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Defining Violence

I spent a long time thinking about what to write for our first true On Violence post. Whether to write something clever on a topic obliquely related to my overall search, or write about the core of my beliefs about violence.

We’ll start at the beginning, with definitions. Search a textbook on philosophy or an anthology of philosophical writings and look for references to Violence. You will see concepts like force or the metaphysics of action, but rarely Violence. In most regards, Western Philosophy has all but ignored Violence since Plato. Violence exists as a variable in philosophical equations, but never as the equation itself.

Since Western Philosophy has not provided a definition of Violence, I proceed to the next logical step: Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. Webster’s Dictionary provides this gem:

vi-o-lence n. 1. swift and intense force: the violence of a storm. 2. rough or injurious physical force, action,    or treatment: to die by violence. 3. an unjust or unwarranted exertion of force or power, as against rights or laws: to take over a government by violence. 4. a violent act or proceeding.

Even armed with these definitions, I still barely know what violence is or, more importantly, what it means to our society. As I read, re-read and ponder this definition, I see that I am probably trying to write about something between definitions two and three, with definition four simply a restatement. The second definition provides the key word that gets to the heart of violence, “injurious.” Violence causes pain, suffering or injury.

Definition three provides a key detail, but one that makes you slap your head in frustration as another philosophical can of worms is opened. Using “power” in an “unjust” fashion defines all sorts of violence in society, from the most obviously unjust to the grey areas. The unjust examples are clear: a man beating a child; a group of Southerners in the fifties lynching an African-American; the holocaust. But when does Violence become just? The U.S. invading Iraq or Al Qaeda bombing the World Trade Center both have proponents claiming the justice of their actions, depending on their definitions of justice and their differing points of view.

I will define Violence as both the second and third definitions. Violence at its rawest is the second definition; some action/treatment/behavior that causes pain/suffering/injury. This is violence as action. The third definition strikes at the philosophical definition we need though—the reason Violence strikes an emotional chord in humanity. It gives violence larger meaning; as a concept, it has philosophical weight. Because it is unjust, and unfair, violence is detestable.