Wednesday, March 28, 2018

What violence do you fail to perceive?

What violence do you fail to perceive? What violence do I fail to perceive?

What violence escapes your notice, is invisible, inaudible, imperceptible, floats by like normal or nothing in your world?

Those are hard questions to answer. After all, if you don't notice it as it happens, why and how would you end up understanding the extent to which the world is in fact saturated with violence? But it is. It's all around us. Our lives are built on it.

That violence is a punch in the face, a truncheon to the gut, an uninvited grope, yes...but it is also hunger that need not happen, toxins that could have been prevented, avoidable inequality that shortens lives. It is the welfare regulations keeping you in an abusive relationship, it is the school policies and curriculum reproducing "queer = shameful," it is having your children taken when you have been denied the supports you need to raise them. In this understanding, any harm that we could prevent but don't, any suffering we allow to be inflicted when things could be otherwise, is violence.

This violence is all around us. And particularly those of us who face little of it directly (and are least likely to perceive it) live lives that are built on it. When we move into a shiny new apartment made possible because the low-income community that used to live on this street has been torn apart by evictions, rent hikes, and punitive policing, we are benefiting from violence. When we as settlers do *anything* on the stolen Indigenous lands of Turtle Island, in this context in which colonial violence is not of the past but alive and now and painfully ongoing, we live a life based on violence. When I check my Twitter on a phone built from violently exploited labour and using rare earth metals extracted via blood spilt and toxins released, I live based on violence. The examples are endless.

The point of raising these examples is not that we can somehow obtain purity, that we can escape complicity as individuals. We can't: We're in this, and nothing we can do on our own will get us out. (See, for instance, Alexis Shotwell's Against Purity.) Only through collective struggle can we make a dent in any of this. Though even that is complicated, messy, imperfect, and inevitably ongoing.

This post is not about that collective struggle, though. This post is about something that, at least in a certain sense and for some of us, has to precede that: The bare act of noticing the violence that surrounds us. There are lots of ways that this not-noticing happens. In some cases, we just don't have the basic knowledge to notice – our schooling and the media keep us ignorant of how the social world works. In other cases, the dehumanization of racial, sexual, class, and gender Others that those of us with privilege so often learn gets in the way of recognizing harm to those who are Othered as being horrific, as causing pain, as truly being violence. And in many other cases, it's kind of like how Naomi Klein describes the left version of climate change denialism: It's not that we deny the facts, it's that we acknowledge them intellectually but can't seem to find ways to incorporate the horror and magnitude of that knowledge into how we actually live our lives.

None of us, I think, can fully perceive the violence of the world. I know I certainly can't. Just as there is no way to will ourselves to innocence from this violence as individuals, there is also no way to will ourselves as individuals into full awareness of it. And yet, there are things we can do. At a very bare minimum, we can engage in practices that will make us better able to perceive this violence down the road.

When we have a strong emotional reaction to some event in the media, it's worth taking a few moments to think about what else might be happening that's as bad or worse that we aren't reacting to at all, or just with a pro-forma "tut tut, that's too bad."

When we feel inspired to share some political something on social media or in conversation, it's worth reflecting a bit on what doesn't feel important enough or appropriate to share, even though the harms involved are as bad or worse.

When we are swimming in our media-saturated everyday lives, it's worth asking why we find article X to be worth reading, to be somehow *about* us, when we perceive no connection to article Y, or it just doesn't feel important.

And it's worth starting this practice of noticing from at least an intellectual recognition of how not-noticing happens, even if we can't yet feel it in our guts. We need to start this questioning of how we direct our attention and how we react to things with a recognition that we are systematically taught to devalue some lives (BIPOC, LGBTQ+, women, migrant, poor, disabled, etc.) and from a recognition that we are taught to write off many forms of systemic violence as normal, or natural, or inevitable, or just how things are.

This is, of course, difficult. And it is not any kind of magic answer. But it is one way, I think, of doing the work of "staying with the trouble" (a phrase used in the book linked above, quoting Donna Haraway) which in turn is absolutely necessary to enable other kinds of responses that might begin to adequately address the violence of our world.

And I should add that I don't write this from a place of pretending I have things figured out; I write from being mired in the middle of it, from failing to perceive lots of violence, from sometimes having gut reactions that are oppressively hypocritical, from recognizing some aspects of oppressive violence intellectually but not yet having figured out at all what it means to live a life with that awareness, and all the rest.

But I write from a place of thinking that it is still worth asking: What violence do I fail to perceive? What violence do you fail to perceive?

1 comment:

Ruth Pickering said...

Thank you Scott for this thoughtful posting. Much to reflect on as we try to become more aware in our daily lives.