Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Call to Art at a Time of Arms

On December 28, 2015 we welcomed this guest post from Bandy X. Lee MD, MDiv
Assistant Clinical Professor, Law and Psychiatry Division, Yale University

A Call to Art at a Time of Arms

 “They have guns but we have flowers,” says a father to his frightened son.  “Flowers are nothing,” retorts the child.  “See, everyone posing flowers protects us from guns,” tells the father, which instantly reassures the son: “I feel better,” he concludes.  This message from Le Petit Journal has been retweeted across the world following the Paris terrorist attacks, and there is a reason why it moves us.  It echoes a poster message once displayed in the Chartres Cathedral: “Violence destroys, but only love creates life.”  It is a fitting response of a nation that has been the creative crucible for much of Western civilization.  Yet, however poignant its message, it is still a minority voice as the world proceeds with further policing, military planning, and viewing more violence as the only viable solution to the violence.  If we took a step back to analyze the true causes of violence—which are no longer a mystery—then we would be able to come up with more creative solutions that are capable of bringing about true change.  The growing international nature of this struggle makes it all the more critical that we respond intelligently, and we now have a good deal of knowledge to be able to do so.

Since the mid-1990’s, we have observed the evolution of an interesting field.  Since a 2002 World Health Organization publication by the name of The World Report on Violence and Health,[1] violence has been established as a worldwide public health problem rather than just a security and criminal justice issue.  This means that it has become a topic for research inquiry and not merely an object of reaction after the fact.  Since then, and perhaps for the first time in history, we have come to recognize that violence is not inevitable but preventable, and not random but predictable.

This is of interest to creativity scholars because the ultimate prevention of violence lies in creativity.  Although some have recently advocated looking at violence as in decline and thus less and less of a problem, it is more pertinent than ever to take measures to prevent violence rather than merely respond to it, for we now have the capacity.  In fact, one of the preconditions for preventing violence seems to be recognizing what violence is and acknowledging that it is a problem.  Thanks to the research of many disciplines and the burgeoning courses and degree programs around the world, knowledge about the nature, causes, and consequences of violence has been growing rapidly.  Furthermore, we have grown in awareness about what are the conditions that promote peace, how to channel energies toward productivity and creativity rather than violence, and how to implement peace-promoting just governance, as outlined in the recent United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.[2]  This is where cultivation in the arts can play a role, especially in the education of future leaders, for we have come to a place in history where what is lacking is not the resources to resolve the major problems of our day, which are mostly human-made.  Rather, it is resourcefulness, and scientific and intellectual knowledge has its limits in investigating the question of social justice, equitable living, and ultimately preservation of life on this planet.

In considering violence, there is an important technical point to be made: while behavioral violence (suicides, homicides, and collective violence) is responsible for 1.5 million deaths per year worldwide, structural violence (socioeconomic inequality, discrimination, and injustice) is responsible for 18 million deaths per year worldwide—more than tenfold of behavioral violence.  If in our considerations we left out structural violence, aptly termed for the real life-and-death difference it makes, not to mention being the more large-scale, enduring, and pernicious type of violence, we would be leaving out the big fish in our quest to reduce violence.

**Inequality and injustice not only result in more diseases, disabilities, and excess deaths for the disadvantaged, it is also the most potent cause of behavioral violence, giving rise to early and excess deaths even for those who are supposedly advantaged.  Are we surprised, then, that terrorism is springing up around the world at a time when structural violence—the gap between the rich and the poor within nations, as well as the gap between rich nations and poor nations—is increasing?  We can try to go after every terrorist attempt (which we cannot) and morph our approaches to match the tactics of new and insurgent groups, but unless we address the underlying pathology, we will never advance in reducing overall violence.

Central to conceptualizing violence is that it is an ecological problem, one that has roots not only in the individuals involved but in the family, community, and society in which they take part.  Even biological predispositions require the “right” social environment, which will determine which genes are expressed, and which brain circuits activated, to bring about the end event we call violence (“born criminals” seem to elude us, no matter how hard the best and the brightest have looked for them).  And even the most individual forms of violence, such as suicide, can be traced largely to social causes, as the wave of unemployment in the late 2000’s has shown.  Large-scale epidemics of violence, furthermore, can only be predicted at the societal level.  Violence rates thus become a barometer of the collective emotional health of a society, and we know well from the ebb and flow of civilization that high points of peace and creativity have been associated with a wealth of productivity in the arts.

It is time to think more creatively about the way we organize our world, and the paradigms that we bring.  Will we continue to resort to violence of our own, knowing that the growing threats of terrorist organizations have a direct link to our wars in their regions, as many researchers are discovering?  Or will we look at our collective violence, as a society, and rightly declare it a problem?  If so, we might search for more creative solutions than the vicious circle of reacting to violence with more violence of our own.  If so, we might consider collecting flowers and what they symbolize, for a change, so that we might at least stop increasing the symbolic power of violence.  If we were truly ready for the flowering of a new civilization, we would then develop our capacity for the art of judgment, prudence, empathy, and ethics, which consist of the true substance of power, as the legacy of Athens over Sparta demonstrates.  Violence prevention is possible, and there is reason for hope: the World Health Organization has encouraged governments and sometimes entire countries, for example, to implement violence prevention programs with measurable success—sometimes exceeding expectations both in terms of time taken and extent of the results.[3]  Large-scale prevention programs at the societal level, at the very least, can be expected to yield results, whereas chasing after each terrorist is labor-intensive and costly but may or may not be effective if a key individual or two are missed (or, as we have learned, replaced).

Shortly after the two World Wars, Hannah Arendt observed that power and violence are opposites.[4]  If we are to have a truly powerful response against terrorism, it would do well for the ruling world to regain its moral authority and ethical bearing, which through a general climate of social justice and good governance would naturally root it out.  Symbolic animals as human beings are, nothing motivates more powerfully than an inspiring vision, and that vision can be one of peace, justice, harmony, and collective emotional health, rather than its poor substitute.  There are reasons why the “War on Terror” we have waged in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and other nations, at great cost, has served only to embolden terrorist groups and bolster their recruits.  Psychologically and symbolically speaking, it supports the mindset of viewing violence as a legitimate means of resolving problems, in a demonstration that “might makes right.”  Compared to that, the flowers of human civilization—with its accumulated knowledge and creativity—far from irrelevant, seems in all likelihood to be a more practical weapon as well.  At least a growing legion of violence scholars (and creativity scholars) will say so.

[1] Krug, E. G., Dahlberg, L. L., Mercy, J. A., Zwi, A. B., & Lozano, R. (2002).  World Report on Violence and Health.  Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.
[2] United Nations (2015).  Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  New York, NY: United Nations.
[3] World Health Organization, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, & United Nations Development Program (2014).  Global Status Report on Violence Prevention 2014.  Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.
[4] Arendt, H. (1970).  On Violence.  New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970.