The Uneven Distribution of Violence and News

Beirut State DeptThe first I heard of the shootings in Paris was on the email list of the certified trainers with the Center for Nonviolent Communication that I am part of. Someone sent a message of sympathy to the French trainers. I don’t check news, so most often I don’t know the details of what happens. After seeing that message, I looked it up, and then I found out there was a previous and recent such event in Beirut, not nearly as well covered. I instantly felt a pang of wrenching despair about the persistence of these differences in reporting.

I did nothing at the time with that feeling.

Then, when a colleague – Christophe Vincent, originally from France, now residing in Brazil – expressed, in his words, what I experienced as a vastly expanded rendition of my own discomfort, I found my own voice in response to his. This piece emerged from that original response. I am grateful to Christophe for supporting me in this unexpected way, and I quote from his writing, with his permission, later.

Which Violence Counts?

Here is how I finally came to understand my discomfort: It is as if the entire world is complicit in some unconscious belief that violence in some parts of the world is unavoidable, part of life, and therefore not important, and only some parts of the world, those that have managed to export violence elsewhere, or created it elsewhere to begin with through the legacy of their actions, those are the parts of the world about whose rare acts of violence news media speak.

save the childrenI come from such a place. The Jewish citizens of Israel expect to live in peace and security, because they have managed to export the source of it outside the borders of Israel, where it goes unnamed, unnoticed, except by those who experience it on a daily basis; those who don’t necessarily know, when they go to sleep, if they will get through the night or be awakened by Israeli soldiers. It is only when it comes back to Israel that it becomes newsworthy. Just like in Paris.

Knowing that the existence of a state of Israel, which Jews are free to emigrate to without any risk of being disallowed, that this existence – and the language and culture that emerged with it – are sitting on top of a fundamental injustice haunts me to a degree that leaves a permanent mark on my days. And sometimes it spikes to an unbearable degree.

Nigerian Lives MatterIt still is the case, as I understand it, that Facebook, which made a French flag available for posting, hasn’t made Kenyan, Lebanese, or other flags available. It is still the case, as I heard from a friend this evening, that although there have been articles bemoaning the absence of coverage of other sites of focused violence, they have been immediately followed by more of the same. It is still the case that here, in the US, we only hear of a fraction of the black churches that are being bombed.

And there is more, which is even harder to contemplate, to think through fully, to articulate. I find it hard to fully shake off the conclusion, implicit in the work of Black Lives Matter, that part of why we don’t hear the news of violence in some other parts of the world is also because brown-skinned lives are not considered as important as pink-skinned lives.

Violence and Privilege

I have been so aware, for so long, how much the basic ability to walk up and down the streets expecting not to be killed is a huge privilege that so many, in so many places, don’t have. Basic safety, along with food, running water, electricity.

In Brazil, even as we speak, a dam broke, likely due to cost cutting measures that compromised safety, and let through contaminated, toxic water that affected 500,000 people directly, destroyed habitats, and affected untold more indirectly. Did you know that?

Privilege is as invisible as air to those who have it. It is “normal”, just how the world functions. In our modern world, all the more so, as the cost of privilege is made invisible to us, often exported to faraway lands.

There is a direct link between our ability to walk into a store and get gadgets that are easily affordable to us, even after unimaginable profits to the CEOs, and the fact that billions of people, including children, are toiling away at hard-to-imagine conditions, making less than two dollars per day. Somewhere in that picture, thousands of children die daily because of lack of access to adequate food: directly from starvation, or through diseases of malnutrition. Thousands. Every day.

This is violence, daily violence, that we don’t see. Their conditions, we are told, are because they are a “developing” nation. As if there is any chance of them, ever, arriving at the basic privileges we all take for granted in the industrialized world, without awareness of the historical and current violence that is making it possible for us to have them. As if “development”, western-style, is by necessity what everyone in the world would want, the highest good, the model and the standard.

Hundreds of thousands of people were killed (estimates range from 110,000 to a million), injured, orphaned (870,000 by 2008 in a UN estimate) and displaced by the war that the US started in Iraq, but how many of us know that? We only hear of the people in France whose deaths are indirectly related to the horrors in Iraq.

There is massive violence in the Congo that is directly related to the proliferation of cell phones. Congo, tragically, has the highest concentration anywhere on the planet of certain rare earth metals that are used in cell phones. The mining of these metals is not a benign activity, and in a complicated way is intertwined with the killing of people and with violence against women in particular. Most people know nothing about it. We don’t have to, because it’s happening to someone else, somewhere else. For those of us in the privileged parts of the world, violence is sanitized away from our lives.

Can We Transform Violence?

The easy explanation given to us about the source of the violence is that these are evil people, made more evil by their participation in an evil religion called Islam, who hate “us” for no good reason. This explanation is, in itself, an aspect of the uncoupling of a particular instance of violence occurring in the centers of power in the world from the legacy of colonialism and the current continuation of imperialism which are at their root.

Quoting from Christophe:

This almost exclusive focus of the media and also of the people on what is happening in Paris … is it not, for those who attacked, a motivation to take up arms, to shout against injustice, to be heard using all means available…?

So, if the message of those who attacked Paris was to be heard, tragically, did we really hear something, or did we simply continue that violence loop?

I can connect to what makes people choose to put a French flag on Facebook, show solidarity, receive empathy by belonging… however, I believe this gesture is far from being without consequences in the interdependence dynamics of this world…

In the days since, I read about an interview with an ISIS prisoner in Iraq. The person interviewed simply doesn’t fit the bill. I would urge you to read this article, because the picture of the person painted in it is so far from the evil monster that is often imagined. Instead, he is a young man, oldest of 17 siblings from two mothers, struggling to feed his family. More than anything, there is one line that the prisoner (no name identified) said which directly speaks to Christophe’s inquiry: “The Americans came,” he said. “They took away Saddam, but they also took away our security. I didn’t like Saddam, we were starving then, but at least we didn’t have war. When you came here, the civil war started.”

And the response? Nothing that leads me to any hope of change.

In the one article that I read about what happened in Paris, I saw something about the head of state of France speaking of France’s response being “ruthless.” I wanted to scream. How many more thousands of years will it take before people see that there is no safety that comes from more and more of the same, only more and more of the same? What will it take for people to see that the way to transcend violence is to support everyone’s needs, including especially for dignity and for mattering?

This is one of those moments where vision eludes me. Yes, attending to needs prevents violence. Still, there is violence already happening, and what is a truly nonviolent response to that? I only know the first step: to expose and name, without condemning, the connections between things. It’s the courage to speak truth with love.

What comes after speaking? What is the action that we could take? What would I do if the responsibility for responding to such violence was mine rather than someone else’s? What is the minimal, truly most minimal force that would be needed to protect lives from fresh violence with the least damage possible? What of all the violence that has already happened, that continues to happen, unnamed because structural, often to buttress and sustain the comforts of those now suffering the acute violence? Where, if anywhere, do we put a line and say “we start from here going forward, because we cannot attend to all that has happened, all that created where we are?” Where will there be a so-called leader with the capacity to reverse the escalating cycle of violence?

We have created a system that, for the most part, doesn’t require bad guys for truly horrific violence to happen on a daily basis. We have created a world so fraught with violence, that we almost don’t respond most of the time. Christophe called it “habituation to violence”, the process that, in his words:

… makes my heart not shattered by the death and suffering of those that are far away from my direct experience… not shattered because maybe not totally open to the possibility to be shattered again, in front of so many events that would lead me to spending each hour of each day crying when I see the pain in this world…

I want to be open enough to cry each hour of each day.

Maybe then I can imagine what to do. Maybe if all of us do we will be able to live up to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most intense invitation, during a Christmas sermon given to a community that was facing repeated acts of terror. Although the circumstances are radically different, the excruciating challenge of loving in the face of violence remains and grows as the violence in the world takes more and more center stage.

Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.

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This is a space for discussing tough subjects: both personal experiences and the massive challenges in the wider world. The culture of this blog is one of looking for the possibility of forward movement through loving engagement, even, and especially, in times of disagreement. Please practice nonviolence in your comments by combining truth and courage with care for me and others you’re in dialogue with.

Image credits: top: headline from www.state.gov.
“Save the Children” by Danny Hammontree, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
“Nigerian Lives Matter”, by Garry Knight, 1/25/2015, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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8 thoughts on “The Uneven Distribution of Violence and News

  1. anaitats

    Hi Miki, your article has been the first thing I read this morning…it has open the flood gates of grief…for days I have been thinking and speaking words so close to the ones you share in your article, and the part that most spoke to me was “I want to be open enough to cry every hour of the day”…so powerful…and it has stimulated a series of thoughts on grief and trauma and dissasociation, and what happens when we don’t let ourselves grieve, we paralize, which is what is happening on a social scale here, we are paralized and numb…I have been asking myself these days “Why is there nobody out there on the streets doing soemthing about all this?” and I think the answer is “We tried, it didn’t work, we are tiered, we lack vision, energy, and we are alone”…grieving is something that has to be done together, cry every hour of the day but not on your own! So I had a vision I want to share here, I saw people gathering on the streets and simply gieving together, not protesting, not shouting, we are at such a terrifyingly confusing point in history that I think one of the most honest and vulnerable things we can do is to show how deeply sorry we are, how much this hurts us an shakes us to the core of our being. Bring this onto the streets, liberate this energy, make it visible, share it…what could emerge from such action? Thank you so much Miki for writing with such honesty, courage and vulnerability. Much love, Tatiana (your translator from Spain 🙂 )

  2. yuval dor

    מיקי יקרה,

    . חשוב לי שתדעי עד כמה אני אוהב את מה שאת כותבת ומשתפת. מקווה לפגוש אותך לכשתגיעי לביקור מולדת
    יובל

  3. Aaron

    The line where you said “Where, if anywhere, do we put a line and say “we start from here going forward, because we cannot attend to all that has happened, all that created where we are?” really resonated with me.

    Trying to “administer justice” for the past will just perpetuate the violence rather than recognizing where we are, what got us here, and creating where we go from here.

  4. Martin

    Thank you Miki – I am grateful seeing your and a different perspective published. These messages give me hope that one day we know how to prevent such harm that results in violence as we know it. I think education and independant journalism plays a key role.

  5. Emma Love Arbogast

    Thank you so much for this post. I am often focused on the lack-of-violence-in-my-life privilege I have within America compared to other races and classes and haven’t spent as much time thinking about our privilege as Americans vs the world in regards to violence.

    I think grieving is important, and definitely part of witnessing.

    I think there is a step after that though, and I don’t think it is about enduring more suffering. Here is why: in interpersonal relationships where boundaries are being crossed — violence or controlling behavior — it does not stop if one party just continues to suffer and hope the other one develops compassion. It doesn’t stop until it is made to stop by the person leaving or someone with more power intervening, i.e. police. This is because the person committing violence benefits from the violence by getting their needs met that way. They also usually have a lot of denial in place to keep them from feeling empathy or they wouldn’t be able to do the violence in the first place. Until the violence no longer works (i.e. they are prevented from meeting needs that way), and they learn a different way to meet their needs that does work, and are held accountable for the suffering they have caused in a way that gets past their defenses and thus inspires empathy, they will not usually stop on their own.

    Now obviously cultural violence is a lot more complex and there are differences, but my point is just that there is a place for protective use of force. It is not wise to meet violence purely with love unless you truly have no other option, and then you have to know that you are mostly preserving your own soul rather than necessarily inspiring compassion in the other. And as a global community, we do have other options.

    I think the #1 thing as individuals that we can do as people with the privilege of not having to live in terror is to try as hard as we can to see through the privilege and understand what the actual experience is of people who live without it, most especially including why they do things we don’t understand. And then do everything we can to meet their needs in any way that doesn’t reinforce the violence. But I don’t think you can ask that of people who are currently terrified, it has to come from the most resourced parts of our world.

    Beyond that, we need a global response. As best as I can tell, we would need a global response that is fair, just, merciful, but also firm about what we as a global species will tolerate. It has to come from a place that is loving–not angry or fearful–but also discerning, understanding, and powerful. Like a loving parent pulling two fighting children apart. So, a world-police response of sorts, but one that is wholly unlike any police response before. One that values every life, every perspective, that seeks to understand–but that also, at the end of the day, sets limits on behavior that infringes on the rights of others to live in peace. Of course that would also have to go along with economic and social policy in line with those objectives, which seeks to reduce economic inequality on a global scale. It’s a big job. But perhaps this is the impetus we need to evolve to the next level as a species. Because certainly the military response we have had so far just creates more instability which means even fewer needs are met, and more desperation ensues. It’s going to have to start occurring to someone that this isn’t working.

    I have been studying Spiral Dynamics and Integral theory to try to make sense of the thinking behind ISIS and I think it has some helpful models in showing how cultures evolve. It gives me some hope anyway, that this is all for some larger evolutionary purpose.

  6. Jean McElhaney

    Totally in alignment with everything you wrote and had already shared the interview you referred to on FB. Love the MLK quote and am re-inspired to read it. I agree with the comment that there is more one can do than grieve, though I too mourn the limits to my creativity to come up with more action steps. I think it is important for all who can to influence policy makers to stop the violence in whatever way we can. Contact legislators, heads of state, etc. Take part in demonstrations (taking care too be peaceful in them rather than getting caught up in the energy of hate and fear). Speak up to relatives and friends and co-workers. Speaking truth with love is powerful. Make sure to listen as much as to speak. Support groups like the Nonviolent Peaceforce who offer an alternative presence. Yes to protective use of force, which means supporting civilian-based nonviolent defense. Yes to nonviolence education for as many people as possible as many places as possible. Yes to continuing to have dialogue with people from other faiths and other countries. Yes to doing whatever we can to help ourselves and others trust that there are other economic systems possible — that economic “growth” is not sustainable but growth of love has infinite possibilities. Yes to mourning. Yes to celebrating any action steps taken and lessons learned. Yes to supporting ourselves by connecting with like-minded and like-hearted people along the way.

  7. Adrienne

    Thank you Miki for describing the situation facing our world so poignantly. I don’t often get to read your blog because I am so busy attending to “business” of maintaining my daily life–it takes the majority of energy and attention to solve the issues in my classroom, let alone “world problems.” Yet, I know they aren’t separate. I think a lot of people feel helpless to be at affect in changing the current conditions in a meaningful way. But your message has strengthened my resolve and faith that what one person does matters very much, and that we can all contribute to the evolution of our world by continuing to say what we see with love.

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