I think we need to be alert to the historical context in which we speak about violence, including structural violence. Too frequently we take physical harm and/or killing as the only paradigm of violence. But this can blind us to other forms of violence that involve humiliation and suffering.
But what is even more important is that there are forms of behavior that are not considered to be violent at one stage of history that need to be exposed as violent in another.
“With her bare, alert senses she could almost hear violets grow and feel the robin’s heart beat. Like Emerson, she found in each drop of dew, in each grain of sand, a copy of a universe.”
When people die in police custody or are killed by the police, there are always those who wonder what the fallen did to deserve what befell them.
He shouldn’t have been walking down that street.
She should have been more polite to that police officer.
He shouldn’t have been playing with a toy gun in a park.
We don’t consider asking such questions of a lion. We don’t speculate as to why Cecil was roaming the savanna.
Crispin Sartwell’s article about post-postmodern philosophy and the real starts with an anecdote that is too relevant to my interests not to share here:
When I was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins in the early 1980s, I played on the intramural softball team of the postmodern literary theorist Stanley Fish. I recall his umpiring at a practice once when the batter, my buddy Mike, now a distinguished professor at Yale, argued a call. Fish good-humoredly pointed out that what’s a ball and what’s a strike is not an objective, external, or natural fact, it’s an interpretive practice; and according to that practice, whatever the umpire calls is real: If he calls it a strike, it’s a strike.
There is disingenuousness on both sides. Many who oppose the death penalty, this page included, are obviously not interested in identifying more “humane” methods of execution; the idea itself is a contradiction in terms. Nor are many capital punishment supporters concerned with how much suffering a condemned person might endure in his final moments. In the middle sit the armchair executioners who engage in macabre debates about the relative efficiency of, say, nitrogen gas.
It is time to dispense with the pretense of a pain-free death. The act of killing itself is irredeemably brutal and violent. If the men on death row had painlessly killed their victims, that would not make their crimes any more tolerable. When the killing is carried out by a state against its own citizens, it is beneath a people that aspire to call themselves civilized.
Keep cool, but care.
Thomas Pynchon, V. (1961)
Quoted in this NYT article: The Nobel Prize Waiting Game: A Year for Long Shots?
I subscribe to the New York Times digitally (mainly because it can be useful as a North American cultural studies student) and recently subscribed to their “what we’re reading” newsletter, a selection of articles from other publications NYT editors like every week. When I opened Tuesday’s newsletter, I was briefly exited. A recommended article from the New Yorker, called “What is a woman?” I’m really interested in gender identity, gender construction, etc. My high hopes waned a bit when I saw the article is by Michelle Goldberg, who hasn’t really represented nuance, intersectional feminism, or just openness to positions that aren’t her own in recent time. Reading the article, I felt uncomfortable and at odds with her portrayal of the radical feminist v. trans women debate. I couldn’t really put it into words at the time, so I didn’t write about it.
Yesterday, Bitch Magazine posted online a comment on the Goldberg piece that puts into words a lot of my thoughts, and then some more. Here’s one of several important passages:
Reading this passage, one might think TERFs [trans-exclusionary radical feminists] and trans people have a philosophical or semantic debate. Trans people’s identities, for which they and their allies are waging a worldwide human rights campaign to define as legally legitimate—backed by decades of medical and psychological data—and TERFs’ hateful academic theories carry equal weight and import. If those two sides were balanced in the piece, readers might walk away with a shoulder shrug, “Who knows whether trans identity is legitimate or not?” The title of the piece certainly encourages this confusion, making it a question as to whether transgender women should be seen as women.
But the piece isn’t even balanced. In a response to Goldberg’s piece published on Autostraddle, Mari Brighe noted that Goldberg cited 14 radical feminists, quoting nine and including two quotes from books. In contrast, she quoted only four trans women, including no quotes from books; two of her trans sources actually support radical feminist viewpoints. Likewise, Goldberg quotes TERFs misgendering trans women repeatedly, never mentioning that trans women find such language dehumanizing and hurtful. “Sadly, what she presents is a disturbingly one-sided view of the situation that relies on heavily anecdotal evidence, uncited claims and debunked theories, and ignores the extended campaign of harassment and attack that the trans community has endured at the hands of radical feminists,” writes Brighe.
In Goldberg’s narrative, it’s TERFs who come off as oppressed. Their ideas lack the “power and cachet” of the trans movement, and they’ve found themselves now “shunned as reactionaries on the wrong side of a sexual-rights issue.” To understand how unjust this characterization of things is, one has to understand all the issues relating to trans people and TERFs that Goldberg doesn’t mention.
TERF framing of trans rights activists as bullies is bad. Bullying, rape and death threats against feminist women are really, really wrong, something I see as so problematic that I’m writing my master’s thesis on it. However, Goldberg, TERF, and to a degree also Caroline Criado-Perez describe both camps in too homogenous, undifferentiated terms. Extreme bullies in both camps exist, sadly. People in both camps are affected by structural and individual sexism and/or transphobia and/or racsim and/or homophobia. But one thing Goldberg and TERFs claim is, in my opinion, simply wrong: Transgender people, as a group and mostly as individuals, do not have hegemonic power over ciswomen. It could be argued argued that ciswomen who consistently get their one-sided opinions published in magazines/papers/cultural institutions like The New Yorker or The Atlantic have (comparatively!) more power than most trans people…
One last thing: I strongly believe that both cis and trans women are women. Women can have a multitude of experiences and individual “forms” and bodily issues. Within this group different forms of relative degrees of privilege exist, not just on a cis-trans scale but also on a class scale, race scale, educational scale, etc.
“The so-called black notebooks, written between 1931 and 1941 and named for the color of their oilcloth covers, show Heidegger denouncing the rootlessness and spirit of “empty rationality and calculability” of the Jews, as he works out revisions to his deepest metaphysical ideas in relation to political events of the day.
“World Jewry,” he wrote in 1941, “is ungraspable everywhere and doesn’t need to get involved in military action while continuing to unfurl its influence, whereas we are left to sacrifice the best blood of the best of our people.”
The anti-Semitic passages total only about two and a half of the notebooks’ roughly 1,200 pages. Still, some scholars say, they put the lie to any claim that Heidegger’s Nazism can be kept separate from his philosophy, or confined only to the brief period in the early 1930s when he was the rector of the newly Nazified University of Freiburg.”
The NYT article is interesting in full, if you’re interested and have access, as it gives more background on the debate, the recent publishing of the black notebooks, Heidegger’s “‘historical’ antisemitism,” and his relationship with the Nazi state and National Socialism, that seems to be more than “just” opportunism:
“In the notebooks for 1939 to 1941, Mr. Meyer said, Heidegger’s thought underwent a radicalization, in which the Jews become an integral part of his philosophical account of the decay of modernity, and the “final struggle” (as Heidegger put it) then underway. “I think he can imagine and does imagine a world without Jews,” [Thomas] Meyer said.”
(Above emphasis mine)
One can argue that the U.S. civil war was, or developed into, the first modern war, the first war that was fought in the manner that was to sadly dominate the 20th century. Maybe the ‘style’ of war has fundamentally changed again, with the fragmentation of fronts between states and terrorist groups, guerrilla warfare, or the rise of drones and similar technology, cyber warfare… As a pacifist who chose to serve in emergency medical services, I’m really out of my depth here.
Jeffery B. Roth wrote a fascinating piece on the use of biological (e.g. sending infected clothes to enemy lines) and chemical (e.g. Greek fire artillery shells) weapons in the civil war for the New York Times’ “Disunion” series.