how do you define violence

How Do You Define Violence?

In this excerpt from his book Endgame: The Problem of Civilization, author Derrick Jensen explores how limited the English language is when considering different aspects of “violence.”

By Derrick Jensen

I do think we need more words in English for violence.

It’s absurd that the same word is used to describe someone raping, torturing, mutilating, and killing a child; and someone stopping that perpetrator by shooting him in the head.

The same word used to describe a mountain lion killing a deer by one quick bite to the spinal column is used to describe a civilized human playing smackyface with a suspect’s child, or vaporizing a family with a daisy cutter.

The same word often used to describe breaking a window is used to describe killing a CEO and used to describe that CEO producing toxins that give people cancer the world over.

Check that: the latter isn’t called violence, it’s called production.

Sometimes people say to me they’re against all forms of violence. A few weeks ago, I got a call from a pacifist activist who said, “Violence never accomplishes anything, and besides, it’s really stupid.”

I asked, “What types of violence are you against?”

“All types.”

“How do you eat? And do you defecate? From the perspective of carrots and intestinal flora, respectively, those actions are very violent.”

“Don’t be absurd,” he said. “You know what I mean.”

Actually I didn’t. The definitions of violence we normally use are impossibly squishy, especially for such an emotionally laden, morally charged, existentially vital, and politically important word. This squishiness makes our discourse surrounding violence even more meaningless than it would otherwise be, which is saying a lot.

The conversation with the pacifist really got me thinking, first about definitions of violence, and second about categories. So far as the former, there are those who point out, rightly, the relationship between the words violence and violate, and say that because a mountain lion isn’t violating a deer but simply killing the deer to eat, that this would not actually be violence. Similarly a human who killed a deer would not be committing an act of violence, so long as the predator, in this case the human, did not violate the fundamental predator/prey relationship: in other words, so long as the predator then assumed responsibility for the continuation of the other’s community.

The violation, and thus violence, would come only with the breaking of that bond. I like that definition a lot.

Here’s another definition I like, for different reasons: “An act of violence would be any act that inflicts physical or psychological harm on another.”I like this one because its inclusiveness reminds us of the ubiquity of violence, and thus I think demystifies violence a bit. So, you say you oppose violence? Well, in that case you oppose life. You oppose all change. The important question becomes:

What types of violence do you oppose?

Which of course leads to the other thing I’ve been thinking about: categories of violence. If we don’t mind being a bit ad hoc, we can pretty easily break violence into different types. There is, for example, the distinction between unintentional and intentional violence: the difference between accidentally stepping on a snail and doing so on purpose. Then there would be the category of unintentional but fully expected violence: whenever I drive a car I can fully expect to smash insects on the windshield (to kill this or that particular moth is an accident, but the deaths of some moths are inevitable considering what I’m doing).

There would be the distinction between direct violence, that I do myself, and violence that I order done.

Presumably, George W. Bush hasn’t personally throttled any Iraqi children, but he has ordered their deaths by ordering an invasion of their country (the death of this or that Iraqi child may be an accident, but the deaths of some children are inevitable considering what he is ordering to be done). Another kind of violence would be systematic, and therefore often hidden: I’ve long known that the manufacture of the hard drive on my computer is an extremely toxic process, and gives cancer to women in Thailand and elsewhere who assemble them, but until today I didn’t know that the manufacture of the average computer takes about two tons of raw materials (520 pounds of fossil fuels, 48 pounds of chemicals, and 3,600 pounds of water; 4 pounds of fossil fuels and chemicals and 70 pounds of water are used to make just a single two gram memory chip). My purchase of the computer carries with it those hidden forms of violence.

There is also violence by omission:

By not following the example of Georg Elser and attempting to remove Hitler, good Germans were culpable for the effects Hitler had on the world. By not removing dams I am culpable for their effects on my landbase.

There is violence by silence.

I will tell you something I did, or rather didn’t do, that causes me more shame than almost anything I have ever done or not done in my life. I was walking one night several years ago out of a grocery store. A man who was clearly homeless and just as clearly alcoholic (and inebriated) approached me and asked for money. I told him, honestly, that I had no change. He respectfully thanked me anyway, and wished me a good evening. I walked on. I heard the man say something to whomever was behind me. Then I heard another man’s voice say, “Get the f*** away from me!” followed by the thud of fist striking flesh. Turning back, I saw a youngish man with slick-backed black hair and wearing a business suit pummeling the homeless man’s face. I took a step toward them. And then? I did nothing. I watched the businessman strike twice more, wipe the back of his hand on his pants, then walk away, shoulders squared, to his car. I took another step toward the homeless man. He turned to face me. His eyes showed he felt nothing. I didn’t say a word. I went home.

If I had to do it again, I would not have committed this violence by inaction and by silence. I would have stepped between, and I would have said to the man perpetrating the direct violence, “If you want to hit someone, at least hit someone who will hit you back.”

There is violence by lying.

A few pages ago I mentioned that journalist Julius Streicher was hanged at Nuremberg for his role in fomenting the Nazi Holocaust. Here is what one of the prosecutors said about him:

It may be that this defendant is less directly involved in the physical commission of crimes against Jews. The submission of the prosecution is that his crime is no less the worse for that reason. No government in the world . . . could have embarked upon and put into effect a policy of mass extermination without having a people who would back them and support them. It was to the task of educating people, producing murderers, educating and poisoning them with hate, that Streicher set himself. In the early days he was preaching persecution. As persecution took place he preached extermination and annihilation. . . . [T]hese crimes . . . could never have happened had it not been for him and for those like him. Without him, the Kaltenbrunners, the Himmlers . . . would have had nobody to carry out their orders.”

The same is true of course today for the role of the corporate press in atrocities committed by governments and corporations, insofar as here is a meaningful difference.

Derrick Jensen is a long time environmental campaigner, activist, writer and founding member of Deep Green Resistance. He has published Endgame, The Culture of Make Believe, A Language Older than Words, and many other books.

Featured image: U.S.-made CS gas (“tear gas”) canister used against civilians during the 2011 uprising in Bahrain. Photo by Mohamed CJ, CC BY SA 3.0.

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3 thoughts on “How Do You Define Violence?”

  1. Violence is violence. There’s good violence and bad violence. No need to fight with dictionaries over the definition.

    My problem is with “nonviolence,” which tries to hang a negative label on a philosophy, and was what first made me suspicious of Martin Luther King’s approach. “Nonviolence” just tells us what it ISN’T. But he never came up with a word for what it IS.

    We live in a violent universe, beginning with the Big Bang. (Note that it was not a Big Whisper.) And everything exists because of it. In a world created by intelligent design, there would be no predators. Animals would die of old age, and populations would be regulated by smarter fertility rates.

    It’s a violent world, built by earthquakes, and ravaged by lightning, fires, and floods. And we also have the passive cruelty of things like droughts, blizzards, and heat waves. I don’t like it any more than anyone else. But I accept it as Nature. She’s a nasty mama, but she’s one we’ve learned to live with.

    The violence we can’t learn to live with is the violence of human “development” and “progress,” which have now “developed” into an ecocidal heating of the planet, with thousand-year droughts and catastrophic sea level rise, and “progressed” into a Sixth Great Extinction.

    And I only see two ways it can end: Either it will be wiped out by the chaotic violence of Nature, or by the selective, decisive violence of those who value survival and evolution over “profit” and “growth.”

  2. I attended a panel discussion 15-20 years ago in San Francisco where the question was something like, should violence ever be used in the service of a good cause? (I don’t remember the precise question, but this is close enough.) At the end, the audience voted unanimously that sabotage in the interest of the environment is NOT violence, but that driving is (very progressive crowd!). I was part of that vote and support it to this day.

    As Derrick points out here, modern humans are totally brainwashed on this issue, failing to oppose the worst forms of violence like white collar crime and ecological destruction, while getting hysterical over things like street crime (not that street crime isn’t violent or serious, but it’s nothing compared to the other crimes I mentioned).

  3. I agree with all the principles expressed by Derrick.

    However, the problem is the practical, not the moral conclusion.

    The greatest attempt ever made to destroy an industrial civilization was probably the Allied attack on Germany, 1940-1945.

    Of course their goal was not to lead the world back to nature, it was simply to break down that specific industrial civilization.

    It involved huge resources, from the most powerful countries in the world, millions of times more than any determined guerrilla today could carry out.

    Thousands of American women worked on making bombs that thousands of pilots dropped on Germany.

    In the short run, the Allies broke Germany’s back.

    But leaving aside Nazism, today, is Germany less an industrial power than it was in 1939?

    One 5G antenna knocked down is morally wonderful.

    Practically, the damage is paid for (1) by an insurance company and (2) by the brave eco-warrior (all my moral support) who then will spend years in prison, for that one antenna.

    This for me is the real problem with “direct action”.

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