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The Moral Economy of Nonviolence

January 21, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Community, Culture, Devon G. Pena, Family

Learning Peacefulness from the Zapotecas

by Devon G. Peña

Pundits and analysts have engaged in mostly thoughtful discussions of the social, cultural, and political contexts of the recent mass murder in Arizona. According to Michael Nagler, there is growing recognition of “an apparently forbidden truth: that we bring violence on ourselves when we promote it, glorify it, or legitimize it — as in this case by the extreme rhetoric associated with Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, among others.” Still, for every such in-depth analysis of the issue, there are others content to remain on the surface.

Was the Tucson massacre a form of political violence? Some have argued that it was, by virtue of the fact that the principal target was an elected official. Many on the right, including Palin, have objected to this characterization, arguing that “blaming the right” or any one else is intrinsically unfair and that the mindless crime occurred simply because the perpetrator was mentally ill and unhinged. Since the assassin was ‘sick,’ this cannot be seen as a ‘political act.’ The allegedly deranged mental state of the perpetrator becomes an opening to ‘de-politicize’ the crime. This is, simply put, a ruse.

I have for some time been analyzing the “ecology of fear” and the climate of hatred it generates to feed the growing menace of presumably random acts of violence in Arizona and other parts of the country, especially those that have a strong presence of right-wing partisan groups like elements of the Tea Party, Minutemen, and others. At the outset, we need to recognize and include other victims within the same realm of recent killings that were caused or promoted by right-wing partisan hatred and direct calls made by right-wing extremists for acts of political violence, oftentimes attached to a sense of entitlement that right-wing extremists express through an emotional appeal to the right to defend their land, families, and territory.

Under these circumstances, we have to include the murder of ten year-old Brisenia Flores and her father during a home invasion in a Phoenix suburb on May 10, 2009 by members of a ring-wing militia group. In this case, the motivating political objective was ridding the state of Arizona of ‘illegal aliens.’ Indeed, the U.S. has a long history of such violence and correspondingly incoherent but hate-filled vitriol, dating to the earliest days of the enterprise.

We must therefore be receptive to the idea that the ideologically-hostile climate produced by exaggerated ring-wing grievances about ethnic, racial, class, and other sources of resentment is a serious problem in our public culture, and thus limits democracy. Despite the underlying validity of this argument, I do not agree that this is the most positive and productive approach to take in seeking to address the problem of a lack of a civil, equitable, and democratic political culture in this nation. What is needed instead is a movement toward a more transformative dialogue about peace and democracy, grounded in the lived experiences of our families and communities.

We are all partly made into the type of human we embody as a result of the child-rearing practices we experience. These practices are not epiphenomenal or coincidental. The way we raise children is as revealing about the biography of the becoming of a person as it is of the societal structure and general cultural values, mores, and norms that play a significant role in creating the ‘public persona’ (the person that interacts with others in the public sphere). In particular, we can look to exemplars like the “Zapoteca” of La Paz, Oaxaca, Mexico — a cultural inquiry that, incidentally, could be banned in Arizona as part of the now prohibited pursuit of “ethnic studies” — who are revered across the world for their practice of “socialization for peace.”

Research by anthropologists, including Douglas Fry (1993) among others, has long suggested that there are human communities where it is possible to raise children in a manner that reduces violence, aggression, and exuberant physicality or ‘toughness.’ For example, the Zapotec are known to rear their children to value “respect for elders” and “sharing as a virtue.” These norms are part of a complex set of practices that produce what scholars call “socialization for peace.” The Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict entry for “La Paz Zapotec” of Mexico illustrates this in ethnographic detail.

The idea that cultures exist that emphasize “socialization for peace” may be viable in Oaxaca, Mexico, but is it is also viable anywhere else we wish to become more mindful of the effects and consequences of our child-rearing practices? Could it be that socialization for peace will result in a culture that produces very few “sociopaths”? The Zapotec of La Paz (Spanish for “Peace”) have some of the lowest crime rates in the world including a near absence of murder. It can certainly be stated that the Zapotec have never produced a serial or mass murderer.

This seems quite unlike our dominant avarice-driven, self-centered, and neo-Darwinian approach to child-rearing that gets kids to compete ruthlessly for attention while encouraging them to engage in banal acquisitiveness as a route to self-realization. This suggests that, while our society is very complicated, it has not truly attained the level of norm-setting and values-defining sophistication evident in the child-rearing practices of the Zapotecs. This apparently pervasive deficit — and not some naturalized proclivity of the American character toward avarice, competition, and violence — likely makes more advanced forms of justice and juridical normative control difficult to attain broadly in our society.

Native Americans have long held that the roots of the American Republic are steeped in systemic and even gloriously and religiously-inscribed violence. We could argue the point endlessly but the fact remains that the Zapoteca have experienced some 400+ years of colonialism, racism, land theft, structural violence, and every other imaginable indignity and violent deprivation imposed by outsiders. Amazingly, they continue to socialize their children for peacefulness despite their experience of four centuries of intergenerational historical trauma and structural violence. Despite this inter-generational suffering, the Zapoteca have persisted because of their culture of resilience which empowers them to refuse being reduced to the detritus of neoliberal capitalism. They are not merely ghosts of ‘primitive accumulation.’

I know many Zapotecas and other Mesoamerican people who are part of a post-NAFTA Diaspora into the U.S. and Canada. From L.A. to Seattle, I have been privileged over the years to work with Mesoamerican Diaspora farmers as part of our collaborative engagement in the new urban agriculture movement and its basic struggle for food sovereignty. Along the way, I have heard stories of violence and peace and witnessed the parenting of youth. Mesoamerican members of the South Central Farmers Feeding Families have shared stories of great-grandmothers who were forcibly raped and kidnapped by criminal rurales, the armed forces of the dictator Porfirio Diaz. They have shared stories of abuelos captured, chained, and exported like cattle on railroad cars toward unknown destinies as slave labor for plantations and mining centers.

This was followed by new waves of violence in the form of state terrorism perpetrated by the landed gentry, the regional post-Revolutionary caciques and other overlords that included state Governors and other elected officials. This wave of violence forced numerous indigenous peasant farmers off their communal lands. Then came the most recent wave of violence that was perpetrated by neoliberal shock doctrines and more people have died, this time from hunger and malnutrition or from a spray of bullets by the new rurales, the minions and thugs of the Zetas and various drug cartels.

In this manner, one great-grandmother, a grandfather, and a father were all killed or died during three distinct waves of political violence in Oaxaca between 1887 and 1993 — all in same same Zapotec family and community. An important part of this family is here today, farming in southern California. They are peacefully participating in and creating an urban agriculture revolution. They are basing this on their ancient agroecological knowledge and the heirloom seeds of corn, bean, squash, and hundreds of other Native land race crops they have brought along inside suitcases full of mole and chapulines (dried crickets, a popular snack).

While peacefully creating a new place-based ecological democracy and contributing to local food sovereignty, they are also teaching their children how to be kind, gentle, and generous human beings. They do so by sharing the secrets of good farming, a sound community, healthy bodies, and the ethics of the solidarity economy — mutual aid and communal caring.

How do we transform our violent political culture toward one based on the alternative care ethics of mutual aid and conviviality? I turn again to the Zapotec farmers. The concept of “moral economy” has been used by social scientists to refer to the interplay between cultural mores and economic activity. It can be used to describe a situation in which custom and social pressure coerce members of a community, when acting in the economic sphere, to conform to traditional norms, even at the expense of personal profit.

This describes the moral economy of the South Central Farmers. It also describes Zapotec child-rearing practices. They raise their children by emphasizing the good of the whole. But they also celebrate the worth of the self connected to others as a contributing member of a community. We can learn from cultures such as the Zapotec how to build our own moral economy from the numerous acts of peace-loving practice of inclusive citizenship, mutual aid, and conviviality. The everyday act of raising peaceful children may become the most important overlooked resource we can mobilize to build a sustained and truly transformative social movement that can finally take us beyond the current political culture that produces (and is itself constantly poisoned by) the deep wells of structural and interpersonal violence.

Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His influential books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (University of Arizona Press, 2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (University of Arizona Press, 1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

4 Comments to “The Moral Economy of Nonviolence”


  1. RT @newclearvision: The Moral Economy of Nonviolence http://t.co/NRh4B5G

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