Saturday, 1 March 2008

Anger, hate and violence

The end of another tortuous week in Gaza that's seen over ninety Palestinians murdered by Israeli forces, sixty one on this day alone. Who knows what further violent brutality these next days will bring for the people of that wretched strip of land.

They've murdered the infants. Again. Indiscriminately. Without fear of the consequences. Without conscience. Without the slightest care.

How do we come to terms with this mindset? Some seek reasons. Some appeal to reason. Some just despair.

And what place compassion amid this mindless taking of human life? As one reflective contributor at the Media Lens site asks:

"How on earth can someone stay compassionate and peaceful when you hear of such hideous cruelty as this? It's easy- normalise it; read the news story (just once, though), then check the football results, tell yourself the world 'out there' ain't peaceful and never was, don't meddle with empathy, wean yourself back onto personal worries by checking your bank statement, put the milk back in the fridge, go to bed, sleep."

What's the purpose of hate, anger and violence? It seems, at first sight, an academic question, given the perennial existence of all three. And yet, it's a question which those espousing a progressive politics often struggle with in seeking to rationalise the case for resistance against injustice and oppression.

In his latest Cogitation piece, Non-violence and the cherishing mind, Media Lens Editor David Edwards argues that violence, or the end results of violent action, usually achieves nothing, or very little, of humanitarian use.

David's essay prompted some illuminating questions and responses, most notably around the problems of what oppressed and occupied people are supposed to do to liberate themselves.

As JimL puts it: "From a Buddhist perspective what would you suggest Palestinians, Burmese or Cubans do?"

In other words, is violent resistance a legitimate option in such cases? It's a fair question, acknowledged and answered, thus:

"While it’s quite right to pit the toughest possible examples against arguments for compassion and non-violence, I think we need to be careful not to lose focus of the situations facing most people most of the time. The argument is that training our minds for greater compassion, generosity, less anger and greed, is hugely beneficial to us and everyone else around us. That’s very important, well worth exploring."

That's not to claim that we can always avoid the reality of violent responses. But it does suggest a more conscientious effort to seek alternatives at every possible turn:

"The philosophy of non-violence argues that violence tends to result in intensifying spirals of violence and hatred at enormous cost. There should of course be resistance, but to the extent that this can be non-violent and rooted in compassion rather than anger, then the suffering is likely to be less. Wherever possible, we should look for options with least violence. "

It's a persuasive argument. In addition, I'd suggest that Palestine, Burma and Cuba offer three useful examples of how violent resistance to oppression has been of limited use.

In the first case, yes, there has been a certain amount of understandable armed resistance from the Palestinians. But as the Israeli state knows, the threat and impact of this has been of a largely superfluous and token nature. As with South Africa's apartheid regime, Israel is far more worried about peaceful resistance and the international support which flows from it. This is precisely why Israel continues to goad the Palestinians into violent actions. The recent report by UN Special Rapporteur John Dugard cites Israel as the principal cause of the conflict. It's an unequivocal indictment of Israeli violence. And it suggests, ipso facto, that the Palestinians have much more to gain in terms of international support from a non-violent strategy.

In Burma, the broad opposition, including the country's esteemed community of monks, has been involved in an almost completely peaceful campaign of dissent and resistance, a process which, though covering many decades, is still making steady ground. The junta's recent announcement of a proposed new constitution and elections may be a stalling tactic, but it's also in response to gathering political pressure, inside and outside the country. Crucially, the internal resistance, and support for it, has been given vital legitimacy by the non-violent nature of its actions.

In Cuba, a corrupt US-backed mafiosa government was removed in 1959 with relatively little force required, allowing the Cuban revolution to develop as an essentially peaceful process. Indeed, it's remarkable that even fifty years of spiteful US embargoes hasn't caused Cuba to implode into political crisis and conflict. Again it's another illustration of how social progress is more likely to be achieved in the long run through peaceful resistance. The CIA and its proxies have initiated hundreds of plots to kill Castro. Yet, the recently-retired Fidel and the revolution are alive and well, still buoyed by a great deal of sympathy around the world. The US, in stark contrast, has little such sympathy, as it maintains its violent persecutions around the globe, including, of course, on the occupied Cuban territory of Guantanamo Bay.

But, if we are to eschew violence as a 'solution', how do we effect (rather than affect) a compassionate alternative?

JimL further asserts that compassion:

"should be EARNED. If you offer it, and it is not received, you have a right to withdraw it. In this way, you are trying to teach the other person the merits of compassion."

David takes an alternative view:

"If being compassionate is beneficial to yourself, why would it need to be earned? You’re helping yourself tremendously by being more compassionate, generous, patient, less angry. In fact angry people are doing you a real service by providing you with a chance to test and strengthen your patience...I think if you are generous, patient, compassionate as a matter of choice - because you want to be, not because you’re weak and helpless, or because you have some hidden selfish agenda - I think it’s incredibly beneficial."

However, compassion shouldn't be confused with placid acceptance of another's anger, hate or violence:

"That’s not compassion, it’s crazy - it’s an appearance, a facsimile, of compassion. It‘s false, an act, so you’re failing anyway."

True compassion, rather, involves the active effort to end or minimise the suffering of others, not just an ability or desire to empathise with the victimised.

One might add here that compassion "earned" signifies something of the market place. Rather than "earned", compassion is something better to be learned.

Violence and its many facets

But, of course, anger, hate and violence are not just features of genocidal and war-type scenarios. They permeate every facet of our daily lives, from neighbourhood disputes to road-rage, from school ground bullying to attacks on asylum seekers.

Moreover, hate, anger and violence appear in rather wider forms than just between immediate protagonists. Here's a useful illustration.

In February 2008, Glasgow man Stephen Armstrong was sentenced to three years and eight months in jail for running his car into a man with whom he was having a dispute. Mr Armstrong had, allegedly, been reacting to problems with several youths near his home. Following a series of confrontations, Mr Armstrong was threatened and his car struck with a weapon. In response, he drove his car into the man, causing him to be hospitalised with a broken collar bone, broken leg and a punctured lung.

Mr Armstrong's sentence prompted an outpouring of anger among his family, neighbours and friends, much of it encouraged by a fevered tabloid media campaign in which Mr Armstrong was praised as a decent family man standing up to the "thugs".

On the face of it, those supporting Mr Armstrong would seem to be acting in a compassionate spirit. Yet, let's consider the wider manifestations of anger, hate and violence here.

1. The violence of the man threatening Mr Armstrong.

2. Mr Armstrong's anger-fuelled violence against his victim, leaving him almost dead.

3. The violence of the Daily Mail, Daily Record and other organs of hateful recrimination which see the angry castigation of "neds" and "yobs" as an appropriate response. The paradox is that those who supposedly support Mr Armstrong here are not acting out of compassionate interest, but from an anger-stoked desire for retribution. Thus, the violence inflicted by Mr Armstrong on his victim is implicitly condoned as a legitimate act.

4. The responses of Mr Armstrong's supporters, fuelled by the tabloid media, many of whom think it acceptable to impose physical violence against the "yobs".

5. The violence of the politicians who wash their hands of the problem, indulging in populist rhetoric rather than concede that the system - and their political part in it - has failed everyone involved here.

Who gains from this sorry scenario? Precisely nobody.

Central to all these facets of anger, hate and violence lies a fundamental inability to feel and effect the kind of compassion noted. Anger begets anger, hate begets hate and violence begets violence.

Same negativities

And this leads us to the reasonable conclusion that the anger, hate and violence being visited on Gaza and that which we see around us in daily life is derived from the same negative impulses.

One of the remarkable features of life in Cuba is the relative absence of such problems. It's by no means free from social ills. But, as a society, it's miles head of what's happening in much of the 'advanced' West in terms of how we regard people, particularly children.

Much of that stems from the kind of ethical prioritisation of human beings before war, profit and greed. It's notable, in this regard, that, unlike the US, UK and Israel, Cuba is not engaged in the militarisation of its society or colonial hostilities.

I was struck recently by the report of how Cuban doctors had helped restore the eyesight of the man who executed Che Guevara. In the week that the mass media have been playing-up Cuba's 'democratic deficits', maybe there's some lessons to be gleaned from how that besieged country has managed to maintain its revolutionary ideals without resorting to hateful actions -caring more about exporting doctors to the impoverished region than violent responses to Washington. And, unlike Israel's violent behaviour, it stands taller in the eyes of the world for doing so.


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