Rethinking Violence and Nonviolence

One example of latent violence is that of modern urban spaces. High-rise buildings and gated housing societies exist side by side with slums and makeshift settlements. Some people get to live in well-ventilated and spatially comfortable houses, whilst the people upon whose blood and sweat those spaces are built, are forced to live in spaces without basic amenities like sanitation or water. Workers who collect garbage door-to-door from these gated housing communities make wages that do not even cover their basic living expenses and remain doomed to cycles of poverty whilst the affluent classes gain further upward mobility.
Is this not a form of violence as well?

Anyone involved in discussions on contemporary politics is well-acquainted with repeated platitudes to nonviolence, pacifism and the importance of registering one’s dissent (should there be any in the first place) in as peaceful a manner as possible.

What is interesting to note is that condemnation of violent actions is never uniform or across the board. It changes according to the social location of the perpetrators of violence and more significantly, according to the social profile of those who are at its receiving end.

In other words, there seems to be some kinds of violence which is considered as legitimate violence which is “necessary” and worthy of being lauded, while other forms are considered illegitimate, and worthy of condemnation.

Right-wing genocidal violence against minority communities is seen as “legitimate” by the majority; as some kind of “justice” for supposed “historical wrongs”. But the resistance of those minority groups is deemed illegitimate; as vindicating the majoritarian view that said groups are inherently predisposed towards violence.

So, for example, the violence that results from militaries, police and borders is unquestioned and even celebrated, as it is considered essential for protection of the nation-state. On the other hand, when those who are adversely affected by the violence of the former, resist adopting non-peaceful means, the latter’s violence is seen as condemnable and deserving of punishment.

This leads us to ponder over the definition of the nature of violence. Does violence necessarily take place only in the physical or tangible sense? Murder, lynchings, physical assault, altercations, fighting, weaponry, arms, etc. are all considered as violence.

What about structural violence? The kind that’s not immediately manifest but more subtle and insidious but does just as much harm as physical violence if not more perpetuated by certain social institutions and social structures. Seen this way, the root causes of violence are seen not as aberrations but as natural consequences of those institutions which are built upon and sustained by continuous violence against certain social groups.
The caste system cannot exist except by the oppression of people belonging to the so-called “lower castes.” The debate on resolving the caste question between Hindu reformers versus the reformers of the Dalit-Bahujan communities,

is a case study of understanding violence only in its manifest form versus understanding structural violence. Thus, while Gandhi campaigned for removal of discriminatory practices such as untouchability, he staunchly refused to let go of the varna system as a whole. Whereas, Dr Ambedkar, Periyar and others were adamant that Dalit-Bahujan communities could never achieve true freedom unless there was ‘annihilation’ of the entire caste system itself.

One example of latent violence is that of modern urban spaces. High-rise buildings and gated housing societies exist side by side with slums and makeshift settlements. Some people get to live in well-ventilated and spatially comfortable houses, whilst the people upon whose blood and sweat those spaces are built, are forced to live in spaces without basic amenities like sanitation or water. Workers who collect garbage door-to-door from these gated housing communities make wages that do not even cover their basic living expenses and remain doomed to cycles of poverty whilst the affluent classes gain further upward mobility.
Is this not a form of violence as well?

The violence of police, prisons, borders and the nation-state are all examples of structural violence. These institutions possess monopoly over violence. Hence, police brutality is sought to be rationalized as being a perfectly logical response to “violent”, “unruly”, and “disruptive” protestors; conveniently overlooking the fact that police brutality is in fact, a means of coercion and control that often instigates violent protests rather than quell them and that some of the worst cases of police brutality have been carried out against protestors who followed every directive expected of a “peaceful” protest.

Language is one of the most potent purveyors of violence. Every single event of genocide in history has been the conclusion of a protracted period of constant dehumanization of the oppressed group through media and culture.

A political speech made by a member of a marginalized community which criticizes the status quo is deemed a “threat” to “communal harmony” and “national security”. On the other hand, politicians of the ruling party routinely refer to the minority community as “termites”, “terrorists”, “illegal”, “invaders”, etc. There is only one consequence of this kind of language; permanent dehumanized conceptualization of the oppressed community by the majority. And the moment one ceases to be considered “human”, is when the curtain rises on the stage of genocide.

It is often reiterated that the solution to violence is not more violence but nonviolence; and here the analogy of light vs darkness, love vs hatred is often cited.

Usually, commonplace appeals to nonviolence result in a ratification of the state’s monopoly over violence.

An apolitical understanding of nonviolence is harmful because of its propensity to be, quite ironically, appropriated by demagogues. Thus, it should be seen as no surprise when political leaders with track records of heinous crimes wax eloquent about the virtues of nonviolence in speeches.

The true ideal of nonviolence can only be realized when there is a serious commitment towards dismantling the roots of violence.
This would mean confronting and abolishing structures and institutions that are violent by design.

There needs to be a fundamental change in the way we conceptualize violence and nonviolence in the first place.

Judith Butler’s book The Force of Nonviolence delves into this complicated question at length. The author quotes, “I’m trying to shift the question to “what kind of world is it that we seek to build together?” .”

Any discussion on the virtues of nonviolence would be farcical if it does not address the question of sustainable, tangible and well-fleshed out alternative models to the present violent structures.

However, the state’s monopoly over violence has now become so powerful that

merely critiquing the status quo and deriding it for its violent nature is enough to make one a public enemy and suffer brutal consequences; let alone implementing any action plan for abolition. This is a major challenge that needs brainstorming upon.

 

Judith Butler’s book The Force of Nonviolence delves into this complicated question at length. The author quotes, “I’m trying to shift the question to “what kind of world is it that we seek to build together?” .”

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