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June 12th, 2020
This episode is dedicated to an anonymous writer who operates the Twitter handle @D_InActivist, who was kind to send in some writing on the topic at hand. Several questions that appear here were posed by this person.
Violence begins when conversation ends. They are both tools we use with those with whom we disagree, and for those with the available strength, violence is far easier to use than conversation. When conversation is cut off by the induction of violence, a critical threshold is passed, one which radically changes the context. Violence and conversation are not tools that exist in the same toolkit, they are methods that exist in wholly different universes.
We think conquering an enemy is an act of brute force, of domination. And this can seem to work in the short term. But all it does is create more of an enemy, with more of a cause, more fuel, more reason, and more drive. If you want to conquer an enemy once and for all, the only two choices are represented by conversation and violence taken to an extreme: either we make a friend of an enemy or we entertain the twisted logic of total annihilation.
This later option of annihilation, which has been foolishly attempted many times throughout human history boils down to a self-immolation. The differences that have been stated and used to separate ourselves have been superficial to the point of being boring. We are, at the end of the day, a living permutation of matter that is capable of talking, of forming conversation that captures facets of existence. Even the most laughably wrong perspective is still more valuable than no perspectives, and perspectives are made most valuable in concert with other perspectives. To labor for the annihilation of perspectives is to make war against conversation itself – the one superpower humans have achieved, and so far as we know, this is the only instance in existence where such a thing has occurred. The annihilation of anyone is a mark against the entire endeavor that it seems we’ve been lucky enough to embark upon.
On the other hand, we are presented with the option of continuing the conversation, expanding it, and quite literally getting into the mind of our enemy. Persuasion is not something that happens in our own mind, it is something that occurs in the mind of our companion in dialogue, and the only way to make such a thing happen is to first get familiar with the territory.
Lately, however, the tools of conversation have veered into strange and fragile territory. The qualifications for what designates enmity have expanded, and the trend seems to be yearning towards violence itself, manifesting as the ease with which people get offended.
A person’s ability to be offended is not the basis for a sound argument. It never should be, and in fact, we are best served by regarding our own sense of offense with deep suspicion and pause. Who doesn’t have countless memories from their past that detail just how poorly emotions can steer our actions when those emotions are running hot? Is this not the greatest and deepest source of regret? We rarely if ever regret an action that we considered deeply and thoughtfully before taking. It’s almost always the rash action, undertaken while intoxicated with some emotion that we think back on with embarrassment.
And what else is taking offense if not an emotional reaction? The word offense has a troubling set of roots. It comes from the Latin offensus meaning merely ‘annoyance’, but it also based on another Latin word, offendere, which means ‘strike against’. These two roots contain a critical difference. They might as well exist in different dimensions. Being annoyed is worlds away from physical violence. And yet, for whatever fragile reason, our culture has sought to close the gap between these two concepts. For many, taking offense to something is expressed with such vehemence, you’d think the person had been physically harmed. Doubtless there are those who would take offense even to that statement. But a question emerges for such offended people:
Do not such easily bruised sensibilities usurp importance from instances of true harm?
And further, what does it say about a person if they are rendered frenetic and hyperemotional at the slightest conceptual discomfort? That’s all it is - before things leap into the dimension of violence - it’s just conceptual discomfort. We are being asked to engage with a concept that doesn’t fit too well into how we prefer to make sense of the world. It’s an abstract discomfort. In some sense, we can argue that it’s not even real, because both our way of making sense of the world, and the uncomfortable concept we’ve encountered – both of these might be totally inaccurate when placed against the true nature of reality.
If the stoics have one comment to add to society, it would be that almost all of our pain and discomfort is imagined, and ultimately something we make a choice to entertain. Regardless of how conscious or unconscious we are during that choice.
It takes very little reading of history to realize that one of our truly greatest accomplishments is to hand over a monopoly on violence to the state. This by no means implies that monopoly on violence is maintained with any kind of perfection – that’s simply impossible, but it’s a spectacular improvement when the alternative is to entertain the possibility of living without conversation, in a place and time when words cease to have meaning, and order is determined not by good ideas and the pursuit of better outcomes, but by a brutal set of physical facts regarding strength that is no longer tempered by thoughtful consideration.
Here is a truly fascinating question:
Could friction be reduced in society by directing people to collectively and consciously raise their bar for what signifies ‘enmity’?
The answer is absolutely. Our bar for what signifies enmity has drifted ever downward, conflating imagined conceptual discomfort with that other dimension of harm initiated by violence.
The fact is everything right up to the first instance of violence is a conversation. But many of us treat and receive words as though they are grenades. The leap to violence occurs when a person no longer sees language as an effective resource. Now does this say more about the resource or the person who doesn’t know how to use it effectively?
As Isaac Asimov once wrote:
Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.
The main incompetency to which this refers is language. What little violence accomplishes, language accomplishes quit literally, everything else.
Another valid question which arises is the issue of violence presented by something that is simply not capable of conversation, be it an animal or a rare pathology among people.
Now arises the issue of how to use force? Is violence a blanket concept with no gradations of nuance? Perhaps, but strength, and the use of force certainly is susceptible to the knife of nuance. The state monopoly on violence and force is an example of this. The average experience of physical violence is drastically different when it is centralized in this way. Violent crime has been trending downwards for decades, and certainly centuries and millenia, despite what recent events might inspire us to think. Surely there are those who wish to live in a world that is totally devoid of physical force and even the possibility of it, but this is a fantasy irreconcilable with reality. The question emerges, as it has always waited: exactly how are we going to choose to live with the ever present possibility of physical force? The monopoly of violence as centralized with the state presents one possibility which certainly seems superior to much of our history.
Another comes from the Bible. In the Gospel of Mathew it is stated:
Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
At first reading this quote seems somewhat, well, pathetic. The word ‘meek’ evokes an image of frail cowardliness. But the English word ‘meek’ is a very poor translation. A theologian by the name James Strong analyzed this word. It is translated from the Greek word praus (πραε?ς) which has no easy equivalent in English. James Strong explained the meaning for the word as “strength under control”. We might imagine the powerful jaws of a lion lightly clasping it’s cub to move it. The lion’s act of moving it’s cub here would be an instance of being ‘meek’ as it was originally intended.
The beatitude from the Gospel of Mark implies what Asimov later identifies: true strength is exhibited not upon others, but over one’s self, especially when it comes to those capable of great harm, but equally versed in this self control. This dual strength is asymmetric. It is like the warrior who prefers to garden as opposed to the gardener who suddenly finds themselves in a war and totally unprepared.
Being strong enough not to use one’s strength is the key to our future.
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