A new article published in the Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology argues that mainstream understandings of trauma and resilience profoundly misunderstand the suffering of refugees and orphans in the Global South. The article is written by MIA writer Ayurdhi Dhar of Mount Mary University and Sugandh Dixit of the Bapu Trust in Maharashtra, India.
The authors utilize a self-reflective analysis and share familial and personal stories of movement, migration, refuge seeking, and orphaning to articulate that the current understandings of “refugee” and “orphan” are founded on neoliberal ideology.
The global mental health movement, since its inception, has sought to locate universal conceptions of mental health and distress across cultures. This process of universalizing mental health has been successful, but only insofar as it has taken the practices and understanding of mental wellness and health from the Global North (the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand) and exported it to the Global South, including the indigenous communities found in North America and Oceania.
Central to the critique of this movement is the argument that globalizing the systems of North American and European psychology fails to account for cross-cultural variation in emotion and traditional healing practices.
“Psychology was never and still is not value-free, and further, it has vehemently denied its political nature for a long time,” Dhar and Dixit write. “…the subject of Psychology remains the neoliberal subject… In its allegiance to neoliberal capitalism, this subject associates happiness (which it fetishizes) with productivity. What we assert is that neoliberalism capitalism also associates suffering with productivity, and through a self-reflective analysis of orphanhood and refugeehood, we propose the concept of aproductive suffering, and meaning(less) form of distress, which acts as a revolutionary practice and as an antidote to this recuperation.”
Psychology, as understood by the Global North, has permeated our day-to-day lives as a kind of universal truth that locates our successes, our joys, and importantly, our failures and sufferings uniquely within ourselves—and this is intentional—argue Dhar and Dixit. Psychology is unable to identify the systems of oppression that “neglect the political violence and systemic racism that perpetuates their suffering” because it is founded within them. Psychology names refugees and orphans’ identities and narratives as inherently heroic or harmed, nothing more and nothing less.
“But if we momentarily upend these two narratives, we are stranded in an uncertain and uncomfortable land where the immense suffering of these two subjects has no immediate meaning.”
Indeed, Dhar, through her telling of her experience of refugeehood, identified that while what happened to her family was devastating, it was not “traumatizing” the way psychology presents traumatized subjects – their interiority forever marked by their horror. Instead, she argues that the traumatization of the experience happened post-displacement—and that European-American psychology has hardly helped refugees understand their experience and instead aided xenophobic nationalists.
Her entire family had two identities, refugee and resilient. “Refugee” needs only be descriptive, but, she argues, psychology turns the identity prescriptive—with its roots in neoliberalism, to be a refugee is to have suffered, and neoliberalism dictates that one must suffer for something.
This neoliberal suffering can only be linear, but Dhar notes that “this simplification through linear narratives is one of Psychology’s adverse effects, and it is not an accident. This simplification caters to fundamentalism which needs simple narratives sustained by averaged answers which say, ‘Look at what all Muslims of Kashmir did to these people; they have PTSD and low social adjustment now.’ There is no place for contradictory answers or confused feelings.”
Meanwhile, where refugees are constructed as resilient, orphans are constructed as heroic, as Dixit shares:
“Orphan stories often become anecdotes of success and part of an economic value system that capitalizes on suffering. A language of success through stories of romanticized and heroic actions and feats is grafted onto the reality of human suffering. It is only after eating the fruit of suffering that a story of success can be lived; past trauma becomes a currency. That these heroic interpretations have come to enjoy such predominance has less to do with testimonies of survival, and lesser even with mining courage and inspiration for ourselves, than with the dread and tentative hope that we do not end up there ‘but for the grace of God,’ as a popular saying goes. There is an additional quality to the heroism of these stories, which are the themes of superhuman freedom, will, and agency of the individual, much like in the stories about the refugee.”
These prescriptive identities given to refugees and orphans define the language they must use to interface and engage with their experience, even if it’s not the language they would choose for themselves, even if they never felt traumatized, resilient, or heroic.
“Thus, Psychology,” Dhar and Dixit argue, “not only gives an authoritarian and prescriptive voice to one’s integrity (while prioritizing one’s interiority) but also defines the language one must use to dialogue with this interiority, in turn forcing the orphan, the refugee, the patient to mistrust one’s own voice.”
Therefore, Dhar and Dixit formulate a new way of understanding suffering, one that has nowhere to go; A suffering that is not designed to produce a hero. Instead, they coin the term “aproductive suffering.”
“This suffering, their suffering, our suffering, that for a flash is rendered meaning (less) makes these subjects revolutionary because it is the antithesis to neoliberal capitalism, in that it is marginal, meaning (less), and most importantly, it is aproductive. It does not create excellent workers, tortured geniuses, great writers, famous scientists, or brilliant executives—it cannot be commodified. This aproductive suffering on its own terms is not frozen or interiorized to become an internal scar that one must carry in one’s body as it festers in our minds and nestles its way in some unconscious, eventually turning into productive work or intrapsychic conflict. As opposed to eternal, it is transient; as opposed to individual, it is collective; as opposed to interiorized, it is shared.”
Dhar, A., & Dixit, S. (2021). Making of a crisis: The political and clinical implications of psychology’s globalization. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. (Link)
Perhaps the question might be framed as to how the discourse is tensioned in and from the historic arrogance between the North/South masked as dialogue? In the Body of the Mind at some scale of relationships in the macro/micro discussion?
Said with serenity. My suffering is my own thankyou. My loss is my own thankyou. My sorrow is my own. My happiness is my own.
All of “my feelings” are entirely my own and no one can claim “my feelings” as theirs or judge “my feelings”.
If I freely choose to share “my feelings” by expressing them and if the receiver receives them emotionally enough to perceive an evokation of “my feelings” then that sharing is all up to me.
My emotions are not “collective property”.
If I want to regard myself as heroic or brave for my ordeals in my life then that also is entirely up to me.
I am not sure who would want their anguish to be meaningless.
Perhaps this article is meaning that when your suffering is overlooked or unrewarded or dismissed as being arbitrary then that makes your ordeal worse and you more of a hero for enduring it. But it is still the pursuit of some notion of courage and heroism.
Perhaps it is a vaunting of sacrificial suffering, where you win no recognition for the pain. Sacrificial suffering is part of compassion but not much. For to be so self-denying involves being a traitor to some of your “feelings” that do not want an ordeal. And this hushing of authentic “feelings” hushes the very energy that feeds a “feeling” of genuine compassion. When compassion is just a wooden unemotional gesture, done out religious or ideological “logical duty” it is no longer a “feeling” at all. It is too numbly “rational” to flow as love or compassion.
So the societal idealizing of sacrificial suffering is an idealizing of the impotence of the ability to access inner “feelings”. This impotence becomes dogma and winds up as rigid piety.
And we all know how “feelinglessly” indifferently cruel the perfected pious can be.
I think what the article is saying is that giving an identity from psychology to marginalized people is an imposition.
I would say that going a step further and telling people they must have a shared identity or no identity is also an imposition.
People ought to be free to tell their story of suffering and tell it in any which way they freely choose to without it meaning something inadvertantly politically shameful.
….all said with neutral curiosity and not in a fit of pique.
So thankyou for the article. It is really a good one. It highlights things of note.
I suffer greatly from my schizophrenia. My hallucinations are all day relentless. Mostly they are hallucinations of crawling sensations under my skin. I do not mean an imagining of a sensation. I mean it feels as real as a nest of wasps inside my whole body. It is an hourly ordeal. I cannot flee from it in a boat. It comes with me. No psychologists identity for me would wipe it away. I am stuck with it.
But out my suffering comes the flowers of my poems.
My torture leaves me that as a consolation. A jumble sale raffle ticket gift.
I find meaning in this.
But the thing with meaning is there is an urge to share it. It is exciting to bring it back to the tribe. We are creatures bound to the allure of the significant and we seek to compare notes about it.
And so there is a wish to share the flowers.
But I am not sure this article would want me to find meaning in my suffering.
Most human stories are all about finding meaning in suffering.
Ever since I came to MIA I have been both bold in thrusting my poems out into the comments yet apprehensive lest the notions in them wander in ways I would not choose.
I am always in a process of dying from my insufferable tormenting hallucinations. My oven door is opened more often as a fast track to the hereafter than to bake pavlova. I cannot stand much more of my ghastly illness. But what haunts me is the silly notion that if I do not survive neither will my flowers.
So, I have been flinging my poesies like bombs.
Petals scattered in the sea. I do not know where they will wash up.
Intellectual property is a contentious topic. Less a petal and more a barnacle.
My red blood cell is my own utterly. It belongs to me. It pretty much is me. Yet when I go to donate blood I do not fret. I do not think that the nurse will make off with my blood cell that is my property. I do not wait for the nurse to praise me as the exhausted creator of it.
My own body is worth less to me than the product of my intellect. How is it that our “logic” is more bankable than our blood? Or our breath?
Is life that cheap?
In infancy we do not go to school to understand “our feelings”. We do not take university courses in “our emotions”. These are not our certificated copyrighted intellectual property.
If I can donate my red blood cell without asking for a plaque on a wall in celebrated recognition of all the tormenting suffering in me that it took to produce that red blood cell then maybe my scattered flowers need no acknowledgment.