Sunday, April 26, 2009

A quick refresher on violence

Apparently, some of my Euro-American readers need a bit of a reminder on the definitions of violence that I use in my writing. 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 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. Similarly, the memos drafted by Jay Bybee and others in the Bush II regime that facilitated the use of torture techniques can be viewed as organizational violence, as would the 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.

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, Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression 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]
The displaced are systematically deprived of the basics for survival, resulting in poverty, malnutrition, premature death. That's what structural violence is. The physical harm suffered in this case usually falls underneath the mass-media radar because it is less salient, less spectacular than deaths due to IEDs or aerial bombing raids, less shockingly noticeable than the mass killings by death squads. The structural violence in this case (as is true of various colonial genocides of the past) will also fall underneath the radar because it is built into the very fabric of the oppressors' worldview. Starvation and malnutrition for example are simply written off as "those savages cannot take care of themselves." The more liberal of the oppressors might even acknowledge such phenomena as partially their responsibility, but cheerfully contend that in the end "it was worth it" as Madeleine Albright said of the half million Iraqi children under five who had died as a result of economic sanctions against the Iraqis during the 1990s. The deaths caused from the stress of being displaced, and without 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.

Each of the above three forms of violence discussed thus far can lead to a fourth form of violence: intrapersonal violence. A simpler, albeit incomplete, characterization of this form of violence is self harm. Here we'd include self-destructive behaviors such as alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide. Usually such behaviors are merely written off as "moral weakness" or as the result of some sort of "mental illness" which couldn't possibly have anything to do with the extreme stress that comes with being displaced or being threatened with displacement. And yet such hyperindividualistic explanations would fail to account for the massive increase in suicides among displaced subsistence farmers in India during the present decade or among factory unemployed factory workers during the Yeltsin regime in Russia in the 1990s, the epidemic of alcoholism and suicide among First Nations peoples in the Americas as a consequence of over five centuries of being targeted for genocide by European (and later Euro-American) settlers. Self-harm experienced by those who've been victimized by perpetrators of bullying or abuse would also be included in this category. As long as those victimized by perpetrators of the other three forms of violence resort to intrapersonal violence, suffice it to say, there is little risk of blowback.

What I'm driving at here is simply that if one wants to understand phenomena such as armed rebellions (such as those regularly occurring in the occupied territories of Palestine), piracy, acts of terrorism, and so on, it is imperative that we get our heads around the root causes of those forms of violence. To fail to address in particular the organizational and structural origins of these particular forms of 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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