I recently saw this France 24 video on the Hmong of French Guiana. I haven’t written about this much here on this blog, but I actually did some of my Ph.D. research with the Hmong in French Guiana years ago (here’s an article I published in the Hmong Studies Journal). It made me nostalgic to see the village again, as well as some familiar faces. My research assistant, KaLy Yang, and I were treated very well by the people in the two main Hmong villages (Cacao and Javouhey), and I think of the people there often.
French Guiana (or Guyane) is certainly one of the more unusual endpoints for the Hmong diaspora. As refugees from Laos, many Hmong resettled in the U.S., Australia, and France, after the Vietnam War, with lesser numbers in Canada, Germany, and Argentina (in fact, I met one Hmong man who originally resettled in Argentina before moving on to Javouhey). When people first learn there are refugees from Southeast Asia in the Amazon rainforest, it usually elicits a powerful reaction, either confusion or amazement. But then you learn the history, and it makes as much sense as any diasporic endpoint in a small, interconnected world where migration (voluntary or not) is common.
And what did you hear, my brown-eyed son? And what did you hear, my darling young one? I heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warning I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world I heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazing I heard ten-thousand whispering and nobody listening I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughing
I met one man who was wounded in love I met another man who was wounded in hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard It’s a hard rain’s a-going to fall
I learned a few days ago thatEmile Bruneauhadpassed away. I did not know Dr. Bruneau personally, but I knew of his work in conflict resolution. I previously referred to some of his research in apost on dangerous speech and dehumanization. It is also clear from thetributesto him on social media that in addition to his valuable research, the world has lost a really wonderful human being.
Having lost my ownbrotheras a young adult, premature deaths like Dr. Bruneau’s (orChadwick Boseman’s) resonate with me. They remind me of how fragile our lives are. His wife shared something that Dr. Bruneau wrote that made me a little emotional, both for its bravery and optimism in the face of something as potentially terrifying as one’s impending mortality, and because it reminded me of something that occurred to me too when I contemplated my brother’s death: that a part of us really does live on in the minds of others. He wrote:
“I just had a thought: I learned in physics that our physical mass never actually touches another – the outer electrons of each repel, giving us the illusion of touch. As a neuroscientist, I learned that our brains don’t really see the world, they just interpret it. So losing my body is not really a loss after all! What I am to you is really a reflection of your own mind. I am, and always was, there, in you.”
I’d like to share a few more of his words, to help keep his image reflecting in my mind, and perhaps yours as well. Not just for the sake of sharing, but because he really did have some important things to say.
I’ve had this quotation from primatologist Frans deWaal in my head for a long time. Sadly, I think it’s relevant now for life in the United States:
“Humans have something of the bonobo and the chimpanzee in them, which makes them bipolar in character. Most of the time, actually, we like to have a peaceful relationship with everybody around us. But at the same time we can be aroused to a point, under certain circumstances – either by political leaders, or by an invasion, or by some traumatic event – that we start killing, and not killing on a small scale like chimpanzees do, but genocide… When we are bad, we are worse than any primate that I know. And when we are good, we are better and more altruistic than any primate that I know. ” — Frans de Waal, primatologist (source)
The two pieces of this passage that mean the most to me are that: (1) peaceful relations are our default preference, and (2) mass acts of violence require being goaded or aroused by some external push factor.
“We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”
I ended Part 1 with a quotation from Robert Sapolsky, who wrote (to paraphrase): We don’t hate violence. We hate and fear the wrong kind of violence… When it’s the “right” type of aggression, we love it.
Do we “love” violence in the right context, as Sapolsky suggested? Perhaps sometimes. When the news broke a week ago that Dzhokar Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, had his death sentence overturned, local sentiments were mixed. The Providence Journal (located 50 miles south of Boston) asked its readers whether Tsarnaev should spend his life in prison or face another death penalty trial. Several responded with a variety of brutal ways that he should be killed. As we saw in Part 1, people are often more at ease with violence if they feel someone has failed as a moral agent so badly that they deserve to be hit, kicked, beaten, shot, killed, etc.
Attitudes toward the death penalty in the U.S. have fluctuated significantly over time. In the mid-1990s, roughly 80% of U.S. adults were in favor of the death penalty for some convicted murderers. By 2019 this dropped to 56%. Support for the death penalty is lower in Boston, however, even in cases where terrorism affected the lives of many locals. In 2015, about 30% of Bostonians felt Tsarnaev should receive the death penalty, while 60% felt he should be sentenced to life in prison. The upshot is that attitudes toward state-sanctioned violence are not set in stone. There is variation in opinion among individuals, across time, and by geography. It is pliable.
“No animal shall kill any other animal… without cause.” – the pigs (George Orwell, Animal Farm)
When I was in the second or third grade I asked my parents about the Ten Commandments, which we had just learned in my Catholic school. Specifically, I wanted to know about the fifth commandment: “Thou shall not kill.” As my father was in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, I was concerned whether he had broken the commandment. To my relief he told me that, as far as he knew, he had never killed anyone.
Beyond my own father’s past —and I know this isn’t an original thought— I wondered how to reconcile this sacred instruction with all of the killing that must have taken place in the wars across history. Were they all sins? Were all those soldiers doomed to hell?
It’s been a long time since that day, and I only have a vague memory of my parents’ response. They said that killing in war was different. Somehow, the rule was lifted when soldiers killed for their country. In the eyes of a child, I guessed that even divine decrees had exceptions.
From an anthropological perspective, it is worth considering how individuals and societies negotiate what forms of violence are permissible. Some religious scholars, like Rabbi Marc Gellman,have writtenthat a more accurate translation of the fifth commandment should be “Thou shalt not murder” instead of “kill.” Gellman noted that while killing entails ending a life, murder is “taking a life with no moral justification.” Similarly, in his book The Warriors, Glenn Gray wrote that “The basic aim of a nation at war in establishing an image of the enemy is to distinguish as sharply as possible the act of killing from the act of murder by making the former into one deserving of all honor and praise” (1959: 131-2).
However, determining when violence (lethal and non-lethal) is morally justifiable can be a gray zone, with people positioning themselves on a continuum between completely nonviolent “doves” to hyper-aggressive “hawks.” While many people hold nonviolence as an ideal; living up to that ideal perfectly has proven difficult to almost impossible. The question is where people draw their line.