May 24, 2013
Youth in Revolt: The Plague of State-Sponsored Violence
Posted on Mar 14, 2012
By Henry Giroux, Truthout
Hyper-violence and spectacular representations of cruelty disrupt and block our ability to respond politically and ethically to the violence as it is actually happening on the ground. In this instance, unfamiliar violence such as extreme images of torture and death become banally familiar, while familiar violence that occurs daily is barely recognized relegated to the realm of the unnoticed and unnoticeable. How else to explain the public indifference to the violence waged by the state against nonviolent youthful protesters, who are rebelling against a society in which they have been excluded from any claim on hope, prosperity and democracy. As an increasing volume of violence is pumped into the culture, yesterday’s spine-chilling and nerve-wrenching violence loses its shock value. As the need for more intense images of violence accumulates, the moral indifference and desensitization to violence grows while matters of cruelty and suffering are offered up as fodder for sports, entertainment, news media, and other outlets for seeking pleasure.
Marked by a virulent notion of hardness and aggressive masculinity, a culture of violence has become commonplace in a society in which pain, humiliation and abuse are condensed into digestible spectacles endlessly circulated through extreme sports, reality TV, video games, YouTube postings and proliferating forms of the new and old media. But the ideology of hardness and the economy of pleasure it justifies are also present in the material relations of power that have intensified since the Reagan presidency, when a shift in government policies first took place, and set the stage for the emergence of unchecked torture and state violence under the Bush-Cheney regime. Conservative and liberal politicians alike now spend millions waging wars around the globe, funding the largest military state in the world, providing huge tax benefits to the ultra-rich and major corporations and all the while draining public coffers, increasing the scale of human poverty and misery and eliminating all viable public spheres - whether they be the social state, public schools, public transportation, or any other aspect of a formative culture that addresses the needs of the common good. State violence, particularly the use of torture, abductions and targeted assassinations, are now justified as part of a state of exception that has become normalized. A “political culture of hyper punitiveness”(24) has become normalized and accelerates throughout the social order like a highly charged electric current. Democracy no longer leaves open the importance of an experience of the common good. As a mode of “failed sociality,” the current version of market fundamentalism has turned the principles of democracy against itself, deforming both the language of freedom and justice that made equality a viable idea and political goal. State violence operating under the guise of personal safety and security, while parading species of democracy, cancels out democracy “as the incommensurable sharing of existence that makes the political possible.”(25) Symptoms of ethical, political and economic impoverishment are all around us.
Meanwhile, exaggerated violence is accelerated in the larger society and now rules screen culture. The public pedagogy of entertainment includes extreme images of violence, human suffering and torture splashed across giant movie screens, some in 3D, offering viewers every imaginable portrayal of violent acts, each more shocking and brutal than the last. The growing taste for violence can be seen in the increasing modeling of public schools after prisons, the criminalization of behaviors such as homelessness that once were the object of social protections. A symptomatic example of the way in which violence has saturated everyday life can be seen in the growing acceptance of criminalizing the behavior of young people in public schools. Behaviors that were normally handled by teachers, guidance counselors and school administrators are now dealt with by the police and the criminal justice system. The consequences have been disastrous for young people. Not only do schools resemble the culture of prisons, but young children are being arrested and subjected to court appearances for behaviors that can only be termed as trivial. How else to explain the case of the five-year-old girl in Florida who was put in handcuffs and taken to the local jail because she had a temper tantrum; or the case of Alexa Gonzales in New York who was arrested for doodling on her desk. Even worse, a 13-year-old boy in a Maryland school was arrested for refusing to say the pledge of allegiance. There is more at work than stupidity and a flight from responsibility on the part of educators, parents and politicians who maintain these laws; there is also the growing sentiment that young people constitute a threat to adults and that the only way to deal with them is to subject them to mind-crushing punishment. Students being miseducated, criminalized and arrested through a form of penal pedagogy in prison-type schools provide a grim reminder of the degree to which the ethos of containment and punishment now creeps into spheres of everyday life that were largely immune in the past from this type of state violence. The governing through crime ethic also reminds us that we live in an era that breaks young people, corrupts the notion of justice and saturates the minute details of everyday life with the threat, if not reality, of violence. This mediaeval type of punishment inflicts pain on the psyche and the body of young people as part of a public spectacle. Even more disturbing is how the legacy of slavery informs this practice given that “Arrests and police interactions ... disproportionately affect low-income schools with large African-American and Latino populations,”(26) paving the way for them to move almost effortlessly through the school-to-prison pipeline. Surely, the next step will be a reality TV franchise in which millions tune in to watch young kids being handcuffed, arrested, tried in the courts and sent to juvenile detention centers. This is not merely barbarism parading as reform - it is also a blatant indicator of the degree to which sadism and the infatuation with violence have become normalized in a society that seems to take delight in dehumanizing itself.
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