What is Violence?

We like to paint our society as being opposed to violence, to be supportive of peace. Yet, so often we seem to contradict that sentiment by supporting what seems to be violence. I think this largely has something to do with us never really defining, what violence is.

The lazy and liberal thing to do is to turn to the Dictionary for its definition (which is most fallacious because: which dictionary is right?). In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, violence is defined as “the use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy,” and also “intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force.” These kind of definitions are intentionally vague, because they are an attempt to “cover all the bases.” They are trying to form a definition that applies to any use of the word. But they ignore the fact that there is a clear difference between the use of “violence” when referring to the behavior of a storm and the behavior of a person. No one finds a “violent” storm to be morally repugnant. So, I think we could agree that the term “violence” when used to refer to the actions of a person, refers to “actions by a group or individual which bring malicious harm to another group or individual.” And it’s that operative word “malicious” that is most significant.

When people decry “violence” they seldom are referring to things like self-defense, or punishment for severe crimes. We count certain harmful acts to be justified, and thus not really “violent.” These justified acts are responses to a violent act, and would not exist if the instigator had not been violent first. If one person is attacked by another, and the victim defends themself with harmful force, would you call that victim violent? I doubt it. They are behaving defensively, not violently. It was the attacker that was violent.

The purpose of this is to point out that just because force might be used against a person or group, doesn’t mean that force is violent, it doesn’t mean those people are violent. Last year Trump insisted that there was “violence on both sides” in Charlottesville. But one of those sides, the Anti Fascists, were only responding to the violence of the Fascists, they were only defending themselves and the community against the provocation of the Fascists, and one of them gave their life to do so: Heather Heyer. No Fascists were killed, or even severely harmed, on that day.

This applies on a larger scale as well. When an oppressed people use force against their oppressors, they are not being violent, they are responding to violence being brought against them. If the Rohingya use force to resist their genocide, are they being violent? Are they “as bad” as the Myanmar Military? Of course not, they are being defensive, not violent.

But it goes beyond this. As we’ve established: violence is an act that brings malicious harm to another person. Such an act may not be force. It could be blocking access to lifesaving needs. If someone dying of thirst came to your door and begged for water from your tap, and you refused, resulting in the dehydrated person’s death, is that not an act of violence on your part? And if you lock someone out of your home in the winter, causing them to lose limbs to frostbite, is that not also violence? If you agree, then you must see my point: poverty is violence.

When owners deny housing to the poor, that is violence. When they deny food to the starving, that is violence. When a bank forecloses on a poor family and evicts them out onto the street, that is violence. When a company buys a people’s water supply, and then charges them to to access it again, locking the poor out from access to a basic human need, that is violence. When a city embezzles money that is meant to maintain its water system, and then refuses to repair it when the water becomes contaminated with lead, that is violence. When indigenous people are forced off their land because it was bought by logging companies, or a company is going to build a dam on it, that is violence. When the anyone is denied healthcare to save their lives just because they cannot afford it, that is violence. And when workers are paid starvation wages for their work that makes an owner rich, that is violence.

When the poor use force to fight against their poverty, they are not being violent, it is the owners, the bourgeoisie, that were violent towards them by making them poor. Instead, those poor people are fighting back against the violence being brought against them. The poor are being defensive, not violent. If you find the forceful actions of the oppressed to be abhorrent, if you don’t want them to behave so desperately, then oppose the actions of those who make them desperate.