Protective Use of Force: Defining Violence

This is the second installment in a multi-part series. Browse the Protective Use of Force index to read more.

     by Adam Herriott / Deep Green Resistance UK

Before looking at nonviolence, it’s important to define what violence is, as it is often understood in varied and misleading terms. The aim of the next three posts on violence is to move away from the binary thinking of violence versus nonviolence and to appreciate the complexity of this topic.

In Endgame I: The Problem with Civilization, [1] Derrick Jensen maintains that many words and contexts are needed to approach a more complex understanding of what violence means and entails. He lists the following categories of violence in a discussion meant to provoke readers into (re)considering what forms of violence they oppose:

  • unintentional and intentional violence
  • unintentional but fully expected violence (when you drive you can fully expect to kill insects)
  • distinction between direct violence and violence that is ordered to be done by others
  • systemic (and hidden) violence
  • violence by omission – by not acting leading to harm
  • violence by silence – witnessing violence and not acting
  • violence by lying – supporting those that carry out violence

Peter Gelderloos, author of The Failure of Nonviolence, writes critically of a typical human mindset, particularly by humans who occupy positions of institutionally maintained privilege: “If it’s done to me it’s violence. If it is done by me or for my benefit, it is justified, acceptable, or even invisible.” [2] He argues that violence doesn’t exist as an act but rather as a category; and that it is a concept regularly redefined by the state for the purpose of protecting and perpetuating systems of oppressive power. Gelderloos also asserts how common it is for people to describe things that they do not like as violent.

In Anarchy Alive! Anti-authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory, Uri Gordon suggests that “an act is violent if its recipient experiences it as an attack or as deliberate endangerment.” [3] He offers a comprehensive review of the thinking on violence in relation to activism by asking two fundamental questions: what is violence, and can violence be justified?

Gordon makes a useful distinction between the violence of the anarchist movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the violence of today. The political violence of past centuries often involved mass armed insurrection and the assassination of heads of state and business leaders. Today, it tends to involve non-lethal violence during protests, property destruction, and clashes with law enforcement. [4]

Gene Sharp, known as the “father of the nonviolent revolution,” argues that violence is a way to influence behavior by intimidating people. His list of what constitutes violent actions includes conventional military action, guerrilla warfare, regicide (the killing of a king), rioting, police action, private armed offensive and defence, civil war, terrorism, conventional aerial bombing, and nuclear attacks. [5]

Bill Meyers argues that the corporate state intentionally confuses language used to discuss issues of violence in order to neutralise opposition: “It is important to distinguish exactly what is meant by violence, not being violent, and the ideology of Nonviolence. Most people have a pretty clear idea of what violence is: hitting people, stabbing them, shooting them, on up to incinerating people with napalm or atomic weapons. Not being violent is simply not causing physical harm to someone. But gray areas abound. What about stabbing an animal? What about allowing someone to starve because they cannot find means to pay for food? What about coercing behavior through the threat of violence? Through the threat of losing a job? Violence as a dichotomy, with the only choices being Violence or Non-violence, is not a very useful basis for political discussion, unless you want to confuse people.”

A good place to start is the Oxford dictionary definition of violence: “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.”

In Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi, Mark Boyle seriously considers if inaction can be considered violent. He asks whether there is a definition or understanding of violence that can take into account the idea of inaction, the act of witnessing gross injustice and doing nothing within one’s power to effectively combat it. [6]

Boyle argues that when asking if an action is violent or an appropriate use of force, the intention of those that carry out the action needs to be considered. He offers the example of a tooth being pulled out either as an act of care by a friend if the tooth is causing a lot of pain, or by a torturer to inflict pain.

Boyle’s ultimate definition of violence is the “unjustified use of force in ways that are intentionally or culpably injurious to another entity, or insensitive to that entity’s own needs or The Whole of which it is one part. It encompasses actions that, through willful neglect, indirect conscious complicity, or the imposition of a set of conditions, contribute to the injury of another entity.” [7]

For Pattrice Jones, both concepts and context must be considered when defining violence. When many people say “violence,” they often mean some sort of violation that involves actual or the threatening of physical force. Following this logic, both force and violation must be present for an act to be considered violence. She observes that in law there is a distinction between violence and justifiable use of force, and between violent and nonviolent crime.

With regard to context, she notes that “if we understand violence to be injurious and unjustified use of force then we can never discern whether or not an act is violent apart from its context.” Thus, there is no need to waste time arguing about abstractions; justifiable use of force isn’t violence. We can move on to consider the more important question of how much force is justifiable in defence of human and non-human life and the earth. The line between force and violence can only be determined based on the context of the situation.

Jones poses intriguing questions when contemplating the use of force in any given situation: is the action likely to result in a desired outcome; is the same outcome likely to be achieved as quickly or certainly by some other means; and is the level of force being contemplated proportional to the level of harm that is trying to be prevented? [8]

This is the second installment in a multi-part series. Browse the Protective Use of Force index to read more.

Endnotes

  1. Endgame Volume 1, Derrick Jensen, 2006 page 399-400
  2. The Failure of Nonviolence, Peter Gelderloos, 2013, page 20/21
  3. Anarchy Alive! Anti-authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory, Uri Gordon, 2007, page 78-95 https://libcom.org/files/anarchy_alive.pdf
  4. Anarchy Alive! Anti-authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory, Uri Gordon, 2007, page 79-80, read online
  5. Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene Sharp, 1973, page 3
  6. Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi, Mark Boyle, 2015, page 38-43
  7. Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi, Mark Boyle, 2015, page 45/6
  8. Igniting a Revolution, Steven Best, Anthony J. Nocella, 2006, page 323

One thought on “Protective Use of Force: Defining Violence”

  1. Hey Adam,

    If the sentence below (in your second to last paragraph) is true…

    “Thus, there is no need to waste time arguing about abstractions; justifiable use of force isn’t violence.”

    Then we immediately return to the problem of exactly who is doing the justifying. With all parties to the conflict insisting that their definition of what is being done, “justly” of course, is the one and true definition, it seems to me that we’re no further down the road than when we started.

    Without a shared definition of what is valuable, any “justification” offered will likely be to protect the values of the individual or organization offering the justification. And since the differences in values is the most likely cause of the conflict, I think we’re at an impasse.

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