Teaching Structural Violence in the Time of COVID

Teaching about structural violence is always a bit difficult. After all, structures are elusive things that often operated below the level of conscious action and agency, but nevertheless shape our daily lives. At their most visible, structures are manifest in institutions and, at their least, they are known through movements and attitudes that aren’t structures themselves but suggest forms of relationships that mark out divisions in society. Structural violence refers to the kind of painful, damaging, and harmful actions that occur at the level of structures in society. In fact, many scholars see violence itself is often as a kind of structuring structure that defines certain social relationships that constitute what we see as society. For example, animosity and violence often mark the divisions of classes in society. Scholars have become increasingly interested in the role of violence in marking racial divisions as well. 

N.B. For some background for this post, you can read this earlier post where I explored a similar approach to understanding the social context for the COVID pandemic.

Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen COVID cut a swath through our communities and reveal new and deeper rifts in our social fabric. It is clear that divisions in race, class, education, and even gender shape attitudes toward COVID vaccinations, masks, and public health policies. In many cases, groups in our society who are historically the most vulnerable have adopted attitudes that make them more susceptible to COVID infection and illness. There are any number of reasons why these communities have resisted efforts to mitigate the impact of COVID and many of these stem ultimately from a long history of state violence which has created deep ambivalence and even animosity toward the public institutions (especially those that claim to want to help). This has combined with the efforts by groups and individuals eager to stoke this ambivalence and animosity toward the state in an effort to advance their own positions economically, politically, and socially. Over the last 50 years, neoliberal policies, for example, have represented the state as a damper on the market and argued that by suppressing or controlling competition,the state make individuals less able to advance their social and economic positions in society. The resources absorbed and distributed by the state tend to limit opportunities and disincentivize social advancement by rewarding individuals who are less successful in the market economy (through, say, the social safety net) and penalizing (through taxes, for example) those who are more successful. Of course, many of the groups who champion individual freedom and remain ambivalent toward the state, have not benefited from this, largely because these policies tend to reward groups who have significant competitive advantages in the economy (e.g. generational wealth, access to education, social networks, et c.) and normalize these advantages as the result of market competition. 

Framing attitudes toward COVID in this way might helps us avoid the current tendency toward blaming the victim. Many of those resistant to vaccinations, mask mandates, and other public policies have long viewed the state with deep skepticism because they see it as a barrier to their own advancement and there is a constant drumbeat of political rhetoric and media that reinforce these attitudes. 

More than that, there are real efforts to make the state appear less efficient and capable and in these efforts, and this allows us to get a sense for how structural violence relies upon the complicity of many individuals who might not necessarily advocate for its goals. For example, our institution has a policy that allows us as individual instructors to require masks in our classes, but it also leave us with the burden of enforcement. Realistically, most faculty who I know don’t feel comfortable determining (much less enforcing) public health policies for their classrooms. We’ll do it, though, in part, because we have to and not because we believe the devolution of public health policies is the most efficient or effective way to protect ourselves and students. 

The reason for this devolution of responsibilities is undoubtedly that the institution feels like they can’t make campus wide mandates because of real (or least perceived) pressure from outside stakeholders. In this situation, they implement work arounds that invariably are less successful than a policy and this demonstrates (for some) the ineffectiveness of public institutions. More than that, it demonstrates how certain forms of structural violence operate on the institutional level and make complicit even individuals who don’t share or would rather resist the forms of violence visible in particular policies or attitudes.

Recently, a group of politicians (a small one to be fair) circulated a petition that would withhold state funds — even those appropriated by the legislature — from institutions that implemented mask or vaccine requirements. While this is unlikely to gain much traction, especially on the desk of our pragmatic, realist governor, it is another useful example of how certain groups seek to make state institutions less viable and reinforce the notion that they are ineffective and inefficient. Moreover, these policies would expose unvaccinated and mask-skeptical individuals to greater risk of infection with COVID and serious consequences. This is all the more harmful as universities are one of the places that, for their many flaws, seek (at least ostensibly) to produce a more level playing field in society and give individuals the tools necessary to create a more fair and equal world. The policies that make it more difficult for universities to protect vulnerable individuals, even those who are skeptical of vaccinations and masks, directly hamper their ability to serve groups that we hope to benefit the most. If good public policies are informed by science, by understanding of human behavior, and by deep compassion for the human condition, then higher education plays a crucial role in creating conditions that make good policies and ideally creating a better world.

This is not to blame institutions, in particular, for their failure to stand up to the pressures from those deeply (and in most cases uncritically) ambivalent about the authority of the state. Our institutions response to COVID does, however, offer a particularly vivid example of how certain forms of structural violence serve to undermine even thoughtful and sustained efforts at resolution. It also shows how easy it is for individuals to be complicit in perpetuating systemic violence and failing to protect some of the most vulnerable groups.

The individual calculus in such situations is grim. As individuals, we sometimes blame the victims: they refuse to get vaccinated and refuse to wear masks. More damagingly, we sometimes appeal to some vague greater good that often rests on the bodies of the most vulnerable: some people will get COVID, get very sick, and maybe even die, but at least we are continuing to advance the mission of our institution. In these situations, we’re admitting that the lives of the vulnerable are somehow acceptable collateral damage for the survival of an institution and its ideals (even if these ideals are not reflected in the policies that it must pursue in order to survive).

If these kinds of decisions are not teachable moments, I’m not sure what would be. I only hope that the lessons that we as a society have learned from the unfolding tragedy of the COVID pandemic do not require regular reinforcement.  

The Bakken and the Body

Our panel last week at the Northern Great Plains History Conference was really exciting. The four papers presented in our panel, titled “Boom Goes the Bakken,” each explored a different aspect of ongoing research in the history of the state and western North Dakota. The papers by Nikki Burg Burin, Richard Rothaus, and Bret Weber opened up some new lines of thinking for me and will contribute to a new project that’s been gnawing at the back of my head for several months now. Go here for the panel’s line up and here for a draft of my paper.

Nikki’s and Richard’s paper, in particular, got me thinking about the body in the Bakken. Nikki’s paper continued her important work on human trafficking in North Dakota and how women’s bodies came under different legal definitions over the course of North Dakota legal history. The most significant changes in these laws recognized trafficked individuals as victims even if they engaged in activities such as sex work prohibited by existing statutes. While Berg Burin stressed that there is still significant work to do to protect women who turned to sex work out of economic desperation, immigration status, or as a result of childhood or adult trauma, it was also clear that attitudes toward the female body in North Dakota had undergone significant change over the 100 year history of the state. Moreover, recent changes in the law hint at more subtle understanding in agency when it comes to exploited women that recognized the limits of bodily control even in cases when both the victims and the crime have a profoundly physical and bodily aspect.

Rothaus’s paper likewise focuses on the individual and the body in his discussion of a series of grizzly murders in Williams and McKenzie counties in the early 20th century. The crimes were all committed by “outsiders” who came to the area as itinerate laborers on local farms during the the rapid growth of settlement across the western part of the state. In two of his case studies, the murderers themselves were murdered by mobs of men who pulled them from their jail cells when their convictions seemed less than assured and took justice into their own hands (in the other case the murderer committed suicide). Like in Nikki’s paper, the bodies, quite literally, became the nexus for the definition of community as alienated outsiders both committed and received physical violence that confirmed their outsider status.

Bret Weber’s paper was a bit more sweeping and engaged Guy Standing’s idea of the “precariat” to understand the Bakken in the broader context of neoliberal employment trends around the world. At the same time, his understanding of the the Bakken precariat is grounded in individual stories drawn from his hours of interviews. While he did not articulate the experience of being precarious in strict bodily terms, his commitment to the individual ensured that the risks, opportunities, and experiences of the Bakken were not generalized into a state of anonymity.

Finally, my paper, completely missed the boat in an explicit way (I felt like I had been invited to a costume party but showed up in khakis and an Oxford shirt!), but I think that my emphasis on the experience of modernity through tourism and movement in the Bakken demonstrated more than a passing interest in the impact of this space on bodies. 

My point with this overview of recent work in Bakken research is that we have become increasingly drawn to the individual as the locus for the experience of the Bakken oil boom. In fact, the panel last week got me thinking about the character of Bakken bodies exposed to the pressures, vagaries, dangers, and sensations of global capital in a distinct (but not unique) way.

I have this fantasy project where I explore the history of the Bakken boom using the kind of deep mapping techniques that guys like William Least Heat-Moon used for his book PrairyErth. The project would start with the large-scale historical, economic, and cultural impact of global petroculture and end with the analysis of a singe (or a small group) of individual bodies in the Bakken with intermediate steps considering the intersection of petroculture with national politics, the economy and culture of the state, and the Bakken landscape. The papers on Thursday was the first time that I became attuned to the idea of Bakken bodies in a way that made it appear as the natural conclusion for my proposed project.