Further thoughts on violence

Theology blogging meta-star Halden links to a post by Paul Griffiths (perhaps best known in local blog circles for his abyssmal First Things article on philosophical engagement with theology) that lays out what seems to me to be a very typical conservative Christian response to Christian pacifism: of course violence is bad, but sometimes it’s necessary, and we should be suitably sorry when necessity drives us to it.

While I agree with the conservative position insofar as I think Christian pacifism is untenable as a blanket rule, I also find the conservative position palpably inadequate insofar as it leaves out a crucial element, which Bruce’s recent post brought back to the front of my reflections: our enjoyment of violence. That enjoyment means that violence can never be the simple “means to an end” that the standard conservative response envisions it as.

I will admit to a strong attraction to Christian pacifism early in my theological education. Strangely, though, what convinced me it was untenable didn’t follow the typical conservative path through the justified war (roughly the over-simplified pattern of the pacifist Bonhoeffer who comes to realize that assassinating Hitler is the only option, etc., etc., etc.) — rather, it was the visceral rejection of pacifism by many of the women at my liberal seminary. I wound up coming to the conclusion that a strategy of non-violent resistence was the ideal path to social change, but that the viability of that strategy depended on a lot of conditions being met: a public setting, a showdown with political authorities, a certain degree of recognized “dignity” among the participants that will render their deaths more than a statistic (for instance, U.S. citizenship, perhaps a certain level of education, etc.).

None of those conditions obtain in your home when your husband is beating you. None of them obtain when you’re getting mugged in the street. None of them obtain when you’re living under a Third World “national security” regime as a common peasant. In all of those situations, I think that violence is acceptable and necessary. And in all of those situations, I expect that violence is going to be very satisfying. In class once, I used the example of a mugging — if I somehow managed to get control of the situation, I’d imagine it’d feel pretty good to beat the shit out of the mugger. He would’ve threatened me, made me feel afraid (perhaps even for my life), and I would’ve turned the tables. Similarly with the battered woman who finally fights back, or with the insurgent who kills the cop who last night “disappeared” someone.

It feels good to reassert one’s power and dignity in those situations. What’s more, asserting one’s power and dignity is not a bad thing in those situations (this is what informs feminist critiques of the notion of self-assertion as sin) — what’s bad is that they were taken away in the first place. We should feel good fighting against evil. What’s more, on a deep level there’s something justified in making the abusive husband or the torturer feel fear. Anthony once told me of the person who murdered Che the CIA operative who helped capture Che [thanks to Anthony for this correction] and wore Che’s watch around as a kind of prize, and I thought: that person should feel deeply afraid to show his face in public.

Yes, our goal should be a world where no one has to feel afraid, etc., etc. Fear and violence are not good insofar as they should never become goals in themselves. But it’s not the oppressed who have made fear and violence into ends in themselves! It’s not the battered wife who first came up with the idea of forcing another human being into submission through physical force and the threat of death. Non-violent resistence should be given preference in situations where it works, but violence that overcomes violence isn’t simply equivalent to the original violence — it undoes the knot of violence as an end-in-itself. Even if the enjoyment that accompanies this violence sometimes results in excesses — as in the mutilations of the corpses in Inglourious Basterds — moral discernment absolutely requires that we refrain from the easy conclusion that the oppressed have become “just as bad”: there are more important things in life than keeping one’s hands clean, and we need to recognize those excesses as fundamentally our excesses, as participations in that same spirit of liberation. They pose certain dangers that should be obvious, but they can’t be used to disqualify acts that are fundamentally justified. To stick with the Inglourious Basterds example, that means that we are constrained to say that the Basterds do not and cannot become “just as bad as what they’re fighting.” Even if only a thin line separates the two opposed forms of violence, that line is the line separating humanity and inhumanity.

18 thoughts on “Further thoughts on violence

  1. I agree with you about the untenability of a blanket rule against violence. And I agree that violence is enjoyable, but I draw the opposite conclusion: namely, that we ought to be very careful before we accept that a particular instance of violence is justified.

    I apologize if this is — contra the comment policy — an instance of bringing forward an obvious idea which the poster has obviously considered and rejected. But if so, the point isn’t, as you suggest, that we disagree about the fact that there is enjoyment in violence, but rather that we disagree about the conclusion to draw from that.

  2. You are not in violation of the comment policy. It does seem to me, however, that your comment is still in the spirit of “keeping your hands clean.” I have idiosyncratically determined that the whole point of the gospel is radical amorality, so I reject such a stance — but I don’t expect that to be an obvious conclusion for others.

  3. Hugh, I don’t see how what you say is the “opposite” conclusion. Adam says pretty explicitly that we non-violent approaches are appropriate where they work, which implies a “careful” consideration of whether violence is justified.

  4. Great post. I’m teaching Aristotle at the moment, and this really seems to jive with his emphasis on agreement between affect and action as a requirement for virtue. Might one even say that peasants who don’t enjoy their revolt aren’t fully virtuous?

  5. I’m traveling a similar road as you and so I enjoyed this reflection. One quick factual clarification. The man who wore Che’s watch was not the solider who was ordered to shot Che, but the CIA operative who helped capture Che and took the watch off him. The solider who shot Che recently, within the past 5 years, asked for forgiveness from Che’s family and was given it in Cuba. The CIA operative, the one who essentially kept his hands clean, has not and still wears that watch (which was a present from Fidel Castro to Che).

  6. I do think that the enjoyment involved in violence should make one suspicious of using violence as a means to an end. When violence is turned to as a regrettable necessity, the regret is always, I think, to some extent a posture disavowing the enjoyment. I don’t think this goes against Adam’s point, though. Liberating violence can be distinguished from oppressive violence because it has different ends, and also because the violent means are inherently connected to their ends in a way that is not, I think, the case in oppressive violence.

  7. Going off of Voyou’s comment and the last line of Griffith’s original post, I can’t help but think of the typical figure of the self-pitying torturer, who allows himself to feel victimized by the necessity to commit his heinous acts. That is the cirucmstance I think we should envision when we’re told we should be suitably penitent for our violence. (I don’t doubt that Pinochet’s torturers, and even Pinochet himself, made regular confession.)

  8. Although my views are probably on the exact end of your crosshairs in this post, I appreciate the critique and I think it holds weight, whatever the implications. (A friend similarly took me to task on just this sort of question.)

    Given your argument, it seems to coincide pretty well with Israel’s experience in the exodus texts. The whole theme of “plundering Egypt” is exactly the sort of turning-the-tables pleasure you name, or the small battles won here and there by the insignificant tribes in hostile Canaanite lands. “Yahweh is a warrior” indeed!

  9. As someone who’s counseled survivors of domestic violence, I’d like to point out that the woman who was able to retaliate against her abuser often was able to cope faster and stay away for good. Often those who were beaten and threatened for so long and finally leave (without retaliating) still harbor violent resentment towards their abuser. The survivor who truly experienced freedom was able to respond to the abuse verbally, physically, or even financially was in a much better position to get on with her life. So, in some ways I think that being able to enact violence and be done with the relationship was much more freeing than wishing that one could murder the asshole for the rest of your life.

    Also, it’s a healthier response than being the silent, suffering Christ-figure who takes the abuse and submits to her husband because of the local pastor’s advice, which happens all the time. I think D. Williams’ critique of violent atonement theory is invaluable in situations when women are habitually abused.

  10. Your comment reminds me of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, when he discusses “shell-shock” and says that it’s actually the soldiers who weren’t hurt by the bomb who suffer from it; those who were really wounded did not. Not sure what to make of the connection, but it’s just what came to mind.

  11. Actually, that reminds me of an odd finding that many of the women who only experienced emotion/verbal abuse but constant threats of physical violence actually tended to have more difficulty coping. Many of them often said that they would have preferred to have been actually hit then to have suffer a constant mind-fuck. I think the inability to externalize the pain on the body maid it all the more intolerable. This would be somewhat akin to ‘cutters’ who cannot cope with all of the emotional pain and find temporary relief in localizing the agony outside of the mind.

  12. This probably breaks the comment policy.

    Why do you always introduce Halden as the “theological blogging star”? If the implicit praise is sincere, it seems a bit over-stated. If, as I suspect, it’s ironic, then it actually draws attention to the fact that you have noticed that Halden ostensibly enjoys a quantity of readership that is possibly larger than yours, and acknowledging it with a patronising remark smacks of churlishness.

    Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a fan of his self-congratulatory tone either, but it’s like a stone in my shoe when you mention his blog in a such a way, and then proceed to piggy-back off his reading to generate a new discussion.

    Anyway, keep up the good work with the blog. I look forward to it every day.


  13. In an earlier post I mentioned the relatively well known passage in Kant (I think it’s in his essay on a universal history of humanity) that talks about the sublime excitement aroused by the spectacle of the French Revolution, even (especially) among those who are not the beneficiaries of this violence. Arendt uses this to distinguish between the agents of violence and the spectators of violence. I think, for example, the triumph of God over Pharaoh in the Exodus is designed to elicit in the READER a sense of sublime joy, but the danger is that we may forget the reality of the violence as experienced by the agents and the victims. There is a midrash on this passage in Exodus in which it says that the angels in God’s supernal court rejoiced as they saw the waters of the Reed Sea closing over the pursuing Egyptians. God then silences the angels, saying: “How can you sing songs of praise while my creatures are drowning in the sea?!”
    Again, the rabbis are here admitting what the reader response to the Exodus narrative should be, but then they are saying: The violence itself is horrific, regardless of the fact that I have done this to punish injustice. Yes, songs of praise (like Miriam’s) are natural responses to this sight, but they must be tempered by an awareness that violence is never itself a source of joy.

  14. @Adam: Jesus famously resorted to violence (driving the money-changers from the temple) and, in general, is reported to have never let a rule stand in the way of doing the right thing. If that’s something like what you mean by “radical amorality,” then I’m all for it.

    I accept that you can’t have violence without enjoyment, and I definitely agree that an attempt to keep one’s hands clean by wrapping them in a dark cloud of repentant mourning is in bad faith and has leads to bad outcomes.

    However, it’s certainly also possible for people to enjoy violence, without themselves enacting violence. In fact, this tendency seems to be encouraged in many ways by contemporary society. Whether the observer condemns the violence or embraces the violence, the observer, in observing, is enjoying the violence. Thanks to this enjoyment, the observer has a certain stake in seeing the violence continued/repeated. It is this kind of enjoyment that I am trying to point to as problematic.

  15. I agree that it can be problematic, but what I want to get away from is the abstract formalism of trying to pass judgment on “violence as such.” I know I keep harping on this, but identifying with the violence of the Basterds is not, in my view, morally problematic — in fact, it’s morally salutary.

    I think that Tarantino is actually brilliant when it comes to the morality of violence — for instance, in Reservoir Dogs, when you’re fascinated by the torture of the police officer and then he pushes it that one extra step (cutting off the ear) when you realize just what you’ve been drawn into. He uses the same strategy in the first half of Death Proof, I think. So even being drawn into “bad violence” can turn into something good.

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