John Keane | Violence and the Censor
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Violence and the Censor

  |   Articles in the Press, Democracy Field Notes, Media, War, Violence, Fear   |   No comment

With the outbreak of uncivil wars on a regional scale, in central Africa, the Arab-speaking world and eastern Europe, readers shocked and sickened by their terrible violence may find of interest my short foreword to the just-published Chinese edition of Violence and Democracy.

Presented below in both English and Mandarin translation, the foreword offers a short summary of my appeal to see violence in all its forms as a contingent historical (not ‘natural’) phenomenon that is politically curable; and it does so by asking Chinese readers to reflect on their own past experiences of great violence, and how they might come to terms with their legacy, and their lingering unjust effects.

In contemporary China, of course, the episodes of massive violence stretching from the civil war between the nationalists and communists in 1946-49 to the ‘anti-rightist’ campaign of 1957, the so-called Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, are still treated officially as taboo subjects, as if they had never happened. Violence and Democracy is a small backdoor contribution to breaking the taboo, but in order to reach the bookshops the translator and publisher had to tread carefully. I did the same. To sidestep the censors employed by the Central Propaganda Department, the foreword resorts to allegory. It speaks of an imaginary place of cruel horrors, a dystopian Land of Violence where unspeakable cruelty against the minds and bodies of many millions of people is practised without restraint. Chinese readers won’t miss the target of the allusion, hopefully.

It is a great honour and personal pleasure to share Violence and Democracy with my Chinese readers. They should be warned that the book is an adventure of the political imagination, an experimental essay designed to stimulate fresh thinking about the origins of violence (bàolì), its consequences, its functional purposes and possible remedies. Taking issue with the common sense view that ‘human nature’ is incorrigibly wolfish, the essay probes the disputed and changing historical meanings of the term violence. It examines the new forms of violence gripping our 21st-century world and asks searching questions about the problematic relationship between violence and democracy, and why mature democracies are unusually sensitive to violence.

Running through Violence and Democracy are unavoidable ethical questions, such as the circumstances in which violence against others can be justified. In such matters as the maltreatment of children, the rape of women by men, police and battlefield brutality, the essay steers an unorthodox course through narrow normative straits. It raises doubts about conventional pacifism but it also radically questions the blind acceptance or aesthetic worship of violence. It does so by proposing that violent behaviour and weapons of violence can and should be ‘democratised’: made publicly accountable to others, so encouraging political efforts to consider public alternatives to violence, and to erase surplus violence from the world.

Throughout these pages, in order to get a sense of perspective on things, and what is at stake, readers are asked to imagine violence in its pure form. The essay carries readers to an imaginary Land of Violence, let’s say, to a place where violence, collectively delivered as political theatre, takes on a life of its own, without open public questioning, or public resistance, or public alternatives. In this imaginary territory of horrors, those who practise cruelty against the minds and bodies of others do so without restraint. They seem thoroughly to enjoy what they are doing; they have a passion for the poetry of cruelty. They revel in screaming mobs, cowering victims and rituals of violence. Hooked on savagery, they are sure that violence is necessary, and that they are always right, and so they think of themselves as entitled to deploy violence at will, without penalty or sanction. Hence they track down, punish and eliminate all dissent.

In the Land of Violence, lynch mobs are public rituals. Murder is rife, and displayed openly, for all to see, and to fear. Arrests in the night, blackmailing, persecution and disappearances: all are normal practices. So, too, is paranoia, fuelled by the frenzied creation of an unending supply of ‘objective’ enemies: flesh-and-blood individuals and groups whose subjective identity is secondary to their objective position in the political order of things.

In the imaginary Land of Violence, where sincerity and smiling are compulsory, there are always opponents, even if and when they protest their innocence. That is the reason why people must be tortured: not just to inform on others, used like tigers to bite tigers, but to admit their own corruption, to change their ways, to liquidate their own sense of self. Their freedom of silence is not an option. Lawlessness and terror and self-annihilation prevail, no more so than in the institution known as the concentration camp. It is there that violence in its purest form is practised.

Often called houses of correction and labour camps, these thoroughly modern inventions in fact operate as political laboratories. They are sites of liquidation, crazed experiments with the bodies and souls of their victims, who forfeit their rights to have rights of any kind, not even the elementary right to withdraw from the world through suicide. Everything is permitted in these dungeons of horror. Bizarre inversions are commonplace. The unimaginable is real; reality is unimaginable. The singular aim of these camps, if aim it can be called, is clear: the reduction of inmates to mere molecules of matter, so proving that violence can purge disobedience, along the way eliminating all traces of what people once called democracy, self-government by people through their chosen representatives.


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