Friday, June 19, 2009

The growth of political violence in the United States

I have been working on this entry for several days. Today I learned of the murders of most of the members of the Flores family in a home invasion by members of an anti-immmigration vigilante group. - sm

When I was an undergraduate, in the late 80s and early 90s, I rather unexpectedly did a lot of research on terrorism.

At UMBC, I started to understand not only what a loaded word "terrorism" is, but how culturally programmed. The professors who team-taught my political science class in Third World Politics challenged us to pay attention whenever we heard or read the word "terrorism" being used -- to notice who was using it, and whom they were describing. In addition, they challenged us to replace the term "terrorism" with the term "political violence" whenever we read it or heard it, and see what that did to our thinking and perceptions.

When I got back to Bryn Mawr, I took social psychology with Clark McCauley, one of whose specialties is the study of terrorism/political violence. Also an eye-opening experience.

You have to understand, this was before September 11, 2001. The majority of what Americans called "terrorism" back then was divided into two kinds: "terrorism from above," or state-sponsored terrorism, and "terrorism from below," or guerilla warfare/terrorism. The places Americans talked about this happening in were in the "First World" and the "Third World" -- the Middle East, Africa, Europe, South and Central America. Not the US -- not yet.

But my point is that we talked about both kinds. The political violence of guerrilla groups in Lebanon, Nicaragua, Iran, El Salvador, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories populated the news, as terrorism-from-below. But state-sponsored political violence -- particularly from repressive regimes and military governments such as the Soviet Union, East Germany, and El Salvador -- was recognized as terrorism-from-above back then. The massacre in Tiananmen Square made huge news in the West. The terrorism of the Soviet Union was still active in the news through the late 80s. Even the shootings at Kent State were still understood as state-sponsored terrorism. I could go on.

Nowadays, when we talk about "terrorism," we talk primarily about violence-from-below, rather than about state-sponsored terrorism. And we very often talk about religious extremists. But they're usually people who are either far away or from far away, whose skin is not white, and who are not Christians.

We rarely talk about people right here in the US whose political violence should rightly be called terrorism -- especially not if they are are white, right-wing, or supposedly Christian.

In the summer of 1992, I worked with McCauley doing preliminary research that was part of a larger project of his, on the question of what helps prevent violence-from-below in political movements. Many political movements start out espousing non-violence, but many of them come to resort to violent tactics -- against first property, and then people. What makes that change acceptable to some groups but not others? What factors protect or insulate a movement against that change?

He wanted me to study a group that, unlike the New Left and the environmental movement, was still non-violent, and had an unprecedented paper trail -- the ecofeminist movement.

(I pretty much said to him: I'm a feminist, and I'm a Witch, and you want me to spend three months reading eco-feminism and related material, writing about it, and talking with you about it. Twist. My. Arm.)

So I read a lot of primary materials from the New Left, the anti-nuclear movement, different aspects of the environmental movement, the women's spirituality movement, and eco-feminism.

The ecofeminist movement, it turned out, didn't meet all of the requirements for McCauley's larger project -- for one thing, a great many of the movers and shakers of the ecofeminist movement had been previously involved in the New Left, and many ecofeminists were part of the anti-nuclear movement.

(Reading Robin Morgan's accounts of her time in the New Left was... illustrative. Interestingly, she also went on to write about terrorism and political violence.)

But, the ecofeminist movement did provide some useful insights. As, in a way, did the New Left, by contrast.

In all the material I read, one thing stood out over and over as a protective against the development of violence in a political movement:

Refusing to dehumanize the enemy.

Not only did the eco-feminist movement consistently refuse to demonize the enemy, its adherents insisted on finding ways to see opponents as human, as real people -- and even as an embodiment of the Divine. It could be something as simple as going around a circle at the end of the day in an action, each participant naming something that emphasized the human quality of someone with whom they'd come into conflict that day. It could be making sure to address a police officer or soldier by name, not merely title or rank. It could be making a practice of asking opponents about their families. It often included ritual and magic, and could be as intimate and formal as taking time in circle to name "enemies" and affirm, "Sergeant Jones, thou art God," "Jane Smith, thou art Goddess," as well as naming allies and those present, affirming, "Sara, thou art Goddess," "Tom, thou art God."

Why am I writing about this now?

A Friend of mine shared a link to an interview with David Neiwert about violence in political movements and about his new book, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right. (Click here for publisher's web site.)

Neiwert discusses recent terrorism in the United States: in the wake of the suppression of a Department of Homeland Security report warning about a potential upsurge of right-wing political violence, we have the assassination of an abortion provider, the uncovering of a plot to assassinate President Obama, and a killing at the Holocaust Museum. [And now, the murder of a family of Hispanic immigrants.]

And Neiwert also talks about the factors that encourage that political violence/terrorism, and some ways to resist it.

As I've been reading the interview, I've found myself saying to myself, Yes, yes, yes.

Some things that have stood out to me:

Joshua Holland: There is a lot of ugly discourse in this country, and there always has been. What makes eliminationist rhetoric different from the kind of run-of-the-mill nasty stuff that we see on all sides of the political spectrum?

David Neiwert: Right -- there is a lot of hateful rhetoric that floats around on both sides. What's unique about eliminationist rhetoric is that it talks about eliminating whole blocs of people from the body politic, whereas most of the hateful rhetoric, in the case of people on the left, is directed at an individual -- George Bush or Dick Cheney and various characters on the right. That's one of the key differences -- when right-wing people talk hatefully, it often is directed at entire groups of people: Latinos, African Americans, gays and lesbians or liberals.
JH: People they deem to be inferior.

DN: Deemed inferior, or not even human. That is a critical aspect of eliminationist rhetoric. It often depicts the opposition as subhuman -- comparing them with vermin, diseases or carriers of diseases. I think for me the classic historical expression of eliminationism in America was Col. [John] Chivington's remarks prior to the Sand Creek Massacre, where he urged the white Colorado militiamen to kill all the Indians they encountered, including women and children. He said, "nits make lice." That to me is pretty much a classic eliminationist statement.
Something I saw over and over in my research for McCauley's project was that when groups start seeing opponents or members of other groups as not-human, that's when violence becomes acceptable. And starting to lump opponents together into groups, rather than seeing individuals, contributes to this.

This is one reason I react strongly whenever I hear anyone refer to cops as "pigs." I grew up in a large city that had problems with police violence; it's not naivete on my part. I've also worked with amazing people in law enforcement during my humanitarian work. But calling cops "pigs" -- or calling union-busters, or even anti-choice murderers or anti-immigrant murderers "pigs" -- is not okay with me, because it's dehumanization. Seeing cops, even security guards, as "pigs" is part of what sent the New Left down the slippery slope from non-violence to violence. Dehumanization opens a door in the psyche to violence.
One of the things that I learned while studying hate crimes is that the vast majority of hate crimes are committed by ordinary people, not by members of hate groups. Yet it's also the case that the vast majority of hate crimes are accompanied by hate-group rhetoric. So in a lot of ways hate crimes are a manifestation of the way right-wing extremism has permeated the broader culture. But more than that, these ordinary people also believe -- and I might add this includes the white supremacists -- that what they are doing reflects the secret desires, the unspoken wishes of the community that they believe they are defending.
When you stand up to them, when you engage in the act of standing up to them, that knocks that plank right out from under them, because when the community stands up and says, "No, these are not our values, this is not what we believe in, what you are doing is wrong," that takes that belief away.
I am reminded of the power of collective action. I am reminded of a recent article in the New York Times, "At Last, Facing Down Bullies (And Their Enablers)," which talks about the pioneering and successful work of Dr. Dan Olweus in mobilizing bystanders to counteract and prevent bullying.

I am reminded of the collective response of the San Francisco gay community on the night of the murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, and of Holly Near's song "Gentle Angry People":

We are a gentle, angry people
And we are singing, singing for our lives...

I am reminded of my peace witness trip to the Middle East. I am reminded of successful reconciliation work I've witnessed and learned of, in the US and abroad, between family members, political enemies, and survivors and perpetrators of violence.

Neiwert talks about the importance of engagement, of not demonizing the enemy -- and of not heroizing one's self:
So when we engage them, I think it is fundamentally important that we try not to see ourselves as heroes, that we don't turn them into the enemy but rather people like us, human beings who have frailties and have flaws and engage them in a real way, because that is how we are going to pull them over.
We are not going to change people's minds by pointing at them and calling them bad people. We are going to change people's minds by taking care to honestly engage them as one human being to another. That is the only way I think that we really can succeed.

The kind of engagement that Neiwert and other activists for peace, justice, and non-violence are talking about is hard work. It requires a particular combination, of an open heart and self-protection, and that does not necessarily come easily.

But it can be learned, it can be supported, it can be done -- and it can create change.

What are we going to do -- you, and I -- to contribute towards this kind of engagement, this kind of change?

How are we creating magic?

How are we nourishing openings to grace?

How are we nourishing That-of-God and That-of-the-Goddess in each other?

What are we doing to prevent violence?


Clare Slaney said...

Excellent peice, S. Here in the UK polarisation is occuring everywhere too. I feel it in myself and when it's happening it's not entirely unpleasant. This way of being seems instinctive, we see it in every society in every period of history and it takes such energy to combat it! The problem I have with it is that all the writing on the issue is fundamentally depressing. Reading Zimbardo is enough to make me take to my bed in despair!

staśa said...

Thank you, Clare.

But honestly, it's not all doom-and-gloom. This is why it's so important to talk about, and write about, the times when non-violence has worked, when those sacred human connections have been made. Like Friends Center in Philadelphia during the Republican National Convention in 2000 that I wrote to you about. Friends made connections with police in unexpected ways. Friends made connections across generations with radical young protestors in unexpected ways.

The police couldn't believe we'd give just anybody water, regardless of "side." And the protestors couldn't believe religious people gave them (the protestors) shelter.

And folks in the Meeting talked, both in conversation and in worship, about how it had been hard work but also wonderful grace.

We don't have to give in to that either/or thinking. Especially not as Pagans and/or Friends.

Hystery said...

Stasa, as an eco-feminist and a pacifist, what you write here is all very familiar, but you have written it in a way that renews me. I had not realized how much I had let my anger push me insidiously and unconsciously toward hatred. Your words brought me up short. Thank you for the reminder that creating a peaceful society requires consciousness and willful, uncompromising love.

staśa said...

Hystery, your comment brought tears to my eyes. Thank you.

Mary Ellen said...

Thanks for writing this piece, staśa. It challenges me - in the way that good queries do. I think my besetting sin is lukewarmness - just averting my gaze - not falling into hatred.

staśa said...

Thanks, Mary Ellen. And thanks for letting me know this challenged you in good ways. Sometimes, looking someone else in the eye and seeing That-Which-Is-Sacred there -- the Goddess-Within, or That of God, however we name it -- can be challenging. But it's part of living fully, and perhaps it's a place to start raising your eyes...

Grace and peace.