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Wrestling with Non-Violence over Moussaka

[ 0 ] July 2, 2011 |

Chapter 3 of 32 in A Father’s Journal
By Forrest Seymour
Originally published in March, 1994

I was on one of those vagabond trips through Greece, melding into that great flow of youths from all parts of the world, with the required back pack, beach mat, and dog eared copy of Let’s Go Europe. I can’t recall now his name, or where we met, but this tall, blond, suave guy, a few years my senior, with the funny accent I couldn’t quite place, insisted that we have dinner together. I was only waiting for my night ferry to Athens, with nothing much to do, between adventures as it were, and only beginning to feel the bug which would eventually incapacitate me for a week, so I agreed. He seemed harmless.

We ate at a table along a narrow street leading away from the port. The food was Greek, of course, but tailored for the many thousands of tourists that visit this fabled isle of Mykonos, and so a bit bland, as I recall. At dinner I learned that he was from South Africa. I’d never met any one from South Africa before, and he remains my one South African encounter.

I’ve been thinking of this meeting as I try to follow the unbelievable events taking place these days in South Africa. All my life, the South African government has been the epitome of Evil, and Nelson Mandela the long suffering ideal of Patience. One of the bedrocks of my cosmology was the black and whiteness of the issues in South Africa. White was bad, black was good. It was simple and reassuring. Now, as this lifetime struggle transforms a nation, the clear lines of morality fade; all becomes gray.

When I learned that my new friend was South African, it took me a while to put it together that he was a part of that five percent ruling elite. A congenial dinner companion is hard to see as a brutal regime. We talked about his country. In fact, I recall little else that we discussed. At the time, I had the impression that he had invited me to dinner specifically in order to talk with me about his home. I began to wonder if young, suave white South Africans were sent abroad specifically to charm the international community into liking them, counteracting the world’s impression of their country. Certainly Mykonos would be a good place to meet people from all over the world, and charm them. It was a confusing moment for my young mind.

As I read about South Africa now, about Nelson Mandela, F. W. de Klerk, the African National Congress (ANC), and the ruthlessness of the supporters of Apartheid, I am again confused.

I have often thought of myself as a advocate for non-violence, as a believer in non-violent solutions for problems. I have long admired King and Gandhi and the power of their faith in non-violence. Non-violence everywhere, from internationally to within our own homes, has clearly seemed to be the path to long lasting, just resolution of conflict.

And yet I enjoy the occasional Schwartzenegger movie. There is a deep appeal in the righteousness of ruthless, moral-free slaughter. I get a vicarious satisfaction from the summary justice so popular in Hollywood productions. Especially when in the name of justice, as in the second Terminator picture, or the Emerald Forest, with its environmental justice twist, or those good old Billy Jack movies, violence seems, maybe, to sometimes be OK. This ambivalence about violence was occasionally troubling, but, so long as this paradox was only in the movies, I didn’t worry about it too much.

Men, I would tell myself, are taught to see violence as a quick means to an end. We are not taught compromise in school, we are taught contact sports. We are not required to register for community service, we have to register for the draft. We are constantly reminded that, as men, we are expected to be able and willing to be violent, often at a moment’s notice. Violence is supposed to be a part of our make up as men. Violence, or the threat of violence, is often seen as a rite of passage into manhood. So, if I found a little release of this training in violence by watching a few of those videos from the rack marked “Revenge”, all the better. Perhaps then I wouldn’t feel compelled to act violently when faced with conflict in my real life.

This rationalization worked OK for a while. I could see myself as a supporter of non-violence and still enjoy depictions of violence with a clear conscience. But recent events in the news have disturbed this internal moral truce.

The ANC has advocated violence for most of my lifetime. As I gather, this is basically why Mandela was jailed. They chose violence after the South African government outlawed their organization. They apparently felt that violence was the only viable avenue left for them to take. What today appears as a relatively peaceful democratic transition in South Africa was made possible by over thirty years of armed struggle. This is not a movie. This is real life.

My ambivalence about violence, the conflict between my ever evolving morality, my society, and what is perhaps my deeper, darker self, is played out daily in our culture. Were we appalled by the caning of young Michael Fay in Singapore, was it a mistake, as Clinton suggested, or were we a little satisfied by it, figuring he must be a young punk anyway, choosing to disregard Singapore’s reputation as a repressive virtual dictatorship? Did we see the Bobbit amputation as genital mutilation or justice? Are we glad he’s back in jail for beating his new girl friend, or is that injustice? Are we relieved that so many assault weapons seem to be on their way to extinction, or are we dismayed that those big, sexy guns may no longer be around to gaze at (never to be used, of course)? I reluctantly admit to feeling a little of all these reactions.

Violence is seductive. It is charged the way sex can be. Even direct non-violence carries a mystique due to the violent response it can illicit: Taking the blow, being the victim of violence, can for some, have its own, perverse pleasure.

As a culture, we are not clear on this issue. We teach and advocate violence at home and world-wide, while, ironically, the Clinton administration can site violence as a major public health problem. It is as if our day to day selves have not caught up to our moral selves. Ideals are, after all, always a struggle to live up to.

I remember only one verbatim quote from my South African friend.

“Africa is a violent place,” he explained, as if that part of the earth exuded some sort of violent aura.

I have wrestled with this idea from time to time in the many years since that meal. There on Mykonos, with those beaches and those pure white buildings, that green-blue Aegean sea, the wine, the song, as I prepared to leave the many distractions of touristdom, it seemed plausible that one place could be inherently more violent than another, especially if that other was a Greek island. In later, more sober reflection, I would remember that Greece has its own pattern of violence to deal with, and conclude that the violent place argument was simply a handy rationalization for a violent choice.

Now, South Africa is suddenly the best example of non-violent change, even if that change is rooted in violent struggle, and I am again confused. When is violence OK? Will Mandela’s new government last, or will it fall apart in a blood bath fomented by the ANC’s violent past? How can some Scandinavian countries outlaw spanking, even by parents, while other countries institutionalize caning? What ever became of that man on Mykonos? Where will he fit in the new South Africa? Why do we in the U.S. have more people in prison per capita than any other western democracy? Is it, perhaps, that we are simply one of those violent places?

I think that maybe I need a vacation.

By Forrest Seymour
Originally published in March, 1994, in the Valley Times Journal, Walpole, NH.

Category: Father's Journal

About Forrest Seymour: See my LinkedIn Profile Forrest Seymour is a social worker, psychotherapist and violence prevention consultant.  He has worked in community based programs, hospitals, schools and colleges supporting individual and institutional efforts to prevent sexual violence and promote emotional and community health since the mid-‘70s.  He has consulted with State Department International Visitor Groups and serves on the Cheshire County (NH) Domestic Violence Council, the New Hampshire Violence Against Women Campus Consortium and the steering committee of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Outreach.  Since 2006, Forrest has been at the Keene State College Counseling Center where he is a Counselor and the Coordinator of Sexual Violence Prevention & Education.  He counts amongst his inspirations the many men he has collaborated with locally, nationally and internationally who seek in so many creative ways to end men’s violence, but most especially, the male and female students at Keene State College who step up as Mentors in Violence Prevention peer educators, Walk a Mile in Her Shoes march organizers, Shout Out Against Sexual Assault speakers and witnesses, Take Back the Night marchers, “Vagina Monologues” and “No Zebras, No Excuses” performers,  and as violence prevention activists in countless large and small ways every year and every day.  These students are victims, survivors, allies and active-bystanders; they are leaders, role models and inspirations for their peers, for their faculty and staff, and for Forrest. View author profile.