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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Coercion (p. 362)

From chapter "Trauma and Recovery"

It should be clear by now that a central belief of our culture—if not the central belief—is that it is not only acceptable but desirable and necessary to bend others to our own will. This belief in the rightness of coercion motivates us not only collectively but individually, not only consciously but subliminally.

Coercion is central to our religion, whether we offer those different from us the immediate choice of Christianity or death, or the more eternal choice of Jesus or damnation.

Coercion is central to our scientific philosophy, whether we speak of Descartes’ dream of possessing nature, Bacon’s storming of nature’s strongholds to make her our slave, the suggestion in Demonic Males that a woman’s safest future may be to bond with a violent man, or Dawkin’s pathetic description of selfish genes coercing us to coerce others.

Coercion is central to our applied sciences, whether we speak of dammed rivers, “scientific management” of forests, predator “control” projects, or the exploration of the human genome by self-styled “genetic prospectors” seeking to exploit the chromosomal makeup of often-unwilling peoples.

Coercion is central to our economics, whether we speak of the Middle Passage, the modern-day enslavement of one hundred and fifty million children, forcing of people to enter the wage economy through the removal of realistic options and more broadly the wage slavery that defines capitalism, or the routine use of police and the military to assist the men atop their boxes to accumulate ever-more wealth.

Coercion is central to our legal system, which presents one face to those in power, and a different face to those who fight this power. In the case of the former, coercion is systematized through a body of lawmakers and interpreters which supports and rationalizes the use of force by those in power to gain material possessions or otherwise bend certain others—the powerless, the silenced, the not-fully-human—to the will of the already powerful. Just as my father never beat anyone without good reason, it is more pleasing to the now-silenced consciences of those doing the coercing to arm themselves not just with weapons and claims to virtue but also with a system of legalistic arguments that justify coercion.

The legal system presents a different face to those who infringe upon the right of those in power to use coercion. Thus the crucifixion of Jesus, and of Spartacus. Thus the slaughter of the Anabaptists. Thus the murder of more than 100,000 in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1524, and the torture and murder—purely legal, of course, and fully supported by such luminaries as Martin Luther—of their leader, Thomas Münzer. Thus the torture and murder of the mestizo chief Tupac Amaru, who in 1781 led an unsuccessful rebellion that, until it was crushed, abolished all forms of forced labor in liberated territories around Cuzco. Thus the murder of Crazy Horse. Thus the murder of half the Haymarket conspirators in Illinois. Thus the betrayal of Nestor Makhno and other anarchists after the Russian revolution. Thus in 1995, hot on the heels of the Nigerian military memo stating, “Shell [Oil Corporation] operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken [against the Ogoni people] for smooth economic activities to commence,” Nigeria executed writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Coercion is central to our politics, whether we speak of James Madison insisting, during our country’s constitutional convention, that the main goal of the political system must be “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority,” or whether we listen to the words of Adam Smith, godfather of modern economics: “Civil government…is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all,” or whether we read the words of seminal political theorist John Locke, who observed, “Government has no other end but the preservation of property.” Or we can listen to Richard Nixon: “The American national psychology has few doubts that reasonable men can settle all differences by honest compromise. But the reality is that force has always been the ultimate sanction at a conference table. Diplomacy by itself cannot be effective unless our opponents know what pressures we will be willing to bring to bear.”

Coercion is central to the raising of our children, whether we speak of grades, desks arranged in rows before a central authority, or the wearing out of the belt. Consider in contrast the Semay of Malaya who “emphatically deny” that they teach their children, but insist “our children just learn by themselves.” If a parent tells a child to do something and the child responds, “I bood” [a word meaning “to not feel like doing something],” the subject is closed. To put pressure on the child is strictly forbidden. Children learn most activities through imitative play that in time becomes adult behavior.

Coercion is central to our relations with other species, whether we speak of vivisection, factory farming, industrial forestry, or commercial fishing, All grossly immoral and exploitative, all most often scrupulously legal.

The rates for rape and other abuses of women makes clear that coercion is central to our cross-gender relations.

As water is to fish, as air is to birds, so coercion is to us. It is where we live. It is what we drink. It is what we breathe. It is transparent. So deeply inured are we that we no longer perceive when we are coercing or being coerced. Grades. Wages. Jobs. The sale of fingers one by one and the purchasing of sex in seemingly simple monetary transactions. On a more grand, though no more outrageous, scale, napalm, penitentiaries, deforestation: all these manifest this need to coerce others.