Friday, September 30, 2011

On Violence

“vi•o•lence [vahy-uh-luh ns]
1. swift and intense force: the violence of a storm.
2. rough or injurious physical force, action, or treatment: to die by violence.
3. an unjust or unwarranted exertion of force or power, as against rights or laws: to take over a government by violence.
4. a violent act or proceeding.
5. rough or immoderate vehemence, as of feeling or language: the violence of his hatred.”

“Only those at the top of the hierarchy can afford to pay, and therefore attract and retain, the services of the state’s best story-tellers, chroniclers, historians, priests, etc. The risks that the texts these writers produce one day confine future rulers to a particular interpretation and therefore inhibit their freedom to rule as desired, are minimised by both dominating their interpretation (i.e. with a priestly class), and writing texts as open-ended and conflicted as possible (i.e. The Bible). The written word is thus both the source of state permanence and the justification thereof, as well as of diplomatic, lawyerly and political double-speak the modern world knows so well, and has become so jaded by.”

The above is a quote from my book, the dictionary definition I pasted from I’m not quoting my work here to advertise my wares, but because it introduces something Debbie has been bringing to my attention recently, both in comments and in email exchange: violence is as natural as sunshine. I’ve been pondering this for a while, and wanted to invite comment and critique, or any sort of observation on the nature of violence, because I see this topic, and its association with force and the threat of force, as a fundamentally important area for those of us seeking to define what might happen after capitalism, what direction we ought to try to follow.

Thus far my musings have generated the following rough thoughts.

Hobbes, whose thinking still dominates today even among those who believe they no longer think that way, saw a progression away from ‘uncivilized’ violence characteristic of anarchy towards a state monopoly on force, so as to minimize violence and increase harmony. Is there an animal more violent than we humans, the sole creators of the state? If not, why not, and what does that mean? A solitary predator like the tiger is not violent beyond some dynamically balanced relationship with its environment. They defend their territory and nothing more. Indeed, well fed in a domain that can keep them that way one could hardly call them violent; more ‘necessarily aggressive.’ I imagine such is true of all other solitary predators. Social predators such as wolves (no Hobbesian war of each against all there, and no state either) are also not violent beyond the immediate survival needs of the pack. Wolves are hierarchical, but also quite communistic it seems. They have ‘developed’ a crude consensus-maintaining system which is far more intricate than was once assumed in the alpha-leader-and-the-rest model. The details of this are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that violence, be it of storms, tigers or wolves, never attains the level of something like torture. Are humans different? Yes, but so is everything else. In everything we do, we are as natural as the weather. Is violence in the human realm Evil?

Should we seek to transcend violence, end war, crime, suffering? No, that’s utopian. Hobbes was a loyal servant of the state because it minimized (in his eyes) the natural urge to violence in every human breast, not because it eradicated it. He was no dewy eyed idealist. That accusation is more accurately leveled at me and those who see more cooperation, harmony and ‘justice’ emerging more or less spontaneously by transcending the state form, demoting money to as minimal a role as possible, and revolutionizing just about everything else. Such a direction can only be trod by a people willing, ready and able to do so. But how might a people, across the planet no less, agree to such a radical change? Won’t that take violence? And don’t the means become the ends?

Violence could well be embedded inextricably in our ability to assert an opinion, to come to a conclusion, to interpret. Because everything is unique there must be as many opinions and interpretations as there are people. For there to be consensus some violence must be done, some must lose, sovereignty must be yielded. If we are to have agreement, some are going to be unhappy. Society thus requires violence in an ongoing way, whether hierarchical or anarchic, whether implicit or explicit. On top of this, even non-violent rebellion must be violent, even if its members are all pacifists, because the object of the rebellion—most likely a state—can only react violently. Even ‘peaceful’ refusal to cooperate at all invites violence, since one is thereby rejecting existing consensus. One is a party-pooper of the worst possible kind; rejecting the right to party in the first place. I am unaware of any minority becoming the majority consensus without this involving violence. And to embark on that path requires almost fanatical passion, for choosing to be an outsider, one calling for fundamental change, is a lifelong commitment likely consigning one to the wilderness, to the fringe. To be able to bear that kind of isolation one must be insensitive to others, and hence, in a way, sociopathic. (By this I do not mean uttely without compassion, but that an element of this deep insensitivity must be there.)

Today society worldwide is more complex and interconnected than it has ever been. Much energy of many kinds has been invested in its construction. The amount of energy it will take to change course is enormous. This enormous amount of energy must be applied against the wishes of the majority. How can this not be violent? Or, for the majority to want something different, violent collapse, which releases coherent energy into wilder forms, must first happen. Violence again.

Because of the mess and 'uncontrollability' of life generally, violence pops up everywhere. The amount of control necessary to turn every single citizen into a ‘non-violent’ person, the amount of repression, the totality of ownership of interpretation of all existing and future data would itself be violence, and doomed to fail too. Control is an illusion generated by our sense of being separate from nature. In truth we only react, we never act. There are no uncaused causes, hence violence has to happen, in that the unwanted has to happen, and sometimes with great force. We can’t always be ‘right,’ and others will always have different perceptions, pleasures and opinions.

Leaving violence behind is as impossible as leaving opinion and perception behind. The paradox of this is wrapped up in empathy—the opposite of psychopathy—which enables us to feel what others feel, even those alien to us. Just as we are passionate passengers of our lives, so our lives become aligned and entangled with those of others and Universe generally. How could it be otherwise? We are not separate, we are of All. For me it is therefore the fact of empathy, evident too in monkeys, elephants and other animals, that suggests to me a different and, yes, ‘better’ system—one in which our potential to enjoy our lives richly, as our inter-being and co-evolution ‘create’ our entangled trajectories, and allow them the ‘freedom’ to blossom fully, including error, suffering and tragedy—is possible.

There will be violence and crime always, but perhaps our relationships to these inevitabilities will simply be maturer and less hysterical. I think that’s well worth fighting for.


Anonymous said...

I haven't a clue what you're talking about here. This post reads like a perfect expression of mindless, status-quo thinking.

> Should we seek to transcend violence, end war, crime, suffering? No, that’s utopian.

You can only speak for yourself. I have no need for any of these things and I will always make choices to eliminate them from the world. 'Utopian' is a nonsensical word used by people who don't want to fully engage with the world. Those who change the world do so through diligent work and don't concern themselves with other people's opinion of what is or is not possible.

> But how might a people, across the planet no less, agree to such a radical change? Won’t that take violence?

No violence is necessary. Transformation requires exposure to alternative ways of being. It takes teaching and learning.

> For there to be consensus some violence must be done, some must lose, sovereignty must be yielded.

Consensus is reached through shared experience. It should be a state of wholeness - nothing is lost. A change of being does not mean the prior state is lost, rather it means it had reached completion and becomes a lesson learned.

> Control is an illusion generated by our sense of being separate from nature.

Control is merging with nature, to be aware of and responsive to the environment. We can say a skilled surfer is 'in control' when he catches the wave and moves with it - when his balance on his board is not upset by the motion of the water. The surfer is not controlling the wave - he is controlling himself in relation to it. Of course, waves *can* be controlled as well (e.g. wave generators in a water park).

> Leaving violence behind is as impossible as leaving opinion and perception behind.

Any serious student of spirituality and/or science works towards leaving violence and opinion behind. Your final statement is the cherry on an ego-filled sundae.

> I think that’s well worth fighting for.

You use the language of violence to express your desire for transformation.
Looser. He he.

Toby said...

Karl, that's too harsh. This is not status quo thinking. And it's certainly not mindless.

"No violence is necessary. Transformation requires exposure to alternative ways of being. It takes teaching and learning."

Until now that has been true on not one occasion. Deep change has always been accompanied by violence. Even on the personal level leaving behind habit or other 'cherished' thought-forms or love-objects is an intense, even violent experience. Otherwise we'd all be great spiritual leaders, right?

"Consensus is reached through shared experience. It should be a state of wholeness - nothing is lost. A change of being does not mean the prior state is lost, rather it means it had reached completion and becomes a lesson learned."

Maintaining consensus at large population scales has, until now, required a state monopoly on force and been achieved with violence. And consensus is always fractious. I don't know about you, since I can only speak for myself, but the attitude of the majority seems to be that anarchism or direct democracy is a nice idea (for teenagers and idealists) but it will never work. How are you going to convince anyone otherwise?

"Control is merging with nature, to be aware of and responsive to the environment."

Then that's not control, it's merging, partnership, submission even etc. Whichever way we cut this, control is an illusion.

"Any serious student of spirituality and/or science works towards leaving violence and opinion behind. Your final statement is the cherry on an ego-filled sundae."

Like Jacque Fresco? All human history up to now has been violence filled, no matter how much I might agree with serious students of spirituality. We have not once, as a species, come close to transcending violence. If the logic of doing so is so clear, why are we failing so badly? That is the question I am asking here. And isn't that an opinion you just voiced? Or can you prove beyond doubt that your assertion is correct to all people at all times? As for science leaving opinion behind, I don't think so.

It comes down to this: How do we 'individually' learn together to transcend violence in large groups? (In fact even in small groups there has always been violence, without exception.) What else is attached to violence, such as passion, that we ought not to lose? And what are the practical consequences of passive or pacifist resistance? Even non-violence seems always to end in violence. You cannot go up against the status quo, even peacefully, and not know you are inciting them to violence. They will defend their power at almost all costs. People will die and suffer as a direct consequence of 'provoking' the status quo to battle.

"I haven't a clue what you're talking about here."

Apparently not. And for someone who seems to think transcending violence is a snap, you sure are confrontational. As for my closing sentence, that was meant as a poke at myself. Really, Karl, I thought you knew my work a little better.

Anonymous said...

My comment was confrontational, and I understand your reaction. I'm saying that I don't comprehend a worldview which sees human violence as constant, pervasive, and necessary. That just seems silly to me, since that's not my personal experience of the world.

When I refer to your ego-filled perceptions, that's not an attack on you (though the ego will try to twist it into one). Partly, I'm poking fun at you too. These are just words. Let's stay loose, OK?

Confrontation does not require violence. Passion is not predicated on violence. Sometimes these things are found together in behavior and sometimes not. I put violence in the same box as money - it's a form of ignorance. The alternative to that is exploration and sharing.

> If the logic of doing so is so clear, why are we failing so badly?

I'm not failing to transcend violence. Are you? I'm not impoverished. Are you? If not, then let's acknowledge that and continue working to get everyone to that point. Focusing on what you don't want doesn't help you to move away from it nearly as much as having some alternative to move towards. Your contemplation of violence kind of reads like an embrace of it, and I felt moved to put forth an different view.

Toby said...

I feel your position is too idealistic. It's one I shared until very recently, which is why I wrote this post. And while there is enormous truth in saying we perceive violence therefore it is, that doesn't help as much as you seem to think it does, not at the level of collective change.

An example of violence that I engage in almost day to day is the type of cutting remark I direct at my children when I'm too tired to give them the attention they need and demand. Their energies are much higher than mine. This type of dynamic happens all the time. Recently a teacher at my daughter's school dug her fingernail into my daughter's fingertip then twisted the finger around sharply to get an acorn out of her hand. She had given no warning. I can only assume she had had a bad day. Then there is the slow violence of waged labour, the anonymous grind of having to earn a living. Then there is the violence of starvation, poverty, prostitution, and much else besides. These things are happening everywhere.

I have decided to try to do something about that, as non-violently as I can. As I project forward to imagine the kinds of events that are going to take place as more people push for radical change, I cannot imagine that change being loosely accepted by the status quo. To resist is violent, even if one does so non-violently, since it is perceived as an attack by the defenders of that status quo. Even if I did not see that, even if I insisted that we should all stay loose, calm, loving, accepting of the oneness of all, the violence would come in proportion to the degree of threat the status quo felt itself to be under. That is, the more successful the peaceful revolution, the more violence it invites. And believe me, I am no fan of violence, I'm just being realistic.

A couple of thousand years ago some instructed humanity to turn the other cheek. We've not managed to do that. The wisdom of peace has been with us for millennia, yet violence is still everywhere.

The argument I am making that you seem to have overlooked is that diversity itself produces violence. This is not a moral argument, it is an observation. Life is too messy. Neatening it out, a la The Venus Project, cannot work as Fresco seems to imagine; that vision is too squeaky clean, too ordered, too sterile. The mess includes and will always include bad stuff happening. Why should we demand purity, order? So I try to stay humble, and in fact wrote the post in a very loose frame of mind. Expressions like "mindless, status quo thinking" tightened me up, but that really was my point. And this confrontation is normal, of course natural, and does lead to misunderstandings, which can and do (regularly) lead to violence.

Malagodi said...

"Last night, I gambled with my anger
And lost." ~poet John Giorno

Your central position is correct, violence is natural (occurs regularly in nature) and human beings are (apparently) the most violent.

However, we should recognize that the level of violence is amplified by degree of organization. Human beings are among the most organized. So are ants, and we see that violence and warfare occur in ant behavior on a regular, natural basis.

We can also observe that in the human population as a whole, we practice but do not enjoy actual violence; it is something to be avoided when possible.

It is not a case of "either, or" but rather "sometimes, when".

So there is dicotomy between our "spiritual" desire for non-violence is correct, and is tempered by our practical existence. Each co-exists as part of our life.

More quotes:
"It is useless and futile to continue talking peace and non-violence against a government whose only reply is savage attacks against an unarmed and defenseless people." ~ Nelson Manela

"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you" ~Jesus according to Luke 6-27

"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." ~Jesus according to Matthew 10-34

Toby said...

I'm glad to hear from you, Stephen. In a kind of paternal way I had begun to worry about you since your march and purposeful arrest. Have you reported on that anywhere? How did it go? It must be a while ago now.

I watched a film recently about the last years of Hypatia, called Agora, starring Rachel Weiss. It was very good, in my opinion. What really struck home was how the very trajectory of upsetting the status quo, even if the originating impulse is peaceful, can only be violent.

Add to this that violence is really only intense energy applied against the wishes of others, to that that it is an impossibility to have uniform consensus, and we shouldn't even want to be rid of it. But we should not seek it out, either.

I guess like all such subtleties we deal with such issues in an ongoing way, sometimes wisely, sometimes not. My hope in pondering and addressing this is to encourage wisdom and reflection, if only in me. Profound change is most certainly afoot, and what with the terrible violence done in recent decades, including the deliberate dumbing down of millions, the turbulence will be intense, and fumbling together workable consensus amidst that sound and fury is going to be tricky, to say the least.

Malagodi said...

The arrest itself was routine. As it turned out, there were a lot of religious leaders arrested on that day, and I had a very enjoyable ride in the police van with 8 or 10 of them.

The most interesting by far was Fr. Paul Mayer, a colleague of the Berrigans and we had a great discussion about direct action and the moral ground upon which it must rest in order to be other than an expression of hatred, and as such essentially useless.

I've done a couple of presentations here in S. Florida, but it seems that the various environmental organizations are quite set in their ways. I thought there would be more interest in the Keystone Tar Sands issue, given all the recent publicity. But I am an unknown entity to these groups so there you go.

I've had two interviews. One with a progressive internet radio personality who was more interested in what it is like to be an activist (what moves you) than in the actual issue, and another mainstream print person who asked me how I felt about 'all that negativity' involved in being arrested. :-) All growth and transformation requires a disruption of established patterns, forms and behaviors. This always produces at least discomfort and sometimes pain. Violence is often a response, but not always. This particular reporter could not imagine voluntarily subjecting herself to such 'negativity'.

But Naomi Klein said something interesting a couple of days after I was arrested. She said "I had no intention of getting arrested. I'm a writer and that [getting arrested] is not what I do. But then I saw all these First Nations people who had come from Western Canada being arrested and I asked myself 'how am I different from them?'" She was arrested that day.

This process of how we identify ourselves, what builds our identity, and what boundaries that puts on our actions is extremely interesting.

Debra said...

I'm going to associate on what you've written here.
When I look at definitions of words, and apparently starting from the dictionary is a practice that Nietzsche condoned too (so I'm in good company... from my point of view at least), I look at an etymological dictionary, to try to get a grasp on THE CHANGING ATTITUDES that emerge in the connotations of the word.
The word "violence" has very negative connotations in our collective minds (...) these days.
I have not read Hobbes. (There's lots of philo/poli I have not read, and what I do not know will fill several libraries.)
I note that Hobbes was writing from WITHIN a context, and that context included the idea that feudal society was a form of arbitrary anarchy that was LESS CIVILIZED than the world he was living in, already.. a world in which the SOCIAL ORDER was gaining importance subtracted ? from the NATURAL ORDER of the universe. (A hypothesis on my part)
I think that Hobbes was wearing rose colored glasses on that one. In France, the CENTRALIZED state, hand in hand with a very powerful MONARCHY, was gradually getting its hands on more and more power. It GOT that power by wresting it... FROM THE CHURCH (which can also be seen as an institution introducing checks and balances on the power of the State), AND LOCAL NOBILITY/aristocracy.
We might say that there was a transfer of LEGITIMACY, which is founded on what people BELIEVE IN, and the AUTHORITY they are willing to SUBMIT TO in order to be able to live together.
It seems clear reading you that what is violence to some will not be violence to others. That means... that our consensus on what the word "violence" means has worn a little thin... LOGICAL.
I find it extremely ironic AND TELLING that the man who was so passionate about non-violence died such a painful and VIOLENT death.
This ties in to what I believe about our words.
Incidentally, I believe that Freud, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein ? and others noticed, and were fascinated by the ways they found our LANGUAGE ALIENATED US.
The more we repress violence, and reject it IN OURSELVES (not in the social body...), the more we give it power over us.
The more a society harps on about "violence", IN THE REPRESSIVE MODE, the more a society CHATTERS ON ABOUT IT OVER AND OVER, the more that society will give a powerful place to violence.
After all... harping on about it is a form of PUBLICITY NOW, isn't it ??
(The woman who supervised me during training in the psychiatric hospital said that the best defense.. WAS AN INVESTMENT, an INTEREST, whatever.)
Repressing violence ON THE SOCIAL LEVEL fosters and encourages violence on the social level.
We know this, collectively, even, but..
The Nazi hierarchy was very scrupulous about its GOAL of getting rid of the "kicks" that human beings get from punishing.
I have never had much success in reminding the general public that in Spitz's "experiments" in day care centers in Great Britain in the 1950's, babies DIED FROM NEGLECT... and NOT from physical ill treatment.
That should tell us something, huh ??
Nothing we want to know, though.
Too bad.
On the antisocial stint.. I am ASOCIAL.
And believe me.. THE PRICE IS HIGH.
That does not mean that I lack empathy, far from it.
But I believe that given what I wrote above, the best thing that I can do for the world is to.. CULTIVATE MY GARDEN.
Look what that guy did over 2000 years ago, based on HIS desire to do something good for his neighbor ??
Na. Not for me.
And almost every major religious tradition talks about the benefits of not talking too much.
I wonder why ??
Enough said.

Toby said...

I've come to see the state as an institutionalized process of hierarchical extraction, which can apply to a military dictatorship, the church, a monarchy, capitalism, fascism, communism, etc. That various factions compete over control of the wealth-creating mechanisms is obvious, but they are just factions within the state dynamic. The state is a monopoly on violence, since it needs such to maintain some consensus or other, and keep the wealth and power divisions as extreme as they always are in states.

As to definitions of violence, well, as you can tell, I am having a very hard time defining it. That said, I would probably says that monopolies are unhealthy since diversity is vital. I suspect everything else flows from that fact.

Debra said...

Just to remain my old provocative self, I would suggest... that the MONOPOLY of the telephone company over here in its OLD form of a public service was pretty close to... PARADISE ON EARTH for telephone companies.
The OBLIGATION to think TOO MUCH, in order to make ALL THOSE CHOICES makes for some pretty rough going.
Geez, I get tuckered out just thinking about it...

Toby said...

But let's not leap from there to 'all monopolies on force/violence are good because France Telecom and/or Thomas Hobbes said so.' I'm pragmatic enough, under my idealism, to recognize that total distribution of wealth and power down to the smallest fragments is impossible for human society, and that, in the end, we go with the best our wisdom and ability allows. I'm sure centralized or accumulated wisdoms will be with us for a while yet.