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Who’s Afraid of Vulnerability?

Reframing vulnerability as a strength is what makes transformation possible.
By Jason von Meding and Heidi Harmon / opendemocracy.net
Jun 8, 2020
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Who’s Afraid of Vulnerability?
President Jair Bolsonaro and President Donald Trump in the White House, March 19 2019. | Flickr/Palacio do Planalto. CC BY 2.0.

On April 28 2020, US Vice-President Mike Pence refused to wear a mask during a visit to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. From a position of great power, he rejected both public health advice and the institution’s specific policies. Widespread criticism ensued, but among the Trump Administration’s supporters his action was celebrated as a show of strength.

Pence is not the only public figure determined to appear invulnerable to COVID-19. Not wearing a mask has become a perverse sort of virtue-signalling for some, and around the world political leaders have been willing to put themselves and others at risk in their scramble to appear more macho. Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro and Vladimir Putin are ‘strongmen’ with no need for the masks that we have been desperately trying to obtain or fashion for ourselves.

Patriarchy creates a world full of men who reject vulnerability outright. From the outset, boys are shamed for showing any sadness, fear or compassion. All feelings except for anger are to be rejected, but fear is particularly suspect to the patriarchal mind. Fear is for girls.

Under patriarchy men earn their worth by rejecting fear. They learn to suppress their feelings and bolt on an armour of invulnerability. Avoiding shame becomes a driving force, but is vulnerability really such a weakness?

The word ‘vulnerability’ derives from the Latin vulnerare (‘to be wounded’). It describes the potential of someone or something to be harmed, and is intriguing because it’s applied in so many different ways – and even with opposing implications.

Vulnerability is often framed as weakness. For example, scholarship on disasters commonly uses the concept to indicate susceptibility to harm from exposure to stresses associated with environmental and social change and from the absence of capacity to adapt.” In this narrative, vulnerability is “to” an external threat such as an environmental hazard. It also encompasses the idea of a “lack” of entitlements, as in “vulnerability to” poverty.

This framing plays a part in normalizing the idea that disasters are inevitable - “natural” even - but it is reductively negative in that it makes assumptions about the character of the subject and deems the condition of vulnerability as something inherently bad.

The opposite frame emerges from critical feminist social theory, where vulnerability is strength. In this narrative the concept conveys courage and authenticity. We choose to take risks for the rewards they offer in terms of connection, so vulnerability is purposeful. “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness” as Brené Brown puts it.

These two frames are profoundly different. Both imply a subject open to wounding, but vulnerability as weakness has no hope of a positive outcome. By contrast, vulnerability for a purpose is life-affirming. In a pandemic like COVID-19, for example, people overwhelmingly act in solidarity and embrace the fact that we are all vulnerable together. There is power in the reality of belonging to something greater than one’s self.

Could this embrace of interconnectedness be a key to survival in a world where our old narratives and behaviors are failing us? Is it possible that having the courage to express our inherent vulnerability will actually enrich and strengthen society?

If only there was an easy fix, but to complicate matters, some narratives of vulnerability as weakness are rooted in the hope of ameliorating injustice and oppression; after all, the potential to be harmed is an everyday experience for many groups and individuals.

This kind of vulnerability is unwanted and unhealthy. Sociologist Lori Peek discusses the “vulnerability bearers,” and argues that such conditions are imposed through power and inequality. Alongside the recognition that this is unacceptable, we must also acknowledge that oppressed people possess reserves of strength and capacity which they use to resist.

Greg Bankoff, a historian from the University of Hull in England, warns against reducing the “vulnerable” to “a homogenised, culturally undifferentiated mass of humanity variously associated with powerlessness, passivity, ignorance, hunger, illiteracy, neediness, oppression and inertia.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are the kind of characteristics that are advanced in most narratives of vulnerability, and this serves to ‘other’ people who aren’t like us. This is the narrative of vulnerability that men fear, so they attempt to deny it “through a fantasy of mastery” over it, according to philosopher Judith Butler.

But more emancipatory narratives say that, in the right conditions, having the hope and trust to place oneself in a position of potential harm can be revolutionary. Vulnerability by choice and with agency gets to the real power of connection to each other and all life on earth.

Vulnerability is a relationship builder. It’s the person living alone in the middle of a pandemic who shares on Facebook that they need a plate of food, and the community who raises up to meet that request. In the process of this exchange we all are invited to make our needs known. And the vulnerability that’s needed for this conversation to happen creates something else: strength.

In the existing economic system, I use money to compel you to give me what I want. We don’t need to communicate or exchange trust since this is purely a transaction. But in this transactional reality we become weaker as a group and ultimately more likely to be harmed by larger forces beyond our control. Ironically, our attempts to be invulnerable expose us to greater harm. The capitalist patriarchy is all consuming.

We know there’s a better way. When I share the produce from my garden with your family, or my expertise to fix your car, or engage in any act of kindness, I invest in your life. I demonstrate care for your wellbeing, and sow hope into your future. The evidence shows that once I do this, I am actually more likely to do so again.

Maybe this is the “Ben Franklin Effect” in action: our kindness to others (even those we don’t like) makes us grow more fond of them. In the absence of a rational or moral explanation for our behaviour, our brains find a way to explain it. But what if being generous puts us in touch with our true nature as human beings, instead of being defined by competition, power grabs and systems of oppression and control?

Trust and vulnerability are intertwined. In order to learn to trust each other, individuals must allow themselves to be vulnerable. Even the simple act of believing that someone will do what they say they will do requires us to be open to the possibility that we may be let down.

By contrast, and especially in a pandemic like today, we are told that this is no time to be vulnerable. Instead we must be self-reliant, self-sufficient and independent - but at what cost to connection and mutual support? Are we willing to lose these things that bring such immense value to our lives?

In fact, by choosing to be vulnerable we position ourselves as agents of transformation. We freely give of ourselves to the collective, understanding the risks involved. Our willingness to be interdependent becomes an act of resistance. COVID-19 is showing us just how connected we are: when one of us is vulnerable, so are we all.

There is no better time to do this than in the midst of a pandemic, where any claim to invulnerability is a facade. Time and again in disasters, people embrace their true nature and become more open to receiving help and giving it to others. Despite what generations of people have been told about suppressing their emotions, caring - as an act of vulnerability - is strong, not weak.

This pandemic is an opportunity for all of us - especially men - to sit with our deepest emotions, recognize fear, process sadness and speak our insecurities. Through temporary discomfort we can find a path to heal ourselves, our communities and the Earth.

Human beings are deeply social creatures, and our history speaks to the importance of our interdependence. Who is vulnerable? We all are, in different ways. Even Mike Pence. Our past, present and futures are intertwined.

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