Courageous conversations about violence


One might say that violence is a type of language in that it is a form of expression, a means to convey a message…

To have a conversation about violence one may begin with, what is violence? This is a philosophical question as much as it is political. In that violence is an inherently relational doing, there is the one who performs the (violent) act and the one who experiences it; there is also the one who observes – the spectator society.

Violence is therefore done by someone or many to someone or others; it is interpreted, framed, given an account and set within purpose and meaning structures by those who spectate, by those who perform and by those who experience.

Courageous Conversations and Safe Space

To have a dialogue about violence is to realize that multiple entry points exist into the conversation and that everyone with whom we will be engaging will bring with them unique subjective lived experiences; they will bring their own ‘truth’, a truth that I, who am not you, can only understand tangentially, abstractly, in my own terms and through a lens of my own bias, identity and social biography. If we were to produce a sort of ‘guidebook’ for how to have this conversation, we might then caution not to “account for others’ experiences by dissolving difference and interpreting the other’s experience as the same as ones’ own (Freistadt, 2011).

Violence has many narratives and many narrators. Having a conversation about violence is therefore extremely difficult and contentious; it is political. All the more so because violence is immanent, and by this I mean that we are all shaped and our experiences are all contoured/colored irrevocably by violence; it is intimate and personal. This makes having a conversation about violence a courageous conversation. It requires that which Alexis de Tocqueville referred to as ‘habits of the heart’. One may therefore start with the question: “How do we have difficult conversations?” What principles and practices can we call upon to guide the intricate process? How do we together create a safe and open space for all of our voices to be heard, all of our hearts to be cared for and all of our humanities to be respected?

Safe spaces are rare, particularly in our present moment, our ‘era of facelessness’. In this novel social context, it is cyberspace and social media, where most of our conversations are being held. These introduce distance and anonymity into our relationships and are very much implicated with a desensitization and a disaffection; empathy and compassion are stunted and those with whom we interact become part of an uninterrupted and frantic stimulus, thereby losing singularity and beauty; “the experience of the other is rendered banal”.

This acceleration of interaction and information, “produces an impoverishment of experience because we are exposed to a growing mass of stimuli that we cannot elaborate upon… we have more information, less meaning; more information, less pleasure. Sensibility is within time. Sensuality lies in slowness. The space of information is too vast and quick-moving to elaborate on sensuality intensively, deeply…. we have less curiosity, less surprise; more stress, aggressiveness, anxiety and fear” (Franco Berardi).

Violence and politics

Violence is political and therefore cannot be meaningfully deliberated upon outside of a critical social justice approach, an approach which calls upon critical pedagogy, multicultural education, anti-racist, postcolonial, and feminist perspectives that introduce a complex language of socialization, oppression, privilege, and ideology. This is difficult stuff to deal with, because it is bound to challenge our worldview, our identity and suggests that we may not be as “open-minded” as we may have thought, particularly if encountering perspectives / evidence that point to how “inequality not only exists, but is deeply structured into society in ways that secure its reproduction,” and that “categories of difference (such as gender, race, and class)… do matter and contribute significantly to people’s experiences and life opportunities” (Radical Pedagogy).

It is at this point that the ‘habits of the heart’ become tremendously important and that we realize that protest, social critique and calls for self-reflection and political change are built on a fundamentally human desire to live life as part of a ‘beloved community’, with / in dignity, beauty and wholeness. The struggle for this existence is often discounted, suppressed, made banal, politically framed and strategically miss-represented so that we remain in contention and divided amongst ourselves and within our ‘selves’. It is a most ruthless, violating and inhumane business, the business of purposeful, rational, politically motivated ‘othering’, one I am having a hard time comprehending.

Violence and Voice

The political contention surrounding violence also means that when it is experienced by people, it becomes difficult to understand and even more challenging to iterate and capture in language; and if experiences are shared, it is not at all certain that someone will be there to listen, is prepared to listen or would even be able to comprehend the nature of that which is being shared. This goes back to narrative and sense-making. How difficult it must be to make sense of being violated in a culture where this violation may not be recognized as such, finds no support in language, may be considered a normal conduct or may be given a very, seemingly rational explanation, one which very often circles back onto the one who has been violated and positions blame there.

Personal agency, self-knowledge and storylines that make sense may very well become frustrated, fractured and attenuated. Things become confusing and one may become unfettered, uprooted, decentered, estranged from oneself and be set adrift in a sea where it is very possible that one may drown.

This is not just empty speculation, as Carl Rogers writes, in his article ‘Experiences in Communication.’ The loneliness of not being heard is for him not only terribly frustrating but also leads him to be shut into himself: “When I take the gamble, the risk, of trying to share something that is very personal with another individual and it is not received and not understood, this is a very deflating and a very lonely experience. I have come to believe that such an experience makes some individuals psychotic. It causes them to give up hoping that anyone can understand them. Once they have lost that hope, then their own inner world, which becomes more and more bizarre, is the only place where they can live. They can no longer live in any shared human experience. I can sympathize with them because I know that when I try to share some feeling aspect of myself which is private, precious, and tentative, and when this communication is met by evaluation, by reassurance, by distortion of my meaning, my very strong reaction is, “Oh, what’s the use!” At such a time, one knows what it is to be alone.” A narrowing of personhood, as he calls it, takes place.

Knowing how it feels to not be heard and having to cope with anger, bafflement and disillusion, he self-critically considers how he too may at times be implicated in not hearing the other person: “What I really dislike in myself is not being able to hear the other person because I am so sure in advance of what he is about to say that I don’t listen. It is only afterward that I realize that I have heard what I have already decided he is saying; I have failed really to listen. Or even worse are those times when I catch myself trying to twist his message to make it say what I want him to say, and then only hearing that. This can be a very subtle thing, and it is surprising how skillful I can be in doing it. Just by twisting his words a small amount, by distorting his meaning just a little, I can make it appear that he is not only saying the thing I want to hear, but that he is the person I want him to be. Only when I realize through his protest or through my own gradual recognition that I am subtly manipulating him, do I become disgusted with myself.”

Rogers provides the analogy of a prisoner in a dungeon, tapping out day after day a Morse code message, “Does anybody hear me? Is anybody there?” If he is lucky, one day, he may hear a simple response ‘yes, I hear you’ and “be released from loneliness; he has become a human being again.”

There are many, many people, he reminds us, who are “living in private dungeons today, people who give no evidence of it whatsoever on the outside, where you have to listen very sharply to hear the faint messages from the dungeon.” He relates an account of Jenny and finishes the tale reflecting upon how “some days Jenny is victorious in her desire to control the interpretation of her life’s journey.  Some days the complex, mysterious, wet, rich texture of her life penetrates the narrow, rational, dry, shallow categories that haunt her.  Today is not one of those days. Today she will not be heard. Today her personhood is narrowed and diminished.  Today I appreciate her resilience in trying to emerge from under the layers of non-recognition.”

One man who has dedicated his entire life to listening and creating loving, “I-thou relationship,” as Martin Buber would call it, is Jean Vanier. One of my personal heroes, Vanier is the founder of a number of communities of and for the developmentally disadvantaged, L’Arche. It is his experience of seeing vulnerable and fragile people languishing, suffering and experiencing violence in psychiatric asylums resembling prisons that led him to launch the initiative; he realized that people were misunderstood, pathologized and had little means to express their experience and their hurt; some people speak infrequently and quietly, and so we must remain close, he writes.

A call to action

Conversations about violence are therefore very much part of a larger conversation about voice – the ability to speak and be heard -, agencyI am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul -, and phenomenology – experiencing and understanding our and each other’s experiences.

It is also a conversation about community, relationship and empathy; to the degree that violence violates the integrity of a person, their personhood, and makes them less – less whole, less secure, less self, less agent -, we must also ask how and how much and why or why not we value people; and if we value them, how then ought we conduct ourselves and what principles and practices can we call upon to guide us?

And when we see violence being done unto others and we realize that caring for others cannot be legislated through policy or law, what conditions / spaces can we imagine and mobilize so that the possibility for caring is created; and what kindling can we use so that this smallest of sparks, of recognizing the other in the self, grows to set entire communities aflame?


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