What is Violence?

Our understanding of peace will not be adequate unless we accurately define its negation, namely violence. Many people tend to have a reductionist understanding of violence. To some, violence means physical harm, aggression, and hostility. For instance, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines violence with words like “Injure, abuse, damage, destroy, foul play”. This is both ignorant and harmful. This superficial view of violence reduces the phenomenon of violence into its physical and direct manifestations and fails to acknowledge the indirect and passive dimensions of violence. Such a view of violence is, in fact, by itself a type of indirect violence as it misguides our perception of violence.

So What Exactly Does Violence Mean?

Violence is an influence characterized by the disruption or obstruction of actual or potential human well-being. According to Galtung (1969) violence is present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations. When the potential is higher than the actual is by definition avoidable and when it is avoidable, then violence is present.” (Galtung, 1969, p.168).

Violence disrupts peace in the sense that when the violent influence decreases the actual or potential well-being or obstructs it, it causes dissatisfaction, which leads to emotional and psychological instability and insecurity, which finally leads to hate, hostility and harm.

Violence cannot be solved with violence. History teaches us enough lessons on how violence breeds violence. Direct violence leads to an endless cycle of animosity and revenge. Hence It sows the seeds of indirect and institutionalized violence. Also, indirect violence breeds direct violence in the same sense that “…work is built into a compressed spring in a mattress: it only shows when the mattress is disintegrating. (Galtung, 1969, p.184).

Violence is an influence in the sense that it has a subject (influencer), an action (influence), and an object (influencee). The degree to which either the subject, the action, or the object is obvious is different, which on some occasions might lead us to the false impression that there is no violence.

For example, testing a new weapon system in the uninhabited desert might not seem violent to the naïve observer as there is no direct harm to anybody, but it is actually a violent influence. That is because it’s a show of force, a preparation for future violence, or a form of threat intended to intimidate someone. According to Galtung (1969), “[a] psychological violence that does not reach any object: a lie does not become more of truth because nobody believes in the lie. Untruthfulness is violence according to this kind of thinking under any condition, which does not mean that it cannot be the least evil under some widely discussed circumstances. (p.170).

So What is “Direct Violence”?

Direct violence is a dimension of violence characterized by a direct link between a subject, action, and an object of a violent influence (Galtung, 1969). Such personal violence can be either physical or psychological or both. For example, war, aggression, manipulation, verbal or physical abuse, hitting, physical or psychological deprivation, threats, intimidation, etc. On the other hand, direct violence can be positive or negative.

According to Johan Galtung,

Thus, a person can be influenced not only by punishing him when he does what the influencer considers wrong, but also by rewarding him when he does what the influencer considers right. Instead of increasing the constraints on his movements, the constraints may be decreased instead of increased, and somatic capabilities extended instead of reduced. This may be readily agreed to, but does it have anything to do with violence? Yes, because the net result may still be that human beings are effectively prevented from realizing their potentialities. [Hence]… individuals may be killed or mutilated, hit or hurt in both senses of these words, [or] manipulated by means of stick or carrot strategies.” (Galtung, 1969, p.170).

Also, direct violence can be active or passive. Active violence has a direct object to hurt while passive violence has an indirect object to hurt. Johan Galtung discussed this in the following paragraph;

Can we talk about violence when no physical or biological object is hurt? This would be a case of what is referred to above as truncated violence, nevertheless highly meaningful. When a person, a group, a nation is displaying the means of physical violence, whether throwing stones around or testing nuclear arms, there may not be violence in the sense that anyone is hit or hurt, but there is nevertheless the threat of physical violence and indirect threat of mental violence that may even be characterized as some type of psychological violence since it constrains human action.” (Galtung, 1969, p.170)

Violence can also be intentional or unintentional violence. A violent influence that happens as collateral damage, as a side effect, or as a purely accidental incident might seem to the naïve observer as a stroke of bad luck or misfortune, not violence. But a careful analysis might show that it was an avoidable risk and if that is the case, then it is in fact very real violence, just an unintentional one.

Finally, violence can also exist in a latent form or in a manifest form. Latent violence is potential violence that is stored in a repressed actual well-being or potential well-being stretched beyond its optimal level. It is like an armed bomb only waiting to explode anytime if triggered. Someone filled with resentment might not commit any actual violence until they reach a point where they can no longer tolerate it. Conversely, someone who has become addicted to a recreational drug stretches their potential well-being beyond its optimal level and might find the optimal lifestyle miserable, regardless of the harmful and fake potential which they prefer. Latent violence might also be interpreted as a state of unstable and fragile peace (negative peace) unprotected from the latent risks of violence. So it is a risk that can materialize anytime if not resolved.

On the other hand, manifest violence is kinetic violence which is dynamic and effective. It’s no longer a risk, it’s a calamity. It is observable at the behavioral level as its ongoing and burning personal well-being like a wildfire.

And What is “Indirect Violence”?

Indirect violence is another dimension of violence characterized by an indirect link between the subject and the object of a violent influence. This means that the violent influence is caused by culture or a social structure consisting of violent actors, unfair systems of interaction, violent goals, and inegalitarian society. The most fundamental consequence of such violent structure is structural inequality, social inequity, and social injustice. A lot of people might suffer from indirect or structural violence in the same way or on a much bigger magnitude as direct violence, i.e. war.

For example, millions of people might quietly and slowly die every year due to avoidable poverty, disease, consumerism, food poisoning, mental illnesses, negligence, exploitation, manipulation, and servitude. But such astronomical rates of human loss and suffering might go unnoticed and under the radar of naïve observers for very long periods.

A nuclear war might in fact be as destructive as the quiet and soothed application of indirect violence. Just because we cannot trace a direct relationship between the subjects and the objects of indirect violence doesn’t necessarily change the fact that it is a violent influence as long as such suffering and human loss were avoidable. Such violent culture and social structure are produced, reproduced, and perpetuated through legal, cultural, and institutional means and modes of violence.

For example, a life expectancy of 30 years (due to poverty) in our today’s world might not seem violent to the naïve observer as we cannot trace a direct link between the violent influence and a particular subject. Nonetheless, it remains a really violent influence as it is avoidable. Hence a form of indirect violence. For the sake of convenience, the two dimensions of violence can be categorized into personal violence (direct or improvised violence) and social violence (indirect, or structural violence).

People are inevitably violent in the violent social structure, intentionally or unintentionally, against themselves or others, as long as they are committed to accepting, defending, and contributing to such structures and cultures because they are propagating it as actors occupying either the roles of villains or the roles of victims. In other words, enjoying the status of top dogs or the status of underdogs.

If the villains or the victims withdraw from this violent structure, the structure would eventually collapse as the roles would become vacant and without actors to animate them. The systems of interaction within the violent structure whether legal, cultural, or institutional (whether political, economical, social, or ideological) are essentially unfair as long as the “value” (resources/power) is traded and exchanged inequitably and unequally. Also, the form of organization within these systems of interaction is inevitably hierarchical to uphold violent relationships (exploitative or oppressive). This is characterized by solid and permanent ranks of superiority and inferiority to rationally justify demands of submission and loyalty and sustain servitude.

This means upward social mobility is not possible or it doesn’t depend on one’s will, hard work, or achievable merit, but on inherited privileges. Hence structural or indirect violence. Those favored by the structure and privileged to be top dogs might seem to be the villains but that might not necessarily be true. They can be villains if they are intentionally enjoying that status while fully conscious of the violent nature of the social structure. However, in most cases, the top dogs are in fact victims themselves seduced by the violent structure as actors to fill a vacant role of a villain. They didn’t choose this and they might never have invested any effort to get promoted to the status of a top dog.

The opposite is also true. The victims might actually be villains if they are intentionally enjoying the status of being an underdog while fully conscious about the violent nature of the structure and fully capable of withdrawing or avoiding it. This might seem irrational, but under some advanced conditions of structural manipulation, villains might play such roles to cause maximum indirect violence. But that is rare, and in most cases, the victims are indeed victims subjugated by the structure to act on that particular role without having the option to withdraw, resist or avoid. Structural violence could even be objectless, in the immediate and direct sense of the word.

For example, inequality and inequity are not a result of laziness and foolishness as the structural violence might persuade the victims but rather is due to indirect violence. That means the avoidable conditions that made the poor people poor are engineered by the violent social structure/culture and were imposed upon them beyond their will or capacity. They were systematically deprived of the means of success, like education, employment, entrepreneurship, saving, and fair remuneration. Johan Galtung elaborates this point further by saying that;

… the consumer society rewards amply he who goes in for consumption…. The system is reward-oriented, based on promises of euphoria, but in so being also narrows down the ranges of action. It may be disputed whether this is better or worse than a system that limits the range of action because of the dysphoric consequences of staying outside the permitted range. It is perhaps better in terms of giving pleasure rather than pain, worse in terms of being more manipulatory, less overt.” (Galtung, 1969, p.170).