About Identity

By: Stella Boni

A point of view. In anthropology the most valuable thing that a scientist can offer is a new point of view. Sometimes, just a small detail about someone’s life can make a big difference for us in understanding the complexity of a whole society. Sometimes, this small detail can makes us see how much further we have to go to understand this complexity, but still it’s something that touches our heart and makes us want to know even more and more about this society, this life, this point of view.

In the last years I have seen the world change so much and so fast that it is difficult to fathom. I can see those changes because the whole world (newspapers, international community, etc.) is talking about them. Revolutions in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Egypt, Syria, Brazil. And still, each so different from the others. But even though the whole world is talking about it, there are some changes within which only a few can see the meaning. In the last year I have been asking myself, as a Brazilian woman: why is Brazil making such a big social movement? Why is our country coming to protest on the streets? Why now? And then I stopped and asked the question that was supposed to be the first one: Why are we so shocked with countries like Brazil and Portugal having revolutions? A quick answer: These countries used to be peaceful, quiet, and, most of all: numb. I don’t think international media put that in newspapers, and even I have not asked this question to myself. You will not find the answers in this text, only more questions.

Rather, I will talk about a subject that has influenced many peoples’ lives, but is rarely discussed: traumas. A Hungarian called Sándor Ferenczi was one of the firsts psychologists that studied and wrote about the impact that (social) experiences have in our lives, and how those experiences move us ahead or stop and paralyze us. He made a deep analysis in the 80’s, in which he found out that traumatic processes could be a consequence of incompatible discourses between an adult and a child: the child has its own language (which he called the language of tenderness), and so does the adult (language of passion), and there is a mismatch in the two ways of talking. Remember that during the 1980’s, the cases involving pedophilia were very common. To resume the logical line Ferenczi made, let’s use the example of an adult man and a girl. This misinterpretation between an adult and a child who like each other follows a contradictory relation: the adult finds himself in a position to seduce the child, yet it’s an unexpected  and violent seduction. When he realizes that, he undergoes a process of denial: the adult not just denies he did such a horrible thing, but also condemns the child for this confusion. To confirm that (even to himself), he punishes the child. So this child feels very insecure, yet what she feels does not match with the reality she is living. In consequence this child takes the position of total passivity and becomes someone that does not resist, does not think for herself–no matter what she does she will always be wrong and punished for it. Ferenczi says that there is no defense possible, and this trauma becomes inaccessible to the child’s memory, repeating outside the representational level (unconsciousness). So this child will be traumatized, and even emotionally paralyzed when she grows up.

José Gil, a Mozambican philosopher who lived his whole life in Portugal, tries to explain the passivity of Portuguese society in 2004 (“Portugal hoje, o medo de existir”). According to him Portuguese society has been accumulating traumas since the Salazar dictatorship, and these events are denied in the history books and everyday life, which provides a movement very similar to the adult-child relation by Ferenczi’s theories. These diffused traumas and fears produce what he calls “white psychic ” (branco psiquico): pain without representation and a content that is inaccessible by consciousness, and  that paralyzes a whole society (Gil , 2004 , pg.108) and, as Ferenczi said, against this trauma there is no possible defense.

Until 2012 these analysis were completely accepted by the intellectual elite of Portugal, and similar theories where made about Brazil. Both societies were traumatized by historical processes of several dictatorships, so their trauma can not be discussed or overcome.

Now we see those nations fighting back, going on the streets, really discussing their social problems within themselves. The world faced an economic crises that interfered a lot in all these peaceful and quiet nations, but that wasn’t the only reason for this change of behavior. As an example to the contrary, the Brazilian economy is doing very well. With the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016, the country is receiving many investments. This year’s GDP is 1,5% and growing. But a characteristic of this development is the inequality of priorities. This is an idea all Brazilians share. Now the people decided to go to the streets and shout that they don’t need stadiums and games, but rather education and hospitals. And now the child has become extremely loud and active, no more passivity. Why is that? I honestly do not know. But that is why Brazil’s intellectual elite is so confused with these events: they really thought the society was this scared, passive little child. Now we are having, what psychologists call an Identity Crisis.

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