The language of violence

Adapted from a speech given days after the 2016 election, these words are even truer today.

We should “work for peace” – not “fight for peace” … Not only is “fighting for peace” a logically fallacious statement, it also subtly promotes the very idea of violence. The group Grandparents Against Gun Violence urges us to change our language and refrain from using “weapon” terms in everyday life, on the basis that such language causes weapon terms to become commonplace and acceptable.   They say “Don’t shoot me an email – just send it!” They even publish a thesaurus to point out the many commonplace instances where we use the language of gun violence in our culture: Armed with the facts, Half-cocked, Locked and loaded, Under the gun, and numerous others.  (Find the Gun Thesaurus online at http://www.moksgagv.org/)   

When you stop to think about it, it’s actually incredible how much our daily language has become permeated by these and similar terms. It has created a situation that is actually the opposite of the “Newspeak” of Orwell’s 1984, wherein that book’s totalitarian government erased certain words to discourage free thinking.  Words rooted in violence have become added to today’s common language to such an extent that we become unknowingly complacent with the ideas of violence and of living in a violent environment. When we become inured to the language of violence and the pervasiveness of violence, we permit our society to become more violent.  Fear can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: if everyone in the country carried a gun, for fear of encountering a gunman, then the streets would be filled with people carrying guns; if every motorist acted as if they were constantly encountering road rage from other drivers, then the streets would be filled with angry motorists. Fear can cause an otherwise peaceful person to lash out in what is perceived as a preemptive self-protective action. 

Today, in the United States, we need the courage to be nonviolent in a too-often violent world. Recent elections are long and contentious and campaigns result in extreme reactions – from euphoria to despair.  Half of the country views their future as one of power and the other half views their future as one of fear.   It seems “destined” to end up in exactly that polarization, with the only unforeseen element being the identity of those populations.

It is even more important now to find the courage to be nonviolent and to advocate nonviolence to our fellow citizens – to both the winners and the losers of an election…and to our fellow citizens in daily society. Violence in our society is, unfortunately, the defining issue of our times.  Especially now, it is important to hold peacemaking in our hearts and to look upon others with Love.  Whether your candidate won or lost, we are living in a time of division and violence (real and perceived).   We must face that fact and work to change this into a society of unity and nonviolence and that means acting through Love…whether we speak in Love or work in Love or vote in Love.

We are at an important crossroads in our national journey.  In the late 18th Century, the architects of this nation knew they were creating something new in governance: self-governance by the general populace.   Although the United States is hardly the oldest democracy in the world (Athens, Iceland, the Iroquois Confederacy and some others are older), it is, arguably, the first nation to be deliberately crafted on a democratic model and, at the time, encompassed the largest population to do so.   The idea of a Rule of Law, rather than a Rule of Man, was – and still is, today – breathtaking in its power.  The Founding Fathers realized that it would be difficult and fraught with problems never seen before or possibly never imagined before – this was something new and untried in its breath.  So, now, we can look back at it, some 240 years later, after some of the most horrific instances in our history, and we can decide: How have we done?  How has the common man used that power?  For good, as hoped, or for evil, as feared? Well, perhaps — like democracy itself – the answer is mixed.

This country was founded on the principles of freedom and plurality, but now we find ourselves confronting hatred and violence.  We ask ourselves – HOW did this happen here? 

Unfortunately, the flaws were there in the beginning and have now become evident.  Like tiny cracks and fissures in a foundation that are not evident until years later (when time and stress have caused them to widen into dangerous flaws that threaten the entire structure), the flaws in our country’s foundation should have been obvious from the beginning and repaired long before now. 

The Constitution begins with the phrase “We, the People” – but the word “people” at that time was defined in a  very narrow fashion: white, male, freeholders.   The promise of America did not include women or the poor or people of color — even the Declaration of Independence states that “all men” are created equal.   The US was founded on the abomination of slavery and the attempted genocide of the native population – these are serious flaws that have been addressed only piecemeal.   We need to ask the question: are those fatal flaws?  Is our great experiment over?  

Our answer is a resounding NO!!!   We may not be moving forward as quickly and smoothly as we would like, but to give up on our “grand experiment” now would be to concede defeat to the forces of negativity…to say that humans are not capable of evolving politically and socially.  The human race does retain that capacity — although, as we have seen, there have been some setbacks.  We CAN evolve but that evolution will not happen without some help from all of us.

If we are to heal the current divisions and re-energize the American spirit, it will take all of us, working together, to renew our sense of community…by listening to each other and giving respect to each other, by validating other people’s feelings, even if we don’t agree with them, and by talking together.  We will only be able to revive that sense of community through nonviolent actions.  Violence is, by definition, divisive and no permanent beneficial healing can be achieved through violence, whether that violence is by word or deed.

From the media, we hear too often of shootings and wars and attacks and the news is horrendous.  Whether wanton or directed, unwarranted violence is a sad fact in today’s world.  We seem to be surrounded by violent action and words.  Why is there so much emphasis on portraying the world as a violent place? Perhaps those who spread the idea of overwhelming violence do so because they will gain money and power – at a minimum, attention – from such talk. We have definitely seen that ploy at work during past campaigns.  For the media, it’s because sensationalism sells; unfortunately, people are much more likely to read and talk about the latest murder than the latest charitable event.  A headline that screams about the number of traffic deaths gets more attention that a headline about an increase in urban farms.  AND…as for the politics of fear – if people are afraid, they will act instinctually and hand over their power to those who promise safety.   In order to create  a society where we can move forward together, we must move past the politics of fear by creating an environment of safety and security for everyone.  In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the need for safety and security is second only to the needs of the body for sustenance and must be fulfilled before we can move into the levels of love, self-esteem or self-actualization. 

The popular media would have us believe that there is nothing in the world except violence – and, from our own experiences, we know differently.  We know the world is blessed by joy and beauty, friendship and loyalty, and gratitude.   While caution and awareness are needed and instinctive, it is the continual expectation of violence that creates paranoia, which is destabilizing to the individual and to society.   This is the real danger of Fear. FDR said that “the only thing we have to fear is Fear itself” and, while it may not actually be the only thing, it is probably the worst thing we have to fear. Fear is a powerful force — think back on all the old Twilight Zone classics and you will recall that the scariest thing was the Fear inside that caused people to become the problem.

REMEMBER – the opposite of Love is not Hate – it is Fear.

How do we calm the fear that is so rampart in today’s society and that results in violence? How do we make our lives an example of non-violence and, through that example, change the attitudes of those around us?  We already know that, while we cannot control what happens to us, we can always control our reaction to what happens.  Just as our lives are what we believe to be true, so will our future be what we jointly envision. If we look at the world with awe and to the future with hope, we can make that future come true.

To make that happen, we need to act and work through Love and not fear. By doing so, we CAN affect both our little corner of the world and the larger world, through individual action and through community action. Mutual respect should work on all levels to reduce violence and increase peace in society.  Whether you march in solidarity, attend a rally or contribute time or money to a cause, your actions and, especially, your energy helps to affect the opinions of others and maybe even the course of legislation. 

Our perception as individuals – and as a collection of individuals – can create a world of violence or a world of peace.   The well-known axiom that “if you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”   implies that cognitive function is the primary – perhaps, even, the only – filter through which we experience the world.    There is a deeper level, though, through which we both experience the world and manifest to the world.  Depending on your particular religion or, life philosophy, you may call that inner level of knowing the “core of being” or the “soul” or the “spark of God.”  

Regardless of philosophical or religious terminology, it’s the true method through which we experience reality when we’re not consciously thinking about it.  Combining her Buddhist practice and her work in cognitive psychology, author and lecturer Eleanor Rosch writes: “How does all of this apply to peacemaking and nonviolence? It applies first to the state of being of individuals.  One’s false and ego-oriented sense of self thrives on drama and conflict.  Were a person immersed in such a sense of self to arrive at a peaceful heaven, he might well reject it as insufficiently entertaining. A peacemaker must be strong, stable, and grounded in her own relationship to peace in order to withstand the temptations and challenges arising from the manipulative aggression inherent in present societies.”   What Ms. Rosch calls the “manipulative aggression inherent in present societies” is the result of our collective action – and, just as we, as a society of individuals, have created this atmosphere, we can, as a society of individuals, alter that atmosphere to a more peaceful, non-aggressive environment.

As a society, we celebrate fame and competition as desired ends of all human activity.  We teach our children to value “winning” as the ultimate goal of life and that they will learn valuable life lessons on the ball field – then, having promoted winning and competition and self-aggrandizement as desirable traits, we are amazed that there is gridlock in Washington, D.C. and we deplore the lack of common courtesy and caring in our community.   That is a result of years of teaching unrestricted competition and self-gratification.  If we want a society of respect and caring, we should teach our children to value cooperation and to compete against an “Ideal” of what they want to be — we should teach them that there are no real winners where there are enforced “losers” and that life is not just another game.   

In today’s world of vitriolic rhetoric, short tempers, and open-carry laws, it takes courage to be different, to be calm, to refrain from the language of hate, to stand for the Light, and, frankly, to hold hope for the future. 

Every time you refrain from answering violence with violence, you act as a witness to others of the ability to create a peaceful world.  If someone cuts you off in traffic, the initial desire is to accelerate and cut them off in turn…if someone cuts ahead of you in line at the grocery store, the initial desire is to loudly proclaim that heinous act to everyone else in the store…and, if someone posts a hateful message on Facebook, the immediate desire is to respond in kind and let them know, in no uncertain terms, exactly how wrong they are – and, as we all know, this is the most trying circumstance of all!

How we live our daily lives can make a big difference in the world – this idea is central to many religions and life philosophies, although it may be stated in different ways.  The Dhammapada text of Buddhism says “Like a garland made out of flowers/Make your life out of good deeds.”  A Cherokee spiritual elder, Grandfather Bearclaw, suggests that we live each day like a prayer.  Two statements of one vision – that our seemingly small actions are not so small or insignificant as we might think.  Creating peace is within our reach.

On an individual level, we can, for example,  choose to be generous in traffic – realize that you have control of the situation when someone tries to cut into your lane, and you can use that control to either “fight back” and refuse to “give up your place” on the road – or you can choose to graciously “allow” them into the lane.  The effect of this simple act is to immediately reduce both your stress level and the stress level of the other driver.  You are no longer “fighting” and you have taken control of the  situation…and the chances are much less that the other driver will continue to drive so aggressively that he will cause an accident somewhere down the road or arrive at work in such a state of anger that he picks a fight with the first person he meets.  So, with one simple act, you have elevated your day and his day and the experiences of the people you will both encounter throughout the day.  Thinking of the other driver can also give you possible insights into the life of another – is that person’s life really so depressed that the only achievement he can imagine is to get in front of you on the freeway?  If so, give gratitude for the blessings in your life and say a little prayer for that driver…he probably needs it.

Violence takes many forms: the person-to-person violence of bullying and crime, the social violence of discrimination and hatred, the economic violence of poverty, even the ecological violence of pollution and destruction of habitat.   Can we change them all by our individual acts of kindness?  Not all at once – probably not even in our lifetime.  But we can act in Love to bring kindness and nonviolence to the world…starting with our own lives, our family, our friends, our acquaintances…and then it spreads to their friends and acquaintances and then to their friends and acquaintances. 

We need to foster direct conversations on a personal level —  conversations, not arguments or debates.   We need to reach out to those who are hurting (whether through discrimination or actual or perceived inattention to their wants). You will not find that everyone is willing to talk – or, if they do talk, they may not want to listen.  There has been evidence lately that there is a substantial portion of the population who simply want to be heard – they have made that desire quite clear.    Those who are willing to talk and listen and learn have the opportunity to turn some of the current wrath aside, simply by listening and validating that desire to be heard.  

Easy? No. Necessary? Yes.

Stand for the Rule of Law and respect the institutions that protect us, whether the institution is the presidency or the local police force but do not neglect to call out any deviation of those institutions from their restricted authority and hold the individuals in those positions of authority to account. Act in love and in peace – use every opportunity to turn a situation into an example of peace.  After all, just as children learn by example, so do adults. British author Matt Haig has written  “To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act.”

Be revolutionary in your calmness and peace, be courageous, thoughtful, and committed…above all, hold to peace – together, we will change the world.

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