Facing the violence of our times. (Responding to Violence)
COPYRIGHT 1997 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation
I want to speak to the violence that our society sanctions and the
effects of this violence upon the individual, as well as the
individual's own capacity for Violence. I include not only physical
person-to-person violence, of which I have limited experience, but
also various institutional forms of violence and cultural violence,
often carried out against sectors of populations.
Among the forms of institutional violence, there is the violence
perpetrated within our prison systems and by our law-enforcement
officers. I saw a chilling vision recently on television. There was
a report about the San Francisco police carrying out their "Matrix"
program, the aim of which is to remove the homeless from the
streets. There was no sense of where the homeless were supposed to
go or be brought. It was scary to watch a process whose violence
We also have to consider the violence inflicted on the Earth, on
ecosystems, and on other species. A recent book entitled Clearcut
(Devall 1994) illustrates one form of the carnage being
systematically pursued today. It gives a photographic portrait of
what we are doing to our old-growth and second-growth forests, from
sea to shining sea, in almost every state of the Union and in
Canada. There is also lasting violence inflicted on the body of
Earth in our weapons testing, particularly nuclear testing, and
violence committed through the poisoning of our air, water, and
soil. Such pollution does violence in turn to out own bodies; we
carry right now the effects of such pollution, which is sickening
and even killing many of us.
There is also violence against the future, in a way that has not
been technologically possible until our generation. The materials
being created, for example, at our nearby Lawrence Livermore
Laboratory (in Livermore, California), are leaking into the ground
and water there. Because they are radioactive, they have the
capacity to kill and cripple for a quarter of a million years.
That's ten thousand generations.
These types of violence are not secrets. Although not discussed in
your standard dinner table conversation, they are common knowledge.
This is the ambiance in which we live and move and have our being.
The carnage in relation to nature and the future is accelerating.
The effects, particularly of environmental destruction, are becoming
clearer and cause profound dislocation and insecurity in populations
around the world (see Kaplan's fascinating account of "The Coming
Anarchy" ). Such dislocation often leads to what is called
"low-intensity warfare," in which the line between crime and the
waging of war becomes blurred.
So I ask the question: Is there a relationship between this kind of
systemic violence and the shootings, muggings, and thefts that turn
our cities into citadels of fear? In approaching this question, my
own perspective is strongly conditioned by two bodies of thought.
One is Buddhism and the other is general systems theory, both of
which I teach (see, for example, Macy 1991). I actually teach
systems theory more than Buddhism, but they converge in their sense
of the essential ontological interdependence, indeed, the
inter-existence of all life forms. Systems, whether biological,
human, or cognitive, are created and sustained by relationships. We
are relational by nature. This recognition of the primacy of
relationships has emerged increasingly in a number of different
areas of inquiry.
We live in a time when the kind of violence that we behold--and
everyone, from the first grade up, knows what is happening--also
violates us at some deep level. We are violated by the knowledge
that we are part of a system in which brutality is inflicted on our
natural world and on other species, to say nothing of the violence
that we carry out against each other. That knowledge is profoundly
sickening. It gives rise to deep anguish and sometimes a shattering
loss of meaning. Typically, the alternatives are either a profound
cynicism, or, of course, numbness.
The level of violence of which we are aware brutalizes our
consciences. If we want to make it through each day, and
particularly if we want to be seen as competent and successful, we
tune it out. This produces cognitive dissonance between what we
experience happening to our world, and "business as usual" as it is
conducted in our society. Just last week, I was on another tour of
Lawrence Livermore Lab. How they describe what they are doing there
is, to me, an example of a kind of "splitting"; it goes beyond
cognitive dissonance to the point where the voice of conscience has
no entry or relevance.
Does violence come out of this cognitive dissonance and splitting?
Does violence come out of desperation? Does violence come out of an
alienation so great that you'll do anything to break through to make
real human contact, even if it is through causing pain and
suffering? Of course, here I'm indebted to my friend, the poet Susan
Griffin (1981, 1992), for some of her insights into the erotic roots
of violence, as people resort to violence to break through
In this context of violence, what is basic to healing is the
rediscovery of community in ways that confirm our own relational
nature. One starting point is to get people together, and I think
especially of young people, and let them say how it is! Let them
speak their truths and have the experience of being heard. I believe
that the experience of never being heard is closely related to
I saw such a strategy of relationship-building up close in the
wonderful, Buddhist-inspired Sarvodaya Shramadana development
movement in Sri Lanka, where I worked in the late 1970s and early
1980s (Macy 1985). The organizers would bring members of a whole
community together, and these communities were not always so
harmonious; there was often tremendous conflict, not enough material
goods to go around, rivalry, backbiting, and pettiness. They would
organize meetings that they called paul'hamua, which means "family
gathering," in which people speak openly to each other while using
family kinship terms. So I would introduce myself as "Joanna akka,"
which means "big sister Joanna," and I would address others, saying
"Yes, brother," or "little sisters." The practice helped build the
sense of family gathering, in which everyone can speak about his or
her suffering and pain. Such speaking has profound consequences. As
the poet Denise Levertov has said, "To speak of sorrow/works upon
it/moves it from its/crouched place barring/the way to and from the
In Sarvodaya, they combined speaking out together with working and
acting together. Something happens when you build something
together, even if it's just a bookcase. I can think of nothing that
is more genuinely erotic, in the deepest sense of "eros," than
working together for a common goal, particularly where there's some
risk involved. This might involve young people working on a
community garden in a vacant lot or initiating a cooperative
marketing scheme. In the Sarvodaya movement, these actions are
called shramadana or "sharing energy."
We too, in our country, need new ways to gather together. I shy away
from speaking of "rituals," but perhaps we can use the term
suggested by deep ecologist Arne Naess: community therapy. We need
various forms of community therapy to heal the many forms of
violence that I mentioned. For example, my colleague John Seed and I
have developed and led "Council of All Beings" gatherings (Seed et
al. 1988) that help us to heal our alienation from Earth and from
other species. Many others have been wonderfully creative in helping
people reclaim amputated parts of their psyches, vast portions of
themselves. This is intrinsically so exciting that fistfights and
gunfights look boring in comparison.
I think that it's likely that the violence of which I've spoken will
increase in the coming years. Right now is the time to take action
to help protect against panic and social hysteria. We need
alliances. We need what I would call "rough weather networks,"
networks through which we can begin acting and speaking together in
ways such that we won't let each other disappear, or be disappeared,
in these violent times.
This essay was adapted from a talk given at a panel on "The Roots of
Violence" that took place in May 1994 at the Saybrook Institute in
San Francisco. The author wishes to thank Trena Cleland for her help
in transcribing and editing the original talk and Donald Rothberg
for his help in developing the essay into its present form.
Devall, B. 1994. Clearcut. The tragedy of industrial forestry. San
Francisco: Sierra Club Books/Earth Island Press.
Griffin, S. 1981. Pornograph and silence: Culture's revenge against
nature. New York: Harper & Row.
--. 1992. A chorus stones: The private life of war New York:
Kaplan, R. 1994. The coining anarchy. Atlantic Monthly (February):
44-49, 52, 54,58,63,66,68-70,72-76.
Macy, J. 1985. Dharma and development: Religion as resource in the
Sarvodaya village self-help movement. Rev. ed. West Hartford, Conn.:
--. 1991. Mutual causality in Buddhism and general systems theory:
The dharma of natural systems. Albany: State University of New York
Seed, J., J. Macy, P. Fleming, and A. Naess. 1988. Thinking like a
mountain: Towards a council of all beings. Philadelphia: New Society
Joanna Macy is a scholar of Buddhist philosophy, general systems
theory, and deep ecology. Her books include World as Lover, World as
Self Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory,
Thinking Like a Mountain (with John Seed, Pat Fleming, and Arne
Naess), Dharma and Development, and Despair and Empowerment in the
Nuclear Age. She is probably best known for her workshops to empower
social change that she conducts around the world. She teaches at the
Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley and the California
Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.