Hello Violence, my old friend
My martial arts training has included some deep reflections on violence. In the beginning I had my full attention on the physical moves. Learning to punch and kick without hurting myself and getting acquainted with where my limbs were in time and space required all my focus. Once I was oriented to my own body and building on the basics, I began to consider more than just the mechanics.
Generally, martial arts aims to develop the mind, body, and spirit. It is about many things: strength, agility, coordination, creativity, confidence, self-defense, respect, community, and fun. Some of these things involve violence, so some of martial arts training is working with violence.
Through my martial arts journey, I have developed an intimate relationship with violence. In my life and in my training I have witnessed it, I have received it, and I have used it. I do not fear or revere violence. I see it as a tool that is neither inherently right nor inherently wrong. When considering violence, context is everything. And like many powers, it can be used either for good or for evil.
So what is violence? And who decides? Why are some kinds of violence okay while others are abhorrent?
On the cover of his book, Nonviolent Communication, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg defines violence as "acting in ways that result in hurt or harm." This is clear and concise, and it works well in the context of choosing language to find common ground in communication with another person. I would broaden that to define violence more neutrally as a means of destruction or sudden and severe disruption.
Violence is happening constantly in the natural world. Waves crash violently into the sea. Winds whip through treetops, violently tossing branches asunder. Rocks tumble violently down the side of a mountain during an avalanche. Animals hunt and violently kill prey for food. This kind of violence might be disturbing to watch or frightening to live through, but it isn't mean or evil. It just is.
I think what makes that kind of violence generally tolerable is the lack of malicious intent. The tree doesn't set out to teach that car a lesson when it caves the roof in during a windstorm. The river doesn't kidnap an unskilled swimmer when the current rushes that person downstream. Volcanos don't erupt out of anger at the village it blankets in lava.
A similar lens can be applied to some kinds of human-perpetrated violence. Using dynamite to create space for a tunnel in the side of a mountain is incredibly violent. And it is an effective tool for that job. Just as using violence to defend myself from a violent attacker is totally appropriate. In both cases, planning, practice, and precision are critical to ensure a safe and effective outcome.
Less benign types of human violence can also take many forms. Verbal, physical, emotional, even institutional. It can be initiated with hurtful intent, or start out benign and result in harm. This week's controversy over Sharon Osborne's "Karen moment" on The View is a prime example. I watched co-host Sheryl Underwood compassionately set up a tough question about the racist actions of Piers Morgan with what I will call pre-de-escalation. Then I watched Sharon erupt with defensiveness.
Sharon raised her voice in passion, but she did not scream or throw things or put her hands on anyone else. Although, what she did was equally violent. She used her social position as a well-meaning white woman to discredit and dismiss a Black woman. A person who was also her co-host and someone she called a friend. Sharon steamrolled Sheryl instead of gracefully accepting the invitation for honest self-inquiry and seizing the opportunity to consider her own internalized racism.
This kind of violence is just as harmful as loud or raucous actions, if not more so. Because it is not as overt it is often dismissed as misunderstanding or labeled no big deal. But it is insidious precisely because it often flies under the radar. That constant hum of low-level abuse becomes normalized and builds into something untenable for the receiver. Just like the constant hum of misogyny I experience in my daily life as a female-presenting human. We refer to this kind of violence as microaggressions.
In the early 1900's, women responded to microaggressions by using their hatpins as weapons against unwanted and unsolicited touch. The practice was effective, so it caught on. Women defending their body autonomy from predatory men made the news across the country, and these women were initially celebrated as heroes. Then the men responded with what I will call the violence of imbalanced power.
Women could not vote yet, so the men used their power of legislation to regulate the length of the hatpin. Instead of solving the problem of predatory behavior plaguing women, the predators cried victim just as countless oppressors do when their ability to abuse with impunity begins to erode. Because of the imbalance of legislative power, the very perpetrators of the violence took away the (very effective) means used to mitigate the effects of that violence without providing any alternative to being a victim.
I have not seen this kind of unjust power wielding widely labeled as violence, but that’s what it is. Just like blaming any victim for assault or trauma they experience. Just like denying poor people access to wealth-building resources because they do not already possess capital. Just like depriving anyone of their right to exist in public spaces because of who they are. Unfortunately, this very thing happened this week in an elementary school in Austin, Texas.
A teacher read a book called Call Me Max aloud in class. It’s about a transgender boy explaining his identity and sharing his experience at school. It’s a very sweet telling of a seldom discussed experience. Some parents wrote to the school to complain, and the school district’s reaction was appalling. An email was sent to all parents stating it was inappropriate to have read a book specifically written for grade-school-age children to fourth graders.
According to the District's chief learning officer “Counselors were made available to support students, and the school administration worked with families to provide an explanation and reassurances.” The mere mention of a transgender student was catastrophic. What about the trans students undoubtedly experiencing the trauma of merely existing in a community that clearly wishes they didn’t exist?
I know violence; we've met. I am intimately familiar with some kinds of violence, and merely acquainted with others. Because I have spent time getting to know and understand violence in various forms, I recognize it in the world. I respect its power and I see its influence.
Violence is not always a bad thing, but it always has consequences. It destroys and disrupts. It advances the cause of justice and it facilitates oppression. We must be aware of how we are thinking and acting violently as individuals, and we must recognize how we are weaving violence into our societal norms and institutions. I want us all to be using this power for good and not evil.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.