02/25/13

Less Violent than Ever Before?

Most of us weigh the present more heavily than the past when thinking about change over time, and this distorts our view to a certain extent. As we are currently experiencing the present, and rely on evidence for the past, the former seems to have more depth and texture, as if what was in the past was all just a prelude to now. Societal measurements based on this linear narrative of history—common to the monotheistic religious traditions—tend to place the present at either the zenith or nadir of humanity. This presents multiple problems when looking at the past. Scholars have often been guilty of presentism, judging the past based on the norms and values of the present, because they appear so obvious that they must have been apparent to past generations as well. Criticism of pre-modern societies based upon their acceptance of slavery is but one example.

Violence is an important subject often placed in this historical narrative. Are we becoming less or more violent as a people? In light of our access to information about violence around the world in almost real time, it may seem that violence is increasing. A recent book by Harvard Professor of Psychology Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argues that violence has actually decreased over time at several periods, and that we are at a comparatively low point for violence in human history.

I have not read Pinker’s book yet. To be honest, I might have dismissed it entirely had I not watched an interview with Pinker about the book. It seemed to me that any thesis claiming less violence in the present would be primarily opportunistic to sell some books. For example, one could claim that rates of violence had gone down based just upon the dramatic population increase in the past century, but that would have little functional value, and might even justify a more passive stance toward instances of violence in the present. Hearing his discussion of the book changed my view a bit.

In the wake of the recent Newtown massacre, Pinker’s thesis appears even more controversial than before, and the Center for Human Inquiry conducted a podcast with him to ask questions about the book. It’s worth a watch. Pinker said several things worthy of note in the conversation. The primary one, of course, is his thesis that we are living in a less violent time than is suggested by the media or common belief. He noted, as many have, that rates of violence are much higher in the United States than in other first-world countries, and that even if all instances of gun violence were removed, the US would still have a higher violence rate. Guns aside, we would still beat and club each other to death more than most first-world countries. In other words, gun control isn’t the only answer to the problem of violence. He went further and suggested that violence is more problematic in the southern and western portions of the US, and connects that to their relatively recent frontier history. (This was following up on a comment that I think deserves further exploration; namely, that we are really two countries: the old Northeast, and the “new” south and west.)

Pinker also suggested that social media may help contribute to a decrease in violence, just as the popularization of the printing press and the decreased cost in printing led to a greater dissemination of information, which increased knowledge, expanded social spheres, and may have helped decrease acts of violence. He also made some interesting comments about violence against women that I may discuss in a future post.

What I liked most in the interview, though, was Pinker’s insistence on the media’s preference of particular types of violence, namely mass shootings. When looked at from a disinterested scholarly viewpoint (which only someone unconnected to the events can do), the number killed in the Newtown shooting was quite small, and one and a half times that amount are killed in the US every day. Those isolated cases are not treated with the same importance. Pinker noted that even the largest single terrorist attack in history, 9/11, killed around 2,800, and 16,000 are killed each year in the US.

The point is not just raw numbers, but a realization of our skewed criteria for recognizing and privileging violence, which is not just a media problem. What the book may suggest, then, is a change in the way we prioritize types of violence, zooming in on some instances with hyper-focus and virtually ignoring others. The interview didn’t talk much about solutions, but alluded briefly to the idea that media coverage could be more closely aligned with a broader take on violence. The problem is not easy to solve, but it may be that intense focus on cases of mass violence may do more to entrench our beliefs about violence than push us to make change. It is not that these are not important, but that this particular type of violence should be placed in its position within the much broader range of violence that takes place daily in our country and others.

01/24/13

Love after Death (but not like in Ghost)

I intended to write about the relationship between love and death on a theoretical level, but the bloggers over at Patheos, Libby Anne at LoveJoyFeminism and Daniel at Camels with Hammers, have posed another values question that also addresses death. As it is much more practical, I’ll address it here. The question is: “If it were up to you to design one or more basic models for messaging and for ritual through which people were to regularly mark deaths together, what would such ceremonies be like?” It’s a more sociable version of the question, “What will your funeral look like?” I’ll get to practical shortly, but first, a little abstraction.

Like the previous generation with the Kennedy assassination. I remember exactly where I was on the morning of September 11, 2001. The alarm clock must have been set to the radio. Otherwise I can’t remember what prompted me to turn on the TV and watch the initial footage of the tragedy as it unfolded. It was a shock to me, and although I wasn’t devastated by it, I certainly wanted to know why it happened. In the month or so after the tragedy, the media reported many times on the distinct increase in religious attendance as the country attempted to deal with their grief in a variety of ways. As after the more recent Newtown tragedy, spiritual and political opportunists attempted to use the momentum to foster change. Even apart from the fundamentalists like Pat Robertson who concluded that 9/11 was God’s response to our immorality, many religious leaders saw the tragedy as a potential turning point to bring the nation back to God. President Bush and his entourage harnessed the same desire for answers to move us toward wars we are still fighting.

I did not attend a funeral for any 9/11 victim, so I cannot speculate as to the mix of emotions involved for those trying to contemplate the loss of a life both on a personal level and a national one. The reason I bring this event up is that most of us have related to it in some way, and because most are unconnected to it on a personal level, we may be able to see more clearly the common elements of our processing of death.

There are two elements that factor into our thinking about death. The first is the agent of death, and the second is the “death-for.” The agent of death is the thing responsible for the death. It might be a gun (or the person holding it), a drunk driver, or an accidental fall. It might be something more gradual and perhaps less shocking, such as cancer from smoking or simply old age. (Interestingly, we tend to think of slow death in old age as “natural,” when it is as much a product of modern medicine. Past generations were better equipped to deal with the inexplicability of death.) In the case of 9/11, it was terrorism, at least according to the national narrative. The agent of death becomes the backdrop against which we construct the second element, the death-for. The death-for is the retroactive purpose we claim for a life that our love might not have been in vain. It might be for freedom, it might be for America, it might be for family, it might be for God. But it allows us to balance the equation, so to speak. The clearer the agent of death, the clearer the death-for can be. But the more ambiguous the agent, the more expansive and supernatural the death-for has to be. The death of a soldier in combat has a standard set of explanations, of deaths-for, while the freak accident of a loved one or a natural disaster requires an ad-hoc and typically spiritual compensation. The proximity of the death to us dictates how well-fortified the death-for needs to be.

I don’t intend this assessment to be insensitive. What I am suggesting is that the ceremonies of death are enacted about the dead, but they are for us. The particulars matter little to the dead. Those who remain, though, are faced with death and, for someone close, faced with a loss of love. Our love must be adjusted because it no longer has a dynamic object. The death-for becomes a place holder against which we deal with the hole left behind from the death of another. The problem comes when we use the death-for as a means of avoiding the inexplicability of death.

I have often thought that once I’m dead I won’t care what people do with me, so they can have whatever ceremony they feel like. But while I’m still alive, I’ll make a few suggestions as to more accessible death rituals. A ceremony in celebration of a life should include high and low points that remind us of a common humanity. Pleasant memories should be spoken from friends and family. (If the person was not a happy or pleasant person, or came to an unplanned end because of poor choices, then an honest assessment of his or her life is in order, without condemnation, but also without sugarcoating. In other words, don’t do it like that creepy Robin Williams movie where he splices peoples lives together on film.) Objects the individual loved, such as songs, paintings, pictures, movies, experiences, could be experienced by those gathered as a way of affirming the validity of the individual and our love for them. Also importantly, set aside a time for silent reflection, and a brief time for conversation, perhaps among smaller groups, about the deceased but also a candid assessments of one’s own feelings, actions, and reflections in light of the event shared by all present.

Many or perhaps most of these things are already done. What could be left out is the rhetoric that accompanies the ceremony for the deceased, an understanding paradoxically achieved by saying we don’t understand.  Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one knows the initial inadequacy of any explanation to compensate for the loss. Resorting to platitudes about only God knowing the reason for a death, a “death-for” God, in other words, refuses to confront the fragility of life and the certainty of death. It instead explains it with the indefensible. An openness, instead, both to the vulnerability of our love and the tenuousness of our existence with reference to the life of the deceased provides the opportunity for a non-sectarian solidarity and a more authentic commitment to our own lives.