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My Turn: Culture of violence

For the Monitor
Published: 4/9/2021 10:00:17 AM

It is distressing to watch the fear-driven emotional, physical and financial violence escalating in our country and throughout the world. I’m tempted to close my eyes to the painful view that we are becoming our own worst enemies. However, in conversation and when I encounter the daily news, some words come up again and again as insistent reminders of the worst side of the human condition. Among them are Sept. 11, Jan. 6, terrorism, racism, QAnon, white supremacy, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, far right, far left, and the nuclear bomb clock. Do not these images confirm “the beast in man (sic) let loose?”

These eleven words motivate me to search for answers to Elliot Ackerman’s question, “what societal sins are we reluctant to see?” A sample includes:

The Monitor reported the experience of teenager Victoria Chen suffering racist accusations from a man shouting from his passing car.

A Democratic congressman recently passed up an elevator ride with some Republicans. He refused to see or accompany those who voted against certification of Biden’s election.

There are many GOP lawmakers closing their eyes and playing down the Jan. 6 insurrection, seeing it only as simply a “protest.”

There are immovable positions held by partisan, party-loyal legislators on everything from the climate and energy to immigration, race, gender and the economy. Those obeisant to their political party and its positions wear blinders obscuring options that might result in shared ideas and solutions across the aisle. Also, political obduracy spreads an epidemic of angry, kicking and screaming constituents.

There is a blind acceptance for the growth of a militarized police culture. Right here in New Hampshire, the city of Keene has advertised in the Monitor for police officers who are “individuals with military experience.” Also, many municipal police forces are consulting with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to train police officers. They learn the militarized techniques the IDF uses in occupied Palestinian territory against Palestinians.

There are legislative attempts to pretend the violence of racism and sexism do not exist in New Hampshire. HB 544, “relative to the propagation of divisive topics,” seeks to limit public schools, organizations or state contractors from discussing topics related to racism and sexism, and would specifically ban teaching that the state of New Hampshire or the U.S. are racist or sexist. (This bill has now been attached to the budget bill.)

Perhaps one of the most severe blind spots is the paucity of attention given to the nation’s possession of nuclear weapons. For the last two years, the minute hand on the Doomsday Clock has been within two minutes to midnight. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reports that the minute hand has been moved another 20 seconds closer to the midnight hour. It is now 100 seconds to midnight, a metaphor illustrating how close the world is to a catastrophic nuclear war. When faced with this report, some people feel patriotic pride and others feel patriotic distress. (I remember, many years ago, the government and public reactions when the Berrigan brothers hammered dents into delivery systems for nuclear bombs). Yet nuclear weapons continue to be updated, widely distributed and ready for immediate launch.

Then there are so many reports of shootings they are becoming the norm in our country.

We need more than coercive laws and executive orders to restrain the growing culture of fear-driven anger and aggression. Laws do not change the basic attitudes, feelings and values of people. Jennifer Herdt wrote in her book Forming Humanity, “Human emotion is the foundation and the protector of a culture.” Yale University undergraduates are beginning to recognize the importance of their emotional frame of mind. The largest attendance of any course in Yale’s 316-year history is a course on Happiness, Psychology and the Good Life. Over half of Yale’s undergraduates (1,182) are enrolled in Psychology professor Laurie Santos’ class. She tries to teach students how they may lead happier, more satisfying lives.

David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, writes that part of the solution to the threats on democracy in our nation is to increase college courses in humanities. Students need to read poetry, great literature, philosophy and theology. This experience may lead to class experiences of shared ideas, curious questioning, emotional involvement and real, values-driven discourse. “Even at the pre-school level,” Andrea Buttrick, former teacher at a Reggio Emilia inspired children’s center in Tucson, writes, “children can be introduced to the human experience of learning in relationship, problem solving, of building democratic communities, and of the urgent, pleasure-filled, experience of teaching and learning alongside each other.”

The country may need interim laws and regulations to build structures of government that enforce equal justice for all people, but enforcement works only with the emotional consent of the population. Those eleven goading words may push us into the heartfelt determination to tame that beast in us that has been let loose. There may be a new word to describe our actions: Humanitarian.

(John Buttrick of Concord can be reached at johndbuttrick@gmail.com.)

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