Trauma and Justice
The Moral Grammar of Trauma Discourse from Wilhelmine Germany to Post-Apartheid South Africa
Burnner, J. (2007). Trauma and Justice: The Moral Grammar of Trauma Discourse from Wilhelmine Germany to Post-Apartheid South Africa. In Trauma and Memory: Reading, Healing, and Making Law (pp. 97-118). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Sometimes the tissues of community can be damaged in much the same way as the tissues of mind and body, as I shall suggest shortly, but even when that does not happen, traumatic wounds inflicted on individuals can combine to create a mood, an ethos—a group culture, almost—that is different from (and more than) the sum of the private wounds that make it up. Trauma, that is, has a social dimension.
—Kai Erikson, “Notes on Trauma and Community”
Jose Brunner appears to be largely interested in work that sits at the intersection of history, trauma, and memory, with publications that largely involve either Freud or psychoanalysis. According to Brunner, his main areas of research and publication include the relationship between law, memory and identity, the history and politics of psychoanalysis, the politics of the mental health discourse on trauma, psychological theories of Nazism and genocide, modern and contemporary political thought, and the history of compensation for Holocaust survivors in Germany and Israel.
Brunner opens his essay by recounting a key moment in the history of the industrialized West: the use of demographic data allowed governing bodies to conceptualize risk in terms of statistical probability, which then allowed for the development of insurance as a system to provide recompense for injury. Although the implications of this even are much more significant than Brunner indicates, he introduces the idea in order to begin a discussion of how trauma sits at the intersection of law, government, and health.
This context is a key one for Brunner as he intends to focus on the association between trauma and justice as a means to begin a discussion that uncovers embedded moral codes surrounding trauma and its treatment. Using Axel Honneth’s concept of “moral grammar,” which speaks to the way in which individuals’ responses to transgressions of moral order in everyday life form the basis for social justice movements, Brunner introduces three separate dimensions on which trauma discourse can be placed (suspicion-compassion, silence-solidarity, and victimhood-healing) as it moves from a modern to postmodern context. Brunner’s overall argument is that each case presented exemplifies that time period’s concerns over the politics of life.
Suspicion-Compassion (late 19th and early 20th century)
In the wake of an 1889 decision by the Imperial Insurance Office that allowed German workers to seek compensation for trauma (as a form of injury) experienced while on the job, doctors in Wilhelmine became suspicious that 1) opportunists were taking advantage of the situation to press their claims and that 2) providing such a safety net would subtly encourage the transformation of acute symptoms into chronic ones. Exemplified by Hermann Oppenheim, the counter position argued that the process of redress was itself traumatic in that it stigmatized the petitioner and involved a prolonged revisiting of the original trauma. Although arguments ultimately resulted in the Simulationsstreit (debate on malingering), Brunner notes that this case speaks to a way in which the medical community challenged the law, citing it as detrimental to those it purported to help and thus invoking a moral claim that stemmed from the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm.
Solidarity-Silence (mid-20th century)
After a broad introduction that essentially argues that cultural recognition of trauma must precede medical and legal legitimation and the irony that “as a rule, the traumatized could achieve acknowledgment of their powerlessness, vulnerability, victimhood, and suffering only when they managed to gain the power or status needed to overcome at least part of the marginalization and exclusion mechanisms that silence the traumatized” (105), Brunner goes on to suggest that the creation of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a diagnosis destabilized the victim-victimizer dichotomy in trauma, opening up new frameworks through which to understand trauma.
Victimhood-Healing (late 20th century)
Brunner’s final dichotomy looks at efforts of therapeutic jurisprudence to assist in the healing process, specifically focusing on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Furthering the scope of trauma outlined in the previous section, Brunner notes that the TRC identifies five categories of trauma sufferer: victim, perpetrator, families of victims, the community, and Commission personnel. In exploring the ramifications of this classification scheme, Brunner essentially invokes Maria Root’s concept of insidious trauma, which looks at the ways that the effects of an initial trauma can radiate out. Root’s interest is in examining how the knowledge that one is subject to trauma forms a type of oppression that is damaging to an individual. Brunner ultimately argues that the net effect of this focus on the community was to move trauma and healing outside of the confines of a victim/therapist model such that individuals could help treat each other and themselves.
 This is in fact one of the key developments for a discussion of biopolitics and the “new conception of the relationship between the state and its citizens” (98) that Brunner invokes is important not only for understanding the changing legal responsibility that the state had toward its citizens but also for how the state thought of its citizens and therefore what the citizen meant to the state.
 Brunner then makes a rather large leap in suggesting that individuals increasingly grew distrustful of the law’s ability to protect their interests. Although this sentiment may certainly be true, Brunner does not seem to provide sufficient evidence to support this claim.
 Despite a discussion about the possibilities that an individual can experience multiple forms of trauma and that scholars are increasingly interested in studying the effects of trauma in non-Western contexts, Brunner frustratingly fails to interrogate the limits of PTSD’s aforementioned comprehensiveness. As a diagnosis that was largely conceived of and interpreted by white males, “generally outside of the usual experience” was a guideline that was necessarily limited by the white male perspective. Most egregious is Brunner’s failure to comment on the way in which the very diagnosis of the PTSD also serves to reinscribe silence into trauma even as it destabilizes it.
Beyond the Pleasure Principle
Freud, S. (2004). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In J. Rivkin, & M. Ryan (Eds.), Literary Theory: An Anthology (Second ed., pp. 431-437). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation
—Jonathan Larson, Rent
Although Sigmund Freud received medical training as a student of psychiatry, he initially had an interest in philosophy and was likely influenced by his mentor Franz Brentano as he popularized psychoanalysis and the concept of the unconscious. Setting this path in motion, Freud studied with Jean-Martin Charcot, a noted neurologist who was also interested in mesmerism and hypnosis, which were popular at the end of the 19th century. After working with Charcot, Freud modeled himself after Josef Breuer and began to use hypnosis in his practice and eventually came across a patient named Anna O., who allowed Freud to develop core tenants of psychoanalysis as he worked with her to uncover repressed trauma through a process that would later be called “the talking cure” (i.e., patients were placed into a relaxed state and encouraged to free associate). Although psychoanalysis has largely fallen out of favor in clinical practice—being displaced by schools of cognitive-behavioral therapy and neuroscience—it continues to assert influence in areas like film studies and the humanities. Largely influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, Freud’s thinking would go on to influence philosophers like Jacques Lacan (who maintained a clinical approach and Slavoj Žižek, fields like psychoanalytic feminism, and the vernacular of popular culture (e.g., id, ego, etc.).
This work revises Freud’s earlier thoughts regarding the pleasure principle (i.e., Eros), which is associated with the id and the desire to seek enjoyment and to avoid pain. Here a distinction should be made between Freud’s use of the terms “drive” (Gr. trieb) and “instinct” (Gr. instinkt): instinct referred to an animalistic or base force that is essential to the functioning of an organism while a drive is not essential for survival and tends to cause erratic or unanticipated behavior in an individual. Thus, libido as a term that refers to the life instinct/force (i.e., the will to live) is differentiated from Eros, which refers to the desire to create life.
Beyond the Pleasure Principle is often cited for producing the juxtaposition of Eros and Thanatos (although it should be noted that Freud himself did not use the term in the work and “Thanatos” is attributed to psychologist Wilhelm Stekel, a follower of Freud). In contrast to Eros, which is the desire to create life, Thanatos can be characterized by the desire for extinction.
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud notes a series of stories in which he observes individuals who seem compelled to repeat a particular incident although the event itself does not appear to provide any source of pleasure. Forced to reconsider the id/ego binary that was established by the pleasure/reality principles, Freud worked to expand his theory so that it could account for cases of trauma, repression, and the play of children.
The excerpt in Literary Theory is from the second and third sections (of six) in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and focuses on Freud’s thoughts concerning child’s play and repetition. Freud describes a situation in which a young child would throw a toy into the corner while uttering an approximation of the German word for “gone” (Gr. fort) and then “here” (Gr. da) upon recovering the toy. Freud suggests that the boy concocts the game in response to his separation from his mother: by reenacting a traumatic situation the boy is able to take control and assert an active role in the proceedings. Freud makes several caveats here, noting that the child may be playing the game in order to benefit from some other unseen source of pleasure (in this case the pleasure principle would still apply) and that children furthermore tend to repeat things that they observe in life. Freud’s anecdote with the child also illustrates that although the pleasure principle and the death drive might be operating in opposition to each other, their presence is not mutually exclusive as pleasure could be experienced en route to the restoration of a balanced mental state.
In contrast to the example introduced in Section II, in Section III Freud focuses on cases that have no origin in pleasure and are yet repeated. Section III of Beyond the Pleasure Principle is more directly applicable to psychoanalysis (as is Section I’s discussion of trauma) with its mention of repression: in this section Freud suggests that, in a process analogous to that of the child in Section II, patients are driven to repeat repressed thoughts until they are mastered and extinguished. In line with psychoanalysis’ overarching position, individuals are also not able to articulate the reasons for why they repeat their behavior (and, in fact, may not even be aware that they are doing so). Characterized by the term transference (i.e., the displacement of feelings onto other targets), Freud would also suggest that this process could be expanded beyond patients to the populace at large. In addition, Freud notes that the repressed thoughts are not themselves the issue here, suggesting that we should instead consider how the ego constrains and tries to protect our psyche through repression.
For additional information on the repetition compulsion, see Freud’s Erinnern, Wiederholen und Durcharbeiten (1914).
 See “It is clear that the greater part of what is re-experienced under the compulsion to repeat must cause the ego unpleasure, since it brings to light activities of repressed instinctual impulses. That, however, is unpleasure of a kind we have already considered and does not contradict the pleasure principle: unpleasure for one system and simultaneously satisfaction for the other.” (434-435)
 “None of these things can have produced pleasure in the past…but no lesson has been learnt from the old experience of these activities having led instead only to unpleasure. In spite of that, they are repeated, under pressur of a compulsion.” (435)
The concept of the archive runs through this week’s readings in various permutations: as a place, a space, a metaphor, but, above all, as a construct. Conceptualizing the archive as an imagined way of ordering information causes us to question the legitimization that the term implies–this is not to suggest, of course, that the archive is false or that its contents are fabrications but rather an askance that we consider how the construction of the archive plays with notions of history and memory. Furthermore, this intersectionality gains additional weight with the realization that not only is the “archive” a construction but that it, by its very nature, also serves to (re)invent its contents; put another way, the archive’s artifacts are the invented products of the intersection of history, identity, and critical theory. As Joan Scott argues in “The Evidence of Experience”: “Experience is at once always already an interpretation and is in need of interpretation. What counts as experience is neither self-evident nor straightforward.” We must not only question the story being told by the contents of the archive but also how such a story figures in a larger narrative about history as a subject.
Dominick LaCapra comments in History and Criticism:
“The archive as fetish is a literal substitute for the “reality” of the past which is “always already” lost for the historian. When it is fetishized, the archive is more than the repository of traces [and, according to Derrida, representations in an archive are always a trace] of the past which may be used in its inferential reconstruction. It is a stand-in for the past that brings the mystified experience of the thing itself–an experience that is always open to question when one deals with writing or other inscriptions.”
In various ways, this notion of the archive forces us to examine our practices of sight and seeing (metaphorically at least, if not physically) and how these stances overlap with the known and the knowable. For me, one of the most valuable ideas of Akira Lippit’s book was the differentiation of two types of invisibility: things that are obscured contrasted with things that are outside the realm of sight. The archive, I think, is often associated with the former category (i.e., its contents are items that are rediscovered, reintroduced, or rescued from history) but I wonder if we should challenge the archive to assume the philosophy of the latter; I think that we must actively engage in a process whereby we question what sorts of items are not included in an archive and why this may be so. What things did we see (and thus include in the archive) and what might we have missed? Although the archive undoubtedly houses pieces that belong to history and allows us to reflect on our past, I also think that it possess the potential to spur forward-thinking as we participate in a process that endeavors to uncover new ways of seeing.
Similarly, Ann Cvetkovich speaks to Lippit’s definitions of invisibility through a discussion of trauma: according to Cvetkovich, trauma is not only bounded by the confines of domesticity but also occasionally “doesn’t appear sufficiently catastrophic because it doesn’t produce dead bodies or even, necessarily, damaged ones” (3). Through Cvetkovich’s mention of trauma we again witness the two-fold way in which something can be rendered invisible and a call for an expanded rendering of what is (or should) be seen and therefore known. I continue to think on the way in which individual/private trauma competes with collective/public trauma for a place in our memories and our archives–what is “worthy” of remembrance? What happens when our cultural/national identities are haunted by travesties that we do not have a direct relation to? Or do archives allow us to overcome this supposed gap and connect to a past that we have not experienced for ourselves? How do projects like that AIDS quilt that embody both an individual and collective identity, history, and trauma intersect with movements like PostSecret, StoryCorps, and One Hello World that represent collections of individual narratives? How is the current interest in archives situated in societies obsessed with innovation and marked by rapid cultural turnover?
In retrospect, it was rather obvious: I was intrigued by Cultural Studies before I even knew what it was. My fascination with PostSecret—a site that began as a public art project wherein people anonymously mailed in secrets on postcards—began in early 2005, particularly timely given that I was just about to graduate from college and was feeling no small amount of anxiety about what would become of my life. Beyond an emotional connection, however, I also loved looking at the way in which the simple declarative statements combined with typography and associated images to produce a rather powerful artifact; the choices that people made in displaying their secrets—these innermost thoughts—fascinated me and I started down my path toward becoming a sort of amateur semiotician.
Over the years, the site has floated around in my head but one of the foundations of the project/website also serves as one of its greatest barriers to study: the anonymous submission process. All postcards are sent to an intermediary, Frank Warren, who selects and uploads the images to the site—this means that the original authors are impossible to study without violating users’ trust (and possibly a few laws). As a result, I cannot ascertain who feels compelled to create a postcard and, at times, that failure troubles me for these are the people who most need support.
I don’t mean to imply that I wish to know exactly who wrote which card but I would love to get an analysis of the demographics for the makers. What types of people feel the need to create cards and send them in? Are these individuals who feel as though they cannot express their voice through other channels? How does the population of makers compare to the population of readers? One might argue that there is likely to be a certain amount of overlap but the very notion that one set is driven to craft something is intriguing to me. And even if we were able to recruit study participants (ignoring likely IRB complications for a moment), we would have to suspect a kind of volunteer bias, particularly given the nature of the material being disclosed on the site.
So instead I endeavor to study the way in which the site and its associated products (museum exhibits, books, and speaking engagements) intersect with, and create, culture. The project raises a number of questions for me, specifically how it reflects our current culture of confession. In particular, I often wonder how the current state of media might have affected the success of a movement like PostSecret.
Growing up, I remember watching the first seasons of The Real World and Road Rules on MTV and was always entranced by the confessional monologues. As a teen, the confessionals possessed a conspiratorial allure, for I was now privy to insider information about the inner workings of the group. However, looking back, I wonder if this constant exposure to the format of the confessional has changed the way that I think about my secrets.
The confessional has become rather commonplace on the slew of reality shows that have filled the airwaves of the past decade and the practice creates, for me, an interesting metaphor for how Americans have to come to deal with our struggles. As confessors sit in an isolation booth, they simultaneously talk to nobody and to everybody; place this in stark contrast to the typical connotation of “confession” and its associated images of an intimate discussion with a priest.
PostSecret, in some ways, is merely a more vivid take on St. Augustine’s seemingly far-removed literary testimony in Confessions and yet also an extension of the modern practice of mediated confession: we hold our secrets in until we get the chance to broadcast them across media channels. We exist in a culture that has transformed the act of confession into a spectacle—we celebrate press conference apologies and revelations of sexual orientation make the front page. Has our desire for information transformed us into a society that hounds after secrets, compelling others to confess the things they hope to keep to themselves? Are secrets worth something only in their threat to expose or reveal? What does this whole practice of secret keeping tell us about the way that we relate to ourselves and to others? We oscillate between silence and shouting—perhaps we’ve forgotten how to talk—and we are desperate to make connections, to find validation, and to be heard. Are we so consumed with tending to our own secrets and revealing those of others that we have, in some ways, become nothing more than a site of secrets? How does this intersect with notions of empathy and narcissism?
These questions are, of course, not unique to PostSecret but I think that the project does offer a slightly different entry point into a community that can be secretive. Moreover, the development of an iPhone app might cause us to reflect on what is represented by the barrier of physically making and sending a postcard—does convenience lower the barrier to what might be considered a “secret”? As of yet, there does not seem to be a noticeable difference between the secrets sent in through the postal mail and those generated by the app but this might be due to the fact that secrets are screened and selected prior to their public display.
The various Occupy movements that have sprung up around the country have an interesting name that certainly harken back to the American practice of the sit-in during the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. And although those in the movement choose to occupy places with their physical bodies, I also wonder how the very visual nature of Occupy works to demonstrate a claim over space in a different manner. Complementing the drum circles that serve to claim space through sound, we also see a high incidence of banners, posters, and signs.
The signs serve as the nexus of a complicated set of messages: in addition to planting an ideological flag in the ground (which occasionally manifests as a literal flag) for media outlets and in-person viewers alike, the choice of motifs and thematic elements gives us some insight into who the protesters are. Take, for example, the images displayed in the Tea Party rallies and those of the protests against Scott Walker in Wisconsin alongside those of Occupy and we begin to see points of contrast.
And, in a way, perhaps it is no surprise that the Occupy movement is so highly visible, given its roots in Adbusters and the Guy Fawkes masks associated with Anonymous—both examples of ways in which images are played with in order to create memorable (and powerful) figures. To this history we add a likely population of individuals steeped in a culture of parody and satire (e.g., The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead, Funny or Die, and Saturday Night Live) and one might argue that individuals in this movement possess a visual fluency that differs from previous generations of protest and concordantly deploy their visual aids with a different intent.
Through all of this, I wonder about how our mainstream media outlets manage to keep pace with the recent changes in protests (or hasn’t). As we have unpacked the events of Tahrir Square and the “Arab Spring,” we have come to see that although social media played a role in organizing and dissemination of information, it was not a “Twitter Revolution” in the sense that the movement was born on an online platform. Was the moniker simply something catchy and representative of the protest’s novelty? How much of the name was a desire by the media to collapse the complexity of the movement into a sound bite that could be readily conveyed? Similarly, I think about the media’s efforts to pin down the purpose of Occupy with many voices wondering aloud in the early stages. If we think about the recent set of unrests as a modified form of political protest, how much of the media’s vagueness (or our own for that matter) can be explained by the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis that our ability to comprehend the world depends on what we have language for? Are we struggling to develop a language for the different ways in which signs, symbols, and images are being used in political protests?
On a conscious level, I don’t know that heterosexual pornography has many demonstrable effects on men’s attitudes toward women and, in truth, these are not the things that I worry much about. Instead, I wonder about the ways in which pornography serves to create a new normal for heterosexual sexual interactions and the ways in which men and women are positioned relative to one another. For example, it seems unlikely that many men would ever consciously condone rape or necessarily believe in the rape myth, but I wonder about how the myth’s very existence and continued portrayal in pornography then allows for the appearance of violent acts like choking and tearing of clothing in films that are not part of the BDSM genre. Does the existence of simulated rape allow us to create a space where telling a woman to “gag on it” is acceptable? Of course we must be careful not to suggest that the appearance of simulated rape causes a rise in these other forms of violence but I would suggest that the resulting change in viewers’ attitudes toward pornography might allow for violence against women in pornography to become increasingly acceptable.
And I think that these sorts of extremes are reflective of changing cultural norms, giving us one way to mark the changing attitudes of Americans, but also work in conjunction with other types of media to desensitize us to ways in which violence in routinely inscribed on the bodies of women (typically by men, although I think there is much more to say about the ways in which American culture promotes a form of infighting by women in order to get them to enact violence on themselves and other women).
We have, for example, long heard the adage that “sex sells” and, for me, advertisements represent a form of media that that is adjacent to pornography and also not only reflects the way that we see the world but also help to shape the way that we relate to it. We can talk about the Abercrombie and Fitch ads that border on pornography (although here I should note that the interpretation of this type of advertising is centered on the United States as European ads seem to operate in an entirely different context) but I am much more interested in the subtler ways in which advertising forwards the idea that women’s bodies are open to violence.
We’ve all heard of the objectification of women throughout human history and I think that most of us are aware that this tendency still occurs in spaces that are “out there.” Perhaps modern males would like to think that we are enlightened and sophisticated? That we respect our mothers and colleagues? But how many males still use misogynistic language like “bitch” in order to demean other males? Do we combine the ideas of females (and/or female sexuality) with meat and consumption? From “chick” to “prime cut of beef” to “lamb,” we have various associations engrained in our heads from the time that we are children. (This is, of course, in addition to language like “doll,” and “baby,” that serves to infantilize women and language that links women to other forms of consumables like “sugar,” and “honey.”)
The danger in all of this lies in our tendency, then, to view women as consumable objects in pornography and in advertising. While most people would be hard-pressed to support the idea that women are nothing more than a piece of meat out loud, might there be some hidden aspect to our relationship that informs our lives? If we are already a consumer culture and we then come to see women as consumable items, how does this affect the way that we relate to (other) females? How does this affect the way that women see themselves? We rarely think about the animal from whence a piece of meat came—the slab of meat on our plate becomes familiar and we are desensitized—and so why should it be any different with women? If we, on some level, see women as meat, then do we care where those pieces came from?
And, of course, it is not just women who are subject to this process: increasingly, male bodies have become objects of consumption as we have become more permissible of women’s sexuality (not to mention gay pornography). Although one might debate if this is in fact “progress,” we see men being referred to as “eye candy” and the visual language of the gaze being reversed as in this Diet Coke ad.
I assume that this ad is targeting working women who drink Diet Coke with physiological arousal tied to a brand/product but a secondary reading might be aimed at men who wish to be the object of the female gaze (through the drinking of Diet Coke which was not seen as “manly”), thus getting men to internalize a system in which they are objects of consumption!
Ultimately, I would argue that pornography’s increased visibility—thanks to the distribution power of the Internet and lower production costs—is not necessarily immoral but does contain a serious potential to affect the way our culture understands gender and sexuality. There is something to be said for bringing sexuality back into the public sphere and removing the aura of shame that surrounds it but I am also cautious as mainstream pornography often showcases a particular type of idealized sexuality that can have unwanted consequences as society attempts to realize that particular dream.
There are times, I think, when all of this just seems overwhelming. With a new section each week, we are asking each of you to grapple with things that you may not have encountered before and I completely understand that this may not be easy.
But, then again, who said it was going to be?
Although you have to find the balance with this, some part of me believes that, as investigators, we should be a little overwhelmed for it is in this moment that we begin to grasp just how large the problem really is. What was once so clear becomes infinitely murky and we struggle to find a foothold. The issues that Asians Americans face are complex and seemingly never-ending. How do I go about dismantling the myriad problems that we encounter every day? Will I even make a difference? Should I even try?
It’s taken me a few years to get to where I am now but I have to come to believe that the answer is a resounding “Yes.” I get called out for being impractical because I’m not as interested in deliverables, action items, and long-range plans; instead, I’m interested in the transformation that occurs on an individual level when one decides that he or she is capable of making a difference.
And the thing that they never tell you in school is that you don’t have to change the world in a grand way on your first go. Making a difference isn’t about spectacle and scale so much as it is about intent and meaning. There a million ways in which one can change the world on an everyday basis that have profound and lasting implications and it is these sorts of actions that I often think about when we come to issues of sexuality and gender in CIRCLE.
By now, all of you have gone through the exercise where we attempted to place ourselves in the mindset of someone who does not identify as straight. Although our session exhibited moments of laughter and sympathy, I hope that the exercise also went beyond this to generate a feeling of empathy. I get that it’s a bit heavy to think about some of these things on a night when you are coming off of class and looking forward to homework, but I would challenge my session to think about how they would react if they couldn’t just go home after all was said and done. How might you feel if you really had to tear off the corners of your star?
The thing that we strive to teach our students in CIRCLE is that all of these issues are linked (and, yes, messy) but that you can also apply what you’ve learned from one week to another. What if you thought about sexuality like you think about ethnicity? Students in our session can’t just stop being Asian American—just like other students can’t stop being GLBTIQ. How can you map your need to justify your worth as an Asian onto things like gender or sexuality?
But even if that’s a bit too heavy for you, I do want to mention something that I brought up at the conclusion of our session. Issues of gender and sexuality figure heavily into what I do, along with my experiences in college admission and psychology. I spend a lot of time thinking about self-harm/mutilation, eating disorders, depression, restlessness and projects like It Gets Better (which I can happily discuss the faults of). I spend a good deal of my time trying to think about ways to change educational policy to help students to recognize and feel of worth; I think about bullying in schools but also bullying on Perez Hilton, TMZ, and even by Dan Savage.
One of the things that I have learned in my years of college admission is that an increasing number of students are suffering from something that I call “floating duck syndrome”—on the surface, students are serene and perfect but, underneath the water, their legs are churning. Needless to say, students have some issues. I don’t mean to imply that students will not be able to overcome these things, but I must admit that I was shocked to learn about what they were dealing with.
However, I should also mention that I am incredibly hopeful for the generation of students that is following in my footsteps. I am hopeful that students will learn to brave the dark places of themselves, secure in the knowledge that friends and family will always be there to draw them back. I am hopeful that students will come to understand who they are and accept themselves for that. And, I am hopeful that students will learn to step outside of themselves in order to offer their help to those in need. I am lucky to be in a situation where I can empower future students to realize that, although occasionally overwhelmed by adversity, they are all survivors in some respect: any person who has ever been teased, ridiculed, outcast, or made to simply feel less than is a survivor and can embrace that. And, because you are a survivor, you have been imbued with the power to tell your story to others in similar situations in order to pull them through. Ultimately, I am also hopeful because I have learned that young people are incredibly resilient and innovative—you can accomplish some amazing things if given half a chance.
And one of those amazing things is to realize just how much power you have. As I mentioned before, you don’t have to change the world overnight but I challenge you to realize that, just by being yourself, you possessed an incredible amount of agency: each and every one of you has the power to keep at least one point of that star intact. If they so choose, the you have the power to potentially save a life—and how amazing is that?
This week you were all given stars, but the thing that you need to realize—as cliché as it might sound—is that you are all, in your own way, stars. Go out there and burn bright. Shine like you’ve never had any doubt.