Barak, Gregg — Violence and Nonviolence: Pathways to Understanding

Barak, Gregg. Violence and Nonviolence: Pathways to Understanding. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. 2003.  Print.

Barak’s sweeping sociological explication of violence and nonviolence is filled with categories and ways of thinking of these terms in the modern American landscape, which are useful for attempting to parse out the ways that humans are either violent or nonviolent. For instance, he has two categories for structural violence: one “pursued allegedly for the purposes of establishing, defending, and/or extending hierarchy and inequality […which] can be accomplished by harassing, exploiting, beating, torturing, or killing people based on their age, class, ethnicity, gender, and/or sexual orientation” (5); and the other which “is pursued allegedly for the purposes of decreasing privilege and/or increasing liberty by the resisting, protesting, and attacking of those persons, symbols, or things that represent the “establishment” or the “powers that be” through “rebellions, protests, and assassinations” (5). He asserts that “a holistic framework for decreasing violence and increasing nonviolence at home and abroad” would require that “we do not limit ourselves to thoughts of personal forms of violence and nonviolence,” but “remember to consider forms of institutional and structural violence and nonviolence” (5). Because of this structural framework of inequality and violence, many individuals defined as “violent,” according to Barak, my actually be “engaging in a ‘defensive’ reaction to some kind of real or imagined assault, injury, or harm perpetrated on or against the self, family, group, or nation” (8). Thereby, the soldier can be a hero to his people and a terror to another country’s people; the battered wife who killed her husband is both a victim and murderer. Shame can play a part in these retributive actions, and Barak cites Gilligan’s “three preconditions that must be present before shame can lead to a full pathogenesis of violent behavior […] (a) feeling too ashamed to admit that one feels shame, which only makes one feel further ashamed; (b) feeling that there is no other nonviolent means available for warding off or diminishing one’s feelings of shame or low self-esteem; and ( c) feeling an overwhelming sense of shame in the absence of feelings of either love or guilt” (10).

The center of the book is an exhaustive look at specific kinds of violence, including rape, murder, institutionalized violence of the state, and many different other types, analyses largely based in statistics. The last two chapters are entitled “Chapter 9: Models of Nonviolence” and “Chapter 10: Policies of Nonviolence.”

What is nonviolence? According to Barak, nonviolence can be presented as two models of thought/action: “first, as alternative or competing visions to the paradigm of adversarialism” and “second, as expressions of the shared visions of the paradigm of mutalism” (272). Adversarialism is “[t]he tendency to oppose,” and “as a paradigm of social interaction [it] operates in essentially all spheres of life and in all human relationships” such as “ecology, sports, law, economics, education, sex, politics, race, religion, class, consumption, and perception” (274). Breaking down adversarial tendencies, especially in America’s boot-strap capitalistic society, seems impossible, as our everyday language is filled with sports and war metaphors, as well as binary language of “good/bad” “black/white” “win/lose.” Indeed, “adversarial assumptions include the beliefs that one engages in adversarial behavior to overcome another, to achieve revenge, and/or to arouse envy […and] that parties oppose each other’s interests more than they share anything in common” (275). The author goes on to define “compulsive adversarialism” as “competition for the sake of competition,” citing Kohn’s argument that compulsive adversarialism “represents a cultural defense system that promotes the denial or circumvention of the necessary work to overcome the unnecessary and destructive tensions in the self and in the larger society (Kohn, 1992). Adversarialism, in short, promotes extreme individualism and isolationism” (275).

[How many highly insecure teenagers and young people claim that they are not mean or cruel, they are sarcastic? Or, more recently, how many young people are unable to exclaim true joy at anything, relying instead on being ironic, dressing and acting in such a way as to never commit to finding happiness in anything. Competition for the sake of competition leads to a tense society, as groups of people are not able to relax and enjoy themselves without someone insisting that they are winning and everyone else around them is losing, whether at driving to a location, making money, or listening to bands you have probably never heard of.]

Alternatively, “Mutualism assumes deep fulfillment in social connections. It assumes that there are pleasures to be derived from sharing and from cooperation. Mutualism also assumes that both individuals and society can reside in peaceful relationships with themselves and others” (275). He notes that “Thus far, models by which the world is understood have tended to take adversarialism as the ‘real’ and to take mutualism as the ‘idea’” (276), which strikes me as a distressingly sad idea.

Barak cites Fellman to help put these paradigms in direct contrast: “According to the adversary paradigm, people are defined as dangerous, potential competitors, and inevitable combatants. According to the mutuality paradigm, people are defined as potential friends ‘who can be trusted to respect feelings and vulnerability and who can be known partly through knowing oneself’ (Fellman, 1998, p. 27). Adversarialism sees human interactions as primarily a series of “zero-sum” games with only winners and losers; mutualism sees human interactions as potentially a series of “win-win” exchanges, or negotiations and compromises, where all parties to a conflict can become benefactors” (276).

[In this environment, it is important for me to do something that everyone else is not doing. To get a job or fellowship, I cannot be part of a team only; I must LEAD the team in some way, and bulletpoint all the things that I have personally done. My team’s results are not as important as my results, and everyone is out to steal my work, my glory, or my job.]

Barak continues: “Adversarial values tend to give greater importance to battle and tough-mindedness than to friendship and serenity. Nonadversarial or mutual values, such as enjoying good health, feeling secure and comfortable in one’s environment, exploring sensuality, caring for others, and finding pleasure in a great range of people and diverse experiences, gives greater importance to peacemaking and social justice and to flexibility of mind rather than to structures conformity, vilification, and revenge. In short, a situation of making love rather than making war.” (276-77)

[And we know that love and empathy and understanding lead to one being called weak (or, womanly, as if such a thing is an insult) and unrealistic. How many times have young people calling for a spread of welfare or an end to war been termed “unrealistic,” as if a multi-billion dollar war machine based in fear and pride is an ANY way realistic? To be loved, to be understood, is to be vulnerable, and we as a culture are afraid of vulnerability. What if we are embarrassed? What if it is unreciprocated? What if someone sees our true selves? It is much safer to be a foe than a friend.]

Mutualism is challenging: “mutualism understands the importance of and advocates that people identify with the hurts of others by recognizing their own hurts and the energies of resentment and rage that are bound up with them” (278).

[Personally, I never want to fully take on my demons, and very few people do, much less publicly; there is a reason that therapy is typically between two people, one a professional sworn to secrecy, or among people with the same type of secret (alcoholism, eating disorder, etc.).]

Barak cites Fellman’s seven elements that minimally constitute the philosophy of mutuality (1998):

  1. The other is experienced as fully human or the other’s full personhood is retained in one’s consciousness, emotions, and action;
  2. Compromise and harmony, openness and growth are prized, and contrasting realities are accommodating to each other;
  3. Power is shared among all parties and all people;
  4. Mutuality replaces subordination to hierarchy with interdependence of equals, the shared connectedness of human lives;
  5. Emotional responsiveness is essential;
  6. Giving is a primal way of connecting;
  7. Love and community are prime aspirations.

According to Barak,

Mutuality means realizing, directly or through sublimation, the full range of one’s own feelings, fears, and inclinations. It means connection with one’s own emotions and, in turn, trying to understand them and allowing for their full recognition and (where appropriate) expression […] Mutuality also calls for a liberation of the self from the tyranny of an overly rigid conscience and from overly rigid people who threaten to disapprove of or punish the self. It is a morality of insight into and compassion for the self and others and their interrelationships. Finally, mutuality is not about sentimental declarations of unity, idealism, or utopianism, or about clinging to early internalized authorities. Rather, it is an empathetic act of putting oneself in the place of another and then reflecting critically. (280)

[Mutuality is not saying, “I understand.” It is saying, “I have felt something like the pain that you are feeling, and I am sorry,” or “I do not understand your pain because I have never been raped, but I understand why you would feel lonely/angry/insecure.” Mutuality is treating every living human as an equal, which, in all honesty, is difficult for most of us. Aren’t we smarter/prettier/better than others? Well, no. And that’s the first step in realizing that we live in a truly messed up society — that we are taught that the places we are born in society and our genetic makeup make us superior to other human beings.]

Is there such a thing as healthy competition, or competition just for competition’s sake, if it does not improve either party involved? I’m unsure. This work makes a convincing argument that there is no need for competition that tears down one party. I believe that we are taught at a young age to lose gracefully, and our only lessons to be taken from “losing” is how to win better next time. How many times have you heard someone remark in post-game press conferences that they will learn from this experience, but NOT how to win next time? Probably, never.

Fellman’s elements of mutualism could be applied to the classroom, the workplace, or one’s personal life. It emphasizes emotion and understanding over critical eyes to different people and cultures. Prior to entering college, I had never seen a grown man cry, save for the death of a loved one. I repeat: I had never seen a grown man have an emotional response to anything besides death in my eighteen years of existence before college. Crying, and laughing, and having a deep, empathetic experience with someone takes effort and bravery, especially as anti-feminine sentiment has come full circle back to harming men by making it impossible for them to show anything resembling a “feminine” emotion.

The habit to “one up” is astounding, and far-reaching. It can also leave lasting negative impressions of others. Have you forgiven the friend who, when you exposed something personal to them that you had not revealed to anyone else, could only respond, “Well once MY mother died/I was depressed/I almost killed myself. It was awful.” I doubt it. As much as the SAT’s, GRE’s, class rankings, and high school sports coaches want us to believe otherwise, life is not a competition. This adversarial compulsion doesn’t just lead to violence; it leads to PERCEIVED violence. You cannot trust strangers because they will probably try to harm you, although most of us will  never rape or murder or rob anyone in our lifetime. You would be foolish to travel alone, because someone will challenge your size or gender in order to take what they want from you. You would be foolish to trust anyone, as they will likely betray that trust for their own gain. Better to lock yourself away and harden your heart to others than be hurt by these mysterious bringers of hatred in the world that you have been taught are waiting for someone just like you.

Having long regarded the classroom as a necessary safe space for ideas, musings, and writings, I think that instructors should make it clear that it is okay to be “wrong” or to continue to formulate an opinion through a work or class and change one’s mind or approach later. There is no reason for us to demand that students remain static in their opinions through the semester; in fact, it should be a mark of a bad instructor if her students do not grow in some personal way, as well as a professional/knowledgeable way, through her course. This ideal is easier said than done, and much easier in a classroom that includes creative/opinion writing than, say, a calculus course. However, a safe space can be made in ANY classroom, and it all depends on the instructor’s approach.  

From this work, I will define/glean the terms “adversarial” and “mutualism,” and hope to incorporate these in my teaching and personal lives. 

— Emily Blair

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