I wrote this essay in response to liberal notions of nonviolence, which tend to be irritatingly sentimental and shallow. In the wake of this nation’s imprisonment system’s failure to indict Darren Wilson and Daniel Panteleo, the two police officers responsible for the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively, much debate has been sparked about the nature of the rebellions, both peaceful and retaliatory, which have taken place across the country. Although not written in response to this particular series of tragedies, I believe the insights I offer in this piece shed light upon the necessity of transforming systemic manifestations of violence rather than condemning those groups and individuals who choose retaliatory tactics in response to the brutality they, and their community members, are subjected to.
There is a force in our society, one that has come to manifest itself in countless forms, that many people are hesitant to name as a detriment to their lives. Most who dare to speak against this force, to utter the word that names it, are waved away as sentimental dunces, are charged with promoting lofty idealisms and are thereafter banished to society’s dim margins. Very few wish to acknowledge the hideous commonness of this force in its many manifestations.
That force’s name, that persistent presence, that scourge of pain, and fear, and shame, is ‘violence’. When most people hear the word ‘violence’, memories of physical brutality may replay in their minds. A vicious swat by an older sibling, a sailing fist cracked across a jaw, a bloodcurdling assault by an anonymous assailant. Although many are quick to decry the most intimate aspects of physical violence where it rears its head, the majority of those are also unwilling, or incapable, to enact healing work against those lingering traumas associated with having one’s body ravaged at another’s hands. Of course, they themselves are not to blame.
Ours is a society that seeks to, at every turn, devalue the significance of its citizens interior lives. We are encouraged to neglect our inner lives; religious practices are derided as narrow-minded and uncouth within increasingly secularizing cultural spheres, those who seek out therapists are snickered at in secret, and all who deeply ponder about human nature are handled with suspicion and apprehension. For most people, extended silences and solitude allow sinister things to bubble up to their conscious, and no one has taught them to be at peace with these haunts. Too many flee their demons by embracing addictions. Too many lack skills that would disallow past traumas to rend their spirits. Too many have been coaxed into allowing their interior lives to decay.
Yet, the state of people’s interior lives can never be divorced from the surrounding sociopolitical and sociocultural environments in which they’ve developed. Is it not violence when ours is a society that devalues the humanity of female-bodied people to no more than their sexual organs, their bodies violated time and time again, their appeals for justice ignored just as often? When young children, of all colors, point to dolls of darker skin and Afro-features as inherently nefarious? When indigenous voices of various tones seeking sovereignty over ancestral lands are constantly ignored and, instead, have the miniscule wedges of Earth they’ve been murdered onto bombarded with toxic wastes? When people of all races lacking in economic resources must either subsist on foodstuffs that poison their bodies, or nothing? What world do we inhabit where these realities often go acknowledged and, yet, unmanaged; where the suffering of another is commonly associated with a character flaw on the individual’s part and not symptomatic of systems of domination our society was built, and tragically thrives, upon?
Any path toward nonviolence that fails to acknowledge and work against physical, non-physical, and structural manifestations of violence is inherently lacking in depth. Any paths toward nonviolence lacking in strategies for justice and healing are underdeveloped. We are past the era where the division between mind, body, and spirit can be justifiably imposed upon the masses. We are past the point of presenting the populace with sparkling words in hopes that they will suffice for the arduous labor of transforming our world into one where harmony reigns.
Comprehensive nonviolent ideologies must offer tactics and solutions to address the historical roots and contemporary manifestations of evil, blatant and insidious. Nonviolence is only authentic when the livelihoods of all persons are accounted for, when voices resounding at the margins become centered and their requests heeded. Ultimately, the nonviolent path is one that aims for peace. However, peace will never exist without justice. Justice for everyone.