Friday, November 4, 2011

What is violence? Baby don't hurt me, don't hurt me no more.

Ok. So in case you have either been living under some sort of rock, or refuse to speak about politics with other people, then the chances are that you have heard something about Occupy Wall Street (or you can adjust the name for whatever city you live in). I've had too many discussions about the merits and disadvantages and privileges of this group of protests to count, and I'm not exactly sure that it is helpful to put them up on the internet to argue over. Whether or not it has merit, it is definitely here now.

What interests me about these protests right now is that they are almost universally non-violent. And there is the sentence that gets me hung up: I feel like what we think of as violence, especially in terms of political action, isn't really something people discuss very much. And that is certainly an important definition to come to some sort of agreement to, isn't it? I mean, sure we might not necessarily completely agree, but it seems odd to just think that everyone intuitively knows exactly what 'violence' means, and that we all share the same definition. If I've learned anything at all from what I've studied, it is that assuming people define things the same way as you is a one way ticket to cliched negative outcomes-ville.

"But Joel, surely violence is easy to understand. Why do we have to overanalyze EVERYTHING?" I might hear someone say. Well, first of all random rhetorical device: back off. Second, unless there is something that I am missing, I don't think that I can quite get a cohesive definition of violence from the people I'm listening to. I hear lots of things called violent that seem 'on the edge'; less often, I hear things that I just automatically think are not violent. Putting glitter on people against their will? I'm sorry, that is not violent in any way that does justice to the concept. But, I guess it might just be easier to talk about what is intuitively violent first and then try to see how far we can expand those borders.

I think we can all agree that unprovokedly physically harming someone else is violent. Well, maybe politicians can't, but I try not to associate with people who lead countries into preemptive war. At the very least, we can say that a person who shoots someone else, or conspires to murder, or even mugs another, is committing a violent act.

I'm a pacifist, so I'm also going to include self defense as a violent act. Now, hear me out, because most people think that this is not legitimate. I'm not saying that a person who is defending themselves is equally morally culpable as the person who first initiated violence, but I am saying that self defense is a violent act. Not all acts of violence are equal to each other in terms of moral culpability.

Does causing mental harm constitute as violence? There are cases where it does seem to be violent. Assault, death threats, other such things seem as violent and harmful as any kick in the gut. The torment of bullying can in many cases be worse in the long run for the person being bullied than simple physical harm. Emotional violence has a way of being adopted by the victim, and that can be a much worse consequence than broken bones.

Of course, right now I'm just focusing on things that are done intentionally. The question of unintentional actions is so complicated that I don't even know what to do with it. I might look at it later, but for now we can stick with something a bit easier to discuss.

I also want to note that simple offense doesn't count as emotional violence. To use an example: a racist person might be distressed to have a person who is a minority move into their neighborhood. Does that make the person moving there violent? I don't think so. This is also something that might have to be looked at later: whether offense is just or not.

In any case, we're back to the idea of what is violent. Intentionally harming people physically or mentally is violent. Is throwing glitter on someone violent? I don't think that it quite reaches the levels of harm that I would  call violence; that is to say, I don't see the harm. if maybe someone had a deathly fear of glitter, that might be violent. As the case is, it's merely a flashy way of telling someone you disagree.

Is Yelling violent? There are cases of it being violent, but  there is nothing inherent to it to be violent. We yell over crowded streets, we even yell at someone when we are angry. That's not violent; the content of the yelling is what is violent. This is, of course, not universal: if you find someone who always reacts negatively to yelling, then using this to your advantage to harm them would be violent. But what I mean is that nothing about raising your voice is inherently violent.

Now, the real issue that I want to bring up is something that has been brought up multiple times concerning the Occupy Oakland movement: is vandalism violent? From the news coverage, and even the spoken words of many protesters, the assumption is that vandalism is in fact (always) violent. I want to challenge that idea a bit. Vandalism might hurt people financially, but to compare a company paying a couple of hundred dollars for a window to someone getting murdered seems a bit crass. Surely vandalism (such as hate speech and cross burning) can be parts of violence, but it is the threat, not the act that is violent.

Thought experiment: go out to the woods alone, and take a large window with you. When you are in a space that it is safe to do so, smash it. Don't tell anyone you did it. Did you just commit a violent act? If you don't think so, then it seems to follow that smashing windows isn't violent in and of itself. Therefore whether vandalism is violent is based on whether you do it to harm someone physically or emotionally. Vandalizing a bank might be a jerk move that is terrible PR for your organization, but no one is really thinking that the CEO of Chase is going to be heartbroken or scared for his life. Let alone physically hurt.

The interesting thing about it is, that by talking about vandalism like it is violence, we are basically saying that property and not alive objects are the same as people and animals. We say that harming either is the same class of action, we equal moral weight. It seems to be an aspect of our society that while we treat people like they are objects, we treat objects like humans deserve. In fact, if we had half as much respect for people as we did for corporations or physical property, then maybe we would be improving the world a bit.

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