On depictions of (non)violence for the cause of justice.

downloadGraphic novelist Nate Powell, alongside his March co-authors John Lewis & Andrew Aydin, will be speaking in Bloomington next month.  I’m excited about the talk.

I first learned about Powell’s work by reading The Silence of Our Friends about the civil rights movement in Texas.  That book was especially meaningful for me because I’m generally non-confrontational, preferring to quietly do the right thing rather than make a fuss.  It’s important for me to remember that silence in itself can cause harm — silence can be interpreted as assent — and there are times when it’s necessary to instead advocate for change.  My little family is always a bit over-scheduled these days, but we try to make time to act upon & advocate for our beliefs … and both K & I turned down careers in academia in order to work toward changing the world for the better more effectively.

marchbookone_softcover_copy0_lgYesterday, in preparation for Powell’s talk, I read the first volume of March.  Hopefully I can read the second volume during naptime today.  It’s a nice book, does a great job of mixing contemporary and historical scenes to depict the long arc of the moral universe.  And the pages showing the students’ preparation for the sit-ins were amazing — in those, the reader sees students spitting on, assaulting, & verbally denigrating their friends as practice, to be certain that they wouldn’t lose control and strike back during the protests.  A beautiful panel shows a serious young man bowing out, apologetically announcing that he would not be able to remain non-violent, that he would act to defend himself and his allies.

Even though he is an unnamed character in a graphic novel, it hurt seeing that young man leave, unable to participate in the protests because he felt too strongly about their cause.

This is something that might not have made such a deep impression on me had I not recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (which you should read — it’s short, fast, and enlightening.  But if you’re worried that it’ll be a while before you can make it to a library or a bookstore, click here to read the condensed version he prepared for The Atlantic.  A lot of the key pieces of his book are included and with the time you save you can read his “Case for Reparations,” which I’ll try to put together an essay about sometime in the next few weeks).

320px-Ta-Nehisi_CoatesHere’s what Coates wrote about his experience being taught the history of the civil rights movement in school:

Every February my classmates and I were herded into assemblies for a ritual review of the civil-rights movement.  Our teachers urged us toward the examples of freedom marchers, Freedom Riders, and Freedom Summers, and it seemed that the month could not pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera.  Why are they showing this to us?  Why were only our heroes nonviolent? 

I’d never thought about the psychological ramifications of depicting exclusively non-violent protest for the civil rights movement, of history classes full of pictures & video clips of black protestors being beaten, bitten by dogs, sprayed with hoses… and never fighting back.  Because it takes power away from those advocating for change.  Not that those protestors weren’t powerful.  They were.  I liked that March showed what steely resolve was necessary to maintain non-violence in those circumstances.  But, still, the civil rights protests depicted in U.S. history classes required change to come from the horrible white people.  The protests waited on those white people to stop being violent, to stop opposing, to stop yelling, to stop murdering men & women & children.

Yes, for anyone watching that footage it’s blatantly obvious that that the brutalized black protesters are heroes and that the white aggressors are villains.  But power is still shown to be on the side of those who were acting, i.e. the villains, and the change comes from their having stopped acting.

I’d never thought about what it must have been like for Coates, or any other brown-skinned student, to be shown so much footage with the implicit message if you’d like to be treated as a human being you have to submit cheerfully to abuse and perhaps your abusers will realize that they are in the wrong.

This isn’t the way we celebrate other victories in history class.  (Look at that last sentence I pulled from Coates again: Why were only our heroes nonviolent?)  We show the dramatic action of the Boston tea party.  We show Americans killing the British in the revolutionary war.  We celebrate violent conquest.  For World War II, our “good war,” we celebrate violent reprisal against those Germans who were oppressing and murdering their Jewish population.

But violent reprisal against the arguably more horrific treatment of blacks in the United States is rarely shown.  Even though his rebellion failed, if Nat Turner had been an escapee from the German concentration camps his story would’ve been long celebrated as a glorious tragedy, at least they killed some 60 Nazis before they died!  They went out with honor!

1831: Slaves rebelling in Virginia during the revolt led by Nat Turner. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

(Although someone is making a film to celebrate this uprising… a mere 180 years later.  Should come out sometime next year.)

(And, yes, it’s troubling that they killed children.  The enemy nation they were at war with also killed children, though, and tortured children, and enslaved them.  Plus, given the paucity of their armaments, Turner’s army needed the element of surprise to succeed — survivors would alert the enemy nation.)

Or there’s Charles Deslondes’ revolt.  Until the bicentennial, I’d never even heard of it.

And, look, I dislike violence.  I don’t watch violent movies, I’ve read as little about war as possible (I think it’s necessary to learn the underlying causes of armed conflict, but I hope never to read anything celebrating the tactics employed in the Civil War or WWII), I think the Sanskrit ahimsa is one of the world’s most beautiful words.  I think those who employed satygraha in India & those who practiced nonviolence in the U.S. should indeed be celebrated as heros.

It’s just that, before reading Coates’ book, I’d never considered the message being sent to black students by showing only protestors being harmed.  As though we’re trying to convey the message that only by suffering might you receive fair treatment.  So thank you, Coates, for helping put my own racist education into perspective.

On the origins of war.

24451Recently someone suggested Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Blood Rites” as a companion piece to read alongside Karen Armstrong’s “Fields of Blood” (see a recent post inspired by the latter here).  Which seemed reasonable enough; both works attempt to explain war and where it comes from.  And although I hadn’t expected to be overly fond of Armstrong’s work based on a review I’d read about it in the newspaper, I think her theories are much more reasonable.

Ehrenreich’s book had some parts I liked; her analysis of the importance of the moon through ancient time, as well as the importance of menstrual cycles, and how the two may have influenced goddess worship, was very interesting.  I just disagree with her theory of where war comes from.

Here’s a passage from the beginning of her work that explains her thesis:

In the conventional account of human origins, everything about human violence is explained as a result of our species’ long prehistoric sojourn as hunters of animals.  It is the taste for meat and the willingness to kill for it that supposedly distinguish us from other primates, making us both smart and cruel, sociable and domineering, eager for the kill and capable of sharing.  We are, in other words, a species of predators–“natural born killers” who carried the habit of fighting over into the era of herding and farming.  With the Neolithic revolution, wild ungulates were replaced as prey by the animals in other people’s herds or the grain stored in other villages’ fortresses; and the name for this new form of “hunting” was war.  In this account, the sacralization of war arises only because the old form of hunting, and probably also the sharing of meat, had somehow been construed as sacred for eons before.

No doubt much of “human nature” was indeed laid down during the 2 1/2 million years or so when Homo lived in small bands and depended on wild animals and plants for food.  But it is my contention that our peculiar and ambivalent relationship to violence is rooted in a primordial experience that we have managed, as a species, to almost entirely repress.  And this is the experience, not of hunting, but of being preyed on by animals that were initially far more skillful hunters than ourselves.  In particular, the sacralization of war is not the project of a self-confident predator, I will argue, but that of a creature which has learned only “recently,” in the last thousand or so generations, not to cower at every sound in the night.

…the idea being that human violence arose through self-defense, attempting to fight off predators, and the same emotions underlie modern conflict.  She points out the frequency of predator symbols, etc., amongst militaries.  And this allows her to introduce what I find to be a very elegant metaphor:

To put it another way: We will not find the roots of the human attraction to war by searching the human psyche for some innate flaw that condemns us to harass and kill our fellows.  In war we act as if the only enemies we have are human ones, but I am proposing that the emotions we bring to war are derived, in an evolutionary sense, from a primal battle that the entire human species might easily have lost.  We are not alone on this planet, and we were once decisively outnumbered by creatures far stronger and more vicious than ourselves.

Medicine offers a useful analogy.  In an autoimmune disease, the body’s immunological defenses turn against the body itself.  Cellular responses which evolved to combat invading microorganisms start combating, instead, the tissues of heart or muscle.  We do not understand exactly why, in all cases, the immune mechanism becomes so confused that it can no longer distinguish “self” from “other.”  But we could not even begin to comprehend these perverse ills if we had no inkling of humankind’s long struggle against an external enemy–the viruses, bacteria, and parasites that cause so many diseases–because it was out of that struggle that the immune system evolved in the first place.

Similarly with war: The weapons have changed beyond recognition over the millennia, but the basic emotional responses represent defense mechanisms which evolved in combat with a deadly, non-human “other.”

In fact, I think she could extend her metaphor even farther with some findings from modern science, specifically the “hygiene hypothesis” proposed to explain the current prevalence of autoimmune diseases.  The idea being that if you take away the microorganisms that your body has evolved to fight, even by something as simple as making your environment too clean, you increase the chance of contracting some of this diseases.  With no exogenous enemy, the body fights itself.  So it seems very elegant to think, humans evolved to fight off predators.  With no predators, our same emotional need for combat is subverted to cause us to fight amongst ourselves.

But personally, I don’t think it’s true.

Personally, I think it’s much more likely that the underlying motivators, emotional and otherwise, that fuel war are rooted in the scarcity of resources.  You have, I want, I kill.  And, yeah, I’m a cold-hearted economist, so that does bias me toward explanations like this.  But I think there are a couple pieces of evidence to consider that support this.

For instance, chimpanzees are still subject to the sort of predation that Ehrenreich thinks formed a human emotional connection to war.  So, as in the autoimmune metaphor above, they shouldn’t fight amongst themselves – they still have leopards and lions and such to battle.

But chimpanzees do fight in a manner sometimes eerily reminiscent of human warfare.  And they seem to do so in order to gain access to resource-rich territory or (relatively) scarce mating partners.  Obviously it’s sketchy to draw conclusions about ancient human behavior based on contemporary chimpanzee behavior, but I think this does show that it’s reasonable to posit intergroup intraspecies combat for resources in a species still subject to predation – with predation sometimes causing up to 40% of all deaths.

And, again, it’s easy to imagine that most territory was roughly equivalent prior to the invention of agriculture, but that does not seem to be true.  Even through ancient time, with everyone living on unimproved territory, there would have been reason to fight.

Robbers-cave-Eagle-bannerI also think that it’s important to consider human sociological research that shows the way violent conflict might begin – such as the Robbers Cave experiment (which, look… the old psychology experiments were pretty clearly unethical.  Things like this or the Stanford prison experiment.  But since they were in fact conducted, we may as well use the data, right?), or my personal favorite, an experiment to see if people would develop ingroup/outgroup conflict after being lied to about a personal characteristic – in this case schoolboys were asked to estimate a number of dots, then the researchers ignored their answers and randomly told them they were overestimators or underestimators.  Conflict between the groups ensued!  But in all these conflict experiments, there is exogenously-imposed resource scarcity.  Yes, eventually there were emotional components to the boys’ dislike of outgroups, but only after experiencing unequal division of prizes, picnic food, money, etc.

And Ehrenreich wrote that you might not expect self-sacrificing style combat for resource gain because combatants would not necessarily be genetically related to those who would benefit by their victory:

The biologically “rational” explanation for certain kinds of altruism is that it promotes the survival of one’s kin, and hence of genes that are similar to one’s own.  It could be argued that this explanation applies to situations in which men die defending their immediate clan or families (although the practice of exogamy has guaranteed that even clans and families will be of varied genetic makeup).  But it is somewhat more of a stretch from a band or tribe of loosely related individuals to the mass, genetically polyglot armies of both ancient and modern states.

…but as with the boys’ behavior in those psychology experiments, just because behavior is irrational when observed in a modern setting does not mean that it couldn’t have reasonable genetic underpinnings.  Because the modern world is so different from our environment through most of evolutionary time.  One of my favorite (outdated) books on this subject is Desmond Morris’s “The Human Zoo,” in which he analyzes some of the ways humans are ill-suited for our modern environment because it’s so dissimilar to the environment we evolved in.  Like, okay, goose imprinting?  It makes no sense to do that if you’re living in a world where you see humans first.  But that’s not the world that geese evolved in (or, well, even if it was, enough geese still knew they were geese that it’s as though the humans were just instantly devouring whatever portion were imprinted to them), so that’s how things are.  Similarly, if people evolved in a world where everyone composing their ingroup was worth helping – genetically or otherwise – then we will likely still have those compulsions, even if we now live in heterogeneous societies where you’d perhaps be better off always acting like a jerk.

Anyway, that’s why I disagree with Ehrenreich’s theory.  Even though it’s interesting, and the idea “humans fight to gain control over scarce resources, or because someone subverts the mental wiring that makes them think they need to gain control over scarce resources” is rather bland.  But to me the latter, simpler explanation seems more reasonable.  And, look, there’s still room for fun speculation, even if you extract the sacred underpinnings from war.  Because you can think about the sacred and religion in other contexts instead!  Like, okay, Marc Bekoff’s theory that the evolution of religious practice is rooted in intraspecies play, as though practices like dogs’ bowing before their wrestling bouts were proto-ceremonial in nature (EDIT: I first read about this theory in a book by Marc Bekoff, and he’s done a lot of experiments on play in dogs.  But it seems that the theory long predates him – I was just informed by the introduction to Martin Van Creveld’s “Wargames” that the theory that human culture springs from play was first proposed by Johan Huizinga in “Homo Ludens.”  So, just wanted to revise this, make sure I give credit where credit’s due, etc.).  I mean, sure, that’s not war, and it might be equally incorrect, but isn’t that also a fun thing to think about?