I love people. I firmly believe people are smarter, more resilient, more adaptable and downright more awesome than even most people give themselves credit for.
But sometimes, people really piss me off.
That said? Let’s talk about Ontological Violence. For instance, the word on the street is that the ability of homosexuals to marry and gain the same legal and religious protections and rights as heterosexual couples actually damages the status of heterosexual marriage. According to ProtectMarriage.com, all California’s recently successfully passed Proposition 8 did was to “simply restore the meaning of marriage and protects it as an essential institution that has benefited mankind since the beginning of time.” Search for the documentation backing other recently-enacted anti-gay marriage (or gay adoption) bills and amendments, you’ll find similar statements that make a very fuzzy distinction about where the line is drawn between defending our religious freedoms and impinging on the civil rights of others.
I don’t want to get bogged down here, debating the morality of gay marriage; there are plenty of other pundits who will tell you one version or another of their moral truth. What I’m more interested in is how the very idea of homosexual marriage and homosexuality in general is a threat. I want to talk about how progressive ideas of all stripes – be they subcultures, religions, sexuality, different loves or different goals are transformed in the media and in the hearts and minds of millions into a threat. How has love become a weapon in a war that, according to Protect Marriage, has been going on since “the beginning of time?” How has love become a thing that inherently does violence to – if polls are to be believed – a majority of the people in the United States?
That people have a tendency to “Other” the people who are not them is not a strange new development. It’s the fodder for a thousand Philosophy 201 classes around the world every year. You can cite Buber, you can cite Heidegger, you could – if you wanted – discuss the tendency for Cartesian thought to make “Self” or “Not Other” the axis upon which existence spins. But on a practical level this does us no good. The entities immersed in the system we call the world (whom I like to refer to as “People”) still display an amazing ability to separate the world into dualities, most notably “Self” and Other.” And if something threatens that sense of Self – and really, anything that is Not-Self threatens Self by its very existence – many people are quick to interpret that Not-Self’s inherient existence as an act of violence.
Whoever you are reading this, there is something about you about what you think, feel, love, hate, fear or represent that makes you – in the eyes of someone else – a bomb. In a world where the media assures us there is a Culture War, we have moved past the point where “Everything is Political.” The politicization of your every action or inaction is now taken for granted. If there is a Culture War - and so many people tell me it’s real - then you, no matter your lifestyle, are not just political, you are weaponized. It only makes sense that in a world where information flows faster and faster between corners of the globe and the people living across it that ideas – especially “progressive ideas” – acquire the high velocity of a bullet. And in this world, there’s never just one bullet, but a hail of them. I grew up in a small community in which I literally did not know that homosexuals existed. Now they are my friends and lovers. The world opens broader and brighter every day.
Here on Grinding, we talk about bodymods and cyborging and hacks and the bits of science that can push us that much farther beyond the narrow envelope of what is human. When our voices grow loud enough, when it stops being “the guy in the Olympics”, or “that girl with the forked tongue”, or “that kid who can feel your arphid chips in your wallet” – our collective voices will echo like a barrage of gunfire to someone. Given enough velocity, any idea threatening the envelopes of “Self” or “Human” Sounds like the crack of gunfire. Transhumanist voices will sound like violence. Just like queer voices or feminist voices or voices of colour, there will be those (there ARE those, look at Stem Cell research or the nascent anti-longevity movement) who interpret our ideas as a violence done to them.
Why? It’s beyond me. I have my theories, and I tend to point people back to Terence McKenna, Alastair Crowley, Grant Morrison, Robert Anton Wilson, Judith Butler, or maybe Emmanuel Levinas for my beliefs on why we shape our internal worlds like we do. But given this is Grinding and I’ve always got an eye towards practicality here – I want to talk about the stakes. In a world where the spaces between things and people shrink because of the power of interconnective technology what is conceivably on the line when – through the mere act of existing – groups perform violence on each other?
I’m going to take a page from our friends over at Project Marriage and take this back “to the beginning of time”. Well, I’m going to take this back before there were Christian marriages, which is apparently the same goddamned thing. I’m going to take this little anthropological time machine all the way back to the time of the cave men.
Now I’m many things, but I’m not an Evolutionary Biologist. I’m also not an Anthropologist, but I think Mohinder from Heroes is supposed to be both of those things and if he can manage it, then it can’t be too hard. (Actually he’s a genetics professor apparently, but the joke stands.) However, I do want to talk about our former friends and neighbors, the Neanderthals. Now, we don’t know for certain what happened to the Neanderthrals. What know they were wiped out. We are here gazing intently into our interweb-reading devices and they are religated to museums, crude graves, buried under rocks and in doomed to Geico commercials. We can construct a lot of narratives as to what happened to our genetically similar, broad-browed cousins, but the specifics, sadly are the domain of the past and as such are ever mutable. We can only ever add detail to the narratives of their passing, we can’t say for certain what made them pass. (Although I’m going to offer a few of my favourite ideas in a bit.)
Bottom line is that we (and by we, I mean Homo sapiens) won and they (and by they, I of course mean Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, and let’s throw in Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo erectus just to get the point across) lost. They lost the whole ball of wax in a game where the stakes are infinite and the play was cutthroat. But how did that happen? For about one hundred and fifty to two-hundred thousand years, they were the biggest game in town. The Neandrethals were everywhere in Eurasia and while their population numbers possibly peaked at somewhere around thirty-five to fifteen thousand, they were still the star players in town, assuming the name of the game was “build intelligent bipeds”. Then, you get a period of co-existence where our heroes the Neanderthals were sharing bits of land with the newest Human upstarts on the block – Humans, fresh, if the story is to be believed, out of Africa.
The Neanderthals may not have been as un-like us as high-school biology textbooks have led us to believe. In fact, researchers at the Max Plank Institute estimate that there’s somewhere in the neighborhood of a 99.9% similarity between them and us. They used tools, and while those tools never reached the sophistication of Eurasian human tools, they theoretically weren’t too far off the “state of the art” at the time. They had fire. There is even evidence they may have had language: They had the pre-requisite musculature necessary for human-like speech and they carry the exact same FOXP2 gene that we do – a gene tied to the development of language skills. Prof. Steven Mithen even makes the claim that Neanderthals had a musical language that never bifurcated into two different tracks of cognition – one for language and one for music. Hell, according to some controversial findings, they may have even had musical instruments.
So what did we Humans have going for us? If the margin of survival between our two closely related groups was that narrow, what made the difference? Well, obviously weather had a lot to do with it. The weather in a lot of the areas the Neanderthals called home sucked and was not really conducive to a hunting-based society. But one serious advantage the Humans had in areas where we overlapped in harsh climes was that Humans had a “cultural cache:” In other words we did more than hunt. We had a back-up plan. Plan B came in the form of rudimentary agriculture, whereas as best as we can tell, our Neanderthal buddies were strict hunters and carnivores. (And possibly cannibals, to boot.)
Our human ancestors also seem to have had larger social groups. While Neanderthals appear to have had small tight-knit family units, the proto-humans were forming things recognizable as communities. This of course, would have created greater social and linguistic sophistication. And as linguistic sophistication grows so does cognitive function. The Humans, by existing in larger communal structures would have been exposed to a greater range of ideas and variations. The Neanderthal would have had tradition and an extremely isolated small family unit, not facing the cognitive and social challenges that an increasingly networked proto-culture faced.
Perhaps they were simply unable to deal with the climate change of the ice age. Or perhaps when thrust into contact with our ancestors they had a sexy party and interbred (although recent studies show a great deal of doubt that there was ever an appreciable amount of interbreeding between the two competing species). There are a lot of theories on why we won out in the evolutionary sweepstakes, although perhaps the most believable (to me at least) is the one put forth by authors like Jared Diamond and Howard Bloom: When and where these two vastly similar but very different cultures met they did what we all feel the reaction to do when encountering a perversion of “self” – they fought.
The proto-humans, being faster and having projectile weapons that the Neanderthals’ material culture never developed and – according to Bloom at least – harboring an instinctual and genetic drive to win – wiped out the Neandterthals wholesale.
Honestly, it was probably a mix of all of these things: Climate change, differing community structures, different material cultures, outright naked aggression, scarcity of food. Me? I still leave a lot of room for the humans gaining the upper hand through the use of psychedelics, but I’ll leave “The Stoned Ape” to its own devices for now. What human culture shows in almost all of these scenarios is an ability to adapt faster than their opponents. More to the point, as author Bruce Sterling points out in his book Shaping Things, they appear to have possessed the ability to make mistakes and learn from them with a greater speed; a necessary skill for a successful culture.
The things that saw Humans win that race were not big things, really. Certainly they were game-changing ideas at the time: change how families work, orginize the old family units into tribes, divide labor tasks in case the present state changes so we’d have something to fall back on. Our forebears were able to – and were forced to - try new things in case the old things stop working. These are lesions we should have learned from cavemen. Theirs was a live-or-die situation, certainly but how is now really any different?
Look at the news, look at the polls. Over fifty percent of the people in this country (not even getting into other cultural and geopolitical morasses, here) do not have the ability to suspend their fear of the Other long enough, to embrace real change, to make mistakes at high velocity, to have a sense of self that is porous enough to allow other kinds of people to live their lives, to let love be not a weapon.
But here’s the part that keeps me up at night: I love people. If I didn’t, I think I’d be in a different line of work. My fear is that the roots of Ontological Violence stem from way back in the day. Back when two like species met each other on the world’s dusty plains and only one walked away. And the one that didn’t walk away? It had beauty, it had art, it was so much like us… but it didn’t adapt. It didn’t have the little ideas to enable a species to make it through the long haul. Because of their inability or unwillingness to incorporate little ideas that by the light of the cities look like the simplest fucking things, they wasted away, or we might have killed them. Who knows? There’s no one left to tell their tales.
I still love people.
I think we’re capable of wonderful things. I think we’re capable of anything if we let go of our fear and our prejudices and the dogma that stops us from being able to learn and persevere and make new and exciting mistakes.
But I see people preaching hate on the street-corners, defending their god, their religion, and most of all their fears with hate, anger and bile. I can’t help but look at those people who see my Self as a violence against them, and wonder if they can adapt and survive and change. In those hate-filled faces I see for just a moment – despite my better nature – a big-nosed shaggy-headed singing Neanderthal watching in terror as people it cannot understand crest over the ridge with their cunning weapons and dangerous ideas. I can’t help but wonder if we freaks and queers and Others do, in fact, commit a violence against them. Because all of us - The outsiders, the pagans, the Grinders, the subculture kids, the futurists, the cyborgs, the freaks, the fags – all of us mutants and monsters?
If there’s one thing we know how to do, it’s adapt and try new ideas.
Maybe there is a Culture War. And maybe history is just repeating itself.