Is Violence Cultural?


As the #YesAllWomen hashtag trended over the weekend, I tweeted out a few of my own. In response to one of my tweets [about having been menaced on 3 separate campuses by male students who were antagonized by the low grades or critical evaluations that I gave], a friendly tweep asked whether my experiences could be ascribed to a culture of violence. It was an important question, and I didn’t respond as 140 characters seemed to be rather limiting. I want to think through one part of that question here. But I want to note: my comments are not a reflection on my friendly interlocutor; rather, I’m trying to explore my concern about the phrase.

I’m always surprised when the words ‘violence’ and ‘culture’ are placed in close proximity. Much like the phrase “social construction of race,” the notion of a “culture of violence” seems to create an artificial stopping point at what should be the beginning of an analysis. These days, the phrase ‘social construction of race’ indicates a moment in the political development of theories of race rather than some meaningful insight in itself. Similarly, the notion of a ‘culture of violence’ is often the description given to explain the pro-gun discourse that marks the US in international lights, or the massacres that seem to be occurring with increasing frequency in the United States. The most recent one to come to public attention was the one that a young man, Elliot Rodgers, carried out a few days ago. The phrase ‘culture of violence,’ seems to be immediately problematic in several ways. First, it obscures the specificity of various kinds of violence (a shooting in cold blood versus a woman who shoots at an ex-lover in self-defense; a serial massacre by a young man versus a military massacre of a village). I’m not suggesting that they are all horrific or heinous. Rather, I want to suggest that the level and quality of (dis)approval in each case is affected by the conditions and institutions which supported that action. The second, closely related, way in which the discussion of a ‘culture of violence’ is problematic is that it elides state-led policies that endorse certain kinds of violent actions—based on who is committing the violence and who the violence is committed against—rather than on the action in question.

Examples of the second would include executive policies such as a memo that authorized the use of drones to kill people who are suspected of terrorism (or having a governmental body vote in favor of a federal judgeship for the lawyer who co-authored that memo); or the actions of federal judges who exculpate police officers who shoot young black men while sentencing a political protestor to prison for elbowing a policeman for a boob grab, or a range of bills that unanimously approve the pre-emptive policing, or potential detention, or profiling and entrapment thousands of people who loosely fall into the same group as the 19 men who flew into the World Trade Center in 2001.

You get my point.

‘Culture,’ like ‘social construction,’ seems to sidestep an assumption that certain traits are permanently embedded, without confessing to that assumption. It seems that culture is most often used in 4 different ways:

1. As a marker of identity: Indian culture, Russian culture, Irish culture, etc.

2. As a comparative descriptor, such as when praising a group of people affiliated with a certain society as having superlative values: French culture, Western culture, progressive culture.

3. To ascribe ‘primitive’ or ‘regressive’ traits to a group of people who are united on the basis of some practices or beliefs or (mutual) recognition of identity: Muslim/Islamic culture, Black culture, Masculine culture, etc.

4. To describe a set of (negative) practices that people abide by or embrace (wittingly or not), and therefore become part of that group: A culture of: consumerism, rape, terrorism, narcissism, violence.

Over a decade ago, at the first philosophy conference I attended after receiving my doctorate, my excitement melted into despair as I heard the keynote speaker, a white feminist philosopher of some renown, painstakingly describe how Palestinians and other Muslim cultures were more prone to a ‘culture of terrorism’ than those in Western societies. It seemed to link violence to a population while avoiding references to biology, ontology, or nature. [Uma Narayan, Talal Asad and Edward Said have challenged such a link in their considerable writings, but to judge from its frequent invocation, it still seems to remain an easy go-to place.] And in forging this link, the keynote speaker indicated that these actions were compulsive, driven by the culture to which said people belong.

This kind of deployment of ‘culture’ is striking for its complete bifurcation from a discussion of historical, (geo)political, economic, social, legal structures: what is the history of Palestine (or Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, etc)? What are the material, geopolitical, social circumstances in which certain men and women engage in certain specific practices? What are the legal structures that punish certain men and women for acts of violence while retaining a blind eye towards others? How do we construe violence or terrorism, when lone individuals or groups associated with non-state entities who blow up cafes become the prime figures of terrorism (and if they survive, will most certainly face punishment at the hands of government or military forces)–while other figures–surrounded by government security personnel as they instruct others to deploy drones against certain persons in Yemen selected by a computer algorithm–are hailed as heroes and voted repeatedly back into positions of power? All this, while those who provide legal validation for such practices are elevated to the nation’s highest courts (the most recent example being, of course, David Barron)?

Such a disarticulation from a discussion of underlying structures entrenches the belief that these practices are inherent – perhaps uniquely so — to the group with whom they are associated. So, to talk of a ‘culture of violence’ suggests that there is a set of violent practices that constitute the fabric of a society, bringing that very society together as a unit, which that society (or some part at least) doesn’t necessarily question, criticize, or challenge.

That may not be the intent of using this phrase, since—in none of the above 4 senses is culture used as a factual descriptor (even when that is the intent of the speaker) but more as a rhetorical descriptor. It is always possible to falsify a statement about culture that presumes that most if not all of its people ascribe to a certain belief. Hindus are not all vegetarian; Not all feminists believe that the hijab is oppressive; Not all Muslims (women or men) believe that the hijab must be worn. The French don’t all believe in republicanism. All of these groups have internal debates about various issues, and it may be impossible without (even with) extensive surveys, to discover which part of the group practices/believes in the belief under question, and whether that part of the group constitutes a majority.

My concern with the above deployment of term ‘culture’, is that the speaker obscures the very structures that s/he claims to take into account by locating violence/narcissism/entitlement/rape in a generic culture. It is true that the phrase ‘culture’ can accurately connote a set of embedded attitudes regarding violence, rape, narcissism or consumerism. But—especially when ascribing these attitudes to a group that is already the subject of criticism—s/he connotes that the actions of these populations are driven by their culture. By ascribing certain events to a ‘culture of violence,’ I wonder if it prevents us from having a more insightful conversation about the specific elements that drive a certain event.

Let me be clear: I do NOT want to exculpate men (or women) who benefit from patriarchy, white supremacy, or other systems validating hierarchies or endorsing oppression against groups on the basis of race, gender or nationality. These are systems—grounded through laws, economic policies, geopolitical history, and social policies of rewards and benefits–which can engender acceptance about the privileges that accrue to some persons on the basis of being – say — male or white (often without regard to class), or to being middle- or upper-class white women. And while it’s possible to talk of a set of beliefs that seem to be shared by those who benefit from patriarchy or white supremacy, I think it’s much more effective and important to prioritize a focus on systems rather than culture.

A useful followup to this rumination might be to problematize the discussion of “privilege”—as in in white privilege, male privilege, etc. That will be for a future post.


The NYT and “Targeted Killings”: Which Fork to Use?

The NYT Room for Debate of yesterday led with the question: How can Targeted Killings Ever Be Justified? It was followed by the caption: Are government-sponsored assassinations ever appropriate?

There are several things to say about the “debate.”

The wistfully posed interrogative–in the aftermath of Israel’s killing of a Hamas leader, and massacre of 19 civilians and children*–was astounding. The title of the “debate” is notable for the assumption that targeted killings are to be taken for granted.  The topic of the debate is not “whether” targeted killings can ever be justified…but how?  The subtitle confirms the unspoken premise in the initial question: Are “government-led” murders ever appropriate?

The NYT Debate has elevated the ethical question of state-led killing to the plane of discussing etiquette. The question is not whether to use a fork. But which one? And when?

Translation: What are the creative and varying ways by which Israel or the U.S.–the only states permitted to engage in extrajudicial murders of alleged terrorists or civilians without repercussions–can justify a system of focused, intended assassinations? Given that they will happen from now on with regularity, can an ineffectual and impotent public, led by an obedient media, find a way to approve and support extrajudicial state actions?

Predictably, The Times found some ready takers for both sides of the “debate.” Remember, the debate was not whether…but how targeted killings could be justified. The NYT “Debate” became a forum for 5 people on a narrow spectrum of 0 to 0.2 (ranging from “justified most of the time” to “justified some of the time”). And true to themselves, each followed the premise like an obedient cocker spaniel: it’s ok to have targeted killings, as long as you can justify them in some framework. Objective commentators, to be sure.

Perhaps the most egregious was the notorious Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Law Faculty and “civil rights lawyer” of “Ticking Time Bomb” fame.  Dershowitz, also accused of plagiarism, has made a reputation justifying the torture of alleged terrorists. By alleged terrorists, he refers to those who were charged with nothing, from whom no evidence could be extracted until they were put “on the rack.” The complete disutility of the information could be garnered by putting me on the rack; I guarantee that in seconds a torture agent could induce me to confirm that Barry Manilow is the second coming of Christ.

Dershowitz’s considered position on torture posited an unlikely scenario where there could very well be a ticking time bomb that might go off and endanger multiple lives. The only one who knows the location of the bomb is the Evil Guy—without explanation or proof, we just know that he was evil—and the only way we can save multiple lives is by torturing Evil Guy to give up the evidence. Here is an aptly titled critique of Dershowitz’s pro-torture position from 2004, entitled “Alan Dershowitz, Professor of Torture.” Short piece, but complete and still relevant.

In yesterday’s NYT debate, Dershowitz offered a specious critique of the point that extra-judicial killings are illegal: he points to military actions, killing in self-defense, and shooting a fleeing felon as extra-judicial and yet accepted practice.

In one way, he is right: military killings ARE extra-judicial and accepted practice, as we’ve seen over the last decade, especially if

1. there is no official declaration of war.

2. a majority of elected representatives succumb to the hysterical agenda that calls for invading or bombing a country without sufficient evidence of the threat.

3. that courageous force of accountability—the media—parrots the spin disseminated by its government.

4. a nation agrees to cover up the destruction and damage to its own troops by a rogue nation.

In other ways, Dershowitz is flat wrong: the legality of shooting a fleeing felon—depends on who did the shooting: A cop? A person in their home? Someone on the street? He’s also wrong about killing in self-defense, an act that is often arbitrated in court and these days—by the state–to determine whether the killing was necessary for self-defense.  Occasionally, the murders are done by an enlisted soldier during his down-time, and the media decides that the luridness of the event will increase profits more than a canine-fealty to the state’s spin. After that, we put on a show-trial. That is to say: a trial in which we charge low-ranking actors to burnish the pretense that we care about justice.

What is even more specious in the above “debate” is Dershowitz’s “lesser of 2 evils” justification. I know. You thought we were safe from this phrase for at least a month past election season. You were wrong.

“The alternatives to targeted killing are either to allow terrorists free rein in targeting civilians or to engage in undertargeted military actions that are likely to cause more casualties. Targeted assassination will often be the least bad alternative in an inevitable choice of evils.”

It’s hard to know what “undertargeted” means—perhaps the Big D is trying to suggest that targeted drones are better than rockets.  Still, notice the consonance of Dershowitz’s position with NPR’s “objective” view:

“Hamas has now fired more than 130 rockets toward southern Israel and the Israeli military continues to fire at targets in Gaza. Palestinian officials report at least 13 deaths on their side of the border. The death toll in Israel remains at three.”

Hamas fires rockets toward Israel, but Israel fires at “targets.” Targets that include children. The “undertargeted” actions taken by Hamas still resulted in fewer—yes—fewer deaths than the “targeted” killings taken by Israel.

So, are Israeli rockets just in need of eyeglasses? As things stand, undertargeted killings appear to be substantially less lethal than targeted ones.  If targeted killings are “less bad” than “undertargeted” military actions, which are presumably random massacres, then why are so many civilians and children being killed in the process of “targeting” alleged terrorists?

“Targeted killings” are the “least bad alternative.” That must be why we saw the Senate non-partisan unanimous resolution supporting Israel’s “right to self-defense” on Thursday. Wait, how does that go again? Oh, right. The Democrats = less evil.

If the NYT really wanted a debate, then why not choose Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian American journalist and activist, who has not been interviewed by a single U.S. news station?

Is he committing too much truth? Ok, then, how about Stephen R. David, who wrote a careful criticism of “Israel’s Policy of Targeted Killing” way back in 2003 (the full pdf version of the article can be found on his wiki site)? for Ethics and International Affairs? As Professor of International Relations and Vice Dean for Undergraduate Education at Johns Hopkins University, David is hardly a left-wing kook.

Aside from the fact that the NYT has presented a framework that relegates Gaza’s reality to the level of table manners, it has erased the significance of the hundreds of bombs that have fallen in Gaza and the hundreds of civilian casualties that have resulted.

The NYT also assumes that Israel’s intended target, Hamas’ “subcontractor” Ahmed Jhabari, was the “threat” to be overcome. But according to Haaretz, Jhabari “was…Israel’s partner in the negotiations for the release of Gilad Shalit; it was he who ensured the captive soldier’s welfare and safety, and it was he who saw to Shalit’s return home last fall.”  Haaretz also points out that “in return for enforcing the quiet, which was never perfect, Israel funded the Hamas regime through the flow of shekels in armored trucks to banks in Gaza, and continued to supply infrastructure and medical services to the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip.”  If Jhabari is the representative in charge of negotiating the cease-fire, then why is he the target? Moreover, if Jhabari was the “precise” target, then why are so many Palestinian civilians dead?

So, the real—and only–question at stake in the NYT Debate is how to rationalize the killings. Killings. Plural. Because alongside the “targets” that apparently Israel is “better” off focusing on rather than a mass, ‘untargeted’ war or massacre or genocide, multiple civilians and children are being burned to death.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote yesterday, the template of targeted killings is now on the table for both the United States and Israel. We can hardly point to Israel’s wrongdoing without also condemning the U.S.’s position on this. But why does that have to mean that every American news station and media channel—from CNN to MSNBC to the New York Times–has to find ways to rationalize wrong-doing by the state—American or Israeli?

Is it EVER ok to use my salad fork for my main course?


*An earlier version incorrectly reported 14 deaths of Palestinian civilians and children.

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