The Word “Violence” (1)

Language is perhaps the most important of all cultural innovations achieved by the human species. Yet, it isn’t perfect. Vagueness, the catalyst that helps generate most of our misunderstandings and misinterpretation, seems part of the very fabric of language. We recognize this fact when we meditate upon any widely-used word; for, upon closer inspection, it turns out that even our most precise terms contain a significant amount of vagueness.

Sometimes this vagueness allows for creative insights; at other times, it becomes a tool for manipulation. Given the power of words to shape our concepts, and the power of concepts to shape our reality, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the struggle over definitions of certain key words can be as real, and as consequential, as any actual war.

Consider the word “violence,” for instance. In a paper he published in 1969 (titled “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research”), a Norwegian sociologist named Johan Galtung set out to change the meaning of this word in radical ways. Galtung understood the significance of the fact that in cultures around the world, the concept “peace” is often understood in terms of the concept “violence.” Most people do not have a positive definition of “peace” to work with; rather, they simply assume that “peace” is the exact opposite of whatever “violence” is. As a result, the meaning of “peace” depends directly on the meaning of “violence.” Galtung also recognized that the word “peace” has only positive connotations, which makes it very hard, rhetorically speaking, for anyone to be against “peace.” Regarding these connotations, Galtung notes:

Few words are so often used and abused — perhaps, it seems, because ‘peace’ serve as a means of obtaining verbal consensus — it is hard to be all-out against peace. Thus, when efforts are made to plead almost any kind of policy — say technical assistance, increased trade, new forms of education, irrigation, industrialization, etc. — then it is often asserted that that policy, in addition to other merits, will also serve the cause of peace. (1969: 167)

Acknowledging the conceptual link between “peace” and “violence” as antonyms, Galtung argues that our narrow understanding of “violence” is responsible for our narrow understanding of “peace.” Since we normally think of “violence” as “somatic incapacitation, or deprivation of health, alone (with killing as the extreme form),” we assume that it results only “at the hands of an actor who intends this to be the consequence.” Arguing that this limited view of “violence” is no longer adequate, Galtung writes: “If this were all violence was about, and peace is seen as its negation, then too little is rejected when peace is held up as an idea” (1996: 168).

The fact that the word “violence” is understood by most people in a narrow and limited sense hasn’t changed since Galtung pointed this out for us. Here’s a recent definition of “violence” from the Oxford English Dictionary, “the definitive record of the English language.”

Violence, n. The exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury on, or cause damage to, persons or property; action or conduct characterized by this; treatment or usage tending to cause bodily injury or forcibly interfering with personal freedom.

As a sequel to his 1969 paper, Galtung published his more mature meditations twenty years later in a paper titled “Cultural Violence” (1990). Here, too, his complaint remains essentially the same: a truncated concept of “violence” leads to a truncated concept of “peace.” Discussing his new typology of violent behavior, Galtung writes:

The first category of violence, killing, is clear enough, as is maiming. Added together they constitute ‘casualties’, used in assessing the magnitude of a war. But ‘war’ is only one particular form of orchestrated violence, usually with at least one actor, a government. How narrow it is to see peace as the opposite of war, and limit peace studies to war avoidance studies, and more particularly avoidance of big wars or super-wars (defined as wars between big powers or superpowers), and even more particularly to the limitation, abolition or control of super-weapons. Important interconnections among types of violence are left out, particularly the way in which one type of violence may be reduced or controlled at the expense of increase or maintenance of another. (1990: 293)

Several points emerge from the above discussion: (1) The opposite of “peace” is “violence,” rather than “war.” (2) If we believe that ending “war” is all we need to establish “peace,” we are seriously mistaken. (3) We cannot work for “peace” without an adequate, i.e., broad and expanded, conception of “violence.” (4) We cannot work for “peace” without understanding the different types and varieties of “violence,” as well as their mutual relationships. (5) We need a definition of the word “violence” that does not restrict it to deliberate physical harm alone. (5) We need a definition of the word “violence” that includes those situations in which no specific actor or agent who intends to cause harm is identifiable.

Galtung provides us with two definitions of the word “violence.” The first definition appears in his 1969 paper, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research.” The second definition appears in his 1990 paper, “Cultural Violence.” I will discuss Galtung’s two definitions of the word “violence” in my next blog post.

According to Galtung, our understanding of “peace” is tied up with how we understand “violence,” but defining the word “violence” is bound to be controversial.

Everything now hinges on making a definition of ‘violence’. This is a highly unenviable task, and the suggestions will hardly be satisfactory to many readers. However, it is not so important to arrive at anything like the definition, or the typology — for there are obviously many types of violence. More important is to indicate theoretically significant dimensions of violence that can lead thinking, research and potentially, action, towards the most important problems. (1969: 168)

As we shall see, Galtung’s two definitions are not mutually exclusive; rather, they represent two complementary, or mutually reinforcing, ways of conceptualizing and approaching a particular set of human phenomena. Neither of the two definitions is intended to capture the one “correct” meaning of the word “violence.” Rather, these are stipulative definitions — suggested ways of understanding our experiences and observations. Their value lies not in their being “true” or “right,” but in the extent to which they may be useful in the process of inquiry, research, and activism.

One Comment on “The Word “Violence” (1)

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