Where Violence Begins

Posted on August 23, 2016 By

by Rachel MacNair

The planetarium presentation, as usual, was beautiful. Yet there was a disquieting aspect to the language used.

Stars were “dying.” Why not “being transformed”?

These stars did something in a “desperate” attempt to prevent this. How can an inanimate object be desperate?

One star taking material from another star was “cannibalizing.”

Artist’s impression. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M.Kornmesser

Artist’s impression. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M.Kornmesser


The animation of the solar ray was as wonderfully dramatic as fireworks. Yet it was described as violent. It was doing what it was supposed to, and not hurting anyone. In fact, it was most definitely doing the opposite – it was life-giving. We couldn’t be alive if the sun didn’t do this.

Why all the battle language? It’s a violent perspective on what are not violent phenomena.

Why not an analogy to cooking instead? They could be “giving the recipe for making a black hole.”

We could suggest this is a male vs. female way of looking at it, but that’s unfair to men. Most men spend more time cooking than battling.

It reminded me of the Babylonian creation myth in which the god Marduk kills the dragon Tianmut, she being his own mother or grandmother, and divided her body to make the earth and sky.

Blog planetarium 2

This violence is a common feature of the mythologies of imperial cultures. When violence is entangled in the very core of governing, with war and execution, torture and genocide, infanticide and feticide, plus cruelty to animals, then violence is also entangled in the very creation of the universe. It’s natural. It need not be avoided. Instead, it’s celebrated as glorious and heroic.

We don’t generally see stars as gods in our culture, but the planetarium show was treating them as beings with feelings and intentions just the same. Creation of new things was narrated with the language of destruction. This would be expected from a philosophy that sees the world through a violent lens.

This is not science. Giving such a lens a scientific topic doesn’t turn it into science.

The Babylonian myth was the one I thought of out of the many that could also illustrate the point because it was countered by a group of the empire’s conquered people. They came up with a story of creation where gods didn’t battle each other because there was only one God. The stars were not gods, but useful items. The process was orderly, logical, and peaceful.

The story told by the rebels is the one most familiar to people nowadays; millions of people have it in their homes and it’s recited frequently all over the world as the first chapter of Genesis in the Bible. The Babylonian empire, on the other hand, is long gone, its myths only known to some. Ancient nonviolent activism made an enduring change.

Yet the impetus of seeing things through a lens of the idea that violence is at the core of the universe is still with us, and academics who themselves spend more time cooking than battling nevertheless find erudite ways of using violent metaphors.

If all the lethal violence we oppose starts in the thinking process before it makes its way to gory reality, we need to pay attention to opposing it even at the stage of simple language.


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