Anger, Compassion, Democracy, Philosophy, Political, Self, The Good, Violence

Violent failures

Texas Governor Tim Pawlenty recently said of Tiger Woods’ wife: “She said she’d had enough, and we’ve had enough,” he said. “I think we should take a nine iron and smash the windows out of big government.”

I want to dwell on the idea behind this quote, which is that violence can achieve permanent change in the nation’s best interest. The tendency to express anger and frustration in violence is powerful but deeply misguided, and I think it’s worth trying to explain why.

This issue is important for a number of reasons, but personally I often find myself deeply angry when I read the news and hear what many people think is a good answer to their and our problems (including Pawlenty). So I don’t mean sorting through Pawlenty’s comment to be just a project of negative criticism. Instead, I hope it to be a piece of a positive project: being able to turn violent anger into a productive, helpful response that indeed does match our highest standards for good action.

In the context of a democracy, one of the main reasons we believe that anger is the best way is because conversation seems to have failed. From Pawlenty’s point of view (granting its sincerity for our purposes here), violent destruction is a way of saying “I’ve had enough” in a fashion that the antagonist (Woods/big government) can’t avoid and can’t ignore. Now, since the whole point of democracy is to not resort to violence in the face of disagreement, we have to believe very strongly that what we desire is so important, so crucial to our well-being, that its absence or lack is sufficient to justify the temporary nullification of the political system we live within. In other words, whatever we want, we think it justifies us acting like we live by the sword instead of by democracy.

It seems to me that the only kind of desire that could justify abnegating democracy would be the desire for democracy itself. What I mean is that democracy constitutes one of the highest goods we have ever achieved as a human race, and to be able to live in a society without tyranny or slavery, for example, is really one of the very best things we can have. Higher vs lower tax rates, the possession of guns, the right to abortion, these are all important goods for some people, but they don’t equal in importance the ability to engage freely in political speech and action in order to determine your own government. So to kill or harm someone because of the desire for a right (no matter how justified) is to say that that right matters more than democracy itself, which is almost self-contradictory. [There are a bunch of loose threads here we could follow up on, but let’s keep plowing ahead.]

As a result, the only way smashing in the windows of big government makes sense is if Pawlenty believed “big” government somehow threatened democratic government. On the face of it, there is no direct reason why a big government is not democratic, nor that being big would clearly lead to an undemocratic government down the line. (Indeed, countries such as Sweden or Norway indicate this cannot be true in any simplistic fashion.) Now, we could either go down the path of wondering if Pawlenty does somehow believe that big government is threatening democracy (a la the Tea Party), or we could consider why it’s mistaken for anyone to think that violence for a lesser cause than democracy itself is worthwhile.

Now, since the overarching intention of living in a democracy is to not have to use violence on a regular occasion to achieve the basic necessities for life and happiness, we would have to assume that any act of violence would be a one-off event. Somehow, the people Pawlenty opposes would have to be permanently or at least reliably altered by suffering his destructive act in such a way that they continued to act according to peaceful, public discourse but now in the particular way that Pawlenty wanted. This sort of assumption makes sense for a five year old who lashes out at his parents, knowing that (if they’re loving), they wont respond in kind back to him. Instead, they’ll try to understand the source of his anger and correct it, along with punishing him with a time-out. However, outside this situation, it does not generally hold true that anyone we hurt with our actions will be so loving as to understand our reasons, try to address them, forgive us our errors, and then move on as before. Rather, much more common would be for the person we harm to suddenly view us as a threat within an otherwise peaceful world and to use any means possible to restore what they beforehand saw as an acceptable situation. The consequence of our harmful act, therefore, is to beget further actions that would normally be beyond the pale of democratic civil society.

The basic conclusion must be that in a democratic context, violence does not lead back to civil society but with certain things fixed. Violence leads ultimately away from democracy, period. It’s a mistake to think that any one person or even a whole group of people can act destructively toward others and expect that the other people will understand, fix their ways, and return to normal.

However, let us briefly occupy the position of the people so wronged by violence in order to turn this critical argument into a positive understanding. Because in fact, no matter how distasteful it may be to recognize, responding in anger to someone who hurt us is as much as a mistake as the hurtful person’s actions were in the first place. No one should expect that violence will lead ultimately to the resumption of peaceful society without difficult acts of forgiveness and contrition, and that includes victims of violence as well as its perpetrators. To turn the circle around and become a perpetrator of violence ourselves is to put aside the very good we valued in the first place in favor of a quick path to hell.

That means that each of us, ultimately, is responsible for assuming the attitude and position of the parent with respect to those who harm us. To feel anger is to possess the opportunity to build understanding and compassion with someone who is afraid and suffering from the lack of something very important to them. In this way, anger is the door to understanding what they cannot articulate in the realm of public discourse, and to solve what they feel they cannot with peaceful means. Violence does not serve as a wakeup call to those we hate except to stimulate them into further violence. Our own anger, however, can serve as a wakeup call for us to reach deeper and summon our belief in what really matters: being able to live with love and kindness in peace.

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