What is Violence?

What is Violence?

Photo of a hand writing the word "violence" on a chalkboard

I guess it’s fair to say I’ve been writing (and moreover, thinking) a lot about nonviolence over the past year. That reflection has raised the question not only of “what is nonviolence?”, but more fundamentally, “what is violence?”.

Some folks have expressed confusion or even disbelief over the kinds of things which nonviolence includes under the heading of “violence”. The term “violence”, in this context, does not refer solely to acts of physical violence, such as assault, but also to psychological violence (often referred-to as “abuse” or “mental cruelty”) and, most notably, to passive violence:

“Passive violence is the conscious ignoring of the physical, psychological, and emotional needs of a person; the conscious failure to ensure the safety of someone under one’s care; or the failure to ensure the development of well-being of someone under one’s care.”

~ Glen Anderson

Here’s what Marshall Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication, has to say:

“Classifying and judging people promotes violence.

“At the root of much, if not all, violence – whether verbal, psychological, or physical, whether among family members, tribes, or nations – is a kind of thinking that attributes the cause of conflict to wrongness in one’s adversaries…”

And the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi has written about his experiences as a child, learning about nonviolence with his grandfather:

“We often don’t acknowledge our violence because we are ignorant about it; we assume we are not violent because our vision of violence is one of fighting, killing, beating, and wars – the types of things that average individuals dont do.”

~ Arun Gandhi

The World Health Organisation defines “violence” thus:

“Violence is the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”

Note here the inclusion of “the use of power” or “the threat of the use of force or power” which “(may) result in…psychological harm, or deprivation“. Although couched in somewhat bureaucratic language, the gist of this definition remains very much in line with that of the nonviolent community.

Aside: the implicit notion that violence requires intentionality is not a premise to which I subscribe. I believe that unintentional violence can be at least as harmful and pernicious as violence wreaked intentionally.

Domination Systems

Walter Wink was a scholar, Christian theologian and activist, who spent his life studying the roots of violence. He died earlier this year. His writings refer often to the idea of “Domination Structures”, “Domination Systems” or a “Domination Culture”.

He also coined the phrase “The Myth of Redemptive Violence“, and its ubiquity and dominion:

“The greatest religion on the planet is not Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Judaism but the pervasive faith in violence.”

~ Walter Wink

The Myth of Redemptive Violence provides Domination Systems with a narrative that can be reproduced in an infinite number of ways. A narrative which convinces all involved in Domination Systems (oppressors and oppressed alike) that without the Domination System the world would collapse, and only the violence perpetrated by it (or in its name) can save us from this fate.

“Instead of defining domination systems as one set of clearly defined behaviors in opposition to partnership as another set of clearly defined behaviours, we might begin from a view that all human behaviors and structures lie somewhere on a domination / partnership continuum…

“The domination end of the spectrum is characterized by hierarchy (a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority), authoritarianism (favouring or enforcing strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom; showing a lack of concern for the wishes or opinions of others), enforcement of the status quo through systemic beliefs, training, and often coercive violence.

“The partnership end of the spectrum is characterised by egalitarian (of, relating to, or believing in the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities), mutually respectful and affirming relationships, with teachings and beliefs that teach and value empathy and understanding.”

~ Eric Mosley

In this video introduction to nonviolence, Marshall Rosenberg explains e.g. Walter Wink’s perspective on how, circa eight thousand years ago, today’s pervasive language of domination emerged to support the emerging Domination Structures of that time.

And let’s not delude ourselves that violence is predominantly the domain of rebels, revolutionaries, free thinkers or the “mentally ill”:

“The horrors that we have seen, the still greater horrors we shall presently see, are not signs that rebels, insubordinate, untameable men are increasing in number throughout the world, but rather that there is a constant increase in the number of obedient, docile men.”

~ George Bernanos

The Connection With Business and Software Development

Why is the topic of violence relevant?

How likely is it that folks see the connection between nonviolence and the day-to-day work of business, and in particular, software development?

How likely is it that folks see the domination structures within which they live and work, and the harm done to individuals within such structures?

My own personal commitment to nonviolence is borne of the same motivations that led me to start the Rightshifting campaign some years ago. Namely, the egregious waste of people’s lives and talents that come from working in ineffective organisations.

I believe it’s no coincidence that there’s a close correlation between ineffectiveness and domination structures, in knowledge-work organisations in particular. In the Rightshifting vernacular, the more left-shifted an organisation, the more violence and domination we are likely to see.

Indeed, it’s been my experience over many years that there is not just a close correlation, but a causal link, between domination structures in organisations and ineffectiveness (including a lack of employee engagement, low morale, social loafing, etc).

I’ll be writing more about the harm done by violence and domination structures in the workplace, and perhaps more importantly, what to do about it, in a forthcoming post.

– Bob

Further Reading

How Walter Wink Confronted Violence ~ Ken Butigan
The Albert Einstein Institute – Website
The Myth of Redemptive Violence ~ Walter Wink
Nonviolent Communication ~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

  1. Bob, thank you for sharing this. I have come across NVC and Marchall Rosenberg but not the work of the others.

  2. Bob, I’ve long used two flat definitions here: power-over (aka violence) as “any attempt, in any form, to prop Self up by putting Other down”; and power-under (aka abuse) as “any attempt to offload responsibility onto the Other without their engagement and consent”.

    (Those are the ‘win/lose’ versions: there are also somewhat-less-common yet almost equally dysfunctional ‘lose/win’ versions, respectively “any attempt to prop Other up by putting Self down” and “any attempt to take on responsibility from Other without engagement or consent”.)

    Note that ‘Other’ can also be Self-treated-as-Other – such as in procrastination (offload responsibility onto future Self) or self-blame (propping present Self up by putting past Other down and/or offloading responsibility to past Self).

    More detail in the ‘manifesto’ at http://tetradianbooks.com/2009/06/hss-manifesto/ and in practical workshop form at http://tomgraves.org/d_procedure .

    Hope this is useful, and would love to talk with you about this somewhen?

  3. To me violence is whatever contradicts Heinz von Foerster´s Ethical Imperative: “Act always so as to increase the number of choices.”, http://www.cybsoc.org/heinz.htm.

    Violence always limits/diminishes the number of choices of some individual – because there is no consent.

    That way violence also does not need to be intentional – although we mostly attribute to it at least indirect intentionality through negligence, I´d say.

    A tree blown down by a storm killing a person usually is not viewed as violent. There is neither intention not negligence at work, just fate. (This view changes, however, once nature/the universe is populated with all sorts of “entities” possessing their own will power, from nature spirits to god.)

    What about causing a person pain during some sexual practice or even helping a person in great and terminal pain to die, when she is begging for it? I´d say these are not acts of violence, because the receiving persons are asking for something. And because they are asking they are responsibly dealing with their choices. Maybe they´re feeling them to increase if they get what they´re asking for? Who would want to judge for them – assuming them to be sane.

    Bottom line: Violence is contracting – love on the other hand is expanding.

  4. bborghi said:

    Could you please precise from what text Eric Mosley’s come ?

    • I recall (poorly) that it was a quote found on the internet. i’ve been looking for the source, as I guess you have, but have been unable to find it.

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