51: The heart of the matter

The willow submits to the wind and prospers until one day it is many willows—a wall against the wind

Key-west Dove from Birds of America (1827) by John James Audubon, etched by William Home Lizars.

I was talking in therapy the other day about anger and how it can be both a positive and a negative force in our lives, and how even fully righteous anger frequently turns destructive, especially coming from white guys like yours truly. (The writer Anoosh Jorjorian wrote a good post on this topic, reminding her white allies that “our anger isn’t yours. It doesn’t belong to you.”) I think there’s a tendency among both media people and people on the left to come off as especially angry or snarky or sometimes downright seething, almost as a point of pride. I think in my own writing or just in daily life, I’m wary of my tendency to have this kind of ah you know what fuck this guy attitude if I see someone as enabling harm or holding up progress in some way, which can honestly be a daunting array of individuals at which to focus my rage.

Sometimes expressing anger is a very appropriate course correction, an attempt to get to some emotional honesty, and some of us are unquestionably entitled to that anger, see above. But I also recognize a danger in overindulging the you know what fuck that guy attitude, because in any democratic society or even social movement, we have to exist in the same spaces as a lot of people who have done or believed some very shitty things (sometimes those people are even ourselves!). So we get this tension between burning righteous anger and wanting to hold people accountable for antisocial actions, and the reality of how society has to function but also how social change happens.

Two ways that people reconcile this conflict are through the related theories of nonviolence and restorative justice, which I’ve been thinking about a lot this week. These practices are usually framed in terms of confronting state violence and criminal activity, respectively. But they have much to offer in helping us make the pivot from anger toward a version of true justice, in the way they shift focus from force and punishment and toward healing a rift in community.

I wrote a while back about nonviolent resistance in the work of Erica Chenoweth, but I’m trying to learn more about the philosophy itself and am currently reading Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community. This topic has also been on my mind this week while listening to interviews with Bryan Stevenson and sujatha baliga, and reading an article by Ezra Klein (sorry this is one is kind of heavy on Ezra Klein, who Jamie lovingly refers to as my boyfriend) about what a nonviolent state might look like. A couple of concepts in these texts really jumped out.

The first is that nonviolence and restorative justice (I’m going to use them both in the same breath a lot even though they are different things you’ll just have to google it sorry) are both often mistakenly thought of as philosophies of passivity—of not doing anything. Not punishing. Not challenging. Not fighting. But nonviolence is different from simply not being violent, and in fact, you could be a practitioner of nonviolence while not even being morally opposed to the use of violence. That’s because, as Klein puts it, nonviolence, “is a strategic confrontation with other human beings.” A tool you choose because it is powerful in disarming those who do harm. Similarly, restorative justice is not defined by a lack of holding people responsible. Rather, it is a move away from punishment, namely incarceration, and toward achieving accountability and making whole again those who have been harmed—both the direct victim of the crime and the community.

In both cases, they are attacks on the flawed practices of state violence and incarceration, both of which create greater harm than they prevent. There’s substantial empirical evidence that both practices are more effective than violence and incarceration in preventing future acts of violence. In other words, we’re not talking about merely turning the other cheek, although that may be what it involves in practice, but about repairing a problem.

So that’s one thing to recognize—just because you’re not striking out in anger doesn’t mean you’re not confronting wrongs being committed.

Another is that both practices emphasize achieving justice, in part, through bringing an opponent or non-ally into a community that is seeking it, which is a really powerful and practical concept. As sujatha baliga points out, restorative justice acknowledges that, even in an incarceral state like the US, the perpetrator of a crime is not forever removed from society. We have to live with them, so the goal instead is to make it so they won’t hurt others in the future.

Similarly, King, writing in 1967 when civil rights activists including himself were losing patience with white moderates and false allies, insists that justice cannot be achieved for Black Americans without white Americans. He describes a “double lock of peaceful change,” with one key in the hands of the Black community and the other in the hands of the white community, and quotes Baldwin telling his nephew that “white Americans are your lost, younger brothers.” Just as the fates of the perpetrator and the victim are intertwined, in America, King suggests, so are the fates of the oppressor and the oppressed.

Bryan Stevenson makes it clear that a focus on healing does not mean shrugging off injustice. For Stevenson, a mandatory step on the way to reconciliation is truth-telling, something that the United States is particularly bad at when it comes to its past atrocities, as evidenced by our future school curriculum about how awesome America is. And even after truth-telling, there are many steps along the way before we reach forgiveness.

These ideas have been around for a very long time, but I’ve been thinking about how important they are when we are so extremely angry at out neighbors, for very good reason, and how these lessons can be applied to many social movements. In the fight for racial justice or climate action or public health, the change that is necessary can’t be achieved without making allies of people who were once your opponents, or at least non-allies. The math just doesn’t work, otherwise. That is a hard reality to face, and activists often resist it with all their might. White activists, in particular, often don’t want to organize middle-class white people or rural people, or work with peers we believe are too moderate or have flawed politics or are otherwise problematic. And I know not everyone’s offenses are equal and not everyone will or should be an ally. But as Chris Crass says, “We need millions of people in motion for justice and we are going to bring all of our contradictions with us. If you don’t want messy, you don’t want mass.”

In the words of seminal restorative justice thinker Don Henley, I’m still trying to get down to the heart of the matter, and my will gets weak and my thoughts seem to scatter, but I think it’s about forgiveness. But maybe not forgiveness right away. First confrontation, truth-telling, and accountability. Then maybe we can close the rift.


Links

  • Excited that Michelle Wu is running for mayor of Boston. As city councilor, she campaigned to make the MBTA free, abolish the BPDA, and cut police funding.

  • A National Guard whistleblower revealed that when responding to racial justice protestors in DC, federal officials stockpiled ammunition and tried to get access to a “heat ray” previously deemed unethical to use in war zones.

  • The Age of Megafires

  • Trump’s environmental rollbacks so far will result in additional climate change emissions equivalent to what Germany, Britain, and Canada combined put out in a year.

  • There is a feeling of “impending doom” in Boston about the approach of winter. “Anybody who says they aren’t feeling anxiety or depression right now is lying to you.”

  • OK so this is a criticism of the media’s coverage of Trump but it is also a scorching assessment of the overall state of the union. “It’s a country with the world’s highest GDP, where 40 million people live below the poverty line. The only industrialised nation on the planet without universal healthcare, any real social welfare system or decent retirement provisions. The only free nation where 1 in 40 adults are behind bars and which has more guns in circulation than people living within its borders.”


Reading

My friends I have to tell you one problem I have is that there are approximately 1 million books I need to read and I just do not have time to read them and I also do not read fast enough. All of this is complicated by my decision to finally get around to reading Frank Herbert’s Dune, which is like 600 pages of mostly made up words, but you know what here we go. When I am done I look forward to telling people that I liked the movie better.

I’ve only just started it, but here’s a nice Crisis Palacey quote: “That which submits rules… The willow submits to the wind and prospers until one day it is many willows—a wall against the wind. This is the willow’s purpose.”


Comics

Megahex, by Simon Hanselmann.


Listening

Ice-T was recently on Marc Maron’s podcast, and it was a good interview and reminded me of when I was a suburban teen in Phoenix listening to West Coast rap and Ice-T was my favorite. New Jack Hustler is probably my favorite track, but I feel like this one is very much on theme these days, a song from 1991 by his then-side project, Body Count, which is still recording and touring today. This song, as you might imagine, has explicit lyrics.


Speaking of anger, the other evening I was on the couch after a long day and I was like, you know what, I’ve never listened to that Metallica record St. Anger that everyone hates so much because the snare sounds awful so I put it on in my headphones. It was, in fact, pretty awful so for a palate cleanser I put on Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All from 1983 and bizarrely fell asleep on the first track. I woke up a little later with it still on and was so disoriented it was like I was coming out of a fever. What a strange nap, can’t say I recommend.

I do recommend naps in general though. In fact, once you’ve finished this week’s newsletter, close your eyes, take a couple of deep breaths, and try to drift away for a little while. As I am just about to hit send, it looks as though some new wave of dark shit is erupting out there, so right in this minute, just think about those key west doves at the top of the email and let it all go. You keep carrying around that anger, it will eat you up inside.

Tate

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