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Monday, July 30, 2012

A Lot of Violence...

There has been a lot of violence in my world and the worlds of many people I love and care about recently.  A few suicides; a gun held to the head of a friend, thankfully not fired; a mis-fire that did hurt a friend of a friend; another friend leaving an abusive relationship after it became physical. These incidents gives me pause, as these types of incidents do.  I wonder what conditions, incidents, environments, personal experiences the people who decided to cause the harm have lived through?  What were their relationships, families, work-life, daily existence like before these incidents occurred?  Do they feel loved? Valued? Supported? Do they feel connected? Do they have a sense of social and personal value?  Do they believe they matter in the scheme of things?  What systems or institutions have they been involved with and what was their experiences with them? What is their generational family history? How has that been impacted by social, political, and economic contexts that most certainly inform how individuals and communities feel valued?

When violence or harm occurs, it is human nature to try to make sense of what happened.  Across communities and cultures, there are rituals for grief and loss as well as rituals for healing.  These rituals help us move through the pain and give us something to hold onto, something to believe in when violence and trauma have shaken our faith.  These rituals, however, are not necessarily geared to answer why an act of violence happened.  The media attempts to fill this role, highlighting violence in an attempt to answer why with responses  from “experts” crammed into three minute sound bites.  And there are many, many three minute sounds bites.  The current saturation of negative and fear based media in the United States cultivates an anxiety-promoting fear-driven culture.  While the “if it bleeds, it leads” mainstay of media is nothing new, the sheer magnitude of fear-inducing information constantly streaming in and around our environments is affecting us.  When something bad happens our fear and anxiety levels rise.  If we are not mindful, anxiety and fear can drive us to ask why or how something “like this” could have happened, in the hopes of swiftly making sure it never happens again.  While this is a reasonable reaction to the fear that experiencing a traumatic event can produce, it can, and often does, lead to victim blaming and reductive attempts to “make sure this never happens again.” Until it happens. Again. Because it will.  Unless we change the conditions in which violence is more likely to occur than not occur.  Changing the conditions in which violence occurs  will take time.  Lots of time.  Changing conditions is a slow process which can feel pretty inadequate in the immediate aftermath of a violent incident.  When something violent happens, we want, understandably, to respond immediately. And we need to respond immediately with fierce urgency to keep people safe, address the impact of trauma, provide security, offer compassion, support, food, help people address basic needs and navigate any systems or institutions they may need to access because of the incident(s).  What I wonder is, how we can respond immediately while also imagining and working towards radical alternatives? Can we rush to support survivors while not rushing to answer the questions, why?  And how do we make sure this never happens again?

We respond to incidents of violence by seeking the diagnosis, the lost opportunity, the missed signal, the neural circuitry, the biological marker, the childhood incident  that can explain why such an event occurred. To explain why someone would do such a thing.  We look to “answers” to soothe anxiety and fear. And we want these answers to draw a clear line between us (those harmed)  and them (those who cause harm).  We do this because trauma shakes the foundation of our reality, tosses what we know into a cyclone of confusion.  Fear, anger, doubt, grief, swirl around incidents of trauma.  Fear reminds people that it could happen to them.  It is a jarring attestation that any of us could be next.  In the wake of a traumatic incident, we are also reminded of the possibility that we could be like the person who caused harm.  This fear, a dark secret relegated to the silent shadows of our souls, creates an anxiety which drives us to seek simple, solid answers.  Answers that clearly state the difference between us and someone “like that”.  We want a boundary that can signal safety, security.  These boundaries, however, do not keep us safe.  They do not address the root causes nor the conditions of harm.  But in a moment of crisis, they are something tangible to hold onto.

I want us to hold on to different things.  When we reduce incidents of domestic violence, suicides, or a seemingly random shooting rampage to a missed diagnosis, a gene, a hormone imbalance, addiction, we locate causes inside the person. Literally in the body. This does not reflect the complexities, the generational histories, the social, political, economic, racialized, gendered, able-bodied conditions which informed all aspects of what occurred and how individuals, communities, institutions, and systems respond.  When we operate out of fear and an urgency to fix things so that “This never happens again” we come up with solutions that while seemly rooted in social changes, do little to shift the conditions that make this violence more likely to occur.  

People argue for solutions such as making the cost of ammunition outrageously high, or lowering the bar for involuntary inpatient treatment, seeking longer jail time for people arrested for domestic violence, building more mental health facilities, training CPS workers to better identify signs of potential violence. These kinds of solutions, while sometimes necessary, are located in the idea that things will never change, that this is the way it is.  It is challenging when faced with incidents of violence and abuse that shake us at our very core, remind us of our vulnerability, trigger our own traumatic histories, and hold up the ugly reality that we cause great harm to one another, to not be motivated by fear, anger and urgency in ways that push us towards quick fixes.

It is imperative that we continue to ask questions and tease out possibilities not motivated by fear, or urgency; questions and possibilities that hold space for loving compassion and fierce accountability; questions and possibilities that seek to hold onto the humanity in all of us, including those who have caused harm; questions that seek long winded solutions, complex in their accessibility and determination to not leave people or communities behind; questions that look back to history as well as imagine radical new possibilities; questions that imagine the possibility that we can create relationships free from violence and communities where abuse does not occur.  I know this may sound “Pollyannaish” to some.  I am not suggesting we not stay grounded in the violent and de-humanizing reality of the world we live in currently and be prepared to respond to the harm that happens.  I am simply hoping that the responses we have and the solutions we offer are not located in the pedagogy of quick fixes and a “that’s just the way it is” paradigm.  

We don’t have to have a blueprint to start imagining.  This can be an in-process process. In fact, it has to be.  We can start small with neighborhood and community focused alternatives to how we respond to incidents of harm in our lives and communities and use the process of this work to keep imagining other possibilities, other ways of being, other types of systems, organizations, institutions.  We can keep our eye on the immediate need to respond, while we keep our gaze firmly on the horizon because change will take time.  We can work on our own healing so that we have the emotional capacity to respond to harm done without de-humanizing, criminalizing those that cause harm, or reducing their acts to a diagnosis. I don’t have any clear road maps or specific answers, but I do know some amazing groups of people struggling with smart and engaging questions that can help individuals and communities respond in complex and compassionate ways when violence and abuse happens.
The Capacity Project: