Monday, July 23, 2012


To be white in America means that I don't know what it's truly like to have thoughts like the one I saw posted by my Cape Verdean-American friend Mery concerning the Colorado shootings this past Friday: "I was just praying that the suspect wasn't black." On a slightly more macro scale, to be an American of any color means that we don't have to experience in the existential present of our daily lives the virtual slave labor that goes into creating the cheap and abundant products that we feel we couldn't live without. Both situations are indicative of existential conditions that are deficient of conscientization.

Paulo Freire's idea of conscientization is roughly the awareness of our condition in life as that condition is informed by social myth. To eliminate the myth and arrive at the true nature of our being requires the processes of critical reflection and action in non-dualistic application (Freire, 1970). In the case of the Colorado shooting, it was Mery's post that spoke to the ever-present violence of racism that permeates the social fabric of American life. She went on to protest the unequal media coverage of events such as this, in that the suspect - being white - was looked at as an example of potential mental illness, or possible prior victimization, but not as fundamentally flawed due to race, religion or ideology. In other words, there was no racism or bigotry in the media's examination of his psyche. He wasn't Muslim, he wasn't black and he wasn't a communist or otherwise overtly "anti-American", so he didn't play into any of the dominant societal identity myths of who the enemy "is".

For me, the attempt at greater conscientization of this particular incident requires stepping back even further and taking in as much of the absurdity of a violence driven society as possible. The irrationality of the nation that continues to insist on war despite all evidence of its inefficiency, wastefulness and disregard for the sanctity of life is seen in how we treat those who kill. The suspect in Colorado is labeled a criminal (and perhaps rightfully so), but what about the President who authorizes the drone strike that kills innocent villagers in Afghanistan? Is it absurd to live in a society that claims to be free - to respect the dignity of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - yet justifies the killing of wars?
Thich Nhat Hanh says that we must "perceive our political and economic systems correctly in order to see what is going wrong" (2012, p.245). In the comparison above, this means that I must evaluate why life is considered sacred in one situation, and disposable in another. Where did the error occur in the narrative of civilization that taught us that killing to solve international or intra-national disputes is acceptable while the killing of an isolated madman is not? Why aren't both unacceptable? Some of course would respond that it is in the base nature of humanity to react violently in order to maintain self-preservation. William James (2012) might even agree with that and say that we must find other outlets for the traits we carry. Hanh would say that what we are dealing with is a powerful energy that can be used for either good or bad. In either case, it is implicit that we as humans carry the potential to make a choice and redefine our lives, our social myths, our civilization and achieve greater conscientization as rational, thinking, intelligent evolving beings.
Jessie Wallace Hughan (2012) has shown us that - theoretically - a nation committed to complete disarmament and pacifism is possible, and not only possible but could and would win a war against a violent enemy. Yet the degree of commitment required makes her vision seem utopian in anything resembling modern day society. Complete ideological adherence makes many "isms" seem possible, including Communism, but the real world and real life get in the way of these ideologies. So how do we change the narrative of civilization and work at eliminating or re-directing the energy that is used in violent action? Is it even possible? What does "success" in this area look like? Is it necessary to change the entire planet, or do the actions of individuals matter?

These questions have been at the very foundation of my search for meaning over the past number of years. They are also closely connected with my search for the existence of the divine. I have come to the conclusion that there is an inescapable energy of love or a particular force, a direction in the universe. In this sense, my thought parallels Hanh. I believe that every human is capable of aligning themselves with this force - which is ultimately the natural direction or way of things - and that it takes conscientization to be able to see this force or way. Hanh would give conscientization the name of non-dualism, and conscientization is very much a form of becoming - of uniting - with one's very nature, which is shared by all others. To unite with the particular direction of nonviolence, exemplified, enacted and consistent with the practices of love is to identify ourselves with our true nature, or the highest form of mental, physical and spiritual evolution - conscientization - that we can achieve. Once internalized, this belief is at the center of my own mental and physical self-preservation, for without knowledge of my true nature, life is meaningless.

It wasn't easy for me to arrive at this level of my own conscientization. It took a near-death experience in the form of a car accident to shake me awake and to truly begin the process. Previously, I had accepted much of the terms of my life from external sources, and had not done my own reflection nor had I lived my life consistent with the principles corresponding to a knowledge of the universal energy of nonviolence and love. Like Gary L. Francione (2012), I have extended the respect for life to animals as well. If we are to practice nonviolence, we must be universal in its application, and any being that can suffer pain must be treated with the utmost dignity. Yet I'm still at a philosophical block with thinkers like Francione in where the biological line of "animal" as distinct from "plant" or non-feeling life should be placed.

This brings us back to my friend Mery and her struggle combating racism in a society that still has a long way to go to achieve conscientization in that area. She and I had a discussion about the topic, and she mentioned how she has been an advocate her entire life - through teaching and leading community workshops - against issues of race. I broached the issue of large scale social change with her as in: what will it take to achieve large scale differences in the way we view race, or the way we view guns, violence, war and defense budgets? Of course we were at an impasse, we weren't going to save the world in a Facebook discussion. But I believe her point of advocacy is key in how we live nonviolent lives. Freire would also seem to agree as would VeneKlassen and Miller (2010). Advocacy is one way in which we can directly apply the principles of nonviolence to the world around us. We can choose to keep the energy of love alive in our own lives through extending it as much as possible to the world as it exists in our immediate reach.

I agree with Mery that our lives are all interdependent, and advocating for those who suffer, and against suffering in general is advocating for that human dignity that we all deserve. It shows respect for others, but it just as much shows respect for our own being in recognizing that being in others. This is what has given me hope and meaning in my own life. I know that there is a purpose for my being here, yet at the same time I know that I can shape that purpose and make it what I want it to be. Therefore I choose nonviolence, and I choose to do what I alone can do, and by choosing to do so, I aim for the understanding that Hanh refers to and the conscientization of Freire. 


Francione, G. L. (2012). Nonviolence and animal rights. In R. L. Holmes, & B. L. Gan, Nonviolence in theory and practice third edition (pp. 326-331). Long Grove: Waveland Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Hanh, T. N. (2012). Feelings and perceptions. In R. L. Holmes, & B. L. Gan, Nonviolence in theory and practice third edition (pp. 243-246). Long Grove: Waveland Press.

Hughan, J. W. (2012). Pacifism and invasion. In R. L. Holmes, & B. L. Gan, Nonviolence in theory and practice third edition (pp. 219-232). Long Grove: Waveland Press.

James, W. (2012). The moral equivalent of war. In R. L. Holmes, & B. L. Gan, Nonviolence in theory and practice third edition (pp. 176-185). 2012: Waveland Press.

VeneKlasen, L., & Miller, V. (2010). New weave power people politics: the action guide for advocacy and citizen participation. Sterling: Stylus Publishing.

1 comment:

John Stoner said...

America has repeated mass murder events because Americans believe in killing as a way of accomplishing their goals, says Michael Moore
I think he is essentially right. Our culture, society, nation believes that killing people improves things--witness support for the death penalty.
Not all--virtually no--other cultures believe as deeply in the efficacy of killing as does American culture.