Last night I went to see the filmed version of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of Macbeth. It was not the best nor the worst production that I have seen of this great drama. When the play finished it was not the staging nor the acting that I remembered but the introductory remark of Niamh Cusack, the actress who played Lady Macbeth. During the course of her introduction to the play, she described Lady Macbeth as not so much evil, but ‘damaged’. As an aside Cusack added that in fact evil people tended to be also damaged. This portrayal of the fiercely proactive Lady Macbeth as a damaged victim has little to with how Shakespeare thought about his character, but it certainly resonates with the way that western elite culture thinks about people.
The use of the term damaged to describe a person also constitutes a statement about the human condition
Especially, in the Anglo-American world, the language of morality has become medicalised. Consequently moral judgment has given way to a medical diagnosis. Cusack’s diagnosis of Lady Macbeth as damaged, expresses a growing tendency to perceive bad behaviour, even acts of evil as a symptom of a psychological problem. Cusack’s characterisation of Lady Macbeth as damaged is also significant in another respect. The use of the term damaged to describe a person also constitutes a statement about the human condition. The frequency with which references are made to people who are damaged indicates that society expects troubled individuals to be afflicted with a mental health problem.
The promiscuous usage of the term ‘damaged’ to describe the human condition was brought home to me back in April 2005, while watching the American television show, West Wing. In a famous episode in the 6th season of this series, we encounter presidential candidate Matt Santos addressing the Democratic Party Convention with a powerful and stirring speech. But the Convention really comes alive when Santos told his audience that ‘we are all damaged people’. Upon hearing these words, the audience went wild and responded to this statement with a standing ovation. Evidently, being told that ‘we are all damaged people’ had a therapeutic effect on an audience that believes that imperfection, powerlessness and the sense of victimisation is what binds us together.
Welcome to a world where the damaged victim is celebrated as the apotheosis of human virtues
To be damaged is the new normal. It has also become an identity, that the relatively prosperous middle-class people sitting in the West Wing’s imaginary convention hall embraced with great enthusiasm. Welcome to a world where the damaged victim is celebrated as the apotheosis of human virtues.
There was a time when the term damaged was used with care. Now and again people were described as damaged but it was always in reference to a physical trauma of illness that they suffered. For example, a British Government report investigating the need for National Health Insurance, published in 1914 referred to ‘damaged people’. These people were described as epileptics, suffering from congenital paralysis, syphilis, rheumatism and heart disease. These examples pointed to the physical damage experienced by an individual and not to an unspecified, all-encompassing human condition.
Occasionally the reference to human damage was conveyed as a symptom of moral failure. People’s reputation could be damaged by a moral failing. Young women who ‘lost’ their virginity were sometimes labelled as ‘damaged goods’. But these allusions to supposed moral failures referred to what were seen as rare instances of moral transgression. The dramatic widening of the usage of the term damage is integral to a new cultural narrative that assigns to people the role of victims to forces beyond their control.
The devaluation of humanity
Since the 1970s, but especially since the turn of the 21st century, western societies have adopted an intensely pessimistic account of the human condition. One of the principal ideas of the Renaissance was that people did not need to defer to their Fate. Optimism in the power of the human imagination, which flourished in the centuries to follow, has given way to a more pessimistic tendency to emphasise human vulnerability and powerlessness. This shift in the way that western culture portrays the human condition is clearly expressed in its tendency to perceive people as victims; or as the objects rather than the authors of their destiny.
The meaning of harm has been expanded to the point that offensive words directed at a person are often presented as possessing the property of causing life-long damage
The current, radically inflated view of human vulnerability is underpinned by the premise that claims that the threats facing society are far more harmful than previously thought. The meaning of harm has been expanded to the point that offensive words directed at a person are often presented as possessing the property of causing life-long damage. Increasingly the problems associated with everyday existence come with a health warning. The experience of distress and disappointment has become thoroughly medicalised.
The statement ‘we are all damaged’ leaves little to chance. It implicates every human being. With the rise of the therapeutic imagination this fetishistic formulation is routinely applied to anyone who has experienced emotional pain, failure or misfortune. Social workers talk about their damaged clients. Refugees are advised that time is no healer and that they must accept that they are damaged for life. Youngsters who have suffered acts of misfortune are frequently represented as damaged children.
Since the early eighties the term damaged has become a marker of childhood. Predictably the diagnosis that painful experiences are damaging to the psyche of the individuals has also become applied to groups and communities. Consequently groups of people are said to belong to so-called damaged communities. The claim to be damaged serves as a marker of one’s individual or group identity. The willingness with which this identity is embraced and politicised is demonstrated in disputes that rage throughout public life. The embrace of the identity of being damaged is most strikingly expressed through the ascendancy of the culture of victimhood.
The portrayal of psychological damage as a long-term affliction flows from a lack of belief in the capacity of people to cope with the experience of misfortune
The transformation of distress into a condition of permanent emotional injury has as its premise the belief that people are likely to be damaged by unpleasant encounters and the setbacks thrown up by everyday life. Trauma has become an all-purpose term to describe the individual’s state of mind in the aftermath of an adverse experience. The portrayal of psychological damage as a long-term affliction flows from a lack of belief in the capacity of people to cope with the experience of misfortune.
In the current era, distress in not something to be lived but a condition that requires treatment. The rendering of people’s normal inner pain into a mental disorder alters the relationship between the individual and the experience of misfortune. Children and young people are socialised to adopt a version of personhood that teaches them to believe that the individual lacks the power to deal with the trials of life.
Terms like ‘scarred for life’ used to describe the experience of trauma, ominously convey the implication of a life sentence
The concept psychological damage is informed by a cultural sensibility that regards emotional problems as far more debilitating than hitherto recognised. There is a widely held assumption that once damaged, an injury to the emotion can never be put quite right. Unlike physical acts, which have a beginning and an end and are specific in nature, the realm of the emotions knows no boundaries. Since these are invisible injuries, there is considerable scope for the exercise of the cultural imagination. Terms like ‘scarred for life’ used to describe the experience of trauma, ominously convey the implication of a life sentence. This sentiment continually informs interpretations of the problem of childhood.
Contemporary depictions of childhood send out a powerful message that psychological damage will continue to haunt adulthood. This alarmist account of childhood trauma is not confined to popular culture. Professionals continually bombard parents with warnings about the manifold risks facing the emotional development of their children. Infant mental health has become a respectable professional specialism in the US and the ethos of ‘early intervention’ has gained influence on both sides of the Atlantic. The promotion of early intervention is guided by research that suggests ‘that the most effective time – sometimes the only time – to take action is during babyhood’. It is claimed that after the first two years of a child’s life it may be too late too prevent children from suffering psychological damage.
US neurologist Steven Strauss asserts that phonics turns off children from reading and leads children to become ‘emotionally damaged’ and to ‘all sorts of emotional and psychological distress’
Fears about subjecting pupil to ‘impossible pressure’ by schools and ambitious parents are habitually articulated in a moralistic tone. One exemplar of this trend is the histrionic language that surrounds the controversy over reading pedagogy. The debate surrounding the pros and cons of teaching children to read by using the phonics method is often conducted through a crusading spirit that resembles a contemporary version of a medieval religious war. Both sides accuse one another of using teaching methods that create grave health problems for children. Writing of ‘phonics toxicity and other side effects’, US neurologist Steven Strauss asserts that phonics turns off children from reading and leads children to become ‘emotionally damaged’ and to ‘all sorts of emotional and psychological distress’.
At first sight the sight of a child struggling with her reading book seems a long way from the emotional upheavals experienced by Lady Macbeth regarding her complicity in the brutal murder of her King. But in a world where our culture treats all of us as damaged people, it is easy to lose sight of distinctions, which are morally significant and those which are not.
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