Generalised violence

As members of society, we usually dislike violence. Societies generally have laws that restrict or control the legal application of violence, limiting it to a certain segment of the population. Also, because we have a capacity for empathy, we may suffer when we see others suffer, in many kinds of circumstances (but not all).

The assumption that violence is almost always wrong or bad is widespread. But widespread beliefs that usually seem to be beyond questioning can yield interesting ideas when they are dissected and put to the test. Why do we really dislike violence?

If I have to rationalise my intuitive dislike for violence today, on the spot, I would say that violence scares me because of the potentially irreversible effects. If a thug injures me gravely, it might take me a long time to recover my physical abilities, or I might never recover them fully at all. The most irreversible physical injury seems to be death, of course. Violence that is guaranteed to be reversible is somehow a much less scary prospect.

Physical violence is a form of influence that is very rapid, very focussed and that potentially has effects that take a long time to recover from, if recovery is at all possible. If somebody throws a stone at me it is more “injurious” than a light rainfall, even though both situations affect me physically. The stone is more targeted, more intense, more sudden.

What, then, about a more general definition of violence, based on these observations? Suppose that violence is simply sharply focussed influence directed at me from somebody else; not necessarily physical. In this way advertising, music, newspapers can potentially do violence to me. If we also remove the condition that the effect should be sharp and rapid, we can accept slow-acting influence as being violent; the condition is now only that recovery should be relatively slow or impossible. Under this condition, the kind of influence I receive from going to school (education), from watching TV, from advertising, or from random events may indeed be a form of violence, depending, of course, on what my sensitivities to these events are.

Of course we cannot shield ourselves from violence in this broader definition. We must accept it and accept that our identities probably are, partly, the results of such influence.

Physical violence is a form of domination/influence, and it is the most obvious form. It is shockingly easy to notice, a grotesquely rude form of influence. But if all we care about is the effects of violence, the slow or impossible recovery, then we should perhaps also be worried about things that we don’t usually think of as violence. A life free of domination or external influence, however, does not exist.


Category: Philosophy | Tags: , , 5 comments »

5 Responses to “Generalised violence”

  1. Fri intellektuell

    Are you sure that we cannot shield ourselves from the kind of generalised violence you are writing about? You’re right that a life free of domination or external influence does not exist. But there are lives that almost entirely consist of domination and external influence and there are lives where external influence really is external. Some years ago I moved to the countryside, stopped watching TV and so on in order to get more distance to the kind of influence you are describing. It worked, I think.

    Great blog, anyway. I found it while searching for Swedish philosophy blogs.

  2. johan

    Thanks for your comment.

    It is probably a good first step to stop watching TV if one wants to reduce the impact of this kind of external influence and “soft violence” (for want of a better word). I guess the point I was making above was that one can never be entirely sure that one has identified all forms of external influence that one is subject to, that one has seen all the forces that influence and manipulate one. And maybe it would not even be desirable to remove them all if one could identify them.

    Maybe what I was trying to express here is something like this: I think that our identities are produced by our relationships to other entities, and violence might only one extreme special case in a continuum of such relationships.

  3. fri intellektuell

    Yes, my comment was a bit naïve. We are always affected by others. Your text was just such a good illustration of my feeling of living in a city. I really had the feeling of being assaulted by all those advertisements, newspaper posters and shops around me. Therefore I like your use of the word “generalised/soft violence” in this sense, because I didn’t have any word for it before. I think Maurice Merleau-Ponty called it “intermonde” but from a more benign point of view.

    Violence is not always negative. Isn’t sex a proof of that? It is a rather violent act, still most people like it and almost need it. I have studied BDSM (theoretically) a bit, and concluded that violence can both be of a destructive and communicative kind: It can destroy your body, but it can also be a communicative act with your body as a means of communication. Maybe it is the same for mental/soft violence: It can destroy your mind or it can be an act of communication with your mind.

  4. Mchaelb

    Is there such a thing a positive violence that fits all the original posted facets of violence(Except maybe the physical), a sharped focus act directed as someone else, long lasting effects, and not easy to get over? What if someone took the time to study someone so well (pre-meditated) that they were able to publically(and therefore unexpectedly) ambush someone into an extremely pleasant experience that was then rapped about in a sharp toned voice and played on the radio and made a spectacle on tv?

    I’m not talking a wedding proposal by a buddy and a few of his friends….that might not even be welcome!…but a ‘burn’ by (rap artist here) about making someone’s day and saying so many compliments had people smiling til the end of the day, etc…people have a hard enough understanding what rap artists are saying anyway..
    maybe violence is in the sharpness because it’s ‘opposite’ –love— is somehow not sharp, it’s light and airy…but if you bleed the genre and change the subject of who the action is done to and the intent…you’ll have people in the blue meme trying to out make someone’s day special and won’t have to turn off the tv, since it’s the sensational that sells…I hope this made sense

  5. johan

    Mchaelb, well, it sounds like you’re on to something. If I get it right you are suggesting a kind of inverse violence, which has the structural properties of violence (so to speak) but the inverse “content”.
    1. Can the actor who induces violence or reverse violence judge accurately what will be perceived as positive or negative by the subject? (probably not always)
    2. Can positive violence eventually turn into negative, and vice versa? (probably – something harmful in the short term may come out as beneficial in the long term, and so on)
    3. If the “positive violence” indeed is something that is deeply desired by the subject, a pleasant and skilfully calculated surprise, then it seems that the “actor” may by this act acquire power over the subject, because the actor found a way to provide something the subject desired deeply. This in fact sounds a bit like the mutual dependency situation that can arise in a romantic relationship. It’s probably very hard for the subject to avoid automatically developing this dependency if the reward is good enough.

Leave a Reply

Back to top