The predictable, self-righteous clucking by privileged White commentators of various stripes that followed especially upon the Ferguson rioting (which followed upon a grand jury result that shows every sign of having been aggressively manipulated so as to avoid, even preclude, any indictment of the White cop who killed an unarmed Black teenager) betrays a level of willful obtuseness that is truly beyond all measure. Add to this now the similar refusal to indict in the Garner case in Staten Island, and the shock and outrage in minority communities has reached levels not seen since the 1960’s. This rage continues to leave many people – almost entirely White people, and regardless, almost certainly members of some significantly privileged collection of people – completely dumb-founded as to the reason why this rage is fulminating in so many minority communities, a rage that often expresses itself blindly in violence. Why are black people, especially, so angry? Why do they lash out so violently at their own communities? These respective cases went before their grand juries, and when presented with all of the evidence, the grand juries said that there was not evidence enough for an indictment. Isn’t this how the system is supposed to work?
But that, of course, is precisely the problem: that IS how the system is supposed to work. The system IS supposed to dismiss the value of minority, especially black, lives. Because the system that we live in is one of monstrously institutionalized racism in which black people can be safely viewed as not even human by people who insist that this is not a problem. Yes, the system “worked.” Such “working” is the moral catastrophe of our age.
I wish to make two points here, the first is quite patently clear, while the second and longer point will be far more problematically speculative. Point #1 is that, while rioting – which is not at all the same as civil disobedience – is almost certainly not helpful, it is understandable. The second, far more speculative, point is an approach toward such an understanding that I’ve not seen suggested elsewhere.
To the first point then: The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King was a man with significant direct and personal connection to the kinds of oppression that can lead to violent outbursts in the midst of despair fueled rage. Yet, despite (or, perhaps, because of) this personal acquaintance, King declared that:
I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. – Grosse Pointe High School, March 1968 (my emphasis.)
(A sidebar here: yes, I do insist on speaking of the Reverend Doctor King by his full title, especially when I first mention his thought or actions or person in a post. I refuse to apologize for this evident redundancy. Too often, in my experience, the full scope and character of his scholarly, professional, and personal achievements are not acknowledged. In particular, I’ve encountered a number of people of a decidedly progressive bent who are profoundly uncomfortable with the fact that the American Civil Rights movement was thoroughly and ineluctably religious in character.)
Indeed, as King points out, “a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt” – we are certainly seeing no end of that, especially in the conservative media. This has led to media intensified orgies of White paranoia and self-righteousness, and at least a little bit of tragic irony. At the same time, more than a few folks have focused on the last sentence in the above, specifically the part in italics: “a riot is the language of the unheard.” This phrase has been circulating widely on social media such as Facebook, albeit without the wider context in which King stated it. Nevertheless, King is making it clear that while riots are not to be condoned, and are certainly not helpful in the broader program of advancing civil rights, they can be understood as a reaction to a situation in which people have been completely disenfranchised and dehumanized. One does not bother to listen to mere objects, or mere cattle. Why, then, should one listen to Black _____ that do not even qualify as persons? (Recall that Officer Darren Wilson spoke of Michael Brown’s face not as his face, but only as IT.)
We must realize here that – logically, at least – there is a divide of infinite expanse between understanding something and justifying that thing. An oncologist does not vindicate cancer by looking studying it; a firefighter does not advocate arson by knowing what it means to burn. They might both love the thing they study (a little), but that is only to better destroy it. Understanding why people riot is not vindicating them for doing so, any more than understanding the chemistry of arsenic is a legitimization of poisoning.
So, with that in mind, we come to my second point: how might we approach an understanding of violence to one’s self such as the riots in Ferguson? Much has been said – in the form of logical argument and developed narrative – about the nature of the despair and desperation that leads to such self-destructive acts of violence. But might there be a more personal analogy that cuts – as it were – closer to the bone on this topic? I believe there is.
This is a very real phenomenon, practiced by a large number of people at one time or another. I am not talking about ritual scarification here, because this latter is practiced with pride and in the open in its various forms and various cultures. Ritual scarification must be taken to include such thing as piercings and tattoos, which are widely accepted in our own culture. But cutting is generally viewed as shameful even (even especially!) by those who practice it. And yet they do it anyway. As the article above points out, the number of persons who practice cutting at one time or another in their lives is significantly greater than many of us might suppose. (For the record, I’ve never been a cutter. I can hardly watch as I’m given an injection or have blood drawn.)
So the question becomes, “Why? Why do that?”
The general answer seems to be, “to feel something. To actually see that you are still alive.”
Cutters more or less universally report that the physical act of cutting is really nothing; there is no discernible sense of pain involved. Rather, there is this enormous feeling of both relief and release, as the emotional pain, the agonizing struggles they were drowning in, struggles that evidently defied even the possibility of articulation, momentarily evaporate in the face of flowing, red life. “Look at that! I’m still alive!”
I submit that there is a strong analogy between cutters and the rioters in places like Ferguson. I also submit that there is a strong correlation between those who cannot fathom cutting, and those who find the riots in Ferguson and analogous places inexplicable. (Notice that the people who unqualifiedly damn the Ferguson riots tend to skip over, with a wink and a not, white people riots. Part of the reason seems likely to be that the former have to do with gross injustices that The Privileged do not wish to acknowledge, while the latter have to do with sports victories that The Privileged DO wish they could participate in.) I do not suggest that either cutting or rioting is genuinely helpful – surely there are more effective paths to self-expression than cutting, if only other people would listen in the first place? But by the time it has come to that, even if other people are listening, the cutter feels so dehumanized, so dismissed and disconnected, that not only can you not hear them; at that point, they cannot even hear themselves. Not, that is, …
Until it bleeds. And for one, vanishingly brief moment they think, “Look at that! I’m still alive!”
Not, that is …
Until it burns.