Tobi Hill-Meyer

Violence Runs Deep

Filed By Tobi Hill-Meyer | March 26, 2009 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: flame wars, nonviolence

Bil's Read This post last week erupted into a large flame war. Conversations like this one are always hard for me to step into, emotions are so high and people are very rarely listening or willing to reconsider the assumptions that have already been made. I'm glad that thread has died down and I don't want to start it up again. If you want to continue the shouting match and argue who is at fault for what, please comment on that thread, not here. But I've seen that post discussed in half a dozen blogs, each with comment counts from 50 and 300. This has definitely touched a nerve, and the issues brought up in the post last week go far beyond who did what wrong or engaging debates of blame.

Advocating Violence is Never Okay.

This was the main concern of several people in that discussion thread, but I have to wonder, in a society built so deeply upon violence is it possible to remove it or advocacy of it from our lives? We might want to hold ourselves to a higher standard than the rest of the world, but to do so requires consistency. And that includes considering the violence inherent in law enforcement, the violence embedded in our language, and of course, the physical and non-physical violence in all systems of oppression.

What is Violence?

There are, of course, lots of different kinds of violence. Sometimes certain kinds of violence get privileged as okay while others are condemned. I learned this in elementary school where physically harming another student, even in self defense, would get me in trouble. But verbally prodding at them and taking apart their self esteem was okay. Similarly, I've had the fact that I've been in an abusive relationship minimized because the abuse was not physical.

Non-physical violence can harm, this much is clear. There are more gradations we can make, though. Calling someone an idiot or a buffoon is often considered par for the course of online blogs. But hostilely brandishing derogatory slurs can get you banned. That's because violence has a much greater impact when it coincides systemic oppression. If you refer to a cis man as a woman he might be insulted, but he can go back to his life knowing no one actually believes it and that his gender will be respected. If you refer to a trans man as a woman, however, not only will you be compounding all the other times his gender was disrespected, but you might cause others to begin disrespecting his gender as well.

Last week's comment was hardly the first instance of violence typed onto the pages of Bilerico. Just off the top of my head I can recall dozens of instances of name calling, several purposeful misgenderings, a post titled with an anti-trans woman slur, and a few folks claiming that an individual deserved to be raped because he was kinky and a sex worker. Previously, these things have been considered okay either because they were not directed at an individual, not involving physical violence, or directed at an individual who doesn't frequent this blog.

Figuring out where to draw this line can be difficult. From a practical standpoint alone, moderating every comment in which someone is called stupid or an idiot would be quite burdensome and there would definitely be people who disagree with such a policy. But should we do it anyway or only ban derogatory insults? Should we make distinctions between inappropriate behaviors against someone who frequents the blog versus public figures who don't? Is it worse to support or advocate violence against a group or an individual? And more importantly, what do we do to rectify the situation when someone crosses the established boundaries. This is not rhetorical, I encourage discussion on these questions.

Violence begets violence

It is easy to speak out against violence which impacts you and your friends, but it is much harder to silence the urge to retaliate when those we care about are threatened. I am myself ambivalent. I am not certain if it is inappropriate to hurt those who target us with violence. If attacked on the street, you can bet that I'm going to fight back. But if advocating violence truly is never okay, then fighting back or using violence to subdue those who would hurt us is still not okay.

From this perspective, what someone has done or is doing to you is irrelevant. Lashing out at them is not okay. Nothing that the HRC has done can justify or excuse violence targeted against them. It's not that hard a position to get behind. Most of us want to see an end to the violence and I'm assuming a lot of people's motivation behind their comments were simply that.

Punching a queer basher is one thing, but responding with violence when you are not immediately threatened crosses a line for a lot of people. Yet if we take a moment to think about this there are all kinds of ways we use violence to retaliate against others - often with the intention to prevent them from being able to hurt us further. In fact, that is the main idea behind the criminal justice system.

I imagine some people reading this don't believe the HRC has ever done anything wrong, other's might think that their actions are inappropriate but not at the level of queer bashing, still others believe that their policies and actions have caused much more damage to many more people than one random street beating. You don't have to agree, but I urge everyone who hasn't already to take a moment and consider that last perspective. If a large institution was forcing you as well as more and more of your friends into the streets and other dangerous living situations, and the risks you were taking to survive were causing several of your friends to turn up dead, would you hold them less accountable than the random queer basher? Would you consider retaliation against them? You don't have to believe that's what's actually happening to understand the perspective of those who do. And those who see the stakes at that level will not easily be persuaded by calls to non-violence when they see continued violence perpetrated against them.

Further, using the threat of a gun to force people into bondage and dragging them away, strip searching them, and locking them up is generally considered violence. Yet many consider it perfectly acceptable behavior for the police. In fact, most people see it as a necessary response to violent individuals. "Never" is a very absolute word. If it is true that there is no excuse for violence, then police violence - even the routine violence that is enacted when law enforcement follows their policies - is not okay. The further violence that police, prisoners, and prison guards regularly enact against oppressed populations and trans women of color in particular is even more deplorable. We must be aware that this is violence that occurs every time someone is detained in police custody, regardless of whether they are being charged with a crime, prosecuted, or found guilty. Personally, I'm likely to call the police if I'm assaulted, but I'm aware that doing so means responding to violence with violence.

Violent Language

Rather than retaliate physically, many people choose to increase the violence in the words that they use to display frustration and anger. I remember my years in kindergarten and early elementary school were filled with angry statements like "I'm going to kill you," when it was clear that no one involved was considering physical violence or even understood how to kill someone. Saying "I'm going to kill you" was simply the best language we had to express an extreme amount of frustration, anger, or rage. It was so commonplace that I was startled when I got older and realized that the phrase was generally considered by adults to be a threat of violence if not a death threat. Despite the fact that it is rather literally a threat of death, we had become used to it as a phrase or idiom that held no real threat or violent intent.

Violence is so much a part of the foundations of the world's dominant cultures that it can be hard to remove it from our language. Simple statements such as "Fight Prop 8" frame our concerns in a conflict where we violently oppose our oppressors even when we don't intend to express violence. I've heard movie lines of "This means war" or teams discussing how they are going to "murder" their opponents all without any intention of actually killing anyone. Just the same way my childhood classmates and I were unaware of the violence unintentionally expressed in our language.

A lot of violent expressions are used as metaphors. In fact, that was my first thought when I read the original comment full of angry phrases like "head on a platter" or "head on a pike." While both phrases are rooted in literal beheadings, they have become a part of common language to reference punishment and public display of punishing those who have wronged us. Violent yet empty threats have become so much a part of our language that there is even a place for them in AIMspeak: DIAF - Die in a Fire.

Because of this, the legal system often enforces laws around threats with a very subjective and strict eye for grammar. I might see "I want to see you dead" and "I'm going to kill you" as very similar, but the law sees them as worlds apart. This I have learned from my college where I endured a death threat and several awkwardly phrased descriptions and jokes of how I might be subjected to hypothetical sexual violence. Remembering that experience, I understand how much of an impact violent language can have and why many were so adamant in their denouncement of violent language vaguely targeted at a contributor -- one of our own. In my case, however, hundreds of people and a dozen progressive rights organizations came together to defend the freedom of speech to make such violent "jokes," and the police refused to act so long as physical violence did not occur.

Of course, it's also possible that the victim matters and that threats made against a trans woman are more easily seen as "jokes" while threats made by trans women might be taken very seriously.

Is It Possible?

Given how pervasive violence is in our language, behavior, and our options for responding to violence, holding to an absolute standard that advocating violence is never okay seems difficult. I'm tempted to say it's an impossible battle... um, cause. But I'm a big fan of many other impossible causes. I don't expect to see an end to racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia within my grandchildrens' lifetimes, but I still fight... um, work... to end those systems every day.

Figuring out a way to elevate the dialog in an online community like this blog is admirable. We already tend to have very amiable discussions here (outside of the occasional flame war... um, shouting match). I've noticed people willing to rethink their assumptions and actually listen to criticisms rather than get defensive. Not all the time, of course, but more often than a lot of other online spaces. Asking folks to cut out the DIAF-type responses seems very in line with encouraging that type of discussion. But as we can plainly see from the chatter in the blogosphere, there are a few more details than that to work out. In addition to crafting a better policy, though, people are always welcome to aim for a higher standard. And no matter what official policy is, there will always be a higher standard that we can aspire to than what is practically possible through enforcement. Whatever standard you see as most appropriate, strive to follow it consciously. It is only fair that we hold ourselves to the same standard we ask of others, and that we keep to it even when others refuse.

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Marja Erwin | March 27, 2009 1:04 PM

I am a police torture survivor.

I asked myself how people could do such things. Of course, the structure of the police force, the illusion of legitimacy, and the reality of impunity make it easy for brutal officers to act, and hard for other officers to refuse to act against the same victims. A small minority of police officers commits the vast majority of police violence, but the force, as a whole, enables that minority.

I am personally unwilling to call for violence, but individual violence is far less dangerous than organized, institutional violence.

I had some qualms about my name change. Does every use of the court system legitimate violence? I don't think so.

It's unfortunate that all too many people are. I think there is something in how the system is set up that encourages such behavior. As they say, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. There are far too few checks on police power and complaints are often dismissed.

As for the court system, I'd say that criminal justice is very different than civil court. And using those court systems is sometimes a matter of survival. Alternatives are nice when you have them, but sometimes you don't.

Um, wow. That was quite a post, Tobi.

I'm a survivor of abuse, too: relationship abuse and the violence that comes with growing up transgender. Your words resonate with me, because the violence that I've experienced has also brought me to a place where I question how useful violence really is in the larger scheme of things.

On a daily basis, I encounter some pretty ignorant things said about trans people even in the most progressive of environments. The well of anger those comments access is deep. Years and years of abuse filled that well to the brimming point. Not surprisingly, my first response to these comments is to want to say some extremely nasty things. Believe me when I say I understand the kind of anger that brings a person to ask for someone's head on a platter.

Releasing that kind of anger—or as you pointed out, violence—can certainly have the potential to make me feel better in the short term. In the long run, however, I've found that interacting with people that way can leave me in a space of alienation and isolation. Extreme anger can do that, whether you express it, both barrels blazing, or swallow it and smile. Consequently, I usually swallow the violent words and try my best to respond in a calm, measured way while still being honest about my feelings.

Even so, as I said, I empathize with the anger that lives behind the controversial words that started this whole discussion. It takes a lot of abuse and hurt to bring a person to that place.

In my school transcripts, after primary school but long before Duke there is mention of an Industrial School for Girls located at Sean McDermott Street in Dublin. It's common name was the "Gloucester Street Laundry."

There, women totally broken and subservient to the misogyny of the heirarchy of the Roman Catholic Church tortured and broke young women who led lives that were in perceived defiance of the strictures of Roman Catholicism. Yeilding in some fashion to our feminine natures, we were intrinsically immoral or at grave moral risk.

I know all about torture, physical and mental, some of by sister Magdalens became acquainted with sexual torture as well.

It is why I so readily embraced the nurturing, proection and celebration of that force of creation on many levels of existence that is unique to women.


That said, to embrace the kind of silencing of thought and violent suppression f difference that the Church imposed upon us would be on its' face a rejection of the Esprit Feminine that I profess to cherish and therefore that kind of action is anathema to me morally, spiritually and ethically.

Mary Daly, in Amazon Grace, pointed out quite directly the dangers of assuming the tools of the oppressor and the methods of the oppressor.

Great post.

I'm thinking that completely avoiding violence is impossible, but some people definitely do try and I give them credit.

Although the "Advocating violence is never OK" line does ring a little hollow not a decade after the editorial pages of most of the major papers in this country as well as most Serious Opinionators were advocating a war in Iraq that's killed an estimated 1 million people now. Apparently we do accept some advocacy of violence.

You might want to look into some of the theory and study of decolonization. It's way too big a subject to get into here, but does take an extended look at the societal changes since colonialism and how those evolving attitudes still affect our institutions and still need to change for a multicultural world. It seems sort of like trying to fight bigotry on the level of semiotic theory and isn't going to win us progress tomorrow, but does provide some insight into long-range problems and solutions

Ahh, decolonization. I've been getting more and more interested in the thoery, and already piecing together a basic understanding based on what folks have told me. Could you recommend any foundational articles or books? Any reading you've found particularly insightful or compelling? I've glanced at the literature, but am having a hard time figuring out where to start. as some of the writing on the topic greatly varies in focus.

A good start is Paolo Friere's "The Pedagogy of the Oppressed" (although he refers to it as "conscientization" -- the book was written in the early 1970s). For something more modern (and clinical), there's Linda Tuhiwai Smith: "Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples"

There's a lot written on specific struggles, but remarkably little that takes a universal look. Most searches on "decolonization" will talk specifically about the end of British colonialism, which shows only one example, and one that's often glossed over to erase many of the ugly aspects.

There's a lot to be gleaned from each different instance though, as they all can vary greatly, and yet similar roots emerge. We see it in the differences between African-American civil rights and GLBT civil rights. In the same way, there are vast differences and nuances in application from the plight of First Nations, Chechnya and Puerto Rico -- and yet some of the same causes can be found. And before people start complaining that Puerto Rico is a poor example, one of the basic points of decolonization is getting past the questions of who is the "most marginalized" and feeling out roots of oppression and potential oppression and confronting them at their origins on a universal scale.

Unfortunately, people don't realize that ours is more than a case of fighting for one set of civil rights. To think that this is something that has to be fought universally (albeit systematically, so the course we're on now does help) and takes lifetimes is too discouraging a proposal for people to accept. Plus, it calls upon us to search out our own prejudices, and we don't like to think that we have them. But legislation is only part of the battle. The other part is changing hearts and minds, and lines of reasoning (which requires strategization, persistence and endless repetition) -- and we all know how long that takes.

ENDA is legislation, and important but limited (for example, even if it's illegal to fire you for being GLB or T, you still have to prove beyond a doubt that that's why you were fired). Inclusive diversity training, anti-bullying policies... these have the potential to have a more lasting effect, especially when we understand the global nature of oppression and challenging not just the prejudices themselves, but also the roots (economic dependency, climates of shame, etc).

We need to change the "melting pot" mentality -- which for us is "why can't they be straight like the rest of us?" and which for First Nations people is "why can't they just get jobs and get with white society like the rest of us?" White colonialism brought the belief that people need to conform to white faiths, white economies, white traditions and concepts (one man plus one woman marriage; gender binary).... (And to be fair, in other parts of the world where whites are minorities, other cultures do it too -- whites are not the only culprits, but they have been the most common perpetrators in recent history).

Sorry. I didn't mean to turn this into a preachy rant, and will stop there.

Back to the original question, some other options for reading (although many specific to First Nations studies):

Beautiful post, Tobi.

I may have to rethink calling arguments flamewars!

This post rings very true - and a lot of what Tobi brings up did go into my thinking on the comment section.

Thankfully since this hasn't devolved into the flame war the other post did, I'd like to explain my thinking:

1) If someone threatened violence on Bilerico Project and it actually happened in real life, I would never survive the emotional torment of knowing I might have contributed to the violence.

2) I've objected to every war the US has entered for as long as I've been alive.

3) I've survived physically violent relationships - including one where the fight turned so severe I broke his arm and he held me to the floor with his teeth so he could smash a lamp into my face.

4) I've been harassed by rednecks, raped while homeless and beaten severely by homophobes.

Advocating violence - especially in my own "home" - is not something I'm willing to tolerate. Period.

There is a difference between telling someone to DIAF (which I had to look up!) and literally saying, "I'm going to kill you now." However, in today's world we are connected to people we don't know any more than screennames on a computer screen. Violent shootings and attacks happen daily around the world and several lately were announced on the internet beforehand. You simply can't know what's really going on in the person's head.

As in Tobi's case, the police though the threats against her weren't serious enough. Tobi, obviously, thought otherwise. By castigating the police as ineffective and uninterested, in the same situation that caused this post, I'd be the police while the guest contributor would be Tobi. Why is it horrible not to ensure Tobi's safety (as should have happened) but would be okay not to ensure the guest blogger's? It's not two faces of the same coin, it's the same coin.

Saying I would assist a police investigation if someone committed violence and announced it here first is the same as calling the cops after someone is gay bashed. In this case, I had no idea the commenter was a person of color and this has been used a red herring to accuse me racism, etc. The simple truth is all races, genders, gender identities and sexual orientations are quite capable of committing violence against each other. I don't care the qualifier, if you're advocating violence I'm not going to approve the comment.

I know it smacks of privilege, but as it's my blog and I've so often been the one to receive the attacks, this is where I've drawn the line. I refuse to implicitly condone violent acts against someone.

I tried to avoid discussing the specifics of the whole conflict so as to avoid restoking the fire. But I think you'd appreciate hearing that I understood where you were coming from. I know you get really protective of your community and especially of the contriubtors here on Bilerico. I understood you were acting out of that instinct and it makes me feel that much better about being a part of this project.

The fact that you'd be willing to cooperate with police that show up at your door after violence has occured or if they have a subpeaona for the information -- a detail that wasn't clear originally and has still been lost in some folks' confused frustration -- is entirely reasonable. Like I said, after violence has occured, I'd probably go to the police myself. The point that I've been trying to make, though, is that going to the police, even if they never step out of line, is asking someone to respond violently in your defense.

So the part that I believe you are missing is that when you say that you'd gladly send the police after someone crosses this line, many people interpret that as advocating violence. A form of violence many here would support, but an advocation of violence nonetheless. It's forcing people to fall into line by letting them know that if they cross this line armed thugs will come to their house to take them away, and will likely beat them up if they try to escape.

The issue is, the violence of the legal system might be okay according to general societal consensus, but what makes it okay? If some violence is okay and other violence is not okay, it's important to have a clear distinction of what the difference is. Otherwise, people begin to think that your schema is only that violence against those you care about is not okay but violence is okay if it's directed against those you don't care about (i.e. those who make violent threats, with the exception of threats of using the legal system).