the interrogations of shamshouma

On Kunhadi’s new civility campaign, or how to cross the road when there is no state.


It’s funny. NGOs in Lebanon seem to address every single facet of violence in Lebanese society: be it war-related violence, refugee violence, violence against women, violence against domestic workers, traffic, pollution etc.  Structural violence however is something that NGOs do not rally and scream against. Structural violence, as I taught my undergraduate students in Michigan while holding an imaginary gun and shooting at them, is NOT a visible form of violence. It is not rape; it is not physical or verbal abuse.  It is a violence of institutions.

And this is exactly why it is such a powerful form of violence. It is very difficult to trace, see and locate structural violence in order for it  to be challenged and revealed. Structural violence is the form of oppression, segregation and assault committed by social structures and institutions on certain communities, races, bodies and peoples that produce ontologically different bodies, races and peoples; and also produce chaotic and “uncivilized” people who don’t cross the road properly in Lebanon. The weak structure of Lebanese institutions, something that NGOs arguably help produce, is itself the cause of a lack of obedience (whether intentional as a defiance to the weak state or an unconscious presentiment of the daily absence of the state) to traffic lights and of the “inability” of Lebanese people to “cross the road in the correct manner”.

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NGOs in Lebanon, the official spokespersons of Michel Foucault’s biopolitics of modernity, are really starting to get on my nerves. Having a campaign that orient citizens to cross the road in a “civilized” manner assumes that the problem of crossing the roads safely is that of individual ignorance of civility, manifested in modern and sophisticated traffic lights and white stripes on the roads.

Give me a break. As the whole country is drowning in water, it is really obvious that “modernity” and “civility”, for those who consider this top priority in Lebanon, will not be a possibility if the state collapses in a sewer in the next few hours. Civility is a dialogical relationship between citizens and the state. A relationship of trust, fear and productive self-regulatory obedience maybe. But a relationship nonetheless. So, I refuse to hear about civility form NGOs.

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8 thoughts on “On Kunhadi’s new civility campaign, or how to cross the road when there is no state.

  1. I agree with both premise and conclusion, and we would all be better off if an NGO found itself on a slippery sidewalk near a gutter in this storm, so this is more of an excursion on that:
    If we agree that the “state” itself is the result (continuously produced?) of a “dialogical relation” between persons (what I prefer to call, more classically, a “contract”), then aren’t problems of state-and-citizen still problems of inter-personal relations/agreements, at least partially? Unless we posit that systemic issues become at some point completely detached of their root causes, the conclusion seems rather inevitable.
    And I would argue that the detachment is never complete, if only to allow the systems (institutions) to feed in a parasitic manner off the “citizens”. (And can well consider some inter-personal relations as part of the system). If so, then the route taken from individuals towards institutions can be traveled a second time, and in the same direction, to cut the chicken-and-egg cycle of citizen-and-state, personal-and-systemic. In the case at hand, I would naively imagine pedestrians and drivers respecting the road signage. But because of the state of roads in the cities, this would exacerbate the suffocating traffic jams already experienced. This stresses the system to a point that it might cause a systemic change…
    I guess, until mawkab ma3ale alwazir mows down a few pedestrians on the white stripes, w bi ta7addor, because he did it with a Mercedes…

  2. great comment! I think what is going on is more complex than my dialogical argument because if we follow that we do go into an chicken and egg cycle. I wasn’t really thinking about “social contract” when I was writing, I was more trying to figure out how to talk about our relationship with the state, how we feel it present, how we make decisions because we feel, are cognizant of, and know that it is there watching. This is Foucault’s argument really, that people brush their teeth and stop at the traffic light because of biopower. In our case, this “power” is very elusive and not certain at all and does not have the same legitimacy.
    so yes, I agree, if we are talking about relationships, we are also talking about inter-personal relationships, something that we also encounter materially while driving, when we let a pedestrian pass the road, when we drive like crazy not caring about anyone else, etc..
    Funny enough, I’ve recently started using the expression “tfaddal Akhi Al mou3atein” (“please pass by my citizen brother) whenever an asshole is driving next to me. There is much to say about this, so when an NGO launches a civility campaign as the solution for pedestrians crossing the road, shit becomes classist.

  3. Hey Shamshouma
    I’m intrigued by your post. I like the idea of structural violence. Would you be so kind and please elaborate on this particular sentence:
    “Structural violence is the form of oppression, segregation and assault committed by social structures and institutions on certain communities, races, bodies and peoples that produce ontologically different bodies, races and peoples; and also produce chaotic and “uncivilized” people who don’t cross the road properly in Lebanon.”

    Also, you mentioned that NGO’s help produce weak structures, and that would lead to disobedience and/or defiance. Could you please elaborate on that too?

    • ok, so structural violence is this form of normalized violence (violence that is considered normal, routine, bureaucratic, that we take for granted as normal, that doesn’t shock us anymore but might sock an outsider) practiced by institutions (police, the healthcare system (hospitals, doctors, codes of conduct etc.), science (psychology, medicine, etc), state policies, the law (the court), education, academia, etc) not individuals. The fact that it is a violence practiced by institutions makes it normalized actually, so we take it for granted as “this is how things are and have been”.
      Let me give you an example.
      structural violence is a concept commonly used by Paul Farmer who is a medical anthropologist (both a doctor and an anthropologist) who did work on AIDS in Haiti. He wrote a famous article called “the anthropology of structural violence”, where he argued that the reason why AIDS has persisted in Haiti for so long despite public health effort is NOT because individuals are ignorant of “safe sexual practices” or just don’t care about it, but because of these epidemics are “rooted in the enduring effects of European expansion in the New World and in the slavery and racism with which it was associated”.
      The AIDS epidemic is a product, an outcome of slavery, poverty, social inequalities produced by colonialism and imperialism and NOT a separate individual or cultural lack of obedience to normative behaviors.
      In this sense, institutions (in Farmer’s case colonial institutions) produce afflicted and diseased Haitian bodies, produce “blackness” and race (as is the case with for example the USA’s system of classifying races into categories in order to allocate funds, services etc), bodies that are different from mine. Allocating this difference to ignorance and individualistic inability “to abide by rules” is therefore quite problematic.
      structural violence has been used in so many ways to speak of homelessness, mental illness and racism.
      I should note that this concept has been critiqued later in literature, mainly because it could be used as a black box that contains everything and says nothing. I partly agree with that, but I think that if we can account for structural violence materially by investigating its traces, then we wont fall into that trap.
      As for the second point, what I meant was Non-Governmental Organizations, by definition (non-governmental :)) and function, weaken state institutions. Lebanon is a clear example of that, everything is run by NGOs including ministries, thereby weakening themselves the state authority and legitimacy.

      • Ah! I see!
        And how is everything run by NGO’s, including ministries? could you give me an example?

        • ministry of social affairs, ministry of health, ministry of agriculture, etc, not to mention local municipalities are partners with NGOs and run their programs.

          • And how did you come to know that it’s NGO’s that run the ministries?

            • there are tons of project that the UN and other NGOs do with these ministries and fund, it is a known fact, not private information that I know. If you need anymore information about it, check the ministries’ websites and also newspapers. this is not a new and revealing piece of information ya3neh. I didnt say they “run” them but most of the programs are NGOs programs implemented by ministries.

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