c king commented on Breaking the Will to Do Evil 2016-08-27 20:07:12 -0400I had an insight some years ago that those of us from the middle class who can most clearly recognize the violent nature of capitalism, or the ravages of ecocide, and then be inclined to fight against it, are more likely to be abuse survivors or somehow otherwise marginalized citizens. Just as the example of a battering parent or spouse demonstrates, the ubiquitous violence in our culture seeks to disguise its true nature behind rationales and repetition, until all the signs of it become normalized. It becomes invisible. People who have experienced violent abuse firsthand can more readily see past the denial, especially if they’ve had the benefit of some form of treatment or support. But even for recovering victims, developing an eye for it takes time and a growing willingness to acknowledge unpleasantness, which most are reluctant to do, especially if it doesn’t seem to change anything. Facing certain hard truths often makes life more difficult than it was before, in fact, not better. There’s no pay off. It’s obviously easier to pretend we live in that mythological land of love and peace we’re told we inhabit.
I’ve been doing an informal survey since Occupy, which seems to confirm my hunch. My activism experience has been paralleled by personal experience within my family, namely with a beloved older sister who is still in denial about the abusive nature of our mother. Even though I can see a compelling need to believe in a happier version of the story than we actually experienced as children, it’s still hard for me to accept her inability to admit the truth about our family. Our dad was rarely home (who could blame him?) and when he was, he was drunk. Being adopted, I was the one who bore the brunt of our mother’s rage. I was the family scapegoat, which in turn led to rebellion, which became its own justification for more abuse. My mother didn’t stop beating me until I was 14, when I finally grew big enough to threaten her with a cocked fist. I don’t advocate violence either, but I do know that the threat of it was the only thing that stopped her.
I devoted many adult years to therapy and a deep search for understanding. My experience has somehow given me not only the strength to face the truth, but an insatiable, abiding hunger for it, while my sister, who was the apple of my mother’s eye and a more or less perfect vision of middle class virtue, has not been able to comprehend that the long-term effects of a violent upbringing are with us still. Even though I’ve encouraged her to remember our past, believing it’s beneficial to be honest about it, she is very resistant. My two sisters may have only been mute witnesses to our mother’s battering of me, but I can see traces of our collective past in the choices we’ve all made these many years later. My big sister is now 65, an avowed spiritual seeker. Yet, she will not deal with the shadows; only the “light” makes it past her censors. She seems terrified of knowing the truth. In other respects, she’s a very inquisitive, open and intelligent person. But when it comes to us, we’re the model for duality. She herself is the personification of positive goodness… while I don’t get such kind treatment. I’m “negative.” Why? For audaciously acknowledging the things she dare not.
I’ve elaborated more than I’d planned to because I see a real correlation here. This mirrors a lot of conversations I’ve had, or tried to have, with middle class friends about politics and activism. People don’t want to know. Like my sister, they actually try to turn the conversation around so that I’m the bad one for even bringing it up. Well, it is some comfort to know that I’m not the only truth-teller ever accused of being “negative!” It’s a terrible sin in our society these days to criticize power. Freethinking is not exactly encouraged. What’s more, you might get your head shot off or get thrown in prison if you’re not careful. They’re watching the company you keep.
When it comes to advancing the struggle for actual, effective change, what I’ve written might help explain my reluctance to rely on or expect much from people raised in the American middle class, people for whom class is also a taboo subject. Others who are already engaged in diverse human rights campaigns seem a better place to find like-minded people for building coalitions or unity, such as #blacklivesmatter. We don’t have to explain, or have to prove to most Blacks or Native Americans or LGBT activists that our culture is rapacious, or why Hillary Clinton is not an option, Trump notwithstanding. She will never be rich enough to stop stumping for oil and gas empiricism.
I know this is likely to anger some younger middle class activists, and in your defense, I would add that these days, younger people are much more aware than your parents, who are likely from my generation. In our defense, please remember that we had the singular good fortune to have grown up during the one great flowering of real equality in our history, or something that looked an awful lot like it to us, so it’s not an abstract notion. We don’t want our bubbles burst or our well-earned (we are told) comforts called into question.
I will only add one final note, and it’s pertinent to my understanding of this issue. I think it lends a note of universality. This is about another leftist filmmaker from the era I was just discussing:
“The late 1960s and early 1970s were the era of the so-called “student movement.” Pasolini, though acknowledging the students’ ideological motivations, thought them “anthropologically middle-class” and therefore destined to fail in their attempts at revolutionary change."
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