I’ve loved this building since before I knew who Margaret Macdonald (1864-1933) and Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) even were. Glasgow Boys and Whistler inside. Almost as great as heading to dinner with my brother and sister-in-law and on to the pub with the incredible Mitch Miller and getting my own copy of Nothing is Lost. To be discussed further, but the coolest thing I’ve seen in forever. You could own it too.
I loved the stories in Temma Kaplan’s Crazy for Democracy, the prominence it gives some incredible women and their struggles, with extensive quotes presenting their hard-won experience and knowledge in their own words. I love that. Not enough is written about the role of women in grassroots movements, much less about women in the larger discourses around democracy.
We need more of that, especially now.
At the same time, I often felt unsure of the framing, drawing as it does on Weber. I need to think more about what Weber has to contribute to current struggles of working class women and women of colour in the US and Africa, and I confess Kaplan’s arguments weren’t quite enough to swing me onside.
Though widely used, the term grassroots does not have a commonly recognized meaning. Grassroots generally implies being widespread and common, in the sense of being universal. The term also suggests being outside the control of any state, church, union, or political party. To the women claiming its provenance, being from the grassroots generally means being free from any constraining political affiliations and being responsible to no authority except their own group. (2)
I like the women’s use of grassroots. I am still puzzling through the many varied webs of accountability we sit within, as women, as workers, as caretakers of the earth, and each and every additional layer. Especially given the fluidity of things like gender. I am wondering how our ‘grassroots’ label overlaps or potentially constrains such understandings. I would have loved more discussion of this.
Kaplan instead draws on Weber’s theorisations of charisma to look at what about certain individuals supported their leadership roles in movement. I know there is a lot written about this framing, Aldon Morris talks a little about this, but I too see it as a not-necessarily central factor to movement, and the more central it is, often the more problematic the idea of movement becomes. So all of Weber’s language bothers me a little, and at the same time I am curious to read this again.
Though three of the six women focused on here are deeply religious, their charisma lies not in their religion but in their commitment to promoting new ethical principles as the basis for democracy… In Weberian terms, these women are prophets…Such women, with their strong personalities, abilities to pitch in, and high morale, gather together people with different backgrounds, areas of expertise, and status, helping create egalitarian movements. (4)
See, the term ‘prophet’? It doesn’t really work for me.
Kaplan also presents an idea of ‘female consciousness’ — something else that I remain conflicted about. But undoubtedly we are socialised into gender roles and those roles help define our experience, our passions, our causes. Women have been made responsible for our survival — too often left as the conscience, the single mother, the caretaker of the home.
certain women, emphasising roles they accept as wives and mothers, also demand the freedom to act as they think their obligations entail. Women in many societies and historical periods learn from youth that they will be responsible as mothers for providing food, clothing, housing, and health care for their families. When toxic pollution or expulsion from their homes threatens their communities, certain women will take action according to their female consciousness, confronting authorities to preserve life. Far from being a biological trait, female consciousness develops from cultural experiences of helping families and communities survive. (6-7)
There is something here, just as there is in valuing the theory implicit in people’s actions…
Such activists draw on an implicit theory of human rights, seeking to make human health a corollary of justice, deriving it s power from commonsense notions of human need rather than codified laws. (7)
But of course, as a good Freirean, I do think our reality, our strategy and our action needs to be collectively named, put into words, owned.
On to the campaigns themselves, and the awesome women who helped give them direction:
Americans like to believe in the good intentions of their government, and they frequently consider the absence of politics to constitute an ideal state of being. Hardly a person from Love Canal doesn’t wish she could turn back the clock and forget what she knows about the government. (16)
I think as an organizer I am automatically critical of anyone uncritical of such words. Not that I haven’t felt them, or that they are not common or that we should deny such feelings. But again as a popular educator or critical thinker… to stay in this place looking backwards? It speaks to a process of conscientisation unhealthily blocked. The same is true for seeing distinctions rather than solidarity in this kind of way:
In fact, what differentiated the women of the Love Canal Homeowners Association from other protesters was their self-presentation as traditional mothers trying to do their job. “Radicals and students carry signs, but not average housewives. Housewives have to care for their children and their homes,” Lois Gibbs recalled later. (23)
Comedy and appearing in the role of victim allowed the homeowners to challenge authority and gain media support… Had the women been feminists, they could have undercut their demands to be treated as full citizens by such actions. But the homeowners were desperate to save their community from disaster; they were willing to compromise their own dignity to survive. (30)
There is an awful lot implied about just who ‘feminists’ are here, a total rejection of the idea and the term, rather than a redefinition along the lines of what women like Angela Davis, bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins envision. This is not to demand that women themselves self-define in this way. My discomfort lies with the fact that this is stated and then left, when it could be opened up in a different way, could acknowledge debate, could think about how these constructions might constrain us just as much as certain understandings of feminism do.
The way women themselves do this:
Women engaged in struggles for environmental justice are often viewed as oddities. they are told that they are just hysterical housewives or crazy feminists. Or that they just aren’t ladies. “Ladies don’t take on an issue,” Cora Tucker, a community activist from Virginia explains. “I don’t know if ‘lady’ is a compliment or not. I don’t really like to be called a lady because my momma used to tell me that a lady was a woman who didn’t know which way was up….” (44)
Fighting Toxic Soil Dumping
Going on to fighting toxic soil dumping in Afton, North Carolina this statement… I’m glad it’s in here, I like this reflexivity, but it is also the kind of reaction that really gets to me:
Thirty years ago, more naive and purist, I’d been shocked by the presence of television sets in the shacks of even the most abject sharecroppers in Mississippi. (48)
Still. There are so many stories here of resistance. On Dollie Burwell’s mother:
Required to enter by the rear door, Dollie’s mother went into the back with her coat on, took the broom from the closet, backed out the door, walked around to the front, swept, and entered through the main door every day before taking off her coat and starting to work in earnest. (50)
One of my favourite stories.
On fear, and the folks who never were part of the mass movement that rocked the South:
“Most of the folks had not even been involved in the integration,” remembers Dollie. “Too afraid.” (54)
Still, I am wondering about these definitions of ‘activists’, which seem as unchallenged as ‘feminists’:
At the time of the public meeting in January 1979, neither Ken nor Deborah had ever engaged in any political activities…They were most definitely not political activists looking for a cause. (56)
Because for all Dollie Burwell was a local, ‘homegrown’ leader, she was still connected to the United Church of Christ and the SCLC, helped bring in Floyd McKissick, once head of CORE and enormously influential and very well known. The power of movement, seems to me, lies in connecting people and organisation around issues that matter to people.
Another great quote that seems to make this point from Cora Tucker again, as a speaker at the (so very famous) Women and Toxic Organizing Conference of the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, November 1987:
People don’t get all the connections. They say the environment is over here, the civil rights groups is over there, the women’s group is over there, and the other groups are here. Actually all of them are one group, and the issues we fight become null and void if we have no clean water to drink, no clean air to breathe and nothing to eat. (69)
Again we return to themes of connection, conversation, collective naming and working towards change — done as well by ‘homemaker citizens’ as anyone else:
Conversation creates and enhances citizenship as people learn to stand up for their rights by comparing notes about what is going on, confronting authorities, and working toward a solution, gaining confidence about perceptions they might otherwise think are awry. Dollie Burwell does not separate efforts to get people to vote from attempts to get them to stand up for their right to a clean and safe environment. For her, as for political scientist Mary Dietz, democracy is “the form of politics that brings people together as citizens.” (74)
The redefinitions of what we are fighting for that emerges from this:
As far as these particular activists are concerned, justice is not limited to rights under the law, but to what they think the law was designed to protect: the well-being of citizens and their access to the social resources necessary to sustain their lives. According to Lois Gibbs, “Justice is about choice; it is the goal and democracy is the process.” (75)
The fact that you don’t have to call it by a specialised term to actually be doing it. Organising is a great deal of common sense working to change things — not to say that there aren’t things to be learned, experiences to build on.
Gibbs recalls that when she began at Love Canal she “didn’t know that what I was doing was called ‘organizing.’ We didn’t use that term. We called it talking to people, getting them together, reaching a decision and taking action–for the survival of our children and ourselves.” (77)
Again, in the words of Lois Gibbs:
“A trained, professional organizer will let people fail, if by failing they learn. A professional organizer places a higher value on building long-term, deep-seated community power, and sometimes losing a fight (but learning from it) is a way to build this power . . . The organizer would rather build the group than win the issue.” (83)
I like that ideal. I think there is a big tension here between winning and inspiring people in that way, and letting people learn and fail. It’s not a tension whose resolution always goes this direction, and it is not always the organiser who can choose. I wanted more of these tensions, organisational tensions, movement tensions…
A final reminder of just how much work is actually happening that folks never hear about, as Kaplan notes that smaller victories led locally
seldom get reported. This makes traditional black organizations such as the Southern California Christian Leadership Conference, CORE, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Commission on Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ seem less active than they are. (98)
From US environmental justice movements, Kaplan moves into the descriptions of the Crossroads movement, the struggles of Regina Ntongana. Somehow this really felt as though it were where the book came into its own, but perhaps it is because I am so unfamiliar with these struggles, whereas Love Canal and Afton are well studied (there are mentions of them in many an Environmental Justice reader, for example, as foundational movements).
The growth of the ‘informal’ Crossroads settlement was amazing — from 20 shacks in February 1975 to about 4,000 in April 1978. Kaplan writes:
twenty thousand inhabitants in three thousand handmade dwellings consumed an area of approximately two square miles in which only one street, the Street of Mice (Mpuku), had a name. (133)
Again we see women organising themselves, but getting help from established organisations who had done similar things and were thus able to connect them up to knowledge, support and solidarity. Kaplan doesn’t use this language or investigate more deeply into this because clearly her focus is on emerging organisation, but to me it underlines the importance of what Aldon Morris called movement halfway houses. In this case, Crossroads found help from the Black Sash, which originated as the Women’s Defence of the Constitution League in 1955. In seeking help they also radicalised Black Sash — up to that point the organisation had only defended people legally occupying land, to help get their rights. In supporting Crossroads, the women there succeeded in moving the organisation into a whole new area supporting squatters win rights to land, and thus challenging the system more broadly. Definitely a very good example of the power of women, of informal organisation, but also the importance of support.
They built three schools, demolished and rebuilt in turn. Damn.
The women of Crossroads continued to build relationships and seek institutional support on their own terms — and again, the ways in which they did this and managed these power relationships are so interesting to me but this is much more focused on the simple facts of doing it — they brought in Quakers to teach, contacted the Institute of Race Relations, the Urban Problems Research Unit, the Provincial Ecumenical Council, the Anglican Church.
They used plays and role playing much along the lines of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed — though Kaplan never uses that term. I was just curious if some of this was inspired by outside, though again it is one of those radical traditions that seems organic to many cultures.
The point is well made that in South Africa, the women of the Crossroads settlement were considered ‘Surplus People’. There is a world to be unpacked there.
I am fascinated, too, by Regina Ntongana’s description of leadership:
the grassroots are like a bundle of clothing, all in different colors. What gives them shape is the wire over which they dry. The clothesline is the leader. (157)
There is more on the naming of things, the comparison of social justice as the term of struggle in the US, whereas social citizenship was the term in South Africa is quite interesting. I am not sure all of the comparisons quite worked.
But this made me laugh out loud:
When I asked Ma if she was a feminist, since she works primarily with women and has suffered some of the worst indignities male leaders can inflict, she stopped for a moment. Then she looked up at me and said, deliberately: “I am a Christian, and therefore I believe God has a reason for everything.” Then she hesitated, waited a few beats, and added: “He must have had some reason for creating men.” (177)
All of this framing was interesting, and provoked a number of further questions in me… she identifies a ‘collective action’ school — and includes Aldon Morris, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly (I still haven’t read Tilly, shocking) in that… That surprised me a little I suppose, I see them as being quite different from each other. I also wish this framing of ‘social movement studies’ could open up more along the lines of what Peet and Watts lay out in Liberation Ecologies. But in this comaprison, Kaplan writes of the three figures named that they study:
what has historically galvanized people to take action in pursuit of collective interests. Primarily concerned with the growing sophistication of the processes by which ordinary people confront those in power, shape their own goals, and–most important–form complex organizations to express their wishes…’ (181)
collective action theorists frequently view loose associations merely as tendencies guiding potential insurgents toward one organization rather than another. Networks then become means to certain organizational ends rather than strong webs connecting politically vital local groups…leaders and key events directed by highly visible organizations assume greater significance than do processes by which large numbers of people resist oppression and develop programs for transforming society. (181-182)
She instead argues these are more based around informality, remaining networks and that as such are as key to social change:
What is new is that instead of disappearing after initial grievances have been aired, or instead of being absorbed into larger, more complicated, hierarchical organizations, the new democratic organizations of women have been able to sustain themselves as networks over long periods of time and over great geographical distances. (183)
I can’t help but feel after reading it, that both are true. That networks always exist, but in her own account, organisations did support these beginning networks in rather vital ways at key points. It’s tricky because people also join and drop out of organisations, move around. Someone like Ella Baker shows how muddy this ground might be. She was part of a vast network of contacts, — institutional, familial, informal — that she was able to draw on in different ways over a span of decades. That’s who she was. Her effectiveness and brilliance as an organiser who remained almost always out of the limelight came in being part of both personal networks and a member of the SCLC, SCEF and others. Was she this figure found here of ‘feminist’ or ‘professional activist looking for a cause’?
Anyway, lots to think about, and undoubtedly true that networks — particularly women’s networks — have rarely been looked at or given anything near the serious study they deserve in movement. And then there is always the fact that is a rare book full of amazing women.
[Kaplan, Temma (1997) Crazy for Democracy: women in grassroots movements. New York: Routledge.]
How did I go so long with learning about liberation ecology, or reading Arturo Escobar or understanding the ways in which they renovate Marxism with the plethora of new ideas emerging from struggle in the developing world, particularly around environmental justice. The context? ‘…a new emphasis on nature-society relations in fin-de-siecle atmosphere…’
— collapse of many actually-existing socialisms
— resurgence of environmentalist concerns articulated explicitly in global terms
— rise of political ecology (2)
I found this introduction incredibly rich, incredibly brilliant, and quite hard to get through. But in a nutshell, it was worth it entirely as this is the goal:
Looking to help create ‘a more robust political ecology which integrates politics more centrally, draws upon aspects of discourse theory which demand that the politics of meaning and the construction of knowledge be taken seriously, and engages with the wide-ranging critique of development and modernity particularly associated with Third World intellectuals and activists such as Vandana Shiva, Arturo Escobar, and Victor Toledo. … new theoretical engagement between political ecology and poststructuralism on the one hand, and a practical political engagement with new movements, organizations, and institutions of civil society… (3)
I love Vandana Shiva — she transformed by thinking, and Arturo Escobar is doing the same. Victor Toledo is now on my list. So back to the origins of political ecology:
Political ecology — the effort begin in the 1980s to “combine the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy… [which] encompasses the constantly shifting dialectic between society and land-based resources” (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987: 17).
Key scholars: Susanna Hecht, Harold Brookfield, Anna Bramwell, Susan Stonich, Michael Redclift and Ram Guha. A key text for future reference is Blaikie and Brookfield’s Land Degradation and Society. for all of them, poverty is the central variable in ecological deterioration, not population, market distortion or mismanagement. I though simultaneously ‘hurrah’, and also ‘it’s not rocket science’, but apparently for many people it is. I suppose poverty is not nice to look it, and its solution demands structural change.
What I love most about this chapter is how it summarises various currents of thought, containing wonderful matrices of the phases and major figures in the literature — here is development, which I am still fairly ignorant of:
There is also a good summary of social movement theory, one that is so much more satisfying than say, Tarrow, Meyer & Tarrow or Gamson, not least because it finally gives a good summary of the traditional Marxist view:
‘The productive transformation of nature is the primary activity making possible the whole structure of human existence… from a dialectical view, societal dynamics emerge from contradictory oppositions in the material reproduction of existence, conflicts between the forces of production and a limited natural environment for example, which result in crises. These moments of contradictory crisis are, for classical Marxists, the contexts in which class existing “in-itself” engages in intensified political struggle and becomes class “for-itself,” that is a group with collective identity, a collective agent which forces necessary social and environmental transformations. In Marx’s own words, class is the main form of social engagement, and control of the means of production its primary terrain of struggle (Marx 1970). (28)
Because, after all, the point of all of this is liberation.
They look at the ways in which Gramsci broadened its theoretical power, first through idea of hegemony, state force and ‘common sense. Second, in describing that:
transformative human actions do not result automatically from material contradictions; they are mediated by subjective meanings and conscious intentions. Material changes… may create higher propensities for transformative action and limit the range of it possible outcomes, but ideological and political practices are relatively autonomous and are literally the decisive moments in the transformation of material conditions into political practices. (28)
They point towards Cohen (1982) and (1985) for a good critique of both. Summarise part of Marcuse’s (1964) contribution through his search for a substitute revolutionary subject to play the leading role previously assigned to the proletariat. The way that this challenge was taken up by the “new working class” theorists — Aronowitz (1973), Gorz (1967 – this is sitting in my piles), Mallet (1969), who see welfare state capitalism providing new strategy for labour. These contrast with Poulantzas (1973) and Wright (1979) who reject humanist Marxism to concentrate on classes defined as effects of structures, as well as those theorising the “new intellectual class” — Gouldner (1979) and Szelenyi and Konrad (1979) who look beyond workers to critical intellectuals as the motor of revolutionary change. For all of them, however, Cohen argues that their
presupposition remains production relations key to society and social movements (29)
This helps fit everyone in to a bigger picture, but you can imagine the density of the text. A chapter you will want to keep coming back to.
On to the Post-Marxists, who:
argue that production is only one arena for collective resistance, that groups other than the working class are now significant sources of social movements, that greater attention has to be given to active processes of human agency. (29)
The ways that these are
Very different from ‘resource-mobilization paradigm’ (Gamson, Oberschall, Tilly), where ‘conflicts of interest are built into institutionalized power relations. Collective actions involve the rational pursuit of interests by conflicting groups.
I have an immense frustration with that kind of analysis, it feels so good to have it put within this much broader context as just a small current — because it feels such a big current in much of the social movement literature itself.
On Habermas…I have to read more
Habermas (1984) differentiates system, in which people operate under strategic rationalities following technical rules, and lifeworld, with its communicative rationality oriented towards consensus, understanding, and collective action. For Habermas social movements of resistance emerge when commodifying systems colonize lifeworlds: resistance struggles are as much against dominant rationalizes as they are against institutional control. (29-30)
and the strain of social movement theory focusing on the urban — that community, housing and urban movements are now the drivers of change rather than the workers, particularly Castells (1977):
urban social movements respond to the structural contradictions of the capitalist system; but these contradictions are of a plural-class and secondary nature, involving various deprivations, rather than the working class struggling to control the productive apparatus. Thus protest movements organize around common interests on a variety of terrains of struggle, often in opposition to the state and other political and sociocultural institutions, rather than the economically ruling class directly.(30)
This describes how Castells argues in The City and the Grassroots (a magisterial work that I really loved, have yet to really grapple with) that social movement as agent of transformation is unthinkable in Marxism (Peet and Watts disagree) and
‘that social change happens when a new urban meaning is produced through conflict, domination, and resistance to domination.’ (30)
Here too we have Laclau and Mouffe, Castoriadis, modified by Touraine. All people I need to think about more — especially Castoriadis and Touraine also sitting in piles as yet unread.
This is a broad brush look at primary theorists in these different areas, the articles that follow a rather fascinating look at struggles around the world through a political ecology lens.
Theory for liberation.
[Peet, Richard and Michael Watts (1996) Liberation Ecologies: environment, development, social movements. London & New York: Routledge.]
Not Smokey, Wokey! If only I knew how to credit this facebook meme celebrating the #altgov resistance tweeters
@alt_fda @AltNatParkSer @altUSEPA @RogueNASA @Alt_NIH @altNOAA @AlternativeNWS @AltForestServ @altusda @RoguePotusStaff
A couple more on my facebook feed today (28 Jan)
I love Lalo Alcaraz’s work…and the struggle continues as Trump greenlights the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines.
I love the domains of power framework as it is developed here by Patricia Hill Collins in ‘Learning From the Outsider Within Revisited’. I find a great deal of insight in Foucault (like Society Must Be Defended) but a few things have always bothered me…such as in Discipline and Punish where in charting the history of the prison in France, he never really deals with the French Revolution or the fall of the Bastille. That bewildered me, where is struggle, then, in his theorising? Look at what Collins writes:
Power may be everywhere, as French philosopher Michel Foucault points out, but what exactly does this mean? If power is manifested and organized everywhere, how might we develop a language of power that is useful? (71-72)
Ah. She asks, how do we? And then she does. If I had read this a bit earlier, domains of power might have been my chosen framework for my thesis rather than Stuart Hall’s theories of articulation, because it seems full of explanatory power:
The framework identifies four interrelated domains where power is organized. (1) a structural domain, where social institutions of a society, such as banks, hospitals, schools, corporations, retail establishment, government agencies, and health care, routinely discriminate in favour of whites and against everyone else; (2) a disciplinary domain, where modern bureaucracies regulate race relations through their rules and practices, primarily surveillance; (3) a cultural domain, where ideologies, such as white supremacy, patriarchy, and heterosexism, are constructed and shared; and (4) an interpersonal domain that shapes social relations between individuals in everyday life. (72)
She gives as a short example the treatment of African American youth — everything that limits chances and stunts lives:
- Structural power as it works through resegregation of housing and schools, hypersegregation of African Americans within cities
- Disciplinary power — unspoken roles for different races, racial profiling, ‘neutral’ policies that have unfair impacts (testing, etc), police in schools…
- Cultural domain — the new ideology of colourblindness, portrayal of a more integrated American through media
- Interpersonal domain – strategies of everyday racism
Of course, all four of these domains are interrelated — again in seeking to think through this I reach for Stuart Halls ideas of articulation, his theorisations of how the political, the economic and the ideological (I add, of course, the spatial myself) shift and change and act upon each other to come into new formations. Comparing the two, you realise on the one hand just how much needs to be packed into the idea of structural power. This is at both the economic and the spatial, political structures and more. I like separating that out a little more maybe. Yet there is also the way in which the disciplinary domain works across all of Hall’s areas, and demands to be addressed yet his framework does not require it. How the interpersonal and everyday kinds of violences are also often lost. They don’t quite map onto each other, while each seems to highlight key aspects of a liberatory analysis — I am just starting to think about how they might be brought together, or carried out in succession. Or something. Everything is so interconnected that I rather lose myself if I think about it too much…these are only ever conventions to help lend a little clarity to a very complex world.
A few more of the insights that Collins’ framework can give:
The domains of power framework also sheds light on the ways that ideas about difference can uphold social inequalities within and across all four domains of power. For example, within the structural domain, new commodity relations have found the focus on difference profitable. In the search for ever-expanding consumer markets, understanding differences of race, gender, class, and sexuality helps in identifying segmented consumer markers. “Racial” profiling and market research are two sides of the same coin. (73)
How this impacts within academia itself:
Within this context, people who claim outsider-within identities can become hot commodities in social institutions that want the illusion of difference without the effort needed to change actual power relations. (73)
how we as academics can, and must, use it for social justice. I love that always always Collins brings it back to this:
our scholarship does reveal how ideas about difference and its related constructs matter in both upholding and challenging racism, sexism, class exploitation, and heterosexism as systems of power. But sharpening our focus on power and developing tools that enable us to see how its domains are organized and can be changed, our engaged scholarship creates space for change. (76)
Women around the world are marching today — two of my most treasured possessions came to me yesterday, pictures of my aunt and uncle with placards in front of their Philly home. The times are dark but the struggle seems to be strong. From the marathon hacking to save government data on climate change to the myriad calls to action around Trump’s cabinet of CEOs cutting out the political middleman for pure corporate control. All this as I sit home sick and rather sad at heart…
I have been thinking a lot about violence, it is one of the great contradictions of our humanity I think, and Patricia Hill Collins doesn’t shy away. Seems a good subject for the day of Trump’s inauguration, which feels like an act of violence in itself. His comments on (and actions towards) women, on the disabled, on the poor, on people of colour, I can’t even…
Interesting that unpicking the violence of US society makes sense of it all in a way that many liberals haven’t quite grasped I don’t think.
Understanding how an ethos of violence constitutes a deep structural root of U.S. society requires viewing violence as a necessary and ever-present feature of oppression. (189)
Because this society was founded on oppression, violence has been central to this country’s founding through conquest and slavery, as well as being found in the intimate spaces of our relationships. It has always been present, and yet
Given it’s socially constructed nature, surprisingly little attention has been focused on how power relations shape definitions of violence.
Instead there is a focus on its most simple aspect, as seen in the Oxford English Dictionary:
the exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury on, or cause damage to persons or property; action or conduct characterized by this treatment or usage tending to cause bodily injury or forcibly interfering with personal freedom.
Everyday understandings of violence see it as being an intentional act of causing physical pain or injury to another person (189).
But violence works in and through power relations, it is both visceral and structural.
Definitions of violence that take power relations into account refute these formal, abstract definitions. Racism, sexism, class exploitation, heterosexism, age and citizenship status each have distinctive organizational patterns across their domains of power whereby violence takes a specific form. For example, the gendered violence that women encounter takes the form of rape and sexual assault…The violence associated with class exploitation … is more likely to be within public policies that contribute to differential rates of infant mortality or that send poor and working-class kids off to war. (189)
The further I read in ‘The Ethos of Violence’ the more I see the distorted faces and even more distorted words of those who supported Trump’s rise to power:
Violence can be better imagined as a more dynamic concept whose complexity lies not just in its socially embedded nature in contemporary power relations but also in its ability to shape those same power relations. Violence may be such a naturalized or taken-for-granted dimension of U.S. society that it operates as a saturated site of intersectionality. In other words, violence operates as a form of conceptual glue that enables racism, sexism, class exploitation, and heterosexism to function as they do. Thinking about violence within the context of intersecting power relations suggest three distinguishing features of violence that might help us develop a more nuanced and contextualized definition: (1) the power to define violence; (2) the symbiotic relationship between violent acts and speech; and (3) the routine nature of violence. (190)
To look into each of these three definitions:
The power to define violence
First, the interpretation of any given act as “violent” lies not within the act itself but in how powerful groups conceptualize it.(190)
She looks at the Rodney King beating, differences between protection of women as rape victims, Mumia…today we still have the daily murders of Black men, women and children to show just how true this is. It is the power of definition that allows a public discourse and policy regime to continue as if this did not matter. Because they have defined it not to matter.
Social institutions regulate behavior via sanction and censure and also advance interpretive frames for analysing it. These frameworks encourage the public to interpret violence in ways that support the vested interests of more powerful groups. In other words, these frames help the public interpret what often is identical behavior different, depending on who is engaging in it. (191)
The symbiotic relationship between violent acts and speech
The division between speech and actions is also part of the ethos violence.
The use of words to humiliate, threaten, harass, belittle, destroy generally fall outside of the definition of violence and are often protected . Prejudice is not seen as violence. Discrimination is not seen as violence. Representation is not seen as violence.
Trumps’ speech is so vile, yet for those maintaining this separation, it is not seen as violent.
I myself can experience it in no other way, I am bewildered by this disconnect.
Violence as routine
Violence is seen in the daily micro-assaults on the basis of race, racial profiling, how women avoid certain spaces at all times or certain times of day…it is ubiquitous, shaping our lives in myriad, countless ways. And we are so used to it, we don’t see it for what it is.
America has long declared war on the least powerful people within its borders. This state of ‘normalized war’ predicated on the acceptability of violence targeted toward select groups remains unrecognized because it too is routine. (196)
This, all of this. How is it taking us so long to unravel, understand, and demolish violence? Again, this is all about power and intersectionality, how it affects who is heard and who is believed. How it benefits a group of people to shut their ears and eyes to reality and drag a country off down a terrifying road…