Yesterday I watched In A Better World at the Naro Cinema. I was thinking about using this blog mainly to catalog books and writing, but watching movies feeds my mind and my writing just as much as the written word. There are certain movies, like Once, that I turn to again and again to help rekindle and push my creative drive. Others, like Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster and the skater movie Lords of Dogtown, I use to remind me of adolescence and struggles with self. In A Better World works in the vein of the latter group, not because it dwells in the angst and focused duende of youth, although it does have elements of that, but rather because it looks at the place of violence in the world, and in our lives.
At the center of In A Better World are two kids, maybe 12 years old, who become friends when Christian, the new kid in town, beats up the boy who had been bullying the other main character, Silas. Christian’s father scolds him for beating up the bully, saying that fighting never solves anything, that it just causes more conflict, war spawning war spawning war. His argument is sane and true, an argument that is well born out by all of human history. But an argument to which Christian responds, “Not if you hit hard enough the first time,” telling his father that in every school he’s moved to, it’s always been the same – he had to get in a fight at the beginning, hitting harder than his opponent, and after that no one would bother him. And I found I agreed with him too, even though Christian just articulated the child’s version of the endlessly problematic and ill-conceived Shock and Awe war begun by George W. Bush.
When I was in school, I subscribed both to Christian’s and his father’s philosophy. I was anti-war because history showed that wars propagate violence and instability, and was a way that larger nations bullied and manipulated smaller nations, and yet every school I attended I also got into one fight, and after that I never had to fight again – something I was conscious of and articulated in the very same way as Christian. As a teenager, I made little connection between personal violence and violence between nations, once even claiming to be a violent pacifist, using violence only on the personal level. I fought fights so that I wouldn’t have to fight again, but to be honest, I also liked the rush and clarity of fighting. My sister never had to fight in order to avoid fighting, and she attended the same schools as me. There was something in me that was seeking out a world in which violence was necessary. At various times I carried weapons to school, a knife, a chain with a ball of keys at one end, a roll of dimes in my pocket to harden my fist. I never used these weapons and most of this was part of my creation of my self-image, my way of hardening myself for a world that I didn’t understand. Much of this self image I borrowed from books and movies. But still, I was armed for violence.
In the 2002 movie, Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore makes the connection between the school shooting and the weapons factory of Lockheed Martin, the town’s largest employer. To many, the connection seems like a stretch, but In A Better World that same parallel is drawn between the violence of war and personal violence. Silas’s father works in a refugee camp in Africa, flying back and forth between there and Denmark. While in Denmark, he tries to teach Silas and Christian the pointlessness of violence, showing them that after being slapped by another man, he could make the choice not to hit back, but to rather be victorious in the higher ground of non-violence. But Christian does not believe that lesson, and Silas’s father’s commitment to his own ideals is challenged in Africa when faced with violent militia men who slice open pregnant women for sport. The movie powerfully asks the question, when faced with such evil acts, isn’t acting in violence, to defend the innocent, justifiable? The question is made personal for Silas’s dad, but making a war personal is a very clear reminder that all wars involve individuals, that in this military town in which I live, there are many people here who have lost a friend, brother, son, father, daughter, mother or wife. Indeed many of my students are returning veterans, or are part of the ROTC program and are preparing for their service. These past, current and future soldiers are some of my best students, and in the quiet and safety of the classroom, it is easy for me to forget that my veteran students have lived through wars in which they were put into situations of defending their lives, and the lives of their buddies, and in a greater sense, the lives of their nation, through violence and likely killing. War is always a personal act, lived by the soldiers and citizens in wars’ midst.
While there is redemption and healing in the movie, there are also no clear answers. Violence is shown for what it is, an often horrific power. It is telling that the movie is titled In A Better World, pointing at the current impossibility of a peaceable world in our world. How do you lay down your weapons when it seems that everyone else is carrying them? How do you lay down your weapons when others are committing unspeakable acts? And how do you forgive someone who has harmed you? These are difficult choices, but these are the choices necessary to begin peace, because even when justified as self-defense, violent actions always have unintended consequences. Every man and woman and child killed in war creates new enemies out of husbands, wives, fathers and sons. Every war disrupts and destroys nations. Every war fought spawns new wars. And a civilization in which violence is acceptable as a means of intimidation or defense is a civilization that permits and engages in war.
Many argue that violence is in human nature, but the human race, like all animals have constantly evolved, and so it thus shouldn’t be impossible to imagine a world that could evolve to be non-violent. There have been powerful world changing demonstrations of the power of non-violence. Also, it is easy to forget that the mass majority of humankind will never kill another human being, and will live lives of personal peace (whether consciously or not). In A Better World contrasts the ways children respond to pressures for violence and the ways adults can choose to respond. The father could choose not to hit, to not to resort to violence, because he was coming from a position of strength, unlike Christian, who was struggling to find his place in the world. The movie points to the hope of maturing, of gaining power over our instincts, and thus not begetting more violence out of our own violence. Similarly, earlier this year I listened to a Radio Lab episode called the New Baboon which detailed how a group of baboons evolved peaceful behaviors due to a change in their food supply. A consequence of this change was that young male baboons were raised in a culture of cooperation rather than in a culture of violence and the resulting changed behaviors seemed to be getting passed down through the generations, the less aggressive and more cooperative baboons being the more successful baboon, thus evolving a kinder, gentler baboon. The results of the study are inconclusive, with some scientists arguing that the dominant aggression in baboon nature will eventually reassert itself, but there is likewise the hope that it could now, and that aggression could be sloughed off as residual. It is thus interesting to imagine a parallel in the human world, and what would happen if non-aggression is rewarded and fostered and eventually passes into our evolution.
As a teenager, I held onto absolute beliefs, but now all those beliefs are gone. I once called myself a violent pacifist, and now I guess I’d term myself a realist pacifist. I’m not sure I could be like the father in the movie, letting myself be slapped again and again by a bully. I know I could not let that happen to someone I love, and thus I cannot honestly say that I am against all wars – only the truly non-violent can say that. But I can aspire to that ideal. I can aspire to be like the monks in Of Gods and Men, and dwell in love even when confronted by violence. While there may be hope in eventual evolution towards being kinder and gentler, I hold onto the even greater hope that the vast majority of people have always demonstrated a much greater capacity for love than they do for hate and violence. I hope that in aspiring to being our better selves, in our small, daily lives, that by doing this each one of us is making progress towards a better, more peaceful world.