Violence clouds our minds; it makes our vision murky. Our hearts race, our muscles flex, and we get ready to do something. Depending on how close we are to it, we are either fascinated or horrified. Often both. All of this is normal; it’s an important survival instinct, harnessed these days mostly to sell movies. But despite the extraordinarily nonviolent bubble that middle-class Westerners generally live in, violence remains at the core of our politics. At bottom, political debates are about the application, or non-application, of violence. And for reasons biological and social, we are generally terrible at thinking about these issues.
Three especially graphic examples of violence have been dominating the headlines over the last few months: ISIS beheading a journalist; a cop shooting a teenager; and the kidnap and murder of three Israelis. Each incidence has provoked an angry, knee-jerk response, which has in turn triggered a cycle of escalation. . And so from the potent seed of dramatic violence we get three even more violent, politically charged situations: Ferguson, Gaza, and Western intervention in Iraq and Syria.
What all of this means is that telling a story about these violent incidents has been a major preoccupation for writers, politicians, policymakers and activists. The appropriate response follows from accurately diagnosing the problem. Was Michael Brown a criminal, or yet another victim of a racist system? Is Israel defending itself, or acting recklessly outside the bounds of justice and international law? The fate of thousands turns on the dominant interpretation of some crucial act of murder.
We use incidents like this as ways in to much larger, pre-existing political debates. This makes sense: they are immediately, viscerally, relevant. They demand a response, and we’re prepared to spend a little bit of time considering what sort of response that should be. But they are also, for much the same reason, imprecise ciphers – Rorschach blots on which we can project our own meanings as we see fit. There is too much meaning in the digitally broadcasted execution of an American journalist by a group of self-styled jihadists. Take a minute to appreciate all the possible angles here; just the act of killing is already too much for my mind to handle. What does it mean to end a life? Is this a noble ending? How is it with James Foley’s soul?
This already fraught, emotionally charged event is then further situated within cascading layers of meaning. We come with readymade narratives. Michael Brown was a good kid killed by a broken system; he was a bad kid, killed by a public servant who has sworn to protect society from the sort of threat he represents. Zoom out a bit, and he was a kid—who cares if he was good or bad? The point is that he was black, and, in America today, that is enough to get you killed. Zoom out again, and Brown is yet another example of entrenched racist systems and the militarization of America’s police. Zoom out again, and the whole story is an example of the way the media fixates on race, when really what we should be focusing on is the tragedy of this particular incident, this unhappy story of a police officer who felt threatened, reacted badly and killed an innocent man.
I want to dwell on this last move for a minute, because it articulates an impulse that I think we all feel. At each point in the layering of meaning, there are those who will stop you and say, “This is where I get off,” or, “I can appreciate that there are nuances to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but when you start talking about Oriental thinking in medieval Christendom leading up to the crusades, I just don’t see the relevance. Real people are really dying. Let’s not get too abstract here.”
We live in a society that produces literally endless commentary-on-commentary. Things have a way of getting pretty abstract pretty quickly. And figuring out how to zoom in and zoom out is perhaps the biggest challenge in trying to think coherently about pressing political issues. Pull out too far, and you lose a sense of the actual people and events. Stay in too close, and you miss the broader implications.
There is a strain of the contemporary Left that has argued themselves into irrelevance by insisting that what is primary, what is really fundamental here, is discourse analysis. Figure out how narratives of black men have been constructed, and then we can start talking about Ferguson. Actually, we better start by unpacking the cultural baggage of our concept of “narrative”. That’s where the politics really takes place.
Now, I tend to think these people have a point, which we can see if we zoom in just a little bit. No one seriously maintains that Michael Brown’s blackness and the fact that he was shot are simply coincidence. Reasonable people acknowledge that, to some extent, there is a script for how a white police officer interacts with a young black man. There are certain roles that both parties more or less expect. Like the script that governs my interactions with professors or cashiers, this script is learned by observation and training, and although it’s not immutable, breaking out of it can be jarring. So when we say that Michael Brown’s death doesn’t stand on its own, but is an example of larger forces at work, there is obviously something to it.
But there is also something to the frustration with discourse analysis and meta-narratives. It’s dehumanizing. It makes people into epiphenomena; it makes a real death into a symptom of an unreal, intangible system. It manifestly fails to engage at the level of fear and anger and emotion that actually shape these events. It can be politically demobilizing, elitist and painfully insensitive.
On the other hand, calls to “get real” and respond to violence in a concrete, tangible way have their own set of problems. The Israeli government and the American law-and-order crowd both appeal to “real danger,” “in the moment” to sidestep questions about the broader forces that shape those moments and create that danger. At the end of the day, Israeli homes are being bombed; at the end of day, the American-backed, Israeli military is forcibly perpetuating a Christian-backed occupation of Muslim lands. Both of those points are equally true, as are the appeals to Islamophobia and anti-Semitism that we could make if we wanted to continue the conversation. My point is that “at the end of the day”—nothing. Getting real doesn’t get us far.
The discourses that we use to diagnosis the problems are also the structures that create them. Our peculiar predicament, in this age of infinite commentary and information overload, is that we have the capacity to be articulate about the structural features of our lives in ways that we never have before. Our social science can take us deep into issues that in previous generations would have been ascribed to forces of nature or gods (like poverty, gender, or cultural difference). But this very articulacy can actually have negative effects. It can be paralyzing and demobilizing, or falsely empowering. By driving our gaze relentlessly away from the specific, the concrete, the literally violent, our capacity to understand our society undermines our ability to engage with it. We live in a world where every action can be graphed by big data, but none of them matter much. Our longing for “authenticity” is an attempt to cut through this, but like “get real” appeals to violence, ‘authenticity’ creates as many questions as it answers.
The challenge is to come up with a politics and/or an ethics that, on the one hand, leverages our deep knowledge to respond to the real complexity of our world, while on the other hand remains faithful to the specific predicaments in which we actually find ourselves and can hope to do something about. We need virtues that scale up and down; that can shape individual behaviors but are informed by systematic analysis.
I’ll conclude by saying that the good news, it seems to me, is that many of the traditional virtues are up to this task, if they are properly interpreted. Courage, Moderation, Wisdom, these all sound good. That’s because the challenge of aligning individual action with social goods isn’t a new one, even if the particular challenges that come from an awareness of our participation in unjust structures is. I’ll try to develop this thought further in another post – it’s on my mind a lot, as I’m working on a PhD grant proposal that argues that the Christian virtue of Humility is an especially relevant one to our present condition.