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Use Your Words (Or, Why I’m a Pacifist)

January 24, 2011

You have to look at your capacity for violence… You are going to have to learn to confess it, and learn how to deal with it in every situation every day, for the rest of your life, because it is not going to go away.” And I was able to lay all of that down.” – Utah Phillips

The level – or should I say depth – of cultural discussion over the last few weeks has been interesting to watch. From what I can tell, the only talking head who has said anything remotely reasonable about the shootings in Tuscon, Arizona a few weeks back is The Daily Show’s John Stewart – who, in spite of often being accused of complicity with the non-existent specter often referred to “the liberal media” is an equal opportunity offender. There have been calls for a less vitriolic social discourse; both sides of the political isle in Washington have blamed the other, and all parts of the larger political spectrum in the United States have blamed one bobble-headed politico or another. Incitement is a new buzz word amongst the politically tolerant of both conservative and liberal bents.

There have also been calls for more violence, more “2nd Amendment remedies”, accusations all around using all the evil little isms people can think of to describe the people we disagree with. (For the confused: follow this link to some entries from The Parsons Dictionary of Often Used Words and Phrases for a definition of “ism.”) The only ism that I’ve used in this larger debate has been “Fascism” and mostly I have used that either to describe the policies of former President George W. Bush, or to describe the underbelly of corporate and multi-national corporate influence on our political process and everyday lives. I’ve also, on many occasions, used this term to describe Wal-Mart… but if you really knew just how Wal-Mart and the Wal-Mart mentality has thoroughly fucked us over, you’d use it too.

I have also used the term “idiot” and it’s various and sometimes more colorful synonyms to describe the thoughts and ideas of people who demonstrate a clear absence of intelligence. These include (but are not limited to): Mike Brown, George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, The governor of Illinois, the governor of Arizona, several Chiefs of Police, a long list of academic department chairs, lackeys, and weasels, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jack Van Imp, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and the chairman of the Carroll County Illinois County Board.

And before you start thinking that I’m about to apologize: I’m not. And chances are, I won’t. Ever.

The problem with our cultural discussion is that it rarely includes the honest admission that vitriol has ALWAYS been a part of political speech. It can certainly be found throughout American History, and if you back a little further, you can find it in the English tradition that we sprouted from and later outgrew – except for our chronic need to adapt British TV into Must See TV.

What’s worse is that we have developed this tendency toward omission. We seem to think that if we omit the offensive word that somehow it will create a positive change in the discourse. Scholars bowdlerize Mark Twain to get rid of the word “nigger”, in spite of the fact that Huck Finn is a much better argument against slavery than the propaganda piece Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The FCC has radio and television by its collective miniscule balls – which hasn’t changed in spite of the succinct and hilarious commentary of this by George Carlin more years ago many of the people who currently have an internet connection have been alive. This tendency towards omission has affected generations of American History textbooks and even the public reading of our country’s sacred documents. I’m referring, of course, in case any one missed it,  to new House Speaker Boehner — who, I have the personally distasteful task to remind people, comes from my native state of Ohio —  when he read the Constitution and left out that pesky part about blacks being 3/5 of a person.

But then I’m reminded of something that most parents try and teach their toddlers: “Use Your Words.”

As long as we hamstring ourselves by working to omit unpopular speech – even though person spouting it may be an idiot, like John Boehner – we are doing nothing but hamstringing our evolution as a culture. And when we try to silence people, we are guaranteeing that one or more of them will choose violence to make themselves heard. And the truth is, regardless of our whitewashed history, regardless of our technical and informational advances, violence is as much a part of being human as farting and fucking.

Part my personal development as someone still more or less human has been to acknowledge my own capacity for violence. As a child, I lost a lot of fights out of an unwillingness to hit back; at the time, I told myself it was because I was peaceful. The truth was, though, that I wasn’t peaceful. I was afraid. I was scared and I had – and still have – an awful temper. Someone I know here locally once described herself as have “all this unresolved rage.” For years I denied my own unresolved rage – rage that, despite what some people think, pre-dates my father’s death. I have so much anger that I don’t know where it came from, and I don’t always know where to put it.

Later I found that not only did I like letting my unresolved rage loose on the world, but that I rarely, if ever, felt bad about it. The problem, of course, is that I’ve never been much of a fighter – that is, I’m not very good at it. I ended up winning a few and losing a few. But other than hurting my hands, I’m not sure what I ever got out of it. It would be nice if I could blame booze – there are those who do, not only in me, but in others – but a violent drunk is a violent person who hasn’t figured out that most fear in this arena is unwarranted. I can be obnoxious, and an ass. But that’s not the same as being violent… and the times when I have let the monster under my skin loose while drinking had very little to do with being drunk and everything to do with being afraid.  Once I figured out that I had nothing to be afraid of – one ass beating more or less feels like another and unless someone is enough of an idiot to bring a knife to a knife fight or a gun into a bar, they all end up the same way – I lost my worries about defending myself.

But I’ve seen the monster under my skin enough times to know that it doesn’t help anything. I became a pacifist because in any of my experience, and in any bit of history I’ve read or lived through, violence always ends up begating more violence.

There will always be more enemies to kill. Dropping the bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima ended World War II; but it also created a nuclear club that now includes petty dictators as well as former world powers (and yes… I mean the United States.) In an attempt to avoid mutually assured destruction in the Cold War, we funded smaller conflicts in the Middle East, we’ve propped up South American dictators, we fought and lost wars in Korea and Vietnam; and all of it has, in some fashion, come back on us.

Violence always brings more violence, which leads me to the conclusion that there is no moral or ethical superiority in violence, and whatever pragmatic superiority there is a mirage meant to support the multi-national corporate arms manufacturers, private mercenary companies, and the egos of small-minded fools.

So I guess I don’t mind vitriolic language. I would rather hear some loony idiot (Glenn Beck) rant than see people get killed over ideological points that no one bothers to read up on and understand, anyway. And I will continue to unleash my own vitriolic vocabulary when necessary and call people out when they merit it. That’s the first and last obligation of the Artist. It’s the first and last obligation of free thinkers. It’s the only thing that matters.

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