Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s capacity to change with experience—plastic meaning mutable. If we play the piano once, we briefly stimulate the piano-playing centers of the brain, and not much changes. Play every day for a year, however, and the brain transforms in several ways. It can grow new cells. It can enhance cell size or cell activity. It can prune away pathways that are no longer used, a process known as neural sculpting. And it can forge new relations between entire networks of cells; this is called connectivity. These cellular changes occur in service to getting better at what we practice—in this case, playing the piano. We practice other things, too, some of them not so harmless.
Neuroplasticity is also a social construct. It evokes the way communities shape themselves through practice. We change or stay the same because of and in relation to one another. Think of the unspoken agreements in your family that determine who holds power, how you regulate intimacy, whether or not you acknowledge important truths, the way you negotiate boundaries. Large social groups have similar unspoken contracts. To understand the dynamics of social violence writ large, we must examine the infinite agreements that shape it, the defensive structures that support it, and the roles each of us plays in its longevity.
Violence against the body politic is similar to sexual violence and other forms of violence against vulnerable bodies. There are several levels of social aggression: There are the primary perpetrators, who commit the assault. There are the secondary perpetrators, who know about it but are in denial (or delusion) and pretend they don’t know. And then there are the tertiary perpetrators, those who enable and reinforce and praise the behavior of the primary and/or secondary perpetrators. All unite to protect and reinforce racial, sexual, and other forms of violence and abuse of power.
The damage caused by the primary perpetrator is horrific and life-changing and epigenetic. Yet the poison of the betrayal that occurs at the hands of the secondary and tertiary perpetrators who knew about the violence and whose job it was to protect the body politic (read: vulnerable bodies) and who continued to enable and encourage the violence can be even more toxic and damaging and long-lasting.
The white nationalists and violent seditionists that invaded the capitol, assaulted the body politic, and threatened the lives of those who opposed them are the primary perpetrators. The politicians that helped incite the violence, the ones who voted to overturn certification of the election results, the businesses that donated to their campaigns, the military and police professionals who aided and participated in the violence, the “wellness experts” who preached conspiracy and delusion, the influencers who courted it, and so many others are the secondary and tertiary perpetrators.
And then there’s white people and those with compounded forms of privilege, like me.
We are watching a crescendo of generations of white violence, white denial, white apathy, white enabling, and the simultaneous maintenance of “white innocence.” These are all forms of social neuroplasticity. They reinforce white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. We can’t say that we didn’t know, that it “wasn’t us.” We can’t say that we have not benefited. And we can’t continue to stand by and avoid conscious action.
My schooling as a psychologist did not prepare me for the insight that psychological defenses aren’t just individual; they’re collective. Groups of people engage in them together. In their social aspect, defenses protect us from seeing the way we orient ourselves and behave in collectives.
They keep us from witnessing in ourselves and our social groups the behaviors, attitudes, and impulses that seem so problematic in other groups. They absolve us from seeing how we lack power in some contexts but exploit it in others.
I know it’s hard for survivors of sexual and gender violence (like me) to consider that just as we’ve been targets of oppression in one instance, we’ve been enablers of it in another. Whiteness is a failure to witness. It is a state of disembodiment, of being profoundly out of touch with our bodies and epistemic knowledge and with our larger social body. Embodiment is an antidote. It calls for the undoing of our defensive systems— the ways in which we don’t see and the ways in which we contribute to systems of oppression.
The good news: social neuroplasticity can change and grow its own momentum. It does so when we change what we practice. Those of us who are white or have multiple nodes of privilege have a ton of collective work to do. Painful? Yes. But this is a fecund and regenerative pain, one that presages the reclamation of our collective humanity.