by Andreas Saugstad
The world is not always as we think it is. I do believe that human beings can have a true and veridical access to external reality, but many of our opinions are shaped by our culture and social context.
I think George Bush is such a person, who lacks the ability to go beyond conventionalism, and see how the world really is. I have paid attention to Bush in the media for a while now, and he always talks tabloid, never penetrating into the deep structure of phenomena.
One of those who radically differs from Bush, and always penetrates into the deep structure of political phenomena, is Johan Galtung (1930-). Norwegian scholar Johan Galtung is the founder of peace research as an academic discipline, professor at seven universities, and author of more than 50 books and 1,000 articles.
One of Galtung’s key concepts is structural violence. Often when we use the term “violence,” we think of direct or physical violence. But Galtung has seen how violence can have many faces, and that evil can exist in many subtle and evil ways. Structural violence is violence that does not hurt or kill through fists or guns or nuclear bombs, but through social structures that produce poverty, death and enormous suffering. Structural violence may be political, repressive, economic and exploitative, it occurs when the social order directly or indirectly causes human suffering and death.
Let me give a few examples of the existence of such non-physical, but brutal violence. I the USA 30 million people live below the poverty line and receive their food from soup kitchens. Others can do whatever they want. When George Bush now wants to do a $ 1,35 trillion tax relief, it will reduce the lived human potential in the poor and perhaps even cause many deaths. Without using guns, Bush creates a structural order where the poor are repressed, and rich get richer. This political move is a subtle kind of violent act, which is possible in the modern society we live in today. George Bush is the opposite of Robin Hood: while Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor, George Bush takes from the tax money which could have been used for welfare, and gives a tax reduction to those who already are rich.
Other examples do also exist. The top three individuals own more than the bottom 48 countries; the richest 358 people in the world are richer than the poorest 45 percent of the world’s population (ca. 2.5 billion people); and 24,000 people die of hunger every day. More facts about social injustice like this can be found at inequality.org In Vietnam, workers at Nike’s factories earn a little more than $ 2 per day. In the worst cases these workers have to choose between paying their rent or having three meals per day.
Peace researchers talk about the global division of labour. Factory jobs and manual labour are carried out in the third world, while the “brain-drain” phenomenon gives USA the best brains which makes the country a technological center. The inequalities in the world are simply enormous. While Norwegian capitalists make “cabins” with 37 toilets, teenagers in Romania live in the gutter and even in the sewerage system.
Political systems that reinforce such class differences may indeed be called violent. When tax money goes to military research instead of inner city welfare, it is an example of structural and direct violence being carried out.
So what is the key to solve such problems? A part of it may have to do with how we may be moral human beings. The patterns of discrimination, injustice and exploitation are built into practices, and cultural patterns that we hardly notice or think of. And the ideologies and cosmologies that defend the unjust structures and patterns, are examples of cultural violence. The Republican rhetoric in the USA, for instance, uses the term “freedom” to justify the capitalist system, and lack of solidarity. Such deep cultural rhetoric, must be brought to the light, and we must change thinking and behaviours.
Some people think that the ongoing patterns, habits and conventions always should be accepted. But they seem to miss an important point. They forget that the way we act and live is often contingent, quite random and determined by the specific culture we live in, and that often in history our practices must be replaced and transcended. There is no reason to think that the behavioural patterns or the social structures we find in the Western culture today represent a final and infallible ethical code.
Take, for instance, the American civil war in 1865, where a whole culture of slavery had to be rejected; or think of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa; or those Germans under the second world war, who had the courage to struggle against the Nazi government. These examples show us how we sometimes must change our moral code, transcend contemporary society and come up with new alternatives for morality and new forms of life.
The way we live is often established in social contexts. Think of all the rules, conventions, rituals and opinions we are given by our culture. Think of all the information we are given by family, friends, school and the media, and how this must influence us. We belong to a form of life, where we accept the given without much protest. So when a Galtung or Chomsky shouts about injustice,
we may tend to ignore it.
As Zygmunt Bauman, the Polish sociologist, has emphasized, morality is not the same as simply following a norm accepted by the society surrounding us.
A key point when we analyze the evil of Nazi Germany is to see how the Nazis uncritically followed authorities and had a tendency to accept conventions without reflection. An essential trait of Nazi Germany life was conformity, that the citizens of the old Nazi Germany destroyed their lives and the lives of six million Jews by going with the flow. By contrast, Bauman suggests that the moral agent must break with practice, he must sometimes be able and willing to reject his culture and its morality. Zygmunt Bauman thus suggests that as moral agents we should be able to perform act of autonomy, not merely living lives of compliance and conformity. The Holocaust showed us this: Conformity and uncritical acceptance of conventions and habits may have horrifying effects.
But that may be true today as well. The contemporary social injustice is one of the greatest evils the world has ever seen. We need change the arrogance of the Western civilization. We must be willing to follow the road less traveled and hope that others will join us, when we show the way.
Can you consume less and help someone who suffers? Can you open your heart the next time you see someone living in poverty? Can you avoid buying Nike shoes? Are you willing to demonstrate against contemporary free market economy? Are you willing to spend slightly less money on yourself, and give more to the poor? Which attitudes do you communicate to the surrounding world, competition or social empathy and love? I am not saying we should not enjoy ourselves or live ascetic lives (on the contrary!) but think for a moment: how can your skills be used to help, rather than to simply climb on the social ladder?
Are we willing to reject consumerism, capitalism, careerism and narcissism?
Those who belong to the rich part of the world must be willing to sacrifice some of their own privileges. They must be willing to work for the best of humanity in general. This, however, demands that we substitute the present praxis with a slightly different form of life. As Jean-Paul Sartre says, we must be able to transcend the situation, and we must work to decrease the gap between present and ideal reality.
I don’t think George Bush is capable of changing the structures and patterns of American and international politics. The cultural violence from IMF (International Monetary Fund) and WTO (World Trade Organization) legitimizes the gap between rich and poor.
Maybe the change will come when ordinary people start to act.
Maybe a few original, non-conform individuals can start to work for change, and eventually, the world will go through radical reforms.
Wherever you are, you may be creative and struggle for social justice. Solidarity is a life style, and is different from contemporary cynicism and capitalist nihilism. Semper plangere! -Always complain! And one day the world will change.