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Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Rhetorics of Violence

"We condemn utterly these barbaric attacks. We send our profound condolences to the victims and their families.

“All of our countries have suffered from the impact of terrorism. Those responsible have no respect for human life. We are united in our resolve to confront and defeat this terrorism that is not an attack on one nation, but all nations and on civilized people everywhere.

“We will not allow violence to change our societies or our values, nor will we allow it to stop the work of this summit. We will continue our deliberations in the interest of a better world.

“Here at the summit, the world’s leaders are striving to combat world poverty and save and improve human life.

“The perpetrators of today’s attacks are intent on destroying human life. The terrorists will not succeed. Today’s bombings will not weaken in any way our resolve to uphold the most deeply held principles of our societies and to defeat those who impose their fanaticism and extremism on all of us.

“We shall prevail and they shall not.”
--Tony Blair after today’s bombings in London

“The weight of these sad times we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” (Albany at the end of King Lear)

The weight of our sad times has nearly turned me into a pacifist.  I will admit that, finally, pacifism leaves me in a position that I experience as intellectually and emotionally incoherent.  But my response to today’s bombings in London is a sickening: “Here we go again.” So I am casting about for some alternative narrative to replace the all too predictable one we are about to reenact.

The rhetoric of response to violence is predicated on understanding violence itself as rhetorical.  The terrorists are trying to “send us a message.” Their message is: give up your way of life or we will destroy you.  Once their actions are interpreted in this way, the tenor of the response is pre-scripted.  As Tony Blair said it today: “We will not allow violence to change our societies and our values.” How we will send our message?  By imposing our will on theirs.  “We shall prevail and they shall not.” Their initiatory act of violence calls forth our responding acts of violence.

What differentiates our violence from theirs?  Three things: 1) our aims are moral; theirs are not; 2) they kill innocent people; we do not; and 3) their actions are “gratuitous”; ours are “necessary.” (Lurking behind all three is the old schoolboy standard: “he started it.”)

Pacifism calls all these familiar rhetorical moves into question.  It insists that violence can never be instrumental, that it never simply produces the ends toward which it aims.  The effects of violence—on the perpetrator as well as the victim—are incalculable.  History suggests that violence is a great destroyer.  But it does not create anything.  You cannot preserve a way of life through violence; once you take up arms, kiss your old way of life good-bye.  The attacks of September 11th did change America—not through what the terrorists did, but through what we did in response. 

Consider the counter-example of Spain.  The Madrid bombings were as horrible as anything you might image or dread.  But they did not dictate a complete change in the society’s prevailing foci or goals.  What if we were to respond to terrorist attacks the way we respond to earthquakes?  Take reasonable precautions, but don’t act as if there is some method to render the event impossible, or think that attacking a perceived source of the danger will prevent all future attacks.  Most of all, don’t allow obsession with the danger or investment in non-effective means of preventing it overwhelm getting on with the life one wants, chooses, and enjoys.  If you can’t live in peace with the possibility of earthquakes, don’t live in California.  Various observers noted that it was not the residents of New York City who voted on the basis of security fears or dreams last November. 

Yes, maybe it is true that you can’t move somewhere to gain immunity from the threat of terrorism (although surely some places are less likely targets than others).  But that’s not the point, which is, rather, pacifism’s pragmatic claim that violence cannot get you the results for which it aims.  Precautions are one thing, striking out at “the enemy” is another.  There are various arguments about why violence (in general) is counter-productive and why violence against terrorists (in particular) is counter-productive.  I will assume that you are familiar with these and move on.  The arguments here are empirical and, to say the least, open to debate.  It would be very difficult to prove that not only was every historical instance of violence unable to achieve its aim, but also that violence necessarily (not just contingently) must fail instrumentally.  Surely, the implausibility of such a sweeping argument partially explains why humans keep resorting to violence to get things done.  But, at least, pacifism calls our attention to the fact that violence, to say the least, is a very uncertain means to accomplish anything.  So if the end is something we care about deeply, we will be well advised to consider other means.  Violence has a nasty habit of proving indiscriminate in its destruction.

I turn now from pacifism’s pragmatism (the focus on instrumentality) to what I think of as its realism.  Of course, in matters of violence, the manly rhetoric of determination, will, prevailing, and necessity is considered “realistic”—and is opposed to the namby-pamby, pie-in-the-sky idealism of the pacifist who refuses to face facts.  I beg to differ.  The most abiding lesson I have learned in the four years since September 11th is the persistent inability of humans—as a species? Who knows?  But certainly in many instances—to call a spade a spade.  The rhetorics of violence divert our attention away from the maimed and suffering and dead bodies that are violence’s most real product.  Think of the ways that “sacrifice” and “victory” were deployed in Bush’s recent speech about the Iraq War.  Was there any connection offered between these terms and the dead bodies our war is producing daily?  Pacifism calls us to the fact that violence means killing and maiming; it means inflicting physical harm and pain on humans.  It tells us to be suspicious—very suspicious—of the words in which we cloak violence, in which we justify it, and in which we avoid apprehending its real effects on the ground.  Get real.  By jumping away to the message violence sends about our resolve or to the desired results we imagine it will produce, we cultivate a blindness that renders our claims to be “realists” delusionary. 

Pacifism also calls us to get real about the justificatory distinctions made between “innocent” and non-innocent victims.  Ever since the Blitz of 1940, warfare has pretty much obliterated the distinction between combatants and non-combatants.  (And in what sense are soldiers not innocent?  The sliding from “civilians” to “innocent” is usually unmarked, but incredibly problematic.  Is the civilian Donald Rumsfeld more innocent than the soldier in the field?  You get into very swampy moral ground once you start claiming that some people deserve to be the victims of violence.  But even if we could establish and endorse that distinction in theory, contemporary warfare can’t abide by it in practice. ) The poet Robert Hass, in a recent visit to Chapel Hill, said that he had read somewhere that 90% of the casualties in World War I were soldiers, but that 90% of the casualties in wars since 1939 were not soldiers.  I can’t vouch for the figures, but the trend is undeniable.  To think that “our” violence can be so “surgical” that only the non-innocent will feel its brunt is another delusion, one that the Pentagon has developed a whole new vocabulary to create and preserve.

I guess I must add here—since liberals are so often willfully misunderstood on this score—that I condemn and abhor today’s bombings.  I am only saying that pacifism has some very solid reasons for saying that once you begin making distinctions between “good” violence and “bad” violence, or between “acceptable” violence and “criminal” violence, or between “surgical” violence and “indiscriminate” violence, the consequences, more often than not, are lamentable—and the rhetorics deployed to make those distinctions prove a means for not even seeing the consequences.

Pacifism’s realism also extends to a candid look at the joy humans can take in destruction.  Since violence has proven so unreliable throughout history, our attraction to it can’t be simply its instrumental efficacy.  Push aside the rhetorics of necessity and/or of moralism and it’s not hard to see the glee of the teenager who throws a brick through a plate glass window or the child who stomps on the sand castle.  The last four years have also taught me how bourgeois I am.  I love the life that I have constructed painstakingly over fifty years—and the people with whom I share that life.  I am enormously grateful to the peace and stability that has made that act of construction possible and that makes its continuation likely.  Contempt for all things bourgeois runs deep within modernity from both the right and the left.  Having thrown my lot in with the arts early in life, I have gone through my own anti-bourgeois phases.  And, even today, my understanding of the bourgeois virtues is carefully distanced from the ethos of capitalism.  I will spare you an articulation of my bourgeois loyalties at this time and place. 

The current point is that, for many, peace is boring, constraining, complex, and frustrating.  They accept gleefully the opportunity to flee domesticity and the difficulties of getting along with others. (Much of the frustration on the ground in Iraq is that it is a “political” war, really more a policing action than combat, the kind of action for which our soldiers are poorly trained and equipped.  Many of them would feel a whole lot better if it was no-holds-barred, shoot-‘em-up simple.) Politicians love making those “resolve” speeches.  It offers them their Churchillian moment—and puts the messy compromises of politics and the entangling details of enacting policy on the back burner.  Violence as destruction offers a clear field for action.  Pacifism asks us to cast a cold eye on this human capacity to take joy in violence, irrespective of its consequences or its legitimacy.  We need to devise ways to push a leash on or divert such capacities—and we should be wary of the high-minded or instrumental rhetorics that often mask a love of violence for its simplicity and the heady sense of vitality it affords. 

Posted by John McGowan on 07/07 at 12:28 PM
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