Why the dismantling of structural violence starts with each and everyone of us
By E.F Nicholson
I have written about this on the blog before, but I do generally believe most people have good, loving hearts and do their best to live a meaningful life. Given many of the barriers and difficulties many people experience, all things considered, people make the best of what life has given them. If there is some natural disaster, you see communities putting their differences aside and rallying together to support and help each other. Times like these bring out that basic goodness in people.
It’s very striking to be aware of that basic human goodness and wonder how it fits into the extent of injustice, cruelty and suffering so may people are forced to endure. Five billion of the world’s population live with systems that are, by choice, structurally violent. To a less severe degree, that same structural violence is experienced in the West by our own underclass. Structural violence isn’t direct violence like a war or murder; rather, it’s built within a society’s structure. Violent outcomes are produced by the system and end up being inflicted on those at the bottom. Poverty, starvation, malnutrition, debt peonage, and inequality are all forms of structural violence, and in reality kill far more people every year than all the wars put together. Let me quote Dr. Paul Farmer:
“Structural violence is one way of describing social arrangements that put individuals and populations in harm’s way… The arrangements are structural because they are embedded in the political and economic organization of our social world; they are violent because they cause injury to people … neither culture nor pure individual will is at fault; rather, historically given (and often economically driven) processes and forces conspire to constrain individual agency. Structural violence is visited upon all those whose social status denies them access to the fruits of scientific and social progress.”
As structural violence is more impersonal and ubiquitous, it’s harder for people to see it and attribute culpability. Even so, it is still created for the benefit of some at the cost of others. Structural violence doesn’t come about through chance or bad luck; it’s the end result of building inhuman systems geared toward profit and growth which view people’s hardship and loss as irrelevant “externalities” in the process of them increasing power and control. For these systems to grow and remain uninterrupted, they need the recipients of their spoils to remain unaware and detached from the cost of those rewards. Those of us on the “upper rungs” of society, as James Gilligan describes, need to be able to look down and really see what is there.
“In his book, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, James Gilligan defines structural violence as ‘the increased rates of death and disability suffered by those who occupy the bottom rungs of society, as contrasted with the relatively lower death rates experienced by those who are above them.’ Gilligan largely describes these ‘excess deaths’ as ‘non-natural’ and attributes them to the stress, shame, discrimination, and denigration that results from lower status.” – Jonah Gultang
No one would allow a child to live on his or her doorstep and watch that child wither away and die of starvation or freeze to death. The thought of doing so would be rightfully abhorrent, yet this kind of preventable hardship and suffering is felt throughout the world, day in and day out. Our media aims to sanitise and distract us from this reality, fostering a persuasive feeling that we are powerless against what’s going on. This same lie is present through our educational system, as well as all the economic and political structures that operate around us.
To begin to dismantle structural violence, we need to see its effect, feel its effect and know we have the capacity to make a difference. I think our sense of connection and duty to others is the key to taking action. If every cheap item of clothing has a picture on its tag of malnourished, overworked 14-year-old girls in Bangladesh , you might find clothing sales would decline the moment we connect the dots and realise that suffering and hardship are not “out there,” but rather here with us all and, therefore, we all must work to take responsibility for it and actively work to change such an unjust system.
We have sadly made acceptable the unacceptable. We are brought into and pulled along by powerful culture forces who proclaim this somehow is just the way it is, “rubber stamping” our sense of disfranchisement and alienation from our impact with the rest of the world. This affects us, even if we think it doesn’t, as there is a universal discomfort felt in many people who may think it’s because they don’t have enough, or some other part of their lives isn’t where they want to be, yet I think beneath it they are connected to that pain we are creating. They are wed to that wound in the collective unconscious that won’t go away until we accept ownership and responsibility. That we are all in this together is something that really needs to be understood. In that togetherness we have the power to choose something different: something noble, something fair and something that mirrors that goodness in who we are. This kind of world is the only world that is truly acceptable.
It is my intuition, at least, that our own personal happiness and contentment will always be limited to and in relation with the collective self. The whole understanding of being connected to everyone, both metaphysically and ecologically, also means we are connected to others’ pain. Our modern culture’s obsession with personal success and happiness denies this underlying truth, as the cult of individualism throughout the world encourages people to amass wealth and status, prestige and power, and still remain empty inside. We now have access to every method imaginable to bring about happiness, yet we are a culture addicted to distraction and anaesthetising our pain. Bringing an end to the devastation of structural violence, bringing an end to the monopoly of violence our state lords over us, and bringing an end to the ecological suicide mission we are on requires we know and understand that all of the pain they cause is our own. We can try to shield, deny and tune out as much as we want, but that background pain will not go away. We can have therapy, take antidepressants or become rich and famous, but that background pain will remain. When we know the ebb and flow of our personal selves and collective selves and how one feeds into and informs the other, then we can start to see how my happiness is your happiness and your pain is my pain. Within this lies the seeds and potential of real and significant change.