“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
“America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. King spoke those words on April 4, 1967 in opposition to the Vietnam War. His noble and heroic call for the end of the violence of war earned him the hostility of many Americans (including a large number of African-Americans) and ultimately led Lyndon Johnson to refer to him as “that goddamned nigger preacher.”
And yet, his prescient words haunt us even now as we grapple with the aftermath of the violence that hit Newtown, Conn. We are still blind as a society, however, to acts of violence that are not considered acts of violence but lead us to where we are today.
Webster’s tells us that violence is:
1. a: exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse (as in warfare; effective illegal entry into a house etc.)
b: an instance of violent treatment or procedure
2: injury by or as if by distortion, infringement, or profanation
3 a: intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force <the violence of the storm>
b: vehement feeling or expression : fervor; also : an instance of such action or feeling
c: a clashing or jarring quality
4: undue alteration (as of wording or sense in editing a text)
It’s easy when we think about violence to focus on 1a and b, nevertheless, the indirect or less recognized forms of aggression all play a part in our society’s culture of violence. The vehemence of our words, the distortion and profanation of truth and the ferocity and turbulence of certain policies all lend themselves to the devaluing of human dignity and life.
What Dr. King pointed to in his 1967 speech gives us a prism through which to examine the various shapes, forms and incarnations of violence in our country and world.
The violence of racism
Racism, at its core, is dehumanizing; it is the intentional and unintentional undervaluing of people of color. It says that they deserve less human consideration and that the concerns of their lives carry less weight than those of the dominant culture. Yes, one could speak of the violence of internalized oppression that causes people of color to view one another through the flawed and troubled lenses those centuries of structural and institutional racism has imparted to them with dangerous and volatile results.
And one could speak of the desensitizing impact that bigotry plays in the killing of black and brown teens in places such as Florida, New York and Oakland for the (given) reasons as innocuous as playing loud music or just simply walking while being black or brown. These blatant, dramatic instances highlight how the steady stream and persistence of negative stereotypes about black and Hispanic people appear to justify the need to meet people of color (especially young men of color) with a preparedness to do violence.
Yet, it is the other, dare I say, subtler forms of prejudice and racism that demand our attention. It is the day-in-day-out grind and tearing of the human spirit, microaggressions, if you will.
According to Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue Ph.D., there are three types of current racial transgressions:
Microassaults: Conscious and intentional actions or slurs, such as using racial epithets, displaying swastikas or deliberately serving a white person before a person of color in a restaurant.
Microinsults: Verbal and nonverbal communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity. An example is an employee who asks a colleague of color how she got her job, implying she may have landed it through an affirmative action or quota system.
Microinvalidations: Communications that subtly exclude, negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color. For instance, white people often ask Asian-Americans where they were born, conveying the message that they are perpetual foreigners in their own land.
Sue focuses on microinsults and microinvalidiations because of their less obvious nature, which put people of color in a psychological bind, he asserts: While the person may feel insulted, she is not sure exactly why, and the perpetrator doesn’t acknowledge that anything has happened because he is not aware he has been offensive.
These are the (mostly) unintentional slights and stings inflicted by, for all intents and purposes, well-meaning people, but acts of microaggression are microviolence nonetheless. Unintentional, however, does not mean less damaging. To be an unintentional shot is not less painful than if it occurred on purpose.
This form of “violence” must be addressed as well because it opens us up to the possibilities of tackling the more tragic and physically devastating practices of aggression. It is the daily microinsults and microinvalidiations that create a more acceptable atmosphere for the explosive “macroaggression” that has become all too common in our society.
The violence of materialism
“Poverty is the worst form of violence.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Materialism can rightly be defined as the worship of the things, but it cannot be properly defined only as thus. No, the worship of things only can happen in tandem with the neglect of people. We have long been told that violence leads to poverty, but we have, apparently, been slow to admit that poverty itself is a form of violence; a sort of aggression.
If we realize one of the definitions of violence as an intense, turbulent or furious and often destructive action or force, then it could rightly be said that economic and employment policy can and does fall into that category.
The reintroduction of debtor’s prisons; the criminalization of homelessness and the aiding of the homeless; the refusal of certain corporations to pay their workers a living wage; the forcible evictions of families from the only homes they’ve known because of the malfeasance of Wall Street, etc., are all examples of economic antagonism visited upon the poor in our country and around the globe.
The saddest and cruelest of ironies is that what brings us to our current conversation of violence is the slaughtering of innocent children and yet, this most common form of violence is committed daily against a quarter of the world’s children.
More than a billion people across the globe live on less than a dollar a day, placing them in extreme poverty. Moderate poverty is defined as those living, on $1 to $2 a day, leaving a total of some 2.8 billion people, almost half the world’s population, living in poverty. We live in a society that claims it will not tolerate violence, but the facts belie the claim.
We have seen in our recent politics the viciousness of sentiment in regard to those who are in greatest need in our society. Designations such as “makers and takers”; 47 percenters; urban voters and the like, are the ammunition in the rhetorical clips of the derisive wealthy and powerful aimed at the working poor, the disabled and the disenfranchised.
Our lack of recognition of poverty as a form of violence supports and underpins the dehumanization that in turns leads to the physical annihilation that happens in certain areas of our country every day and the more extreme cases that took place in Tucson, Aurora and Newtown.
The violence of militarism
It is not a great a leap to see the violence that is inherent in militarism, and nevertheless, we as a society and nation suffer from a sort of cognitive dissonance regarding the impact that our foreign military engagements have made on our psyches and have contributed to our propensity to violence.
In countries thousands of miles away; in cities that may be difficult for some of us to pronounce, bullets and missiles are flying with “MADE IN THE USA” stamped and engraved upon them and as we, rightly, focus on the bloodshed and horror of Newtown, we consistently ignore murder that takes place in our name.
In an extensive analysis of open-source documents, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that 2,292 people had been killed by U.S. missiles, including as many as 775 civilians. As a matter of fact, in just a single attack on a madrasah in 2006, up to 69 children lost their lives — that’s about 3.5 Newtowns.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism further showed that from 2004 through November of 2012, 176 children have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan — 299 of the 351 strikes since 2004 were conducted under President Obama’s watch. Yet, there have been no significant outcries; no talk about how such violence can’t be tolerated or our need for self-reflection. Is it because Pakistani innocents are valued less than our babies in places such as Sandy Hook Elementary? Is it because Muslim and brown and black children are stripped of the virtue and incorruptibility that we attribute to our little white children?
The United States stands as the number one arms dealer in the world. From 2006 to 2010, the U.S. accounted for nearly one-third of the world’s arms exports, easily outdistancing Russia. Even in spite of a decline in global arms sales in 2010 due to the recession, the U.S. increased its market share, accounting for an enormous 53 percent of the trade that year. Last year saw the U.S. on pace to deliver more than $46 billion in foreign arms sales. And with those numbers, death and destruction ultimately follow. It is inevitable.
Those figures don’t even take into account the $3 billion in direct foreign assistance given each year to Israel — roughly one-fifth of America’s entire foreign aid budget. And with that aid is purchased the means to bomb, kill and maim those around the age of those in Newtown, in Palestine.
Do we seriously believe that our collective soul as a nation does not suffer as result of the violence we export to other nations? The violence we claim to regard as unacceptable within our borders is bellicosity that we all too readily condone on distant shores.
Until we recognize violence in all of various forms and incarnations; until we as nation discover a compassion and understanding that exceeds and disintegrates our prejudices and our privileges, we only have to mark time until another tragedy is visited upon us.
There have been a great host of others who have lent their pens and voices to the need for better and saner gun laws, and I agree. Nevertheless, until the commonplace violence of racism, materialism and militarism is arrested and eradicated, our pronouncements of peace are hollow and efforts to curb the most spectacular and explosive occurrences of aggression will always fall terribly short.
Is that a fitting legacy to the children of Palestine, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and Newtown?