The psychodynamics of bearing witness

We all have occasion to see “bad stuff” that is toxic and traumatic in nature and harmful to others, animals, economies, and the environment.  For example, the 9/11 imagery of the “Towers” that was replayed over and over for months burned the imagery into one’s consciousness.  Psychologists warned the media that the constant repetition of the images and the accompanying bearing witness was harmful – we have our limits.  Much the same can be said of the thus far endless repetitions of events at the U.S capitol on January 6, 2021, and now images from Ukraine.

These examples are representative of a constellation of stunning violence that can result in the experience of trauma for the viewers – whether witnessed firsthand or in the media.  Related examples are footage of war dead, genocides, and industrialized animal slaughter (often banned from being filmed by law to protect the industry).  We are fascinated by, but also look away from, that which is too horrible to contemplate.  Experiences of injustice such as a knee on the neck are powerful experiences.  Those that bear witness are fundamentally injured in ways that are individualized and deeply personal.

Moral injury” refers to “an injury to an individual’s moral conscience and values resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression, which produces profound emotional guilt and shame, and in some cases also a sense of betrayal, anger, and profound moral disorientation”.

Haseltine (2020) referring to the work of Brett Litz (2009) writes that failures by others in positions of authority to prevent traumatic outcomes, and the inability of witnesses to prevent acts and outcomes that transgress their deeply held moral beliefs and expectations, can lead to long-term emotional, psychological, behavioral, and spiritual harm. These psychosocial dynamics speak to “moral violence” in organizations, defined as “abusive, sadistic, and oppressive treatment that results in the emotional trauma, dehumanization, and demoralization of organizational members and, in some cases, of their clients, constituents, and citizenry” (Diamond & Allcorn, 2004). The injury is personal.  It is within.  It is hard to bear.  “I feel your pain” is a common expression of empathy associated with bearing witness. 

Witnessing perceived moral transgressions can result in experiencing self-blame, shame, and guilt for not acting to oppose it many times out of fear.  Moral injury is to be expected even in instances of “looking away.”  These distressing experiences lead to anxiety – what should I have done?  What could I have done?  These dynamics can result in withdrawal from self and others including increased risk of depression, self-harming, and suicide.

Psychological defenses can be expected as people try to cope with the suffering associated with bearing witness and the accompanying anxiety.  Beyond guilt, shame, and anger there is a linkage to psychodynamic concepts such as identification with the “other” who has suffered, and identification with the symbolic imagery of the flag or capital building of “one’s” country.

Psychological risk factors can also increase vulnerability to moral injury.  Neuroticism, especially when excessive, promote the experience of being personally harmed, which threatens to damage one’s self esteem, sense of self competence, and personal integrity. These dynamics, where external events are experienced as about “me,” increase vulnerability to self-imposed feelings of shame.

The fantastic nature of the witnessed event(s) is accentuated by unconscious dynamics such as fantasies, selective retention and recall, and mediated by rationalization and denial, that transform the moral injury to make it tolerable. What happened is manipulated in mind to minimize the stress of the witnessing and the anxiety about having “helplessly” observed.  Bearing witness suggests that writing and speaking about the “knee on the neck” also helps to “process” what was witnessed.

The perpetrators of the moral violence may also be manipulated in the minds of victims who may split off and project their own evil and unjust intent onto the others who are perceived to be the source of the violence. This leaves oneself, and the subjects of the violence, as fair, just, and victimized.  I, or we, are good and those inflicting the moral violence are bad and evil. 

Psychological splitting and projection simplify experience by creating a good/bad binary that makes perfectly clear who the violators are and who are the victims.  This psychologically defensive dynamic further heightens the sense of moral injury perhaps making it ever harder to tolerate.

In sum, bearing witness is accompanied by the experience of moral injury as a result of witnessing offensive violence.

Post-traumatic suffering is to be expected, becoming the substance of all our nightmares.

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