The Terrorist in Us. The Artist in Us

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When you live out on the frontier you have no identity, you’re a nobody. Therefore you get very tough. You have to prove that you are somebody. And so you become very violent. And so identity is always accompanied by violence. This seems paradoxical to you but ordinary people find the need for violence as they lose their identities. It is only the threat to people’s identity that makes them violent. Terrorists, hijackers, these are people minus identity. They are determined to make it some how to get noticed.

– Marshall McLuhan

Violence creates a distinct boundary that you can establish and feel.

Violence slows down our experience of time.

When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself. Anybody moving into a new world loses identity…So loss of identity is something that happens in rapid change. But everybody at the speed of light tends to become a nobody. This is what’s called the masked man. The masked man has no identity. He is so deeply involved in other people that he doesn’t have any personal identity.

– Marshall McLuhan

In 1802 William Wordsworth wrote “The world is too much with us, late and soon, getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” This was a problem in 1802! Speed of communication and contact dims our own power. And when our power dims and we lose touch with ourselves we feel as if our identity slips away, like we can’t make a difference to the world, let along ourselves.

Violence, whether spiritual or physical, is a quest for identity and the meaningful. The less identity, the more violence.

– Marshall McLuhan

Why share three prophetic Marshall McLuhan quotations in a row from the 1960’s and 1970’s when the blog standard is to have only one interesting quote at the beginning of your post?

In my mind McLuhan has described the modern condition quite rightly with implications in economics, politics, general life in the Western world and perhaps most importantly – art.img_0716


The societies that are the most violent are not the ones with the greatest amount of poverty but are the ones with the greatest differential between rich and poor. The violence comes from both ends… the poor are prone to violence because they feel as if they have no place in society and are ignored and have no voice. The rich continue their sonambulistic violence towards the poor because the speed at which they live disassociates them from truly seeing the way things are in the world and in them selves. Doing violence on both ends gives each a sense of place and value – that may not last, but it does the trick enough for self-veiling..


It isn’t the only place where it exists but certainly in right wing American politics there is a very violent thread. In my mind the antagonism towards women, Latinos, Islam, atheism, gays, “takers” and “entitlements” are all born of a sense of loss. Those who subscribe to those beliefs feel that they do not know the world anymore. It has changed so much and so fast they and their beliefs don’t have a specific place anymore. That fear triggers violence as a way to slow down the change because it is frightening but also because suddenly when you oppose something – you matter. Opposition itself creates identity. And identity creates value.

Regular Old Life

Suicide? Homicide? Both types of violence are fruit of the sense of “I don’t matter. But now I am going to try to stop the pain of that some how.” Too grim for you? Pick your favorite flavor… Bullying, cruel words, toxic bosses, critical words we speak to ourselves all come from trying to establish a boundary where the doer of violence can feel safe and protected because they aren’t sure about their place or value. Again the world speeds up around us and this terrorism of varying levels of intensity and direction is a byproduct of creating or securing some kind of identity.

One of the many disturbing things about violence is that it tries to end play by an exercise of power. It tries to take people or groups out of participation. Violence is contradictory because it is engaged in to end violence. In this way it is self-justified as “a necessary evil.” And so it is evil to try to eliminate all evil and violence.

While violence is natural part of the human response it is not the only response.

Another response is to make art.

Artists have no power. But they do have strength.

Power can be measured because it is used as a terminal action that references the past. Strength can not be measured because it is an action that opens up into the future. Power is for the few. Anyone can be strong.

I would make the case that those who feel disconnected and feel as if they have neither place nor value either

  1. oppose their oppressors through a display of power and try to forge their identity or
  2. incorporate their oppressors and create an identity by making art.

I have felt those destructive urges around societal issues, around my career, around my family. The urge to kill, to be killed, to die by my own hand, to trash and lay waste. It is in there. I can’t get rid of that.

But I don’t need to stay there.

There is a terrorist in all of us because we feel that despair and meaninglessness. We yearn for identity and meaning.

But there is an artist in us as well that can surprise and create and discover and forge.

Default to create and discover.

What have you wanted to destroy because of your feeling of lack of identity and meaning?

What did you attend to instead?

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Have you read Erich Fromm's Escape From Freedom? You definitely should if you haven't.

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