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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