Sunday, September 13, 2009

structural violence

My whole life leading up to now has been more or less a moving towards passion for justice. Due to familial circumstances and my nurturing nature, I became the secondary caregiver to my younger sister, Katie. At a young age I developed a deep concern and love for her, and I sought to protect her from harm and show her my love for her constantly. My deep capacity for love transferred into my friendships and on behalf of those I cared about I saw I could be strong. My friend Daniel says he will never forget how many boys I “beat up” for calling him “gay” throughout middle and high school. In an English class late in high school, I came upon the topic of feminism, which sparked my interest. Within a couple of months I was soaking up everything about it I could find and I proclaimed to my friends and family that I was a feminist and wanted to devote my life to fighting injustice on behalf of women! Taking such a stand naturally led me to the topic of social justice, which I now soak up just as fervently so that my imprint on this world might harm the least and benefit the most of my fellow brothers and sisters on this earth. Most everything I do is means to the end of justice; so naturally I decided this summer to do research on poverty. The more I read, the more horrified I became. Poverty, like many social injustices, is structural violence. Our social structures are set up in a way that perpetuates poverty for the lower class and perpetuates the wealth of the upper class. The land of the free, the land of opportunity is, please excuse my cynicism, sort of a sham. We see the results of such systems all around us, and yes, people do something about what they see, but often times what we do is merely a band aid not a remedy, merely treating the symptoms and not the cause of the nation’s cruel injustices.

Naturally I found Kolvenbach’s article stimulating, as he encourages a devotion to not only service, but also to the “promotion of justice”. In particular, I found two ideas in his piece truly enlightening, especially when put into context with Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Morrison’s and Smiley’s articles. First, Kolvenbach writes about all people, saying, “Each one a unique individual, they all aspire to live life, to use their talents, to support their families and care for their children and elders, to enjoy peace and security, and to make tomorrow better” (32). Recognition of humanity in our fellow human beings is the first step towards justice. In order to fight for the which is right we must believe that each and every single individual person deserves to live and thrive in a just world. Secondly, Kolvenbach writes, “Injustice is rooted in a spiritual problem, and its solution requires a spiritual conversion of each one’s heart and a cultural conversion of our global society so that humankind, with all the powerful means at its disposal, might exercise the will to change the sinful structures afflicting our world” (33). Whether or not spirituality is the “root” of the “problem,” whether or not justice requires a “spiritual conversion” or merely a “cultural conversion,” justice cannot and will not prevail until we “change the sinful structures afflicting our world”. We can continue treating the symptoms, but the disease will never be cured without structural changes.

As “Jim is pushed to the side of the narrative,” (pg. 356) according to Jane Smiley, we, as readers, learn something about Twain, Huck, and Jim, but also about slavery and racism at large in society. Smiley writes, “neither Huck nor Twain takes Jim’s desire for freedom at all seriously; that is, they do not accord it the respect that a man’s passion deserves” (357). Putting this into conversation with Kolvenbach’s assertion of humanity, neither Huck nor Twain even recognize Jim’s humanity, let alone his “deservingness” of the same “respects” that they assume. The story is not about Jim or Jim’s “passion”. It is about Huck and therefore Huck’s wants come first regardless of how that affects Jim. Smiley continues, saying, “how they (white Americans) feel means very little to black Americans, who understand racism as a way of structuring American culture, American politics, and the American economy” (357). “Racism,” according to Smiley and Kolvenbach, therefore is not a feeling or an individual prejudice, but the systems that control the nation, by which we are all oppressed. To “promote justice” as Kolvenbach encourages us, the members of a Jesuit institution, to do, we must therefore recreate these systems in order to create the equality our country supposedly stands for. As a nation, what we have most to fear is the bystander, he who sees the structural violence and chooses to lend his strength to the oppression in refusing to act. Twain and his characters act as these bystanders; Smiley writes, “once Twain allows Jim a voice, this voice must speak in counterpoint to Huck’s voice and must raise issues that cannot easily be resolved, either personally or culturally,” (360) emphasizing Twain’s responsibility of justice. But Twain fails to “raise issues” that would challenge his audience that would aim to change society. He merely accepts the status quo and perpetuates it by his refusal to “respect” Jim’s character.

Reiterating Smiley’s concerns with Twain’s novel, Toni Morrison describes Jim as a means to Huck’s end. She writes, “What does Huck need to live without terror, melancholy and suicidal thoughts? The answer of course, is Jim…when he and Jim become the only ‘we,’ the anxiety is outside not within” (388). Jim is used by Twain and Huck just as the slaves he represents are used by their masters. He serves a purpose, but does not receive the “respect,” as Smiley calls it, to acquire his own identity let alone freedom. The recognition of his humanity, the first step in Kolvenbach’s remedy for injustice, falls through the cracks as Huck’s wants, needs, adventures and voice always take precedence. Morrison goes on to assert that more than Jim being a means to Huck’s end, Jim is actually controlled by Huck. She writes, “Huck’s desire for a father who is adviser and trustworthy companion is universal, but he also needs something more: a father whom, unlike his own, he can control” (390). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn can at first seem progressive. The main character develops a deep friendship with what he calls a “nigger”. Looking more deeply at the novel with the voices of Kolvenbach, Morrison and Smiley ringing in my ears, hopelessness consumes me. Literature consumes people, and this novel is one of hopelessness as it makes no movement forward, but clings steadfastly to the status quo. Literature should enlighten, inspire, affect, challenge and benefit its audience, but I hazard to say that Twain’s novel might harm its readers. Being a liberal thinker, I never thought I would say any book should be banned; I couldn’t think of a justifiable reason one would be, but The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn might be more beneficial to the world in silence.

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