Or: Why Is there Still So Much Symbolic Violence in American Political Culture?
Trepidation is the word … I’m not terribly politically outspoken, but having dived into the problem of symbolic violence in American political culture, I have to continue swimming. Because what is at stake, in my view, is whether anthropological analysis and inquiry can really contribute to constructive dialogue and mutual understanding, rather than adding to the usual mutual inflammation with which critical academic, “progressive,” or “left-wing” voices and conservative, religious, “patriotic,” “right-wing” voices afflict each other. My trepidation comes from the fact that I have described the violence in the narratives that have moved Americans and shaped power relations, directly in contradiction to the values logically inherent in participant, deliberative democracy. It is clear that conservative political positions will tend to be those that support status quo power relations already historically shaped by violent narratives of exclusion–of Black people, Native Americans, poor immigrants of all sorts, the poorest and neediest in general. (Again, if you think I’m exaggerating, remember how George Washington’s military suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794 resonated so strongly in symbolically legitimizing the early Presidency, Federal power, and the very constitution of the United States as a sovereign nation, within and without its borders.) Thus, in focusing on narratives of violence, I am bringing out into the open symbols and stories that reinforce conservative taken-for-granted positions. What I want to underscore, though, is that all humans have a tendency to be moved by dramatic, emotionally charged narratives of exclusion, as these have a mythologizing effect of defining the boundaries of ordered society. Defining certain people as outside of the cultural realm is dramatically constitutive of the boundaries of the cultural, civilized realm. To be sure, contemporary American conservative identities–from Tea Party conservatives vigorously seeking to scale back the role of government and taxation on every level, to evangelist Christians working to limit access to abortion or repeal Obamacare for purposes of defending religious freedom–are also strikingly shaped by violent narratives involving exclusion of others, especially involving the criminal justice and healthcare systems and the national security apparatus. Yet, the non-partisan albeit secular ritual–staged nightly on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report–satirizes hypocrisy, political expediency, and the absurdities of ideological political rhetoric, and in this ritualized context, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and their colleagues do not so much raise public consciousness and change daily engagement in democratic life, as they provide a shared experience in which the audience gets taken on a little, entertaining vacation from concerning political realities that many of us are just trying to deal with. These are rituals of political resilience that can create apolitical identity as much or more effectively as they can generate a symbolic focus on critical, thoughtful democratic engagement. Although Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have made extraordinary attempts to mobilize political engagement for a more reflective, critical approach to democratic participation and decision-making, they tend to constitute a small part of a the everyday lives of, at most, a minority of Americans. Secular rituals of exclusion in sports, however, get amplified in 24-hour sports media, on television, online, and on radio, paralleling the media rituals of exclusion in conservative and major progressive outlets alike. The other side is irrelevant or a threat to legitimate orderly, civilized democracy. I’ll admit up front that I certainly find myself on the side of many Democratic, progressive politicians, activists, and policy commentators when it comes to immigration, law enforcement, criminal justice and the prison system, voting rights, foreign and military policy, access to public education, and health care. This is because of the very reasons I’ve already outlined, that so much of our society is driven by violent narratives of exclusion, which have formed unjust ideologies of overwhelming political reaction. Yet, I can understand how and why many conservative Tea Party activitists, for instance, are so thoroughly shaped and moved by the narratives of exclusion in current immigration debates. I think we need a more comprehensive shift of engagement, one which may be ritually structured, but which must use contemporary electronic media in a creative, more effective way, emphasizing deliberation, respect, listening and a concern for mutually understanding the very basis by which diverse people create meaning in their worlds. How can we both invert the narrative from violence to compassionate inclusion and also increase awareness of how such narratives–whether inclusive or violently exclusive–tend to move our practices and beliefs, shaping our political values and engagement. Listen and be more aware of why you’re acting the way you do.
Can structural shunning–ghetto-izing someone so thoroughly that they are EITHER invisible to you OR relevant to you only as a reminder that you’re part of the in-group, powerful enough to keep the ghetto walls high enough–be even more dramatic that ethnic cleansing, ritual murder, or genocide? Greg Ellison, of Emory’s Candler School of Theology, points us toward taking this concern very very seriously.
As I’ve argued now in a series of posts, Trayvon Martin’s violent death has been part of a public ritual re-legitimizing the right to use lethal violence, to exclude in order to be included in the realm of safe, ordered democracy … revealing a cultural problem in the way that American democracy itself is constituted in practice, with society based on an excess of power, from local to international scales. What Greg Ellison suggests is that the expression “cut dead” refers to something we do all too often, whether we realize it or not; but the effects on those we exclude by shunning are simultaneously dramatically cruel, yet–and here’s the important thing–often sufficiently redeemable so as to create new, living social ties with them. While Ellison focuses on young Black men as all-to-often cut dead by the broader American society, he points out that “four fundamental needs—having a sense of belonging, control, self-esteem and meaningful existence—are phenomena that affect all humanity, regardless of race, nationality or faith background.”
I would only add that getting involved in acts of restoring and rehabilitating the “cut-dead,” as hard and difficult and emotionally fraught as that may be, can dramatically invert the cultural symbolic structure of violent exclusion, emphasizing instead compassionate inclusion.
If something constructive is to come from the fraught cultural moment in America now–as debate, protest, and Presidential comment have bubbled in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal of criminal culpability for killing Trayvon Martin–we have to focus on the symbolic yet mobilizing force of violent exclusion in all its forms. In my last two posts, I have commented on the Trayvon Martin case as generally important for becoming aware of the violent symbolic, exclusion-focused underpinnings of American political life. This is important, because so many of us respond to and participate in ideological stories of violent exclusion, and doing so makes American society inevitably incompletely democratic. At the same time, awareness of this widespread, fundamental cultural-political problem of violent exclusion has to grow from awareness, more specifically, of American racial identities as revolving around practices of Black exclusion. As American Anthropological Association President Leith Mullings has just written:
[as] a discipline, anthropology has a special relationship to race—the concept that figured so strongly in the Trayvon Martin case… Anthropology is the discipline that fostered and nurtured ‘scientific racism,’ a world view that transforms certain perceived differences into genetically determined inequality and provides a rationale for slavery, colonialism, segregation, eugenics, and terror. Our discipline also has a significant tradition of anti-racism that emerged from the tumult leading to World War II.
And as she continues to discuss, the divergent reactions or assertions about whether racism drove George Zimmerman’s actions … well, this socio-cultural divide certainly calls for explanation. Mullings adds:
Though prosecutors, many journalists and large segments of the public saw the case as a quintessential example of race profiling—there is ample evidence, many believed, that Zimmerman profiled the teenager because he was a young Black man—during and after the trial both teams of lawyers and the jurors tripped over themselves proclaiming that neither the murder nor the subsequent not guilty verdict had anything to do with race. How do we explain these startlingly different responses as to the role of race?
Issue #1: Did George Zimmerman, armed and actively monitoring his neighborhood for possible criminal activity, rely on racial profiling to decide that he should act on his kernel of suspicion about the boy who turned out to be Trayvon Martin? This issue is legally key, of course. If George Zimmerman was motivated by a simple racist stereotyped belief about what young black men in hoodies are like, it would be unambiguous that he had no right to “stand his ground” with his handgun. The testimony and evidence reported in the media suggest that, whatever other ambiguities might remain about the event timeline, Zimmerman actively chose to confront Trayvon Martin. Thus, there is a plausible case that he had no “stand-your-ground” right of self-defense, regardless of motivation, racist or not. Yet, Zimmerman’s lawyers successfully mounted a defense, asserting that time had elapsed between this initial confrontation and a subsequent one in which Martin ambushed Zimmerman. Here, whether or not the prosecution could have countered this argument more effectively before the jury is–on a fundamental level, although this is certainly zero consolation for Martin’s family–beside the point. It’s ambiguous whether George Zimmerman was motivated by racism. More importantly, he is thoroughly part of a culture of violent exclusion, one that is systemic and remains central to the social, practical constitution of American society. This broader, heterogeneous society–interconnected through the status, history, and institutional power of the United States of America as a sovereign nation state–is not focusing on the problem of violent exclusion. It is focusing on the problem of race. More specifically, of Black racial identity in relation to … White? Every other group that seems less dark? Because the legally admissible evidence of George Zimmerman’s racist nature–or lack of it–is limited, the American public clearly feels conflicted over the role of racism and racial identity in the case:
Issue #2: Was it right for Judge Debra S. Nelson to rule–during the trial proceedings–that the lawyers could not speak of racial profiling? This issue takes us beyond the ambiguity of whether Zimmerman was a racist, and it puts us smack in the middle of (and here it is): how race symbolically connects to moving narratives of violent exclusion. Such narratives emotionally engage and actively mobilize politicians, campaign donors, media commentators, and key voting blocs to create and support the institutions that, in turn, wield the sovereign power to use violence for exclusion and marginalization of individuals and groups, within and without US borders … in turn, creating new narratives of violent marginalization.
Florida’s self-defense law prohibits “initial aggressors” from using force if their own conduct has provoked that force. So if a defendant “initially provokes the use of force” against himself, he cannot claim to have acted in self-defense, unless he withdraws or retreats.
The prosecution asked the judge to instruct the jury that it could consider who was the first aggressor in the altercation between Zimmerman and Martin. If the judge had agreed to give that instruction, the jury might have concluded that, by following Martin, Zimmerman provoked a physical response from Martin. The defense objected to the instruction, and the judge decided not to give the first aggressor instruction.
The jury was instructed to consider only whether Zimmerman reasonably believed deadly force was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself – when he later tussled with Martin on the ground.
Again, the judge, the jury members, the defense lawyers, and the prosecution team included no people of color. Why is this relevant? After all, it’s rather likely that these key players in the Zimmerman case aim, in their everyday lives, to treat all people equally, without racial bias. More generally, although White racism is unfortunately not yet on the verge of extinction, it is safe to say that fewer and fewer White individuals in America harbor and act on racist sentiments, recoiling when others voice or act on racist notions. Yet, structural racism persists in many government and private institutions, involving mortgage lending, access to healthy foods, access to high quality K-12 education resources, and–of course–treatment in the legal system. My aim here is to threefold:
I want to explain why the bigger issue about race in the Trayvon Martin case stems from Judge Nelson’s removal of race from consideration in George Zimmerman’s trial.
I want to explain how widespread White denial of responsibility for racial disparities in health, education, and incarceration is intimately, but subtly, linked to narratives of violent exclusion that unjustly affect millions of Black people in the United States.
And I want to explain why–more generally–those in dominant social positions are usually unaware of the structural advantages that come from their position, but when the position is challenged or resisted, they are all-t0-often moved by narratives of violent exclusion.
As Leith Mullings and others have recently underscored, White-Black racial distinctions in America are–for the most part, of course–no longer produced by direct White segregationist rhetoric backed up by violent intimidation, but still, rhetoric about a color-blind, post-racial America is actually rhetoric mobilizing and supporting the political and economic interests of mainly older, White Americans at the expense of doing something substantial about the structural racism that disproportionately negatively affects Black, Hispanic, and Native American life experiences and opportunities. Given the dramatic statistics about racial disparities in incarceration, poverty, health, and school discipline/suspension problems, why does “color-blind” rhetoric succeed in diverting so many peoples’ attention from this well-documented persisting inequality? Especially when stories about racial difference as defined by group-level biological boundaries and differences are scientifically disproven (Hartigan 2010: Chapter 3) and have less societal, symbolic traction than ever? My argument is that Judge Nelson’s instructions not to speak of racial profiling–specifically addressing all-White lawyers and jurors–is very clearly an instance of “color-blind” rhetoric implicitly but clearly supporting the narrative asserting that non-Black identity is legitimated by morally justifiable exclusion–violent and lethal, if necessary–against young black men who are treated as outside the order of proper American society. And in turn, this is an instance of cultural myth creation, reinforced by the dramatic courtroom ritual, in which sovereign power production in America–while not an all-White privilege anymore–is produced at the expense of Black people seen as threatening.
From a biocultural perspective, I argue that we have to connect how symbolic relationships structure our social actions with something else: how continuous embodied, emotional experience in a material environment structures non-nested hierarchical value relationships among symbols. OK. I try to minimize jargon here, but I guarantee that it’s worth working through this way of stating things. Mainly because race is not biological. Rather, it’s something that has a duality fundamentally analogous to the wave-particle duality of electromagnetic radiation behavior. Seriously. Race is sometimes more appropriately analyzed in terms of symbolic relationships that structure and constrain our beliefs and actions. Race is other times more appropriately analyzed in terms of continuous work that we do, constantly experiencing our environment and adjusting our actions. In short, race is both a socio-cultural web of interrelated, mutually evocative symbols AND continuous bodily interaction with our environment. The result of the former aspect is that racial identities and relationships are defined in terms of symbolically evocative stories. The latter aspect means that we are doing, creating racial identities–our own and others’–so often that we’re not aware of the symbols affecting us and how our actions reinforce prevailing stories of racial identities and relationships. Perhaps most importantly, we don’t realize how often we are influenced by, and in turn, influence stories of exclusion and power that define racial identities in America.
Indeed, the process of culture is always symbolically structured, but it is also recurrently dramatized and emotional. Narratives of violent Black exclusion are mythologized and ritually produced, yielding symbols that legitimize the social order. The problem is, whereas the vast majority of White people can go about their mundane activities, interacting with the material and social world without substantial concern that they will be violently excluded, Black people are frequently–sometimes constantly–symbolically reminded that they or their Black friends or loved-ones are on the threshold of being unjustly singled out–often violently–for exclusion. The cultural effect: a non-nested hierarchical difference in social experience and awareness. White identity is broadly associated with Black exclusion as restoring or maintaining social order, and Black identity is based on awareness of the threat of exclusion.
One of the peculiarly pervasive and interesting general structural relationships that give meaning to the symbols we use–in terms of mutually defining contrasts between two articulated symbols–is what the linguists Nikolaj Trubetzkoy and Roman Jakobson developed as the unmarked-marked relationship (Waugh 1982). And as many anthropologists have observed, racial identities often are mutually defined in an unmarked-marked, non-nested hierarchical relationship–a relationship that makes the social advantage of the hierarchically more powerful identity seem natural, be accepted as taken for granted (e.g., Hartigan 2010).
In general, information depends on sufficiently clear contrast between symbols that are articulated spatially or temporally. And what Trubetzkoy and Jacobson identified in the early Twentieth Century, as they helped to pioneer modern linguistics, is that–in social practice–we bring some pairs of symbols into articulation, metaphorically revealing their contrasts in a conspicuously asymmetric way. As Waugh (1982) discusses, one of the clearest examples of this metaphorical process of asymmetric “bringing into awareness” is how contemporary English grammar usage asymmetrically contrasts present-tense with past-tense verb forms. The present tense is used not only to talk strictly about the present. It is also used to point toward situations in which time is not really relevant. “All dogs go to heaven” refers not just to dogs going to heaven now, but also to dogs in the past and future. The timelessness of the statement is not articulated in English through a special timeless tense. Rather, English speakers use the same form they would use when pointing to particular dogs and saying, “Those dogs go to heaven, too.” Thus, present tense is minimally evocative, establishing timelessness or lack of change over time as the default point of reference for picking up on contrasting symbols, pointing to information about temporal dimensions of the environment. When we use the past tense, though, it elicits a more specific detailed awareness of context and evocation. “Those dogs went to heaven” utilizes the verb tense to focus our attention on our temporal relationship to the dogs, the assertion of their heavenly ascent, and their individualness and concreteness compared to the generality of timeless aphorism, “All dogs go to heaven.” The basic metaphorical construction boils down to the analogy: present tense:past tense::generally non-evocative:specific and evocative. While complex and subtle, the unmarked-marked symbolic relationship of past to present tense in contemporary English grammatical usage reveals the dynamic, metaphorical, generative nature of thought and symbolic language. I would suggest that unmarked-marked symbolic relationships are particularly common because they constitute a kind of cognitive algorithm that compress representational data in our minds. As a consequence, we can more efficiently focus our attention on what is socially relevant, rather than sorting through the range of logically evoked related symbols in constructing relevant representations.
But what is especially key for understanding the construction of asymmetrically socially valued racial symbols is the fact that unmarked-marked symbolic relationships can contribute to potent political narratives. Indeed, as Waugh pointed out in her classic (1982) review of the marked-unmarked concept, Roman Jakobson already noted the political implications of Trubetzkoy’s initial observations about marked-unmarked relationships among phonological sound symbol patterns that, in turn, constitute distinctive, recognizable, meaningful word symbols in a spoken language. Jakobson observed that ideological claims for political power are often claims for unmarked symbolic status in relation to political opposition groups … or more generally, politically dominated or ruled groups. Waugh (1982:309) included the relationship between White (unmarked) and Black (marked) as a culturally familiar example of hierarchically, asymmetrically related identity symbols.
The unmarked-marked relationship is especially important for explaining the fact that White privilege exists statistically, relative to the distribution of opportunities or quality-of-life experiences of American people of color, although so many White people are unaware of their relative advantages, perhaps remaining more worried about marginal tax policies or how to get the best deal on their childrens’ student loans, whereas so many Blacks or Latinos are worried about the unfair treatment of their children or siblings in the criminal justice system. Basically, the way the unmarked-marked relationship works, especially between White and Black American identities, is that in most everyday activity and discourse, most White people are not confronted or challenged by experiences that would evoke the ideologically potent awareness of White-Black difference … and, possibly, the Black threat to order and safety. Thus, Whiteness is a social identity that is minimally evoked in the experience of those with greater resources and power. In contrast, most Black people experience daily life with repeated evocation of their Blackness in relation to Whiteness, with further awareness that they are EITHER invisible to most White people OR experienced by White people as a threat to order and safety (or perhaps, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). If you think I’m exaggerating, please look closely at the Pew Center opinion survey results, broken down by racial identities, in the wake of the George Zimmerman acquittal. Here, the unmarked-marked symbolic relationship structures the social experiences and practices that continue to contribute to the racial disparity over whether America needs to talk more about racial relationships or whether we already talk too much about race. In the Pew sample, 60% of White adults stated that race is getting too much attention after the Zimmerman acquittal. 78% of Black adults stated that the Zimmerman case raises important issues about race that need to be talked about. John Hartigan, Jr., (2010) provides one of the best introductory overviews and analyses of ethnographic evidence for the unmarked-marked dynamic shaping White and Black identities in relation to one another.
UNMARKED IDENTITIES, POWER, AND NARRATIVES OF VIOLENT EXCLUSION
There are certainly many ways in which unmarked, socially dominant group identities have emerged over time and in different human communities. Indeed, the ways that dominant identities are constructed and maintained as unmarked are–at the very least–complex. The same community is likely to be constituted by cultural processes in which multiple dominant unmarked identities are opposed to marked counterparts, so that in some contexts, these identities seem entirely distinct, whereas in others, they may be metaphorically compared. Thus, unmarked male domination may be similar to White domination in some American social contexts, but in other settings, Black male identity may be symbolized as excessively wild, dangerous, possessing an excess of male potency and strength. Consequently, Black male identity can become metonymically represented as fundamental to Black identity as a whole. This can occur in narrative representations and in many White peoples’ emotionally constituted experiences, when challenged by resistance to the unmarked embodied assumption that Black men or Black people in general need to be controlled, their behavior, movements, speech contained, in order to maintain conditions of safety, so that White people can slip back into mundane routines without being aware of their social advantages… That such White narratives were already being recreated in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s shooting should not be surprising. It is interesting, though, that one of the most prominent political criticisms of Obama’s recent comments on the Zimmerman acquittal has come from a Black Republican politician: “Virginia Republican lieutenant gubernatorial nominee E.W. Jackson on Tuesday criticized President Obama for ‘racializing’ the Trayvon Martin shooting and distracting from the problem of epidemic violence among young people in the United States.” The narrative claiming that Obama is racializing (or re-racializing) the Zimmerman case is a way of claiming that it is OK for White people to ignore structural racism and that the violence inherent in such structural disparities is morally justified. The one (ironic) thing that is promising in E.W. Jackson making this claim–that is, from my perspective of seeking a more inclusive, fair, democratic society–is that the inclusion of non-White people in the dominant group will eventually undermine the racialized symbolic definition of the unmarked politically dominant identity. The problems that remain are twofold. One is that this effective deracialization is unlikely to occur until the violent domination and exclusion of mainly people of color–through structurally discriminatory public education, health, and legal systems–is brought to an end. The more profound problem, as I’ve argued in my previous two posts, is that stories of violent exclusion should not move us emotionally, should not blind us to the moral problem of using violence to exclude some people as we seek to define the boundaries of our ordered, safe society. We should not allow this violent non-democratic lacuna in our democratic society to continue to be ignored.
Agamben, G. (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics). (D. Heller-Roazen, Trans.) (1 edition.). Stanford University Press.
Hartigan, J. (2010). Race in the 21st century: ethnographic approaches. New York: Oxford University Press.
Waugh, L. R. (1982). Marked and unmarked: A choice between unequals in semiotic structure. Semiotica, 38(3-4). doi:10.1515/semi.1982.38.3-4.299
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.
American culture is structured by violence and power. I suppose this assertion will tend to be met with two alternative responses: “Duh!” … or, “How could you possibly claim that about such a free and democratic country–indeed, possibly the freest and most democratic the world has ever known?” What I’d like to offer is an anthropological explanation of how power and violence structure American culture. This explanation is probably rather different than what readers reacting with either response expect. Basically, American culture perpetuates values of violence in ways that make for compelling stories about power relationships and–ultimately–the sources of sovereign power, and through the drama inherent in participatory ritual and symbolically redundant cultural structures, these stories overwhelm us and simply blind us emotionally.
And the American structure of power production through actual violence against people, as well as symbolic representations of violence–well, it’s surprisingly similar to what David Graeber has recently described as the symbolic and practical engine for the cultural perpetuation of royal power in traditional and colonial Shilluk society in southern Sudan. The ruler is in constant antagonism with his ruled. The ruler strategically uses violence against the ruled in arbitrary ways, mimicking the incomprehensible arbitrariness of divine judgment, a belief in which is profoundly central to Shilluk theologically articulated beliefs in God. The ruler also uses warfare, not just to protect the kingdom or avenge violence by other groups or polities against the kingdom. He uses warfare to accumulate material resources AND to reproduce mythic stories of victory. As the ruler’s strength begins to wane, members of the court may move to remove him from power, the ritual process of which has been the focus of much anthropological discussion, going back to Frazer’s discussion of the Shilluk Kingdom in a later edition of the Golden Bough. (I won’t go into details. Some readers will be familiar with the Shilluk. For the rest of you, I strongly encourage readers to work their way through Graeber’s instructive and comprehensive review and discussion of Shilluk kingship, along with the anthropological scholarship on this ethnographic and ethnohistorical case. In either instance, familiarity with Shilluk society and culture over the past few centuries will challenge you to think about the similarities–despite apparent differences–with American culture.) Once the Shilluk king is removed from power, a year of ritual jockeying among eligible royalty begins. This involves the combination of actual lobbying and gift giving around the kingdom, demonstrations of power through the exercise of violence by and against candidates, and a ritual process of re-enacting mythical battles and wars prosecuted by the founding royal family several centuries ago. The story of bringing the country together through violent warfare involves charismatic rulers who exhibit the contradictory abilities of–at one moment–mimicking Divine arbitrary violence and–at the next moment–accomplishing heroic human achievements in the face of Divine natural forces … and–at the next moment–actually exhibiting concern for social order or fairness or well-being of the ruled. When a new king is finally installed, the mythic stories of Shilluk origins have been recapitulated through an intense social experience for all people in the kingdom. In many ways, the country is reborn, and the story reinforced as fundamentally relevant to the very existence of the ruled. The symbolic representation of warfare as similar but subordinate to divine arbitrary violence gets amplified; the origins myth gets retold, and the society sees how the polity’s position in the cosmic order gets recreated again and again, even as kings die and are replaced.
What is worth pointing out is that American culture is also favors violence in creating stories about political power, despite the notion that democracy should be peaceful. I don’t mean the obvious contradiction that the democratically focused US Constitution was approved with slavery legal and democratic participation strikingly limited, a historical legacy still influencing inequality and political division in American society. Rather, over the course of the later 20th century–and even more so after 9/11–external warfare and internal structural violence has coincided with an increasingly ritualized process of political succession, in which political strategizing–and media representations of political strategizing–have become ever more infused by sports and military symbols. The result is, further, that those in power may not be royalty who inherit their eligibility to rule by virtue of their genealogical lineage and kinship relationships (although that seems to help a lot, too, for the office of President). But while in office, they nevertheless are encouraged to allocate wholly arbitrary levels of power for the police and military forces to punish or kill, within the United States borders and without, all the time emphasizing values of decisiveness. Yet, when it’s election time, ritualized symbolic battle is the order of the day. We are often more diverted by political strategy and scorekeeping over the media successes and blunders of the candidates. The losing candidate is not dismissed, of course, in the dramatic Shilluk ritual way. But increasingly, losing an election may be especially difficult symbolic baggage to overcome.
The surprising effect on our political culture is that we valorize this political theater as being the democratic process itself, believing that it inherently maintains the values of peaceful representative decision-making, itself legitimized by electoral accountability. In the process, simply holding elections–whatever the systemic flaws in basic education, campaign finance law, voter registration, and voter participation–constitutes a re-enactment of bringing the country (or the school board or county commission or state government) into being through heroic, mythic battle.
Unfortunately, the violence that American culture tacitly–or sometimes very openly–values so much … well, it involves asserting social inequality as natural and legitimate. Winners are very often seen as naturally better, whether the victory was fair or unfair, a fluke or a real demonstration of inherent superiority. Yet, especially ambiguous victories are important, too. Was George Zimmerman asserting his legitimate right to use lethal force in self-defense, or did he really go too far in seeking to flaunt his power advantage over Trayvon Martin? Everyday occurrences of violence symbolically reinforce the role of violent conflict in bringing society together. And it is a society in which inequality is at once created, legitimized, and all-to-often willfully ignored by those who successfully use violence to institutionalize their power. One of the biggest challenges that American society faces is in recognizing this underlying problem. When we elect and inaugurate a powerful official, are we getting swept up in the drama and emotion of getting through the symbolically violent election process, consequently accepting an unfair social order? Or do we actually pay attention to underlying values of justice, well-being, tolerance and sustainability to inform our democratic participation and decision-making? When George Zimmerman is prosecuted (and the jury is literally out, with closing arguments by Zimmerman’s defense having been presented yesterday) over his violent victory over Trayvon Martin–a victory of only ambiguous political and legal legitimacy–do we end up thinking about and valuing tolerance more? Or are we just emotionally focused on restoring order or ritually overturning that order (which is what riots would amount to, if they did follow an acquittal of Zimmerman)?
The anthropological lesson, I think, is that rituals and stories dramatize our world in such a way that it makes completely clear symbolic sense, but by focusing our emotions on certain, truly dramatic values–“wow, it’s really nice to be on the winning team, which I deserve to be on, anyway,” or, “I sure got a raw deal, but at least society has a system in order, and anyway, that’s just the way such systems work … someone has to be the loser”–ritualized, symbolically intense discourse really diverts our attention. We don’t clearly see what the best actions for us–and others–might be for a sustainable, just, inclusive world over the long-term.