Facing the violence of our times. (Responding to Violence)
Joanna Macy
Vol.20 No.2
Fall 1997
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 
            will escalate. 
            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" [1994]). 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 
            committing violence. 
            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 
            soul's hall." 
            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.