Tag Archives: language

Violence

I think about violence fairly regularly, a possible result of various childhood and early adult experiences, though more likely it’s just the general prevalence of it. But the lens through which I view violence was definitely formed at the private high school I had to go to – a colonial attempt to emulate the English elite model that somehow transformed into a rugby obsessed, educational black hole that endorsed bullying as essential to the construction of character. I was quite small as a boy, not really growing significantly until I was sixteen, so my experience of the worst of this violence was as a weak kid who learnt it was a bad idea to try and stand up to bullies (in this sitcom bullies don’t suddenly back down when confronted, revealing themselves as cowards, they knee you in the stomach and elbow you in the back of the head). It was pretty horrible to be surrounded by this violence but to also be embraced by a context that rewarded said violence socially, if not materially, was baffling. My public school years leading up to this private highschool did nothing to prepare me for the levels of violence that were commonplace there.

One of the worst aspects of this didn’t really come home to me until my final year, when we suddenly had at our disposal the physical and social tools to perpetrate this violence ourselves. This was abhorrent to me, I couldn’t stand the thought of it – it actually made me feel ill. Yet I watched those kids who had gone through the same, or worse, shit that I had perpetrate and embrace this violence, instead of reviling it. It was their turn, I was told when I asked a couple of my friends why they did it. It took me a long time to come to terms with that reality, to actually understand in real terms how violence just begets more violence – a comfortable cliche that doesn’t do itself justice.

Our very origins are based, I think, on conception and conceit. At a fundamental cultural level violence seems to make sense to us, so it follows that we would look for its part in the birth our species. We think of ourselves, in this culture we call civilization, as the pinnacle of the human race. This conceit, that our culture represents our whole species, is massively damaging to our view of cultural phenomena like violence.

Believing our species coalesced in violence makes it easier to perpetuate it, that much is obvious, but the depth of violent conflict in our thinking and behaviour is terrifying. It finds easy expression in our political and social agendas in ways we just don’t notice, let alone question. We make war on drugs, obesity, terrorism, poverty and disease. Business is conducted as warfare (The Art of War by Sun Tzu being a standard business text). There are relationship battles, the grander battle of the sexes; we fight for the hearts and minds of the people.

In ‘Origin of the Species’ (there’s that conceit again) Darwin conceived evolution as war: “Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows.” Ignoring the ‘higher animals’ thing, nature conceived as hierarchy rather than obviously interconnected systems, the belief that we were actually produced through violence, on an evolutionary level, makes it far easier to see the cultural evolution and acceptance of violence as ‘natural’.

Violence isn’t necessarily about hitting someone, of course. We learn to exact violence in the cleverest, most intimate ways. We only have to look at the intricate use of violence in an abusive relationship – the horror of the physical violence is the crescendo; it is what enforces the continual emotional and intellectual violence of the relationship. It’s all about control and dominion. We all understand this, even if we are inarticulate in the face of it, we all understand. We’ve been made to by our very surroundings, which has a knock on effect into our internal lives. We commit violence on ourselves; constructing an inner violence that warps and betrays our internal lives, condemning our ability to relate to each other and the world around us into a search for and a shameful or embarrassed purchase of the latest aphoristic self-help book.

We understand when violence breaks out in traffic jams, sporting events, chat shows.  We condone or damn it but we certainly comprehend its mechanisms. We celebrate it if it happened on a grand enough scale, in the form of public holidays, parades, statues. Even in sermons. Regardless of its expression, we all understand it. We identify, sympathize and empathize. We get it.

The whole idea of being a victim of violence is totally fucked up by the cultural significance we give to the act, let alone how we view the practitioners of it. When an event is resolved through violence it somehow becomes validated by it, like violence has lent it some of its greater meaning: the philosophy of violence. We debate back and forth the meaning and intent, implication and inference, practice and theory. I find this a terrifying confirmation of violence’s legitimacy in our culture; that we are capable of talking about violence in such shades and with such specificity.

Where do we think it comes from? So many people believe or accept by default that humanity is inherently violent. Not just capable of violence but fundamentally violent – unstoppably and biologically violent. Which might suggest, through a sense of evolutionary destiny, that our violence is forgivable? Because, come on people, it is plainly, as anyone can tell, unarguably (I mean, look at the evidence) just in our nature. Almost any biological creature is capable of violence, humanity being a good example of that, but we take that fact and contort it into a syllogism mighty enough to rationalise itself away.

Go to this link, or this one  and have a look. Do some math. When faced with this are we forced to believe that it is beyond our will? That violence is, what? Inexorable? Inescapable? Preordained? Divine? When considering these consequences do we have to come to the conclusion that our drive to violence is inherent? Biological? God given? If we don’t accept a premise approximating that, what would that mean? Would it mean responsibility? Could we survive if we had to think of a history and present drenched in our bloody choices? If not does it mean we are forced to conceive of a future just as bloody?

If we were to take away our capacity for violence, our toleration of it, our civilization would collapse. It is necessary for our continuity, political, social and material, that someone or thing suffers and dies – not maliciously or cruelly necessary, only by barren, practical necessity. We believe we have to accept it in our world, to tolerate it, if our world is going to continue. It is the oil on the cogs of the machine that brings to our table what we believe we require.

In ancient Rome, when gathering evidence in a court case, from a slave, it was inadmissible, that is to say illegal, if the information wasn’t gathered with the use of torture. There’s a modern argument that torture is, after opining the use of torture as a yardstick of barbarity, actually okay, if the information gathered is important enough. If this paragraph seems to not make much sense, seems to contain contradictions and paradoxes, it’s for very simple reasons.

The use of violence has simply gone on too long, become too complicated. Violence, enduring and horrendous, becomes the default because, y’know, what else are we gonna do? How would you fix it, buddy? Come on genius, solve the world’s problems.

Why is it so hard to just stop?

I’ve read that a culture can’t change its belief in its fundamental principles, because once it does it ceases to be that culture and becomes something else. To aspire to forget violence, to find another way to communicate our needs and desire on the world and ourselves, would mean a change of culture. We could become something else.

When I was in Barcelona recently, with my brother, we were staying in a Hostel. We were in the main bunkroom, a room that had maybe 25 or 30 beds. On the first night there myself, my brother and a number of other people were trying to get to sleep, a venture continually thwarted by a group of 20-something English travelers who were treating the bunkroom as a staging ground for their drunken adventures. They would leave and someone would get up and turn the light out. A short while later they would come back, turn the light on, drink more, talk loudly, and then leave again. Someone would get up and turn the light out. This repeated every twenty minutes or so.

I figured this was something you just accept as the price of a cheap bed. Until midnight – then it gets really fucking annoying. I had been getting angrier and angrier, quietly fuming away on my lower bunk, my brother trying to sleep above me. The pattern of drunken visitations continued, with the added bonus of a couple of disparaging remarks about one sleeper’s big white arse sticking out. Then, at 2am, one of them made a snide comment questioning the whole room’s desire to sleep when we should have been out drinking. The sort of loud mouth, fuckwit comment only protected by the comforting, arrogant presence of a large group of drunken friends. I snapped. The slow burn of my frustration and anger launched me out of my bed with a yell of, ‘Get the fuck out of here’ and had me, before I realized it, propelled halfway across the room, dressed only in my boxer shorts, wanting to hurt someone very badly.

When I got to them, the group of three nearest to the door, I didn’t stop. I transformed my momentum into violence very efficiently, shoving one hard in the chest, propelling him out and into the corridor wall, hard. I was still talking, though I have no idea what exactly I was saying. I turned immediately and grabbed one of them (the one making all the comments) by the throat and pinned him against the wall. The third one I reached for and I think I got hold of his shirt before he broke my grip by moving backwards very quickly. My brother had jumped off his bunk and followed me, backing me up while, very wisely, trying to calm the situation down. I was inarticulate in rage. I couldn’t express to the guy I had by the throat what I wanted to because I wasn’t thinking that clearly, I just wanted to put my fist straight into his face.

I wasn’t scared. The rest of the group had backed out onto the little balcony, giving me room and abandoning their friends. I definitely wasn’t scared. I wanted one of them to swing at me. The only cap on my actions was that I hadn’t damaged anyone and I wouldn’t start a fist fight unless one of them tried to hit me. I wanted someone to swing at me so I could start swinging back, I desperately wanted a reason, something I could look back on later and say that I not only had provocation for my anger but direct cause for my violence. I wanted to hurt someone so badly I could barely contain it.

I think of what I must have looked like: I’m not small any more. I’m an inch or so shy of six foot, broad shouldered with an athletic frame. I exercise frequently and am strong. I’m balding, so I keep the bald man’s traditional skinhead haircut. I was bigger than two of the guys I attacked and wider than the other. I also have a few tattoos on my torso. I would have been scary. Seeing someone in a rage is always scary. Seeing a half naked someone who looks capable of violence charge at you and grab you or your friend by the throat is, I imagine, sobering in the extreme.

The end result was that they backed down and got out. No one threw a punch. When they came back they were quiet enough that I didn’t wake up. The next two nights were the same, very quiet and considerate. In the intervening time they didn’t make eye contact with me, even when I sought it.

I’ve told a few friends about this now, and I don’t believe I’ve coloured it too much to benefit me. Every time I’ve not only been forgiven my actions, I’ve had them approved. I had cause. It was understandable. It was so out of character that it must have been justified. I’m sure most, if not all, of these responses have been out of care for me. But I… I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’m aware that I haven’t told one particular person who would have been horrified had they been there and witnessed it.

The worst thing, and the most relevant to my thoughts on violence, is that the anger that I channeled wasn’t the anger those drunken English kids generated. I had been conflicted and confused about something for days; something I’d left behind before but had come back to prey on me, causing a very specific kind of doubt and conflict. There was real turmoil inside me, and those poor Brit bastards just brought it out.

I’m ashamed of myself. I hate violence. I hate the process and the results. Yet I perpetrated it. Worse, I let anger fuelled by personal confusion become violence against stupid but blameless targets. I manifested the lessons I had learned at school. Which makes me hate even more that there is part of me that is secretly proud of the violence I became, that I actually feel better about myself because I have had that capability confirmed.

This is the language of violence, the thing that our lives are steeped in. The distant acts of our past waiting inside us for an opportunity to present themselves – whether it is outwardly on others or what we inflict internally on ourselves. A perpetual cycle of violence and scars subsumed in the currents of our lives only to be heaved up by the tides on other shores.

I want to replace the violence, and the underlying hatred, in my life. I want to be able to feel love and exact the results of that on the world instead. But I can’t find the path. Or I can’t identify it. Yet it must be there because I’ve seen others walking it.

Hate is the process and violence the result. Replace the hate and change the result. Sounds easy enough.

—-

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Words and Lies and Truth and Stuff

Words are a sacrosanct thing to me. Which isn’t to say I’m a grammar Nazi, as such, more like a meaning fascist. Words are intent, they are promises – they’re things that bind. Little gets my panties in a twist more than hollow words, sentences and statements that lack motive force. I don’t require that all that I read or hear be true, far from it, just that it be meant. A lie is almost as interesting, on average, as a truth. What someone is willing to or needs to lie about is fascinating and incredibly revealing. The funniest people are those that mean what they’re saying. The smartest people are those that know what they mean. Boring people are those that can do neither.

I follow the things I lie about with close attention – and I don’t mean big, formulated lies that deceive people for ignoble purpose, I mean the little lies that sprint from your cortex and escape your lips before you realise because, for whatever reason, the truth isn’t tolerable at that moment. Destructive lies are horrendous things I desperately try to avoid; hardly anything will make me feel worse than lies as weapons, though one of those things is the truth as a weapon, through blasé disregard for others or blind adherence to the bullshit dictum that truth is paramount, always. But lies as self-defence, be it my own or someone else’s, that shit draws my attention immediately. It’s like bird watching, just without the anoraks. I’ve had the opportunity, recently, to come face to face with some lies I’ve been telling myself for years, the sort of lies that are told, internally (though by natural progression they made their way to the external world), so often that they became set in the paths and walls of my psyche so I could only see the cracks if I stopped and looked closely. Yank those lies out, as I did with differing levels of disgust, and suddenly your balance goes and your vision blurs because the infrastructure had grown used to their support; nothing is stable for a while. It can be pretty freaky. Lies are important, is the lesson I learned, and should be treated with respect.

I like honesty. Someone who is honest with others and themselves – not to the point when you’re telling your workmates why it is exactly you keep the Vaseline on your nightstand, of course (please lie and tell me it’s for chapped lips, because that’s what I used it for last time I was at your place), that can just be upsetting. And honesty is not something I necessary confuse with truth; truth implies full disclosure, regardless of circumstance, while honesty can be the pieces by which the jigsaw of truth is made. Sounds trite, sure, but seriously, fuck you, sometimes I’m trite; honesty is a process by which you can reach some truth. They’re pieces of each other and thus hard to define (as I’m proving). Saying you like or dislike something is being honest, saying you like or dislike it because the neighbourhood weirdo used to insert his pinky finger up your butt while singing Yellow Submarine, is the truth. Both have their place and importance, you really just need to pick that place and it’s importance carefully because they don’t all lead to happy endings.

(Don’t worry; I don’t even know the words to Yellow Submarine).

The measure of honesty, maybe, is the person who is willing to be honest even if it impacts on their social standing. Seeing someone who’ll be honest because they recognise it as a process to reaching some truth, rather than as a shock tactic or leverage point, is an impressive and inspiring sight. They understand the ideas of social lubrication, and apply said lubrication when required, but are willing to be honest, of themselves and about others, even when it won’t necessarily serve them to be so. You can trust people like that (whether you choose to or not may say something else). I’ve met someone like that. She’s pretty awesome – and I mean awesome in the original sense rather than the surfer sense (though there is something of that in there too).

Words and what they mean are like a compass, telling you where you’re standing. I need meaningful exchanges with people before I can talk shit (which is fun, I don’t mean to knock the talking of shit) – I just need to know where everyone is. Because of all this, as one would imagine, and many could attest to, I really suck at small talk. Which I’m okay with.

Telling Truths

I’ve been tagged with a meme by a blogger who I’ve come to really enjoy reading: phoenixaeon, a gently introspective blog I’ve become increasingly attached to over time. ‘Memes’ equate to online chain letters (however inaccurately named), something I grew allergic to at primary school, but this task interested me: say ten honest things about myself and then pass on the task to seven blogging friends. I’m not going to do the latter, for various reasons, not all good, and the first… well that’s the hook. I was thinking about truth telling in this context, on and off, as I was digging trenches yesterday and it really caught my interest. Now, I could bash out any number of ‘true things’ about myself (I seriously contemplate, almost daily, the sense in wearing undies with the seams on the inside [1]) but what actual use would knowing that be to anyone in my life? Does it require revelations of a more intimate nature (unexpectedly catching glimpses of myself in mirrors often freaks me out quite seriously [2]) in order to be worthwhile? Intimate knowledge is what others have presented with this meme, yet I can’t help but ask the same question: what use is that knowledge to anyone in my life? Sure it allows people to get to know me better, but not for any good reason. If someone wants to know me better they only have to ask me questions (I take answering personal questions very seriously: honesty or nothing [3]), one way or another they’ll get a better idea of me.

I’ve told various truths about myself, in previous blog entries, that I was surprised to be comfortable with. I assume that truth telling in this capacity is what other bloggers, phoenixaen included, are partaking of: truths as a process of personal revelation, where the telling is more important than the told (my 4th to last relationship failure was a relief [4]). But, for me, the process of these truths emerging mattered deeply to the process. I’m not sure the generation of ejaculatory truth is something I’m capable of doing with any particular feeling. I wonder at the worth, for me, of telling such truths out of context. I like answering questions and having questions answered, and I like telling the truth, but delivery matters enormously. It’s not just about the money shot. Context binds truth to it’s own ends, so if you’re controlling the context you’re controlling the truth (I hate, fucking hate, post-modernist philosophising [5]). So when I control the context as much as I am now, what truths am I actually telling? What can a reader take from this? (I’m not going to tell you [6]).

I’ve always thought that truths about people are more interesting when you know something about them that they don’t. Not something they don’t know you know (that can be as dangerous as it is interesting) but something they themselves don’t know.

The act of telling the truth can be one of subtle deception – the little omissions that unbalance a story or confession make the truth told a lame creature, lacking in it’s natural power. These are the truths most of us tell, I think. Not necessarily out of a desire to deceive but rather of a desire to protect ourselves. It’s like a peace offering, an enticement: treat this truth well and more perfectly formed ones will follow. Look for what is absent in a person’s truth and you might see what they really want to tell you (I used to look down my friend’s top when we play-fought [7]).

Personally I opt for white noise; tell a lot of truth and you can effectively bury the relevance of it in an avalanche of information. The point of the avalanche is not concealment, per se, it’s a weeding process of sorts. Only those who are listening will glean important information, putting together larger images – truth as a jigsaw puzzle. (I often place my words in the anecdotal mouths of others [8]).

Knowledge, truth and meaning, three interactive concepts that warp each other with their variable gravities, are deeply malleable things (I like being smart but I envy the clever [9]). I was talking with a friend of mine the other day about capabilities: psychological studies have revealed that the hallmark of true incompetence is the inability to question one’s competence. It simply never occurs to some people that they’re terrible at what they’re doing. That can be frustrating when encountered, but it occurs to me that the more dangerous prospect is someone who is exceedingly competent at something yet, also, never questions that competence; there’s an obsessive potential there that could crush all before it. At least the incompetent fall over.

The essential quality for knowledge, truth, meaning and competency is doubt. Doubt is the element that gives dimension to a concept, it makes you move your head to better see the side of a thing, to better understand how much you can’t see. Doubt slows you down and makes you better appreciate whatever quality and quantity of truth you’re lucky enough to encounter.

(Three of these ten truths are lies [10]).

Possibly a little smart arse-ish at the end there?

Me vs Poetry

I always reckoned that, if it came down to it, I could totally take poetry out. I mean, seriously, as much as one can respect poetry’s mind, poise and philosophies, it has to be observed that it wears glasses and is a little weedy. So I figure I’d totally kick it’s ass.

Which, sadly, in a fight or flight kind of way, is a normal response to a thing that one fundamentally doesn’t understand. Which I don’t, though I’ve tried. Just kind of figured it was one of those things… my wiring or something.

Anyway, recently I’ve ventured into the domain of poetry under the scrupulous and benevolent gaze of One Who Knows and have been surprised at the delight of it. The impact and the strength of it. I certainly couldn’t claim any particular knowledge or understanding, having only read from two particular authors, but I seem to have been talked through the door and into a comfy chair. There’s a power to it I wasn’t expecting, a concentration by way of dilution that leverages meaning, both personal and from the poet, through no intention of my own. While I remain baffled, I’m suddenly curious about it in ways I never was and couldn’t fake.

Poetry doesn’t box, it does one of those weird martial arts from the elevated, remote mountainous regions of Asia, where Mums & Dads pass on to their children the secret of extracting, using just their left earlobe and breathing techniques, people’s appendix through their elbow. I have a friend who spent many years learning a thing called Zen Do Kai – it’s one of those martial arts that takes the most violent parts of other martial arts and, through a process of dehydration and using the hot wash cycle, concentrates them into an evolutionary beast that would terrify anyone with the brain kinetics fast enough to appreciate what just happened to them. This friend of mine, Broad of Shoulder, used to come around and say things like, ‘Dude, I’ve gotta show you this move, it’s awesome. Try and punch me really hard in the face.” And, after some false starts and argument, I would. Because I’m stupid. The next thing I knew I would be face down on the carpet with his foot on the back of my neck and my right arm at a distinctly uncomfortable angle, wondering what the fuck just happened.

Poetry has a result like that.  In that you end up on the ground, staring at the ceiling, wondering how the fuck you ended up there. There are two basic forms of martial arts, as I understand: hard forms and soft forms. Hard forms are all about the application of force, direct and precise, while soft forms are about the redistribution of the force, the redirection and absorption of it. The soft form is strangely intimate. Poetry is kind of like that, a soft form. It’s pretty cool. And totally preferable to Broad of Shoulder’s process. I mean, staring at the ceiling unexpectedly can be fun but the process of getting there really makes a difference.

So I’ll get back to you about that ass kicking.

Redefinition

I was shown a fax at work today by Jenny (the wife of my boss, who is a total technophobe – the fax being the pinnacle of technology she’s willing to interact with while not pulling faces) that had the winners of the Washington Post Mensa Invitational Contest, which takes submissions of words that have have one letter changed, by adding, subtracting or substitution, and then are cleverly redefined. Here are my favourites from the list – I’ve spent a fair portion of the afternoon chortling over the last three especially.

1. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.

2. Intaxication (n.): Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.

3. Bozone (n.): The subs tance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

4. Foreploy (n.): Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.

5. Sarchasm (n.): The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.

6. Osteopornosis (n.): A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

7. Glibido (n.): All talk and no action.

8. Dopeler effect (n.): The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter whenn they come at you rapidly.

9. Reintarnation (n.): Belief that one will come back to life as a hillbilly.

10. Ignoranus (n.): A person who’s both stupid and an asshole.

I can’t see you lying to me… (reprise)

I think it’s fairly plain when something moves from theory to practice: 1905, e=mc2; august 6th 1945, boom. Your dad tells you that playing with fireworks is dangerous; this is taken seriously only after your brother has thrown a firecracker at your head. You’re pretty sure that tingly feeling you get when that particular girl talks to you means you really like her; this is only truly understood when you find yourself, without conscious thought, tracing circles on her skin while lying in bed and talking about things of vital inconsequence. I want to know what happens in the opposite direction. When do you know when something goes from being practice to theory? When do you know that something once tangible is no longer real, that it has instead become a simulacrum? What would indicate that something has stopped ‘being’? If something is broken you can fix it. If something doesn’t exist where do you apply the glue? If the transition from practice to theory is made does it mean you can just rework the theory until it functions better and then put it back into practice? Or is that it? Discard and start again? If something that was once theory and was then practice, but has once more moved back into the theoretical, surely that indicates that the practice failed so the theory was flawed, thus comfortable assumptions made during both states were wrong.

Clichés and aphorisms offer surprising comfort and guidance: it doesn’t matter what you say, it only matters what you do – that’s a quote from somewhere. Actions speak louder than words – that seems to make sense to me. Do enough words obscure any actions? Is the point where you can confirm a change of state from practice to theory when the doing stops? You may not be able to pick the point of transition, to know exactly when a society, once scientifically literate, has lost the ability to nuke another society. To know of a firecracker’s danger only when you have a ringing in your ears and burns on your hand. To understand that you’re never going to be able to touch someone again and only then realize that you can’t remember the exact place on their body where you last did touch them. It is then that, in practical terms, it ceases to matter how much the real thing meant to you before the state change. All that matters is that it has changed. That is the reality that has to be dealt with.

(I wrote that December 3rd, 2007. I have since learnt the answer to that, or at least my answer. One’s momentum always carries one forward, but momentum bleeds unless sustained by the present and tempted by the future. It hurts to stop, to come to a stand still, but if you do you’ve got to get up and move again. Even if you leave someone or something behind you, that’s probably where she’s meant to be.)

Theory becomes practice becomes theory and becomes practice again. And the practice fails. Just because it didn’t work doesn’t change the possibility that it could’ve. The burnt fingers and ringing in the ears is worth it.