Common Sense Comes to Town!

Common sense is the most fairly distributed thing in the world, for each one thinks he is so well-endowed with it that even those who are hardest to satisfy in all other matters are not in the habit of desiring more of it than they already have. (Descartes)

On Necessary Violence

Posted on | November 27, 2011 | No Comments

In Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Marlon Brando delivers a poignant and intense monologue on the « necessity » of violence and cruelty. The monologue on horror is itself horrifying as it illustrates how morally adrift this former colonel has become. Yet in other times, other places and by other illustrious characters the same discourse would have been lauded. Such instants force us to confront ourselves, to contemplate the gap between our values and our behaviour.

We can measure this cultural distance through the almost unanimous contempt towards the presumed murder of four women in the Shafia family. Killing in the name of honour is form of intimidation, a use of terror to impose in the worst way ever normative behaviour on parts of the population. Outcry against this crime in Canada and in the West is unanimous, and proves how far we’ve come along. Over a century ago, a similar honour crime against a woman was staged by Bizet in his opera Carmen. A few critics back then applauded the characters’ realism. They were not backing such crimes, but it showed that Bizet did not depict a reality foreign to his contemporaries.

Thus each culture traces the fine line between acceptable and unacceptable violence. For violence is part of our daily lives and we embrace some of its manifestations. For example I am a notorious meat-eater. I understand and respect the fact that the meat I eat comes from an animal that had to be butchered to feed me. I crave foie gras a lot, knowing that ducks and geese are force-fed, accelerating an otherwise natural process (migratory birds overeat before long-distance travels in order to accumulate fat reserves). But culturally I am unlikely to tolerate useless or gratuitous suffering, whether it is directed against humans or animals. To know that the chicken we buy at the grocery store was raised with 8 others in a single square yard is more troubling to me than to know that the duck or goose who surrendered its liver was force-fed a few minutes by an artisan and spent the rest of its life more or less freely wandering about.

Eating habits include their own kinds of violence. You could decry the suffering of an unfortunate carrot as it is torn out of the ground where it lay quietly (and of course, some people did it before). I’ve heard rumours of monks feeding only on fruits that had fallen to the ground. The apparent absurdity of such lifestyles shows that we all have to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable violence.

I am quite comfortable with my place in the food chain : on top of it. Others aren’t as much, and this is a social debate which can only be healthy in the long run. The debate is not only on the use of violence, but on what intensity we can necessarily tolerate. To chop off quickly the head of a chicken does not bother a lot of people. To inflict upon them the kind of abuse that was shown recently in one of McDonald’s supplier puts us ill at ease.

In Apocalypse Now, Colonel Kurtz not only defended the use of violence, he praised its maximal intensity, horror. In so doing he acted as a mirror returning a distorted vision of ourselves: our own violence in exaggerated proportions. The Shafia may see themselves in the same reflection today. It is an extremely uncomfortable vision, but it is an image we must face daily in order to define and redefine what we are ready to tolerate, and loudly condemn what we refuse to accept.

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