“That wild beast, which lives in man and does not dare to show itself until the barriers of law and custom have been removed, was now set free.” (Ivo Andric, the Bridge over the Drina, concerning the first pan-slavic genocide in 1914)

After the recent body-slamming incident by my now state representative, Gianforte, I’m withholding judgment on the incident at least aesthetically. You see, as a fan of jiujitsu, wrestling, and pretty much any overly violent sport that I ought to be ashamed to watch or participate in, I need to know if the slam was in-form or sloppy. I can’t stand sloppy, bar-room fighting. Of course, there’s also the more serious matter of what these actions mean in the political realm, and it’s that which I’ll comment on in this post. In fact, I want to discuss how the move, performed well or poorly, is similar to, really, our political discourse as a whole today.

In this regard, I need to make clear that I actually don’t approve of Gianforte’s actions (because
some will inevitably try to interpret me as such), and here’s my direct critique.

  • Because you’re annoyed by a reporter doesn’t mean you get to harm a reporter. If you’re willing to take on the job of campaigning in the modern political world, surely you know that you’re going to be confronted by those who disagree with you–and that, indeed, you should be confronted by such persons.
  • Free speech and freedom of information mean a willingness and commitment on all sides to ask and answer questions of all kinds, even those we don’t like–ones that threaten us, and perhaps even especially those questions that threaten us.
  • The notion that manliness is the same as machismo will continue to rule the day through this action, disallowing any real and honest exploration of what manliness might mean in the modern world. That sucks.

Notice that my critique doesn’t actually have to do with the violence exuded. I feel such a critique would be self-contradictory, and here’s why.

First, we’ve inexplicably duped ourselves in the modern world into thinking that we’re non-violent, and we’re appalled by the crudities of such violence. You can no doubt guess that I think that’s a massive pile of bullshit. We are simply as alienated from our violence today as we are our labor, to use a good Marxist argument. The calm streets that we can generally walk down result from the possibility of force that we hire police officers to use to suppress the more sociopathic elements of our community. People listen because officers carry guns, and we’ve outsourced that responsibility to them. The gas station itself is a result of outsourced violence as well, American guns and military might protect strategic and national, oil-based interests around the world, allowing us to drive to and from work, the doctor’s office, and our children’s games. Our food comes from a violent place. If we don’t hunt, we outsource our meat creation to ranchers and butchers, paying them to kill our prey and cut such into convenient strips for us. We’re not a lot better in this regard as vegetarians or vegans: we’ve still asked a farmer to plow over innumerable mouse, gopher, mole, and insect homes for the sake of crop-growth, destroying the lives of once creatures for the sake of agricultural interests. No, far from being non-violent in the modern world, we simply hire it out, outsource it and give it to others, a point that I’ll come back to momentarily.

Second, we can find one of the main ways that we use violence on an average everyday basis in our political discourse. In Plato’s Gorgias, the master of speech-making himself, Gorgias, admits that words can be used as cudgels, fists, or swords, implying that this might be their very point:

One should use oratory like any other competitive skill, Socrates. In other cases, too, one ought not to use a competitive skill against anybody and everybody, just because he has learned boxing, or boxing and wrestling combined, or fighting in armor, so as to make himself superior to his friends as well as to his enemies. That’s no reason to strike, stab, or kill one’s friends! (456d)

Of course, the implication of this short paragraph, to which Socrates greatly disagrees, is that words should be used in a competitive manner: to strike down, harm, and humiliate, even if not one’s friends.

What I’m getting at here is simple: most political “discourse” today has turned into political monologue, and I’m not again merely talking Trump, here. Those, for instance, who espouse today’s form of political correctness do so with monologue and violence in their back pockets as well, shutting down discourse and enforcing a viewpoint. And why is this monologue so bad? It inherently means excluding listening to one’s interlocutor and instead finding accusations, critiques, and oddities in the person or his or her views that will help you and your side win the argument. (Granted, not all persons are worth listening to, but we have to be willing to ask a question and not merely assert a pre-determined no before making these judgments.) This argument is naught but a war of violent words, meant to hurt, meant to discredit, and meant to diminish the other. It is meant to violate: violate the other’s integrity, character, and, perhaps, good intentions.

Now, I grant that there’s a distinction between verbal and physical violence, absolutely. Sticks and stones and all that. Yet, we need not look far back into our history to see where words and their violent usage unfold into physical violence as well. Peter Maass in his Love Thy Neighbor, details the second Yugoslavian genocide, which took place only 26 years ago. For those who remember it (I was 12 at the time),  the leader of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Miloševic, himself a part of the Serbian ethnic faction, denounced those in especially the Croation and Bosnian, inciting accusations that these persons were soon going to destroy Yugoslavian culture and identity while simultaneously raping Serbian children. The accusations unfolded into that exact thing, only moving the opposite direction: with Serbs committing genocide against their Bosnian and Croatian neighbors, as in people directly next door to them with whom they used to go swimming! (Sidenote: this is why Trump’s words against immigrants, illegal or legal, has fostered concern in me, and why a simple dismissal of the 1% can be unhelpful.) Maass ends the book in a response to Andric’s quote at the top of the page, writing

Muslims versus Christians, Jews versus non-Jews, whites versus blacks, poor versus rich–there are so many seams along which a society can be torn apart by manipulators. These are the lessons of Bosnia that have stayed with me and, perhaps, altered me. The wild beast is out there, and the ground no longer feels so steady under my feet. (277)

Words, despite not causing physical harm, fester in us as the catalysts to such harm, all while allowing us to uphold ourselves as seemingly rational and peaceful creatures. In our war-like political words today lies the potential for erasing that thin veneer between civilization and our baser animal instincts, which seek only to dominate the other for the sake of our own.

So, when we look at Gianforte’s actions, let’s condemn them, yes. Let’s also use them to take a good look at our political talk and begin to see it for what it is: a verbal boxing match setup to de-dignify, hate, and despise the other side. And this is absolutely not a creation of merely Trump (after all, “they cling to their guns and religion”); it is the political status quo. To this I say about Gianforte’s actions the following.

Get over the physical violence of it on this one, or else change your ways. After all, we’re not merely as peaceful as we pretend to be; hence my point above about outsourced, very physcial violence. Indeed, given our accusatory and de-dignifying ways of talking, we ought not to be so surprised when actual violence breaks out of our words of violence. Alas, Gianforte’s actions are the natural result of our current forms of communication, which are naught but ideologized and idolized monologue, meant to destroy and violate the other whom they touch. In this sense, while I’d absolutely defend the rights of the reporter in this case whatever his words, my guess is that the reporter who confronted Gianforte used words in precisely the type of way I’m discussing above: violently. At least Gianforte accuses him (likely for some self-justificatory means) of this type of action, pestering him and shoving a mic in his face.

Thus, let’s not be so surprised when violence begets violence: that is the right mantra of all pacifists after all, and in this regard, we ought not to be so surprised in our modern world of diatribe–a world in which, again, we pretend is peaceful–unfolds into real violence, even if only of a Looney Toon variety in this particular case, thankfully. Let’s, however, seek a real form of communication, which I think is found alone in a Christian appropriation of Socratic dialogue.

These things said, I stand here at a standstill. On the one hand, my goal in this short piece is to expose the violence contained within all of us so as to beckon us to something bigger and better, to at least try to uphold an important line between ourselves and the beasts by taking up true philosophical dialogue: dialogue that seeks truth and not political points and wins. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that we’ll do so. After all, we’ve swum in this kind of bog of verbal, if not physical, violence for at least 2500 years given that Plato was writing about it as well. And, even if that veneer’s false, loose, and light, I want the veneer kept up between our purportedly non-violent words and actions because rape and genocide does actually hurt more than threats, and I’ve obviously little pretense that we’ll collectively take up philosophical forms of dialogue as our mainstay in conversation.