American culture is pervaded by violence in a way that surprisingly dramatizes the very legitimization of sovereign government power, from the local to the Federal level and back. This is not to say that as a society, the people of the United States are simply participating in a sham democracy. That would be a gross overstatement. What I argue is that in the United States democratic participation, justice, tolerance, and a willingness to make (reasonably, marginal) short-term sacrifices for a fairer, more sustainable society over the long-term–well, these are not the values that play the leading rolls in discourse about the people granting sovereign power to government. Rather, extraordinarily dramatic narratives–often implicitly understood and recapitulated through daily social interactions and choices–emphasize violence in creating a symbolically defining boundary between those who are a danger to ordered society and those who claim the right to be in that ordered, safe society. Thus, despite being a society in which opportunities for freedom are indeed extraordinarily wonderful, the United States simply falls short of the democratic ideals of equality of opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness … for the very reason that power is constituted by the act of violently, unfairly excluding individuals or groups from such opportunities.
I would suggest that the experience of violence–whether from the perspective of the perpetrator or the subject of violent attack tends to resolve around two dimensions. One is the severity of a single act intended to hurt someone physically. The goal may range on a continuous scale, from hurting someone enough to scare or bruise them to hurting them in order to take their life. The other dimension is intentionally hurting someone so that their life–and for humans, this so profoundly means their social life–possibilities are altered and constrained. This dimension is much more complex, and it can involve symbolic taunts, rumors, and insults … but it can also include torture, imprisonment and slavery. This latter dimension is important to think about from the perspective of biocultural evolution. Humans are particular long-lived, compared to apes of similar or larger body size (chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans). And we live particularly socially intense lives, in which the symbolically shared, inferred, shaped, and reshaped narratives about past, ideal, and possible future lives have a huge impact on the constitution of society. Humans are typically stuck with others over the life-course for decades, which makes shaming, torture, or imprisonment a different kind of violence than the immediately lethal variety. Of course, violence of the latter sort can contribute to the experience of exclusion by social kin of the victim(s). Altogether, these forms of violence allow humans to enact, remember, imagine, retell, and embody dramas of social exclusion. We don’t have to enact or contribute to such stories, but they are indeed dramatic stories that shape our fundamental access to social resources over the long-term. Violence has profound repercussions, because it can effectively bring a group together. Violence has plagued American culture over time. I am currently visiting old friends outside of Taos, New Mexico, and here, the history of violence in Anglo, Mexican, and Indian relations is painfully present. In my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, though, it is the history of violence against African Americans that is constantly present. In both cases, violent exclusion–whether slavery, land confiscation, the ethnic cleansing of the Trail of Tears, the long history of segregation–was a kind of ritually effective drama that drew the boundaries of democratic America.
My last post addressed this issue of violence–and the ritual representation of violent conflict in which there are winners and losers, included and excluded–as constitutive of American culture, creating a contradiction between democratic ideals of inclusion and individual or community ideals of using violence to establish power through exclusion of others, however symbolically defined. I wrote that post on the eve of the verdict in the George Zimmerman case, in which he was tried by the State of Florida for murdering Trayvon Martin. About 24 hours after my post, the jury announced their decision to acquit Zimmerman of culpability in Martin’s death. I do not want to make assumptions about what actually occurred, since I think that the evidence is unclear for some critical events within the timeline from Zimmerman’s telephoning the police about his suspicion that Martin was an immediate danger to the community, to Zimmerman acquiring injuries to the head, to Zimmerman shooting Martin once in the chest, killing him. I do think that Zimmerman bears a fundamental culpability, contrary to the finding of the jury, in assuming that Trayvon Martin was suspicious, in knowingly following him with a concealed weapon, which involved assuming more than a neighborhood-watch role of informing the police. But the question of his culpability is clouded by the role of violence in constituting the ordered, safe community in American culture. Stand-your-ground laws privilege the right to kill someone you believe–for whatever reason … and beliefs defining threats to order all too often involve self-serving myths, such as the racial inferiority or animal-like savagery of the other–is threatening to your life. It is probably unclear whether we’re talking about fear of being able to carry on your life as you know it, in an ordered, safe state or whether we’re talking about fearing having your life taken then and there. The right to carry, conceal, and use means of lethal violence in order to “stand your ground” is part of the process of recreating the cultural belief that threats to ordered democracy are everywhere, within and without the US borders. And the right to carry, conceal, and use means of lethal violence in order to “stand your ground” is part of the process of using lethal violence to exclude, in order to define the boundaries of order. Going forward, it is important to think about how American culture can begin to change, by discussing just how tightly interlinked violence is with our notions of an orderly society. Such awareness can lead to a greater focus on the values of inclusion, democratic accountability, and fairness for all members of the society. What is especially important in the tragedy of George Zimmerman’s killing Trayvon Martin is this: there is already a tendency in the media to express platitudes that “justice has been served,” but that only legitimizes the story of using lethal force to define our society. And this is a part of American culture that is not democratic.