Tag Archives: philosophy

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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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?

Atlas Shrugged (and I went and looked in a mirror)

If there is one thing that is easy to spot in Rand’s writing, it‘s the bad guys. In westerns they wear black clothes, in spy thrillers they have outlandish accents and in fantasy novels they’re often ninjas. In Randian novels they’re ‘visually compromised’. For example:

“His mouth was the part of him which he could not pull tight at any time; it was uncomfortably prominent in his lean face, attracting the eyes of any listener: when he spoke, the movement ran through his lower lip, twisting its moist flesh into extraneous contortions of its own.”

Or:

“…had vague features and a manner devoid of all emphasis… his only distinction seemed to be a bulbous nose, a bit to large for the rest of him.”

Sometimes she even fakes you out with a little misdirection:

“He was a large man with big, virile gestures; everything about his person was loudly full of life, except the small black slits of his eyes.”

Of course all her heroes are perfection itself, strong lines and chiseled features that reflect the majesty of their souls and philosophies. I’d throw some examples your way but they tend to drag on a bit. Suffice it to say that she kinda hammers the point home.

But it doesn’t end there, no sir. Even if you were blind to the descriptions you could hardly miss the names – her heroes, by and large, are deigned with strong, punchy, almost onomatopoeic names: Hank Reardon, Dagny Taggart, John Galt, Ragnar Danneskjold, Ken Danagger, and Ellis Wyat. While her bad guys, or anti-characters as I came to think of them, get the revealing likes of Wesley Mouch, Bertrum Scudder, Cuffy Meigs and Orren Boyle.

There are compromise names and names that could go either way, but those fall into a development process – like James Taggart, the douche brother of the heroine Dagny, whose name transforms depending on who he’s talking to or who is talking about him, Jim, Jimmy, James, as if he’s a Nothing Man whose meaning is defined by the regard of the characters surrounding him. Or Robert Stadler, the world bestriding scientist (apparently based on Oppenheimer), who was something of a ‘could have been’ that turned into the worst kind of sell-out. I think Stadler is her only attempt at some sort of middle ground – though it is a weak middle ground as his initial status comes purely from what he was, a great mind, rather than what he becomes, a total betrayer and apologist. Stadler never presents an argument of any substance, always becoming ‘furtive’ and evasive when confronted with Rand’s vision of Truth.

The names and physicality of her characters and anti-characters really emphasize an ever present devise of Rand’s, an intentional one I can only presume: the refusal to invest any argument, or representative of that argument, with any substance whatsoever. They are designed to fail. Something that grates the more it happens. It became harder and harder for me to take her arguments seriously due to her refusal to challenge them through the narrative with anything other than glass-jawed falsosophies. Rand’s refusal to trust the minds of her readers struck me as ironic in the worst way.

All of that said; the effects were impressive in many ways. I came to really admire her heroes, their manner, minds and comportment. And the power of her argument’s facets are often enthralling and attractive, though in the manner of a attractive jigsaw puzzle that you can reshape, on occasion, into pictures of antithetical meaning to the original. I’ve rarely come across something so beguiling and repulsive in equal measure. I thank various deities that I didn’t read this when I was twenty and loudly atheistic and logical, as I’m sure I would have adopted it as an outsourced morality and code of living. That would really have pushed me over the edge of assholedom.

Lets finish on a winner:

“Wesley Mouch had a long, square face and a flat topped skull, made more so by a brush haircut. His lower lip was a petulant bulb and the pale, brownish pupils of his eyes looked like the yolks of eggs smeared under the not fully translucent whites.”

Atlas Shrugged (while I tried not to heave)

I always get a shudder of revulsion when I see someone, especially those in their 20’s, reading the works of Ayn Rand. A reaction that I feel is totally understandable in its unreasonableness. It’s like making a judgment call on someone’s basic personal drives when you see them masturbating on public transport – it may be unfair, as you know not what inspecific tradgedies brought them to that point, but you’re sure as hell not going to get close enough to offer them a wet-wipe.

Despite these basic belief structures (if one may call them that), I find myself reading ‘Atlas Shrugged’, Rand’s ‘masterpiece’. A very good friend of mine recommended I give it a whirl as, regardless of Rand’s philosophies, her expression and ideas are fascinating in of themselves and have a remarkable adaptability if one isn’t weighed down with Randian hero worship beforehand. All of which, at my age, I should be able to read and understand without fear of some sort of meme-like contagion stripping my mind of all my current values and re-wallpapering it with new, shiny, Objectivist ones.

I’m actually a wee way into the 1000+ page behemoth and am finding it engrossing for all kinds of fucked up and sensible reasons. Many of which I think I will come back to on my first attempt to write an ongoing piece on this blog. Gotta say though, for a woman who was capable of saying a number of complex things in a clear and succinct manner, she sure can waffle on for pages and pages about the most trite stuff, I can totally understand various literary accusations of melodrama.

It would be fair to say I’m going into this with highly preconceived notions about Rand and Objectivism, but, hell, it’s always interesting to test one’s own ideas by bashing them repeatedly with someone else’s. And, in my case, when my world intersects with that of reality and the personal doubts and conflicts generated by that friction are surfacing more and more violently, I find it easier if I can anchor my thoughts and feelings on important matters by the land masses of other philosophies. I do wonder at the wisdom of choosing Ayn Rand… well, if I wake up a different and more Objectionable person at the end of this, just remember to blame Sara.

Excerpt

This is from the movie ‘American History X’. I remember loving this movie the first time I saw it, overawed by the power of it. I watched it again a wee while ago and enjoyed it immensly once again, even though I was a little disappointed with some of the overly convenient constructions and contrivances of the film, seen through more adult eyes, but I was still drawn powerfully to this dialogue. It’s very powerful in the context of the story, describing simply and elegantly the crescendo of a transition in a life, a complex process brought to a head around a basic question that is extrodinarily hard to ask, yet horribly easy to answer.

Bob Sweeney: There was a moment… when I used to blame everything and everyone… for all the pain and suffering and vile things that happened to me, that I saw happen to my people. Used to blame everybody. Blamed white people, blamed society, blamed God. I didn’t get no answers ’cause I was asking the wrong questions. You have to ask the right questions.
Derek Vinyard: Like what?
Bob Sweeney: Has anything you’ve done made your life better?

Philoso-fu

I spent the day in Wellington attending a seminar by Peter Vardy about teaching ethics in high-school and beyond (I apparently did this for fun). Discussed much was the social and cultural context we and today’s youth live in (an average of 3.500 advertisements a day, the common melding of sexual and violent imagery and the fun subject of emotional and physical dissociative disorders in young girls giving $10 dolllar blowjobs to male classmates in Sydney schools) while trying to re-establish a base ethical philosophy with which to educate everyone so they can put the intellectual beat-down (in an anti-realist, situationist-utilitarianism (with a synderesis twist) kinda way) on the invisible hand of capitalist propaganda designed to turn everyone into cookie cutter consumerist automatons while pillaging the environment at the government’s behest and returning a juicy profit to the body corporate . All within a Anglican frame-work (and it was fun!). I happily realised early on that we were effectively discussing how to teach young and old alike a means of self-defence against the dark-side of modern civilisation. My Kant-fu is stronger than yours, old man.