More Violence

Without making this too much of an ad hominem, I often get the impression that theologians and other Christians who loudly proclaim that violence is a necessary evil are much more focused on the “necessary” part than the “evil” part. All the good ends that the “necessary evil” of violence is supposed to serve fade into the background, and the result is essentially an outright defense of violence as such. One begins to detect a fascination with violence, seeing in it a heroism that arises not from the athleticism of war but rather from a certain supra-moral “toughness,” a willingness to “get your hands dirty.”

Such a stance should be unsurprising: Is there anything more distinctively Christian than the fascination with motiveless malignity, the desire to violate the law precisely for the sake of violating the law? When it comes to violence, this Christian nihilism is even more dangerous because violence really is fascinating.

Once in a seminar discussing Butler’s Precarious Life, I said that if a situation arose where I was, say, about to be mugged but somehow managed to get the better of the mugger, I would be tempted to beat the shit out of him — almost glad that he had attacked me, so that I would have a justification. I don’t think I’m a uniquely violent person, but everyone else protested: “No, of course not, I would never have that attitude, I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

As I clarified after everyone defended their own peaceful instincts, I was trying to get at the point that it is naive to think that violence can be simply an indifferent “means to an end” — it has its own attraction. What possible meaning would the discipline of nonviolence have if not for this very attraction? If anything, a practitioner of nonviolence should be more conscious of the fascination of violence than an outright advocate of violence is — a practitioner of nonviolence precisely because everything in them wants to be an advocate of violence.

19 thoughts on “More Violence

  1. “but everyone else protested: “No, of course not, I would never have that attitude, I don’t understand what you’re saying.””

    They were probably trying to get you to let your guard down so they could beat the shit out of you. Or at least, they didn’t want you to know that they might beat the shit out of you if they got the chance. Since if you knew that, you might be able to avoid some situations where they would otherwise be able to beat the shit out of you.

    The fact that they all tried to hide the truth tells me that they’re planning something. If I were you, I’d carry a gun. Or at least wear a protective cup. (Do they make gun-cups? That would probably be ideal.)

  2. “If anything, a practitioner of nonviolence should be more conscious of the fascination of violence than an outright advocate of violence is…”

    In my experience at the local Zen center near my apartment, the conversations people have about their practice, while not getting obscenely revealing or anything, often enough revolve around some of the fucked up stuff they think or feel. For my part, I often indulge in fantasies not so much of violence as of confrontation, though I’m not a violent person who loses their temper either or lets it otherwise invade my behavior.

  3. It would be pretty cool if the mugger ended up being the one with the bruises, broken bones, pain and humiliation just for once. That is, I think the reversal of fortune aspect of the scenario is part of its attraction. I feel afraid of muggers, of being mugged. This is unfair: they don’t deserve to have that power over me. Therefore it would be good if their power was broken and they, in turn, experienced an equivalent fear and anxiety over what was going to happen to them.

    If this could be accomplished without actually beating them, then that would be satisfying enough. But muggers tends to be quite hardened people, so it might be necessary to get quite serious with them to make the point effectively – possibly by dragging them off to a secluded location and, eh, this is where it starts to get really distasteful…

  4. I got in a fight once with an older gentleman. He attempted to usurp my right of way as a pedestrian with his Corolla, so, on an impulse, I kicked his car. Ultimately, the story ends with him bleeding from his temple I having broken a knuckle (or something – didn’t get that one checked out: “How did it happen?” “Side of a man’s head; he got the worse of it.”) Anyway, he bitch-slapped me twice after I refused to give him identifying information so he “could press charges and sue” me. After each bitch-slap I told him to stop, so he changed strategy: he kicked me in the shin. At this point I felt I had given him enough warning and then proceeded to punch him – the first punch quite literally won the fight (the idiot was bleeding everywhere), but he insisted on being punched a few more times. Overall, I found the experience eminently satisfying and gratifying: not only did I beat the shit out of someone, but I was in the right.

    Most of my courses deal with violence in one way or another, so I often recount this story to them and they are, without exception, horrified by it. Perhaps it is because I tell the story with such obvious glee… But it is also the case that they love Dexter: at least I didn’t kill the guy and dump him in the ocean.

    Point of the story: I fully agree with you, Adam. There is more than a bit of truth to it when people say, “I’m so angry I could kill him.” Most of us just don’t admit that we are drawing upon a violent urge we all have. No wonder I like Hobbes so much.

  5. The point being, of course, that getting the better of an aggressor is eminently comedic, as an ironic reversal of fortune. It isn’t premeditated violence that is fascinating, but unexpected outbursts of violence by which the usual outcome of things is switched.

  6. by which the usual outcome of things is switched

    …sending you straight down the rabbit hole. Now that I’m not the victim, what am I? The suspension of normal social expectations could prompt delusions of temporary godhood – and I suspect many of us would find ourselves an angry and jealous god.

  7. A horrifying story Craig, for sure. I mean the whole thing includng the way it is recounted to the class. Almost for sure, if those kids watch such a scene on the big screen or the small screen, nearly everyone would laugh, enjoy silently, cringe internally while externally placid, or simply let it wash over them.

    The horrifying thing for the kids must be that this is not make believe at all (as opposed even to the assumption that television stories are 80% ripped from the headline fare). This is their professor. The one they’re going to have to put their excuses over on. The one they are going to have to beg for mercy from if they come close to failing or turn a paper in way too late or try to weasel out of getting caught cheating.

    I can see myself as any character in the story except the old man (onlooker, you as the one who refuses to move – that could very well be me, you as professor, student). And I’m going to be just miserable in any one of those roles. I’m fairly committed to the fact that as a pacifist I just would not strike the guy, but I’d do everything else you did and maybe even run around to the driver side door, take the keys out and throw them into the middle of traffic going the other way or into the nearest oblivion. It’s the side of me that my wife hates most, but that I see as a totally unavoidable supplement to my vision of myself as nonviolent revolutionary.


  8. What’s frightening is that such a number of critical thinkers somehow missed the part where Nietzsche reveals the inherent disposition to cruelty in the Genealogy; Freud even in various places. Phenomena like this causes me to doubt whether or not ‘thinkers’ take what they read seriously.

  9. Craig, where in that story were you in the right? Getting cut across on one’s right of way–and pedestrain rights of way are not always sacrosanct–seems little foundation for criminal trespass on another’s property, much less battery. Is there something missing from the story?

    Having worked as a cop, I saw and did a lot of violent things. There is a glorification of it, and a seduction to it, and an expediency in it. Short outbursts are not insights into someone’s character, but repeated reminiscing can be. The day to day things one chooses to do and has to do changes who you are, to where it is no longer insight but shaping.

    Taking satisfaction in it: I’m not sure why that is. It seems to me that there is this difference in being put in a position where you are forced to do violence and where you have the freedom to choose violence–even if in the moment the choice feels impulsive. Being forced to round people up because they’re loud and black, or make arrests or traffic stops so the department can say it’s doing something, these are the kinds of things that only the dumbfuck cops enjoyed doing.

  10. Criminal trespass? For kicking a car that almost ran you over? Come on Charles you’ve got to be kidding. Battery – after taking three blows first? You absolutely know that no one as in no believes a conviction is anything like possible.

    I mean, aren’t all cops ‘dumbfuck cops’ according to what you are saying. I’m not at all being facetious here. I mean, are there really cops that don’t enjoy a single aspect of their job outside of the paper pushing part? But every other action is done with the threat of violence – in the form of the gun and cuffs and the possibility of jail – hanging over the situation. Policing, by its very nature, assumes that violence of some sort is necessary and in some way laudable as a way of protecting, meting out judgment, etc. etc. Cops and robbers is just the institutionalization of the fantasy of violence Adam and Craig are talking about and that just about every kid ever has played at in some way. Fascinated by violence, but wanting to figure out a way to do it without being in the wrong.

  11. Charles, the highway traffic act in my jurisdiction guarantees the right of way to the pedestrian on a sidewalk over the right of to a car under any and all circumstances: that applies to cars turning off the road through the sidewalk and to cars leaving a parking area through the sidewalk to the road. There’s a reason – at least where I live – why we have sidewalks. Similarly, the pedestrian has the right of way at intersections where (1) they are walking with a traffic control device – for instance, at a four way stop, the pedestrian has the right of way under all circumstances or (2) where a traffic control device otherwise grants right of way to a pedestrian. Given that I was on the sidewalk and the car in question was moving through the sidewalk in order to get on the road, it follows quite plainly – this is black letter law, fuck, and not something that would even ever go before a fucking court – that I (or any other pedestrian) had the right of way. Given that the driver attempted to usurp my right of way and put my life in danger – or, at least, my feet and legs – I think in situations like these that you have the right to defend yourself as necessary. For instance, alerting a driver that they just about broke someone’s leg. This all seems reasonable and, I trust, would be uncontroversial before the courts.

    Let’s continue with the cop line for a moment. I have a lot of students in my courses who are in criminology and want to end up in some sort of law enforcement career. (I think of it as progressively declining horizons: they all want to be serial killer profilers in first year, but second they’ll settle for a prosecutor, by third for a cop, and, by fourth, they’d be happy to work in a prison.) In terms of their motivations, I’ve only ever met one of them who was honest with himself and others, but mind you he didn’t get into university (I knew him in high school – and nearly all positions in policing require a university degree where I live): he wanted to be a cop so he could carry a gun and, presumably, use it. This is someone, by the way, I saw drive across three lanes of traffic to run over a rabbit. I haven’t – and I don’t care to – done any significant work on this, but I suspect he’s a particularly clear example of what is a general characteristic of cops.

    Now, what you missed was (1) how willing I was ready to use violence in response to the violence used by the driver and his car; (2) how willing the driver was willing to up the ante; (3) how willing I was – after reasonable warning – to beat the shit out of the guy; (4) how much pleasure I get out of telling the story; and, this is Old’s point, (5) how my students combine disgust and laughter when I tell the story – told, as it were, in a context of whether Dexter the fictional serial killer is good or evil. In the context of this discussion, the fourth and fifth points are the important ones.

    By the way, Old, I fully appreciate your reaction to my story. If only my students were as insightful or honest! (Old has met me: I’m sure he’ll vouch that I don’t look like much of a fighter and that my body is not one perfected for violence.)

  12. We all agree that the cops are dedicated to the primacy of violence towards good ends, but who among us is not gonna call the cops when we see a rape or mugging on the streets? Does anyone really have anyone else they are going to call? Are we gonna set up a theologian squad to go out and supervise the streets? Lord know I’d love to. And the upshot of this question is not really getting people to accept the mindless embracing of violence. Maybe a stomach sick reflection is just in order before dialing 911.

  13. old, absence of conviction doesn’t mean a law has not been violated. I don’t think that intentional or unintentional violation of one’s right of way constitutes affirmative defense for kicking another person’s car, but I am not disagreeing with you that it wouldn’t go to court. And, again, that Craig has an affirmative defense for responding to bitch-slaps with a thunderpunch to the temple doesn’t mean he didn’t commit battery. But the escalation all stems from being cut-off. Like how Adam begins the scenario he proposed: if he were totally in the right and had the opportunity to do it, he would be tempted to beat the shit out of the guy. Craig offers the scenario as it really happened. But it seems to me that if the fascination with violence were really what draws us to these stories, that they were in the right–and I’d take it for some reason you want Craig to be in the right on this–is irrelevant. Why not a story where, you know, you beat the shit out of a homeless guy just minding his business in some alleyway (not you you, but you know what I mean)? Why not pick a fight with a city bus driver or an EMT or the desk attendant at the library? Would those stories be as cool or as shocking or as worth repeating or as challenging of our fascination with violence?

    Why protect Craig’s *right* to commit violence, as opposed to the driver’s violent acts themselves? What does being “in the right” really lend to the story that gives it the glee?

    And, yes, there really are police officers who do not enjoy parts of the job that did involve violations of people’s civil rights, decency, or pride. There are some who enjoyed parts of that, if it meant violating those who “deserve it” but yet did nothing wrong in those instances. (For instance, telling snobbish people to wait their turn during traffic direction…) But there are those who didn’t. I’m not sure what you’re claiming there, old. That every police officer, by what I said, at some point gets enjoyment out of being officious jerks? But if this is no different than saying that everyone at some point gets enjoyment out of being officious jerks–as when philosophy professors take it to road ragers–what’s the point in making the violence of law enforcement much more terrifying if only because more legitimate or laudable?

    All that I had said was that there were those of us who did not enjoy any of the aspects of the job that are and were obviously evil, and those who did enjoy it were the sorts of idiot cops whose cruelty stood out. How do you get from that to every cop enjoys the violence? I take it you get there by expanding the notion of violence to the threat of it, from the ability to issue citations to the ability to handcuff. But then every cop would have to also enjoy having those abilities, too, and that also doesn’t fly. Sure, being able to secure someone for an arrest is a nice thing to have, but I don’t think any of the non-ethically challenged officers took enjoyment in stocking up on handcuffs or zipties.

    Maybe we’re talking past each other here. My point is that there should be a distinction even within doing violence as a necessity–Adam’s starting off point. I agree with him that there is this kind of glee for some where the necessity of violence provides a screen for the direct enjoyment of violence–by making it “necessary,” you can obscure your own fascination with it while taking a stand away from it, being moral and upright while being cruel and voyeuristic. But there is also being forced to do violence because someone above you, who holds your present life, commands you to do it–where the necessity is not on the doing of violence, but on surviving. (Here, I’ll say that I think police have it different than soldiers.) I can see situations where there isn’t a fascination with violence or an enjoyment in doing this violence, where you do become sick and miserable–as you said about your own self committing the kinds of acts Craig spoke about. It seems to me that here is one place where someone who was interested in a larger non-violence can work to undermine fascination with violence: drawing out the kinds of necessity there are.

    Because perhaps if we can do that, or do it well, we wouldn’t find that those necessities fade into the background.

    Craig, it was missing that you were walking on the sidewalk. The law in my state is the same: pedestrians have absolute right of way on sidewalks. I do think, though, that it isn’t given that striking a person’s car is a legally permissible response or alert to the driver crossing your right of way. I’m not saying that it isn’t socially acceptable, nor that you don’t have people on your side, nor that you should have been sued or charged. I’m saying that you didn’t have legal justification for kicking the person’s car or carrying the violence further. And if you are right that your response of punching him in the temple ended his attacks on you, then continuing to punch him afterwards is most certainly not legally justified. But if by saying “he insisted on being punched” you’re just signalling that he was still trying to attack you, so be it. I am saying that you shouldn’t consider what you did as “in the right,” no matter how much our sense of what is socially permissible or acceptable says that you are. Which is why I didn’t miss at all that you take pleasure in the telling of the story–the point where I question it is in the pleasure derived from doing violence under protection of the law.

    It’s like how people think you can just shoot someone who is in your house burglarizing it, and how all kinds of bravado stories stem from what someone will do when they catch the bastard in their house. They say they are “in the right.” They are not. At least in my state, there are very specific laws regarding the use of deadly force, and especially deadly force for trespassing into one’s home. There is no inviolable right to shoot someone found standing in your kitchen that you didn’t invite.

    So why is there this appeal to the story, whether your’s or Adam’s or anyone’s, to be “in the right” in the midst of a discussion about how violence itself is fascinating? I don’t know, but I do think it is suspicious, in the sense that it’s completely unnecessary for the larger point about our fascination with violence yet is still repeated as though it does add something to the sense of how much fun violence can be–when it is legal. Even the sideline into the necessity of cop violence and enjoyment there hinges on the legality of a police officer having certain tools and weapons an average law-abiding citizen does not have. So, again, this doesn’t ignore the context in which violence is done for the “good” or the “evil” cause–even if Adam’s post was moving away from that distinction to the pure fascination with violence itself as something like a decontextualized violence.

    What is weird is that Adam, after suggesting the fading into the background of the necessary reasons for why one must do violent things and calling it an “outright defense of violence as such,” then proceeds to tell an account of a hypothetical where the violence is entirely superfluous but justified. Not necessary to be done, but still working under the same banner of a necessary evil in that it is legally justified as how necessary evils are. The same with your actual situation: you clear yourself before the imaginary courts, could even cite the law if pressed, and stand innocent of any charges, yet still committed violence when you could have just let the car pass and walked away, or even ran away after the man came at you the first time, or taken any number of actions that did not result in either of you doing more violence to the other.

    Look, I’m not saying you’re a sick fuck, a cruel bastard, or an angry mope. I think you’re human as we all are. But it seems to me that there’s this disconnect operating here between the point of the post and how it’s playing out. It’s as though, even if justification for the evils we do is no longer necessary, we still feel the need to make it legitimate and lawful. Yet, Adam speaks about this Christian fascination of violence that is done precisely for the sake of violating the law, then proceeds to talk about how we’d want to beat the shit out of someone particularly if the law lets him do it!

    Why can we not just admit–if we’re to the point where we’re trying to get people to admit to the human fascination with violence–that we sometimes even do really evil things that break the law? You know, like beating the shit out of someone, *just because I can*. Not because the law allows me to. Not because my victim put me in a situation where other people would nod in approval. But because I have that ability.

    Then, don’t we all?

  14. False Dawn and Charles, I am an absolute pacifist who doesn’t give a flying fart what the law of the racist nation state says. Police violence is as wrong as any other violence always and ever. So for a me, a police officer taking pleasure in arresting a murderer is totally wrong; we have to find other ways of dealing with human security that aren’t self contradictory. I find policing done rightly as troubling or more as when officers beat the shit out of homeless people or threaten to do so. You two may not have been around here and the weblog enough to know or remember that I am actually a street pastor working with homeless and underhoused people. The cops are the problem all the way down. False Dawn, I absolutely wouldn’t call the cops if I was mugged. No way, no how. As for rape, the article I referred to that my wife and I wrote (see previous post on violence) addresses this question. Cops don’t prevent rape, they react to it, and there are other ways we could react much better. I have been on exactly the kind of ‘theologian squad’ you mockingly describe. A group of us from my work had to decide whether or not to call the police or handle business ourselves when we became aware of a jealous gay lover in our street community who had acquired a gun earlier that day and who has previously spent time in jail for being involved in a murder in just such a situation. We handled business ourselves, and the outcome was way, way better than it would have been if we had decided that the best way to prevent violence was with the threat of a bigger violence (i.e. the police).

  15. The question – outside of theology, which is not my specialty (quite obviously – can be approached from two other theoretical perspectives that many scholars find persuasive. (Although consensus is no guarantee of the truth.)

    First, we could look to state theory/state formation where all major schools more or less agree that the state is an entity that claims the legitimate (note: it is the claim and not the actual legitimacy that is important – even what we want to call illegitimate regimes claim a legitimate monopoly on violence) and the degree to which the state is successful depends upon the degree to which that claim is successful. This is why lese majeste, treason and insubordination in times of war are usually capital offenses even in legal regimes where capital punishment does not ordinarily exist. What follows from this is that any sanctioned use of violence receives its sanction from the legal order: the reason why a cop can carry a gun and a regular citizen cannot is that the cop’s potential use of violence is positively sanctioned while the regular citizen’s is negatively sanctioned. This is also why necessity – my life or theirs – is often a legitimate defense in court and this is also why not at all acts of violence – for instance, the one I described, which I take to be rather occurrences – are not prosecuted. Put another way, the organization of violence is the fundamental problem in social organization – at least insofar as modern forms of social organization are concerned.

    Second, we can look at those who attempt to distinguish violence and power, such as Michel Foucault or Hannah Arendt. Take Foucault in this case. The “limit-case” of power is physical killing: once physical killing begins, power ceases because power operates on living bodies. The problem becomes one of freedom: power operates on bodies insofar as they are taken to be capable of exercising freedom – i.e., responding to incursions on their choices – while violence negates freedom by removing it from the question.

    These two perspectives are not necessarily opposed to one another: the state can legitimate power and violence; this is, in effect, what criminal, property and tort law does. The state can also erect legal measures that will determine the threshold of illegality; the point at which legitimate and illegitimate force meet (for instance, charters or declarations of right).

    The ultimate problem then concerns the relation between right and violence. Is right the ultimate sanction of violence? Or does violence sanction right? Put another away, does law ultimately permit violence or does violence permit law? Either way, we have a problem with relating right to law – it isn’t necessarily the case that law sanctions right; i.e., when I say “I was in the right,” that does not necessarily mean that my right was prescribed by law. Your comments limit your discussion to what the law allows without much consideration as to the relation between law, violence and right. What none of this gets at, however, is the relation between why we laugh at violence in movies or why my students laughed when I told the story: it doesn’t begin to address the psychological aspect of violence.

    Clearly, in general, I agree with Old: the law as it exists is underwritten by violence; but I don’t agree that the use of violence is never justified (quite clearly).

  16. Old,

    This is off-topic, but I didn’t know another context in which to ask: You mentioned that you’re a street pastor committed to nonviolence. Where? Are you perchance familiar with the Toronto based group by the name of Sanctuary?


  17. Hey, Tara. Yes. I work at Sanctuary. The Mennonite Central Committee hired me, and then placed me to work there. Where did you stumble across Sanctuary?

  18. I picked up Greg Paul’s first book a couple of years ago, and have been using it as training material for my church ever since. (We just ordered the new one as well.) We took a group of 12 up to Sanctuary just this past year, actually…. and Steve Martin came down to visit us in July. I wonder if I even met you and didn’t know it? Do you have a particular area you work in?

  19. I work in street outreach, Tara, and was certainly around when your group was there. What a world. Steve Martin has now moved on after 20 years of frontline street work in Toronto (he’s still doing frontline work, just in another city). Steve Grant, whom I think you did some things with as well, lives with us in our community and his story is told (with some reference to our community) in the new book.

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