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What Is Violence, And Does It Matter?

(Here's another one that's been in the hopper for a while.)

"Violence" is a word that gets used a lot when talking about horrible things. But I must confess I'm a bit at a loss as to which horrible things it properly applies to -- and what difference it makes. I first started thinking about this several years ago when I read Nancy Peluso and Michael Watts's edited book Violent Environments, which is a collection of articles about political ecology. The book collected a lot of horrible things that had happened to people -- from being propagandized about genetically modified food to being caught up in African civil wars -- but it wasn't clear what the definition was by which they labeled these horrible things, but implicitly not some of the other horrible things documented in other political ecology articles, as "violence."

There are also the discussions in environmentalist and animal rights circles about the tactics of groups like ELF and ALF, who make a point of drawing a line between property damage and physical harm to people. This line is framed as a strategy of "non-violence," and discussions ensue about whether property damage is violence and whether violence, however defined, would be justified in defense of the earth or animals.

Dictionary definitions are little help. Practically anything bad that happens can be framed as fitting one or another of the definitions of "violence." Perhaps this is because the rhetorical power of the word "violence"

I was reminded of my nagging questions about the word by this post. After describing the ordeal of Juana Villegas DeLaPaz -- an undocumented immigrant forced to give birth in immigration detention and then separated from her baby -- Cara says:

This? This is violence. If you disagree, either your definition of violence is far too narrow, or like our government, you feel that violence against an undocumented woman of color simply doesn't count.

The implication of Cara's comment is that it's very important whether you'd label what happened as "violence" -- and if you don't, you're in some way minimizing or excusing what happened. The thing is, I don't know what my definition of violence is, so I don't know whether what happened to Villegas DeLaPaz counts as "violence." I've seen the word applied to so many different things that I've come to interpret it as just adding an extra layer of moral condemnation, not as describing any particular facts about the violent event.

Perhaps more importantly, I don't know if it matters. Even without a clear definition of violence, I can easily agree that what was done to Villegas DeLaPaz is a horrible moral violation. The extreme degree of suffering inflicted on her is sufficient to establish the wrongness of what happened to her. So I don't see in what way my evaluation of it, my diagnosis of what caused it, or my thoughts as to how to fix it would change if I were to determine that it actually does or does not merit the term "violence." Similarly, I don't think my evaluation of the various case studies in Violent Environments or of ELF and ALF's actions turn on whether they fit a definition of "violence."


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