Violence Literacy

by Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D.
Philosophy Department
Adelphi University
Garden City, New York 11530
516-877-4585
Fax 516-877-4579
hamblet@adelphi.edu

 

Most people in the Western world, whatever their national identity, believe their homeland to compose a “culture of peace” rather than a “culture of violence.” If asked to locate a culture of violence, they would undoubtedly point across the ocean to lands very foreign to their own—if not to “an axis of evil” then at least to the “less civilized” peoples of Africa , the Middle East or some South Sea island.

However, violence inhabits and informs all cultural worlds, regardless of their structural shape. Violence is central to the moral order per se. It is the catalyst that orders moral norms and orients social perceptions of normalcy. The state is the machinery of order, and simultaneously  the agency through which violence is perpetuated. It is inherent in the nature of the “ordered system” that rankings and orderings must take place—elevations of some and subordinations of others, inequities in political powers, social status and access to resources.

This is as true of Western “enlightened” states as it is of simple tribes. In its more subtle forms in the West, the violences are redefined through bureaucratic procedure to produce confirmations of state legitimacy by normalizing trauma as “business as usual”—airport friskings, overzealous and racially targeted police interrogations, email and library surveillances, “Homeland Security” interventions. Social and political rituals and the seductive rhetoric of patriotism and national pride ensnare even those most oppressed by the system to submit passively to, or even actively endorse, their own repression. Now, with the “New War on Terrorism,” life in the richest of nations is lived in an everyday ecology of fear, a continual state of emergency. If we doubt that fear configures us for passive acceptance of state violence, we need only look to the philosopher of fear, Thomas Hobbes, whose ideal state is the “Leviathan,” the strong beast that rightfully intervenes to manage the war of all against all among its citizenry.

If we are to understand and appreciate the diverse ways in which violence inhabits and prefigures social worlds, the ways that violence configures in advance our very modes of being-in-the-world, how local moral worlds and the social actors within them are distorted by forces (national and global) that often originate outside those local worlds, our fundamental assumptions about identity formation, cultural representations of violence and definitions of collective suffering need to be readdressed. We need to develop a new “violence literacy” if we are to comprehend and respond effectively to the breadth of violent forms that saturates the globe. Our very definitions of normalcy and pathology need to be entirely overturned. Is normalcy the site of the uneventful or is it the site of the business-as-usual violence that terrorizes daily? And what of the big-business-as-usual violences by which Western nations maintain their overblown “ecological footprint” (40 times our fair share of the world’s resources)?

We have been accustomed to thinking violence as primarily damage to bodies, “the infliction of pain upon sentient beings.” Traditional treatments of violence have focused upon contractual violences, distinctions between just and unjust wars, and coercive top-down impingements upon subjects by political and social actors in positions of superior power. Such definitions the denial of the subtler types of violence that fail to bruise and disfigure bodies, the many forms of violence not easily calibrated in the corpse counts of distant wars.

One assumption that needs to be overturned if the broad spectrum of violence is to be appreciated is the neat distinction between “cultures of violence” and “cultures of peace” by which Western nations congratulate themselves with superior evolution toward the desired ends of “civilization.” The fact is that, even in the most peaceful societies, far from the bloody fronts of global battles over dwindling resources, those societies are materially and morally entangled in the global ambitions of Western big business. Common people living serenely in middle class neighborhoods, whether they recognize it or not, are caught up in multiple and simultaneous fields of relational power that compromise their moral characters and undermine and reconstruct the local logics of identity.

To understand how violence occurs across the human world, binding the peaceful to the abject in morally problematic ways, it is necessary to rethink the processes through which violence is actualized, that is, how violence exists as a kind of commodity that is both produced and consumed by social actors. Violence becomes an ineluctable commodity in societies that have suffered radically. Everyday life is transformed by collective experiences of suffering; this is something we all accept as self-evident. Children of brutalizing parents are likely to grow into abusive parents and spouses. Whole cultures that have suffered radical violence tend to emerge from those histories with a vision of the world as threatening, a view that predisposes them toward overly serious responses to the human condition. However, we are equally convinced that the field of violence’s effects remains consigned within the community of victims. But violence disfigures subjectivity on both sides of its event, reconstructing the subjectivity of perpetrators and witnesses as much as it does the victims. This is because, in the immortal words of Martin Luther King:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny, and whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

 

So when violence strikes one area of the globe, whether it be in the form of an ethnic riot, a civil war, or the swift and furious madness of a “Shock and Awe” superpower invasion of a helpless Third World country, when the corpses have been tallied and the rubble has been cleared, we may feel content that the violence is over until the next bloody crisis.

Rarely is the violence ended, however, with the burying of a people’s dead. A short glance across the historical terrain of the last century reveals violence as a commodity that is not ingested without remainder; rather, it spawns endless mutations. Old forms of violence generate new products and consumers of those products become new peddlers of its recreations. Subjective spaces of identity are transformed, social scripts rewritten, and social action is redressed in the light of violences suffered. The very ways in which self and world are framed within the lifeworlds of the suffering witness that violence and subjectivity become mutually entwined. There ensues in victim populations an abrupt removal of established contexts for making sense of chaotic events, a sudden interruption and recasting of everyday rituals of social intercourse that blurs boundaries delineating violence, conflict and peaceful resolution.

In fact, the ability to survive in zones where radical violence has been the norm often has to do with a people’s successful development of the capacity to dissimulate, deceive and defraud. During the centuries of slave trade in the hinterlands of the Ivory Coast , for example, native African populations often protected their own freedom by working for the slavers. Supplied with guns, they assumed the morally ambivalent role of hunting down strong bodies in their own and in their neighboring tribes. Those who escaped the hunters did so by learning to hide and lie. Some tribes in fact built whole underground villages unknown even to their closest neighbors. Social rituals of neighborly care, like asking after the health of others and greeting passersby, drew the response of suspicion, deception and fabrication. Long after the slave trade ended, white Europeans could justify the moral lapse of the past centuries by citing African dishonesty as proof of their subhuman status.

Africans traditionally were a peaceful and naturally democratic people, highly socially evolved and cultivated in the art of generosity. However, it is difficult for people under the effects of violent histories to maintain their moral orders or to fulfill their life projects in the more wholesome manners that traditions generally dictate. Violence creates, sustains and transforms patterns of social interactions, restructuring the inner world of lived realities as well as the outer world of contested meanings.

Violence erodes the connectedness that binds people across generations and across cultural boundaries—corroding the trust that binds the social worlds of friends, family and neighbors. Even learned reactions to social stimuli have to be unlearned after violent histories. Repertoires of sensory memories have to be reprogrammed from their grounding (brutalizing) experiences. In South Africa during apartheid, for example, black Africans had trained themselves not to respond to the cries of torture victims in their housing projects—for fear they would themselves be targeted as “traitors” or “sympathizers.” This forced dismissal of their neighbor’s woes had to be unlearned in the post-apartheid period.

Yet, we cannot hope to address the paradoxes of the mutuality of violence and violent subjectivity, unless we must recognize the performative contradiction of our current “violence literacy.” We must see that, in deploying terms like “cultures of violence” or “violence-prone areas,” we are attributing to others a form of dangerous subjectivity that permits us to dismiss their sufferings as (at least to some degree) deserved, as (at least to some degree) of their own making. Representations of people and places as “inherently violent” distort our sense of responsibility toward the suffering. Circulation of such images in the global media alters the perception of social suffering in peaceful and affluent homes, comfortably disconnecting our secure worlds from the abject worlds of others. This permits us in the West to purify our own implication in the violences by naming ourselves as other to the victims—“cultures of peace” to their “cultures of violence.” Such assumptions underlie the gross charge bandied about in the modern era that some nations compose an “axis of evil.” In fact, the politics of international agencies and unfair trade practices that favor the already economically favored trigger the disintegration of foreign social worlds in the resource-rich Third World, creating pockets of misery and poverty that become in time the hotbeds of religious fanaticism that breed violent terrorisms.

To break the convenient dichotomy that purifies Western self-images by demonizing others as “cultures of violence,” it is necessary that we in the West become literate about our own violences in the world. Our lands have been built through the expansion of empire, and there is no violence in the world that approaches the levels of imperialistic slaughter.

My own methods for teaching peace, as a violence scholar, are to upset self-congratulatory assumptions about Western “civilizational”—that is, moral—superiority. In documentary film and in alternative news readings from foreign sources, in realistic expositions of histories, I reveal the troubling chronicles of past atrocities that have culminated in First World abundances—slavery, rape of the indigenous, imperialisms, exclusionary immigration policies. My strategy is to demonstrate that Western affluence is intimately connected to the poverty of the Third World , our prosperity financed by the growing misery and piling corpses in distant lands. I expose my students to the history of Western big business and its secret dealings with the CIA and the US military, with Nazis and Mafia, drug lords and bloody dictators. Supplying them with discomfiting foods for thought, I let them discover for themselves how distant violences have purchased their peace.

I seek, with Dostoevsky, to convince my students that “we are all guilty of everything and I more than all the rest.” We are all guilty, even as we are almost all victims. We are, most of us here, relegated to the lower echelons of capitalist heaven, victims of an oppressive global economic order. Yet, we are all better off than the vast masses of abject and starving humanity—and thus implicated morally—because, through the “trickle-down effect” of big business profits, we all share the ill-gotten gains of our affluent nations, built on the blood of native peoples, the toil of sweatshop workers, and the strip-mining of Third World countries. Socrates said: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Philosophy, ethics, and the move toward true peace, I believe, begin by crippling Western arrogances about our moral superiority.

 

Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D.
Philosophy Department
Adelphi University
Garden City, New York 11530
516-877-4585
Fax 516-877-4579
hamblet@adelphi.edu