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Defining Violence

The counterproductive consequences of calling every bad thing “violence”…

I am no longer sure what violence is. That’s a problem, because I’m pretty sure violence is a bad thing and needs to be stopped. It would therefore probably be good for me to know what it is.

The first bad sign for my understanding of violence came from Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who once concluded that “Gandhi was more violent than Hitler.” Žižek explained that what he meant by this appalling statement was that while Hitler simply reinforced the capitalist order and took it to its extreme, Gandhi “effectively endeavored to interrupt the basic functioning of the British colonial state.” For Žižek, the word “violence” meant something like “disruption,” thus whether people were “violent” or not depended on whether they changed the world, and not at all on whether they happened to massacre six million or so of their fellow human beings.

But Žižek is somewhat infamous for having entirely ludicrous opinions. Perhaps his use of “violence” to mean “structural change” was aberrational. I have always understood violence to mean bodily harm intentionally committed on conscious beings (i.e. humans and other animals) by other conscious beings. And I assumed that, despite a few debates here and there about what acts belong in the category, this definition was fairly commonly accepted.

Soon, though, I encountered other uses of the term “violence” that further shook my confidence in my comprehension. References to “violent” protesters and “violent” riots in the streets became commonplace. But frequently, many of the acts these “violent” protesters were accused of committing were against property rather than persons. They would have smashed windows or set garbage cans on fire. Frequently, in fact, when the headline “protests turn violent” appears, the only act of “violence” in the bodily harm sense comes when the police swoop in with batons and gas. There is a pronounced tendency on the right to blur the distinction between “property destruction” and “violence.” This flows logically from certain strands of libertarian philosophy, which view a person’s property as an extension of the self, and therefore see acts of aggression against property as being indistinguishable from acts of aggression against persons. (This also conveniently justifies using physical force to defend one’s property, rather than just defending one’s body.)

But the tendency to expand the meaning of violence comes from both political camps. On the left, many things other than direct bodily harm are often labeled a form of violence. In fact, it can be hard to know what isn’t violence. Gentrification is violence. Cultural appropriation is violence. Even charter schools have been labeled a form of violence. Various kinds of speech have also been considered, in and of themselves, violence. “Non-Violent Action Has Always Been Violent,” says a writer for Everyday Feminism. An article about British youth soccer clubs in the Sociology of Sport Journal cites the coaches’ profane hectoring of players (e.g. “if you want to fuck about, get into the car park, I couldnʼt give a shit”), and says that “it could be argued that the violence apparent in the coachesʼ discourse here was as much real as symbolic (in a verbal sense).” Slavoj Žižek may have expanded the term into the realm of offensive sophistry, but he’s joined by many other parts of the left in giving broad meaning to the term. I don’t think I’m uniquely dim-witted, then, to have lost track of exactly what violence is.

It can be nearly impossible to identify a truly fixed and stable definition for certain words. Usages vary across time and place, and there will always be fuzzy cases at the margins, things we’re not sure should fit the definition. Furthermore, terminological disputes about what labels should apply to what concepts or things are often annoying, as they can be tedious distractions from more pressing underlying issues. What matters is not the word, but the thing, and changes in language do not change reality (though many social theorists wish this were the case). If we all decided tomorrow to start calling a grapefruit a “greatfruit” instead (which it is), it would not cease to be what it is, insofar as it would still be a delicious subtropical citrus that goes well with a cup of coffee and a hardboiled egg.

But while meanings are constantly in flux and words are human-made labels rather than God-given absolutes, when a word ceases to have a clear definition, it loses much of its power to communicate. If meanings multiply to the point where a person using a word could mean any one of a number of things, we swiftly cease to actually know what we are talking about. And in the case of a word like “violence,” where so many violent acts are so truly horrifying, and we want a word with the full power to convey that horror, the potential for the word to lose meaning and impact may be dangerous indeed.

There is, then, some practical value in adopting and maintaining a narrow conception of violence, one that refers to direct harms that destroy the body, rather than more indirect and abstract harms such as the changing economics of neighborhoods and the privatization of schools. The more capacious the term becomes, the less it is able to precisely aid us in understanding the world, and the less it will be identified with the original sets of acts the term was meant to describe.

But let’s consider the case for “expansive” uses of the term violence. If it’s useful and informative to employ the word to describe many more things than are commonly seen as violence, then nothing should stop us from changing the definition. Since the meanings of words are not some inherent fixed part of the universe, they can be adapted as necessary.

The right-wing idea of “property destruction as violence” is not worth considering in much depth. First, in order to believe it, you have to think that destroying inanimate objects causes a similar type of harm to the destruction of human beings. Unless we buy the quasi-religious fiction of property as part of a person’s self, these two kinds of destruction are different in an obvious and significant way. Harm inflicted on the bodies of conscious beings, who can feel pain and suffering, does not have the same effects as harm inflicted on a pane of glass or fire hydrant. Calling acts of looting “violence” equates objects and people. Setting fire to a police car may be shocking, but so long as the car is the only one harmed, we have chaos but not violence. And the use of “violence” in this way is often merely just rhetoric deployed to paint “rioters” as morally bankrupt.

True violence is such a deeply terrible human experience. It leaves people with brain damage, nightmares, disability, and trauma. The destruction of human bodies is a moral horror that simply should not exist in the same category as the breaking of light fixtures, and applying “violence” to property destruction diminishes the term’s power. (It also immediately creates all kinds of contradictions that make it unworkable. What kind of harm to an object comprises violence? Is it a violent act to recreationally shoot a bottle with a BB gun? To take apart an air conditioner? If I eat your nachos while you are not looking, have I done violence to them?)

The left-wing expansion of “violence” follows a far more persuasive chain of reasoning. Generally it runs roughly as follows: certain social harms not traditionally labeled violence operate in the same way as violence. You can traumatize a person just as much with verbal abuse as by hitting them, and things like gentrification, privatization, neoliberalism, appropriation, etc. have effects that are just as harmful as physical violence. Gentrification, for example, according to Daniel Older in Salon is “a systemic, intentional process of uprooting communities,” and the “central act of violence is erasure.” Older means that destroying a neighborhood by sending all of its residents elsewhere and ignoring their preferences and treating them as if they don’t exist should be conceived of as violence.

Much of the left rhetoric on non-bodily violence is derived from the concept of “symbolic violence” formulated by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in the late 1970s. “Symbolic” was conceived of as a kind of ideological equivalent to physical violence, whereby people were kept in subordinate positions through “soft power.” The police might beat you until you submit, whereas the schools will teach you until you submit, but the effect is the same. The European Institute for Gender Equality defines “symbolic violence” as:

“…the kind of gentle, invisible, pervasive violence that is exercised through cognition and misrecognition, knowledge and sentiment, often with the unwitting consent or complicity of the dominated. It is embedded in the very modes of action and structures of cognition of individuals, and imposes the spectre of legitimacy of the social order characterised by masculine domination. Manifestations of symbolic violence give recognition to structural and direct violence.”

Variations on this conception of violence have had a lasting impact in the academy and among some activists, to the point where an editorial in the University of California’s newspaper concluded that “asking people to maintain peaceful dialogue with those who legitimately do not think their lives matter is a violent act.” The conception that speech is not just capable of inducing violence, but actually is violence, has helped to justify efforts to disrupt or cancel campus events by right-wing speakers, on the grounds that bigoted speech operates as a form of violence and bigoted violence does not qualify as a form of legitimate speech. In the New York Times, psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett even suggested that neuroscience justifies classifying certain kinds of speech as violence:

“If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech—at least certain types of speech—can be a form of violence. But which types?… We must [halt] speech that bullies and torments. From the perspective of our brain cells, [it] is literally a form of violence….Words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system. Certain types of adversity, even those involving no physical contact, can make you sick, alter your brain—even kill neurons—and shorten your life.”

It’s easy to see why these ideas about violence persuade people. After all, if Barrett is right on the evidence, how is speech not violence? If hitting me causes physical debilitation, but certain verbal assaults can cause similar kinds of physical debilitation, the two acts would seem to fall clearly into the same category. There’s a very strange kind of logic to Barrett’s argument, though. Note how the reasoning goes: if words cause stress, and violence causes stress, then speech is violence. This depends on us believing that if thing A and thing B both have consequence C, thing A and thing B are indistinguishable. And that seems… wrong.

Consider a parallel syllogism:

1. Being in the rain gets you wet.

2. Being in the sea gets you wet.

3. The rain is the sea.

Or, slightly more absurdly:

1. Spiders can cause fear.

2. Bosses can cause fear.

3. My boss is a spider.

Speech might cause an effect that violence causes, but that means that speech shares a quality with violence, not that it thereby becomes violence. Things can share qualities while being incredibly qualitatively different. (As a lawyer, I share a quality with Alan Dershowitz, but I am not—thank God—Alan Dershowitz.) And if we accept this pattern of inference as legitimate, anything can become anything. Exams cause stress, bullying causes stress, therefore exams are form of bullying. (Though in honesty they kind of are.) On the left, there is a tendency to let concepts bleed into each other, especially when concepts are given abstract and imprecise definitions (such as the Gender Equality Institute’s incomprehensible definition of “structural violence” above). Eventually, every bad thing is every other bad thing. Neoliberalism is white supremacism is erasure is gentrification.

Two things can be different, however, while still both being bad. It’s not necessary to prove that cruel words are violence in order to prove that cruel words are harmful and that nobody should be subjected to them. Having differing categories of harms does not necessarily trivialize the seriousness of either of those harms, it just tries to capture their qualitative differences. We can oppose school privatization and child murder without believing that school privatization is child murder, and without minimizing the particular ways in which both harm kids.

But those who wish to expand the use of the word violence actually have a good point here. The reason why they want to call non-physical harms “violence” is that they believe we do not sufficiently appreciate how much they hurt people, and that by using the v-word we can powerfully show certain parallels between the more visceral harms that we do pay attention to and the more subtle harms that we do not. They want to keep us from “fixating on” and “fetishizing” the use of physical force as being the only way that people can be harmed. Otherwise, it can seem as if, so long as you’re not hitting someone, you’re not hurting them. That’s the libertarian theory, which sees economic and social coercion as nonexistent, and it’s wrong.

This is a reasonable justification. But it doesn’t take into account the inherent tradeoff: because people are not going to be able to instantly shed their uniquely adverse reaction to physical forms of harm, expanding the term might function less to get them to appreciate other harms in the same way as they do physical ones, and more to simply sap meaning from the term violence altogether. Calling it violence hasn’t made it easier to convince people that gentrification should be stopped—and that’s the goal, isn’t it?  Furthermore, there is an independent value in maintaining bodily harm as a distinct category deserving of its own recognition. Certainly, things that wound people psychologically can be devastating. But victims of bombings, torture, rape, shootings, and physical abuse are affected in a qualitatively different way; things that attack and tear apart the body create particular forms of trauma. It’s not that they’re always worse, but that they’re different enough to justify keeping in a separate category. And because violence is bad, and needs to be eliminated from the earth, we need to make our terminological decisions pragmatically on the basis of whether they help advance us toward that goal. Calling a lot of things that people inherently don’t recoil at “violence” might make it difficult to convey the urgency of eliminating violence.

Once everything becomes violence, it’s hard to get violence taken seriously. People won’t understand what you’re talking about, because the thing you’re referring to isn’t violent in the way they understand the word. But it also prevents us from accurately describing the dangers of non-violent harms in ways that people will appreciate. Gentrification has many negative consequences, and if you describe those consequences well, you can make a persuasive case against it. People who have lived in neighborhoods for decades, neighborhoods that have a strong character and identity, find they can no longer afford their rent and that places they knew and loved have either shut down or changed completely. And because U.S. gentrification has a strong racial component, historic black neighborhoods are often irrevocably altered without any actual democratic input from ordinary residents (gentrification is a result of free market decision-making, meaning that those who have money and own property determine whether it occurs).

This is a serious racial injustice. But it’s not violent in itself. And recognizing what is and isn’t violent is important in determining the political approaches we will take toward solving a problem. If everything is violence, if war and speech and economics are all the same, violent struggle will always seem like an appropriate solution. But different problems require differing solutions. Conceiving of everything as violence will lead us to ill fitting responses, like solving the problem of my house being too cold by burning down the building rather than just putting on a sweater. The more everything descends into a swirling torrent of violence, the less effort we put into determining effective remedies and the more people will be hurt.

Words change, and it’s fine that they change. We need them to serve functions, and if applying old terms to new concepts will help us understand the world better, let’s do it. But words also need to mean things, and to be able to communicate forcefully. Violence should be a term with power, because people need to appreciate the urgency of getting rid of it. Those on the right will minimize the gravity of harm to human beings if they insist violence can be perpetrated on objects. Those on the left risk making the word meaningless even as they attempt to convey the enormity of the world’s various wrongs and injuries. This does a disservice to accurately describing the devastation of both violent and other harmful acts. If we want to change the world, we ought to know what we’re actually dealing with. And if we’re not careful, we may end up in a kind of Žižekian madness, concluding that everything is everything and Mahatma Gandhi was more violent than Adolf Hitler.

This article originally appeared in our most recent print edition. Get yours today in our online store or by subscribing. More of Oren Nimni’s work can be found in our new paperback essay collection, The Current Affairs Mindset

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