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“The 5 Evils of Society”: A conceptual framework for understanding systemic trauma

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

I bet you’ve been feeling burnt out, overwhelmed, depressed, anxious, grief-ridden, or otherwise without resources available to you to thrive.

We’re at an inflection point in society. We are living under ever-expanding systems of oppression; we are experiencing chronic, longstanding trauma. We can keep walking down this path, controlled by the few for the few. But maybe there is healing work to do, if we can understand the influences of systemic trauma and work intentionally to rebuild a system that is focused on community, safety, ease, equity, and pleasure. In order to understand this kind of deep-rooted trauma, I want to present a conceptual framework for systemic trauma: The 5 Evils of Society.

The concept of the 5 Evils of Society–white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, puritanism–theorizes that, at this stage in United States society, all trauma and harm can be traced back to one of, or intersections of, these evils. Societal and systemic harm have their roots in these five things. All people who exist within this society and function in these systems are harmed by these five things, regardless of their personal, intersectional identities and proximity to power.

5 circle venn diagram with circles for  patriarchy, capitalism, puritanism, colonialism, and white supremacy. at the intersection of these circles read USA

This concept’s creation comes from my time in the mental health field and my personal radicalization and decolonization process, which of course is ongoing and never ending. My approach to clinical therapy has always taken a systems perspective, and I began noticing consistent themes and threads of struggle and difficulty in functioning. Simultaneously, I was learning about the true history of this country, and the true reality of where our society is now. I was guided by my clinical work and by radical theorists and activists–including Angela Davis, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Janet Helms, Judith Butler, Paulo Freire, Alok Menon, Tricia Hersey, adrienne marie brown, and Sonya Renee Taylor– to trace these threads of trauma back to the same foundations. These 5 evils of society. I recognize and acknowledge the optics of myself as a white, queer person conceptualizing and framing ideas that have been long discussed and established by thinkers and theorists with different identities and lived experiences as me, especially as most of them are Black, queer women. It is important to me to name this and, whenever possible and necessary, contribute these ideas back to those who started and continue this kind of radical work. My goal is to bring these ideas and concepts into the field of mental health and trauma specifically. A list of recommended readings from these inspirational thinkers and theorists will be at the end of this writing. I welcome ongoing feedback around this and hope to maintain humility in this process.

Let’s break down what I mean by these things. Working from a foundational definition is crucial, especially when different people, different fields of study, and different theoretical orientations use similar language to describe nuanced concepts.

Systemic trauma: Understanding trauma as a person’s emotional response to a distressing experience, and events being traumatic to the degree that they undermine a person's sense of safety in the world and creates a sense that catastrophe could strike at any time, we can see that systemic trauma zooms us out to recognize the trauma of living in and among systems that are oppressive, damaging, harmful, and discriminatory. Goldsmith, Martin, and Smith (2014) extend conceptualizations of trauma to consider:

  1. influence of environments–-schools and universities, churches and other religious institutions, the military, workplace settings, hospitals, jails, prisons;

  2. agencies and systems–police, foster care, immigration, federal assistance, disaster management, media;

  3. conflicts–war, torture, terrorism, refugees;

  4. dynamics of oppression–racism, sexism, heterosexism, cisgenderism, classism; and

  5. academia and professionalism–issues pertaining to conceptualizations, measurement, methodology, teaching, intervention.

Colonialism: In a Teen Vogue article titled "What Is Colonialism? A History of Violence, Control and Exploitation," Jamila Osman (2020) stated that “in practice, colonialism is when one country violently invades and takes control of another country, claims the land as its own, and sends people — ‘settlers’ — to live on that land.” She went on to say that settler colonialists “did not want peace and harmony between cultures; they wanted the land for themselves. They did not want to share the abundant resources; they wanted to generate wealth to fill their own pockets. Most had no respect for Indigenous cultures or histories; they wanted to enforce their own instead. These colonizers did not care that land was considered sacred and communal. Most believed that everything, including the earth, was meant to be bought and sold.” My definition of colonialism includes and also extends outward beyond land, and towards overarching ideas of claim, entitlement, domination, and scarcity of resources as the underlying harms of colonialism.

White Supremacy: Like many in my lineage of inspiration, including bell hooks and Audre Lorde, I think about white supremacy the way Frances Lee Ansley does when she says “by ‘white supremacy’ I do not mean to allude only to the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.” White supremacy perpetuates harms of hierarchy and all of the damage that comes with it.

Capitalism: The work of Tricia Hersey–also known as The Nap Bishop of The Nap Ministry–has radically transformed my understanding of the traumatic impact of capitalism specifically. Capitalism is predicated on productivity-at-all-cost, the disposability of human life, and rugged individualism. Tricia Hersey says "we've been raised from the time we were babies to this curriculum of grind culture, and this idea that our worth is connected to how much we get done.”

Patriarchy: bell hooks, in her infinite wisdom, defined patriarchy as “a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence." Patriarchy focuses on toxic constructions of strength and power and avoidance of vulnerability and weakness.

Puritanism: Starting from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition of “puritanical” which is defined as “of, relating to, or characterized by a rigid morality,” I see puritanism as the systemic belief that there is black-and-white morality, disdain for pleasure, and hyperfocus on conformity and rigidity. Puritanism is rooted in Evangelical Christianity and over time has expanded outward to also include U.S. nationalism. Puritanism perpetuates shame as a tool of obedience and maintaining the status quo of society.

In the next few weeks, I will be putting out more blog posts in this series exploring each of these 5 evils in depth and the ways that these evils, individually or collectively, lead to chronic systemic trauma. I hope you’ll join me on this journey of putting into words a concept that I use clinically and personally to expand the frameworks used in understanding systemic trauma.

©2023, Margaret (Pebble) McCleary, CoTenacious LLC, and its affiliates and assigns and licensors, All rights reserved.

Recommended Reading:

Anderson, Carol. White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. Bloomsbury, 2016.

Brown, Adrienne M. Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. AK Press, 2019.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Taylor and Francis, 2006.

Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? Seven Stories Press, 2011.

Davis, Angela Y. Freedom Is a Constant Struggle. Haymarket Books, 2016.

Friere, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The Continuum Publishing Co, 1993.

Goldsmith, R. E., Martin, C. G., & Smith, C. P. (2014). Systemic trauma. Journal of trauma & dissociation: the official journal of the International Society for the Study of Dissociation (ISSD), 15(2), 117–132.

Helms, Janet E. A Race Is a Nice Thing to Have: A Guide to Being a White Person or Understanding the White Persons in Your Life. 3rd ed., Cognella, 2019.

Hersey, Tricia. Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto. Little, Brown Spark, 2022.

hooks, bell. All about Love: New Visions. William Morrow, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 2007.

Taylor, Sonya Renee. The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2020.

If you are interested in purchasing these books, the link below will take you to the CoTenacious Bookshop on who is an online retailer that supports local bookstores with each purchase made on their site. This is an affiliate link and The CoTenacious Collective will also earn a commission.

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Absolutely here for this!!!!

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