When I was in college, I once tried giving plasma. During the process, the phlebotomist angled the needle incorrectly, and broke a vein in my arm. I saw the blood pool into a bruise, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I felt supremely vulnerable in a way I had never before. They eventually stuck the needle into my other arm, and began the process of filtering the plasma cells out of a sample of my blood. In a room filled with other people hoping to get 40 dollars for this invasive medical practice which saves no lives directly (as plasma is used for research exclusively), I spontaneously broke into a sob. The nurse stopped the process, and began to fill my arm with saline solution. I became very aware that I was a body, a contingent, physical organism that my conscious self only barely understood. While I might unconsciousness think of myself as being a soul that only happens to use a body, in this moment, I was wholly reliant on this machinery working, on this substance entering my bloodstream from poisoning me. In the end, I was given $20 for the ordeal. I went to a record store and purchased Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois album.
This was one of the most painful moments of my life. Not only because I was experiencing a sharp, physical sensation of cold metal solution coursing through my veins, but also because I had no power. There is a great deal of pain in not having any power. The exercise of power to control others, as I have come to believe, is the stuff of violence. And any moral system that does not consider this relationship between power and violence is not worth our consideration. As a younger person, I thought about violence as something like this:
“Violence: Physical force used to inflict pain on another person.”
When people talked about violence, they always seemed to use it in the context of guns and punching and kicking. Violence is causing pain. Simple enough. At the same time, I heard people talk about power, not just in a scientific sense, but in a political or social way. Superheroes were said to have superpowers, but what exactly is power? I imagined it as something like this,
“Power: The ability to coerce people or things to do what you want.”
Superman can fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes and was super-strong. Of course he had a lot of power, he can punch his way out of hoards of bad guys and his skin could resist bullets, he can do whatever he wants. As a kid, I wondered why Lex Luthor, a multibillionaire tech mogul, was Superman’s main antagonist. Lex Luthor had no superpowers, he was a mere mortal. Perhaps there is something more to power? After all, CEOs and politicians seem to have power. I began to think about it like this:
“Power: The ability to legally, financially, and physically coerce people and things to do what you want.”
Superman might be invulnerable, but Luthor controlled the politics of Metropolis. The justice system trusted him, the people respected him, and in a run of comics, Luther becomes the president of the United States. Superman has no control of trade agreements, business-labor relations, anti-discrimination laws, foreign policy, energy policy, building codes, education, or almost any of the factors that actually have meaning and determining force in people’s lives. But Luthor does. And he is known to use his political power in ways that enrich him, and end up hurting the people of the city. Leaving the world of comic books, a famous real estate owner in New York once wanted to evict an entire building of low-income people. Being unable to legally kick everybody out, he did everything in his ability to minimize repairs, tamper with the heating, and allow the building to fall into disarray. This was a use of power with the intent to hurt and coerce people against their will. While there was not a punch or a gunshot, this was an act of violence.
“Violence: A use of power to intentionally cause physical or psychological harm to a person, either through overt action, or deprivation of essential conditions.”
Intentions ought to matter. The person who punches another in the midsts of an altercation is guilty of violence, but we do not generally consider the boxer or football player to be violent, even if the sport is potentially concussive. This approach values consent. Consenting parties agree to a set of terms, and thus the results are acceptable. People can be persuaded, but not coerced. However, wealthy interests control the media, so maybe the distinction between coercion and persuasion becomes murky. Is it possible that consent could, as Noam Chomsky phrased it, be manufactured? That our thoughts and political feelings might not be entirely our own?
For example, how exactly did the USSR go from a “Leftist-Communist” state to a right-wing nationalist authoritarianism in one generation? How is it there is still disagreement and resentment about the American Civil War? How is it that the Freedom Fighters of Afghanistan in the 80s became terrorists in the 00s? How is it that Japan still denies its atrocities in China, but German renounced Nazism in one generation? How did the multicultural Yugoslavia break into genocide as soon as the Cold War ended? Why is it that every American child learns about the 6 million Jews killed by Hitler, but not the 10 million Congolese killed by Leopold II of Belgium, or the 1 million Armenians systematically killed by the Turks in 1917, which the United States still does not recognize? How is it that we have a population that routinely votes against its own interests? Is it possible that having control of the official images and narratives presented is a form of power? I say it is, and this is a form of power.
“Power: The ability to influence, persuade, and coerce people and things to do what you want.”
When a massive corporation like Nestle goes to the developing world to advertise an insufficient baby formula, threatening the lives of millions, I have to believe this is an act of violence. When the water pipes of Flint, Michigan are filled with lead, this is an act of violence. When the divorce laws in a country were so restrictive that an abused woman had almost no ability to leave a marriage without her husband admitting that he was at fault, this was an act of violence. When the wealthiest nation on earth allows a large portion of its children to go hungry, this is an act of violence. When you spend your entire life in fear of law enforcement, badgered by unending aggressions and denial of your humanity, this is an act of violence. In each of these cases, it is difficult to pin down the one person who is committing the act, “The Bad Guy,” if you will. Comic books and movies have taught us to look for the bad guy to find evil, but I believe this impulse misplaced.
Many organs come together to make a body. A human body is said to be emergent from our organs, that is, we are more than the sum of our parts. Along these lines, the social and economic functions of a house cannot be reduced to the properties of brick and mortar, and our social, political, and economic systems cannot, and must not, be understood as just a lot of people working together. Systems of oppression, degradation, selective control of messages, public memory, and so forth—these are all social systems of violence. Violent systems do not always have an evil genius—more over than not, they don’t—but they have the same effect of using power to influence, persuade, and coerce to the will of the powerful, at the expense of the well-being of the powerless.
It can be easy to say, I am not a violent person, because I treat everybody equally. But I benefit from a system of power that has excluded and overtly exploited many: the United States was obtained by a genocide of indigenous people, propped up by 250 years and 20 million people’s stolen labor (where do you think the textile mills of the north got their cotton from?), 175 years of cheap immigrant labor, and several wars of overt conquest (The Mexican-American war, the Spanish-American war, and the coup of Hawaii). We talk so much about how grateful we ought to be for what we have, but we rarely talk about what we did to make it this far. I enjoy treatment from a justice system and an education system that does not treat everybody equality. I might not have much power, but I benefit in many ways from the violence systems of power at play.
Despite this, I am not an amoralist: what we do, what we support, and how we treat individuals matters. We have a moral duty to help and empower others, because to empower is really a way of lessening pain. I encouraging people not to think of morality as a series of “side-constraints” for your own actions, but to really consider your whole life, and in what ways do you have power, exercise power, and benefit from violent systems. I do believe another world is possible—a world very different than the one we live in now—and this world begins within our immediate social systems.