Most of us are probably familiar with Johan Galtung’s ‘typology of violence’. As a peace researcher Galtung is known for developing the term and theory of structural violence. The concept of structural violence dawned on him while seeing the victims of poverty in India. People were suffering and yet the cause for the suffering was not another person (direct violence) but the collective economic structure (structural violence). Later, he added the notion of cultural violence to grasp a diffuse phenomenon so central in the reproduction of cycles of violence- how identity construction and the production of limited, incarcerated subjectivities contributed to the human ability to enact violence without necessarily being conscious of it (e.g. the implicit ways children are taught that someone is ‘Other’ by their mothers).
Exploring this strand of thinking further a few years ago, I came upon a blog by Otto Scharmer on what he termed ‘attentional violence’. Scharmer, who was a student of Galtung, shares how it dawned on him that there is yet another form of violence that tends to be even more invisible, unrecognized, and pervasive: attentional violence. With this term he captured something that seems at the core of violence as a phenomenon. Looking at the interpersonal level in micro-detail, he discovers the following:
“Attentional violence is to not to be seen and recognized in terms of who you really are–in terms of your highest future possibility. Instead you are only seen in terms of your journey of the past, that is, in terms of the circumstances of the past, in terms of who you happen to be today. People are blind or ignorant of that aspect of yourself, that isn’t (fully) born or manifest as of yet. Who is the victim of such attentional violence? It’s our highest future possibility, our essential or authentic Self.
When our authentic self and highest future possibility is not seen, then its future potential is cut off from the evolution of the present. It does not have a holding space where it could land, were it could presence itself. Not being seen is a form of violence because it violates fundamental human needs. Our culture (following Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) thinks of material needs as more fundamental than our spiritual needs (such as being seen in one’s highest potential). I believe that is dead wrong. When do your social and spiritual needs start? at 1200 calories a day? 1500 calories? 2000?
Its the wrong question. Spiritual, social, and material basic needs are always present with us. The attentional violence today hits most people on earth all the time. But it hits the hardest those of us, who happen to live in marginalized groups (including youth in general), in which people are habitually not recognized and not referred to in terms of their true future potential. All great teachers, leaders, and educators are highly developed in terms of seeing the other (the student) in their highest future possibility. In fact, SEEING that highest future possibility in the other IS the essence of great education and leadership.”
Scharmer shares a story of his own in relation to this kind of ‘seeing’:
“When i was a student i once interviewed a great philosopher. His name is Vitorio Hösle. I probably had read 2000 pages of his work before visiting him. He was like a living Plato to me–in fact, i still think he is. The mere fact that HE was TALKING to ME was kind of mind blowing. He took me and my question as serious as if i was on an equal level with him. I couldn’t believe it. But what really floored me was the end of the conversation. He looked at me and said: “Otto, i expect great things of you in the future.” i almost fainted. i thought “Who is he talking to? Cant be possibly me. Cant be the unknown student who is sitting in front of him now.” But clearly, there was no other person in the room. Is he really talking about — me? – All I can say is that his remark had a big long term impact on me. He saw something that i was totally unaware of. But when he said it i had truly no idea what and whom he was talking about…” (Blog, Otto Scharmer, Stowe, Vermont, August 2008)
After reading Scharmer’s idea on attentional violence, I began to imagine a remedy, considering something akin to an ‘intentional presence’. I was working with an organisation whose core focus was on studying and preventing violence. Yet inside the organisation, conflicts were really violent, if not physically so, then definitely structurally, culturally and attentionally. This led us in 2012 to undertake an internal inquiry as staff, attempting to face some of the legacies of apartheid that were so clearly present in the nature of the internal conflict the organisation was experiencing. Battlelines had been drawn along the question of ‘who produces knowledge’ and what in the organisation constitutes ‘knowledge’. This was based on observations that the comments, inputs, writing contributions from white staff members were received very differently to those of black staff members, leading to vastly different terms of access to opportunities such as travel, presenting at conferences, etc.
This meant in the inquiry we were going right to the heart of some of the patterns of internalised oppression and internalised superiority that continue to reproduce real and imagined forms of exclusion and discrimination in South Africa. This lived on in form of tangible painful inequalities in the organisation and had produced a fierce and highly emotional racial divide. As I prepared for the co-facilitation of this inquiry, I came upon the following quote on powerlessness:
“When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you….when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing. It takes some strength of soul—and not just individual strength but collective understanding—to resist this void, this non-being, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard.” -Adrienne Rich
Hence, we started the inquiry with this question of being seen – firstly being seen at all, then being seen for who I really am, and yet further, being seen not only in my current self but in terms of my highest future possibility. This became a central tenet in the conversations that followed. Slowly, a new awareness about impact of being ‘being seen’ (or not) emerged and the meaning of recognition was reconsidered in the organisation. First of all, people started greeting each other again, and doing so consciously. It may seem small fry, but the act of actually taking time to open doors and saying ‘hello’ to one another, mattered greatly in the transformations that followed. The act of greeting shifted the climate in the organisation from the incredible tension that had ruled the corridors for months prior. The simple act of greeting and saying ‘I see you’ in the mornings opened the door in more than a literal way; it marked a turning point in the internal conflict history of the organisation.
As we were reflecting on the impact of this simple gesture, we came upon another insight on violence. We asked ourselves where the energy and intensity of hate had been coming from, given that here were colleagues many of whom had worked together for years, if not been in decades of struggle together. Many practitioners cited their sense of increasing pressure and pace in order to ‘prevent violence’ in the society. The less this succeeded (despite the organisation fully dedicated to this cause, violence levels are undeterred if not rising in South Africa), the more pressure activist colleagues felt to ‘do more’ and ‘go faster’. At the same time, there was a sense that this kept everyone ‘in a rut’ and contributed to the tension and escalation of the internal conflict. Doing more of the same seemed no longer an option and produced in fact the opposite result of what we all intended to achieve.
In the course of those conversations, another quote crossed my path:
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by non-violent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes one’s work for peace. It destroys one’s inner capacity of peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of one’s work because it kills the roots of inner wisdom which make work fruitful.” – Thomas Merton
The inquiry into the core of violence took us also to a quest for what actually fosters peace, starting with the inside of the organisation. And, perhaps not surprisingly, this took us more and more into the inner realm of the human being. Without necessarily having resolved the many pressures and constraints that continue to lead us to spend many of our days rushing, doing more of the same old and arriving at the place we departed from, the inquiry left us with an expanded understanding of what happens at the core of our ability to become violent: firstly, most often, there is violence to self. Out of the pain and twist of the soul not recognised in its deep longings emanates the ability to hurt and harm another. Lodged in pains of past harm and current structural continuities, it may surprise little that escalations had taken such a vicious turn – among the very people who call themselves peacebuilders. This challenges us as people declaring to work for peace and non-violence to attend to the inner realm if we are serious about our work (and lives).
Calm your Heart
Rushing comes from hatred
It is good to ask yourself, now and again:
Why am I running so fast?
What are all these things I want to do?
Why am I pushing myself?
Am I rushing because I hate myself?
Or am I running because I want too many things at once?
But what is it I really want?
What is my deepest longing?
Calm cannot become the one unwilling to face her own reality