Insults and Violence: A Scholar’s Analysis

The wife and I have been glued to the television this week, indeed this month, watching what were once civilizations degenerate into adolescent self-promotion networks. All I can say is that when Wayne LaPierre attempts to cloak extremisms of weaponry in Second Amendment altar cloths, he makes much less progress than do the insult-slingers who have monopolized our attention for an entire month, in the name of a sadly-embarrassed First Amendment. I neither agree nor disagree with the content of the movie called “The Interview,” nor with the little bit of Charlie Hebdo available to me. What pains me is that these two purveyors of insult and iconoclasm have been mistaken for art, for journalism.

Still, shoddy stuff gets published, printed, projected all the time, and as an ordained minister, there is no question that insult and iconoclasm push my buttons. Imagine, then, my relief, to discover, on C-Span, a scholar who dives into the cold, hard framework of communal identity-building to categorize various forms of insult that play a role in the process. Karina Korostelina comes from the Crimean Ukraine but now holds forth at George Mason University, in the field of International Relations. IR was my field before ministry, but never did I approach her analytic prowess.

So here’s the link to her 90-minute seminar at the Kennan Center at the Woodrow Wilson School. Her examples don’t mean that much to me, because she feels for the former Soviet Union in a way I have never tried to approach through study or friendship. Her questioners include challengers who disagree with her characterizations of certain disputes, which shows that they do not challenge her fundamental framework. She puts insult into six categories according to the needs of the insulter, and cautions — correctly in my view — that insult forms, shapes and can direct a dynamic relationship between two parties, groups, nations. In some cases, she says, insults can substitute for violence, but in too many, insults escalate –deliberately — the pace of impending violence. Her talk was taped on 17 December 2014, and refers to the Sony film, “The Interview,” which was, in that week, being suppressed by its corporate sponsors. But somewhere in the suburbs of Paris, the assaults on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket were taking final form. Her book, her work, could not be more topical, more vital.

So, in the spirit of David Brooks, and other folks venturing cautiously to say, “Je ne suis pas Charlie” — and hastening to add that insults should not be capital crimes — I commend this scholar to you. Her new book appears to be coming soon, and she includes, in a portion of the book covered only briefly in the question-and-answer, a first attempt to distinguish between satire and insult. Being an academic tome, this book costs $50+ on Amazon. I hope that by calling attention to her work — not endorsing every word, but by offering her clear, comprehensive framework as a starting point — we can knock down its price and lift up our public conversation.

Happy New Year. Let’s see if we can correct its errant launch.

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In Defense of Demonstrating

My favorite movies explore the interplay of character and ideas. If they include history, so much the better. This explains why Politywonk is amusing herself with “Hannah Arendt”, whose topic speaks for itself. It’s a German film which makes use of footage from the actual trial of Adolph Eichmann. 

Eichmann explained himself with words that jolted back to life all the times I’ve gone out to demonstrate, petition, observe a police commission, write a letter to an editor. The words were simple, as translated in the film:

“If there had been more civic courage, things would have been different.” 

Eichmann is here explaining how he lived with a split conscience. One half maintained his personal values, of which he declared the highest one was to keep his personal oath. The other half, which he suppressed, considered what was happening and calculated the outcome of disobeying orders. 

There was no part of him which contemplated that following orders and performing as an excellent bureaucrat, he sent six million Jews to horrible deaths. For that he was hung, and probably a good thing it was.

When Arendt published “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” first in The New Yorker and then as a book, her claim that evil could manifest as banality rather than monstrosity outraged many. In reality, it simply updated the old truism of Edmund Burke, “All that it takes for evil to triumph is for good men (sic) to do nothing.”  In the movie, Arendt says that totalitarianism has accomplished the ultimate evil, which is to build environments in which human beings feel that being human is irrelevant. Punishment does not follow crimes, rewards do not follow work. I remember being told, over and over, by my politically active family — as well as by so many others — that the first crucial step is the one taken by Eichmann, in which his humanness became irrelevant to himself.

Although I often decry the tendency of Unitarian Universalists — and other bleeding hearts of every faith — to demonstrate again and again at every outrage, these demonstrations do serve the purpose of modeling the civic courage Eichmann said might have changed his strategy for survival. I support this. But a culture of demonstration lacks the tough backbone of neighbor-to-neighbor self-exposure that characterized Freedom Summer and the majority of work that I and others did against the Vietnam War and in support of La Raza and Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers. Hours and hours every week — including every Saturday morning at a large suburban Kroger’s, leafletting every shopper — were what made these efforts successful. Equal marriage has swirled onto beachheads worldwide because individuals came out to their families and those families chose to stand with them, often in spite of social ostracism.

As much as I respect the sacrifice of time and money, it doesn’t take civic courage to jump from one media event to another on a superficial basis. There’s a phrase called “Skin in the game,” which refers to this process of positioning oneself in a vulnerable social spot. This is what bothers me about demonstration culture. People get praised. People get speaking opps. Even if they go to prison, it’s not a long, tough ride. And usually, with a fine or community service, the whole event dissolves and demonstration culture starts looking for another.

Someone as superficial as Eichmann would certainly have paid attention to demonstrations. But someone so ambitious would probably not have been swayed without more than one personal conversation, more than one individual or family who stood up and got away with it.

“Civic courage.” Thank you for that phrase, Eichmann trial. It’s good to be reminded why we do what we do. It’s important to remember what it means to do it well.

Guns in Vermont

It was not my intention to write on this topic, but we’ve been reeling these last two weeks about the shame at the heart of our little paradise in America’s gun crisis. Here we sit, snug in our mountains, happy in the snow, if a bit cold, congratulating ourselves that our gun crime rate is so low that we don’t need any gun laws. Sure, we have friends and neighbors who hunt or own guns, but hey, they’re responsible, they’re careful. And they’re just hunters, eh?

And then here’s our weekly alternative newspaper reporting on what that means for the rest of the country. According to Ken Picard, an excellent reporter who once stepped in as an emergency reader for a wedding I was doing, one of the healthiest businesses in our area is an anonymous-looking building that provides those anonymous guns.

Since his report came out, there’s been much more discussion about it, and the business involved cheekily placed a “We’re Hiring” ad in Seven Days the following week. before this article came out, our City Council here in Burlington and our Senate President down in Montpelier got ridiculed — including by me — for trying to propose bans on assault weapons. Our governor flatly stated that he was looking for “a fifty state solution,” with an implication that this was no place for wasting political capital.

But I seem not to be the only Vermonter that’s been thinking it over. It tore my heart to read an article about how our guns are killing people in Massachusetts, and the illustration was a street sign was from my old Meetinghouse Hill neighborhood. And it turns out that last year we had the smallest total number of hunting licenses ever. People aren’t coming here to hunt — which hurts our economy — and locals don’t hunt as much as they used to. And my late friend, Alice, who lived to the age of 93, never fully got over the death of her oldest son, Jimmy, who at the age of 12 was accidentally shot by a friend who was showing off his father’s gun after school.

I’ve watched tons of PBS coverage this week on all aspects of “Guns in America,” and lots of C-Span with various expert and local panels. Apparently, so have a lot of other Vermonters, because here’s how we poll now on this issue, in marked contrast to any other time in our history. Here are the policy measures I support, for my state and for my nation:

1) Universal registration of all gun sales and transfers, and public access to lists of registered gun owners.

2) Prosecution of all straw purchasers as full accessories to any crime committed by a gun bought with their signature.

3) A ban on all ammunition systems and weapons that deliver more than six bullets without reloading.

4) A ban on repairing any 7+ weapon when it breaks down. You can own it until it dies, but that’s it, then you’re done. Anyone repairing a 7+ gun for another person, whether or not for money, is committing a crime, to which shall be added an accessory count for any crime in which the weapon is involved.

And what about the Second Amendment? The best presentation on that came from Dave Wheeler, whose son Benjamin, died at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Better than I can say it, he urged us to remember that it is the “second” amendment, and its rights come second to his son’s rights, to all children’s rights, to grow up, to enjoy their lives, to live. And the Founding Fathers, he opined, knew what they were doing when they made this right second and not first.

God Considers the Taxation Debate

Over the last few months, years, decades… indeed, it would appear from this literary selection, millennia … questions have been raised about the relative financial obligations of rich and poor.

Here is one of my favorite passages from the Bible.

It lacks ambiguity, which is probably why no one is quoting it during a close electoral contest.

Nathan Rebukes David (Second Book of samuel)

12 The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’

11 “This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’”

13 Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. 14 But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for[a] the Lord, the son born to you will die.”

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One difficulty in using this passage is that the form of property David is criticized for stealing is a wife. A woman. That is why the prophet Nathan recasts the ethical dilemma away from the complex realm of marriage.

Another difficulty is that David is not being punished for adultery. In fact, 1st Chronicles 3 lists multiple sons by six different wives without blinking.

 The Sons of David

3 These were the sons of David born to him in Hebron:

The firstborn was Amnon the son of Ahinoam of Jezreel;

the second, Daniel the son of Abigail of Carmel;

the third, Absalom the son of Maakah daughter of Talmai king of Geshur;

the fourth, Adonijah the son of Haggith;

the fifth, Shephatiah the son of Abital;

and the sixth, Ithream, by his wife Eglah.

These six were born to David in Hebron, where he reigned seven years and six months.

David reigned in Jerusalem thirty-three years, and these were the children born to him there:

Shammua,[a] Shobab, Nathan and Solomon. These four were by Bathsheba[b] daughter of Ammiel. There were also Ibhar, Elishua,[c] Eliphelet, Nogah, Nepheg, Japhia, Elishama, Eliada and Eliphelet—nine in all. All these were the sons of David, besides his sons by his concubines. And Tamar was their sister.

So you’re not gonna see the Left quoting this — lest we be accused of being soft on marital fidelity — and you’re certainly not gonna see the Right quoting it — since it’s soft on marital fidelity and hard on greed.

And that is why the clergy need to keep a certain distance from electoral loyalties and consequences: our job is to remember the prophets (those who have heard the voice of G-d) and as they did, speak sacred truth to worldly power.

I Know It When I See It

It’s 9:15 a.m. on the East Coast of the USA. While drinking my morning tea, as always, I caught up on the day’s headlines. All the news today all over the world stems from pretty much the same issue: cyber-bullying. And the front page of the http://www.NYTimes.com shows that I’m not the only one who thinks so: various articles explore the limits — once again –of freedom of speech. Personally, I still think Justice Holmes had it right so long ago. That’s because the mother of a friend of mine was a survivor of a real fire in a crowded theater — and 135 other people were not:

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Unregulated speech on the internet seems to be getting people killed. But no one wants to shut down the Free Market of Ideas.

My first thought is, let’s look at the dynamics of speech. It seems so simple to identify legally protected hate speech, the kind that  expresses a personal opinion.  And everybody feels hatred — it’s part of the inner mix.  If you think you’re against racism, take a look at the memes you’re sharing about The Tea Party and GOP. You think you’re among friends.

Are  you egging each other on?

 

Do you really know everyone who’s reading and sharing your post?

And what about when you express your contempt in such a way. and in such a forum, that reasonable minds might anticipate someone with less social discretion and personal self-control than yourself will see it and respond with explosive vengeance?

Would it matter if they believed they were acting in self-defense?

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Not hard to be against.

But what is it?

I asked my dictionary and thesaurus.

Is it poking?

Here are two kinds of poking.

The physical action is exactly the same.

Should we ignore the race and gender of the people involved?

If race was the first thing you noticed, the answer is no.

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Are the intentions the same?

How can you tell?

Do the likely outcomes matter?

If you can guess what they are, the answer is yes.

But really, in most cases, how CAN you guess the likely outcome?

Here is a summary of some other explorations of poking, using Poking on Facebook as a focus device.

Did You Just Poke Me?

And here’s an interesting caution about overreacting to a poke.

Poking Someone on Facebook Can Land You in Jail

And what about third-party placements that deny they intend to poke someone?

One sympathizes with Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, as she and Prince William sue to stop unauthorized photos of a private unclothed moment going public. But really, is this not somewhat trivial, in a world that’s on fire for other reasons?

What if she’s a four-year old girl whose photo has been lifted from a Facebook birthday party shot — and now has been redone for people who like to masturbate using pictures of very small children to get themselves off?

Why do these publishers really think people want to buy bare-breasted pictures of a woman famous for her public dignity? Do you think it’s any different from these folks buying baby nudes for hundreds of dollars and putting them out there?

I’m not posting photos for this group of questions, but if you want to, I’m sure you can easily find them.

Again with Facebook, one of my favorite ways of staying in touch with people.

Facebook Is Filled with Third Party Aps.

And apparently now you also have to specify to Facebook that you don’t want it to share your “Likes” of products or services in advertising you might not be aware of.

Admittedly, this is pesky rather than dangerous. I get annoyed when I have to delete posts telling me who shopped where over the weekend. 

But is it only a nuisance? Since Facebook started using unauthorized third party “likes,” I have started instinctively wondering, when I see a “like” from other people, whether they really hit a button to recommend this product. Part of me worries that a moment of exuberance on their timeline just got raided.

The integrity of their name has been diluted, even with someone like me, who checks in with them several times daily.

Would it be unreasonable to guess that cutting into the value of what someone says to their friends would make them mad?

Which brings me back to my primary question:

What is the difference between playful pokes (some people say there’s no such thing) and the taunting, goading speech and gestures whose easily-anticipated outcome is violence by the recipient against the party they blame for jabbing them?

And if your only reason to feel safe from a violent response is that you believe this target to be too physically far away, or highly restrained in their character and actions, have you done anything different from taunting, goading, poking other folks with known propensities to violence?

Isn’t this why the Israeli right insists on a massive military response to every threat of violence to their homeland: so no one will ever again mistake the Jews for people who will let themselves be victims?

If so, this suggests that all of us ought to be willing to sometimes respond to goads and taunts not with pacifism, but with violence.

The other alternatives are, setting and enforcing regulations on all forms of free speech — or accepting that the nicest folks will always be the ones who get attacked.