Monday, February 7, 2011

Categorization of Violence

When engaging in logical discourse, it is of utmost importance that all parties involved agree upon shared definitions of the words that they are using. To do otherwise invites mistaken impressions and responses that address a corruption of the argument at hand. In contrast, when writing an expository piece, the author has much broader authority to define and use words as they deem appropriate. While the author may autocratically set the definitions of the words used, it is beneficial to their readers if the terms in question are explained, so that, once again, the argument at hand may be correctly received.

The concept of violence is central to many of the pieces that we have read thus far. However, the word violence has been used in different manners by the different authors, sometimes in multiple ways by a single author in different contexts. Three main categories of violence seem to exist, violence as a tool, violence as an environment, and violence as a relationship. This paper sets forth to explain the characteristics of each usage, primarily through examples from the readings. Finally, I conclude with an examination of what non-violence means with regards to each of these forms of violence.

Hannah Arendt's definition of violence is an easy starting point. Her attempt to disambiguate the terms violence, force, power, strength, and authority is closely related to the aim of this paper, and necessitates that she make clear what she means when she uses the word "violence." To Arendt, violence, "is distinguished by its instrumental character." (Arendt, 7) Thus Arendt's use of the word falls squarely within the traditional liberal concept of violence as a tool.

This instrumental sense of the word is evoked whenever violence is mentioned as a means by which an ends is accomplished. Malcolm X uses violence in this sense when he says, "in areas where the government has proven itself either unwilling or unable to defend the lives and the property of Negroes, it's time for Negroes to defend themselves. Article number two of the constitutional amendments provides you and me the right to own a rifle or shotgun." (Malcolm X, 155) Violence, as represented by the firearms, is being conceptualized as a means to achieve the stated end, defense of lives and property. This is very similar to the use which Hobbes makes of the word, wherein violence arises out of individuals’ attempts to attain security in the state of nature; it is a form of defense.

However, Simone Weil asserts that the only end to which violence may be made to serve is that of further violence. Obviously this is a different characterization of violence than the purely instrumental. Weil evokes an environment of violence, where it permeates all facets of the decision making process. She asserts that, "violence obliterates anybody who feels its touch. It comes to seem just as external to its employer as to its victim." (Weil, 384) Here she describes violence transitioning from a tool in the hands of its employer to an environment engulfing both employer and victim.

Arendt seems open to this concept of violence as environment, evoking it when she notes that repeated use of violence tends to devolve all authority into a system of violence. "Where violence is no longer backed and restrained by power, the well-known reversal in reckoning with means and ends has taken place. The means, the means of destruction, now determine the end--with the consequence that the end will be the destruction of all power." (Arendt, 10) Here Arendt uses the term "power" as she has specified earlier, to denote efficacy gained through mutual consent. She notes that as the use of violence grows more commonplace, it no longer remains purely a means, but rather becomes an end unto itself.

Correspondingly, Weil seems to accept, at least theoretically, the existence of instrumental violence not necessarily leading to an environment of violence when she comments, "moderate use of force, which alone would enable man to escape being enmeshed in its machinery, would require superhuman virtue, which is as rare as dignity in weakness." (Weil, 384) Where they differ is in their estimation of how likely use of instrumental violence is to spawn an environment of violence. Arendt views an environment of violence as an outcome of excessive instrumental violence, whereas Weil's argument is that the environment of violence is a nigh inevitable outcome of instrumental violence.

One similarity between both Arendt's and Weil's environments of violence is that they arise out of the use of instrumental violence. Further complexity is added to the issue if one examines an environment of violence wherein instrumental violence is not necessarily ubiquitous. Examples of such environments are found in both Hobbes' and Hegel's work.

What characterizes Hobbes' state of nature is not the ubiquity of violence, but rather the perfect freedom of all living in the state of nature to employ violence at will if they believe it shall further their ends. Thus, it is not the presence of instrumental violence, but the common view of instrumental violence as permissible, that presents such a detriment to human well being. Or, to put it another way, it is not a sufficient condition for happiness that we are not immediately under attack, we require some assurance that attack is not immanent, and no such assurances exist in an environment of violence.

Hegel goes further to assert that an environment of violence is beneficial on a national level. "War has the higher significance that by its agency, as I have remarked elsewhere, 'the ethical health of peoples is preserved in their indifference to the stabilisation (sic) of finite institutions,'" (Hegel, section 324) where he asserts that wars are beneficial as they prevent social structures from ossifying. It is possible for Hegel to view wars as both moral and beneficial because, for Hegel, the state does not exist to protect individual citizens, a role it clearly fails in war, but rather to allow them to complete themselves through relationship to the community.

Hegel's emphasis on relationship provides a good segue to the concept of violence as relationship. The conceptualization of violence as relationship makes a great deal of intuitive sense, as violence, in most its forms, is a method through which multiple individuals relate to each other. However, of the theoretical systems of violence that we have examined, only Hegel's, as exhibited in the Phenomenology of Spirit where it describes lordship and bondage, seems to have a clearly relational concept of violence. Here, two individuals engage in a struggle which either ends in the death of one participant, denying the survivor the community necessary to complete his or her self relationally, or the subjugation of one individual to the other.

Having separated out three distinct conceptions of violence, it is productive to examine the different concepts of non-violence that each implies. Once again we begin with instrumental violence, which corresponds to an instrumental type of non-violence. We have, on occasion, described this as tactical non-violence, where the participants choose to employ non-violence because they believe it to be the best method by which they can achieve their goals. This purely instrumental form of non-violence clearly mirrors the concept of violence as tool.

On the other hand, violence as environment seems to steadfastly resist the development of a theory of non-violence. "To respect life in someone else when you have had to castrate yourself of all yearning for it demands a truly heartbreaking exertion of the powers of generosity." (Weil, 388) Here Weil is noting that immersion in the environment of violence erodes the preconditions for non-violence to be a viable strategy, that quality that Rousseau called, "an innate repugnance at seeing a fellow-creature suffer." (Rousseau, Part I) When we must inure ourselves against the agonies of our own suffering, caused by total insecurity of our fate in the face of an environment of violence, Weil does not believe it reasonable to expect people to maintain their concern for the suffering of others.

Arendt seems to concur, as she believes, "if Gandhi’s enormously powerful and successful strategy of nonviolent resistance had met with a different enemy--Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, even prewar Japan, instead of England--the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission." In the face of an environment of violence, Arendt believes that any exercise of pure power is doomed to failure. This raises the question of how Gandhi’s unshakeable belief in non-violence would address this concern.

It seems that practitioners of philosophical, as opposed to tactical, non-violence are responding to the third conceptualization, violence as relation. If the relationship of violence presents the choice of responding via a death struggle or submission to dominance as Hegel asserts, philosophical non-violence is an attempt to transcend this decision. By taking suffering upon one's self, the non-violent person demonstrates that they are not a threat to the other, blunting the imperative to kill or be killed. However, the truly non-violent person does not submit to domination; Gandhi characterizes such submission as cowardice rather than non-violence. In its personal nature, philosophical non-violence sets itself up in opposition to violence as relation, rather than the dehumanizing violence as environment.

If one accepts these distinctions, it seems worthwhile to examine what conditions are necessary for an environment of violence to be transformed to such a point that some theory of non-violence again becomes relevant. Must violence be allowed to run its course, eventually extinguishing itself when its rampant flames run out of fuel to consume, or may it be brought to a quicker conclusion? If a quicker conclusion is possible, what role does violence as tool play in halting the unchecked violence as environment, do surgical or preemptive strikes have a practical role in restraining the expansion of violence?

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. "Excerpt from On Violence." Ed. Manfred B. Steger and Nancy S. Lind, Violence and its Alternatives. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1999

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Philosophy of Right. " "

Malcolm X. "The Ballot or the Bullet." Ed. Bruce B. Lawrence and Aisha Karim, On Violence. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. A Dissertation on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Man. " "

Weil, Simone. "The Iliad, or the Poem of Force." Ed. Bruce B. Lawrence and Aisha Karim, On Violence. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007


elfarmy17 said...

Wow. This is really good. I don't know how much that means coming from someone with no experience in either the subject matter or in writing college essays, but...there you have it.

Kenny said...

I am pleased that it is accessible to someone with no experience in the subject. Considering my stated support for communal philosophy, t'would hardly be appropriate of me to write some dense, Hegelian nonsense ;) Let us hope my professor shares your estimation.