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.
1 | 2 | 3 | back to TOC

For the less sophisticated and experienced students in the next class (freshmen, many in an honors program), the goal became to show (a) most violence is routinized, "degrading" for all involved in both the new military and old moral sense; (b) the effects, which don't make good visuals, are longlasting and saddening; (c) the students were more involved, personally, as agents, victims, and beneficiaries than they might think. It didn't seem fair to ask students to talk about their own lives without sharing experiences I had.

Coincidentally, I'd been working with kids in my neighborhood, escorting a group of girl scouts to meetings, for example. The kids talked to me, openly or in confidence, about their lives, often describing routine cruelties that left me feeling shaken but powerless to intervene, to "fix" things without doing even worse damage. I realized that I needed to emphasize how poisonous attitudes like "boys will be boys" are, the idea that boys are "tough," the acceptance of school hazing as "natural," and the dismissal of children's pain as "childishness." But the upsetting stories from these kids fed into the disturbing materials of the class, and vice versa, in an accelerating feedback loop.

Also, for student volunteers, I showed over a dozen movies. The specificity of movie images helped bring violence to life. "Farewell My Concubine," e.g., raises the issue of how much brutalization it is proper to subject children to so that for a brief period their esthetic or athletic skills are so wonderful that we are all exalted. One day, after weeks of talking about violence, because of a scheduling glitch we saw both "Soldier Child" and "Night and Fog." I came undone. Solutions to this violence seem pitiful in comparison with the humdrum daily routine of degradation and pain. I wept silently. Several students took this as permission to grieve too, and did.

Commenting on the course, students said they found it disturbing. They wept after class, they said, had nightmares and obsessive thoughts. They suggested keeping journals of their feelings or talking more about feelings in class. I found the class upsetting too, and didn't want to teach it next semester. Still, student evaluations were overwhelmingly and enthusiastically positive, far more so than honors students usually provide. "Best class I've ever had," for example, and "Everyone should have to take this class."


Yet another logistical glitch left me teaching this class once again this semester—overload. I told the students I was going to cancel it but, since they'd bothered to show up, ran a session which got them talking to each other. Then I said I'd informally tutor two or three students who were taking the class because they were seriously interested in violence. I then left the room, so that people could slip away without worrying about hurting my feelings. When I came back, no one had left. They petitioned me for the class to continue, promising to work diligently and to take over as much of the infrastructural work (xeroxing, scheduling movies, transporting people who needed it, etc.) as possible. I was moved.

And that allows me, against my normal bias, to suggest a couple of positives that emerge from these three sessions. First, these classes attracted an astonishingly wide variety of people, far more so than other classes I've taught: people from different majors, classes, ages, ethnicities, politics, religions; people who agreed with each other about almost nothing. I'd expected lots of anthropology and American Studies people: not so. Second, they developed an equally surprising esprit de corps. These students seem able to cooperate and respect each other far more than I usually find. I think maybe these two phenomena reflect the fact, if it is a fact, that these classes attract people who are really concerned with understanding violence, serious people, not people seeking a jolt of violent pornography. The things that divide them are less important than this common concern. This isn't the usual random boring mishmash of majors fulfilling requirements and timeservers looking for convenient times.

So what I want to tell you is: the material is upsetting and depressing, but the students are a joy to teach.


Abramson, Neil. 1998. Soldier Child. 55 min. Amnesty International.

Bloch, Enid. 1998. Fear of the self in American academic life. Paper presented at the Conference on Reinvention of the Liberal Arts, Buffalo State College, Buffalo, N.Y., May 8-10.

Brown, R. M. 1986. Preface. In Elie Wiesel. Night. New York: Bantam Books.

Cain, Nancy. 1999. The world pornography conference. The Realist 141:1, 3-5.

Cohen, Ronald. 1970. Servility in social evolution. In Robert F. Spencer (ed.) Migration and Anthropology. Proceedings of the 1970 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Dentan, R. K. 1979. The Semai: A Nonviolent People of Malaya. Fieldwork edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Dentan, R. K. 1995. Bad day at Bukit Pekan. American Anthropologist 97(2): 225-231.

Dentan, R. K. 1997. It didn't matter any more what the wailing sounded like. Active Voices: The Online Journal of Cultural Survival 1(2).

Hebard, Andrew. 1997. Disruptive histories: Toward a radical politics of remembrance in Alain Resnais's Night and Fog. New German Critique 71(Spring-Summer): 87-114.

Huppauf, Bernd. 1997. Emptying the gaze: Framing violence through the viewfinder. New German Critique 72: 3-44.

Matthews, S. R. 1997. An Exchange of Hostages. New York: Avon Books.

Matthews, S. R. 1998 Prisoner of Conscience. New York: Avon Books.

Murdock, G. P., C. S. Ford, A. E. Hudson, Raymond Kennedy, L. W. Simmons, and J. W. M. Whiting. 1982. Outline of Cultural Materials, 5th ed. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files.

Nordstrom, Carolyn. 1997. A Different Kind of War Story. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Nuruddin Farah. 1996. Highway to hell. Transition 6: 60-70.

Ortner, S. B. 1995. Resistance and the problem of ethnographic refusal. Comparative Studies in Society and History 37: 173-193.

Orwell, George. 1956. Politics and the English language. In The Orwell Reader. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Owomoyela, Oyekan. 1994. With friends like these... A critique of pervasive anti-Africanisms in current African studies epistemology and methodology. African Studies Review 37(3): 77-101.

Redding, A. F. 1998. Raids on Human Consciousness: Writing, Anarchism, and Violence. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Rich, Adrienne. 1986. Your Native Land, Your Life. New York: W. W. Norton.

Russell, D. E. H. 1993. Against Pornography: The Evidence of Harm. Berkeley: Russell Publications.

Seltzer, Mark. 1997. Wound culture: Trauma in the pathological public sphere. October 80: 3-26.

Straus, M. A. 1971. Some social antecedents of physical punishment: A linkage theory interpretation. Journal of Marriage and the Family 2: 658-663.

Sullivan, Patrick. 1982. Social relations of dependence in a Malay state: Nineteenth-century Perak. Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society Monograph 10. Kuala Lumpur: MBRAS.

Weiss, M. D. 1995. Terror reigns in Manhattan. Social Anarchism 21: 5-17.

Wicke, Jennifer. 1991. Through a gaze darkly: Pornography's academic market. Transition 54: 68-89.

Wright, Richard. 1993. Tradition and industrialization: The historic meaning of the plight of the tragic elite in Asia and Africa. In Gerald Early (ed.) Speech and Power: The African-American Essay and Its Cultural Content, from Polemics to Pulpit, vol. 2. Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press.

1 | 2 | 3 | back to TOC

© 2011 || The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation