Swans Commentary » swans.com March 25, 2013  



Seeking A Moral Calculus


by Michael DeLang





(Swans - March 25, 2013)   A couple of news threads that have recently been playing out in both the American commercial media and the blogosphere have brought to mind William T. Vollman's massive study on violence, Rising Up And Rising Down. I speak specifically of the tragic gunning down of Connecticut schoolchildren and the ensuing storm of rhetoric regarding weapons legislation, and of President Barack Obama's overreaching executive program of tactical assassination of non-combatants, although any number of stories appearing in any given news cycle of the last few decades could easily apply.

Rising Up And Rising Down originally published by McSweeney's in 2003 in seven volumes comprising 3,500 pages, and subsequently followed up a year later by Ecco Press, with a much more manageable abridged version, is Vollman's twenty-three year project exploring the nature, origin, variety, and evolving social response to the presence of violence in our lives. The first half of the study is devoted to the theoretical construction of an extensive and detailed outline categorizing a wide spectrum of situations and circumstances under which violent means have been used to various ends. Vollman's stated goal, therein, is to create what he calls a "moral calculus" for the purpose of determining just when the use of violence can be justified and when it cannot. With all appropriate humility, the author concedes that the version he lays out should be thought of as neither comprehensive nor authoritative, but simply his own personal attempt to create a model for bringing some kind of intellectualized moral order to the issue.

In order to research his subject, the author spent more than two decades living and working in many of the most violence-ridden and war-torn districts on the globe. The second and longer portion of the study consists of what Vollman refers to as his case histories. The case histories include the author's first-hand observations of the practice of violence and its resulting effect on the psyche of the affected local populations. All continents and cultures are represented, although this reader observes that in a predominant number of the case histories the culture of violence is conspicuously accompanied by an abject state of poverty in which the violence is barely more deplorable than the already horrific living conditions. Included are hundreds of compelling interviews with both perpetrators and victims. Vollman is a gifted writer and his stories make for a compelling read.

In reading this material, however, the only consistent patterns that seem to emerge from the case histories for me are, ironically, ones that tend to undermine the fundamental premises on which Vollman attempts to construct his theory of the need for and achievability of a consensus moral calculus for determining when violence is justified and when it is not. One pattern I noted was that while there is certainly some portion of violent acts driven by expediency and greed, the vast majority of violent behavior, on one level or another, is fundamentally retaliatory in nature.

Perhaps the most telling sentence in the study appears in Vollman's attempt to identify the root causes of the currency of violence in the turf wars of the Jamaican ghettos, when he ultimately concludes that "through habit and retaliation, it caused itself. The children learned violence from their parents, and it's been going downhill ever since."

The second and more critical pattern I noted was that in every individual case, without exception, whether it be the purges of Josef Stalin, the extermination of non-Aryan elements by Hermann Goring, the devastation of the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by Truman, the killing fields of Pol Pot, the mowing down of fellow students by Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris at Columbine High School, the pre-emptive and allegedly surgical assassinations carried out by CIA drones in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, or the fourteen-year-old boy soldier brandishing his AK-47 on the streets of Mogadishu, the agent of violence always believes his own to be fully justified within the context of his own moral calculus.

Although Vollman respectfully acknowledges and references Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King and their respective faiths in the power of non-violence numerous times in the study, it remains clear that he finds in them an inadequate and ineffectual response to what he chooses to categorize as "unjustified" violence. He seems to subscribe, rather, in a belief that violence is either innate to our species or, at best, a problem so thoroughly entrenched and endemic as to be insurmountable. Instead, he believes that some kind of program regulating violence to well-defined acceptable standards will be both productive and possible.

And here is where I believe the doctrines of non-violence promoted and practiced by Gandhi and Dr. King demonstrate a deeper understanding of the very nature of violence, recognizing that is primarily the product of prior violence, as well as the wellspring of future violence. The doctrine of non-violence understands that when it comes to violence, there is no relevant distinction that can be legitimately drawn between ends and means. Violence is always the end. However passionately and imaginatively the thirst for violence weaves the guise of a greater end under which violence can masquerade as means, it is the desire for violence that initiates, and the faith in violence that executes, an end immersed in a violence that from the outset seeks to justify itself.

Until we collectively, as a society, refuse to accept any act of violence as justifiable or acceptable; until we recognize every act of pre-emptive violence against an imagined, contrived, or even legitimately potential threat to be a criminal act, as well as ultimately fruitless; until we identify the practice of arming the teachers in our children's schools as the insanity that it is, and not a desperate solution; until we, as individuals, each commit ourselves to abandoning violence as an honorable means of protecting ourselves from the world in which we live, we will be doomed to an endless recycling of the unnecessary suffering it inevitably brings in its wake.


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About the Author

Michael DeLang is a self-defined middle-aged blue collar worker in the trucking industry who lives in Golden, Colorado.   (back)


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Published March 25, 2013