Sunday, July 01, 2012

How to be Civil to Wolves, pt. 2

(Here's a link to How to be Civil to Wolves, Pt. 1)

I was hit in the face on my way to work last week, cutting my nose in two places and covering it with blood. The person who hit me was either crazy or drugged or both: as I walked to meet my carpool at 5:40am, I saw a tall black man* muttering and pacing and gesturing. I nodded to him as I walked past; he said "You wanna roll?" (or something similar; my memory is scattered); I said, "No thank you." Before I knew it, he'd walked up to me and backhanded me. Shocked, I continued walking, around the corner. After a minute, I went back to talk to him, but he was gone.

*(Admission: it's an American cliche that when middle class white folks get mugged by large black men, all they can remember is that they're big, black, and armed. A character on The Wire called this "BNBG: Big Negro, Big Gun" syndrome. Similarly, I'm embarrassed to admit that I can't remember the facial features of the man who hit me, though this fact just reinforces what I already knew: that as an American, racist ideology is inside me, whether I like it or not. I do recall that he wore rings on his pointer- and ring-fingers.)

After my ride picked me up, I saw the man again on the side of the road and asked to pull over. I got out and tried to engage him, saying "Excuse me, can I talk to you?" He was not willing, or able, to talk with me: he just kept cycling through outrage. I wasn't able to understand most of what he said, but it included something about "Aryan nation" (did he think I was a skinhead?). I told him, "You hurt me," and he replied, "And how do you like it?" Winning against me seemed very important to him: he told me to say, "I'm the bitch," and I did, hoping that by refusing to act like a threat to him, I might convince him to engage me. To no effect: I finally just got back into the car and went to work. My coworkers speculated that he might have been on crystal meth; evidently Olympia is a former national capitol for that drug.

I'm proud of my response, and I think it had a lot to do with my background as a caretaker for people who were sometimes violent and irrational. On the one hand, I didn't escalate the situation: I didn't try to fight him or threaten him. I swallowed the impulse to prove my masculinity by fighting a crazy person. On the other hand, I didn't run away, and thus allow his violence and threats dictate my behavior: I just kept walking, and then tried to talk with him. I neither engaged in force nor bowed before it: I refused to participate in violence, and instead tried to reframe the relation between us. In ethical terms, I did what I could to treat him as a person, rather than a threat or adversary or object (and I treated myself as a person, and not an instrument, by being ready to run or fight or get help if I needed to). And though I failed to engage him in dialogue, I can at least take comfort in the fact that I didn't reinforce his use of violence as a way to engage other people.

I'm unable to find a source for this, but I seem to recall Vietnam-era Secretary of State Henry Kissenger famously saying something to the effect that "Our air-bombings against the Vietcong are our way of communicating with them," and I think that this is an important observation. Violence is a kind of discourse, a sort of "language" or norm of communication. Violence is symbolic; it means something beyond itself.
For example, recall the arguments over the "meaning" of the Iraq and Afghan invasions: Americans debated whether they were "essentially" police-actions against criminals, or vengeance for 9/11, or hard-nosed resource grabs, or empire-building, or red-herrings to distract from executive-branch power-grabs. This example shows how we debate the meaning of violence: concrete events--like air-bombs blowing up city blocks, Marines driving up to Baghdad, President Bush giving a victory speech on an aircraft carrier, etc.--get shoehorned into conceptual-boxes, which 1) allows us to make sense of things by 2) ignoring most facts and just concentrating on the "essential" facts. We can't pay attention to everything, so we only pay attention to the "essence." This is how symbolic fictions work. And violence is one currency within the larger economy of symbolism/communication.

I didn't choose to get hit in the face, but I did choose how to react. One obvious strategy would have been to fight back: this is not only the strategy demanded by American Manliness (as evinced in pretty much every action/adventure movie ever produced [John Wayne flicks especially]: if you don't hit back, you're a worthless coward), but also supported by the putative "realists" who run American police, military, prisons, and criminal underworld: violence or threat thereof is a deterrent against violence; or, "Walk softly, and carry a big stick." So I might have fought back, to protect my Manly Honor and to discourage future attacks.

Or I might have retreated and called the police. I imagine this is what my parents and their middle-class peers would have advised: having been attacked without provocation, I was within my legal and ethical rights to call in the people whose profession includes responding to illegal violence. Indeed, not only was it my right but my duty to call the police and have this dangerous man restrained, lest he attack someone else.

Or I might have simply run away and licked my wounds. I was already hurt, and there was no reason for me to risk further injury or inconvenience by fighting, or trying to talk, or calling the police and giving a statement.

Each of these responses have their justification, but I believe that all three suffer from the same essential drawback: each legitimizes violence. Had I fought back, I would have effectively said, "Yes, violence is the right way for us to communicate--and I'm winning," not to mention escalating the situation and getting both of us hurt. Had I run away, I would have effectively said, "Yes, violence is the right way for us to communicate--and you win." Had I called the police, I would have effectively said, "Yes, violence is the right way for us to communicate--and these guys are going to win for me" (not to mention the ethical problem of causing an ill man to be tased and thrown in a cage). By talking without escalating or fleeing, though, I rejected violence as a mode. I refused to participate in it.

I hope this doesn't make me sound like some kind of dreamy idealist; when I talk about "legitimizing" violence, I don't mean some pie-in-the-sky BS about my formal ethical duties (that is to say, my objections against legitimizing violence are not just posturing to use violence as a prop for my own moral gymnastics or lifestyle-puritanism). I don't care whether I'm "right," I just care about the effects of my actions on human beings. And "legitimizing violence," as a concrete effect, involves the perpetuation of violence as a mode of human interaction. I know there's a lot of academic jargon in that sentence, but I'm talking about something we already know from common sense: violence tends to lead to more violence. Abused children become abusive parents; bombed children become jihadis; American military buildups led to Soviet buildups, and vice versa. (I'm not saying that's the only source of violence; I'm just saying it's one big cause.) Violence, again, is sort of a currency within the larger economy of symbolic communication; and like a regular currency, I get to decide whether to reinforce its purchasing power by deciding whether to use it. 

I'm reminded of an apparently-lame bumper sticker saying, "Pacifism is not Passivism." Like so many trite sayings, this hides an important truth: refusing to do violence is only equivalent to rolling over and accepting victimhood if one accepts the paradigm that "fight or be conquered" are the only two options. It is this paradigm which I am trying to criticize: in dealing with violence in the world, one chooses not only whether to fight or fly, but also whether/when/how to accept the fight/flight paradigm in the first place.

In The End of Faith, Sam Harris uses this false choice to claim that pacifism is an impractical strategy for dealing with violence: a city of pacifists, Harris says, could be defeated by a single, determined psychopath wielding only a knife. Of course, when we imagine how a city of people who are committed to 1) nonviolence and 2) staying alive might react to such an attack, it's obvious that alternatives exist (e.g. charging the psychopath with shields, tricking him into a locked room; drugging him; etc.). Pacifism, as it turns out, really isn't the same thing as passivism.

I'm not trying to suggest that, if only we could all be nice to each other, violence will disappear. Please do not attribute to me the utopian-hippie claim that "All we are saying / Is give Peace a chance." I am not offering a panacea, or even a solution. My point is that the "realists" of the Kissenger/John Wayne (or Stalinist, for that matter) stripe who claim that violence is somehow the most real or ultimate or basic mode of resolving disputes between people seem to be naively unaware of the larger effects of violence, or of the way in which they unthinkingly endorse violence by doing it. My point, in other words, is that if sappy niceness isn't a cure-all for dealing with violence in the world, neither is violence itself.

Think before you fight. 

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