Wednesday, June 3, 2020

A few thoughts about violence

Given recent events, it seems like this would be a good time to spend some time discussing how violence is defined. Much of what I discuss relies on books by Chasin (2004) and Bulhan (1985). I will start simply by saying up front that there are multiple forms of violence that are fundamentally different - at least quantitatively if not qualitatively. I will also state up front that I accept that violence begets violence, but unless we're explicit as to the forms of violence with which we are dealing, we'll fail to understand where the onus of responsibility lay for a particular violent act.

Most of us are more than familiar with interpersonal violence. If one were to simply ask any random acquaintance to give a definition of violence, it would in all probability be restricted to violence in an interpersonal sphere. Spend the first few minutes of any local evening news program in any major urban area, and one will be inundated with stories of some of the most typical forms of interpersonal violence: rape, aggravated assault, robbery, murder or attempted murder, and so on. One might even get the (false) impression that the nearby neighborhoods or the world at large are terrifyingly dangerous places. Interpersonal violence can be as minor as a fistfight all the way to being life-threatening or life-ending. That said, it tends to be easily noticeable and hence relatively easy to seek condemnation and/or efforts for violence prevention (the latter of which I find quite commendable and in fact utterly necessary). The other forms of violence, as we will see, are considerably more insidious - and often aren't even recognized as violence by most people.

One of those forms of violence is organizational violence, which involves explicit decisions made by individuals as part of their formal roles in organizations, such as the military, police, CIA, or a corporate bureaucracy which lead to physical harm or death. Although the decision-makers involved in organizational violence might have no direct interpersonal role in the harm caused to their victims, and in fact may even be abhorred by the actual process of violent actions such as torture and murder (e.g., Arendt, 1963), they are nonetheless committing a form of violence. A classic 20th century example of organizational violence involves the various bureaucratic decisions made by such individuals as Adolph Eichmann, whose paperwork paved the way for the deaths of untermenschen in Central and Eastern Europe during the Nazi era. Executive orders, legislation, or in this day and age a mere tweet by an elected leader may be sufficient for unleashing acts as visible as firing teargas and rubber bullets into a crowd of entirely nonviolent demonstrators in order to give a national leader a photo op at a nearby church, to the far less visible forms of harm to others - such as elimination of unemployment benefits, denied access to public healthcare (e.g., Medicaid) once one is unemployed, etc. In each case, the end result is that people get harmed in some tangible way. Such violence can also be found in the private sector in the form of drafting of memos at some corporate headquarters leading to the unemployment, displacement, or starvation of whole communities in order to ostensibly improve profit margins. In some cases, the bureaucrats involved are consciously aware that their actions will lead to the suffering and potential death of others; often though there is - as Hannah Arendt has duly noticed - no thought given to the human consequences of these particular bureaucratic acts of violence. Often organizational violence can lead to what is called "blowback" - typically in the form of interpersonal violence as a reaction. Turns out the targets of such violence do get understandably angry, and that anger only festers over time if there is no restitution.

Structural violence refers to physical harm (including death) suffered by a particular group of people who do not have access to the same services and benefits as the rest of society. Often, though not always, structural violence and organizational violence co-occur. What most of us fail to recognize is that structural violence is often the most deadly and insidious forms of violence. To take a few words from the book,  by Hussein Abdilahi Bulhan (1985):

Structural violence is a feature of social structures. This form of violence is inherent in the established modes of social relations, distribution of goods and services, and legal practices of dispensing justice. Structural violence involves more than the violation of fairness and justice. [p. 136]

Structural violence is the most lethal form of violence because it is the least discernible; it causes premature deaths in the largest number of persons; and it presents itself as the natural order of things. A situation of oppression rests primarily on structural violence which in turn fosters institutional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal violence. Structural violence pervades the prevailing values, the environment, social relations, and individual psyches. The most visible indicators of structural violence are differential rates of mortality, morbidity, and incarceration among groups in the same society. In particular, a situation of oppression increases the infant mortality rate and lowers the life expectancy for the oppressed. [p. 155]
We see these differential rates in the US in terms of differences in life expectancy of African Americans versus Euro-Americans, as well as in the disproportionate rates of incarceration between different racial/ethnic groups, differences in income that disproportionately disadvantage racial and ethnic minorities, and so on. This year alone, we learned that African Americans were much more prone to die of COVID-19 than their Euro-American counterparts. A lifetime of differences in opportunities, patterns of mistreatment by authorities, access to healthcare, and so on appear to be predictors. The structural violence in this case will also fall underneath the radar because it is built into the very fabric of the oppressors' worldview. After all, the injustices that exist can be written off as human nature, some form of moral failings, etc. "It's just the way it is," many might say. Those oppressed may be written off as less intelligent, as not belonging and unable to fit in, etc. The deaths caused from the stress of being oppressed, and without adequate access to fundamental human needs for survival are no less real, even if they don't make the headlines of our various corporate controlled newspapers and news channels. Again, it is crucial to recognize that is in the case of organizational violence, structural violence can and often does lead to blowback - as we have seen in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. Fortunately, most of that blowback has been remarkably nonviolent and restrained, given the very visible anger and frustration expressed by those most affected by a system and set of societal filters and norms stacked against them.

What I'm driving at here is simply that if one wants to understand what is now an on-going set of protests and occasional riots in the US at this point in time, it is imperative that we get our heads around the root causes of those forms of mass behavior. To fail to address in particular the organizational and structural origins of what might appear to the more sheltered as violence, is to not only further victimize those who've already been victimized but inevitably makes tangible violence prevention efforts impossible. To condemn those who simply may be reacting to lengthy periods of oppression without extracting some form of tangible retribution from those who have perpetrated organizational and structural violence is shallow at best.

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