I’ve been thinking about violence recently and mean to consider it here from a few different angles. Here’s the first:
Last week I sat at a table at our public radio station’s South Side bureau with a diverse collection of people from around the city. Our conversation topics – expertly led by one of my neighbors, a teacher, and one of his high school students – were violence and peace. By way of introductions we were to give our names, neighborhoods, and a word to describe those neighborhoods. We adults around the table chose mostly benign adjectives for our neighborhoods while the students – the co-facilitator and two of her peers from different neighborhoods – were less delicate: tension and dangerous were their chosen descriptors.
These young people don’t live in areas that are more dangerous than the adults do; a mother and her child share the same home but used noticeably different words to represent their neighborhood. Perhaps we who are older were simply more careful with our words, wanting to paint with a finer brush to create a more accurate representation of the activities that characterize our place in the city. Neighborhoods may be dangerous but they are never only dangerous. They may be filled with tension but also with other emotions and experiences.
Or maybe these high schools students were speaking from more recent experiences, growing into the inevitable realization that the world is not a safe place. Of course, the adults have known this for a while but steered away from outlining violence with the same preciseness as did the students.
Violence – the word itself – conjures words, emotions, and memories I prefer to avoid. We Americans may welcome scenes of violence on our television screens but we prefer to think of our real lives as largely absent of that terrible word. When we do think about it, most of us think about violence as something that happens occasionally. It’s an act, something done within a moment of time to someone. However horrific it is, the violent moment passes and we return to normal as quickly as possible.
Or do we? One way to interpret the student’s blunt adjectives at the radio station is that they know that violence is not incidental but pervasive. It is less the frightening moment that happens to us and more the ground we walk on.