What happened in Paris on Friday is disturbing, depressing, devastating and terrifying. It’s enough to make anyone feel terror and outrage. When the unthinkable happens, it’s normal to have all different feelings and thoughts, whether they be anger, horror, grief or numbness. From my own personal experiences, I know how awful it is to be somewhere when terror happens. I also know that what is important is that these reactions stay peaceful and healthy and that they don’t become violent or aggressive actions.
In modern society, we don’t do the whole processing and healing thing well, especially not in the US. We expect ourselves to just “get over things” quickly when in reality humans don’t “get over” violence. We recover from terror but our lives are forever changed by trauma. Our society says “chin up” about grief, trauma, sadness and fear. Yet it coddles and enables anger and revenge. Again it’s okay to feel angry or to even want to avenge the victims and survivors. But how our country encourages anger and breeds entitlement-fueled revenge, that is not okay. It’s not okay to just react rather than deal with these feelings. And by deal, I mean that we respect our and others’ humanities, which means we process our feelings and let ourselves feel them in a safe and healthy way. We don’t just push them aside or fester in them unsafely until we’re ready to take out anyone who we so much as slightly perceive has done us wrong and/or poses a threat, not just to our well-being but also to our status and power. We must relinquish notions of our superiority and embrace equality. This is essential so that we don’t further the destruction and trauma in the world.
If this sounds kumbaya to you, I get it. I’ve gone through several stages in my life and at times these words would have sounded too simplistic and Pollyanna to me. But in doing DV work, which focuses on the micro manifestation of structural inequality, you learn that what is true in individual instances is also often true in systemic instances, especially when it comes to institutional oppression. So when a man believes he is superior to his female partner and can control and abuse her, we know this is a societal issue playing out on an interpersonal level. How does the DV world recommend you intervene with such a man? You hold him accountable by focusing on his actions and the consequences for them. He will come up with a million excuses but if you assertively repeat there is no excuse and the violence will end only when he starts making different choices, that’s when you may see change.
You won’t see change by pandering to his excuses or falling prey to them. You won’t see change by being vengeful yourself either with him or towards him. You won’t see change if you don’t lead by example.
The same is true in larger scale violence; terror attacks and mass shootings and such. Look I understand that there are times when self-defense is needed. There is immediate action needed when someone is or is without question about to carry out a violent act and our only choice then is to protect those in harm’s way. But how we handle and cope with our feelings in the aftermath of violence is different. That’s when we do have a choice. How do we choose to act? Are we going to pander to our revenge fantasies? Or are we going to recognize we don’t have the right to treat others horrendously no matter what?
While there might be overlap, reaction and prevention are different issues. So… how do we ensure innocent people aren’t stereotyped and lumped in with a group that harmed us and that we then seek to harm? Can we recognize that the people responsible for terrible acts also felt justified and vengeful and so if we react with what we perceive as justified violence then a worldwide cycle of violence is perpetuated? How do we end the cycle of violence and our entitled beliefs around when we have the “right” to use violence? We humanize even those who have dehumanized us. Dehumanizing beliefs and entitlement are always, always at the root of attacks because they lead people to feel justified in their abusive behavior. So if the global response is consistently that no one has the right to attack others then it will ultimately be a lot harder for any group to claim their violence is justified. So we must keep our own beliefs in check. Recognize it’s okay to have feelings but aggressive actions, whether verbal or physical, can have real and devastating consequences.
We can’t control what others do and people may very well make bad decisions, irrespective of our actions. So we can choose to react and seek revenge but that will not stop the violence. In the short-term choosing nonviolence may not stop the violence either but in the long run, it definitely will. And isn’t that what we really want? A peaceful, happy and healthy world where we can grow old and so can our children and then their children and so on? If that’s our goal then we need to be all holding ourselves accountable and really know what that means.