The Psychopolitics Of Trauma
Everyone knows politics makes people crazy. But what kind of crazy? Which page of the DSM is it on?
I’m only half joking. Psychiatrists have spent decades developing a whole catalog of ways brains can go wrong. Politics makes people’s brains go wrong. Shouldn’t it be in the catalog? Wouldn’t it be weird if 21st century political extremists had discovered a totally new form of mental dysfunction, unrelated even by analogy to all the forms that had come before?
You’ll object: politics only metaphorically “makes people crazy”; we just use the word “crazy” here to mean “irrational” or “overly emotional”. I’m not sure that’s true. Here are some stray findings that I think deserve to be synthesized:
Very smart people lose basic reasoning abilities when the topic switches to politics. This isn’t just a truism, it’s been demonstrated in formal experiments. You can give people simple math/logic problems and confirm that they get the right answers. Then you can change the wording from “five apples and eight oranges”, to “five Democrats and eight assault weapons” and these same people will flounder and say idiotic things.
Paranoia and conspiracy theories, considered psychotic symptoms in individuals, are almost the norm in politics. Forget the people who believe that Biden/Trump/FEMA/whoever literally want to put them in camps. The coastal elites/the patriarchy/the rich/the liberal media may all be real groups with agendas different from yours, but the way some people think about them actively plotting to dismantle everything good in the world shades into paranoia (if you don’t believe this about your side, at least consider it on the other!) I’m not just making fun of other people, I find myself making this mistake constantly.
Politics can create such strong emotions that they impair normal social functioning. People mock college students who demand trigger warnings whenever they have to listen to a conservative speaker. But I’ve talked to some of these college students and they’re not making it up - they find listening a politically discordant opinion is as unpleasant as (let’s say) a claustrophobic person sitting in an enclosed space. If you’re a right-winger who feels tempted to dismiss this response, imagine having to sit through a six-week diversity training workshop and give the answers the lecturer wants or else you’ll fail. Obviously you could just fake the right answers and fly through easily, but doesn’t something about this still sound profoundly enraging and invalidating on a deep level? Enraging even beyond the level of (for example) having to fake the right answers in a class on acupuncture because you’re doing an undercover investigation or something?
Politics can become something between an addiction and an obsession. People can spend hours every day watching cable TV or scrolling through their Twitter feeds, trying to stay abreast of the latest outrage the other side is perpetrating. To be clear, they hate this. Each time they hear another outrage they’re somewhere between dejected and enraged. But they keep doing it. For hours a day. They will justify this with claims like “I need to stay informed so I can make a difference”. Then they will forget to vote because they were tired on Election Day.
In any other situation, a condition with impaired cognition, psychotic symptoms, emotional instability that impaired normal functioning, and associated addictions/obsessions would qualify as a mental disorder. So again, which mental disorder is it?
This post is about the possibility that it might be trauma.
When Donald Trump was elected, some people described themselves as “traumatized”. Someone asked me for comment on the record, hoping I would say something like “as a real psychiatrist, trauma is a real disorder with strict criteria, and all you people are dumb”.
I did not, in fact, make this comment.
“Trauma” isn’t technically a mental disorder. The DSM contains seven “trauma and stressor related disorders”, of which the best-known is PTSD. An eighth disorder, “complex PTSD”, didn’t quite make it into the DSM but has been accepted by other classification systems, including the ICD-10 and WHO; other proposed trauma disorders are even less well-established. “Trauma” itself is a vague word encompassing all of these plus many less-well-defined situations.
Although the vague concept “trauma” goes well beyond the DSM’s formal definition of PTSD, I think the latter makes a good reference point. Let’s look at the diagnostic criteria:
[A trauma victim is someone who has] exposure to “actual or threatened death, injury, or sexual violence in one or more of the following ways:
Directly experiencing the traumatic event(s).
Witnessing, in person, the event(s) as it occurred to others.
Learning that the traumatic event(s) occurred to a close family member or close friend. In cases of actual or threatened death of a family member or friend, the event(s) must have been violent or accidental.
Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event(s) (e.g., first responders collecting human remains; police officers repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse).
This is already quite broad! The victim doesn’t need to have anything bad happen to them - just be threatened with it. And they don’t need to personally be the victim of the threat. They can learn that it happened to someone close to them, or they can just hear about it happening to someone else. A police officer who hears about child abuse may be a trauma victim!
The DSM’s job is to draw a medico-legal boundary - this counts, but that doesn’t. The real world has no obligation to obey the DSM, and often doesn’t. For example, can someone be traumatized by something happening to a distant family member? It would be insane to think this has never happened, and that some law of nature limits it to close family members. The DSM is just using the heuristic that probably it’s worse when it’s someone close to you.
It goes on:
[Part 4] does not apply to exposure through electronic media, television, movies, or pictures, unless this exposure is work-related.
Did someone prove it was a natural law that you can only be traumatized by seeing a story on TV if it’s for work? Or is this another unprincipled compromise?
People not involved in the DSM, unbound by medicolegal considerations, have added all kinds of stuff to this basic definition. For example, even though it’s not in the strict DSM definition, psychologists almost universally agree that emotional abuse can be traumatizing.
And in the current social climate, inevitably people have started talking about collective trauma, eg institutional racism may be traumatizing for some individual black person even if they personally have never been victimized in any dramatic way. The knowledge that people hate their whole group serves as an adequate proxy for anybody abusing them personally.
Can you chain all of these exceptions together? Can witnessing a family member suffering emotional abuse be traumatizing? Can learning secondhand about someone encountering institutional racism be traumatizing? Can you be traumatized by hearing on TV that someone was emotionally abused on account of their race? Only if it’s part of your job? At this point the nice crisp distinctions of the DSM are starting to feel a little artificial.
I think of all of this in a deflationist, spectrum-y type of way. Anything can be traumatizing if it gives you strong negative emotions and makes you feel helpless and victimized. The DSM points to some categories that are especially likely to cause this kind of reaction. Other people have added their own. But if something you hear on TV makes you feel victimized and helpless, then sure, go ahead and call it traumatizing. If Trump’s election made you feel victimized and helpless, then I’m prepared to say “trauma” is a potentially fruitful lens through which to investigate this response.
(I’m not saying that Trump’s election was inherently traumatizing, or that trauma was the correct response. If you prefer, you can think of it as a condemnation of the media for irresponsibly fanning fear of Trump. I’m just saying, without trying to lay blame, that lots of people did experience feelings of fear and helplessness around Trump’s election.)
I didn’t personally feel traumatized by Trump’s election. My own story, which I don’t claim is atypical or sympathetic in any way, is that in college a bunch of people tried to cancel me for something I’d intended to be an anti-racist joke, but which apparently didn’t come out that way. Former friends turned against me, I got a few death threats, and I was told to attend a criticism session at a local social justice meeting group (which I foolishly did; I thought people would realize I was cooperative and agreed with them, and so lay off - obviously this didn’t work). I briefly considered dropping out of college to avoid the hatred; instead I spent a month locked in my room, waiting for the storm to blow over. It was the worst experience of my life.
Ever since then, when I read arguments promoting social justice and cancel culture, or saying that their victims are probably bad people and shouldn’t be allowed to defend themselves, I get all kinds of easily noticeable unpleasant bodily and emotional reactions. When I read good arguments against these positions, I get some kind of nice calm feeling, like that I’m suddenly safer and the world has brightened a little bit. I try as hard as I can to approach these kinds of issues fairly, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I make more of the “five Democrats and eight assault weapons” style reasoning errors there than I would on some boring topic like taxes.
Of course, I hear similar stories from people on the other side of this particular culture war. A typical example (this is a pastiche of many people) would be a transgender person who sometimes gets harassed when they try to go into public restrooms. Even if it never gets beyond catcalling, they remember all the stories they read about trans people getting murdered, and even looks of disapproval feel like they carry the potential for physical violence. Then they hear about trans bathroom bills in North Carolina or wherever and absolutely see red; they feel like Society as an abstracted entity is trying to deny their right to exist. Then they invent entirely new kinds of social technology to prevent themselves from ever having to talk to or interact with the sort of people who would support such a thing.
Most people haven’t personally been cancelled or discriminated against, and they might not have stories like these. But they might feel like society is “threatening” them with these kinds of experiences. Or they might have “close family” or “close friends” who qualify. Or they might have heard about them on TV.
(In a work-related context? Sure, let’s say yes.)
But also, there’s the collective trauma exemption! Everybody belongs to various groups - black people, white people, Jews, Christians, men, women, LGBTs, gun owners, socialists, cops. Parts of each of these groups have developed narratives about how they’re being singled out for special persecution by the people in power. You probably believe that some of these groups’ narratives are valid, and others are false and offensive. That doesn’t matter. The important thing is that (some of) the group members believe it. The DSM is quite clear that people react to threatened trauma, not actual trauma. If some very silly person works himself up into a frenzy believing he’s being abused and persecuted because he eats eggs for breakfast, that’s potentially traumatizing, even if his concerns have no basis.
But also, everyday political debate crosses lines that would qualify as emotional abuse in any other sphere of life. People get told they’re disgusting or idiotic or deserve to die. They have to watch as powerful rivals plot openly how to ostracize them from polite society. Groups of their enemies get together to spread the rumor that they are Satanists, Nazis, or pedophiles. They have their views twisted into totally false claims that they want to murder children, which then “go viral” to people who otherwise know nothing about them.
If you’re not famous, this might not happen to you personally - nobody says “John Smith is a Nazi pedophile”. But John Smith might be a socialist, and someone might say “All socialists are Nazi pedophiles”. If we believe that racism can traumatize minority individuals even if they’re not personally named in the stereotypes, we should believe that the discourse around socialism can traumatize socialists, even if they’re not personally involved. I’m probably not describing this well, so I can only beg you to supplement my inadequate words with your lived experience. All bullying sounds trivial when you’re not involved. “He called me a fatty on the playground!” Well, whatever, laugh it off. But somehow from the inside, iterated over many experiences, coming from people you perceive as more socially powerful than you, it creeps up on you, starts getting power you definitely don’t remember giving it. Think of some discourse you’re involved in, some issue you feel really invested in, and think about the people you find most unfair and enraging on the other side. I dunno, either you’ve had this experience or you haven’t.
I think a lot of people feel persecuted and threatened by politics, a lot of people feel emotionally abused by politics, and a lot of people feel like they’ve had vicarious experiences of people they identify with being harmed by politics. This isn’t enough for a formal PTSD diagnosis - they probably didn’t watch the relevant TV news segments in a work-related context. But it might be enough to start doing some really unhealthy things to their brains.
Here’s what the DSM has to say about some symptoms of PTSD:
B4: Intense or prolonged psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event.
The popular term for criterion B4 is “a trigger”. For example, if you were raped, you might be triggered by hearing someone describe rape. This is justification for so-called “trigger warnings” in books and movies.
Triggers have long since jumped from the lexicon of PTSD to the lexicon of politics. Left-wingers describe exposure to right-wing ideas or symbols as “triggering”. Right-wingers try to avoid the terminology, because it sounds too leftie, but they have the experience so often that lefties asking right-wingers “oh, are you TRIGGERED?” has become a meme.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. Donald Trump Jr has a book called Triggered, and a biweekly TV show of the same name. Sheila Jeffreys’ biography is called Trigger Warning: My Radical Feminist Life. Jeffreys and Trump Jr may not have much else in common, but they are united by a shared appreciation for applying this technical psychiatric term to politics.
I think this makes the most sense if political triggering and psychiatric triggering are literally the same thing because political toxicity is a subspecies of PTSD.
D2: Persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about oneself, others, or the world.
Do I even need to explain this one?
D3: Persistent distorted cognitions about the cause or consequences of the traumatic events that lead the individual to blame himself or others.
As stated, this doesn’t really apply to politics. But I claim this is an overly restrictive description of the true problem, which is a general distortion of cognition around traumatic stimuli.
See for example Reasoning, trauma, and PTSD: insights into emotion–cognition interaction. Here the researchers make people solve math/logic puzzles with five apples and eight oranges or whatever; as usual, most people do fine. Then they change the content to traumatic stimuli, like five rapists and eight abusers. Nobody is particularly happy about this change, but traumatized people seem to do worse when the stimuli relate to their own trauma. This is an exact analog to the “five Democrats and eight assault weapons” task discussed above; I don’t know if one line of research inspired the others, but they show some similar results.
Other people have even more general findings. You may remember the Stroop Effect, where people have to say the color of words without getting distracted by their content. One variant is the Emotional Stroop Effect, where instead of giving color words (“yellow”, “red”, etc), you use emotional words and traumatic stimuli. Traumatized people tend to do worse at Emotional Stroop tasks relating to their specific trauma. See Modification of cognitive biases related to posttraumatic stress: A systematic review and research agenda.
See also The Precision Of Sensory Evidence for a discussion of how this effect might happen.
E1: Irritable behavior and angry outbursts (with little or no provocation) typically expressed as verbal or physical aggression toward people and objects.
As seen at your family Thanksgiving table. Politics makes otherwise kind people into angry jerks.
This is defined as a heightened awareness of surroundings, constantly scanning for danger, and misinterpreting innocuous stimuli as threatening. Wikipedia describes it as “there is a perpetual scanning of the environment to search for sights, sounds, people, behaviors, smells, or anything else that is reminiscent of activity, threat or trauma”.
Dog whistles. Microaggressions. The hallmark of the advanced political partisan is the ability to describe everything the other side (or neutral third parties) do as secretly a political offense, and to reduce every possible situation to their issue of choice.
For the past ten years, I’ve been involved in the anti-AI-existential risk movement, and have gotten to know other people in this movement pretty well. I can say with high certainty that the number one motive of these people is that they do not want to be killed by robots. Still, over the years people have ascribed every possible motive to us except that one, for example:
It’s a plot by Big Tech to distract from other harms they are committing.
It’s a plot by Big Government to regulate Big Tech.
It’s a plot to support white supremacy, though nobody can explain exactly how this would work.
It’s a plot by woke people to make AI biased in favor of liberal values.
It’s a plot by STEM people to feel self-satisfied about their own intelligence and superior to more well-rounded types.
It constantly fascinates me how, confronted with an apparently nonpolitical stimulus, everyone will hallucinate whatever feels most politically threatening to them personally. If this example doesn’t move you, think up one of your own. Or just pick a random blog post on the economics of oil prices, or the life cycle of the Latvian pine slug, and see how long it takes someone to use the word “woke” in the comments section.
I want to be transparent: I’m cherry-picking here; there are about a dozen other criteria for PTSD that politics don’t meet. Most of these are optional. Not all cases need to have all symptoms. The ones I mentioned are almost enough for a diagnosis on their own.
But I’m skipping entirely over the non-optional Section C: “persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the traumatic event”. You could sort of apply this to politics if you squint; conservatives get “triggered by” and so avoid liberal arguments and institutions, and vice versa. Still, the overall picture of 21st century American life hardly looks like the most triggered extremists avoiding political stimuli!
Here I want to bring in a more speculative concept from traumatology: traumatic reenactment. Along with the standard picture where people avoid traumatic stimuli, there’s another picture where they paradoxically seek them out. From a paper on the topic:
Victims of trauma often experience a wide range of psychiatric symptoms, including intrusive recollections of the trauma, numbing and avoidance of stimuli associated with it, anxiety, hypervigilance, and other symptoms indicative of increased arousal. Many individuals re-create and repetitively relive the trauma in their present lives. These phenomena have been called reenactments. For example, it has been found that women who were sexually abused as children are more likely to be sexually or physically abused in their marriages. It has been noted that traumatized individuals seem to have an addiction to trauma. A number of researchers have observed that retraumatization and revictimization of people who have experienced trauma, especially trauma in childhood, are all too common phenomena.
An acquaintance of mine who got raped now seems to have a pretty rape-centric view of the world. Whenever she talks to me, it’s to tell me some new fact about rape that she recently learned or thought about. She seems to spend her time planning and debating interesting new governance structures that communities can use to prevent rape. While I think this is healthy (she is using her bad experience to potentially help others), it sometimes seems to go beyond that; I cannot imagine that most of her speculation ends in concrete changes to social norms. In any case, she certainly isn’t doing the “expected” victim behavior of meticulously avoiding all rape-related stimuli.
(She might have gotten off easy: a lot of victims develop rape fetishes. Again, not judging; again, doesn’t fit the usual victims-avoid-stimuli view.)
A transgender friend explicitly describes themselves as “hate-reading” transphobic blogs. They admit this is a “form of self-harm” but can’t stop themselves. My experience is that the most traumatized transgender people don’t avoid ever thinking about transphobia. They obsess over it, and who is doing it, and what types there are, and let it consume their entire lives. Again, it’s admirable and understandable to care about an issue that affects you and other people. But if someone cared about their risk of getting bitten by spiders at that level, I would call them clinically arachnophobic.
Several sources (eg here) describe an “addiction to trauma”. The exact mechanism is vague. Some people say it’s endorphin release (the same postulated mechanism as exercise addiction, spicy food enjoyment, and some forms of masochism). Other people say it’s desire to gain control over the trauma, feel like you’re choosing it rather than being helplessly victimized. Still others say that it’s a wish that you can re-enact it but give it a better ending.
This last one rings true to me. I had my bad cancellation experience before “cancel culture” entered the national scene. But once it did, I found myself over-focusing on cancel culture stories, especially the most outrageous ones (“college students attack white yoga instructor for culturally appropriating ancient Indian practice!”) Looking back, I feel like the attractive aspect of this was bonding with other people who were outraged by the event, and getting to retell the story in a way that ended with “and everyone agreed the woke cancellation mob was in the wrong, and the students apologized to the yoga instructor, and she was reinstated and lived happily ever after.” Or, even if that didn’t happen, getting to retell it in a way that had moral clarity, where no reasonable person was on the side of the cancellers - even if things ended badly for the yoga instructor, I could tell it in a way that ended with “but she was clearly a misunderstood martyr, and this proves the rightness of the anti-woke cause.”
Everyone agrees we’re “addicted to outrage”. I find this phenomenon fascinating, and analogizing it to trauma addiction is the only way I’ve been able to make sense of it.
In order to defuse the question of whether political partisans literally have PTSD, I want to take a step back and discuss the neuroscience of trauma. No two psychiatrists ever agree on anything and this is my interpretation of the science only.
The brain is a learning machine. It learns responses at various levels: instinctive, emotional, rational. These form “priors” (assumptions, schemas, stereotypes) that guide action in a range of situations. As the brain gathers more evidence, it refines and updates these priors to stay relevant and functional.
For example, suppose your parents abuse you as a child. You might learn a prior that people are scary and violent. This is a correct lesson during childhood, and will help you navigate the situation. Then you get taken from your parents and adopted by a loving foster family. Since you’ve never known loving people before, you start with your assumption that they will be violent. But as time goes on and they show you love, you update. If you’re healthy, you update towards “some people are nice and some people are mean and it’s hard to know which are which”. If you’re a bit more anxious, you might update towards “all people are mean except for this one new family, they seem okay”. But you should, hopefully, update a little.
Some priors are very hard to update. I talk more about trapped priors in this post. For example, suppose you are so afraid of everyone that it is impossible to have a good experience with a new person. As soon as they talk to you, alarm bells start ringing in your brain and you flee and hide. You “learn” that they were actually pretty mean - they made you afraid and miserable! No matter how nice they are to you, your distorted picture will cause each encounter with them to further update you in the direction of “they, and everyone else, are mean.”
Trauma, in this model, is a negative event so compelling that it creates a new threat-related prior strong enough to become trapped. The soldier whose wartime experience was so terrifying that even back at home they can’t shake the feeling that guerillas might pop out from behind the bushes. The rape victim who feels so violated that they can’t trust any men, even those who have repeatedly established their good nature. The cynophobe who got bitten once and now hates all dogs, including friendly puppies.
When I say that politics is analogous to trauma, I mean that decades of consuming news favoring your chosen side, learning its arguments, learning the approved counterarguments to the other side’s points, and hearing about the outrages perpetrated by your enemies - have trapped both the relevant cognitive and emotional priors: you are absolutely sure your side is right, and you feel such intense negative emotion about the other side that it makes it impossible to interpret anything they say fairly.
I discuss this a little in the Trapped Priors post:
More scientifically literate people are more likely to have partisan positions on science (eg agree with their own party's position on scientifically contentious issues, even when outsiders view it as science-denialist). If they were merely biased, they should start out wrong, but each new fact they learn about science should make them update a little toward the correct position. That's not what we see. Rather, they start out wrong, and each new fact they learn, each unit of effort they put into becoming more scientifically educated, just makes them wronger. That's not what you see in normal Bayesian updating. It's a sign of a trapped prior.
Political scientists have traced out some of the steps of how this happens, and it looks a lot like the dog example: zealots' priors determine what information they pay attention to, then distorts their judgment of that information.
So for example, in 1979 some psychologists asked partisans to read pairs of studies about capital punishment (a controversial issue at the time), then asked them to rate the methodologies on a scale from -8 to 8. Conservatives rated the pro-punishment study at about +2 and the anti-execution study as about -2; liberals gave an only slightly smaller difference the opposite direction. Of course, the psychologists had designed the studies to be about equally good, and even switched the conclusion of each study from subject to subject to average out any remaining real difference in study quality. At the end of reading the two studies, both the liberal and conservative groups reported believing that the evidence had confirmed their position, and described themselves as more certain than before that they were right. The more information they got on the details of the studies, the stronger their belief.
This pattern - increasing evidence just making you more certain of your preexisting belief, regardless of what it is - is pathognomonic of a trapped prior. These people are doomed.
I want to tie this back to one of my occasional hobbyhorses - discussion of "dog whistles". This is the theory that sometimes politicians say things whose literal meaning is completely innocuous, but which secretly convey reprehensible views, in a way other people with those reprehensible views can detect and appreciate. For example, in the 2016 election, Ted Cruz said he was against Hillary Clinton's "New York values". This sounded innocent - sure, people from the Heartland think big cities have a screwed-up moral compass. But various news sources argued it was actually Cruz's way of signaling support for anti-Semitism (because New York = Jews). Since then, almost anything any candidate from any party says has been accused of being a dog-whistle for something terrible - for example, apparently Joe Biden's comments about Black Lives Matter were dog-whistling his support for rioters burning down American cities.
Maybe this kind of thing is real sometimes. But think about how it interacts with a trapped prior. Whenever the party you don't like says something seemingly reasonable, you can interpret in context as them wanting something horrible. Whenever they want a seemingly desirable thing, you secretly know it means they want a horrible moral atrocity. If a Republican talks about "law and order", it doesn't mean they're concerned about the victims of violent crime, it means they want to lock up as many black people as possible to strike a blow for white supremacy. When a Democrat talks about "gay rights", it doesn't mean letting people marry the people they love, it means destroying the family so they can replace it with state control over your children. I've had arguments with people who believe that no pro-life conservative really cares about fetuses, they just want to punish women for being sluts by denying them control over their bodies. And I've had arguments with people who believe that no pro-lockdown liberal really cares about COVID deaths, they just like the government being able to force people to wear masks as a sign of submission. Once you're at the point where all these things sound plausible, you are doomed. You can get a piece of evidence as neutral as "there's a deadly pandemic, so those people think you should wear a mask" and convert it into "they're trying to create an authoritarian dictatorship". And if someone calls you on it, you'll just tell them they need to look at it in context. It’s the bitch eating cracker syndrome except for politics - even when the other party does something completely neutral, it seems like extra reason to hate them.
In that post, I speculated that trapped priors might be responsible for some of the cognitive symptoms of political hyperpartisanship. But trapped priors have both cognitive and emotional manifestations, and I’m starting to think that they might just explain the whole picture. I think the easiest way to express this concept for public consumption is “political hyperpartisanship is a form of trauma.”
Is this actually a good way to express a concept for public consumption?
I’m nervous about the creeping expansion of “trauma”. On the one hand, it’s good that people who feel traumatized by things can have access to trauma-related resources and have other people respect/validate their suffering. On the other, it might be dangerous to create an expectation of traumatic consequences for minor wrongs.
Ancient warriors apparently didn’t get PTSD. Everything about this claim is still controversial, but the explanation that makes the most sense to me is that they had a narrative in which war was heroic and inspiring, not traumatizing. I think this story is backed up by cross-cultural comparisons and research on depression: thinking you’re supposed to feel traumatized is a risk factor for problematic trauma symptoms.
So this theory is dangerous even if it’s true: it might make people feel more triggered by political disagreements and less able to laugh them off. On the other hand, I don’t really see a lot of people laughing off political disagreements now. Maybe we’ve already maxed our our ability to feel traumatized by political stimuli?
This is a strong claim, but I make it in the context of the whole political ecosystem. Suppose that outrage addiction is, in fact, trauma addiction. That means the media ecosystem is a giant machine trying to traumatize as many people as possible in order to create repeat customers, ie trauma addicts. Combine that with the explicit, confessed desire on both sides to “trigger” the other as much as possible, and you have a lot of very clever people all trying to maximize one another’s trauma levels. On the external level, that looks like weaving as strong a narrative of threat and persecution as possible and trying to hit people in their psychological weak points. On the internal level, it means making sure they replace their normal ability to update with a series of triggers that make them replace reality with pre-packaged stories about how the other side is innately evil and everything they do is for specific threatening and evil reasons. Once you have a machine like that running, I’m not sure that identifying it will make things too much worse.
But thinking of things this way has made me less interested in consuming this kind of media, and I hope it does the same for you.