I’ve been thinking a lot about violence lately, and how I really feel about it. I know, I know, but bear with me. My whole life I’ve subscribed to this radical nonviolent movement, which essentially believes that all violence is interwoven and to allow for some allows for all of it. The definition of violence includes things like poverty and lack of education, etc. Let’s take for example, abortion. This was an issue I had a hard time with, considering that I’d been on both sides of the argument (pro-life as a kid/young teen, then pro-choice as a high schooler/young adult). I thought about it though, and realized that the philosophy works if you think about the roots of the abortion issue. Abortions are caused by lack of education/resources, rape, domestic violence, lack of family/community support, poverty, fear, etc. The abortion was only the sum of all those parts. The real issues that needed addressing were the ones that caused it in the first place. Anyway, the idea is that if you eliminate violence at its core, it gets rid of the other forms too.
Anyway, this philosophy has been very consistent, and really hard to argue. I’ve had friends who have gotten very frustrated with me- with the idea that I would turn my cheek if someone were to come in my house and attack me or my family. They hated that I wouldn’t fight back. Well, I never really said I wouldn’t fight back. I might. But I said I believed that the right thing would be to not return the violence with any violence- feeding it and perpetuating it.
This belief also has a lot of faith in the power of nonviolence. This is an important part. It’s not all about laying down and taking abuse, but it’s about using nonviolence as an active means to change things. For instance, what power would you have if the attacker came in, demanded your money, and you gave him your jewelry and other valuables too? Certainly you’ve got the element of surprise. You’ve shown him that you don’t fear the loss of your belongings. You’ve shown him you’re no threat. You’ve successfully challenged his role as the oppressor. Anyway, I think that’s powerful, and we certainly don’t get a chance to see the power of that perspective very often on a larger scale.
So anyway, that’s my background. However, this author I’ve been talking about, Derrick Jensen, is the only person who has ever successfully challenged this belief of mine. I was SO SOLID with this. Now, I’m not so sure I had much of a leg to stand on. First of all, I realize now that it’s impossible to be consistent in the area of violence. We are ALL violent creatures by nature. You can’t reject this. You are especially violent if you live in this culture. What helped me to understand this was the deconstruction of my definition of violence.
The only line that I drew with my nonviolent stance was between human life and nonhuman life. This was not to say that I didn’t reject all sorts of cruelty done to animals and the landbase in general, but let’s be real. I wasn’t going to wither away and die so that I’d never kill something to live. I mean, some people draw their line at not killing animals/sentient creatures, but if I were to be truly consistent about this then I’d probably find a way to feel guilty about eating a carrot or taking any life, and that’s just silly (Although there are those like Jainists who only eat fruit fallen from trees and stuff- never touching a root vegetable!). Then I’d surely be doing violence to myself for letting myself die. There’s no escaping this part of it. As a living being on this planet, I have to kill and consume other living things to survive. This is a basic form of violence that I’m totally accepting of (at least as not being intrinsically wrong).
So, the next logical step is that the criteria for the rejected form of violence be all violence done to humans. We’re taught through our lives to value human life above all other forms of life. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we are careless with those other forms of life, but we certainly favor our own kind over any other. This makes biological sense (that we be loyal to our own species and ourselves), but also makes sense considering the culture that we live in. We have all been a witness/party to a culture that seeks to dominate the natural world and harness/exploit the wild for our purposes. What messages have we received in this? I always think about the occasional news story you’ll hear about a wild animal killing a human- resulting in hoards of humans hunting the creature down to kill it. Despite the fact that the wild animal was only doing what it naturally does, we feel the need to dominate it and destroy it even after the damage has been done. I also often hear "It’s just a dog." or "Yeah, those trees are ugly, cut them all down." This sense of entitlement permeates our entire way of life, and has left us unable to understand or respect or communicate with the natural world in the way that we used to.
So I started to think differently about humanity and whether or not I should value human life over other life. Personally, I think that I’m realizing that it is no more important than anything else. Of course I will follow my biological instincts and continue to do what’s in my best interest to survive, but as far as thinking that I’m more important than a dog, or a bear, or fish, or trees, or a river, or any piece of the puzzle… well there, I’ve said it. I believe that we are all a part of an intricate puzzle, of equal value. That’s beside the point, though. Let’s say that humans ARE more important (because god says so or whatever reason there is). The destruction and domination of the planet is still absolutely wrong, because to kill the planet that supports human life is eventually going to kill humans too. Sort of obvious once you think about it. If you contribute to the destruction of the planet, you are contributing to violence against humans. Not to mention your average Westerner is just dripping in blood on this one. There already ARE so many people experiencing the violence of our way of life.
This is when I started to think about the difference between forms of violence. Jensen finds it odd that we only have one word to describe such a complex thing. I think he’s got a good point. There is certainly a difference between the violence done in a gang fight, and the systemic violence experienced by women, or minorities, or the poor. There’s a difference between a sibling’s punch, and the corporate poisoning of a river. There’s a difference between the killing of an animal for food, and the cruel handling and exploitation of animals in factory farms. There’s a difference between the violence done to the Jews in concentration camps, and the violence done against the Nazis by the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. You see where I’m going with this? All of these things include violent means, but the violence is just a tool. Judgement aside- shouldn’t a distinction be made between these things? If violence is merely a tool, then shouldn’t we be looking at the work done with that tool and judging it based on that?
This was the other thing that really hit home with me. I had always subscribed to the idea that if I were to use violence, then I’d be no better than those who use it in the first place- sinking to their level. But the fact remains, the Jews that fought against the Nazis… well, I wouldn’t dream to think that those that survived were suddenly no better than their oppressors. I won’t say that the violence didn’t have any negative effect on their future or their hearts, it’s not like the violence healed the harm that had been done- but I can’t say that they were any worse off than those who took each abuse in fear and merely hoped they would survive. Those who participated in the uprising actually had a better survival rate. It’s just something to think about.
Another part of this puzzle is the ability of those in power to redefine what acceptable violence is. Laws are an excellent example of how this works. Most of us are convinced that laws are there to protect and serve the best interests of the public. This is surely true in some instances. However, when you look at all the laws that neglect someone in need (most of the people in our prisons, drug addicts, etc.), and then also aid those doing terrible things (corporations who are allowed to poison our air and water- causing cancer and sickness all over the world, killing off most of the living planet at a rate that is practically impossible to recover from… These are horrible crimes, in my opinion). And yet, were I to protest and try to dismantle some of the things that make my world so sick, I would easily be thrown in jail for any number of reasons. There are great consequences for standing up to those in power. I look at laws that allow astounding amounts of our tax money to go to horribly violent and needless wars, rather than uplifting and nourishing our communities. The more you look at it, the more the pattern becomes clear. Those in power set the standard for acceptable and lawful forms of violence, and those who are not in power feel the consequences and are subject to punishment if we are to challenge it. They essentially poison us and force us to live with it by threatening our freedom. How incredibly unjust, some of these laws are.
One of the worst things about this form of violence is that it forces us to participate. For instance, the western way of life practically guarantees that you are complicit in horrible forms of violence and oppression by just being a member of this society (generally these forms of violence are outsourced so you are less likely to see it, but they are there none the less. The theft of land all over the planet, the slavery of countless people all over the world…). Here’s a video of Jensen talking about modern day slavery that’s pretty interesting:
On that note, I want to include this article I read about the situation in Haiti right now that’s really enlightening.
So when I look at the violence in my life, and I see a choice that I can make. I can choose to live blindly in a world that contributes to the toxification and torture of the planet and it’s people (which, to me, means I am choosing to participate in it), or I can stand against it. For my life right now, that looks like growing my own food, educating myself, working to heal the ways in which I have been damaged and blinded by a corrupt and violent way of life, generally trying to be as honest as possible about these things. It also means that I need to stop feeding the illusion that I can live in this world and not be a participant in some form of violence. I can make choices that reduce my participation in it, and I can start to figure out where violence is natural and justified versus where violence is exploitative and deceptive (for instance, making the choice to raise and kill my own animals versus mindlessly buying a cheeseburger where the meat came from a factory farm). I can figure out where nonviolent means are the best possible choice, but I can also be open to the idea that violence is not always a bad thing.
This was hard for me to write. It’s contrary to so much that I used to whole-heartedly believe. What’s interesting is that my actions tend to look exactly the same after this revelation. I still believe in the power of nonviolence, I still don’t know that I would fight off that intruder, etc. However, I’m open to the idea that my/others’ pacifism is not always loving, and that violence is not always in opposition to love. The manifestation of love should be the real motivation behind any of our choices, I think. So maybe that’s where I draw my line now.
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I identify with so much of what you’re saying here. It was in one of Starhawk’s books years ago (wish I could remember which one) that talked about choosing our violence. Sometimes a choice has to be made, and the example she gave was of a gardener who kills the snails that feed on the plants that ultimately feed the gardener and his/her family. There are ways to be respectful about it, of saying “I’m sorry, but it’s down to you and me Mr. Snail, and my family needs to eat this cabbage too.” I think about that a lot. Animals live violent, abrupt lives. We’ve been able to remove ourselves from that mostly uncertain world to a great extent, which means we have the luxury of choice in many circumstances.