Voice, violence, and knowing which is which
I woke up with David Bowie's "Space Oddity" stuck in my head. A peculiar tune to have rolling around in your brain on a Sunday morning. But on second thought, maybe not so much. My home state of Minnesota has been up in flames all week, and now so is my current home of LA—a city all too familiar with racial injustice followed by riots. And amidst the chaos, SpaceX kicked off the next Space Age by sending two astronauts into orbit.
“Can you hear me, Major Tom? Here am I floating 'round my tin can Far above the moon Planet Earth is blue And there's nothing I can do”
From outer space, Planet Earth may look blue. But on the ground level, it's a burnt orange haze of flames and tear gas. And to say there's nothing I can do wouldn’t be right either. I can donate, sign the petitions, share posts to create awareness... But for starters, I just want to get my own thoughts straight.
While ground control addresses more urgent matters, I float along in a tin can—watching, reading, and listening to all that comes through the transmission of my laptop screen. With a privileged feeling of security, and blessed with a surplus of time, I write through my thoughts in effort of making sense of it all. I hope, at least, it can help in a small way. As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts and/or disagreements. This is a conversation, so I invite you to join me in pushing it just a little bit forward.
Dialogue and violence are polar opposites. They're probably the most polar of opposites I can think of. Some close contenders are construction and destruction, peace and war, love and hate. But melt them all down, and you're left with the same substrate: humankind’s greatest abilities, and our worst instincts. On this level, dialogue and violence aren’t isolated acts; they are states of being. Dialogue is generous, optimistic, and sustainable. Violence is territorial, cynical, and shortsighted.
Dialogue and violence hang in a balance governed not by conscious action, but by situation. If you're staring down a huffy grizzly bear, talking it down won't be of much help. Likewise, even the swiftest roundhouse kick won't make your boss give you a raise. Behaviors are only advantageous in certain settings. Violent encounters champion cunning strategy and physical prowess, while dialogue favors compassion and understanding.
But of course, the real world is fuzzier than that. Unless you're in a bar fight or a Socratic discussion, the suitable response isn't so clear. Twitter, our "global conversation," often feels more a war zone. And some of the most progressive music also happens to sound the most violent. When healing and hurting flow through the same channels, it’s not easy for an outsider to know which is occurring. What's really happening at the center of a mosh pit, violence or dialogue? To me, the answer is far from obvious.
Because dialogue and violence draw out their own favorable behaviors, they also elicit different expressions of power. In violent conditions, power can be understood more literally—applying force to physically conquer an opponent. But in dialogue, power is deployed through the artillery of stories — that of the white savior, the computer wiz kid, the nasty woman, or the black thug. A story’s proliferation (or lack thereof) hinges on its adherence to the status quo, the storyteller’s access to capital, and somehow still, their gender and skin color.
To describe power's use and misuse of story, the word "representation" is oft uttered. But representation, while it's happy to put a person of color in a lead role, has no problem with the network being owned entirely by white men. Representation gives all agency to the representer, and none to the represented. And in recent years, the limits of this representation rhetoric have become clear — such as Colin Kaepernick losing his job after taking a knee to illuminate racial injustice. Being "represented" doesn't mean you've been given a voice.
Nowhere is power’s suppression of voice clearer than in the moment of an arrest. You have a right to remain silent, not a right to be heard. You have a right to be represented (by an attorney), but your own voice is a liability. Anything you say can and will be used against you, but won't be heard by those in power. The cuffs are drawn, and you're on the concrete. The asymmetry of power has already extinguished any chance for dialogue to mount. It's hard to speak when there's a knee pinned to your neck.
And when voice isn't given, it must be claimed. The Black Lives Matter movement has been tremendously successful in doing this — achieving awareness through protests and other organized action. Yet in this post-Trayvon Martin, post-Michael Brown, post-Eric Garner, post-Breonna Taylor, post-Ahmaud Arbery, post-countless others world, we've witnessed yet another appalling murder of George Floyd. Voices have spoken, but seemingly haven't been heard.
The George Floyd protests exhibit what happens when power continually denies voice. To call it a cautionary tale isn’t strong enough. Violence IS what WILL happen when dialogue is ruled out as a viable option. It's an inversion of the old saying your mom might've told you as a child: Sticks and stones may break bones, but only because the words aren’t doing enough. If the bullies aren't listening, as the logic goes, maybe they'll listen to destruction. Hand-in-hand becomes eye-for-an-eye; fire is fought with fire.
But sadly, the outcomes of this response have been far from perfect. Property destruction, a stand-in for inaccessible oppressors, unfortunately includes the collateral of many livelihoods. And as the response to racial injustice has snowballed into other interests, it's become increasingly difficult to know who to root for. Swirling together in the same pressure cooker, there's anti-authoritarianism, Robinhood-style opportunism, accelerationist white nationalism, and perhaps some misplaced Covid stir-craze. Rodeo Drive is ransacked, "Kill Bezos" is spray painted on windows, and white supremacists are disguising themselves as cops. Meanwhile, journalists are on the pavement coughing out tear gas. When violence carries out that which is best accomplished with dialogue, things get messy.
The pandemic is no longer the story, but the setting. As we’ve become less accustomed to seeing each other face-to-face, it seems social isolation has had an unfortunate by-product: forming coherent dialogue is more challenging. Our technological capacity for dialogue is greater than ever, yet the perpetuation of violence favors our primal, tribe-like impulses. And as added economic pressures accelerate pushes for overhaul, civility devolves into blind militance. But justice won’t be found on the other side of a smashed window.
Violence begets violence, and so does dialogue. These two states of being, polar opposites as they are, do have one thing in common: they’re contagious. And if the pandemic has taught us anything about managing a contagion, it’s that we’re better off addressing root causes than fighting symptoms. Put in reverse, this means we need not only instances of dialogue, but also conditions for its proliferation. Yes, silence is part of the problem, but so is not listening, and not acknowledging power’s sway over your own voice. And we can’t forget dialogue entails more than just representation; it means all voices are heard, respected, and acted upon. Only through an upwards spiral of dialogue, you have a right to remain silent will become you have a right to be heard.
While others are on the ground vocalizing, reporting, and cleaning up the mess, I’ve been lucky enough to have the spare time to write this. I have the privilege to fear being merely misunderstood, while many fear not being heard at all. So I hope I’ve made this read worthwhile. If you’re interested, here’s some further reading/viewing:
“This is Ground Control to Major Tom You've really made the grade And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear Now it's time to leave the capsule if you dare”