When Mahatma Gandhi wanted to teach his grandson about the violence in society, he instructed him to work on a family tree of violence--using the same methods one might for a genealogical tree.
"Violence has two children," the elder Gandhi told his fifth grandson, "the physical and passive forms. Now, every day before you go to bed I would like you to write under each heading everything you experienced during the day and its relationship with violence."
In Inga Muscio's most recent book, the feminist and anti-imperialist author explores the ways this everyday violence impacts our lives.
Ariel Gore: In your book Rose: Love in Violent Times, you spend a good deal of time on definitions. For the purpose of this interview, can you give us brief working definitions of love, violence, and abuse?
Inga Muscio: Love is a positive, symbiotic, reciprocal flow between two or more entities.
Violence is any action or thought that negates the growth of (a.k.a. retards) love.
Abuse is the means in which violence retards love.
You've noted that this quote from Arun Gandhi was an inspiration for your book: "Acts of passive violence generate anger in the victim, and... it is passive violence that fuels the fire of physical violence... If we wish to put out the fire of physical violence we have to cut off the fuel supply."
Inga Muscio at home in Seattle
Can you expand on what this means to you? Sometimes the notion of passive violence is hard for me to wrap my mind around. I mean, if I don't have a black eye, nothing happened, right?
Inga Muscio: This doesn't surprise me, as we are surrounded by passive violence. Describing passive violence in this culture is kinda like someone who is drowning in the middle of the ocean giving you the low-down on water.
The only way you can really understand passive violence is by going somewhere far, far away from phones, news, TV, the internet. This can be done geographically, obviously, but also psychologically, spiritually or emotionally.
Once you step back and look around, you'll be confronted with all the ways you partake in passive violence and you'll probably be horrified by many of your friends and family members. This is the same thing that happens when white or white-identified people step back and look at white supremacist racism, which is a cornerstone of passive violence. It's personal. It's very intimate. On some level, we all sense this and so back away from it. Your present relationships and worldview will be impacted when you start noticing passive violence.
That being said, when I read that quote by Arun Gandhi, my world shifted because he named something that I have always noticed, but never understood or defined for myself. Passive violence can be as simple as someone honking their horn at you for not turning fast enough when the light changes. And it can be highly complex, like when your co-worker undermines all of your work relationships by spreading rumors and lies about you.
That's how passive violence rolls.
Passive violence often has a very stealth nature. It happens in a look, an omission only you notice—and indeed, are meant to notice. Acts of passive violence are often very involved, difficult to describe, and sound "petty" when recounted, thus ensuring the silence of those affected.
This is why it does not surprise me that when Gandhi told his grandson to write all the acts of passive and physical violence he encountered each day, Arun quickly filled a wall with acts of passive violence, while the physical violence side was sparsely populated.
In fact, for people who don't understand passive violence, this might be a good exercise.
Here's an example of passive violence in the media that I came across recently. It's from The Seattle Times, in an article about a sculptural bust Chief Sealth's (“Chief Seattle’s”) oldest daughter, who the whites called "Princess Angeline," and whose real name was Kikisoblu:
"It's the iconic image of Angeline that, for Seattleites at the beginning of the 20th century, represented reverence for the indigenous people of this place, while at the same time they were being pushed aside in the name of progress."
Isn't that fascinating? How the whites revere (feel deep respect and admiration for) the indigenous people while they were being pushed aside: BY THE WHITES. How do you respect someone and push them aside at the same time? And what does "pushed aside" mean, exactly? Also, while we're at it, what is "progress" and how is it measured?
The passive violence of paragraphs like that fascinates me, so I often have the opportunity to be fascinated.
Ariel Gore: When horrific acts of violence take place, my instinct is not to watch the news. This is in part because the news media exploits these things, but there's an element of denial on my part, too. How do you stay conscious about what's going on in the world without downward-spiraling into a pit of despair?
Inga Muscio: Here are some general coping mechanisms that work for me:
1. Laugh I have a really dark, rich, thick sense of humor. You do as well, so I'm sure it provides some balance in your heart.
I have laughter dates with myself, where I find comics on youtube and watch them. Louis CK was my first laughter date a couple years ago. I'll also watch those videos of people doing idiotic things. That cracks me up. Trampoline, rooftop, swimming pool: "What if we do this?" Hahahaha. I seek out hilarity and laugh out loud as much as possible.
2. Dance I dance. A lot. I work grief and sadness out of my body when I dance, and I bring in joy and rhythm.
3. Grieve There is a massive continuum of violence on the planet. Our children are killing children and being killed in Afghanistan. Parents in Kabul are just as devastated as the ones in places like, say, Newtown Connecticut. But because they are dying far away from us, because there is a convoluted rhetoric behind it, people who feel bad for the people who lose their children in mass shootings often feel nothing for the people who lose their children the so-called war on terror. I do not experience this disconnect. I do grieve for the children in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think about them every day. I hope they can go to school and come home safely. I hope our soldiers can see their families again and adjust back into having some kind of non-trauma dictated life. So, while the circumstances of how senseless deaths close to home arise is perhaps somehow more shocking than the deaths of children in other places in the world, I am fully aware that this continuum of violence will spare no one. What we are doing in the Middle East is a power source for setting off other acts of violence, in concentric circles for thousands and thousands of miles.
That's how physical violence rolls.