Replying to Jeff Sparrow’s Arguement On the Social Significance of the Arizon Massacre


Jeff Sparrow wrote on the Overland Blog that the Tuscon murders cannot be considered isolated events but are evidence of  “profound social crisis” that seems to go by the name of “the normalisation of violence” and is principally caused by the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am not so sure that this is accurate. Doubt comes from indications of a greater age and origin of the crisis, but also, I am generally of the opinion that violent images don’t promote violence, the apparent cause of the crisis in Jeff’s analysis.  Jeff’s prognosis here seems to rely upon questionable assumptions conducive to authoritarian conclusions.

The first doubt arises because of the link drawn by the phrase ‘water the tree of liberty with blood’. This is one of the many signs pointing to the ‘normalisation of violence’. It was in response to an uprising, back in the day when the US had far few stars on its flag, that Thomas Jefferson expressed the desire to see the tree of liberty frequently fertilized with blood and it was from that first enunciation that it became a common turn of phrase in American politics.

Perhaps this phrase carried the origins of the crisis Jeff sees, there are indications of similar concerns but there is also an alternative diagnosis. Back in the 1780s, the time of the uprising and Jefferson’s remark, the worry for many American’s was that the long war against the British had instilled a feeling for violence – the power of the people may have got out of hand.  Mr Jefferson, on the other hand, gave praise to the violence as a sign that power was not being ossified in a new ruling elite.  It is perhaps because Jefferson recognized that for any argument to occur there must be both the possibility of irrevocable disagreement (ie war) as well as agreement that he saw the actual manifestation of violence within the union as a positive sign of its republican credentials – a state founded upon the authority of ‘the people’. If there is a profound social crisis in America it is perhaps not so much the product of war in Afghanistan and Iraq but something deeper.

My second doubt arises from the implied argument that media products cause violence. I am characterising the argument this way because it is suggested that the pursuit of war in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the public acknowledgement and defence of various acts, previously understood as torture, as legitimate interrogation tools of the police is leading to this crisis which seems to go by the name the ‘normalisation of violence’.

The argument is not the more familiar war feed-back concern centred on returned soldiers failing to remember to stop raping and pillaging etc etc but a concern with the presentation of the fact that the government is exercising its monopoly on the legitimate use of force.  As I understand the argument being presented, just as violent video games make people more likely to commit violent crimes the fact that the US government is waging violent war makes people more likely to make violent war upon their neighbours by virtue of the presentation of that violence.

I do not like such arguments because they seem to hold two assumptions that I don’t like. To characterise such arguments: there is a proscribed definition of violence (a definition that is either explicit, it is ‘this’, or, as is more usually the case, it is simply ‘obvious’) and its presentation is harmful to the social body because people will mistake it for good (or at least not bad) behaviour. The ‘normalisation of violence’ occurs because actions that we know to be bad are presented to the public and, given that the public either has a propensity for evil or is too stupid to spot the difference, the public then takes these acts as good.  The definition of violence must be obvious for this to hold, if it is not obvious then claims of ‘normalisation’ merely indicate a difference from majority opinion that is similarly only opinion. Additionally, people must be considered stupid or uninterested in justice.  If the difference between violence and non-violence is obvious then the failure of people to recognise it is a result of either their stupidity or passion for evil.

I have failed to find an adequate authority in this world for a definition of violence. I have reason to believe that my failings are not some unique disease.  People have diverse understandings about what sort of relations between people are harmless and what are harmful. History seems evidence enough that none of these definitions are especially convincing.  The only definition that seems to hold is that violent acts are those acts that are actions between people that must be avoided. A further definition of what those acts are that holds more weight then personal opinion or fashion is something I have failed to come across.

This lack of an authority providing the definition of violence provides grounds for the repudiation of the assumptions regarding the moral and intellectual leanings of people.  In the face of this absence of authority confusion with respect to what is right seems to indicate inquiry rather than lack of inquiry. Regarding the possible evil nature of people, I find a similar lack of evidence.  The very diversity of opinions regarding what acts are legitimate and what are not combined with other observations such as the propensity on the part of people for novelty and recognition, seems to indicate that rather than being evil people are at least the source of good and evil in equal measure. The desire to be with others pushes things in favour of good.

To hold either assumption is to start down a track towards authoritarianism or the repudiation of the possibility of justice.  If we know what the definition of violence is; what acts are legitimate and what are not, then the institution of the just society is clear – put it into our hands. If the people are stupid we will protect them from knowing evil, if the people are evil we will force them to be good or eliminate them.  Given that I view the background assumptions as flawed I view these destinations as not very good.

The presentation of violence is not a threat to the search for the just society. Rather it is a symptom of the fact that the definition of what is legitimate and what is illegitimate is contestable. If there is a social crisis in America arising from the presentation of violence it is related to this and therefore not entirely open to repudiation.

What is a threat to the search for the just society is the killing of people. Yet, as mentioned above, this seems to be a pre-requisite for argument. In this way the crisis being experienced is related to something far more profound than the events in American history in the past 30 or so years.

Just as one can dismiss Jared Laughner as incoherent crazy person acting not because he thought that his acts were good and legitimate but because of stupidity or a force of evil (a disease of some sort) one can dismiss the collective actions of the American’s as stupidity or a force of evil. In both cases democratic agency is being denied.

So what are the necessary calls to be made? The ‘normalisation of violence’ referred to in the post is perhaps better understood as the incorrect reinterpretation by certain people of particular acts as being legitimate acts in certain circumstances and their institution of their opinions in law.  Understood thusly the problem is much more manageable. There is no superhuman force of at play here nor is there a need to wage war against a mass of evil people. All that’s needed is argument. If one believes that certain activities are wrong one can argue that they are, persuade others of this, be persuade to the contrary or find some form of accommodation. Whilst such arguments are always difficult it probably doesn’t help if one starts suggesting that one’s opponents are inherently evil or stupid, especially considering that there is an equal probability that oneself might be the mistaken one. This seems to suggest that Stewart and Colbert are right. ‘Take it easy’ seems to be an appropriate response.


About barkingcoins
This author is just another fucking dickhead.

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