Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Violence as Enclosure

When something in the commons is threatened with privatization, we call that the threat of enclosure. The idea is that the commons is open, in all meanings of that word, and that private space is enclosed. For those who want to understand this concept in all its dimensions, I recommend David Bollier’s excellent and very readable book, Silent Theft: the Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth.

How is violence and the threat of violence part of enclosure and a threat to the commons? Michael Adams, in his very interesting sociological comparison of the United States and Canada called Fire and Ice: the United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values describes the difference between Americans and Canadians in response to dozens of questions. He concludes:

"Attitudes towards violence are, in fact, among the features that most markedly differentiate Canadians from Americans. In the year 2000, 50% of Canadians told us they felt violence to be all around them…but 76% of Americans felt the same way."

He goes on to look at how these attitudes have changed over almost a decade from 1992-2000. In 1992, when asked if violence is a “normal part of life,” 9% of Canadians and 10% of Americans said yes. In 1996, 9% of Canadians still said yes, but 18% of Americans said yes. By 2000, the Canadian percentage had crept up to 12% and the American percentage was almost one in four—24%. To understand it in sheer numbers, 70 million Americans see violence as a normal part of one’s daily life. An even more scary response was when Americans were asked to agree or disagree that when you are extremely frustrated, violence can offer relief and is “no big deal.” In 2000, 14% of Canadians agreed with that, and 31% (one out of three) Americans.

About 6% of American households, possibly trying to get away from the people who think violence is “no big deal,” have chosen to live in gated communities, a phenomenon that crosses class and race lines. According to USA Today, renters are 2 ½ times as more likely than homeowners to live behind gates or walls. To be sure, these people are not just trying to escape from violence, and there is the same amount of domestic violence inside as outside the gated community. But people do often name “safety” as a factor in choosing a gated, enclosed community.

Domestic violence, street violence, police violence, and war are all part of a profound enclosure of our physical selves, our freedom and our creativity. Feminists have long organized around anti-violence issues, from “take back the night” marches to sexual assault programs to self-defense training and more. If we are to really enjoy our physical commons—sidewalks, parks, subways—we first have to feel safe in them.

In very significant ways, Americans are enclosed by violence and Canadians are not. What can we learn from each other—for Americans, how to reverse our trends, and for Canadians, how to avoid becoming like us?

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