Violence, what does it mean? Whose violence against whom? Who gets to decide what is and isn’t violence? The victor? The imprisoner? The ruling powers, whomever they may be?
Who is the real victim and who is the real victimizer in this contest for power, this fight for freedom and justice? In what sense does might make right? Why do we so willingly accept the history written by the victors?
The world is full of violence, the United States most of all. This country, my country, our country (for my fellow Americans) has a long history of ethnic cleansing, slavery, oppression, war, conquest, punishment, exploitation, and imperialism. Violence in all of its forms. The U.S. is the most violent country among affluent nations. We spend more money on our military and we imprison more of our citizens than any country in history. There has never been a more powerful empire.
Living in a society of violence, how do we talk about violence? It isn’t just data like homicide rates. Such data is a small percentage of total violence.
I’m reminded of a quote often attributed to Joseph Stalin:
“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
An earlier version is even more apt, from the Watertown Daily Times citing a “crazy statesman” (1939):
“If you shoot one person you are a murderer. If you kill a couple persons you are a gangster. If you are a crazy statesman and send millions to their deaths you are a hero.”
Violence, at its most basic, is about suffering. It is a matter of who does and doesn’t feel suffering, who inflicts the suffering and who is inflicted. This brings us to the issue of compassion and lack thereof. These are more complex issues than the simplistic data collected by bureaucrats and academics, data-collecting that can at times verge closer to sociopathy than to compassion. The demands of objectivity, as a recent study has shown, often have a deadening effect on our ability to empathize. People are living beings with hopes and fears, not numbers, not statistics. When looking at data as we are wont to do, we must never forget what that data represents, the human reality.
I’ve struggled with understanding the suffering and violence that I see all around me, understanding it on the human level. It can feel overwhelming and senseless. How does one find humanity within inhumanity? How does one find meaning in it all?
I’m not sure about meaning, but I have come across one particular articulation and portrayal that offers a larger context to begin considering it more deeply. I speak of the work of Derrick Jensen, specifically two of his earliest books: A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe. For many years, I searched and searched for even a glimpse of understanding. Jensen’s work was the first voice to give voice to my own sense of suffering. It felt like an acknowledgement, a validation of what I knew in my own experience, a breaking through the isolation of silence like a glimmer of light in the dark.
“If the first rule of a dysfunctional system is ‘Don’t talk about it,’ then our primary goal should be to tell the truth, to be as honest as we can manage to be. When I read something truthful, something real, I breathe a deep sigh and say, ‘Fantastic — I wasn’t mad or alone in thinking that, after all!’ So often we are left to our own devices, struggling in the dark with this eternal and internal propaganda system. At that point, for someone to tell us the truth is a gift. In a world where people all around us are lying and confusing us, to be honest is a great kindness.”
~ Derrick Jensen quoting David Edwards, The Culture of Make Believe, pp 141-142
Jensen offers two main explanations: the victimization cycle and dissociation.
The victimization cycle is a framework to make sense of how violence perpetuates itself. The line between victim and victimizer is very thin. This is demonstrated by how victimizers often have histories of victimization, typically in childhood. Jensen makes a good case for putting this into the terms of our collective history, violence endlessly leading to more violence.
Dissociation, however, is the key that unlocks the mechanism of victimization. This is how we are silenced, blinded, numbed.
Jensen uses many examples, but one stands out. In Nazi Germany, there were many doctors who did horrific experiments on children in the concentration camps. Each night, these doctors would go home and many of them had children of their own. They were good fathers, good husbands, good citizens. The two sides of their lives never crossed. It was as if these doctors had two separate selves with an absolute cognitive disconnection between them.
Nazi doctors is an extreme example, but the behavior is completely normal human psychology. Less extreme examples are commonplace. We all do it to varying degrees for our lives are divided in so many ways. It is easy to not feel and understand the connection between our personal lives and our work lives, between the Sunday sermon and the rest of the week, between what we see on the news and the world immediately around us, between what we buy at the store and what is happening in another country, between what we learn in school and in books and how we think about our everyday experience. We know many things in many aspects of our lives, but we don’t quite make the connections. In this way, we know and we don’t know many things.
We know and don’t know about about mass incarceration and racial injustice:
“The claim that we really know where all the black men have gone may inspire considerable doubt. If we know, why do we feign ignorance ? Could it be that most people really don’t know? Is it possible that the roundup, lockdown, and exclusion of black men en masse from the body politic has occurred largely unnoticed? The answer is yes and no.
“Much has been written about the ways in which people manage to deny, even to themselves, that extraordinary atrocities, racial oppression, and other forms of human suffering have occurred or are occurring. Criminologist Stanley Cohen wrote perhaps the most important book on the subject, States of Denial. The book examines how individuals and institutions—victims, perpetrators, and bystanders—know about yet deny the occurrence of oppressive acts. They see only what they want to see and wear blinders to avoid seeing the rest. This has been true about slavery, genocide , torture, and every form of systemic oppression.
“Cohen emphasizes that denial, though deplorable, is complicated. It is not simply a matter of refusing to acknowledge an obvious, though uncomfortable, truth. Many people “know” and “not-know” the truth about human suffering at the same time. In his words, “Denial may be neither a matter of telling the truth nor intentionally telling a lie. There seem to be states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and don’t know at the same time.”
“Today, most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarceration. For more than three decades, images of black men in handcuffs have been a regular staple of the evening news. We know that large numbers of black men have been locked in cages. In fact, it is precisely because we know that black and brown people are far more likely to be imprisoned that we, as a nation, have not cared too much about it. We tell ourselves they “deserve” their fate, even though we know— and don’t know— that whites are just as likely to commit many crimes, especially drug crimes. We know that people released from prison face a lifetime of discrimination, scorn, and exclusion, and yet we claim not to know that an undercaste exists . We know and we don’t know at the same time.”
~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, pp. 181-182
We know and don’t know about sundown towns:
“White Americans encounter sundown towns every day but rarely think about them or even realize that they’re in one. They look like other towns, especially to most non-black people, who often don’t notice the difference between 95% white and 100% white. Motorists driving through Anna, Illinois, might stop to see its famous library, designed in 1913 by Walter Burley Griffith, the Prairie School architect who went on to design Canberra, Australia. Or they might be visiting a mentally ill relative in the Illinois State Hospital. They don’t notice that Anna is a sundown town unless they know to ask. Most sundown towns and suburbs are like that: invisible, until a black wayfarer appears and the townspeople do something about it.
“At the same time, whites have nicknames for many overwhelmingly white towns: “Colonial Whites” for Colonial Heights, near Richmond, Virginia; “the White Shore” across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, instead of the West Shore; “Caucasian Falls” for Cuyahoga Falls near Akron, Ohio; “Whiteface Bay” for Whitefish Bay, north of Milwaukee; and so forth across the country to “Lily White Lynwood” outside Los Angeles. Whites make up jokes about the consequences of an African American being found after dark in many sundown towns and suburbs. “Even the squirrels are white in Olney” is a quip about a sundown town in southeastern Illinois known also for its albino squirrels. Such nicknames and jokes show that the whiteness of these towns has registered; whites do understand that the absence of blacks is no accident. Residents of a metropolitan area also know which suburbs are said to be the whitest and which police departments have a reputation for racial profiling. The practice of stopping and questioning African Americans in Darien, Connecticut, for example, was “an open secret in town,” according to Gregory Dorr, who grew up there. Nevertheless, when told that many American towns and suburbs kept out African Americans for decades and some still do, often these same individuals claim to be shocked.
“Perhaps it is more accurate to say that white Americans know and don’t know about sundown towns. This curious combination of knowing and not knowing seems eerily reminiscent of Europe, 1938–45: surely Germans (and Poles, French, Dutch, etc.) knew that Jewish and Romany people were being done away with—their houses and apartments were becoming vacant and available before their very eyes, after all. Yet many professed shock when told about it afterward. I do not claim that America’s rash of sundown towns is a Holocaust. The murdered probably total fewer than 2,000 and the refugees fewer than 100,000, nothing like the fury the Nazis unleashed upon Jewish and Rom people. Yet there is a parallel question: why have so few white Americans ever heard of sundown towns, even when they live in one?
‘“Yvonne Dorset,” for example, grew up in Buffalo, Illinois, near Springfield. In 2002 she replied to a discussion at Classmates.com: “I graduated from Tri-City [the high school in Buffalo] in 1963. There weren’t any African Americans in my graduating class, but I never thought of it as anything but coincidence. We were brought up to respect all races.” As best I can tell, Dorset has lived in Buffalo from 1945 to now. What would we make of a long-term resident of, say, Heidelberg, Germany, who wrote in 2002, “There weren’t any Jews in my graduating class, but I never thought of it as anything but coincidence”? Buffalo drove out its African Americans on August 17, 1908. The absence of African Americans from Buffalo today is no more a “coincidence” than the near-absence of Jewish Germans from Heidelberg.”
~ James W. Loewen, Sundown Towns, Kindle Locations 3829-3856
There seemingly is no end to the things we know and don’t know.
Dissociation protects against suffering that is simply too great to comprehend, protects us against uncomfortable truths. This is a psychological form of plausible deniability that usually goes hand in hand with collective forms of plausible deniability. Like structural racism, there is structural dissociation that can be found in government, in the media, in schools, in churches; it can be found everywhere.
Dissociation is how reality tunnels form, and while in them we see nothing else, know nothing else. It is simply our reality. It is our attempt to make sense of the senseless, our dysfunctional response to a dysfunctional world. It is adaptive behavior to a bad situation and no one can doubt that we humans excel at being adaptable.
Dissociation is how victims become victimizers, how good people do bad things. We judge others as immoral or even evil: Nazis, rapists, child abusers, etc. They are different than the rest of us, we assure ourselves. We are good people. We aren’t racists, we aren’t murderers. It isn’t our fault that racism and violence exists in our society. Yes, there are bad people. But that has nothing to do with us. We are innocent. We aren’t perfect, but we have good intentions.
Ah yes, good intentions. *sigh* The road to hell is well paved.
We are all culpable, all responsible for we are all part of this same society, this same history. The past is never past. We can’t pretend that the world we live in has nothing to do with what came before. The past, as it has been said, is prologue.
Indentured servitude led to slavery. After Reconstruction came the Redeemers with the worst forms of sharecropping, debt peonage, chain gangs and forced labor camps. Then came Jim Crow and now mass incarceration. It never ends. It morphs and each time it becomes more resilient to scrutiny. But at a basic level it remains the same. It is just more injustice and oppression, just more violence and suffering. It is the same old story of justice delayed.
The horror of this has become clear to me as I’ve read more and more about American history. I keep being shocked by the arguments people made in the past. I recognize them as arguments I hear today. It is eery how little changes. Most people who made rationalizations and excuses in the past were good people, whether slaveholders or Nazis. Most people today who make rationalizations and excuses are also good people. The world is full of good people and yet not-so-good things continue on.
There is no evil master plan. It isn’t necessary.
“The unfortunate reality we must face is that racism manifests itself not only in individual attitudes and stereotypes, but also in the basic structure of society. Academics have developed complicated theories and obscure jargon in an effort to describe what is now referred to as Structural racism, yet the concept is fairly straightforward. One theorist, Iris Marion Young, relying on a famous “birdcage” metaphor, explains it this way: If one thinks about racism by examining only one wire of the cage, or one form of disadvantage , it is difficult to understand how and why the bird is trapped. Only a large number of wires arranged in a specific way, and connected to one another, serve to enclose the bird and to ensure that it cannot escape.”
~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 184
This makes it all the more frustrating. It is racism without any need for racists, a cognitive prison of our own making.
How does one discuss racial bias with those who don’t see it? When something is unconscious, it simply and seamlessly is part of a person’s sense of reality and a part of the reality shared by nearly everyone around them. There is no conscious intention to be racially prejudiced, but there is an instinctive fear or resistance toward the status quo being challenged. Or else it is simply indifference, a lack of understanding and so a lack of knowing why they should care. It isn’t real at a gut-level in the way it is real to someone who has been the victim of it.
In trying to discuss this, my frustration in part comes from how it too often gets misdirected to side issues, slipping away from the core truth that needs to be spoken and heard. The apparent explanation is that some people literally can’t see the main issue or can’t see it on its own terms, can’t see it for what it is. This is a cultural blindspot. It is as if it doesn’t exist for, in their reality tunnel, it doesn’t exist to them. So, they latch onto side issues that are the only things they can see as relevant. Discussion, such as it is, just goes around and around never getting to the heart of the matter.
This frustration eventually gets to me and gets the better of me, thus bringing out the worse in me. There is this immense injustice in our society, injustice that is cruel beyond belief. It is hard to resist responding with mean-spiritedness, resist falling into bitterness and anger. The excuses and rationalizations for this collective ‘evil’ are soul-crushing, and there is no other word besides ‘evil’ that can capture the depth of moral failure and in some cases outright moral depravity. It is ‘evil’ because it is so much greater than any individual, greater than any generation of individuals, greater even than a single nation. The roots of this shared human sin go back into the distant past. Our entire society is built on it. Simply by being born into this society, we all bear some responsibility, first and foremost the responsibility to become aware and then responsibility to give voice.
It has been with us so long that it is immense. Most people don’t have the time and energy, much less the interest, to study the long and detailed history of oppression and injustice that has continued up to the present. Most people simply don’t comprehend it and, because of the collective shame about it (along with fear and anger), there is little to compel understanding. When confronted with this knowledge, many people complain that you’re trying to make them feel guilty. This seems to be an unconscious acknowledgment that there is something to be guilty about, an acknowledgment that can only be stated through projection for that is always how the unconscious first emerges. The budding awareness of mass suffering isn’t a comfortable experience, to feel it like a raw wound.
The systemic oppression and prejudice truly is immense, beyond any individual. It is actively enforced on the societal level of politics and law. It is pervasive throughout our culture. It is the air we breathe, the ground we walk upon, the world we know. It is just there. As such, on the individual level, it is largely passive and mindless. Most people just go along to get along (I know that I usually do exactly this). Most people don’t ever give much thought to other people’s problems and sufferings, even when or especially when their own continued benefit and comfort is dependent upon it. It is motivated reasoning which is why it must operate to some degree subconsciously.
“Others may wonder how a racial caste system could exist when most Americans— of all colors— oppose race discrimination and endorse colorblindness. Yet […] racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty-five years ago.”
~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 14
It is obvious for anyone who has fully looked at and seriously considered the data that racism is rampant in all aspects and at all levels of American society. But the typical stumbling block is that few have much, if any, familiarity with such data. There is always a reason to deny it and dismiss it, to rationalize it away before even considering it. There is always a reason for those who want a reason to not face what is in front of them. Humans are extremely talented at rationaization.
“There is a strange kind of enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still, racism persists, real and tenacious” —Albert Memmi, Racism
“Nowadays, except for members of white supremacist organizations, few whites in the United States claim to be “racist.” Most whites assert they “don’t see any color, just people”; that although the ugly face of discrimination is still with us, it is no longer the central factor determining minorities’ life chances; and, finally, that, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they aspire to live in a society where “people are judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.” More poignantly, most whites insist that minorities (especially blacks) are the ones responsible for whatever “race problem” we have in this country . They publicly denounce blacks for “playing the race card,” for demanding the maintenance of unnecessary and divisive race -based programs, such as affirmative action, and for crying “racism” whenever they are criticized by whites. Most whites believe that if blacks and other minorities would just stop thinking about the past, work hard, and complain less (particularly about racial discrimination), then Americans of all hues could “all get along.”
“But regardless of whites’ “sincere fictions,” racial considerations shade almost everything in America. Blacks and dark-skinned racial minorities lag well behind whites in virtually every area of social life; they are about three times more likely to be poor than whites, earn about 40 percent less than whites, and have about an eighth of the net worth that whites have. They also receive an inferior education compared to whites, even when they attend integrated institutions. In terms of housing, black-owned units comparable to white-owned ones are valued at 35 percent less. Blacks and Latinos also have less access to the entire housing market because whites, through a variety of exclusionary practices by white realtors and homeowners, have been successful in effectively limiting their entrance into many neighborhoods. Blacks receive impolite treatment in stores, in restaurants, and in a host of other commercial transactions. Researchers have also documented that blacks pay more for goods such as cars and houses than do whites. Finally, blacks and dark-skinned Latinos are the targets of racial profiling by the police, which, combined with the highly racialized criminal court system, guarantees their overrepresentation among those arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated , and if charged for a capital crime, executed. Racial profiling on the highways has become such a prevalent phenomenon that a term has emerged to describe it: driving while black. In short, blacks and most minorities are “at the bottom of the well.”
“How is it possible to have this tremendous degree of racial inequality in a country where most whites claim that race is no longer relevant? More important, how do whites explain the apparent contradiction between their professed color blindness and the United States’ color-coded inequality?”
~ Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, Kindle Locations 168-195
I don’t want to get into the details right now, the statistics and research results, the endless examples and anecdotes. There are a lot of details. I’m not exaggerating. The research demonstrating racial prejudice has been discussed in hundreds of books and it really does take a book to do it justice, although it is the type of book that the most racially biased are unlikely to read (yes, that was meant as a challenge; I can offer a list of books for anyone wanting to be challenged). I hope that maybe there are some fence-sitters who can be convinced that sitting on fences is a less-than-comfortable position.
I recognize this is a difficult issue. It isn’t about blame for there is plenty of responsibility to go around. Who here is without sin? I’m certainly not in a position to cast the first stone. My personal life is a mess. I’m no hero or saint. I’m nobody important. I’m just trying to understand. I still don’t know what to make of it all, much less what should be done about it. My only purpose is to be yet another voice. My only hope is that if enough voices are joined maybe we will be heard. And in being heard that the silence will be broken.