By Patrick Naylis
Illustration by Rob Shetterly (www.americanswhotellthetruth.org)
Derrick Jensen is an American author and environmental activist. In 2008, he won the Hoffer Award and was named one of Utne Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.” His 2003 book, “The Culture of Make Believe,” was a finalist for the Lukas Prize Project Award for Exceptional Works of Nonfiction, sponsored by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation at Harvard. “The Culture of Make Believe” explored issues of hate and violence in our culture.
As a launching point for our thematic issue this month, Patrick Naylis talked with Jensen by phone about the issue of hate. Whether you agree with him or not, Jensen offers a thought provoking interview about some of the most controversial issues in American culture. He’s not shy to state an opinion, and we hope you’re not as well. Our hope is to generate a discussion about these issues. Share your thoughts online at www.denvervoice.org, or submit a letter to the editor at email@example.com. Comments and feedback, both supportive and dissenting, will be published in the May issue of the Denver VOICE.
How do you define hate?
When it comes to hate we mostly think of red faces and anger and white robed buffoons chanting “white power” in mush mouth voices. But what I eventually realized is that it’s really much deeper than that. That any hatred deeply held long enough no longer feels like hate. You no longer feel that burning. Instead, any hatred felt long enough starts to feel like economics, or religion, or science for that matter; or the way things are; philosophy. There’s a really interesting book, I don’t remember the name of it right now. But it’s a collection of pro-slavery arguments from the 1830s. And in this book, they lay out arguments for slavery like slavery is okay because it says in the Bible certain people can be enslaved. Science got in there. Science says it’s okay to enslave Africans because the distance between an African’s penis and his navel is less than it is on a white person. And I’m not making this up. That’s one of their arguments. There are of course economic arguments for it. A lot of economic arguments like you can’t free slaves because it’ll put us out of business. But none of them said we want to enslave Africans because we hate them. If you live in that hatred your going to have it rationalized.
It’s like what Robert J. Lifton said in the Nazi Doctors and elsewhere too; before anyone can commit a mass atrocity they have to have a claim to virtue. The Nazis weren’t killing Jews; they weren’t committing genocide. They were purifying the Aryan race. They had it rationalized. … One of the questions in [“Culture of Make Believe”] I was wondering about was…why was it that there were so many more lynchings after the Civil War than before and I thought about this for a while and I couldn’t figure it out. It’s pretty obvious in retrospect but I couldn’t figure it out for weeks and as I read this line by Nietzsche, “One does not hate when one can despise.” Then everything fell into place for me. As long as your perceived entitlement is not threatened you merely feel contempt or you merely despise those you are exploiting. But as soon as they stand up to you, as soon as the perceived entitlement is threatened, then the hatred that lay underneath all along comes bursting out. And so for example, pre-American Civil War, a lot of times the perceived entitlement by the white people to the labor and the lives of the black people was upheld by the law; it was upheld by philosophy; it was upheld by religion; it was upheld by science. It was upheld by all sorts of means. Then once that perceived entitlement was threatened, then the hatred that lay underneath it came rushing out and manifested in mass murder.
What do acts of hate have to with me or the culture at large?
They are one of the ways entitlement [is] maintained. There’s a great saying in the domestic violence movement that one good beating lasts a year. What that means is that often times an abuser might only have to beat his victim, his target, once in a year and then the target might be bullied into submission; to do whatever the perpetrator wants. …
I’ve talked to so many women who say ‘When I go outside, I feel like I’m in enemy territory.’ I have walked through tenderloin, through Watts, through all sorts of places at 2 A.M., 3 A.M. I know women who can’t do that. That’s one of he ways that this entitlement is maintained...
If people hate so much, what do people value?
Control. The first thing I was going to say was money, but money is the purpose for control. I think this culture has a tremendous fear of wild nature and of uncontrollable nature and things are much easier to control when they are dead or at least when they’re regimented. It’s much easier to control a parking lot than it is a wild forest. And there’s this weird and arrogant belief that manifests itself in this culture—there’s this great and horrible line by Richard Dawkins where he says science bases its claims to truth on its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command. … His idea of what is true is based on the ability to dominate. But that’s one truth but it’s not all truths.
One of the things I’ve said to indigenous people that’s made a lot of them laugh is the Tolowa Indians lived here for 12,500 years, and when the whites got here 180 years ago the place was a paradise. And now of course the place is really trashed. … Here’s my notion of something as being true. Something is true if you can live in the same place for 12,500 years without destroying the place. How’s that for a notion of what’s true? The arrogance to believe, the entitlement, that you have the right to make these others jump through hoops on command. … That’s what I’m talking about with this hatred being so deeply embedded. How could you want to control everyone and everything if you didn’t hate them? There’s this great line by R.D. Laing. He says love and violence properly speaking are polar opposites. Love let’s the other be, but with love and affection and concern for the other’s well being. Violence attempts to contain the other with no concern for the other’s ultimate well-being. Then he also says we are destroying ourselves with violence masquerading as love. That’s one of the things that’s really difficult in all this conversation is that we’re so deeply embedded in this culture that we don’t see it as stark raving mad. To spend billions and billions of dollars to come up with better ways to control things or to bomb the moon for crying out loud. That’s absolutely insane.
Why is an act of violence in one instance considered a hate crime and in another it is not? For example, the killing of homeless people because they are homeless is not considered a hate crime.
That’s a good question. And I think that there are different motivations for different acts of violence. Someone once burglarized my house a couple of years ago and I honestly don’t think it was a hate crime; they just wanted some of my stuff. It was not because I’m a writer; it wasn’t because of my politics; it wasn’t because I’m a male; it wasn’t because of any of those reasons. The important thing here has to do with institutional power and identity as a class. … If someone commits an act against another, if a member of a privileged class commits some act of harm to someone who is not in a privileged class, I think that carries with it a larger weight than if it were not. … And that’s where, I think, hate crimes come into play—they are attempts to penalize acts that were meant to terrorize not only an individual, but a larger oppressed community.
What will it take to get the violence to stop?
One of the things it will take is the collapse of this culture. It will take beyond the collapse of this culture, actually. A couple of things. Part of the problem is that this culture is based systematically on competition. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict tried to figure out why some cultures are good and others are not so good. The good cultures have a lot of cooperation. Women and children are treated well. Everybody’s reasonably happy. There’s a lot of security. The bad cultures have a lot of competition. Children and women are treated poorly. A lot of war, a lot of insecurity, not much happiness. And she wanted to figure out what’s the difference. Why are some of them this way and why are some of them the other way. It wasn’t house size; it wasn’t wealth; it wasn’t race; it wasn’t patriarchy. We hear sometimes that people are really selfish, and nature is red and tooth and claw and that we also say that nature is really cooperative, from the other side.
What the good cultures recognize is that humans are both selfish and social. What they would do is that they would socially reinforce behavior that benefited the group as a whole and they would socially disallow behavior that benefited the individual at the expense of the group. For example, let’s say I go hunting and that I kill a deer and bring it back and keep it all for myself. In a good culture, that would be A, unthinkable, but B, everyone would shame me—they would say you’re selfish and if on the other hand [I] gave it away, then they would praise me.
What she found is how all culture handled wealth. If it handled wealth with what she called a siphon system, whereby wealth was siphoned from rich to poor everybody in the whole community is secure. If it’s handled through a funnel system whereby wealth is funneled from poor to rich then everybody ends up hating each other because it’s a dog eat dog world to use that awful phrase. That really describes capitalism. So what you socially reward is the behavior you’re going to socially get.
I have a friend who used to work for a battered women’s program for the state of New York and she would ask every man she’d see what will it take for men to stop beating on women. The answer she gave is that it would take other men because women can’t do it by themselves so a man has to say “I’m not going to play basketball with you anymore because I heard you call your girlfriend a bitch.” It will take men reinforcing that. Only 6% of rapists spend one night in jail. There is not a lot of negative social reinforcement for that act. Likewise, on the larger scale, there is a lot of social reinforcement for systematically exploiting poor people. Or stealing indigenous land—that is socially rewarded. •