Doing Violence to "Violence"
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki
If the motive is good, and there are no other possibilities, then seen most deeply
it (violence) is nonviolence, because its aim is to help others.---Dalai Lama
When I was finishing high school in the late 1950's, the taboo word in public education was sex, as in sex education. Our teachers, perhaps believing themselves to be the last bulwark against a Kinsey-caused degeneration into unbridled promiscuity, discharged their duties as sex educators in the following way: my male 10th-grade class in Hygiene and Personal Health was abruptly informed, "You slimy weasels want some sex education? I'll give it to you. Just keep your zipper shut and you won't end up with some God-awful disease!" End of subject. A female friend recalls her all-girl experience in 1959: her teacher began and ended the topic of sex education with the statement, "It's nasty stuff. I disapprove and I do hope you will do the same."
Times have changed. The taboos have changed. The dirty word today is violence. It does not merit calm discussion, only preachment and dire warning: "It's nasty stuff. I disapprove and I do hope you will do the same." In today's public schools, teachers can calmly, as they should, talk to classes about using condoms. They may even demonstrate their application on such visual aids as bananas, cucumbers, carrots, even watermelons, perhaps, without raising the emotional clamor that attempting to discuss violence causes.
Educators and others indulge themselves in a promiscuous invocation of the term violence to indicate their disapproval of an activity despite the important legal and moral dimensions that are disregarded in the process. Acceptably and carefully regulated violent activities such as wrestling, football, and girls' field hockey are tarred with a careless condemnation as though they were equivalent to criminal assault. "Violence teaches violence," we are admonished by ideologues whose empty slogans amount to nothing much more than "Things I disapprove of teach things that I disapprove of." Thus are educators and others deprived of the opportunity to calmly and reasonably discuss events that have a substantial impact on the life of the school.
As a school principal, I asked the female students in my school if they wanted instruction in karate to satisfy their physical education requirements. The unanimous answer was "Yes!" I found a dynamic instructor, a twenty-five-year-old female weighing about ninety pounds who could toss 200-pound males around with ease. Her personality projected power. I announced to the school community the prospect of karate instruction for female students. A substantial group of mothers, supported by several male board members, objected. They did not want their daughters to receive such training. It was violent, unbefitting the ladies these girls were expected to become. This, from parents younger than I, proud participants, to hear them speak, in the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960s and '70s!
The sorry confusion over violence rests on two things. The first is the bad habit of using the term violence as a general term of condemnation, as though being violent necessarily meant being immoral. But a hurricane is not more immoral than a gentle breeze, although it is considerably more violent. Nor is a softly spoken insult less immoral than a great shout of appreciation, even though the insult is considerably less violent. A person opposed to capital punishment condemns lethal injection as violence; but were someone to mistakenly inject himself with such a poison, we might bemoan his passing as a tragic accident, but not as a violent death.
If we observe how the word violence is used in contexts where speakers are not trying to make debating points, we see that violence usually describes events involving some vigorous physical interaction, usually to the point of risking damage or harm. Football is violent. Many sports are. That is why they are carefully regulated: to reduce risk. But it is these very elements of risk and vigorousness that make them attractive. They give spice to life.
Now there are people who like spicy food and those who don't. But we seldom give persistent ear to individuals who condemn spicy foods because they find them not to their taste. Yet the condemners of vigorous physical activity receive all too much forum for their animadversions. And they pollute rational discourse about the proper place of violence in our culture with their careless expatiating.
Violence can be a tool. It is morally neutral. But it is risky, so we have to take care to ask of violent activities: are they harmful? If so, or potentially so, we must, especially in school, regulate their performance. What is so insidious about the propagandistic use of the term violence as a general term of condemnation is that it distracts from, if not completely obscures, real and important moral and social problems in our schools.
The second error is that the focus of our concern as educators should be not on violence, but on victimization. Although we are rightly concerned with improper forms of violence, this narrowing of focus isolates our attention to the relatively rare, though often sensationalized, cases of physical assault that occur in a relatively few schools, particularly in poor neighborhoods. Violence involving unwilling participants is wrong: it is victimization. But other forms of victimization that are much more subtle and harder to deal with occur daily in our schools: bullying, threats, extortion, harassments. These are not restricted to the poor areas of big cities, but are easily as prevalent in middle class and affluent schools, where physical assault is a rarity. Educationally and morally they are no less abominable than improper violence. But they are easier to ignore. In fact, they can be used by unscrupulous educators as tools of social control. Give a gang, a special class, an elite group of students the right to bully others, and they will intimidate and help control a much larger school population. What many, many schools, public and private, teach their students is that subtle coercion -- bullying up to but not past the point of breaking skin -- is an effective way of dealing with people who disagree with you. Who cares if it is not moral or not educational? It is condoned. You don't have to be articulate, apprised of fact, steeped in knowledge, skilled in argumentation, or possessed of understanding to get your way. A silent threat will shut up the opposition.
Ignoring victimization is far safer for educators than breaking up a fistfight or intervening to prevent a physical assault. You can't be sued for negligence for ignoring what no one will acknowledge happens. "Bullying? In my school? Preposterous! What you saw was just kids playing around." But look in the lunchroom. See who gets to sit at what table and see who gets chased away.
"You heard threats? Those weren't threats, but just a cultural variation in the way these kids communicate with one another. You've got to get used to diversity!" But look in the gym; see who gets to use the best equipment.
"One student takes money from the others? That's just an expression of the social hierarchy these kids admire and support!" Sure. But watch them line up. See who butts in. See who gets pushed back.
Who bothers to ask the weak, the inarticulate, the shy, the nonleaders how they understand what is going on? "Why open a can of worms? Anyway they have to learn how to cope without being babied all the time. They'll grow up and have their chance to do it to somebody else."
I once wrote a column for a local newspaper explaining how the policies and practices of the school district supported the behavior of the few predatory students and abetted the victimization of the vast majority, primarily by ignoring the distinction between aggressor and aggressee and treating all physical involvement as . . . VIOLENCE! The predators were generally not intimidated by such things as threatened detentions or suspensions. The other kids were: they wanted to stay out of trouble. Thus they often permitted victimization up to the point where sheer frustration brought them to fight back. Then they became equally culpable according to school rules.
Of course, in many schools, students are told if they are threatened or attacked they are not to fight back, but to go tell their teachers or principal what happened. As if - rare hope - something will be done. As if teachers and principals will take time, if they have it, to follow every hearsay report to determine its veracity. As if these kids lived twenty-four hours a day in a protected environment and never had to venture out into the neighborhood to meet those they have accused.
The superintendent of schools, and a few board members, read my article criticizing their school policies. They were highly incensed that anyone could refer to a child as a predator.
Of course the abettors of victimization and the surreptitiously coercive will continue to press their questionable claims against violence. It muddies the moral waters nicely to have people believe such things as "violence begets violence" or "non-violence stops violence." Actually, the historical evidence is mixed on these issues. Anti-violence propagandists point to the examples of Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi as successfully converting their opponents through the use of nonviolence and achieving their goals through the moral suasion of their cause. With all due respect to the moral stature of these great men, I offer another interpretation.
Gandhi's success may have been influenced not so much by the moral probity of his cause but by the reluctance of a war-weary and class-divided Britain to drive India into the arms of the Communist bloc. And of course, Anglophiles the world around can quaff their Beefeaters with the thought that the concessions to Gandhi were evidence of high civilization and concern for humanity on the part of the British government. Tell that to the Irish.
And how we white Americans love Martin Luther King! We should. He may have saved our souls. But what his use of nonviolence to accomplish his aims establishes most strongly in the minds of white America is that African-Americans owe their achievements in civil rights to our white grace. We capitulated. We white Americans were swayed by King's message. Aren't we wonderful, moral, uplifted? Of course, the suggestion by such nasty people as Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers that violence was an alternative had no effect on us. Of course the moral incongruity of seeing Communist countries take the high ground on the race issue had little to do with it. Nor did Cold War fears of Russian and Chinese influence in the emerging African states have anything to do with our gloriously condescending concession to our black brothers and sisters of their deserved rights as American citizens. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!
And what have we learned about nonviolent resistance from the children of Rwanda? That if you line up and hope that personal friendship will overcome tribal animosity, you will have your skull smashed just the same. A hundred thousand points hammered home!
Serbia teaches a similar lesson. Nonresistance by female noncombatants results in rape and slit throats. And the gentle, pacifistic Buddhist people of Cambodia add their paean to the cause of nonviolence with their transformation through nonresistance into 3 million corpses via the tender mercies of Pol Pot's henchmen.
Forgive my self-indulgence. I might be less tempted to such rhetoric were the antiviolence progagandists not so influential, or were they more inclined to calm, professional examination of the issues. The proper topic of discussion is the use of violence, and the control of the risks attendant on it. But no less important is the concern about victimization and about the many, many ways our schooling practices make it invisible.