What is violence?

... that Dr. King's legacy commitment to non-violence presents to us

While studying for my undergraduate degree, I identified myself as a pacifist. A burgeoning radical thinker, I detested the idea that violence could be used for good. Why would one use violence as a solution when many of those who we hold up as ideal — Ghandi, MLK, one could argue Jesus — were committed to radical stances of non-violence and pacifism in response to the violence that they faced.

My pacifist ideals were shattered when reading a book by Terry Eagleton. In the book (Why Marx was Right) Eagleton presents a scenario in which a gunman has taken a group of school children hostage. In the scenario you have the opportunity to either take him out through violent means (such as shooting him with a gun) or he will kill the children. Given such a scenario, it seems like violence is not only the right thing to do, but the only thing to do.

Today, I still detest violence, but I’m not sure that I can call myself a pacifist. This is not because I view pacifism, or striving for pacifism as wrong, but , at least in part, I am not convinced that pacifism is a possibility. Like the scenario proposed by Eagleton, there are some scenario’s where violence in the only response to a violent situation. This is a thread I wish to explore in this week and next week’s blog posts.

Before I begin, I wish to recognize that I do not agree with the often straw manned understanding of pacifism as a sort of “passive-ism” wherein individuals refrain from any action whatsoever. I recognize that non-violent protest is an active, affirmative action that attempts to dismantle violence through its antithesis.

Now, there are a couple of aspects of non-violence that I would like to consider. This week, I hope to provide a brief interrogation into the question “What is violence?” I believe that an examination of what constitutes violence can help us determine the possibility of non-violence. Next week, I hope to explore the dichotomous nature of violence and non-violence by suggesting that this view of the world is too rigid in its structure.

The question “what is violence?” is, without a doubt, a difficult one to answer. Often when we talk about violence we talk about violence of a physical nature. Violence of this variety can be seen in a battle during warfare, or in a physical assault. Violence of this sort could be interpreted as physical violence against the body of some other being (whether they be human, animal or Gaia). But how far does this extend? We would likely agree that if someone punches you in the face, that the punch is a violent act. However, what if we look at a disciplinary system such as a school? Schools manipulate the bodies of the youth who attend them through regimented habits. Students bodies are forced into regimented systems regarded when they can sit or stand, when they are allowed to talk or stay silent, when they are allowed to get up and walk around, go to the bathroom, etc. One could interpret these actions as violence that affects the bodies of students to conform to certain societal standards. But would we usually think about this as violence? Is it physical violence, or violence of another variety?

E-flux recently published an article entitled “To Our Enemies” by Maurizio Lazzarato and Éric Alliez. The article offers the insight that within our contemporary systems of capitalism, we are always already within a flux of violence — or, as they deem it, civil war. Their second thesis reads as follows:

“Capitalism and neoliberalism carry wars within them like clouds carry storms. While the financialization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led to total war and the Russian Revolution, the 1929 crash and European civil wars, contemporary financialization is at the helm of global civil war and controls all its polarizations.”

Violence is always swirling around us. Lazzarato and Alliez argue that we are surrounded by civil wars that are constantly being fought. A prime example is the increasing violence against women in the United States. Populism and neo-facism are increasingly destroying the rights of women in terms of their autonomy — their control over their bodies. This is a violence which isn’t physical but directly attacks a woman’s freedom of choice through the legal system. If we understand these events as systemic acts of violence, we must extend our definition of violence beyond the physical to the structural as well. These structural forms of violence occur everywhere. Within the United States alone we see attacks on people of colour through mass incarceration and police violence; we see attacks on women in the aforementioned loss of autonomy in regards to personal anatomy; we see attacks on transgender and non-binary people with the loss of the ability to go to the bathroom; we see attacks on disabled people through our design processes which ignore the abilities of those who cannot walk, cannot see, or cannot hear; in these ways, and so many others, there are active attacks on peoples within the United States which rage not on a physical level, but a systemic, structural level.

To extend our look at structural violence, I wish to argue that escaping violence is an impossibility. Within western nations, by law, everyone must wear clothing. Walking around naked will result in some sort of criminal fine – whether it be monetary or jail time, I’m not sure. In any case, the system makes us wear clothes. In order to wear clothes, we need to either purchase or produce our own clothes. For the sake of argument, we’ll look at an individual who needs to purchase clothes. Now, the systems which exist make it impossible to really purchase clothes that escape societies of violence. Unless one has a substantial degree of wealth, one is likely forced into buying clothing that was made in hostile conditions for below a living wage (likely in a foreign country, but not necessarily). Furthermore, the item likely had to be shipped from wherever it was made. In this example, we can see that, by purchasing a shirt, I’e already participated in a system that is inherently violent. Violence is produced against the worker who is working for next to nothing to produce this clothing. It is also produced against the ecological system through the shipping of the material to where I purchase it. One might try to counter this argument by looking towards a local-vore type movement, but even then there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. Furthermore, the reality is that being a local-vore requires a substantial amount of wealth, which is nearly impossible to ascertain without some form of violence.

Despite what we’ve explored above, we still do not have a substantial understanding of what constitutes violence. What we do have are examples of violence – with the suggestion that violence is more than simply physical. So what is violence? For a working definition, that I’m not quite content with, I’d like to posit that violence is an attack on a person, animal or the planet which harms or limits that body in some way. This definition attempts to encompass both physical and structural violence, and it also includes violence that isn’t physical or structural (such as the violence that took place during the cold war).

To close, I provide a brief excursus: Often, the liberal call to “non-violence” is merely an attempt to make passive groups that are being physically violent. An example in recent years has been the imperative of nonviolence given by white moderates to people of colour in response to rioting over the violence against black individuals by the police force. The call of the media is often that these protests ought to be non-violent, rather than violent. The reality of the situation is that the majority of these protests are already nonviolent in the traditional sense (i.e. they are not producing physical attacks against other people). These calls for nonviolence, then, call to end these protests through a making passive of the protestors. To some degree, these calls for nonviolence signal a particular kind of act that could be considered violence: property damage. But, if we take our definition of violence as an attack on the person, animal or planet (depending on how far we wish to extend violence), property damage does not properly fit into these criteria.

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