Trying to Tell the Truth about Violence: Some Difficulties
Robert Knox Dentan
Professor in the Department of American Studies and Anthropology, State University of New York/University at Buffalo; HFG grantee; author of The Semai: A Nonviolent People of Malaya.
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Amidst the flood of violent imagery—every day on TV, on the newsstands and in the drugstores, everywhere—this academic prudery seems like combing your hair in a tornado. Depicting violence may upset or offend people: it should, I think. Violence, in fact, is revolting. An accurate depiction must be that, too. If not, it depersonalizes both the perpetrators and, especially, the victims of violence. Years ago George Orwell pointed out how convenient denaturing academese is for violent oppressors (1956). What is the difference between talking about slaving, which makes women and children objects of sexual and physical abuse, as "servility" (Cohen 1970:165-166) or "recruitment to relations of dependence" (Sullivan 1982) and talking about "the liquidation of the kulaks" or "the final solution to the Jewish problem"? Phrases like these reflect, maintain, or hide the oppressors' insensitivity to the plight of the people they hurt. The "fiction of critical distance produces further fictions of closure," as if the violence were over (Hebard 1997:88). Now that's "coarsening people's sensibilities and implicitly encouraging violence." In this sense, the social scientific language metapornographers favor is also pornography, feeding consumers' coldness.

And declaring violence off limits doesn't help the victims, though it may let faculty and students feel good about ourselves by obviating the need to assess our own complicated responses to cruelty. One thing I've learned from twice teaching a course on violence is that anyone who has ever suffered cruelty—and most people have—responds ambivalently to its representation. More positively, trying to recreate the experience of violence, rather than describing it from a safe academic distance, might—just might—mobilize emotional responses with the same sort of reformist political potential as the associated conceptual responses (Nordstrom 1997:xvii-xviii).

A Personal Note

There is a powerful yet often unstated cultural perception that hearing about violence is, in some curious existential inversion, worse than enduring it. . . .

. . . [W]hen I describe a body tortured by fellow humans, it becomes a field for cautionary tales of "pornography of violence." . . .

One question I encounter from western audiences I find particularly offensive. Phrased both delicately and not so delicately, people want to know why I do this research. Do I get some kind of thrill from it? (Nordstrom 1997:17-19)

Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love
These are the terms, take them or leave them...
(Rich 1986:33)

Is my own interest in violence prurient? I came to study violence by chance, by happening to do fieldwork with Semai, a people so peaceable that a colleague suggested I subtitle my report "A Nonviolent People" (Dentan 1979). Trying to understand their nonviolence required studying violence. Besides, I live in a violent society and I think it's important to try to understand violence.

Since any and all events can be lifted by men of bad faith out of their normal contexts and projected onto others and thus consequently condemned, since one's thoughts can be interpreted in terms of such extreme implications as to reduce them to absurdity or subversion, obviously a mere declaration of good faith is not enough. In an all-pervading climate of intellectual evasion or dishonesty, everything becomes dishonest. . . . To imagine straight communication is no longer possible is to declare that the world we seek to defend is no longer worth defending, that the battle for human freedom is already lost. . . . Have you taken your passions, your illusions, your time, and your circumstances into account? . . . More than that no reasonable man of good will can demand. (Wright 1993:428-429)

You wouldn't ask the question if I were studying economic "development." I'm not sure it's more relevant here than there (cf. Nordstrom 1997:16-19). Still, because of my personal background, cruelty is particularly upsetting to me, while at the same time it holds my attention, stirring up dark ambivalences of love and copycat cruelty. I don't like it: cruelty to other people calls up old pain and despair, which make me afraid, and I deal with the fear by becoming angry, the way good American men should. "Unresolved issues" goes the jargon. But who has resolved these issues?

What I would say, I guess, if you ask my reasons for teaching about violence is what Dido said in welcoming Aeneas, who later betrayed her: Haud ignara mali miseris succurrere disco, which I read, loosely, as saying "Firsthand familiarity with evil put me on the side of people in misery." But no protestation of innocence is convincing, is it?

I am writing this in a time
when anything we write
can be used against those we love
where the context is never given
though we try to explain, over and over.
(Rich 1986:35)

Some Class Notes

I'm not happy with how the two classes I taught went. The infrastructure never got pulled together and the course structure went haywire as a result. There was less class discussion, and less discussion of issues the readings and movies raised, than I initially envisaged. The modification in format made it harder to teach the class as a set of questions and nudged it towards a teacher-knows-best mode. That's always seductive for a crypto-authoritarian like myself but not, I think, the best way to teach this troubling topic.

The first class was for "untraditional" (old) students, many of whom knew violence firsthand: pacifists, ex-cons, social workers, etc. I learned a lot from them, most of it disturbing. My initial course description was pretty intellectual: "theory, representation and resolution of violence." But I began to realize that the representation and conceptualization of violence in the U.S. is so thoroughly mystified that the phenomenon itself is obscured. Violence seems dramatic, colorful, telegenic, intriguing, fun.

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