Violence Unraveled

by Ran Prieur

November 11, 2002

Creative Commons License
[Edited November 28, 2012]

"Violence" is a propaganda word that sneakily combines many different things, healthy and unhealthy, natural and unnatural. As long as we use the word "violence" in its present meaning, we will tend to either call "violence" wrong, and rule out behaviors without which we can never have a healthy society, or call "violence" acceptable, and permit behaviors with which we can never have a healthy society. We need to take the word apart.

The biggest thing that gets blurred into "violence," that overlaps all the others, is vigorous physical motion and contact, which I'll call Vigor. Vigor is everywhere. Almost everything in the universe is rushing, colliding, grabbing, pushing, shaking. We and our ancestors have lived tens of millions of years by vigorously killing and eating plants and other animals, and civilized humans haven't stopped this but put it out of sight. Look around where you're sitting: Probably almost everything you can see was made by vigorously slicing up trees, killing animals, hacking down crops, pounding and tearing minerals out of the earth. In the absence of our awareness, in the darkness, our vigor has accelerated and its character has changed, has become machine-like and blind. And in the absence of personal healthy vigor, our character too has changed. Western post-industrial humans, who are surrounded by the products of the most energetic destructions and transformations in history, have become so pathologically vigor-phobic that we can go years without touching anyone or anything with any energy. We take for granted that a verbal argument is okay but a physical argument can only be a "fight" which is always wrong (except when done by the military or police). We think physical abuse of children is monstrous but that verbal abuse, which is just as abusive but more hidden and dishonest, is tolerable. We may sit at a meeting trading intense verbal hostility while apologizing if we bump someone's foot under the table.

Liberals have been redefining "violence" to also include non-physical abuse or domination. They're trying to keep the propaganda word "violence" but turn it to their own ends. I'm trying to stop us using the word. I want us to relearn healthy vigor, and before that we need to understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy vigor, and before that we need more precise language. What I'm about to define are neither "kinds of violence" nor "kinds of vigor," but some other things besides vigor that have been tangled into "violence." I call them control, cruelty, extermination, eating, toolmaking, toolbreaking, spectacle, nihilism, revenge, and balance.

Control is trying to affect the behavior of another being in a way that fails to respect its autonomy, that fails to relate to it as a subject, equal but different, with its own perspective and its own needs. This includes everything from "disciplining" young people to breaking a wild animal to armed robbery to slavery to a whole society where we do what we hate all day because of fear. Control is the trickiest thing I'm trying to define. What is autonomy? What is a need? What isn't a subject? My "control" is not the same as a baseball pitcher trying to "control" the ball, because the ball is not a living being -- or if we're full-on animists and say the ball is a living being, then its meaning of life is entirely a function of the game, and the players are not really controlling it but working with it. A good test to separate healthy and unhealthy meanings of "control" is to try to substitute the word "accuracy" or "focus."

Cruelty is what happens when control loses focus. The inhibition of empathy that's necessary to maintain a system where people do what they hate, goes over the back fence and turns into negative empathy, so that you get direct pleasure from feeling another's suffering. Our society tells us that control is decent and rational, and cruelty is terrible and irrational, but I halfway respect cruelty as control that stops being half-assed, or as control that reclaims an emotional connection to its object (because even a negative connection is better than none), or as a subversive action to end control by transforming it into something more volatile.

Extermination is a close relative of control: Again, it's based on viewing another being as a function of your own needs and values, and violating that being's autonomy to affect it, except instead of affecting its behavior, you affect its existence. Extermination includes everything from swatting a mosquito to poisoning "weeds" to assassination to genocide. What makes it different from other kinds of killing is the motivation: you're killing something primarily to make it go away.

Eating, of course, is when you kill something as part of eating it. The difference between eating and extermination seems subtle from the perspective of our society, but it is all-important. Most animals and even some plants kill as part of eating; eating and being eaten are at the foundation of the balanced system that contains us. But only civilized humans systematically exterminate. Again, extermination is about control, and eating is about being alive.

Toolmaking uses a broad definition of "tool," all the way from a bird's nest to vegetable dye to deerskin moccasins to a field of crops to a giant city built through countless clearcuts and mines. It opens important questions that I leave open: Is killing something to make a tool out of it fundamentally different from killing something to eat it? And how do we identify toolmaking that is or is not in balance with the wider world? Actually, agriculture raises this same question about eating.

Toolbreaking is similarly broad, including logging equipment sabotaged by autonomous activists, factories destroyed by military bombs, burned books, and farmland sowed with salt. Toolbreaking does not include destruction of something with life of its own. That would be extermination. And it does not include graffiti, since what is painted on something is an aesthetic issue, and does not affect use value. But like graffiti, toolbreaking cannot be morally evaluated without opening up the idea of "property."

Who gets to decide what will be done with a tool, whether or not it will be used, whether it will be kept around or destroyed? The creator? The user? The "owner"? Who is the appropriate user? What does "own" mean in a thoroughly coercive society where almost anything can be said to be stolen? Everyone knows that the land of the USA was stolen from the Indians. And because we do our wage labor only under the threat of not otherwise having shelter or food, our labor is stolen from us the same as if we had guns to our heads. And then whatever we make or do with our labor is stolen the same way.

A piece of logging equipment is made with labor stolen from people, out of materials stolen from the earth, so its alleged owners have no moral standing to say what will be done with it. Does anyone? One could argue that what's done with it should be determined by the wider interests of the present society, but then this would yield in the same way to the even wider interests of human quality of life, and the still wider interests of all life on earth, both of which would tell us not to use the equipment -- or to use it for long-term forest health rather than profit. This opens another level of complexity, that the meaning and value of a tool can vary depending on how it's used.

Attacking tools that are about to destroy a piece of land with which you have a deep relation is like shooting the gun out of the hand of someone about to kill your family. The only objections I see to ecological toolbreaking are tactical: If you do it in secret, you are treating the symptoms while compounding some of the causes: secrecy, which is allied with unhealthy societies, and also the habit of affecting each other's lives without engaging each other in a healthy social process to work out the conflict. But if you do it out in the open, you'll be put in prison. I don't have an answer.

Spectacle might involve killing or destruction, but it's more than just extermination or toolbreaking because the main purpose is not to push something out of existence, but to psychologically influence observers. The intended influence could be to draw attention to a cause, or to incite a war, or to intimidate people.

Nihilism could be called spectacle or extermination or toolbreaking that is done with little awareness or focus. Basically you're so overwhelmed by the horror and meaninglessness of your environment that you just want to destroy. Nihilism is similar to cruelty -- you're in a bad situation and don't see a way out, but you can at least make the badness more alive and unstable.

Revenge I'm defining narrowly, as a completely pathological urge, when someone does something you don't like, to do something they don't like. Revenge sits in one corner of a vast slippery region of answering aggression with aggression. On one edge of this region is a gray area all the way from revenge to control, with what we call "punishment" right in the middle. And spreading out from this gray area is another gray area merging with a whole range of healthy behaviors that may be only subtly different from revenge, punishment, and control.

Balance is the word I'm using for all of them. If control and punishment and revenge are about acting on others without respecting their autonomy, balance is acting with them, with respect for their autonomy, with awareness of others as subjects with their own perspectives and needs, with an opening of one's self into relation as an equal. What I'm trying to get at here is the default way of being of all life everywhere.

We can learn from other animals and from nature-based human cultures, even though neither are perfect. Monkeys and apes have murderous tribal wars, males of many species will kill the offspring of competitors, and animals constantly force other animals to act contrary to their desires. But the targets of aggression are always permitted to fight back, and no creature is forced to act against its nature. The worst tribes are as repressive as the worst civilized nations, and more narrow-minded, but the best tribes have near zero coercion and fully distributed political power. Even warlike tribes conduct battles in a ritualized way that minimizes death and serious injury. They've been compared to big capture-the-flag games where people sometimes get killed. Contrast this with modern civilization, where young people's lives are puritanically stripped of all aggression and danger, and then in a few years these same people are sent to fight in wars where lethal danger is intentionally maximized.

Our society tries to channel all vigor into extermination and control. This right wing practice is allied with the left wing doctrine that all vigor is "violence" and is wrong. By suppressing healthy vigor, we support its channeling into unhealthy vigor, which supports the belief that all vigor is unhealthy and must be suppressed. This cycle can be broken through the practice of balancing vigor, and through the ideas that I'm suggesting here: That domination and vigor are different things, that domination is wrong at any level of vigor, that vigor is not inherently bad, and that aggressive vigorous actions can still be healthy and balancing.

These ideas are almost not radical. Everyone agrees that verbal abuse is wrong and that wrestling for fun is okay. What's radical is to extend these values beyond the sub-worlds of entertainment and leisure. The most important function of the propaganda word "violence" is to prevent this one thing: the entry of alive, autonomous, democratic, personal physical power into politics, or the breaking of the monopoly that the authorities have on socially effective physical action. Of course just breaking this monopoly doesn't equal balance, and if we ended it now we wouldn't be ready. But it's a giant necessary step, and the time will come to take it.

We already (or still) come close to balancing vigor in a few areas. Contact sports are ritualized, vigorous, and minimize injury, but the ritual is not one of balance but one of symbolic extermination, where teams are "eliminated" and at the end of the season there can be only one winner. Also, for every player there are thousands of spectators, whose pent-up vigor might not be released but built up further. Martial arts can be vigorous and balanced, but again, the focus is often on an absolute form of winning. Moshing is ritualized and dependably vigorous and balanced, but still there's no actual conflict that's being worked out, so it has no relation to society except as an exercise. It's balanced but not balancing.

Balancing vigor is in our nerves and blood -- and if it's ever taken out of us, we're doomed, because it's our lifeline to the real world. In the deepest cubicles of civilization, we feel a biological need to work out real issues with bone-shaking running and bumping, and this need is always denied, diverted into toy vigor that's detached from real issues, or into vigor that settles real issues not with balance but with extermination and control.

This is why successful vigorous protests are so important. A young German radical once told me that she and her friends went to political riots not for the particular issues, but because they wanted to fight the police. At the time I thought this was irresponsible and immature. Now I understand that their instincts were more profoundly radical, more deeply socially conscious, than any of our brain-tangling political issues.

Consider the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle: Denied representation by a corporate government, people went out with their bodies, with their physical presence, and for a few hours seduced the police into something like natural fighting. In a space outside the legal fabrications of our society, activists and police faced each other as if on equal terms, and living bodies blocked delegates, delayed the conference, and measurably influenced the world.

The WTO protest was not a victory, but something even better -- it was not a loss. Winning would mean totally having our way: humiliating police officers and burning down the corporate headquarters and the houses of the elite. Then we would just become the new controlling exterminating powers, as we did after the French Revolution. Revolution is the wrong metaphor for change when we're trapped going around in circles.

We need to learn to walk the line that divides domination from degradation, before we can safely re-integrate vigor into politics. Then, if we can repeatedly engage authority-serving humans in respectful vigorous conflicts that affect real issues, and where every person walks away with dignity, one day we might wake up and notice that there are no longer any "authorities," just different perspectives working things out as equals.

Also, we need as many people as possible to understand what the fighting is about. Unlike in nature, most of our conflicts are based on huge lies and misunderstandings, so they can only really be settled with some element of sharing experience and talking and carefully thinking. For example, the bought classes really believe that their system is good and just, and view sabotage and political riots as they view earthquakes, as incomprehensible blind destruction. This raises moral questions: how much slack do we give people to figure it out, before we act? And it raises strategic questions: when do the positive effects -- patterns jammed, new patterns started, attention drawn to our perspectives -- outweigh the negative effects of drawing anger and hatred from people who still don't get it?

I have no further answers. People who are authorized to use force, if they're not just stupid bullies, face questions like these all the time, and learn to answer them skillfully and decisively. We can too.