Sunday, May 1, 2011

Day 5: Violence, Survival and Our Relationship to it All

The check in was rather heavy. In it, we heard that people were dealing with issues of physical violence, life, death, tragedy, apparent collapse and major shifts in world views.

Note: In my re-presentation of our time together, I'm going to omit a lot of the initial conversation which was, in my view, dancing around the topics of "What is the nature of offense or conflict? What is our role in creating the conflict?    How do we work with offenses or conflicts that we experience cyclically (or frequently)?"  Click on the links to see the treatment of those questions. 

I should also say that I've tried to make sense of our conversation, so I've re-presented it in a way that makes sense to me, not in a way that it occurred. My apologies ahead of time for my distortions and deletions.

When presented with violence, what do we do?
The inquiry into violence began with the question, "What do we do when faced with a student who has sought us out and shared the trauma, violence or other personal conflict that they find themselves in?"
As "adults," some noted that there seems to be a responsibility that we carry when students confide in us and seek guidance.

Perhaps this is a distortion, but what I heard was this question, "How do we help people when they are suffering violence or conflict?"  What is assumed in this question is that we must do something, that there is such a thing as "help," that should rightfully be delivered in that moment. We never really looked at these assumptions, but took them as "given" and sought to figure out what to do.

Roger recreated the question as "In the moment of someone else experiencing violence and conflict, how are we in those moments?" What is self-evident? What is constructed? Where are the thresholds that we would use to differentiate between violence and "not" violence?  What are the necessities that we assert?

Roger's other question [which we didn't consider] was, "What is the context in which there is anything to do in response to someone else's experience of violence/conflict?"

Roger later revealed his bias that we cannot possibly know "how to be" unless we ourselves have a grounded understanding of violence and our relationship to it.  I'm guessing that he meant that in the absence of that grounding, we can offer up a kind of formulaic response or technique, but in doing so, our response is superficial and possibly damaging.

I may be extrapolating this idea too distantly, but I believe this whole dynamic of "What do we do to help?" is a little bit like any time when we ask that question, such as "Those people over there are oppressed by a corrupt government regime, what do we do to help?" When we rush to our nearest habits of intervention without a deep consideration of the oppression they are experiencing and our relationship to (or participation in) it, we are more likely to amplify the oppression or deepen the systemic conditions that cause the oppression.

So, we began an inquiry into the nature of violence...

What is the violence? What is violated in the act of violence?
This simple question revealed the complexity of what we loosely call "violence." Is it a physical phenomenon? Can violence be non-physical? Several models to define violence were offered. One model of violence was the imposition of one's will over another's; another model had something to do with the use of force for different purposes (protective or punitive), in which case the force can be 'justified' (or "not violent?"). There was also a model that differentiated between benevolent internal actions and malevolent external actions with a quality of self-identification with benevolent actions.

There was a whole set of observations and personal stories that illustrated that the intent of a force-based action, wheter it be violent or benevolent, is largely unrelated to the experience and consequences of that same intent.  That is, the intent of a force-based action does not match the experience of it. Someone offered a poignant illustration of this: her parents disowned her for two years with the intent of "loving" her; her experience was a kind of violent isolation, rather than love. This revealed that "morality" serves as a poor criterion or guiding principle for differentiating between violence or non-violence because morality is so highly individualized.

Roger pointed out Paulo Freire's view (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) that any action taken on behalf of liberation from a violent oppression is not considered violent.  What is the dividing line that puts a set of actions in the category of "violent?"  If, in a act of ritual sacrifice, someone were to remove internal organs from another person, would that be an act of violence? What if these organs were taken by a surgeon in an effort to preserve that person's life?

A side note: One of the invisible mental models in the conversation was that violence (whatever it is) is bad or undesirable. There was this other idea that there are times when the ends justify the means (e.g., Freire) in which what is normally categorized as violent loses its "badness." This, in my view, was all happening inside of a paradigm of "good" and "evil", "right" and "wrong." This dualistic view of the world kept breaking down when someone asked the question, "Is the natural food chain violent?"  If not, what differentiates the killing that takes place there from the killing we call violent?  The homework is around this question.

What is the structure of violence? This question has been nagging at me. My answer to "What is violated in violence?" was our prior interconnectedness. This word, "prior" for me, means that it is "prior" to what we call our existence, that the nature of reality is that we are all interconnected in some fundamental, physical way...not just in an interdependent kind of "circle of life" way, but that there is something about the nature or reality in which our substance, what scientist call the mysterious "strong force" that holds the nucleus of every atom in every living and non-living thing together, is a collective and single entity of which we all share.

I've been trying to see when, exactly, I violate what I imagine is our prior interconnectedness. For me, if I am honest, I do this in the split second before what might be described as the observable act of violence. It occurs inside my mind when I actively objectify the other person--separate them from my "self". In this moment, I say to myself, "I am not that" or "I am not like them" and the outward action that follows is an attempt to visibly illustrate my separation by asserting my different (and superior) viewpoint. That is the moment of violence for me, the moment when I violate the interconnectedness. What I am noticing about this act of "separating" is that it is only imagined...I can't really separate myself from our interconnectedness any more than I can escape the force of gravity. So I am enacting, through my thoughts, this violence, but these very thoughts do not accomplish the intended result (separation). I'm not sure it is possible to change the interconnected nature of reality--our interconnectedness just is.

I was working in my yard this summer and came across a huge black widow.  After much internal debate, I horribly crushed it, believing that it might hurt my daughter. You will likely think me crazy, but I unexpectedly began weeping, deeply regretting that I killed this spider.  Was it self-defense? No. It was preemptive violence based on my belief that the spider somehow endangered my daughter's survival or well-being. I needed to first create it in my mind as "enemy." This was the moment of violence to me--actively separating this evil spider from my good "self."

This same theme came up as we asked the question, coming out of our model of violence as imposing our will over that of another, "Have we ever experienced NOT imposing our world view and what would that be like?" Someone asserted that you cannot refrain and ensure the continued existence of the species.  This is the "violence is necessary for survival" argument. We didn't examine the necessity of survival, but took it as a given value.

Roger asked, "Is your imposition of will what you think it is?" That is, we often impose our will within the assumption that it will accomplish a desired outcome.  But does it? Liz pointed out that our imposition of assignments on students often results in their compliance with producing the external form of the "completed homework," but often not the intended internal learning.

Our Relationship and Participation in Violence
The conversation about violence really began with someone's report that a student had confided in him about being raped as a teenager, something she had not ever divulged. It was his experience that while his way of experiencing the world can accommodate different individual and self-created realities, the reality of violence like rape or the Holocaust, is totally outside and foreign to his being.

Roger's response was that we cannot make statements about someone else's involvement in violence.  We can only continue to look at our own investment in it.  What is our relationship to what is happening?

John Francois pointed to Solzenitzen's view that the line of good and evil crosses every man's heart.

And here is where we arrived at the psychology of institutionalized violence--the system that enables a small group of people on the planet to benefit at the expense of others.  One example of this: the 4.7% of the global population that occupies the U.S. annually consumes 27% of the planetary resources. In doing so, this small fraction of the planet creates the atmospheric conditions that directly depletes the availability of water for roughly 67% of the world population (4B people) who lives on $2 a day or less.

For me, I sadly see both institutionalized violence and my participation in it at so many levels. For the case of rape, very simply, I participate in a for-profit system in which the direct objectification of women (and men) for some personal utility is a $20B annual, "legitimate" industry (the pornography industry), with a sanctioned economic relationship to our government, all of which I am institutionally participating in as a citizen. But if I consider the general structure of rape, the (violent) use of someone else as an object to serve one's own needs (i.e., "slavery"), I see myself doing this in many ways: My ability to buy cheap shoes is my participation in the likely slavery of some child in a shoe factory in Cambodia, just as the use of refined sugar in the 1600's to make an apple pie was the direct participation in the system of slavery created to serve sugar plantations to meet the economic demand for refined sugar. Patricia pointed out that our ability to buy a head of lettuce for $1.75 comes at the expense of a Mexican person doing hard labor in a field for $6/hour, yet we "want them out of our country." Who will serve our "need" to eat inexpensively so that our discretionary income can enable us to consume other things? Patricia did not point out the sometimes inhumane living conditions that migrant workers are "offered" by employers.  In essence, our industrialized food system, along with our other global systems of consumption, are the institutionalized, "new slavery," enslaving communities, the environment, and individuals.

Now I will engage in a shameless advertisement. Myself, community members and several other Cal Poly folks have been attempting to create a learning experience at Cal Poly that innovates alternative ways of living---aimed at holistic thriving, knowing that the way that we have done things will not enable a thriving planet. We call this effort SUSTAIN-SLO and welcome others who would like to partner to create this learning experience. 

Suggested Homework
Imagine an artificial duality of reality.

In one, take as a given condition, a violent world as illustrated in the common literary themes: man v. nature; man v. man; man v. self; man v. God.  Survival is the thing and all the necessities that come with it. How would you organize the things that would be natural to be doing in this world?

In the other, take an interdependent, non-violent world as the given condition. Events are cyclic, like the food chain within the circle of life; phenomena and meaning are contextual rather than reductionist and linear.  How would you organize in that world?

What would you notice as the difference in these realities?


Locate in yourself, the activities you recognize are based on fear and the dynamic and structure of it. As a hint, fear-based action has associated with it anxiety; something has to get done.  If that something doesn't get done, something terrible will happen. To what extend do we experience things in your life correlated to that animated (fear-based) state? That is, does the action you take from fear result in the intended outcome?

Then consider a love-based state.  How is it different?

Notice with which you are more familiar?  Are you conciously choosing what you are animating?

Note: I think that the word "animate" here means "breathe life into," as in , "I'm in a state of fear and I animate that state by taking fear-based actions." 


  1. Thank you Linda. You did a great job of representing what was said. I notice in me that I missed writing the blog entry this week so I will add a comment here.....

    I have been thinking about how "the line of good and evil is a line in every man's heart" and how I do experience myself as violent in a lot of different (non-physical) ways. Somehow I have justified this as "my job" or "my parenting role" or "just trying to be truthful." I wonder what it would be like to really embrace how the violence of rape is actually the same violence that I perpetrate everyday? I am thinking about what Roger said about conflating the realization of our own ability to be violent with the actual committing of horrific acts of violence. That maybe I can see my own participation and mourn that without actually committing the acts. Another question I have is what is the cost of not recognizing our own violent nature. I think the unconscious suppression of this realization makes the violence more prevalent. But I dont really know.

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  3. Linda,
    Thanks for taking the time to write this out. You did such an excellent job of recreating it - at least, what I remember to have been discussed. It's helpful to read it over again and reflect on these things. Overall, I think that session was one of the more thought-provoking sessions we have had this year and it has given me much to think about over the past few weeks.
    ~ Luanne