Archive | November, 2010

Upholding a Foundation of Violence

21 Nov

By Stacia Mesleh

About a month ago my husband told me that the person who was responsible for a home invasion in Cambridge this summer had been caught. I had no idea what he was talking about since I stopped watching the news months and months ago. (It causes me to feel sad and anxious.) I looked online to find the story that he was referring to. A man broke into a first floor apartment where a 48 year old man and his 11 year old son were sleeping and did the most horrific things to their bodies that can possibly be imagined. I would rather not write these things out and they can easily be Googled if you would like to know the details. This happened about a mile from our home and it left me feeling very vulnerable. It frightens me that I can do everything I know possible to raise my daughter with love and kindness and that it is impossible to be 100% sure that I can protect her from violence. According to the news source, there was no connection to the victims and the perpetrator. It was random. The father was not engaging in a risky activity that endangered his son. They were sleeping at one in the morning when the man broke in.

When these things happen, people generally maintain a narrow focus on the perpetrator. He must be an awful person, a bad seed, wasn’t raised right. Perhaps he had a head injury or a mental illness. What most of us do not do is think about how human culture contributes to the creation of a person capable of this behavior.

I was thinking about what has been learned about many disease processes. Often a genetic predisposition is a precursor to disease, but not everyone with the genetic predisposition will manifest the disease. Secondary triggers are sometimes necessary to cause the disease to materialize. I’ve read about this in relation to diseases as diverse as schizophrenia to colon cancer.

I have no idea if there is a genetic predisposition for violence, but I do know that many things affect brain development. Abuse and/or neglect of children are a few of the conditions that lead to suboptimal neural outcomes. There are probably many other things as well. Once a person is predisposed to violence by any means, what are the secondary triggers that cause it to rise up into action? What cultural norms uphold a threshold of cruelty that does not seem to wane regardless of what political party rules, how many law enforcement officers we have on the street, or how many people we incarcerate?

I used to think that if we could just put all of “them” in jail, the streets would be safe. The “them” I was concerned with were murderers, rapists, child molesters, child abusers, and the list goes on. What I didn’t realize is that as long as the conditions that create these behaviors are still in place, we will constantly replace the imprisoned “bad guys” with new ones.

What are some of the conditions that leave us perpetually battling our potential for brutality? I can’t imagine that I can possible have a handle on all of them, however I know where to start. Our choices. With each choice we make, we are deciding what type of world we want. However, we must beware of over generalizing. Two people may make the same choice, but it can mean completely different things. One person may make a specific choice because it was the only one available (therefore not really a choice) or the best one available out of a limited array and another may make the same choice out of habit or culture or for pleasure.

When I decide what to eat I am deciding the type of world that I want. I want a less violent world, so I choose to eat food that was obtained with less violent means. I decided not to carry forth the racism, homophobia, heterosexism, and sexism that are inherent to many of my family members because I do not want a world pervaded with oppression and inequality. When my daughter does something I don’t like, I explain to her what I find unacceptable about the behavior and then explain the behavior that I would like to see. When she was 18 months and began kicking every time I changed her diaper, it would have been easier and quicker to swat her legs or behind. But, I don’t want a world where people physically harm others to get them to do what they want. It took about a month for her to “get it” and stop kicking. Occasionally she will start to kick again and when I remind her that it “hurts Mama when you kick like that,” she immediately stops. It took longer and more effort on my part, but I don’t want my little one to grow up thinking that violence is an acceptable means to get what you want. I also don’t want to harm her or have her fear me. I want to be a safe space for her (both emotionally and physically) in a not always safe world.

Maintaining an “acceptable” level of violence via our cultural norms makes the leap to horrific violence shorter. Imagine a world where a person would only harm an animal for food out of necessity, not for pleasure or habit or culture. The leap for a human to harm a human would be huge and impossibly rare. This is the world I want. I do not believe that it is realistic to think that we will ever be violence free, but it does not have to be this violent. Our humanity can prevail over our inhumanity. We have to create the conditions that enable kindness to triumph over cruelty.

One of the problems inherent in making kinder choices is that unkind choices are normalized in the context of our surroundings. I will give an example where I fell short recently. Thankfully, my daughter is eating like a champ now, but 6 months ago we were having a difficult time. I knew that the vegan chocolate muffins at the bakery across the street were not made with fair trade chocolate, but Amalia liked them and would eat almost the whole thing. No one looked twice at me when I purchased one. I didn’t break any social norms. In spite of that, I knew I was breaking with my values. I do not think child slave labor is okay under any circumstances and since I know the chocolate is not fair trade, I cannot verify that it was not made by exploiting children and adults who have limited means of putting food on the table and obtaining shelter. I have fair trade chocolate powder and fair trade sugar at home. The best choice (and the one I will make from now on) is to make my own at home. I am sure that there are other choices I will make differently as I learn more and as I strive towards living in synch with my values.

It is often so easy to do what everyone else does. As a matter of fact, people often herd others to do what they do so they won’t have to evaluate their own choices. This is one way the unsavory parts of human cultures and habit stay alive. The human tendency to herd leads to complacency and laziness of thought. It is less challenging to go along with the crowd and to please others. But, this doesn’t lead to a more equitable world. The chance for a more equitable global society would require a flood of commitment to lifelong learning and a willingness to change as a result of acquiring and evaluating new information. Certainly if we evaluate every action every minute, it would strip spontaneous joy out of our lives and this is not the end goal I am aiming for. But if we refuse to evaluate all of our actions and live and raise our children by rote, we will not be able to lift humanity out of the violence that has characterized us from the beginning. Each of us can begin to change through our choices slowly and surely. I love the Helen Keller quote, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”

With each choice, we create the conditions that encourage the goodness or the cruelty within us. We tend to think that the big news generating events shape our planet, but it is the small everyday choices each person makes that shape our world. That is, for people who have access to choice. How we use our privilege can make or break the lives of many and determine if we drive ourselves to an environmental cataclysm. The revolution is in the mundane.


What are you FOR ?

9 Nov

Do we want to create change or not?

1 Nov

I’m all for ideals, but there has to be some level of realism in social justice work.  Ultimately it comes down to one simple question: do we want to create change or not?

Well, do we?

Most of you know that I staunchly hold that you can’t end one manifestation of oppression by utilizing another.  You hear that, PETA?  And I will never back down from that stance.  It’s just futile and useless to use that approach.  They are all linked – unless you end them all, you’ll ultimately end none.  Gotta eliminate the foundation.

I’m astounded, however, by the number of people and organizations I’ve run into over the years who refuse to approach social justice issues from a realistic standpoint.  In many cases, to make change, you have to be strategic.  You have to be willing to engage with folks you may not want to invite out for a night on the town.  You may have to interact with a system you think is inherently flawed.  To simply reject all whom you label as “bad” is to defeat what you state is your ultimate goal – real change.  It’s to create a false “us vs. them” dichotomy.

Here’s a personal example:  I’m vegan.  I personally find consuming the bodies of subjugated, othered, objectified, and murdered beings absolutely repulsive.  Yes, I consider it murder.  Do I say that when I’m around someone eating animals?  NO!  Do I simply refuse to interact with anyone who consumes cows, chickens, pigs, fish, and their products?   Hell no.  If I want to create a culture in which all beings are respected and allowed to live, what’s the point of screaming “MURDERER!!!!!!” and running the other direction, only to surround myself by people exactly like me?  The only change that will likely create is making people think that vegans are self-righteous jerks.   In no way will that strategy make people think seriously about the daily choices they make.

You all know that I work to end gendered violence.  In the many years I’ve done this work, I have had to interact with people who I think “don’t get it” and within systems I think should ultimately be dismantled or radically changed.  But did I refuse to set foot in the buildings or interact with those people?  No.  Do you know why?  The women with whom I worked, women who had experienced domestic violence, had to.  If I exercised my privilege by walking away, I failed them.  Who was I to say, “I think that system is a flawed, oppressive system, so I’m only going to work with these people over here.  I like them.”  How is that okay?

I think we often feel good knowing we’re standing up to the system by rejecting it, but what about all the people who can’t do that?  Don’t we have obligations to them?  If I feel that an individual or system is problematic, I’m going to work to change it.  And I don’t believe that running away or putting up a wall will do any good.   And why is this an either/or choice?  You can work within a system AND work to change it – say hello to my past few jobs.

I worked with a group of service providers whom many within my movement refused to engage.  I watched as advocate after advocate called them threatening/degrading names in meetings and got up and walked out.  I watched as the women for whom I advocated  had no choice but to interact with these folks.  They didn’t “get” oppression and they weren’t woman-defined.  If I copied what I still see happening to this day, I would have refused to acknowledge them or the system in which they worked.  But I didn’t.  Realistically, these folks weren’t going away anytime soon.  I engaged them and small step by small step tried to create incremental change.  Sure, my ideals said to rally against them, but my brain said to work with them to create real change for the women who couldn’t simply tell them they didn’t get it and move on.

Creating change isn’t comfortable.  Sometimes it means working within a system you don’t like.  Sometimes it means talking to people you think don’t get it.  Sometimes it means wearing a suit to have credibility in a meeting with folks who can make the change you want to accomplish.

The world isn’t fair.  Don’t compromise your ethics, but don’t shoot yourself in the foot, either.  Sure, defiance feels good and garners personal attention,  but it may not do any good.  Think strategically, realistically, and change will happen.

Do we want to create change or not?