Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Silent Violence

When we think of violence, we generally think of war, or revolution, or shooting or some sort of physical brutality. But as you read this, children, women and men all over the world are dying because they can’t access or are not free to get what they need to survive. They are dying because they don’t have the money to get the food or the medicine or medical attention they need.

When we ignore the plight of people in need we are committing an act of silent violence. There are people in our communities that are elderly, poor, and disabled that live and die in unbearable misery because they can’t access what they need. It is held back from them because – they can’t pay for it.

When we ignore people’s human needs we are committing an act of violence; a sin of omission. It is silent and unseen, so we can go to bed and concentrate on our mundane tasks for tomorrow. We can’t see the children that are hungry or the elderly person that is in pain. They have needs but – who cares?

What is it that people need? Ask somebody living in a totalitarian nightmare, they might say freedom. Ask somebody else living in the slums of India, they might say food. A poor person with an inexplicable pain in the USA might say heath care. The notion of humans needs is slippery and it may seem subjective. There are some things that we can describe objectively as basic human needs but this is no easy task.

The needs of Torontonians are different in many respects to the needs of hunter gatherers in the Amazon. As societies change and evolve, so do needs.

The discussion about individual and community needs is inexorably tied into the discussion about a free society. Our fetish of individualism costs the health of the collective. If we ignore either the freedom of the individual or the health of the whole, we will be vulnurable. There is a dialectic between the two that we have always been participating in and we always will. Too much focus on one will compromise the well being of the other.

Many people agree that freedom is a fundamental need. That is, freedom for all members of society. But this statement is often nothing more than an abstract idea. In real terms, freedom is predicated on economic and social security. If people can’t access needs that are vital for survival, the discussion about freedom is nothing more than mindless bullshit. When people are not free to access food, shelter, and medical care, the issue of freedom of speech or the freedom to practice some exotic religion is meaningless.

To achieve freedom for all we first need to achieve basic security for all. That is, people need freedom from police and state interference if citizens act to feed children or get medicine for those that are sick. But ultimately, the state and the police are there to protect profit and the rights and freedoms of the profit makers.

If it is impossible to legally acquire food or medicine for your children or yourself, then you are not free. The person that can walk into the store and pick up what he or she needs and walk out with it, is free. He may have to sell the most of his waking time to a capitalist to do it, but he has a measure of freedom those that are deprived do not have. From a capitalistic viewpoint, this discussion gets uncomfortable at this point.

It may be argued that vital needs define human needs and apart from that, you could put them in the ‘wants’ category. But this crude definition of basic needs is not sufficient. Wheelchairs for those that need them may not be vital in any strict sense, but they are basic needs nonetheless. To tell an individual that cannot walk and is deprived of a wheelchair that he or she is free is a cruel insult. Not providing these essentials is a social sin of omission. Assessing needs for individuals and communities requires constant reassessment. For an individual to access what is needed to fulfill her or his potential, the obstacles to access whatever is needed must be removed.

People in Toronto need heat in the winter. They also need telephones and transportation. As technology and social structures change, people’s needs change. Kids in Toronto also need the means to attend that school trip, running shoes for gym and numerous things that kids in the Amazon do not need.

Realistically, we have to move beyond providing food and shelter and then hoping for the best. For people to develop and grow to their potential, the obstacles to growth must be removed. If we don't provide these apparently non-vital needs, social problems grow dramatically. And so, we have what we might regard as the needs of the community. Neglecting these could mean significant sickness in the community and even death for individuals within the community.
Even if we look at this problem in cold, pragmatic terms, we have to pay serious attention to the needs of the community. If we don’t pay attention to them, we then pay for jails and rehabilitation programs such as drug rehab or halfway houses. The per diem for a stay in jail changes from place to place, but it is always very expensive. The stupid selfish approach results in spending more money on jails than on education. When that happens, we know we’ve collectively screwed up.

By being stingy on the front end, we spend much more on the other end. Simply reacting to crisis after they occur is not an intelligent social strategy. Proactive intervention is not only less costly. It also makes for a better society for all of us to live in. Silent violence has very strange and very ugly, expensive karma.

In the face of this reality, we watch as soldiers slaughter people in the name of freedom. Violent war that is an oil grab by the very people that refuse to feed the poor. And they will say, we are fighting for freedom and democracy. The word “freedom” has been so perverted in this case that it is nothing but empty rhetoric.

Needs must be addressed on a collective basis. Perhaps most importantly, any society must take care of its material production needs. This includes production, processes of exchange, distribution and so on. We need to produce before we can consume. We also need to distribute adequately for everybody to consume adequately. Another basic need is reproduction needs. That is, any society must provide pre-natal care, birthing care and it must address the developmental needs of children. Daycare and parental education are frequently neglected on a community level. Ignoring these needs is, as we can see, very expensive for both the affected individual and the wider community.

We are often encouraged to resent paying taxes for social programs by right wing ideologues. But working class people or middle class people are often a single accident away from reliance on social services to provide for them. A person may get whacked on the head and as a result is brain damaged or physically disabled. Very few people are immune from having to rely on the state or community for their vital and other basic needs. People that have this misfortune and are not covered by insurance or if their insurance company finds a way out of paying the bills may be shocked to find out how barbaric and cold social welfare systems can be.

It is worth noticing that many people that resent paying for social programs and generally resent paying taxes rarely if ever say that they resent that 30 to 40% of our tax dollars go to pay interest on the public debt. That is roughly equivalent to what is paid to fund education or health care (in Canada). The actual percentage that goes to feed people on welfare is far less.

The extremists argue that people that need wheelchairs or food should fend for themselves or rely on the whims of philanthropy. This is another way of saying that the needs of the poor and disadvantaged is not our collective responsibility. This extreme of selfishness and callous individualism has become the mantra of the extreme right which is parroted by the numbing mindlessness of the bubble gum media.

The neo conservatives would spend a million dollars to kill somebody before they’d spend five bucks to feed somebody. This seems to be an outrageous statement but it also seems to be true. There is not a whimper about the billions spent on the war in Iraq by the extremists on the right but they are always ready to pounce on any increase in social spending. The extreme-right in the USA, Canada, Europe or anywhere else seems to applaud and scream in unison. They are eerily similar - cultlike.

We need to stand up for freedom for everybody. Not some vague notion about marking an ‘x’ every four years for some self centered quisling, but real freedom. That means freedom FROM hunger and preventable sickness and freedom TO enjoy the simple pleasures of life. That means that we have to stand alongside those that do not have real freedom and against those that have so much freedom it is obscene and it has become dangerous for the rest of us.

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