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An Uncomfortable Truth

We live in a culture of violence

It’s time we face some uncomfortable truths. Last Friday, as the news poured in about Sandy Hook, I was teaching my peace studies class with my high-schoolers. It’s a class that investigates the roots of violence and war on personal as well as international levels. If that doesn’t sound important to you this week, I’ve got some questions for you. 

When I heard that those gunned down were largely first graders, I lost it. I’m a dad. All children are my children. And while those with the nationwide microphones begin clamoring for answers and causes, responses and policies, oversimplifying the problem to gun control, or mental illness, I say we need to look with broader eyes at our culture.

In America, we have the blissful luxury of pretending we’re somehow different from the rest of the world. Call it American exceptionalism if you like, the notion that somehow we don’t have to follow the same rules as everyone else; call it a sort of national Peter Pan Syndrome; or perhaps you prefer Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra — the idea that our simulations of reality have more meaning than reality itself. Whatever we call it, it’s time we face some uncomfortable truths. 

Children die. Around the world, kids get gunned down every day. They get killed during drone attacks on wedding parties in Pakistan. They get hit by Israeli airstrikes taking out Palestinian batteries that were set up in schools. They get forced at gunpoint to shoot family members to make them child soldiers. It’s brutal, it sucks, and most Americans, if they hear about these things at all, don’t take the time to put themselves in the place of those parents, or get pictures of the children’s faces to make it real. And if we can ignore that reality, we will.

Our culture is obsessed with violence. Consider cage matches, Call of Duty, snuff footage on the internet and a century-long foreign policy that thinks it appropriate to bully other countries with military force. As the poet Briathar Kinesi wrote: “We are a nation of children with guns, given only the tool and driven by a foolish fuse to use it for a powder-flash of power that ignores the hour of consequence.” People like this guy in Newtown, or that guy in Aurora, or those boys at Columbine, or this kid in Thurston. Feeling powerless, they’re trying to find power in the only way our culture appears to respect. And until we can evolve our cultural definition of power, we’re stuck in what Gandhi called the “law of the brute.” 

It’s a male thing. It’s not women who do these things. Overwhelmingly it’s men who respond to conflict with brute force, who launch the missiles or pick up the assault rifles and go for a shooting spree. I refuse to believe there’s something inherently violent about testosterone. I do think we’re facing an epic crisis in masculinity. If we cannot figure out, as men, how to evolve past the middle-school mentality of “meet you at the flag pole after school with our patriot missiles,” then putting an armed security guard at the door of every school in America will not prevent the next Sandy Hook. The problem is not a lack of adequate defenses, it’s a lack of adequate consciousness.

I wish I had better answers, any answers. I’ve spent the last 10 years trying to create educational models that reduce violence and teach kids peaceful ways of being, and all I have are suggestions:

• Pay attention to how you speak to other people, especially your kids. Do you use your words to dominate, manipulate or belittle? 

• Pay attention to what you and your kids watch on TV or play on their Xboxes. There are clear relationships between violent video games, saturation of violent images and a desensitization to violence in life. What entertains us reveals a lot about what’s going on inside of us.

• Pay attention to how we create culture. About 75 percent of our state standards for teaching history in high school highlight some war or another. Is this because war really is the dominant force in history or because that’s what we’re taught to focus on? Eisenhower didn’t coin the term “military-industrial complex” to be cute.

If human beings really are conscious creatures, then we are responsible for living and developing consciously. That’s why I work in education, which is not about teaching stuff, but in helping kids figure out how to ask the right questions. And asking the right questions invariably requires us to face uncomfortable truths.