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Excerpt from Dreams

Violence and Violation (p. 384)

From chapter "Wisdom"

Take the word “violence.” It’s absurd that the same word is used to describe a man raping a woman, a woman fighting him off, a cougar killing a deer for food, Palestinian children throwing rocks at Israeli tanks, and Israeli soldiers firing white phosphorus at Palestinian civilians. We should come up with more words to differentiate radically different forms of violence (and we should also recognize that no matter what words we use our descriptors will be insufficient, never more than markers).

Worse, our language—the words we have, the words we know, the words we use—influence and sometimes determine our attitudes and our ability to conceptualize, and thus how we act, or don’t. If we lump all of the above into the category “violence” and then we are told that “violence” is “bad,” there is a strong chance we can come to consciously or unconsciously perceive even fighting back as “bad” (hmm, whom does that benefit?), and we could possibly come to consciously or unconsciously hate or fear nonhuman carnivores (who are seen as “violent,” and therefore “bad”).

A couple of days ago I did an extended question and answer session with an audience in Edmonton, in the Canadian province of Alberta. I talked about my definition of violence, which is any action (or inaction) that causes harm to another. I like this definition because it shows the ubiquity of violence: every time I defecate I kill billions of bacteria; every time I eat I consume the flesh of another (animal or vegetable— in either case it was a being with a life as precious to him, her, or it as mine is to me).

One person in the audience responded, “If we accept your definition of violence, and if we define peace as a lack of violence (and we could also define peace as a lack of war, which would lead to different questions), then our goal as activists and human beings is not to try to create the conditions for any sort of world peace, correct?”

I said that given these definitions, that would be correct.

He then asked, “What would be our goal?”

It’s a great question. I stumbled around it for a while, never really providing any response worthy of his question.

But that didn’t matter, because the questioner was able to provide his own great answer: our goal would be to try to find methods of conflict resolution allowing for sustained coexistence, including sustained interspecific coexistence.

I love this answer for many reasons, one of which is that it takes into account that if you are threatened by a sociopath (or a flesh-eating zombie) that you can still fight back: allowing your community to be consumed by a flesh-eating zombie (or by capitalism, insofar as there is a difference) is not sustainable. Indeed, allowing any sociopath to gain any position of power in your community (CEOs, anyone?) is not sustainable. Any functioning, sustainable community would stop, forcibly if necessary, sociopaths from destroying the community.


But wait! Let’s take a step back. How would our attitudes, and thus behavior, change if we used a different definition of violence? I’ve heard people make reasonable arguments that violence should not be defined as any action (or inaction) that harms another, but rather as an act of violation. “Violence” and “violation” do come from the same root: Old French violence, from Latin violentia, “vehemence, impetuosity,” from violentus, “vehement, forcible,” probably related to violare (see “violate”). Then when we look up “violate,” we see “to break” (an oath, etc.), from Latin violatus (see “violation”). When we take this one more step and look up “violation,” we see Latin violationem (nom. violatio) “an injury, irreverence,” from violatus, past participle of violare, “to violate, treat with violence, outrage, dishonor.” Once again, now we’re getting somewhere.

This means of course that the cougar is not committing an act of violence against the deer, because the cougar is not violating the deer, or breaking an oath to the deer. This means that the woman who kills a rapist is not committing an act of violence, because she is not violating the rapist, nor breaking an oath, nor treating him with dishonor.

How would acceptance of this definition change our attitudes and behavior?