“You can’t stop force with force.”

Bigots are American Too

September 11, 2010 - Tea Party sympathizers chant ugly slogans in an anti-Mosque rally while others slip behind them with signs such as Free Hugs, Love, and Bigots are American too.

I’m taking a course this semester called Communities and Conflict, which interested me due to its focus on civilians in war. I have long been deeply frustrated about the wars the United States wages in the name of “freedom” and “liberty.” We allow these pat phrases to gloss over the intense destruction civilians experience on the ground, resulting in a frightening lack of holistic perspective and an inability to grasp why our foreign policy is so problematic. A class on the anthropology of war with a focus on the civilian perspective seemed like a perfect start to help me begin to remedy this gap in my knowledge.

Parallel to this is my increased interest in literature, preferably written by women. Encountering an annotated edition of Virginia Woolf’s anti-war text Three Guineas in the bookstore the other day, I simply could not resist. I have been slowly absorbing the introduction to the book, written by Jane Marcus, with intense pleasure. I don’t generally consider myself to be a pacifist, but I find Woolf’s intention with Three Guineas to be fascinating in light of my own reaction to the texts I’m reading for Communities and Conflict. An interesting and integral feature of the book is the pictures of men who held positions of power in England at the time – a decorated general (and founder of the Boy Scouts), the President of Cambridge, an Archbishop, and a judge – she is prompting us to connect the dots between these interconnected seats of power and direct our ire towards the structure. Jane Marcus states that without these pictures, which many editions removed, one is not reading the same book. In addition (emphasis mine):

The Spanish photographs of mutilated “dead children” and of “ruined houses” are ruthlessly referred to over and over again in the book. They are like a red flag or (perhaps) a Republican banner running through her agonizing argument that you can’t stop force with force. She notes disapprovingly that the Madrid bombing photographs incite one to anger. She will not print them, lest they incite more volunteers to go off to war. But what are we to do with these bewigged and bemedaled men we see in the photographs in the book before us? (lxi)

It seems I would garner Woolf’s disapproval as I can’t help but read Carolyn Nordstrom’s book, A Different Kind of War Story, without feeling despair, helplessness and rage. It chronicles the coping strategies of civilians in the Mozambican Civil War. Layers of violence characterize their lives – from the acute (physical) violence that is typically showcased in accounts of war to the cultural and structural violence that continues to impact Mozambicans in the ensuing upheaval. I can’t help but think “raze it all” when thinking about the perpetrators, an “instinct” (?) to strike back with some sort of violence in response. Something that really gripped me was Nordstrom’s point that one of the essential facets of war is the obliteration of a culture and one’s vision of the future:

The Mozambican scholar Sergio Viera once said to me that the aim of the war was to create a nonsociety, and that is why tactics like castration are employed. The spectacle of violence cannot be detached from its experience, its aftermath, its enduring reality. Dirty war specialists know the actions of today define the truths of tomorrow.

One of the most insidious and powerful targets of violence is the very sense of future that gives definition and direction to people’s lives. In an uncertain present, a future is impossible to determine. But to be human is to have a future, and this lack of future, people said, can fuel further violences…

I think what fascinates me so much about these two texts is the alternatives outlined in respect to the urge to continue the cycle of violence. Nordstrom reveals the coping strategies that Mozambicans have created to stop the violence of the war, stating “it is my opinion that average Mozambican citizens instituted a series of conflict resolution practices that are among the most refined I have seen anywhere in the world” (p. 40). While one may regard Mozambicans with possessing more of a “right” than anyone to fight violence with violence, they employ alternate mechanisms.

For instance, villagers kidnapped and reintegrated soldiers, rehabilitating and accepting them back into community life. Both victims of violence and participants were encouraged to farm plots of land to reestablish their connection to the community and the land in an effort to promote healing. A number of different kinds of ceremonies were held in order to promote this healing process. It seems to me that these ceremonies, conducted by the community as a whole, were integral in recreating the bonds that the violence targets and severs through the promotion of very specific acts. Rather than respond and continue the cycle of violence, Mozambicans invested in the well-being of others and worked to restore the sense of future that had been destroyed. War and violence were treated as a disease that needed to be cured and “taken out of people” (p. 144) rather than an innate part of human nature.

My own exploration of cycles of violence has never gone beyond power dynamics, but I’m finding that I obviously have a lot to learn about subverting that cycle. As illustrated by the protests sweeping the Middle East, pacifism need not be passive and has the potential to be incredibly powerful. I am still astonished to have learned (thanks to the ALOUD podcast with Slavoj Zizek) that the phrase “turn the other cheek”, so often used to promote taking abuse willingly, had another meaning when Jesus invoked the phrase. Rather, it meant to demand equality, creating a dilemma for the person who meted the abuse. With that, I’ll end with a final but captivating quote from Nordstrom’s book:

Ultimately, the Mozambicans who forged systems of resistance to war remind the rest of us that violence is not a fixed entity, a “truth” to be dealt with, but instead it is a social, political, and cultural construction that noncombatants – the targets of most violence – can redefine to assert their own political will. In de-legitimizing violence, people reconstruct a new political culture, one that delegitimizes the politics of force. Such political reconstructions are a serious threat, for they simultaneously delegitimize the political systems that rely on force to maintain power. They remind us that violence crushes political will only if people believe in its ability to do so. When people take the definition of violence into their own hands, they are affecting political will. (p. 143-144)

  • David Smith

    “But to be human is to have a future, and this lack of future, people said, can fuel further violences…” and these violences, in return, decimate the future. Thus, the cycle continues. Perhaps this cycle is why ghettoization is such an effective tactic for marginalization. The perceived lack of future in a ghetto spawns violence, which in return, destroys any hope for the future. Rinse, wash, repeat and over time the ghetto develops a “culture of violence,” and thus through reciprocity, a culture with no future. What is the future of our ghettos? Logic would dictate that if there is to be a future, then we must curtail the violence. However, if we are to curtail the violence, then we must provide a future. The chicken or the egg? Do we tackle violence or provide for a future?

    • Erin O’Rourke

      I don’t think it has to be mutually exclusive – I would hope there are programs out there that make an effort to tackle both. In addition, I think it’s important to do away with this idea of “escape” from earlier conversations we’ve had. I think this implies a few things: 1) That people who don’t escape from ghettos didn’t “deserve” a better life, and therefore it’s ok to leave them in a detrimental environment with no help or assistance 2) It takes for granted this idea of hierarchies – that someone is always going to be at the bottom, and rather than a system that “allows” for a few to escape while subjugating the rest, it would be really wonderful to work towards actually reviving these communities as places where people can lead secure, happy lives and 3) What kind of assimilation must one undergo to accomplish this “escape”? – Perhaps this is a question you could shed light on, and if it’s a bunch of bullshit. In the end it seems like one big safety valve. The people who can play the game the best and take on aspects of the dominant culture (therefore reinforcing its superiority) are the ones who make it.

      I don’t think your own use of the concept of escape means you believe any of those things. I’m speaking from a privileged position and have never lived in a community I felt the need to escape from. So please comment and tell me if I’m just really wrong. On another note, this reminded me of one of the many women I have an intellectual crush on – Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx. You NEED to check her out. She’s just incredible. Makes my heart flutter.