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Swords Into Plowshares: Rising Above The War Metaphor in Social Justice Work

social justice and war language complexity stylewise-blog.comWelcome to the Complexity series: posts intended to explore social justice and ethics issues with nuance, understanding, and ultimately hope. I will bring in several guest writers throughout the series, so stay tuned.
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The US political climate in the Trump age is burdensome to say the least.

Fear yields anxiety yields rage yields exhaustion.

We are traumatized, the systemically and personally vulnerable among our population especially so.

We are confused, and the President and his allies continually sow more confusion.

We feel hopeless, because every small thing we can do feels meaningless in the face of a multitude of new human rights abuses and uncertainties.

Desperation and Prophetic Imagination

I wake up most mornings feeling a weight on my chest, trying to navigate a world that's not necessarily worse than before but with "solutions" that feel decidedly less clear-cut. I, and I suspect many of my fellow Americans, have short circuited to the point that we've lost our sense of what theologian Walter Brueggemann calls our "prophetic imagination," the ability to see hope beyond the hazy horizon.

A few weeks ago I sat down to watch a film that had been described to me as "the story of a pastor serving a church with declining attendance." That sounds quaint compared to the reality. Instead, First Reformed dealt with existential dread over climate change, the mood becoming darker and darker as the story trudged on. The main character - yes, he was a pastor at a small church - desperately tried to cling to paradoxical hope in the face of certain disaster, but the realities of the world and his inability to find meaning led him to only two choices: commit violence against perceived enemies or commit violence against himself. The ending is surreal and confusing, but it got its point across.

I didn't know whether to weep or dig in my heels in determination and commit to find joy.

War Language and "Us-versus-Them"

But let me get back to that ending, because I think it tells us something about the way overburdened and scared people see the world. In the face of certain doom, everything is a hell scape. You either defeat or get defeated, kill or get killed. Shoot first or suffer the consequences.

Too much of the social justice rhetoric in this country is operating from a place of certain doom. But if you're dying anyway, if the whole world is about to blow up, what are you fighting for?

To contextualize this further, I am specifically speaking to a kind of purity culture or ideological fundamentalism that occurs in spaces where people don't know each other very well, particularly on social media, a decontextualized soap box that, by design, turns us into our worst selves. Like "the enemy" in traditional warfare, it's easy to flatten out people so that you don't have to feel guilty about metaphorically "beating" them.

In a recent Grist article entitled War of Words, climate journalist and (former?) Mennonite - a Pacifist Christian tradition - Kate Yoder asks the question, "Can we save the world from climate change without declaring war?" She draws on the work of linguist Deborah Tannen, who wrote a book on the subject 20 years ago. Here's the gist of her argument, taken from the article:

There’s a “pervasive warlike culture” in the U.S. that leads us to approach just about any major issue as if it were “a battle or game in which winning or losing is the main concern,” she wrote. It’s a deeply entrenched cultural tendency that has shaped politics, education, law, and the media.

Because much of language is metaphor - for instance, to say we must "defeat the enemy" in the context of debate is not a literal statement and operates in some ways as hyperbole - which metaphors we choose to use matters. Language, in a sense, can be violent, but even that is a kind of war metaphor.

Contextualizing political, social, and moral debates within a linguistic system that heavily draws on war narratives not only reinforces a kind of violence, it also creates a false dichotomy, an "us-versus-them" format, that disguises complexity, and thus ultimately disguises and manipulates truth. 

Human Psychology

But this isn't just a problem on a philosophical level. It affects our ability to change people's minds. According to Yoder, psychologists call this an "intractable conflict," saying:

An us-versus-them narrative turns people away from logic and into the realm of emotion and values. As the conflict drags on without resolution, partisans become increasingly bewildered by the other side’s beliefs and actions.

So even if I believe in my heart of hearts that the best way to deal with someone I disagree with is a full-fledged public take-down, it is a psychological reality that I'm making the problem worse. But maybe I'm not concerned about the long game, content to sow havoc and reap discord?

Maybe some people see the take-down as a kind of necessary reckoning, but I question how often people really anticipate both the broad and deep repercussions of their debate strategies. Whether we like it or not, we - "the good guys" - are just as likely to fall prey to the emotional pull of the false dichotomy as our "enemy" (what's wild about writing this is that I cannot escape violent metaphor even as I object to it). It is more satisfying to categorize someone in one of two distinct camps - an us or a them - than to take the space to acknowledge our own biases before responding (I have to admit I have made missteps on this point, which I'm only now fully understanding).

Now We See in a Mirror Dimly

But how does war language propagate in social spaces and ideological camps? To my mind, in at least three ways:

  1. False narratives of scarcity: the largely unfounded myth that there is not enough intellectual and empathetic "space" to go around so we must take it from others
  2. Charismatic leaders: individuals who craft compelling and even empowering narratives that, nevertheless, aren't quite true
  3. Predominant ideological frameworks: those powerful, invisible idea-maps that often have more to do with power and profit than with collective flourishing

Having grown up in a religious culture that bordered on fundamentalism, I am extremely sensitive to the signs of ideological manipulation and believe very strongly that even compassionate and just ideas can rot on the vine if not fostered carefully.

Because of this, a healthy skepticism is always warranted. We must ask more questions!

It is easy to think that the world as we see it is the whole world, but this goes back to the problem of losing our prophetic imagination. There's a way to honor people's lived experience while resisting universal truth claims that don't properly amalgamate other, potentially disparate lived experiences. The truth is often buried deep within the data. What we know is not everything. And we will never know enough. 

Keeping that in mind provides the kind of humility that allows us to hold our heads high at the same time that we unclench our fists, and this is precisely the orientation we need to work through complicated, seemingly insurmountable issues.

So, what do we do now?

Let me be clear, or as clear as I can be. People have a right to feel their feelings, and a right to speak them. People have a "right" to free speech, too. But it would be disingenuous to act as if what we're feeling justifies any and all actions. And beyond that, our implied or explicit roles as activists and educators requires more of us, if only because our stated goal is progress, and progress means we don't always get to while away in sackcloth and ashes. There is work to do.

And work requires crystal clarity, not getting distracted by scarcity models of self-defense, narratives that require an antagonist, infighting that sows confusion, and circular arguments that lead to an active minefield of intractable conflicts.

For those of us who have placed the mantle of educator-activist on our shoulders, our responsibility is broader and deeper than a battle cry. We are moderators, guardians, and colleagues to our students, and we have an obligation to keep the doors wide open.

Which means, above all, that we must put down our own weapons of violent language and false dichotomies. We must beat our swords into plowshares, making way for new growth, because as they say in the musical, Rent,

"the opposite of war isn't peace, it's creation." 

We are cultivators of complexity, prophets of abundance.

After a month of stewing over an incident that occurred to me online (and admittedly, having to realize and begin to seek treatment for a mental health issue I had been trying to self-treat for the last year), I heard myself saying that I would get over it "if I had a chance to defend myself." I was in the middle of thinking over this piece, and I realized that I was using war language, because building a defense is a product of "us-versus-them" thinking.

But I don't want to do work that forces me to adopt the predominant rhetorical strategy without a second thought. I don't think we make a better world using the same ineffective methods.

I don't know what that open field of abundance looks like and I'm not sure how to get there, but there's no question in my mind that we are creating enemies because we think we have to, that we are entrenching ourselves in a model of doom and destruction because it didn't occur to us that there was another way.

As for me, I am leaning on paradoxical hope, hope in the face of whipping winds and children's cries and smoldering cities. A hope that resists the impulse to categorize and conclude, because it knows that now is not the end game.

I hold onto a vision of equity and thriving, not because I always believe it is possible or see the path clearly in front of me, but because I know that to abandon it is to abandon everything.


So, if we disagree and things get heated, this will be my response to you: "This is not a war and you are not my enemy. How do we fix this, together?"

Additional Reading 

Working Through Environmental Despair by Joanna Macy (I found this life-changing)

From the systems perspective, this patriarchal notion of power is both inaccurate and dysfunctional. That is because life processes are intrinsically self-organizing. Power, then, which is the ability to effect change, works from the bottom up more reliably and organically than from the top down. It is not power over, but power with; this is what systems scientists call "synergy." Life systems evolve flexibility and intelligence, not by closing off from the environment and erecting walls of defense, but by opening ever wider to the currents of matter-energy and information. It is in this interaction that life systems grow, integrating and differentiating...

We may well wonder why the old kind of power, as we see it enacted around us and indeed above us, seems so effective. Many who wield it seem to get what they want: money, fame, control over others' lives; but they achieve this at a substantial cost both to themselves and to the larger system. Domination requires strong defenses and, like a suit of armor, restricts our vision and movement. Reducing flexibility and responsiveness, it cuts us off from fuller and freer participation in life. Power over is dysfunctional to the larger system because it inhibits diversity and feedback; it obstructs systemic self-organization, fostering uniformity and entropy.

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