“How do people who are starving go on a hunger strike? How do people who have no money boycott goods?” – Arundhati Roy, Field Notes on Democracy
Violence is a question which comes up almost inevitably when working with young people. As a teacher, mentor and tutor I’ve had to break up plenty of fights, many of them physical. Raised as I was, a middle-class person of color, I would often attempt to address these interactions through discussion and reflective mediation. In the conversations following altercations I would ask students what they thought the best way was to handle a conflict in our community–be it a classroom, school or other setting. This I hoped would help get students thinking about empathy, the kinds of relationships they wanted our community to be built with, and their role in nurturing them.
These conversations were sometimes a positive step towards fostering such thinking between students, addressing conflicts at their roots and encouraging students to take responsibility for the wellbeing of their own communities. Yet they were just as often ineffective, adding to students’ agitation and furthering the conflict. It were these failed attempts at resolution that often forced me to confront violence in our community in ways I had never been made to before.
Often in asking students to deal with conflict peaceably, responses would be, “My mother told me if someone hits me to hit them back,” or, “I’ll get in more trouble if I don’t hit them than if I do.” It became obvious that my approaches and assumptions about physical violence were not the same as many of my students, their families, and our larger community. After talking, I started to think more about what impact my upbringing had on my understanding of and ability to sidestep violence in my own life. I started to think about why I had been discouraged from fighting to resolve problems, both at home and at school, and why this had largely worked for me. I thought about family members of mine from different economic backgrounds who, while I had always abided by the rules of school, were suspended regularly for getting into physical fights. I thought about the complex range of reasons why someone might be encouraged to fight–from violent masculinity, to parenting, to the need for survival of their own surroundings–and how schooling does a very poor job of recognizing or engaging any of these. Just like the larger criminal justice system to which it is so inexorably tied, the immediate and obvious tactics employed by oppressed people to navigate the structures which oppress them is precisely what school targets for punishment, labeling them as the most offensive kinds of infraction.
In a recent talk on Indian economic history and the current struggles raging in the Kashmir region, Arundhati Roy spoke about the middle-classing and institutionalizing of feminism, and the complex nature of armed resistance. Non-violence, a political approach so associated with and romanticized in India’s past, is a tactic which requires a middle class, Roy argued. Non-violence on the part of the oppressed, she said, is only effective when there is a middle class to witness it, be made aware of injustice through its performance, and lean on their own power to sway economic and social tides. When a middle class isn’t watching, is distracted, doesn’t exist, or is otherwise uninvested in the struggles of the poor, non-violence is useless, and may even be deadly:
The debate about armed resistance versus non-violence, that one is moral and one is immoral, is really absurd, because…it’s immoral for [middle class] people who are in Delhi to tell a person whose village is being surrounded by a thousand security guards and burned and the women are being raped to be non-violent. It’s an immoral suggestion unless you are willing to go there and act in their defense…And while academics and historians and writers and journalists like to lay their morality on people, people, I have seen, can be Moaists in the forests and Gandhian in the street.
I have been thinking lately in conjunction with all of these points about the difference between violence and militancy–the difference between action which is destructive, and action which works consciously to destroy debasing and unjust systems. What will it take for us to imagine and create the ways of organizing that will be meaningful, effective and true to the vision of our communities, and how do we build them collectively, with every single member invested and involved? What role in this do parents and teachers have? What Roy’s talk suggests is not that non-violence is impotent or wrong, but that it is a tactic more than a philosophy. Sometimes it is useful, and sometimes other kinds of action are needed. Every day, oppressed people make their own decisions about what type of action will work for them, their families, their communities. It is this wisdom and understanding which our movements must learn to rely on.
This discussion is relevant for myself as an educator, because I need to think more deeply about the kind of action and political engagement I am making possible for the communities I teach with. I want to build healthy, communicative, supportive relationships in my classroom, my neighborhood, and wherever else I am doing work. But I also want to respect the wishes and perspectives of every member of my community, and teach the next generation militance, encourage young people to envision their own means of living, resisting and surviving in ways that have never occurred to me. How do we diverge from a status quo of sexist, racist and classist violence while encouraging militancy and resistance? How do we challenge systems of domination in ways which are sustainable, and authentic to ourselves?
Special thanks to Caitlin Sheehan.