THE ECOLOGY OF TEACHING
The Cultivation of Hatred: A Brief History of
Violence in America
By HECTOR VILA
Hector J. Vila is an Assistant Professor in Writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has been teaching writing in urban and rural environments since 1985. Hector is the author of Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom. Throughout his career he has always worked, in one way or another, with K-12 partners. Hector is a regular essayist for Community Works Journal.
In “The Dawn of Man” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick introduces us to the usage of tools as “man” becomes an active element and gains the power of action over nature — tools make “man” an agent of change.
The Dawn of Man/2001: A Space Odyssey
Paleolithic being discovers that the tool can protect and conquer; it can be used to advance one’s cause and eliminate all threat, kill it off — at least until an opponent engineers a more dastardly tool as we see in another Kubrick film, Dr. Strangelove, and the making of the Doomsday Machine, and in Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book — both narratives about mutually assured destruction.
So it begins, “man’s” intimate relationship with violence. It commences quite rationally: to protect and to serve one’s needs and the needs of one’s community. Can’t be more fundamental than that, more reasonable.
Reason thus evolves with a tool that can serve, protect, and destroy. And violence becomes something feasible, something we can logically determine is useful, sometimes beneficial and equitable, even when instigated. We don’t need to go further than The Vietnam War, the American War as it’s known in Vietnam, the harrowing complexity of the Iraq War, and, of course, the War in Afghanistan to see how Reason perpetuates horror through violent aggression. Until all rationality escapes us and we spiral into utter chaos, Syria being the case in point as described in What War Photographs Leave Out, by Susie Linfield. All Reason deserts us; it’s gone and only violent reaction is left.
In December of 1914, witnessing the atrocities of World War I, Sigmund Freud, writing to Frederic van Eeden, a Dutch poet and psychopathologist, says that the “primitive, savage and evil impulses of mankind have not vanished in any individual, but continue their existence, although in a repressed state” waiting for “opportunities to display their activity.”
In the Modern, “primitive, savage and evil impulses” are clouded over — and confused — by the fact that some violence, as in personal protection, for instance, is reasonable; by the notion that mediated violence, as we see in professional football, currently America’s pastime, is experienced as lucrative entertainment, as is violence in films; and by war, which is always, at some point deemed beneficial for national interests — WMD’s in Iraq, for instance, though there were none found.
Violence is accepted because it’s about survival; and because it’s justifiable, politically and financially. The political justifications for violence and violence’s primitive roots conflate and confuse, particularly the American. Witness the Second Amendment to the Constitution, a legitimate establishment of self-defense and at the heart of the muddled debate concerning gun violence.
Walter Scott’s Shooting at the hands of police, South Carolina, April 4, 2015
Which brings us to the victims of violence, of our behavior, our tolerance of it. The victim has been blurred, even erased, by the various, convoluted means by which we accept and tolerate violence in its many forms. The victim has become an approved casualty. We move on.
Early on in America, as we hear from Cotton Mather, the influential New England minister, and author, the Puritans claimed, “a corner of the World, where he [the Devil] had reign’d without any controul for many Ages.”* There existed at the time a popular notion “that before the coming of Christ the devil led the Indians to the New World as his own Chosen People, hoping to put at least some part of mankind beyond the reach of the gospel.”*
Finding religious freedom in a new “corner of the World,” Cotton Mather, in the name of God and standing in his all powerful pulpit, is already preaching hatred and difference. Native Americans are devils. Hatred is thus cultivated in America right from the start and by the righteous Puritans who saw themselves as the New Israelites. (Of course, this also suggests that if the Puritans are “the chosen,” everyone else is not — another problem they brought forth, which also lead to their eventual downfall amidst great confusion. Emphasis upon economic success, political developments, and rational thought pre-empted concerns for the soul and instilled a confidence in salvation despite a laxity of morals — witness the Halfway Covenant in 1642, which eventually lead to further degradation of Puritan influence.)
Early on in our history many viewed America as the land of the devil, an image reinforced by the Native American’s practice of ceremonial magic. Native Americans were referred to as “Monsters.” There is a direct line from the Paleolithic discovery of a tool that can eradicate and kill an encroaching threat and the Puritan’s religion-induced perception of a “Monster” that must be challenged, changed, and even expunged. In the name of God, conquest is reasonable, as is persecution. The witch trials aren’t far behind.
Meanwhile in the Southern United States, the Bible belt, in the 17 Century, as Native Americans are killed off by diseases brought forth by foreign conquerors, British indentured servants settle the largely agricultural area. Slavery follows and becomes the engine of wealth. Gross violence enriches a new nation.
Colonization, disenfranchisement, and alienation in the North, slavery, savagery, and dehumanization in the South.
The United States is already conditioned to accept violence as a means to an end — conquest, servitude, and vile slavery; it is conditioned to accept differences as unacceptable; to judge and condemn as a way forward, so much a part of our current political climate; and brutalizing. The westward expansion, a conflation of “man’s” primitive attempt to control nature for wealth and violence against Natives, again viewed as a threat and an obstacle to wealth, pretty much follows, in broad strokes, a barbarous path against humans and nature, such as we see in the decimation of the buffalo.
From Cotton Mather’s sermons to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville to Willa Cather to John Dos Passos and John Steinbeck to William Faulkner and to our very own Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy, the chronicle of violence against others — and the land — is quite clear. It’s a truly American story, conceivably our lifeblood.
Have we become too entertained by violence that we fail to see how it is a part of our very spirit?
What are the psychological, spiritual, and emotional consequences of a culture that has had violence and conquest so ingrained in its psyche?
On May 24, 1844, Professor Samuel F.B. Morse, in the chambers of the United States Supreme Court in Washington, tapped out a message on a device of cogs and coiled wires: What hath God Wrought. As Daniel Walker Howe tells it in What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848, “[But] when Morse transmitted the message, he left off the closing punctuation.” In the King James Version of the Bible, an exclamation mark follows the phrase. “Later, when transcribing the message, Morse added a question mark, and thus it was often printed in accounts of his achievement…Morse’s question mark unintentionally turned the phrase from an affirmation of the Chosen People’s destiny to a questioning of it.”
Thirty years earlier, in 1814, George Stephenson invented a steam locomotive that could pull coal from a mine shaft to a nearby dock for loading onto a barge. And by the time we get to the publication of Walden, in 1854, we are forced to hear Henry David Thoreau’s penetrating — and prophetic — question at the very beginning of the “Sounds” chapter: “What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen?” We’ve lost this discipline; perhaps we never had it. Thoreau then asks, “Will you be a reader, a student, or a seer?”
As Thoreau sits in Walden and observes the Fitchburg Railroad touching the pond, he says, “Here come your groceries, country; your rations, countrymen! Nor is there any man so independent on his farm that he can say them nay…With such huge and lumbering civility the country hands a chair to the city. All the Indian huckleberry are stripped, all the cranberry meadows are raked into the city.”
The conflation of rail and telegraph bring to us a major American theme: compression — the need to connect, bring together, easily, the vast territory known as the United States; the need to ensure that the American experience is relatively the same across the country, which is the deception that there is no distance between us, no differences among Americans.
And here we stand today, in a confused state where mediated experience trumps experience itself — the cranberry delivered to the city erases the act of picking it; where contemplation is trumped by multitasking, efficiency, long hours tweeting, on Facebook, online because, otherwise, life doesn’t seem real; where since the squeezing and confining are so extreme that we live in the fantasy that everything is accessible yet nothing really is since the world we live in, at least in the U.S., is harshly hierarchical and demanding — particularly in education.
So we come to Bill Maher and Malcolm Gladwell and two theories concerning why young, white males with guns are using them in mass shootings.
In “The Land of the Spree,” (start at 1:58), Maher asserts that we have to “get real” about what these mass shootings are about: “They can’t get laid.” The laughter is obviously muffled, nervous; no one is sure how to react. But the comedian-pundit is onto something in saying that these young killers are linked by a common identity — loners and psychological drifters, feeling unappreciated, particularly by friends and definitely “girls,” and living in a society where relationships, the attainment of things seem so easy. They’re outsiders, yet they look like everyone else.
“Mass killers,” argues Maher, “are always male and almost always women repellent.” And, continues Maher, what makes it worse for these young men is America, “cause if you live in America,” he says, “it just looks like everyone is getting laid.” Sex is everywhere for sale. And, I’d add, these images of sex are also dehumanizing, especially to women.
According to Maher these young men were all crying for help — only no one seems to have noticed.
Bill Maher — Land Of The Spree (Oct 16, 2015)
Which brings us to Malcolm Gladwell. In “Thresholds of Violence,” Gladwell suggests that the school shootings, especially post-Columbine, when Harris and Klebold “laid down a cultural script for the next generation of shooters,” could be attributed to a theory developed by Mark Granovetter, four decades ago at Stanford. In short, “social processes are driven by our thresholds…the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them.”
“The first seven major shooting cases — Loukaitis, Ramsey, Woodham, Carneal, Johnson and Golden, Wurst, and Kinkel — were disconnected and idiosyncratic.” Then Columbine happened. Harris and Klebold “had a Web site. They made home movies starring themselves as hit men. They wrote lengthy manifestos. They recorded their ‘basement tapes.’ Their motivations were spelled out with grandiose specificity: Harris said he wanted to ‘kick-start a revolution.’”
Gladwell continues, “Of the eleven school shootings outside the United States between 1999 and 2007 … six were plainly versions of Columbine; of the eleven cases of thwarted shootings in the same period …all were Columbine-inspired.”
Mark Granovetter’s theory may be true here; but so is Maher’s perhaps. Both are theories, after all. What is dead certain, however, is that all these killers reside in a culture that confuses violence and the reasons for it; it confuses self-defence with animosity towards an unknown, a Monster, be these “women” or “girls” that “hate me,” as is Maher’s argument, or a Black man; it confuses a sense of retribution with the perverse notion that it is somehow tied to self-defence — I’ve been wronged by you and this is, therefore, a direct assault, a violation, an act of war. I will kill you first.
Mark Granovetter’s threshold theory, as well as Maher’s, don’t address why these killers and their followers are feeling so disenfranchised in a culture that privileges connectivity everywhere; that emphasizes a one touch gets you the world reality. The problem with Granovetter and Maher and most theories is that they are created after the fact; in other words: they are created to give a reasonable explanation to our state of affairs, the status quo. They don’t get at the reality of the situation: in a culture that experiences mass compression, at all levels, the ability to see, as Thoreau suggests — “…the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen…” — is gone, non-existent. So we must rely on a false sense of reality that comes after the tragedy and reasoned by theories created to justify our very existence.
This can only happen in a culture where privilege is not given to dialog, meaningful communication, and to creative, difficult exchanges about difficult subjects.
Might it not be more productive to engage what makes us feel we need violence at so many levels?
Might it not be more productive to engage how we might nurture each other so that we might all better benefit from the grace life affords?
Violent crime appears to be down; however, we are experiencing a rise in highly orchestrated, mass killings, and in gang-related deaths. These are the result of a harshly hierarchical culture that is hell-bent on production, not the means of production, which would require that we create fail-safe mechanisms that check in on the welfare of all people.
American culture has experienced unprecedented growth since its inception. We have witnessed great acts of empathy and selflessness. We can be proud of incredible intellectual, technical, and scientific achievement. We can also point to our American image, still, as the land of opportunity. But aggression and violence cloud these accomplishments suggesting that our successes have exacted a great cost to human happiness, to life itself. The answer to our woes is here; it’s what we need to examine, all of us.
When an animal is cornered, fearing for its life it lashes out. We’ve returned to our Paleolithic state of mind — or is it that we’ve never left it and, as Freud says, we’re just waiting for a way to display our primitive nature? Only now we have plenty of models showing us ways to display our violent nature, particularly in the U.S.; only now we live in such a compressed reality that we take for granted not having enough time to consider life itself and how it happens. It’s easier to take life away.
MORE from the Journal! Essays l Articles l Reflections l Reviews l Literacy Corner l Events
© copyright 1995-2017, Community Works Institute (CWI)
All rights reserved. CWI a non-profit educational organization
CONTENT USE POLICY No material contained within this web site may be reproduced in print, by electronic or other means, without permission. All materials contained in this web site remain the sole and exclusive property of CWI, or the author if designated by arrangement.