“Extreme violence has a way of preventing us from seeing the interests it serves.” (Naomi Klein)
Thesis: Debating violence in today’s culture is like debating wetness while you ride the Titanic to the bottom of the ocean.
To explain what I mean, please allow me to introduce a little spiel I sometimes give at the opening of my talks:
This is the point in the evening when the speaker typically implores everyone to turn off the cell phones. But, as far as I’m concerned, you can leave yours on. This way, every time someone’s phone goes off, we can be reminded of the fact that half the humans on the planet have never made a single phone call.
Or maybe, when a phone rings, we can focus on these six simple words: The Democratic Republic of the Congo. We’d do that because one of the primary components of cell phone circuitry is a metallic ore called Columbite-Tantalite—or “coltan.” Eighty percent of the world’s known coltan can be found in African nation of The Democratic Republic of the Congo (or DRC), which just so happens to be embroiled in a brutal (even by current standards) civil war since the pre-cell phone days of 1994.
Over time, all sides in the unrelenting struggles adroitly began using the mining and sale of coltan not only to nourish the West’s seemingly insatiable cell phone addiction, but also to fund their inexorable mayhem. Civilian deaths in the DRC during this time—mostly from war-related disease and malnutrition—are estimated not in the hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands, but rather in the millions…making it the world’s deadliest military conflict since the Second World War.
And it gets worse. Just ask an Eastern Lowland Gorilla, the world’s largest primate, found almost exclusively in the DRC. According to National Geographic: “Following a decade of civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, new estimates suggest that the number of eastern lowland gorillas may have plummeted by 70 percent. Conflict, illegal mining for a mineral used for electronic-device components, and the growing bush-meat trade have all taken their toll.”
The UN Environment Program has reported that the number of eastern lowland gorillas in eight DRC national parks has subsequently declined by 90 percent. We can only hope that some enterprising soul has already recorded the eastern lowland gorilla’s call so it can be used as a ring tone long after they’re gone.
So yeah, go ahead and leave your phones on and enjoy your next text.
To all those who identify as pacifists, I further submit:
The vast majority of “food” we consume results from unspeakable animal cruelty, environmental devastation, and the use of exploited human labor. This “food” contains toxins and chemicals and pesticides and GMOs that rain violence down upon ourselves and all living things and the system that controls access to such “food” perpetrates the daily—hourly—brutality of poverty. Every single bite you take contains the not-so-hidden ingredient of violence.
But you practice Ahimsa?
The clothes we wear and the gadgets we worship also contain myriad toxins and these ubiquitous items are usually manufactured by the equally ubiquitous sweatshop labor, prison labor, child labor, and slave labor.
Yet you’re the non-violent type?
The products we use to clean (sic) ourselves and our homes don’t just contain toxins, they are toxins sold in toxic packaging—and they typically involve the scientifically specious and morally indefensible practice of animal experimentation.
And you shudder in horror at the mere mention of diversity of tactics?
Every time you flick on a light switch, you can thank the mining companies literally blowing the tops off mountains to reach coal and then dumping the toxic waste into the valleys below, polluting the headwaters of rivers that provide drinking water to millions of people. (Other violent energy options: fracking, nuclear plants, tar sands, off-shore drilling, etc.)
Meanwhile, your life is peaceful?
Do you live in the U.S. and pay taxes? If so, you are not only funding all I’ve mentioned above but also the increasingly militarized and unaccountable Blue Bloc of law enforcement from sea to overfished sea—and their Prison-Industrial Complex accomplices. You help finance the criminal regimes we call “allies,” all across the globe. Then, of course, at least half of your tax dollars are openly used to subsidize the most violent institution on the planet: the U.S. Department of (so-called) Defense.
Still…somehow…you remain a pacifist?
Reality Check: Don’t flatter yourself.
You may opt to call yourself “non-violent,” but that designation will do nothing to stop the other side from using force—often in your name, using your money. The 1% has relied on violence for centuries and will continue to do so until it runs out of weapons.
Also—bringing it back to the broader sense I introduced above—to claim pacifism is to ignore the implicit daily violence of modern human culture. The primary reason why so many of us play along with the current system (pay for food and water, pay rent, etc.) and often tolerate the intolerable (toxins in our food, reduced civil liberties, etc.) is because if we didn’t, we’d eventually face violence from the State (eviction, arrest, detainment, prison, etc.).
I could go on—the examples are virtually without limit—but it’s easier to sum up for now: Industrial civilization is built on and based on and functions on overt and covert violence.
Any discussion of non-violence that ignores this reality is a counterproductive exercise in deep denial. Yet, almost every such discussion fast devolves into a purity pissing match between those who claim (falsely) to be pacifists and those who posture about their undying devotion to direct action.
If we’d only begin recognizing the dominant culture for what it is, the paths to liberation would become increasingly visible.
(Occupy this Book: Mickey Z. on Activism can be ordered here.)