Research What Are You Reading...On Violence

What Are You Reading…On Violence

Violence has many definitions, and there are many types of violence. For some, violence is physical harm; others include psychological harm as well. At times it is defined as deviation from a norm, and at others it is said that any action—whether a deviation or not—is something which produces violence. Some of these latter definitions are why people like Žižek can say that Gandhi is, in a way, more violent than Hitler, for the former destabilized an entire system whereas the latter’s violence was simply reactionary.

Walter Benjamin wrote one of the most influential texts on this topic, called “Critique of Violence.” He makes a distinction between mythic violence that is law-making and associated with the state, and divine violence that is the law-destroying power of the Gods. We should be wary of both and avoid conflating the two. When we normalize the former and only condemn the latter, we give the state great power to cause harm in pursuit of the enforcement of laws. Violence is dangerous no matter who uses it or what purpose it serves. Yet it is not necessarily removable, and we may forever need to live with its presence. For this reason we must constantly reflect on its presence and the role it occupies in society, so that we can ensure it is well used and serves healthy ends. Here are some papers that do just that.


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  1. With respect to Nathan and all professional philosophers, it seems possible that high intelligence, advanced education, and well developed skill with language is causing some to dramatically over think the all important subject of violence. The best answers are not always the most subtle and sophisticated ones.

    Here’s what we need to know about violence. The overwhelming vast majority of it is committed by men. This is not a complicated fact, anybody with a TV can see it for themselves.

    All the many sophisticated theories and ideas about violence are all really saying essentially the same thing.

    1) We are unwilling to identify and remove the source of violence.

    2) Thus, we accept the continuation of the violent status quo which has existed for thousands of years. We accept the horrors, the victims, the suffering, the vast burdens imposed upon society.

    3) We don’t really want to solve the problem of violence, we just want to talk about it.

    Any conversation about violence which ignores who specifically it is that is doing the violence is not a serious conversation. Any conversation which refers to violence as a human problem instead of as male problem is not a serious conversation.

    Any conversation about violence which ignores the fact that (as far as I know) no society in history has figured out how to effectively separate the violent men from the peaceful men is not a serious conversation.

    Any conversation about violence which refuses to even consider the possibility of removing the source of violence from this planet is not a serious conversation.

    Any conversation about violence which doesn’t have the vision to see that the “world peace” humanity has been desperately seeking since the dawn of time is indeed really possible in the not too distant future is a conversation unworthy of professional philosophers.

    All the fancy papers above. Throw them out. Let’s talk about men.

  2. Nathan writes, “Yet it (violence) is not necessarily removable….”

    Ok, why would (the vast majority of) violence not be removable? Is it that we can’t remove violence, or that we choose not to, and prefer to label that choice as powerlessness?

    Nathan writes, “… and we may forever need to live with its presence.”

    Is this an option? Aren’t we assuming that because civilization has survived violence for a long time in the past that it will continue to do so? Doesn’t an accelerating knowledge explosion make this assumption obsolete?

    It seems that the key to breaking out of the status quo and achieving the peace we’ve long dreamed of arises from the realization that we don’t really have another choice. Can the reality of our modern situation be described by the formula “peace or die”?

  3. Nathan Eckstrand,

    Forgive my constant comments! I feel obliged to offer a few remarks on Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence.’ I think you summarize the argument correctly, but I think Benjamin is dangerously wrong…

    Benjamin was writing in the early 1920s, after the 1917 Bolshevik Russian Revolution, just before Mussolini’s March on Rome (1922), during the late years of the Weimar Republic, when the street fights between ‘communists’ and ‘fascists’ foreboded the rise of Nazism and foreshadowed WWII. Benjamin, I think, like the Spartacists (Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht et al.) believed that only a Bolshevik-style revolution would save Germany from a Nazi takeover, and he therefore mystified Bolshevik-style terrorist violence as ‘divine violence’ (like Jewish ‘messianic’ violence), which would destroy the State without creating another State, paving the way for something like ‘true communism’ or ‘true anarchism.’ I believe Benjamin’s current disciple, Giorgio Agamben, shares something like Benjamin’s belief, and I believe they’re both dangerously wrong!

    I do not believe there is a ‘divine’ or ‘messianic’ violence, and if there were, it would certainly not be terrorist violence, whether Bolshevik Nazi or Islamist. It’s unfortunate that Benjamin did not revise his beliefs after the Bolshevik Red Terror and the Ukrainian terror-famine (1933-1934) exposed the true face of Soviet Bolshevik Communism (BHL’s ‘Barbarism With a Human Face’…). But, since Benjamin was Jewish, he may have continued to believe that Soviet terrorism was better than Nazi terrorism, for Jews, at least, if not for Ukrainians or Belorussians.

    Still, I feel obliged to argue that the monopoly on violence exercised by a sovereign (democratic?) State strictly to enforce the rule of law, if combined with a constitutional rule of law that protects the civil and human rights of minorities, is greatly preferable to a so-called ‘divine’ or ‘messianic’ violence, exercised outside the rule of law simply to destroy the rule of law and inaugurate an anarchist state. And I have to believe it is the duty of philosophers of conscience to demystify and debunk the obsolete notion of ‘divine’ or ‘messianic’ violence, however glamorous that idea may sometimes seem. So, with all due respect to Benjamin and Agamben, I beg to differ with your defense of Benjamin’s notion of ‘divine,’ ‘messianic’ etc. violence.

    Oh, and you might find Derrida’s “Force of Law” interesting, since Derrida observes that during that period, Benjamin was engaged in mutual admiration with Nazi theorist Carl Schmidt, and that Benjamin’s thought itself partakes of certain elements of what we like to call ‘fascism’…

    Thanks for the post.


  4. Any action which could bring on real world peace would necessarily have to be a crackpot idea because if peace could be found within the status quo we’d have already found it. This is why we will not be receiving breakthrough ideas on violence from professional philosophers, because they can not afford to look like crackpots.

    This is probably why the world is the way it is, because anyone who has reached a position of status and authority within the status quo becomes prisoner to that status quo. Thus, the only people anyone would listen to can only offer us a rehash of the same old ideas that have already failed to solve the problem for thousands of years.

    The elite class doesn’t really care about this state of affairs because they feel their elevated status protects them from the violence, a not unreasonable assumption given that this has long been true.

    Not unreasonable, but outdated. The knowledge explosion has erased “the front lines” and violence on a massive scale can now appear literally anywhere without warning. Thus, professional philosophers and other elites are living in a wishful thinking dream of the 19th century.

    What is the logical response to the reality of violence in the 21st century? It’s better to be a crackpot than to be dead.

  5. The suggestion that we “stop making men” as a cure for violence might serve as a yardstick which we can use to measure the field of philosophy.

    In the history of philosophy which thinkers have offered a solution to violence as simple, direct, effective and ambitious as the idea of simply removing those doing the violence from the population? Not being a professional philosopher myself I don’t claim to know, but until educated otherwise I’m going to tentatively guess few to none.

    If that is true, or to the degree that it is, can the “real” philosophers be defined as experts on the use of reason? If the most pressing problem facing humanity is met with a bias for complexity and sophistication which trumps effectiveness and success as a priority, is that reason? Or is it complexity and sophistication being pursued for itself?

    Someone explain to me why I should read 10,000 complex sophisticated papers on every nuance of violence, none of which have ever solved the problem, when removing men from the population would end the overwhelming vast majority of violence and bring on a near utopia within just a few generations.

    Clearly this is a debatable proposal, to say the least. But please ask yourself, why is it not being debated? Why is it not on the table for discussion, if only to be logically defeated, swept aside and discarded? Could it be because the field of philosophy is intellectually bankrupt?

  6. Dear Eric and Phil,

    I appreciate your thoughts. While the totalitarianism piece I wrote (and where I just responded to the comments you each left) is my personal viewpoint, I often write the “What Are You Reading” columns from a pseudo-neutral standpoint, identifying interesting avenues of research and avoiding harsh judgments. So I don’t fully embrace any of the positions you both criticize. But that said, let me give my thoughts.

    Phil, you say we should talk about men. I agree. But I’m worried that you think men are the only thing we need to talk about (thus your claim that we should throw out the papers I cited). To say men are the only cause of violence seems extremely reductionist. Doubtless ideologies and practices surrounding masculinity have contributed to violence–sometimes greatly–but can we really say that without men violence would not occur? Violence is carried out by women, animals, plants, even the earth itself. Let’s look at the relationship between men and violence, but not ignore other avenues of research.

    Also, I think you and I are using different definitions of violence. I am not referring simply to physical violence, but any harm done to the integrity of a thing. This is why words can do violence, and why I say violence may not be removable. It is hard to imagine a world where no undesired change occurs, and any undesired change can be considered violent, at least using the definition I was using in this post (which, again, is not my view per se).

    Eric, I was not trying to defend Benjamin, only explain him, so I don’t really have a strong opinion on your critique of him. But I do want to say that, for me, it is not a choice between only sovereign violence or only divine violence, as you seem to imply. Instead, I think we need to maintain a dialogue between the power of the state and that which is outside it. The world is so complex and changeable that I think any formulation of the state–such as is found in a constitution–can be misused. Without recognizing the limits of the state and being willing to use them (albeit carefully), it may be hard to change the constitution when needed.

  7. Hi Nathan, as your time permits…

    Yes, we are using different definitions of violence, agreed. My focus is on the threat to civilization.

    There are two things we need to talk about:

    1) Violent men
    2) Knowledge explosion.

    We can keep either of these two things, but not both. The two together spell the end of civilization. I consider this equation to be the primary topic philosophers should be working on, and most everything else to be distracting fluff.

    I appreciate your desire for a sophisticated analysis. You are a professional philosopher of course, so this is to be expected. My point is that we’ve been doing such analysis for thousands of years and here we still are, facing the very real possibility of civilization collapse. Thus, sophisticated analysis reasonably comes in to question.

    I’m arguing that philosophers have an understandable bias for sophisticated complexity which is obscuring their vision of the stark simplicity of the threat to civilization. Sophistication does not automatically equal clarity. That threat is presented overwhelmingly from a single source, men, and is too urgent and imminent to allow for the luxury of methodologies with a proven record of failure.

    If you should come up with a reliable method of separating violent men from peaceful men you will win a Nobel Prize, because this has never been accomplished anywhere in the history of humanity, as far as I know. Thus, until someone presents such a plan, we are stuck talking about one of two things…

    1) Get rid of knowledge explosion.
    2) Get rid of men.

    The first would leave us about where we have long been, but with the threat to civilization removed.

    The second would allow progress to continue, and that progress would be accelerated with vast resources liberated once violent men no longer need to be managed.

    I would very much welcome you and your colleagues making a full scale assault upon this theory because if you should succeed I could then let this idea go and move on to new territory.

    If professional philosophers should have some other idea which would reduce human violence by 90%+ over a few generations, please put it on the table.

    We don’t really have a choice but to have this conversation. If we don’t succeed in finding a solution, it’s game over.

  8. Nathan, you wrote…

    “Let’s look at the relationship between men and violence, but not ignore other avenues of research.”

    My response to this is…

    1) If civilization collapses then all avenues of research on all topics will be ended. There is credible and compelling evidence that the threat to civilization, and thus all research on all topics, is very real.

    2) Thus, if we are serious about research, it’s logical and necessary to ignore anything that shifts our focus from this threat until such time as the threat is removed.

    3) It’s not logical to divert our attention from the primary threat to a sweeping intellectual inquiry on a million different topics which has been going on in earnest for centuries, and has shown no ability to remove the threat to civilization. In fact, the accelerating knowledge explosion being fueled by this intellectual process is itself a key component of the threat.

    I’ve offered a clear, specific, easily understood plan which…

    1) removes the threat to civilization,
    2) dramatically reduces human violence overall,
    3) liberates vast resources for constructive purposes,
    4) allows progress to continue,
    5) can be implemented relatively quickly

    Show us the papers which rise to this standard. Clear, direct, easily understood, effective, serious.

    Please note: The “easily understood” part is not just personal preference, but a necessary property of any plan which is to be sold to vast populations. Do the papers you are reviewing meet this test?

  9. It would be completely reasonable to claim that there is exactly no chance of selling a “stop making men” proposal at this time. The idea is simply too far outside the group consensus to even be taken a little bit seriously currently, as the lack of engagement with the idea here well illustrates.

    But the scale of powers now available to violent men has a silver lining of sorts, it offers the possibility of radical change in the group consensus in a relatively short period of time.

    As example, consider the American response to 9/11, two wars and trillions of dollars spent, a process not completed even today. Now consider how the world group consensus will be influenced by that inevitably coming day when we wake up to the news that multiple cities and their millions of inhabitants have been erased in the blink of an eye.

    There will come a point when a topic we now keep at a safe abstract distance will crash through our defensive psychological barriers and become a pressing emotional realization that “this could happen to me and those I love”. If an intruder enters your home in the middle of the night, all options are immediately on the table. Like that.

    What philosophers should be doing is preparing the ground so that when this moment comes it’s not the first time we’ve given thought to revolutionary responses to the revolutionary reality presented by the 21st century.

    Such a project would make philosophy relevant to the modern world. The essential ingredient is not sophisticated complexity, but clarity, a clear minded willingness to recognize the problem and respond to it.

  10. Phil, it sounds like you’re disappointed in the work philosophers are doing. I will say that philosophers are doing all the work you want, and that all the topics you describe are the subject of many books and papers. There’s no field-wide consensus on these issues, but that doesn’t mean the work isn’t being done.

    The problem with the “end men” solution is that it is unlikely to end the problem. You criticize complexity, but when the problem is a complex one you need to understand it as such. The solution needs to be easily grasped by the populace, as you say, but that shouldn’t come at the sake of comprehending the problem as complex.

    The concept of “man” is such a problem, as is the concept of “violence.” Neither means something simple, nor has each term stayed the same across eras and geographic areas. The host of words, practices, ideas, and values associated with each is massive. Just ending men won’t stop the problem, as the factors that produce masculinity will still exist, just as the ideas that produce racism didn’t disappear with the end of slavery.

  11. Hi again Nathan,

    Ok, you’ve made an interesting assertion that the work I wish to see is being done. I look forward to you proving that in the coming weeks. If you choose to do so I hope you will review the criteria I’ve listed above, and find papers that match it. I predict that the “easily understood” criteria alone probably dooms such an effort, but not having reviewed the literature myself I could of course be completely wrong, which would be great.

    You have also claimed the problem is complex, but not really offered any argument of why this is necessarily so. What is complex about the real world fact that the overwhelming majority of violence is committed by men?

    I agree that “stop making men” would not end violence, but only dramatically reduce human violence, which seems an ambitious enough goal.

    I am entirely agreeable that “stop making men” receive a thorough challenge, but such a challenge should come in the form of an alternative solution which credibly offers more upside and less downside.

    Obviously there are many problems with the “stop making men” idea. If there weren’t we would have already implemented such a solution long ago. By the same logic, there will be many problems with any plan which has the potential to be effective.

    Point being, it’s not enough to simply list the problems with any idea. Instead, the challenge is to replace the idea with a better one. Find the philosophers who have done so if you can, I would surely welcome that.


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