The scourge of violence

A timely, eloquent series of interviews that interrogate the correlation of violence with gender discrimination, white intolerance, unilateral state power, politics, art and climate change.

Published : Aug 14, 2019 07:00 IST

POLITICIANS across the globe have sunk to a new low, resorting to new levels in the inordinate incitement of a malleable public willing to accept the media hypnosis and brush all opposing views under the carpet. It is a pandemic assault on public discourse on freedom and equality.

In Violence: Humans in Dark Times , Brad Evans and Natasha Lennard engage in a timely, eloquent conversation with thinkers such as Gayatri Spivak, Henry Giroux, Jake Chapman and Simon Critchley, interrogating the correlation of violence with gender discrimination, white intolerance, unilateral state power, politics, art and climate change. As the general mood indicates, we cannot overstate the fact that in the last few years, apathetic conservatives, worn-out liberals and cynical radicals have blurred the debate.

The media, in times of rigid political and ethnic affiliation, remains under siege with the public discourse on diversity and multiculturalism virtually disappearing. The authors draw attention to the power of dealing with political disparity and the obligation of engaging in some form of active dissidence against politically charged racist thuggery.

As Theodor W. Adorno, the German philosopher, emphasises, thought must “ceaselessly point out the utter barbarism of the hegemony of capital, patriarchy, and the state”. To protest, to resist, to tell people what they least want to hear becomes our urgent moral responsibility. The interview with Gottfried Helnwein, the artist who grew up in post-war Vienna, makes a plea for “standing up, rebelling, resisting” and not “surrender to violence by domesticating its appearance and not addressing its visual realities head-on”. It is hoped that “violent aesthetics” will succeed in opening up the political debate in which democratic ideologies will ultimately prevail. Out of a crisis is born hope; in the words of Evans, “to bring out the best of us we have to confront the worst of what humans are capable of doing to one another.” In short, there is a need to confront the intolerable realities perpetrated by violence in this world.

The intellectually stimulating and provocative exchanges collected in this book point towards “how the increasing expression and acceptance of violence—in all strata of society—has become a defining feature of our times”. Knowledge of the Holocaust, for instance, becomes the provocative past that artists such as Alfredo Jarr from Chile, Bracha Ettinger, a visual artist and a philosopher, and Gottfried Helnwein have lived through or confronted in their daily life.

The interview on “The Violence of Forgetting” draws attention to the notion of the erasure of history when “ignorance and power join forces”. Here Henry Giroux confronts the raw realities of suffering and addresses “the politics of ignorance and the intellectual conditions that give rise to systems of oppression”. The power and awareness created by an educated public could be one viable solution to the cultural amnesia afflicting the world today.

The nightmare of history brings us face to face with the persistence of violence generated by the discourse on disparities and the assertion of racist supremacy that disallows the marginalised a viable space to live and have the right of speech. He draws attention to the past in order to bring awareness about the social responsibility of speaking out against an offensive narrative that discourages dialogue, an important ingredient of a progressive society committed to the promotion of critical thinking, economic welfare and freedom of expression.

These are indeed sinister times that impel the need for structures to launch a counteroffensive against the onslaught of a neoliberal agenda based on valorising one ideology over another. Indeed, we need to undo violence by bringing critical thought to bear on the very idea of this scourge that has haunted civilisation through the ages. The book undertakes a passionate depiction of the insidious sense of unease and the daily risks that we and our dear ones have to face in this world. Violence feels omnipresent and all-enveloping. An antithesis to democratic liberal values, it has slowly become endemic to our very condition.

Normalising violence

The in-depth exchanges in the book examine the idea of violence, facing it head-on by naming it and then finding some solution, thereby compelling a responsible citizenry to develop a congenial and peaceful environment acceptable to all. The ruin of public welfare in the name of private enterprise, the renaissance of predatory market forces, the growth of ethnic minorities and the worldwide aggression of autocrats and powerful nations leave the world in a democratic conundrum where violence and state control is legitimised in the name of economic development and the preservation of a mythical past. The odds are indeed stacked against migrant minorities and radical thinkers who are inclined to expose lies and lay bare the hidden agenda of the dominant neoliberal discourse.

The natural response of anger for violence stands wiped out through the corporate controlled political discourse casting a spell of “normalising the violence”, a dehumanisation visible in the commercially marketed media that hypnotically adapts the public psyche to the existence of aggression in everyday life. With the idea of pluralism crushed, a violently dark world is overtaken by the reality of a post-truth “Trumpism” of lies, distortion and propaganda, forcing a damaging narrative in complete disregard for environmental degradation and climate change.

Through a major part of her life, the philosopher Adrian Parr, Director of the Taft Research Centre, has found this indifference as inherently “inseparable from the vice grip that capitalism has on our lives and political imaginations”. The neoliberal landscape, she argues in her interview, is underpinned by the “deployment of the language of perpetrator-free disaster as not only a form of violence but also a crime against humanity, which demands no less”. Though, to an extent, we are all involved as perpetrators or victims, some are understandably more guilty than others. The crime in question is indeed “an existential one that is committed against the very experience of being human”.

The erosion of egalitarianism and freedom through unprecedented challenges from anti-humanist forces pushing democratic institutions to the brink of failure is effectively put into operation through the dilution of the progressive and social significance of liberal arts that dare to ask the right questions; the historical and political sensibility in creative writings, in radical music and political art remains eternally suffused with a deep concern for a climate of intolerance, fear, exclusion and hatred. A liberal mindset must flourish to nurture human life and spirit through the act of creative imagination and a capacity to confront our dark history.

As Jake Chapman says in his exchange with Evans, in the chapter titled “The Violence of Art”: “While violence is presented as the excluded object, it is the prime mover of human history… all violence is bad, while reserving exclusions—like ‘just’ war or keeping peace. And yet there is another form of violence that is creatively destructive. This is the violence we can talk about in the context of art, for while art offers a critique of the former, it engages in the latter.” The raw realities of mass violence and death form the staple of Chapman’s art, a creative quest for “understanding our cosmic insignificance” and our finite existence.

However, many under the spell of the state apparatus and its ideological prejudice choose to remain oblivious of the role of art and the social sciences and its opposition to the narrative of empty jingoism, of the battering of despised communities and the dismantling of existing institutions as is apparent in the Brexit conundrum or the American attack on democratic institutions. Undoubtedly, the violence expressed in the debased language of United States President Donald Trump is used to not only drive home a political message but to appeal to the common multitudes who are culturally inclined to applaud rhetoric couched in muscular coarseness. The unleashing of racial hatred and police violence no longer disturbs millions who applaud the ruling Republicans for their robust policy of “America first” with its unashamed international interventions and martial aggression.

The politics of silence collaborates with sycophancy and racial or religious prejudice, producing an environment of violence and mayhem so well depicted in masterpieces of art and music.

Intellectual vacuity casts a long and dark shadow over public life. The happiness of humanity is subverted at the altar of white supremacy which seeks to promote the calculated short supply of liberal regulations, liberal values and liberal education. Evans’ interview with Richard Bernstein, professor of philosophy at New York’s New School for Social Research, reiterates the public lack of the essential drive to stand up against the violence of modern mass politics and arouse within us the indefatigable urge to resist the status quo and escape the mundane, or stand up against the violence of modern mass politics. Bernstein emphasises “the intellectual, rather than the physical dimensions to violence, including structures of violence like the Black Lives Matter and anti-Dakota Access Pipeline movements”. In the absence of this activism, we all fall prey to irrationality, resentment, xenophobia and the relentless yearning for fear-inducing power.

Often, the physical harm or killing are our “only paradigm of violence”, argues Bernstein. And this frequently “blinds us to other forms of violence that involve humiliation and suffering”. The mobilising of ignorance and prejudice through a retrogressively shoddy education system, persuading the public to cut itself off from the wisdom of philosophy and the arts, and replacing it with the vulgarity of commerce and the daily dose of a deplorably mediocre media leaves the system in a dismal state of consensual politics.

It is imperative, therefore, to halt the runaway course of democracy towards an increasingly violent tomorrow. The environment, subsumed in violence of fear and hatred, cannot be glossed over in a world where democracy has gone awry. It is hoped by the philosophers and artists interviewed in the book that those who are elected to govern must take cognisance and uphold the institutions of democracy based on the creation of a dependable, free and participatory socialist movement. In the days to come, the Western world must awaken to the reality of inadvertent violence and rouse a serious national debate on what comprises aggression, who perpetuates it, and why.

Violence is, undeniably, an overwhelming plague in any civil society. Bullying and persecution, war and terrorism, sectarianism and climate degradation are serious crimes against humanity that persist in our daily life. At this perilous moment in history, our actions and our readiness to not only speak up but also critically examine ourselves and our positions will determine our very survival. We cannot afford to remain subservient, uncritical and unimaginative recipients of an intellectually vacant politics of violence and malevolence sweeping the globe in collusion with a bloated, morally corrupt, corporate neoliberal agenda.

The insights inspired by the conversations “bring out the best of us” as well as enable us to “confront the worst of what humans are capable of doing to one another”. The “intolerable realities of the world” cry out for a solution with a compassionate and creative vision that does not “simply end up creating more anger, hatred and division”. A thoughtful exploration of the outlook of eminent thinkers on the normalisation of violence and its antidotes, the book through its philosophical rigour of dialogue rendered in robust and lively prose provides, in the words of Alana Massey, “a creative space large and fertile enough to lay the groundwork for an actionable hope”. It is indeed a timely alarm.

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