is just a result of “excessive” hierarchies. I have argued for the nature of hierarchies being fundamentally evil before.

But beyond that, the hierarchies I’ve listed at the beginning are all commonplace: parenting and families, the police, and the military. These are all widely accepted as necessary for the functioning of society, and as generally beneficial. And they are all the source of incredible brutality (in fact, the brutality is the desired end result, despite complaints by advocates that it’s just “bad apples” perpetrating it).

When I talk about a strict hierarchy, I mean a hierarchy where there is a (relatively) greater power differential between the top and the bottom, where the superiors are able to exert (relatively) greater control over their inferiors, and where there is greater surveillance/coercion/regimentation over people’s lives.

Strict hierarchies are the most unegalitarian and therefore the most undesirable. Even if we assume that hierarchies are desirable in select cases (an assumption which remains completely unproven in practice), we still have a strong incentive to search for the most egalitarian solutions. People’s self-determinism is always more important than whatever controlling people is supposed to achieve.

10 thoughts on “Hierarchies, self-determinism, and PTSD.

  1. Independent Radical October 24, 2015 at 06:16 Reply

    Where did you get the statistic that 40% of policemen are abusers? I am not doubting it (trust people I have had enough contact with police to know better than to doubt the claim). I just think it is a useful statistic and want to be able to cite it.

  2. unabashed calabash October 24, 2015 at 13:51 Reply

    I remember reading a study last year (will not bother to look for the article to cite because of my shitty internet at the moment) that many more women than men live in a constant state of anxiety and that researchers posited it was because of fear of male violence (and I believe found that to be true, although I can’t remember how they would have found a control group of women not threatened by male violence to test such a hypothesis). PTSD among women most affected by male violence–prostituted women, battered women, and women who come from vulnerable groups (women of color, poor women, substance addicted women, and mentally ill women)–is far, far more widespread than PTSD among soldiers. And as PTSD is a form of anxiety I believe this study was trying to make a case that all women are affected by a low-grade PTSD at all times because of living in the patriarchy (I’d guess this is much worse in developing nations where the risk of being violated, prostituted or killed is much higher; then maybe we’re talking about full-blown PTSD, as those women all fall into the category of “socially vulnerable” to male violence).

    This is not a surprising idea. What’s surprising is that it took so long for someone to think of this (to consider that women as a class may have anxiety and in some cases full-blown PTSD due to male structural violence).

    • Francois Tremblay October 24, 2015 at 20:03 Reply

      It’s also an issue of going against stereotypes. Given that the current “story” about PTSD is that it’s a male issue.

    • Francois Tremblay October 24, 2015 at 20:49 Reply

      I’m on the chat, by the way, if you want to drop by. :)

  3. unabashed calabash October 25, 2015 at 06:54 Reply

    Hey I lost internet for a while, sorry about that. In answer to your question I wrote a weird personal essay, which I will post here. Now it’s to sleep a bit and once again quit procrastinating, but hey, at least I wrote something!

        On My Offbeat Love for Camille Paglia 

    at 7 AM on a Sunday Morning

    So it’s 7 am, not the bright and early well-rested 7 am but the drank a two-liter of Squirt and tequila plus a Red Bull and didn’t sleep 7 am, my head hurts, there’s a glimmer of light from the pigeon-shit infested patio outside my door, I’ve been drinking for a few days to put off cleaning up this place and writing, and my hiatus from work is rapidly coming to an end, though I don’t know how much closer I really am to finishing the book I came to Mexico to write, which is being written inside my soul.

    Having an online conversation with a new anarchist friend I said something brilliant I don’t remember. What did I say (as the ants run in crazed circles on the floor)? What did I say (as the epoxy to smooth out the hypocrisy hasn’t gotten down into my brain), something about how men’s pick-up lines are the literal scripts to match their targets’ cultural ones? Because there are quite specific cultural scripts we all follow in certain situations, and when you’re sucked into one it’s like being sucked into a riptide: you start to panic as the water closes over your head; you forget to swim sideways. I’m sure there are many, many cultural scripts out there, and Schopenhauer—another name that popped into my head this morning—was right when he coined the term zeitgeist.: it is the spirit of an age, a collective unconscious of a time and place. And unfortunately right now the cultural script I’m thinking about this is one of rape.

    When does it become a predetermined role-play girl A and boy B fall into, and why. And how such determined determinism does not erase agency, of either party, both having been brought up in exactly the ways that delivered them right to the room where it takes place, the rape; and both having made some choices which, if you believe in the nebulous notion of free will, were their choices to make. And yet the feminists, how they’d circle the wagons to hear me speak of their choices!—as if the girl’s choice to drink too much at a party, to go home with a boy she barely knows, to be as stupid and young and cow-eyed and innocent as she is, playing at a dangerous sexuality the boy believes no doubt is fully real, whether he believes it disdainfully (he’ll hit it and quit it) or more honestly fearfully (she really wants it, she’ll take it, better be ready to preempt it)—as if that girl’s choices had anything to do with the boy’s choice to forcibly take what in the end she wasn’t willing to give.

    This is just one such cultural script in our modern culture and era but one which has resulted in so much unnecessary harm, to women and men alike, in the odd first-world rite of privileged passage called college, which, like high school, is about navigating small microcosms of the personverse, and which also, incidentally, teaches math. Oh, and white man studies, and physics, and these days hotel and restaurant management, and even hieroglyphics. (I might have made that last one up).

    My anarcho-friend asked me a question about masculinity, after my early morning confession that I was “one of those women” (yes, one of those women, who goes for men she knows will hurt her, even if the knowledge is unconscious, or, when it starts to niggle a little closer to conscious thought at least very handily slapped back down by the great armies and protectors of the mind’s night). I also told him I seem to magically attract these men with a kind of fairy dust that turns me into a large, shimmering target, like a magic mirror in a twisted Hogwartsian universe, in which the gazer looking into me sees the worst and most corrupt shape of their lust. I used to think it was something about me—no matter how happy I was there was someone there to put out the light, even if unwitting, like some large, particularly clumsy moth, a band of large and clumsy moths, fluttering their huge, uncouth, cumbrous wings, beating themselves again me till I broke—and now I know, as a bitter and wizened old woman, shrunk and apple-bitten, that it doesn’t even matter how I appear outwardly as long as it’s still in me: whatever in me that sees me as rotten, corrupt, and bad; however I see myself will, no matter how happy I am in that moment, write itself like a trace of black, a nightmare flicker that tinges the edge of the glimmer; it is something in me, certainly; and though I am an extreme case for all the usual mundane childhood reasons I think it’s something in a lot of young women, who want to come to sex with power and poise but who come from the inherently weakened position of insecure self-hatred, taught as they are that they are less, less, less, and that beauty may be all they are but they are not even very good at that; so they are coming at an area they want to be strong in from an inherently weakened position, you see; and men will pick up on that, and respond to it, on a primitive, even primordial, level, a reptilian-brain level, so far down it’s almost back up, and close to spiritual.

    I think by now I’ve figured out that most of the time most men—even those capable of the most extreme acts of violence once or twice in their lives—most of the time most men will only do to women what women will let them get away with. If we weren’t taught to be so goddamn nice, please and thank you sir yes ma’am let me get that for you oh isn’t that lovely all the goddamn time nice; as the group whose pleasure and position matters so little in the world, as the group that most needs to be able to say no and mean it, fuck off and get off or I’ll cut them off and mean it, if it weren’t so fucking hard to say no and so goddamn shocking every time it happened yet again—oh no, yet again another man thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to treat my body like it’s his property—so much of rape would disappear; men could be slapped, again and again, back down into their relatively low position on the sexual totem pole; women could demand their fair share of sexual satisfaction in all permitted encounters, or deny access; and men might just stop trying to pull this rape-and-bad-sex bullshit. But we let them, with our silence, with our fright, with our decorum, with our freezing up or just letting them go ahead because it’s better to shut it out then to risk, you know, being violently raped, with our nervous laughter, our giggling, our pained Stepford smiling; every time we don’t slap them, scream at them, tell them what in the hell do you think you’re goddamn doing; every time we secretly think it’s flattering, because that’s what it is when some sweaty little man completely fucking loses it over us on the subway, chasing us from car to car just to try to shove his trembling hands one inch closer to our bare skin; because that’s what we are, how desirable to men, isn’t it; even if we hate it, sometimes, fear leaving the house, sometimes; even if relationships are impossible to negotiate, sometimes, and sometimes we just want to ask to be selfish—to make him clean the bathroom and then make us come with his tongue and not even have to goddamn shave it either—even if doing that even once we’d worry we’d lose him, and lose all meaning, and have to start all over…

    I am thinking of Camille Paglia. She always returns to my mind. I read “Sexual Personae” when I was in college, a time in my life when men did a lot of awful things to me and a lot of the time I let them. Sometimes, bitter and wanting in some sense to die, I went looking for them. The ones who would do the most awful things. On my way home from doing who knows what nonsense one cold snowy night I once fell over, for no reason, in the parking lot of an apartment building, or rather fell over for emotional reasons, just bopping along perfectly fine and boom!, and cried and cried, and cried and cried some more, heart-wrenching sobs the likes of which hardly ever came out of me; and I truly expected someone to come out on that cold, breathless night and find me, and touch my tears before they froze on my face, and ask me what was wrong with me, did I need help, and maybe I would latch onto the front of their ski jackets and howl about it, about what I was doing to myself, because after all from the very beginning, from the first time it ever happened, when I was six or maybe thirteen, it was always because of me, wasn’t it, so it was only fitting now I was doing it to myself and I would die from it.

    But no one came out that night. Maybe they were used to college girls howling in their parking lots. After sobbing wretchedly for an hour I went home and went to sleep.

    Tonight—or rather this morning—I want to tell my new friend I feel like covering myself with magic dust, magic dust that shows me before whatever dark spell came down and pulled a veil over the world and over my eyes. Magic dust that lifts the veil and I’ll be bright and sparkly underneath, and utterly terrifying to the wretched men who will fall in love with me, even if I will try, like a giant human being trying to delicately transport a hummingbird’s egg, not to hurt them.

    And so he asks me about masculinity—I mean after all, as girls we get used to being abused, some more than others, to the idea that brutes just need love, and abuse is how they love, and they must think it too—and we get used to the lie that we are compromised and weak, and that men, when they react to our control of how everything goes with a surprise like rape, are simply putting us in our place, like brutal, old-school sexual policemen; no teasing, no flirting, no nothing allowed, not unless you mean it. We believe they aren’t merely pretending they don’t care about our feelings or how it feels to us, that our screams mean nothing to them, whether of pain or of pleasure; we buy the lie that they are bigger and stronger in who they are because their bodies are bigger and stronger than ours; but they are not. So we are conditioned—yes—to this brutality; but is it natural? Camille Paglia argued it was. She said Utopian ideals of sex were simply not realistic, that sex would always be dark and dangerous as well as light and loving, that dominance would ever be a part of that, and flirting with that danger was part of what made it fun; you can’t have the thrills of BDSM in a world without rape.

    And while I agree with Camille that leaving your purse on a park bench or your parked car running in a dodgy neighborhood is a bad idea, I don’t think purses or cars are encouraged to get left near danger, nor are everyday citizens encouraged to at least think of stealing them, to toe right around that line and, if crossed, protest mightily about who and why is crying theft. There are dark corners to sex, yes; and I will risk more wrath by saying the fundies have some things right and some values ought to be conserved, not out of reasons of hatred and fear of sexuality or in the name of controlling who women love and marry but out of respect. Because if sex isn’t all that important, then neither is rape. Yet we know—I know—it is. It is even when it’s not particularly violent, even when it’s someone you know, because it makes you feel like your wishes don’t matter, and that’s all you are: a thing, for someone else to fuck out their issues on, use and discard; a handkerchief for someone’s lust, a scratching post and a sounding board for someone’s rage. Not a person at all. And sex that is about conquest—not affection, not play, not love, but conquest—is always some variation of that, even with consent, and that’s never been the best sex I’ve had—even if I’ve been conditioned, like so many, to find satisfaction in abuse, of self or others; even if I feel too at times a deep and forbidden lust, fantasies of the powerful forcing themselves on the weak, and even if I want sometimes to turn the tables in my own life and hurt others for what some men have done—all impulses must not be cherished; and the best sex—whether with a partner of thirty years or a for-the-nighter met over crab’s legs in a backwater bar, both reaching for the same red claw—the best sex is always about fun, and affection, and mutuality, and trust and relaxation; not anger, not domination, not taking without giving. Not danger.

    I love Camille, for saying such unpopular things. Yet I disagree with what I see as her simplistic view of sex positivity, not without saying, what are we positive about, and for whom? What does real sexual power look like for women? And should it be the focus of a movement or will it simply happen as a by-product of our much more pressing demands, namely that henceforth, from now until eternity, women be given at least equal writing credit on and rights to preapproval of all the new cultural scripts?

  4. unabashed calabash October 25, 2015 at 08:09 Reply

    You know, re-reading your piece, and thinking about what I wrote and an article I was just reading by Camille Paglia, maybe men are afraid of women’s power–maybe they truly are afraid we would turn into a matriarchy (you know like how bonobos are a clan-based matriarchy–and coincidentally also very peaceful and highly sexual)? I mean, maybe they truly are afraid of women’s sexuality, and if women were ever granted real freedom–including sexual freedom–they’re afraid there would be a natural sexual hierarchy in women’s favor (that the tables would turn)? I.e. if women were no longer groomed for fuckability, taught to please, and were very much capable of saying no and defending themselves–and if we were harder on men for overriding that no–basically, if women had real, full rights to determine who they slept with, free of cultural coercion, social coercion, free of rape, that women would then have a lot more power, since men (some men anyway, I really don’t understand it) seem to need sex so much (or intimacy so much)? I mean, isn’t that why some people argue for prostitution (that there would be more rape with out it/men who can’t get sex the usual way need it/they have certain sexual needs their gfs or wives won’t comply with)? If men really are needier in terms of sex–and I don’t know if this is really true or just what you hear all the time, but I have certainly never heard of a woman going on a rampage because she can’t get sex (or love, which might be the female equivalent?)–then maybe men are afraid that there would be a natural hierarchy, in women’s favor, if women were truly allowed control (and that’s where fear of female sexuality comes from, at least partly)?

    I don’t mean in a conscious way, of course; strictly unconsciously…I wonder. In a truly egalitarian world, would there be natural hierarchies of need, and might sex be one of them (in women’s favor)? Maybe we’re really supposed to all live in a sex-ruled matriarchy that will end all war. You know, like Lysistrata on steroids.

    • Francois Tremblay October 26, 2015 at 03:14 Reply

      I don’t think men seeking sex as much as they do is a biological necessity. I think a lot of it has to do with gender roles. I know that in my case it did. Without gender roles, much of what we attribute to “hormones” and “boys being boys” would dissipate.

      Your previous comment was so long, I was kindof intimidated! But I really like it. You have such a way of writing! Would you like me to publish it on here? I think more people should see it. I especially like your ideas about “cultural scripts.”

  5. unabashedcalabash October 27, 2015 at 20:31 Reply

    Oh yes, it’s an essay, not a comment! Didn’t mean to intimidate. I would have sent it to you but I don’t know how. I think perhaps you are right (that this “need” is taught, and maybe so is the “need” for power). How can we know though?…it all begins to seem so academic.

    • Francois Tremblay October 27, 2015 at 21:01 Reply

      Do you mind if I publish it though. Under your name of course, Carmen Speer.

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