violence: always immoral/unacceptable?
two days ago, i began a discussion about the meaning of the term ‘non-violence.’ i asked if, given the dictionary definition of violence, it is even possible to have a non-violent life or world.
here is that dictionary definition again:
- Behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something
- Strength of emotion or an unpleasant or destructive natural force
- - the violence of her own feelings
- The unlawful exercise of physical force or intimidation by the exhibition of such force
as i noted before, with this definition harvesting food and eating anything is violent. so, how can anyone proclaim to be a practitioner of non-violence? i ask this as someone who made that proclamation for at least 20 years. i now question it as i watch the way events are analyzed in the public political realm and as i look back at how i judged myself in my own history.
i’d love to have people engage this discussion in the comments here, on facebook, on twitter or on DailyKos, where I’m cross-posting. some interesting conversation did take place on DailyKos and it, of course, sparked more questions for me.
i’ve also realized, that the subject, when properly considered, may be complex. i can’t really finish an exploration in one post. or on one day. it seems to me that this a good topic to keep venturing into. so, i’m going to make this a series. my plan is to keep each post somewhat limited to a small aspect. we’ll see how long that serves the goal of deep exploration. we can always shift gears when we need to.
in the last post, i simply looked at that definition and asked, “is non-violence even possible.” today, i’d like to ask why we silently attach qualitative adjectives to this word. i ask because it makes it difficult to have a conversation when people have packed extra meaning into the word.
nothing in that definition says that violence is inherently good or bad. if the Big Bang launched our universe as we know it, should we consider it an immoral act because it was violent? sometimes we we cook, we bring water to a “violent boil.” That is to make sure its not just barely boiling. Are we to avoid fully boiling water because it is violent? do we not harvest food because that’s violent?
i’d guess that some people get a chuckle out of how absurd that sounds. yet, so many of us have such a visceral reaction to the very word ‘violent’, now, that we might find ourselves writhing and wanting to avoid using the word in any context which doesn’t imply something bad or immoral. you can see an example of that here:
I don’t even like the definition you cited. If I see a twig while walking down the sidewalk and, stepping on it, snap it, is that meaningfully characterized as an act of violence? That trivializes what I’d like to regard as real acts of violence.
i don’t think this wirter is alone in feeling conflicted about the use of the word. i provide what the dictionary says is the definition and rather than examine how we are holding the word and whether we need to make a shift, we would prefer to reject the dictionary, because that darn technical gathering of word meanings “trivializes” “real acts of violence.” this writer was the only one who came right out and said that, but the rejection of the dictionary definition is actually peppered throughout the comments. we have come to believe that violence is immoral. so, when we can show that there are violent things happening in the world all around us which clearly aren’t immoral, those are not really violent. we need to find another word to describe them.
if that’s the case, where is the line between acts that involve force, do damage, kill something or are strongly unpleasant which are violent and those which are not? i’m gathering that the line has something to do with what we deem is immoral or unacceptable. so, i’m going to list a few examples of events for us to look at and discuss whether they are immoral and/or unacceptable.
- i had a very abusive mother. (she went decades with an undiagnosed mental illness and unattended trauma. please don’t disparage her, this is not about that.) i can remember episodes of being hit and tormented as early as when i was 4. by the time i was 14, i had been taken to the emergency room, by my father, several times. i heard my father discuss with doctors how my mother was treating me. neighbors knew, too. school mates figured it out because i was quite often covered with bruises. yet, no one ever did anything about it. i was never given shelter. never protected from her. she was never required to get help. one day, i had had enough. she cocked her arm to hit me. i mustered up all the power i could find, clenched my fist and swung right at her face. i punched in the jaw so hard that she was bruised later. in the moment, she was stunned. during that silence, i very quietly said, “if you ever hit me again, i’ll kill you.” she never hit me again.
- when I lived in Brazil in the 1980s, economic disparity was extreme and unavoidably in your face. “favelas” – urban neighborhoods where people lived in densely-packed makeshift, shanties, with no sewage, most often on very visible hillsides – were a standard part of the city landscape. often, there would be the gated home of a wealth family or a fancy hotel property, abutted up next to a favela. when you take the gondola up to Pao de Azucar, you ride right over a favela, as though its an attraction. tourists come to Rio and enjoy the fancy accommodations and shopping venues along the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. when you parked your car there, young children who had been coerced into service by older poor children who will beat them if they don’t cooperate, would offer to “protect” your car for a fee. (the older children know that people will respond more positively to small children.) it was the only way they were going to be able to eat. if you turned them down, you would mostly likely return to find your car damaged. (sadly, travel guides still inform people that “street children will protect your car fiercely for a tip”, without any concern for the real life plight of these children.)
- in Benghazi, Libya, a compound previously used by Gadaffi to coordinate military oppression and to torture people, had been taken over by a Salafist militia group. the Salafists are known to be extremists willing to unleash horrors on people to reach their goals. the people of Benghazi had just witnessed some extremists – not necessarily from this compound – attack the US consulate there and kill four people. the people of Benghazi have survived a long history of brutality, including an event in 1984 where Gadaffi gathered thousands of young students in a gymnasium to witness the mock trial and hanging of political prisoners. so, 30,000 people from Benghazi had had enough. they marched out to this compound, drove the people out without hurting anyone, even though they were being shot at, and then torched and tore down this compound.
i will refrain from offering my own commentary, at this juncture. (except to say that i’ve had various feelings about the action i describe in scenario #1.) i’m curious to see how other people view these events. was hitting my mother an unacceptably immoral act? should the starving, uneducated, homeless children of Rio be condemned for their survival techniques? did the people of Benghazi do a bad thing?
would it help to change the definition of violence? or do these examples show us that we need to unpack the way we’re using the word?