Monday, February 26, 2007

Violence as Communication

In order to combat violence, we must first understand its nature. Of course, a line like that implies that there is a single phenomenon called "violence" with a single, uniform nature. That is, of course, a gross oversimplification. Violence is, like everything else, a complex set of behaviors and events that take on many forms, and are brought about by many different kinds of causes. Even a single violent event participates in "violence" in many different ways, and stems from many different causes.

Some forms of violence are simple expressions of brute power. Violence, after all, is the way that powers hold on to their power. Other forms of violence stem from hatred or fear, from the prejudices that comprise the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. Such hatreds, such fears, such prejudices are so entrenched in our culture that most of us are almost never aware of them, or how we participate in them.

But, beneath all of that, violence is also interpersonal. With the exception of bombs dropped from the sky and the like, there can be no violence without some kind of a relationship, even if it is the most superficial sort of relationship, and even if that relationship begins only at the moment of violence. But, most acts of violence are not random, they are relational. And, at their core, they can be a form of communication used when all other avenues of communication either break down or are, for some reason, left untried.

While there is a disturbing trend of random violence in our streets - rapes and murders and muggings that have nothing to do whatsoever with the victim, but stem entirely from the malice and anger of the perpetrator - it is still the case that such random acts are very, very rare. So, most acts of violence are relational, and all of my peacemaking experience has dealt with, in one way or another, this kind of violence. Relational violence. Violence as a form of communication.

I want to make it clear here that when I speak of my peacemaking experience I am not holding myself up as a model to follow, some kind of saintly example. It may well be that of all of us who have signed up for the Christian Peace Bloggers blog-ring, I have the least experience actually confronting violence, save perhaps the violence that lurks in my own soul. That is why all of my peacemaking experience has confronted relational violence. In some way or another, all of the violence that I have strived against has concerned persons who were or are in some kind of relationship with me.

As a Youth Pastor I was often called on to help resolve family conflicts. I did this not from a position of authority, as though like some judge I could stand over the conflict, evaluate it, and render some verdict on it, blaming one party and rewarding the other. Rather I did this from a position of being in relationship with each party. As such, I had enough credibility to mediate between parties, encouraging each person to actively listen to each other, without passing judgment. I tried my best to, as I used to put it, translate the languages "teenager" to "parent" and "parent" to "teenager." I did my best to help the Youth that I worked with understand where they parents were coming from, and to help the parents understand how to more effectively communicate with their teenage children.

There are many sources of conflict embedded in each familial relationship, and if these are not addressed in a way that respects the interests of each party, some form of violence can emerge. But this is true of others sorts of relationship as well, even global, political relationships, relationships between groups of people, relationships of oppression, relationships of domination and submission. Like interpersonal and familial relationships, in these relationships each party also has an interest that must be addressed. And, if that interest is not addressed to each party's satisfaction, violence will emerge as the default form of communication.

I say that to say this: If we care about the cause of peace we must wage peace. And, to wage peace we must in part serve as agents who facilitate communication where it has broken down. Those of us in positions of power must lend our voices to the voiceless, allowing their cries to be heard by the powers that have grown deaf to their screams. Because when communication breaks down, violence is the natural recourse. When the marginalized realize they have no way to make the powers listen, they lash out, screaming with each riot, with each firebomb, "I bet you can hear my NOW!"

Of course, all of this is theoretical, and, as such, without concrete suggestions, is without value. Even if you agree with everything that I've written here - and I doubt that everything here is entirely true, though from my limited vantage point I, of course, need help discerning truth from falsehood in my own ideas - you could still say, "Sure, I buy this, but now what? How can we serve as agents of communication. How can we lend our ears and our voices to the unheard and the voiceless?"

That is found in what Thich Nhat Hanh calls "Deep and Compassionate Listening" and "Loving Speech." But that will have to be the subject of another post.


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Good. This fits with one style of nonviolence as communication.

JP Manzi said...

good post and interesting read, Chris.