I have been trying to define cultural trauma ever since I came up with the term. I usually say something like “Cultural trauma is the shame we feel when we are not living up to cultural norms and expectations. It occurs when we believe that we are unworthy of love and belonging because we don’t follow the rules.” Cultural trauma are the wounds that occur through the cultural pressure to conform. And cultural trauma is needed to sustain the current culture.
It might be useful, though, to explore this further with some examples, especially the relationship between complex and cultural trauma. Complex trauma is “a type of trauma that occurs repeatedly and cumulatively, usually over a period of time and within specific relationships and contexts.”
For example, spanking a child during her childhood inflicts complex trauma on her. Spanking would only be complex trauma if there were no tie-in to the larger culture if, say, the parent lives in a culture where parents don’t spank their children – except for this particular parent. That is, of course, not the case in our culture. Spanking occurs within the context of a cultural norm: People should obey those in authority. Children are spanked to teach them obedience (a form of discipline, which easily backfires and does not contribute to children’s moral development). This is, however, not the only way obedience to authority is taught. Other ways include the expression of disapproval (maybe through disgust), punishment (including time-outs), excluding people who appear to be disobedient.
Cultural trauma, then, consists of the wounds that are inflicted on us by the norm “People should obey those in authority.” This trauma is probably very deep seated as we might experience discomfort even when we do not directly disobey but instead simply do what we think is expected of us. Thus, we might chose to become a doctor because our parents expect us to, even though we end up miserable because we really wanted to be a painter. Alternatively, we might become a painter, going against our parents’ expectation, and are driven to constantly prove ourselves because we no longer feel worthy of our parents’ love.
In the case of spanking, there are two types of trauma to heal: The complex trauma of the physical abuse itself and the cultural trauma of the impediment to happiness.
Now, these two traumas don’t seem to be on the same scale. The long-term effects of child abuse seem to outweigh anything that can get in the way of our happiness. I would suspect, though, that the two are linked: At least some of the long-term effects are really due to cultural trauma because we might not feel comfortable expression our pain since we learned not to question cultural norms.