Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Fight for Peace

I live in a region that epitomizes the ethnic strife and attitudes toward violence of a nation that comprises approximately 20% of the world's population. There is so much about the particularities of this region's situation that I want to write about on this blog, but in my current living arrangement it is unwise to do so. Nonetheless, I am prompted to write something that might bring the "unspeakable" into focus. So it is that I find myself again drawn to the subject of nonviolence.

While it is easy to point at governments, the media, video games, and other "impersonal" structures as the main perpetrators of violence, I am finding again and again that the finger ultimately points back at us--ordinary people. Almost daily I am confronted with often uncomfortably frank conversations about ethnic prejudices which can lead to conflict. On the more benign level, I am asked several times a week if I like to play basketball or "street dance", two activities that are most closely tied to local conceptions of my identity as a black American. Those with whom I have cultivated more of a relationship talk about depictions of black men in American movies as being ultra-violent and dangerous. "But, you're not like that," a few friends have said, one of whom admitted that he was nervous when he first met me because of his preconceived conception of black men.

The reality is that very few black people make their way through this part of the world, and the few prejudices in place have more to do with the ignorance of absence than anything else. However, the more concerning prejudices are rooted in deeply communal, deeply personal ways of interacting with cultural differences. My province is home to a wide array of ethnic minorities (a complex concept in Chinese society which has filled volumes of scholarly works and can hardly be introduced in blog post) with various linguistic, religious, and cultural affinities that sometimes come into conflict. These conflicts can arise in a multitude of situations.

For example, in regards to food consumption, Hui Muslims will only eat at restaurants and homes that are Qing Zhen, literally "pure and true", implying the complete absence of pork. That means that any restaurant or home where pork has ever been cooked or served is out of the question; even cups touched by lips that have eaten pork can be considered unclean. This can lead to awkward situations where a Hui person is invited to a Han Chinese person's home and will not eat or drink anything offered to them to guard against contamination. This awkwardness can expand into offense in socially specialized environments like weddings, banquets, and business dinners.

In many ways, local people are accustomed to this arrangement, with public places like school cafeterias and grocery stores making concessions for Qing Zhen dietary restrictions. However, the imbalance of power in hospitality (ie, Hui can host Han, but not vice versa), such an important part of this society, often leads to what is in practice a habitual lack of contact with members of the "other" group. This mutual absence creates space for ethnic cultural "straw men" which have little in common with the real people who they represent, and these "straw men" are passed on through various mediums to later generations.

The problem with straw men is that they have no brains. They are not rational beings capable of thoughtful adaptation to the complexities of their environment. As such, they can be looked down upon those who live according to subhuman instincts and impulses, or even worse, seen as objects. This characterization in turn provides justification for prejudiced actors to employ violence to resolve conflicts of interest. After all, you can't reason with something that is subhuman, can you?

This may seem like harsh overstatement, and perhaps it is, but the consequences of violence that I see around me require harsh analysis. In many ways, violence is often controlled in the public spaces of the United States. Sure, you can watch UFC matches on television and play Grand Theft Auto video games, but uncontrolled displays of violence are generally socially unacceptable. It is often in the shadows of back streets where people get jumped or mugged, inside houses where husbands abuse wives. Here, these acts of violence are profoundly public. Men can hit women while they are walking down the sidewalk, and groups of young men can shower a rain of blows on a lone victim, all without expecting much interference from passersby unless it is a police officer, a monk, or a pesky foreigner. Violence is in some ways the norm.

When it comes to intercultural strife, small incidents sometimes escalate in more widespread vandalism and acts of violence. Just yesterday in a small town a few hours from my city, I heard the story behind a spurt of violence three years ago. A Hui vendor and a Tibetan boy had a disagreement about a purchase, and the Hui vendor reportedly struck the boy. Whether or not this event actually happened as it was told, the result is that the Hui vendor was beaten badly. That beating fed deeper feelings of offense and enmity which led to the chanting of slogans advocating violence against all Muslims (including those who were not Hui), and a mob formed which began to vandalize Muslim restaurants and beat unsuspecting Muslims out on the street. Soon, the slogans began to include other ethnic groups, and it can be safely said that at some point people participating in the mob did not even know what event sparked the entire thing. It didn't matter. All that mattered was the opportunity to unleash internal rage on nameless, faceless "others" who were clearly the enemy.

Do you see how easy it is for the "straw men" to become objects of violence? While this might be an extreme example, I think it is particularly pertinent for Americans today. On the global level, there is the ongoing American warfare against "enemies of democracy" which extends from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War to today's War on Terror. In each instance, the enemy has to be depersonalized and essentialized as vessels of opposition to our own goals. According to the conventions of nation-state governance, this is the approach required in order to be a head of state. The dissonance which this creates in the thoughtful actor is captured beautifully in a recent article about Obama's visit to India.

On a more personal level, I remember when my former roommate (who is also African American) joined the military shortly after 9/11. Several months later we were chatting online and he used the term "ragheads" in regards to Arabs. I was taken aback by his use of this racial epithet, and chastised him for aiming prejudice at Arabs when black people had been the targets of that exact kind of racism for years.
As he began to defend himself by referencing the 9/11 tragedy, I began to wonder what kind of training he was receiving in the military. Don't get me wrong, I am not accusing the military of training soldiers to be racist. However, I am asking if there might be a connection between the depersonalization that fuels prejudice and the depersonalization that my ex-Marine buddy said was necessary to eliminate the hesitation that most people experience before pulling the trigger with a human being on the other end of the barrel.

I don't want to pick on the military alone. The military is simply the embodiment of a human tendency to depersonalize those we consider "other", and especially those whose goals come into conflict with our own. We can point at the statistic that robberies are less likely to become violent if the victim mentions her family or tells the perpetrator her name. Personalization of the victim makes it harder for the victim to be objectified. I wish I remembered where to find this article, but there was a report several years ago about the reduction of violence and negative perceptions between Palestinian and Israeli youth who played sports together (does anyone else remember this?). The list goes on, but the salient point seems to be that if we are forced to personalize the "other", we are less likely to commit violence against them.

I think this highlights a famous but often unheeded teaching of Jesus--to love one's enemy. Most of us stumble over the seeming impossibility of such an idea before we consider the power that it might have in its accomplishment. Missionary to India and friend of Gandhi, E. Stanley Jones, writes in The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person in response to the common objection that "love your enemies" is an impractical command:

Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, and go the second mile when compelled to go one. Impossible idealism -- you would be everybody's doormat, everyone would walk on you. Would they? The aim of a quarrel is to get rid of your enemy. Suppose you strike back and give blow for blow. Do you get rid of your enemy? You fix the enmity by very blow you give. By turning the other cheek you disarm your enemy. He hits you on the cheek and you, by your moral audacity, hit him on the heart by turning the other cheek. His enmity is dissolved. Your enemy is gone. You get rid of your enemy by getting rid of your enmity.

If prejudice and violence are rooted in our own view of the "other", is it truly possible to get rid of our enemy by getting rid of the enmity in our heart? By viewing those who oppose us not as depersonalized opposition to what we want, but as persons who can change in response to their environment? What if our enemies are confronted with nonviolence rooted in the affirmation of their own personhood and ability to change? Can they remain our enemies?

Assuredly, some people can. However, I think that the early Jesus movement, the Indian independence movement, the American Civil Rights movement all illustrate that many people cannot remain enemies in the face of such nonviolence rooted in belief in the possibility of redemption for actors of violence. These movements also illustrate that those committed to nonviolent resistance are also committing to self-discipline and personal suffering which most of us do not have the courage to take on willingly. Yet, if we willingly choose that discipline and suffering, there is tremendous power for justice and redemption.

Looking back over this post, I see that I have mostly been rambling incoherently. Typical. If I would only write smaller posts on a more regular basis, that might be avoided. Nonetheless, scrambled though it may all be, I'd be interested in hearing your responses. Until then, peace be with you.


Alexis said...

Ramon, this reminds me of a Table Talk issue. Oh, to be able to discuss this with that old crowd. Rather than being an incoherent rambling, I found this post to be quite straight forward and true. I miss having discussions with you. I'm off to school right now, but I'll leave a better response soon!

Kimberly said...

"The problem with straw men is that they have no brains."

I plan on quoting you on that. I'm teaching in a few weeks on righteous anger, and am taking the angle that we can not agree on what to be angry about right now from a biblical perspective. Rather, we have to look at our posture - not labeling each other, honestly listening, being rooted in the spirit...

I'll have to check out "Unshakable Kingodm" - sounds like a great resource.

James Seawel said...

Well, I have to disagree. You weren't rambling incoherently. Wonderfully written, my friend. Keep it up.

jep said...

Ramon, I'll take your rambling incoherent thoughts any old day, just to hear your thoughts again.

The central message of your post is a hard look in the mirror for me. It reminds me of the first time I read Thomas Merton's "Seven Storey Mountain." I didn't understand why Merton kept blaming himself for World War II. I think I'm beginning to see, slowly, what he meant.

And, by the way, how have I never heard of "The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person"? Sounds great.

Sighing wistfully: Ah, Brooklyn, where are you, son?