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cross-posted from Una Muses
i had thought i was writing about the concept and application of a culture of consent, when i find myself caught up thinking about violence and non-violence. the two are very inter-related. i feel that i need to settle, or at least explore, some understanding of how i think about what is violent, before i can dive into the realm of consent.

a recent event in Benghazi, Libya and one in my personal life have sparked my current round of pondering non-violence. for at least 25 years, i have proclaimed and tried to practice non-violence as the way i walk through life. in the past couple of years, i find myself in a new round of struggling with what that means, why we adopt it as a living philosophy, who it serves and whether it is even really possible.

as a short entry today, just to get the juices flowing and see if i can get some dialogue started, i'm going to throw something out about the last aspect: is non-violence even possible?

here is a dictionary definition of  'violence':


noun ˈvī(ə)ləns
1. Behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something

2. Strength of emotion or an unpleasant or destructive natural force
- the violence of her own feelings

3. The unlawful exercise of physical force or intimidation by the exhibition of such force

by this definition, harvesting plants for food is violent. after all, you are going to hurt or kill it. it also says that emotions can be violent. if eating and having strong feelings are violent, is there even such a thing as a non-violent life?
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Comment Preferences

  •  what does 'non-violence' mean? (5+ / 0-)

    i'll be pondering that a bit more in my next entry.

  •  Sure (0+ / 0-)

    non violence or at least not much of it worked for Gandhi.

    As for food, it seems to me that unless one just eats fruit or is capable of photosynthesis that one must consume other life or perish.

    Is this violent?  Don't know, but it seems to be how things work so wouldn't worry about that which one cannot control.

    "And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue; They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space" Khalil Gibran

    by bcdelta on Tue Oct 02, 2012 at 10:25:53 AM PDT

    •  the definition of violence includes "something" (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      so, that means that harming an inanimate object is violent.

      so, breaking a glass at a wedding is violent. bringing down a condemned building is violent. breaking a strand of yarn, when you have knit as much as you need, is violent.

      so, clearly, we accept a certain amount of violence.

      when we make the political claim to 'non-violence', what are we saying, really? how are we delineating between what is acceptable and what is not?

      that's what I'm trying to get at.

      because, we celebrated the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the topping of the Saddam Hussein statue, but proponents of 'non-violence' condemn Libyans for destroying buildings.

      •  I suppose (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        UnaSpenser, erush1345

        one has to also include the intent behind the violence.

        Knocking down the Berlin Wall represented the end of the cold war, communism in the East, etc.

        So I wouldn't call this violence per say even if it fits the definition.

        A asteroid bumping into another one is a violent collision, but it's just the physics of it all rather than a conscious act of violence.

        "And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue; They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space" Khalil Gibran

        by bcdelta on Tue Oct 02, 2012 at 11:11:10 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  now see, the Berlin Wall thing could be a matter (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          of perspective. So, those of us who felt one way about "communism in the East", etc, may see it as a good thing. Supporters of "communism in the East" may condemn the act.

          And if intention is key to the determination that something is violent, what if I intended to swat a bug off you arm when I used that axe which took your arm off completely? I didn't intent to hurt you. I was trying to help!

          Or what if I say my intention in running at you was for a friendly hug, but you say that you experienced my intention as coming at you to tackle you? How do we prove my intention?

          So, how can we use 'intention' to define when something is violent?

          •  LOL - good point (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            As the saying goes the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

            And as per your Berlin Wall example - it's a matter of perception.

            My take on communism is that it doesn't work too well given human nature in that many humans need incentive to innovate or produce something new that benefits society.

            Under the iron curtain - there was not much freedom so not a good thing.

            Now clearly the oligarchical system in Russia doesn't work for the majority. So again I see your point.

            So when things change we need to be smart about how we do it so we don't get something as bad or not so good.

            Not always easy.

            As per intention, while it can be mistaken, I think all of us know the difference between right and wrong whether we care to admit it.

            And while a fair amount of good intentions go wrong I think if enough act with good intent we get a better result.

            But again to intent, pragmatism and clear understanding of the underlying problem and possible fixes must be added.

            Bottom line we don't live in a perfect world.

            "And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue; They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space" Khalil Gibran

            by bcdelta on Tue Oct 02, 2012 at 11:45:57 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

      •  for me, it has something to do with suffering ... (3+ / 0-)
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        bcdelta, IB JOHN, UnaSpenser

        and perhaps degradation.

        in that sense, i view abuse and oppression of others as inherently violent.

        it's not the method so much as the effect.

        i doubt that plants and inanimate objects suffer so i don't think that physical destruction (rearrangement?) is itself violence in the same sense.

        however, destroying something else in a fit of anger that is degrading to the person doing it has the same kind of feel, imo.  

        Paul Ryan is a policy wank.

        by monkeybox on Tue Oct 02, 2012 at 11:20:22 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  it's interesting that you focus on the act (0+ / 0-)

          degrading the person doing it.

          I think there's something in there.

          So, if a person is starving and no one will help her get food, is it degrading to break a window to get food from a store? (yes, Les Miserables comes to mind.)

          If someone has invaded my house and refuses to leave, is it degrading me to physically push her out? Or is it empowering?

    •  It worked so well for Gandhi (2+ / 0-)
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      bcdelta, UnaSpenser

      because there was a parallel violent anticolonialist movement in India, and because England was at length unable to hold on to its colonies.

      I believe Gandhi himself said something to the effect that the practice of nonviolence wouldn't have worked against an opponent like Nazi Germany.

  •  Non violence works on the principle of shame (2+ / 0-)
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    UnaSpenser, FutureNow

    If a society can still feel shame and change, nonviolent protest and activities can move mountains.

    This quite often turns on whether the people in the military and police, the rank and file, are emotionally affected.

    If it can't, the dissident activities go down in a welter of blood.

    There is a related kind of activity - public suicide, of the sort that sparked the Arab Spring.  While a lot more extreme, it is still working on the same principle, of shaming the society as a whole.

    What this means is sometimes it will work and you get a bloodless revolution, or nearly so (see Ghandi, Civil Rights protesters in the 50s-60s, Mendela, Berlin Wall, Yeltsin and the coup).    Sometimes you get only a partial success that has to be finished or at least with violence to get any change (Libyan and American revolution, to name two, but also some of the violent labor strikes in the 1870-1940 period).     Sometimes you just get a violent crackdown (China in early 90s, Iran during Arab Spring, Syria now, if they succeed in suppressing the rebels).

    Sadly, no solution to human events is one-size-fits-all.  What can be said for non-violence as an approach is that when it works, it works REALLY well, without a lot of the messy aftermath and radicalization that more violent means tend to bring.  (very few post-revolutionary or post-civil-war governments have done well by their new citizens, because you get too many hatreds formed during the revolution to easily re-integrate everyone into society)

  •  Civilized society accepts #1 as violence while (1+ / 0-)
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    #2 and #3's actions are far less likely to be referred to as violence...I wouldn't refer to someone speaking aggressively to someone as "violent"...nor would I accuse loud protestors screaming obscenities at cops "violent" without some sort of physical aspect to it.

    I do hope this diary is not an attempt to say "well hey we do #2 and #3 all the time so why not do #1?"

    •  no. I'm not going there. I'm thinking more (1+ / 0-)
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      along the lines of:

      1) if hurting or damaging anything is violent, then we don't really have any possibility of a non-violent existence. so, clearly we accept some violence. (smashing a glass at a wedding, demolishing a condemned building, etc.) how are we defining what makes something violent or not in the political realm? it was okay to topple the Hussein statue, but not for the Libyans to destroy buildings which always had been and were continuing to be used for violent purposes. Some have condemned that act as violent, even though they made sure to get the people out of the building.

      2) if you invade my space, coming into my house, say, and I can't get you to leave. Is it violent of me to push you out? If I'm not intending to hurt you, but I am putting my hands on you to regain the boundaries which you breached, who is violent? you for breaching my boundaries, even if you haven't physically touched me? or me for pushing you?

      these are some of the nuances I'm thinking about.

      •  Sure; cool topic. (1+ / 0-)
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        1. I keep going back to "physically" as the adjective that I think most of us associate with "violence". I don't think (and this is speculating) that MOST people consider ridiculing someone as 'violent'.

        2. And with parts of one, I think the definition you posted never mentions "bad". Different people and societies think violence is justified in particular situations and therefore not 'bad'.

        •  yeah, see, ridiculing isn't 'violent', even though (0+ / 0-)

          if done enough it can drive a person to suicide. So, then that person is violent, but the ridiculers are not. Something doesn't seem right about that.

          And that's what happens when governments make policies which leave people starving. Nobody has hit those starving people or shot at them, so no violence has been committed, supposedly, yet if they break a window to get into a store for food, they are deemed violent.

          For a while now, this has not been sitting with me well as an appropriate way to assess who is violent and who is not. I'm really struggling with it.

          •  Maybe you're fighting its connotation and not the (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            word or definition itself?

            "Violent" does tend to invoke a drunk hitting his spouse or a mob killing people, which is likely what's not sitting well with you when you hear the word "violence" associated with breaking a window to steal food. People tend to use the word in adjective format to invoke an emotional reaction methinks.

            •  yes, the connotation definitely bothers me. (1+ / 0-)
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              People will use the word violent to make a judgement. There are people who condemned the Libyans for burning and tearing down those buildings because "it was violent!" But, they made sure people were out first. Didn't attack anybody who exited the building. And from all reports, it was a cathartic act for them, getting rid of these buildings that Gaddafi had used as a base for his oppression & then taken over by an extremist militant group. Getting rid of buildings which harbored so much terror was probably a good thing for them. Yet, people criticized them for being violent.

              So, I question why we cling to non-violence as a tenet and whether it really serves us well to make it some kind of absolute that it is bad or immoral to use violence, ever.

  •  you are right to attempt to define it (1+ / 0-)
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    but then the next thing you have to determine is:

    Is violence always morally wrong?
    Is violence ever morally right, or neutral?

    I think that's a pretty complicated question. A parent protecting their child from an attacker. Should they be non-violent and sacrifice the child simply to hold to the precept that violence is always wrong?

    That not only strikes as being against everything that makes us human, it strikes against everything in the animal kingdom of which we are apart.

    An extreme case certainly, but it shows the difficulty in non-violence as a way of life. Sometimes, violence is not only morally right, it's morally necessary.

    Determining when is when is the really hard part that we've struggled for every since the concept of Just War came along.

    •  this is exactly where I'm going. it feels like (0+ / 0-)

      sometimes the proponents of non-violence are sitting in a position of luxury and privilege when they condemn others for doing things to protect themselves or their loved ones.

      I'm wondering how it serves us to proclaim such a rigid application that there is no consideration of situations where someone is subjected to so much violence or oppression that the only way to survive or help loved ones survive is by using violence.

      when I was a child, I was abused. it went on for at least 10 years. (my earliest recollections of it are when I was about 4.) I had been taken to emergency rooms several times. Everybody knew. But nobody did anything. I had had head wounds and as I got older, I knew how dangerous those could be. And how out of control my abuser was. I was afraid for my life. So, one day, when I saw the arm cock for a strike, I threw a punch the face as hard as I could. I was 14. Then I quietly said, "if you hit me again, I'll kill you." I was never hit again.

      For proponents of non-violence, Gandhi is wielded as a weapon to shame you, and I'm condemned for having been violent.

      •  Ghandi is someone (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        like MLK that is to be deeply respected, even revered.

        Their paths worked for them, and for the movement.

        But, their paths and methods wouldn't work in every situation, every time. You can't passively resist and beat someone determined to kill you or a loved one.

        I don't think passive resistance stops Hitler or Stalin.

        I mean Ghandi and MLK worked because their oppressors had some conscience and weren't horrible people for the most part.

        There is also a difference between one human on one human and nations.

        In short, it's complicated, and sometimes violence is the best of a bad set of choices. The real hard part is determining when that is the case, because often violence IS a bad choice, and to be avoided.

  •  regarding harvesting plants for food (1+ / 0-)
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    One thing that working with a lot of Indian expats has taught me is that respect for life is not a binary thing, it is a long range of results.

    There are a lot of ethical vegetarians among my co-workers but it expresses very differently, ranging from not eating any large animal that was killed to not eating anything in the animal kingdom (eg, not even locusts) to not eating any animal products (from a exploiting the animal ethical standpoint).

    One reason India has a lot of vegetarian traditions is it is one of the richest places in the world for native plant protein, with many possibilities for "complete" protein even without including such things as dairy or eggs.

    Going without harvesting plants though, is pretty much impossible for a human.   In the modern world, you could probably work something out where you only eat, say, fruit and nuts harvested without killing the parent plant.  This would be easier if you could ethically eat dairy products.   But without a supermarket there isn't any way somebody who has to actually gather these foods is going to survive, barring a very few exceptions (The Ohlone Indians
    the west coast of USA subsisted almost entirely on acorns and other seeds, which were abundant enough to be gathered.   They did vary their diet with other things, including fish and game, but in hard times, they could live entirely on acorns)
    •  it simply begs the question of us being careful (0+ / 0-)

      about how we use words.

      An acorn is a seed. If you eat it, you are destroying the seed. Per the dictionary, that is violent.

      Ok. Life simply cannot be non-violent. Clearly, we have to accept a certain amount of violence. So, what do we mean when we use the word politically? Are we wielding it bluntly?

      But, mostly, do we even all understand the same meaning when we say or hear it? Who is defining the line between acceptable violence and unacceptable? And why do we think we get to define it for other people when we haven't walked in their shoes?

      • the case of seeds (0+ / 0-)

        Nature assumes fruit will be eaten to help spread seeds.

        It assumes most seeds will be eaten and only a few will grow (an oak tree makes a lot more acorns than are needed for sustainability)

        A community of people eating acorns are going to spill a few and waste a few and that will cause more trees to grow than if they weren't there.

        There is a point where nature produces an abundance and expects other creatures to benefit from it, in order to spread its own agenda (all kinds of plant reproduction is based on this concept).   From the point of view of plant propagation, plants that are farmed for food are wildly successful.

        Maybe there is an insight there for more overt kinds of violence.  But I'm not enough of a philosopher to do it much justice.

        Societies need some way to coerce people who do not go along with the social contract.   This is usually a blend of actual force, shame, reward and praise.  You really need all three.    

        For example, you really don't get a professional soldier without a concept of duty, respect paid them for the sacrifices they risk.  Plus in most cases some actual pay, survivor's benefits and assumption of medical care, and attempts to repatriate them if captured.   That is the positive side, the praise and reward.

        To make a soldier something under society's control (and not, say, a gangster or a bandit) you need a concept of shame to inhibit improper use of the force they're entrusted with.   This is usually couched in some terms of "Honor", and soldiers who violate the code are despised by their peers, those whose opinions they value most.    In the US military, this is codified in codes of conduct, but there is a large unwritten code of behavior beyond the legalese.  Reducing rape in the military requires that unwritten code to change.  Serving under fire often changes the code.  (Racism against blacks by military was reduced by serving with them in Vietnam.  Sexism against women is hopefully being reduced by their service in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Hate against Gays has certainly been reduced in my lifetime by the fact that DADT notwithstanding, modern soldiers have served under fire with people they knew were gay).

        Then there is the actual violence.  You use that for people who in spite of praise and reward and shaming mechanisms, still behave badly.   Confiscating their money, locking them up, killing them in extreme cases.  We don't go in much for "flogging" type punishments anymore, although violations of informal codes of conduct sometimes can result in informal beatings, or "work/exercise assignments" that are physically punishing.

        I don't think I've ever heard of a working society that didn't have some measure of all four types of social controls (praise, physical reward, shame, physical punishment).   Physical punishment by definition requires violence.

        But the ratio of those four things varies wildly from society to society, and if you want to eliminate violence from the average citizen's life, then you want societal controls that have outcomes where physical punishment is rarely needed.

        How you get there?  History shows a lot of examples, but precious few roadmaps.  

  •  Nonviolence is an ideal, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    not a reality; but this fact is not an indictment of nonviolence.  

    In the same way, violence is always deplorable but sometimes necessary.

    Nor is violence the sole index of evil behavior.  Look at your dictionary definition: "1. Behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something."  The something or someone being hurt, damaged, or killed may not feel any happier in the knowledge that the hurt, damage, or killing was unintentional -- especially of the one doing the hurt, damage, or killing couldn't care less one way or another.

    You want absolutes, you set your hope in some next life.

    •  I'm not looking for absolutes. That's actually my (0+ / 0-)


      We tend to point at an action and say, "that was violent!" and condemn in the name of valuing non-violence. But, that seems simplistic and too absolute. I want to hear us having a more complex analysis of things when they happen.

      •  I don't even like the definition (0+ / 0-)

        you cited.  If I see a twig while walking down the sidewalk and, stepping on it, snap it, is that meaningfully characterized as an act of violence?  That trivializes what I'd like to regard as real acts of violence.

        •  I think this gets to something core to the (0+ / 0-)

          way we use the word 'violence.' We've come to attach some silent qualitative adjectives to it. From an purely linguistic standpoint, there is nothing inherently good or bad about violence. Yet, we seem to be implying that violence is bad, whenever we use the word.

          In cooking, sometimes you must check to see if the oil is hot enough by dropping water in and see if there is a "violent" reaction. You might bring liquid to a "violent" boil.

          In that vein, snapping a twig is violent and there is nothing bad about it.

          Yet, we cringe at the use of the word, now; an almost Pavlovian response. Its as though we've become lazy and refuse to differentiate between different qualities of violence, so now all uses of the word imply something bad or immoral. And this degrades our ability to actually assess a given act in context. As soon as someone says that anything about the act was violent, we make a judgment.

          I have a growing concern about this as I see how we apply this modified use of the word in political situations.

  •  Una (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Very good thread by the way.  Enjoying the conversation/thought process.

    "And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue; They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space" Khalil Gibran

    by bcdelta on Tue Oct 02, 2012 at 11:48:19 AM PDT

  •  Good topic. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Know what I'm going to be thinking about today.

    What are their names and on what street do they live-David Crosby-"If I Could Only Remember My Name"

    by IB JOHN on Tue Oct 02, 2012 at 11:50:32 AM PDT

  •  For non-violence to be possible (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The practitioner has to be willing to suffer, even unto death.

    •  indeed. especially if eating is violent. (0+ / 0-)

      since that is counter to the very primal instinct to survive, it would seem we need to look more deeply at how we define the morality or immorality of violence.

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