We share this fine article by Michael Nagler, founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence. Michael’s insight into USA culture offers hope, direction and identification of how all of us could challenge and focus more attention on our culture which often seems so violent and keeps us so separated.
During the G. W. Bush years a friend of mine lamented, “We have a war President, a war economy, and a war culture.” Yes on all three; but he might have gone on to add, the key is culture. If our culture did not promote violence the way it does we would not elect a war president, we would build our economy on very different, sustainable and just principles; we would find ways to avoid conflict and use robust, creative ways of dealing with it when it surfaced. In all this our belief system, or mindset is the key ¾ and there are signs that we’re beginning to notice it.
I have been teaching, writing and speaking about peace for close to forty years; I founded a non-profit that long ago to educate people about nonviolence. I therefore do not make this statement lightly: I feel that we are beginning to see a breakthrough. If we widen the crack there may actually be a silver lining behind the mass shootings that took place last week in Orlando, the latest and worst we’ve yet endured.
The new awareness I’m referring to is admittedly slight, but it’s enough to make a difference ¾ if we seize the opportunity it represents. Two examples showed up in my local paper, the Santa Rosa Press Democratic on June 13th: the editorial board writes, tellingly, that nothing will stop these massacres “unless something changes in our culture, our conscience or our Congress.” On the same page, a cartoon by “Venn Detta” from the Washington Post shows Uncle Sam bowing his head (in grief ? shame? both?) before three circles labeled “Terrorism, Homophobia, Islamophobia.” They intersect a central circle called “Hate,” and the caption explains, “What ties it all together.” Why do I say that these might be signs that we’re turning a corner? Because up to now the responses to every one of these tragedies has followed a script, almost ritualized, and the one thing they have never included is any look at our culture or any attempt to probe some of its underlying forces. They have been at best irrelevant and at worst a sure way to provoke the problem. Most of them, to be sure, still are: statistics, “This is the largest number of victims in a mass shooting;” details, “Here are the names of the victims,” “Police are reconstructing the timeline,” and labels, they are “searching for the motive” so they know what kind of label to slap on the event, thus shielding us somewhat from its emotional impact. We’re being lead to relive the massacre instead of understand it.
All these superficial details serve to distract us from the one true motive cause driving every one of these crimes, which also happens to be the one place we can intervene to prevent them. Call it hate; call it violence. As a colleague of mine said some years ago, “We’re increasing violence by every means possible.” Think about that the next time you turn on your television set, open a book, or go to a movie. Not to mention let your son or daughter play a video game. The cultural formula we’ve been following is to stimulate violence as much as possible and flood the country with horrific weapons so those who go over the edge can act on it. This is not a culture worthy of a free people.
Interestingly enough, David Brooks had addressed our culture in a New York Times editorial days before the massacre happened (June 7): “We need to be more communal in an age that’s overly individualistic; we need to be more morally minded in an age that’s overly utilitarian; we need to be more spiritually literate in an age that’s overly materialistic; and we need to be more emotionally intelligent in an age that is overly cognitive.” And for heaven’s sake, more nonviolent in a country that’s being torn apart by violence.
In an important way, Brooks’ language is better than the more recent references to culture just mentioned: nothing is going to change all by itself. We have to change. Of course, we have to tell the legislators who are offering “thoughts and prayers” to the victims’ families but still won’t pass laws limiting access even to assault weapons, “spare us your crocodile tears: you yourself have victimized them by taking the money ¾ and the ideology ¾of the NRA.” But if we want our votes and our admonitions to stick, we also need the long, slow process of cultural change that begins when we take charge of our own mind. Remember the words of a medieval Islamic mystic, “Watch vigilantly the state of thine own mind; love of God begins in harmlessness.” In contemporary language, never lend your precious mind to the violence and vulgarity of the mass media, even when it’s passing for “news.” Use your discrimination, cut way back, and spend your time instead learning about the positive things going on in our world, for example in the field of nonviolence. Learn about and support them. This will totally change the way we look for security and the people we elect to lead us there.
Maybe the biggest mistake we can make is to think we have to passively accept whatever trend the prevailing culture is fostering, and overlook the power of our own minds to change it.
Michael N. Nagler is professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC, Berkeley and author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future