“Indulging the violent impulse is satisfying. It can even be fun. But the moment we indulge that impulse we have set down the fundamental work of a movement for justice”.
Almost ten years ago now, I was told by a new CEO to fire an employee immediately, without process, whose performance was in question. To my way of thinking, this employee deserved an opportunity to address the issue. Besides, we were operating under a bargaining agreement, and there were rules for dealing with performance concerns. What was being required of me wasn’t fair, right, or legal. I refused.
Thus began several months of increasingly unreasonable and untenable demands. I consulted a friend and mentor, a philosopher. She was supportive and affirming, but what I remember most is that she said, “Your most important moral responsibility is to resist the violent impulse.”
Violent? I asked, no one had been violent toward me, nor had I to others. But I was wrong. That CEO had no desire to understand my perspective, see me whole, or even attempt to work things out. She wanted me gone. And to be honest, I wanted her gone too.
The violent impulse is to make something go away. Taken to its extreme, it manifests in murder. Murder is a reaction to emotions and discomfort felt so deeply as to want to remove the apparent source. That’s wrong-headed, of course; the essential sources of such discomfort are things like fear, ignorance, and misunderstanding, none of which are resolved by violence.
What I didn’t understand then, but do now, is that the violent impulse most often manifests much more subtly than physical force. It shows up in use of institutional power to take away employment, change an assignment or cut off conversation, rather than genuinely attempt to resolve a difference. It manifests in reducing another person, or others, to a pejorative, and in dismissing another’s emotion or experience.
Many have observed over the past year a rise in permission to exercise the violent impulse. If you’re reading this, you may be nodding, thinking of the spike in racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynist, trans and homo-phobic violence in the wake of the 2016 US elections.
And yes, of course, I’m thinking of that too. But this is a letter to the Left, to liberal and progressive hearts and minds. To people who want justice and liberation.
This is important: if you have referred to someone with whom you deeply disagree, or even fear, with a scornful name; if you have carried a sign or chanted a chant that denigrated people rather than ideas or policies; if you have posted on social media that so-and-so is a d—k, an a-hole, a monster or even a loser. If you have referred to a whole group in this way –people who voted for Trump, perhaps? — then you have indulged the violent impulse.
I’m not looking down my nose here. The violent impulse is tough to resist. I am definitely not always successful. But resist it we must. Really. Violence begets violence. Every. Single. Time.
I didn’t make that up. Arguably, from my white, American, middle-class, able-bodied (for now) perspective, I don’t get to wax self-righteous against violence. But Congressperson John Lewis, who sat at Woolworth’s counters, marched at Selma, and endured many beatings in the process – there’s a man who I think gets to say it. “We were convinced,” Lewis said in 2013, “that peace could not be achieved through violence. Violence begets violence . . . We took a stand against an unjust system, and we decided to use this faith [in non-violence] as our shield and the power of compassion as our defense.”[i]
I understand that compassion is hard to come by, especially in the face of naked injustice. It’s not so hard if we remember that anger and compassion are not incompatible, and if we stop to think about the history of non-violent resistance that has driven most if not all liberatory change in the past century and more.
The questions to ask ourselves are these: Do we want to be right more than we want liberation and justice? Will we lean into name-calling at the expense of building a peaceful world?
Indulging the violent impulse is satisfying. It can even be fun. But the moment we indulge that impulse we have set down the fundamental work of a movement for justice.
Congressman Lewis wrote, “the only way to achieve peaceful ends was through peaceful means.” Peaceful, in this context does not mean passive, or even quiet. Rage can be peaceful if it does not surrender to violence.
Believe me, I am furious. If I’m not careful I live every day at a slow, sometimes roiling boil. And I am desperate to make common cause with as many people as I can in the service of – among other things — fewer prisons, safer homes and streets, health care for all, education that engenders access and discourse-not separation, respect for indigenous land and culture, and refuge from poverty and war.
Surrendering to our violent impulses will not get us there, and there is too much at stake not to rein it in.