Saturday, November 26, 2011

Occupying Violence

One of the most common criticisms that I have come across about Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement in general is that the Occupiers are misguided and that they do not seem to have a message or a real request for change. The CBC's Kevin O'Leary, for example, referred to author Chris Hedges as being a “left-wing nut-bar" because of Hedges' support for and involvement with the movement.

Such comments are common. They are also powerful: not in their reasoning or logic, and not in being well-constructed. They are powerful in their ability to ignore the discussion and dismiss it.

To counter this, the simplest thing to do would be to not be taken in by it. Not being taken in by it, however, requires something else. In this case, that 'something else' is an expansion of how we understand violence.

The Meaning of Violence

In its most overt and traditional form, violence is easy to see: it is a physical act by an identifiable person against another person (or animal, or perhaps even property). It is the strike, it is the gunshot.

In the 1960s, Norwegian sociologist and peace researcher Johan Galtung began to argue that in order to make movements toward peace more meaningful, we need to expand the concept of violence: peace cannot simply mean not striking or not shooting someone.[1]

Galtung's expansion of the concept of violence includes redefining violence in its most basic form as well as highlighting three types of violence, all of which reinforce and blend into each other. Violence in its most basic form, Galtung says, occurs when there are avoidable insults to human needs or when there are discrepancies between what a person could potentially achieve and what they have achieved.[2] The more traditional understanding of violence is kept and labelled as 'direct violence'. This type of violence has been one of the criticisms against the Occupy movement, specifically in Occupy Oakland: a man was shot and the official reason given for the closure of the camp was for such 'direct' violence. (But if that really was the case, Oakland itself would have been shut down long ago.)

The second type of violence that Galtung outlines is called 'structural violence'. This type of violence is where the discussion becomes more abstract: structural violence does not have an identifiable actor like direct violence. Structural violence is defined as a process that leads to social arrangements that allow for domination, poverty, and avoidable suffering. The damage is done slowly through unequal exchanges and unequal distribution of power and other resources (such as access to medical care), as mediated by a social system that has exploitation operating at its core.[3]

To find this type of violence, Galtung suggests looking at the differences of life expectancy in relation to social position. Women, for example, have the highest rate of HIV/AIDS. If you are a poor woman with HIV/AIDS, there is also a good chance that you are living in Sub-Saharan Africa.[4]

One of the best illustrations can be found in John Singleton's 1991 film “Boyz n the Hood,” in which Laurence Fishburne's character Jason “Furious” Styles shares the following,
“...If you want to talk about, uh, guns, why is it that there's a gun shop on almost every corner in this community? I'll tell you why: for the same reason that there's a liquor store on almost every corner in the black community. Why? They want us to kill ourselves. You go out to Beverley Hills, you don't see that shit. But they want us to kill ourselves. Yeah. The best way you can destroy a people: you take away their ability to reproduce themselves. Who is it that's dying out here in these streets every night? Y'all. Young brothers like yourselves.”
The third type of violence is 'cultural violence'. Cultural violence refers to aspects of a culture that this particular culture will use to justify violence against another culture or group. There are a number of potential sources of cultural violence, from religion to science to art to language. According to Galtung, cultural violence grants violence a sense of permanence. It dulls us into seeing a violent act as normal and natural or, perhaps, not really seeing it as anything at all.[5]

There are many examples in our collective history of this. The Rwandan Genocide is an example. The Holocaust is another. The systematic destruction of the Indigenous populations of North and South America through murder and cultural destruction through residential schools are another example. The justification for the Atlantic Slave Trade is another example, as slave traders claimed to be rescuing slaves from misery, hunger, and a primitive existence.[6]

For an example that shows how direct, structural, and cultural violence blur together and reinforce each other, we need look no further than the treatment of the Indigenous population of Canada through the residential school system. By law, Indigenous children were forced to leave their families and attend schools which were designed to assimilate the children into Canadian/European culture through a rigorous curriculum of physical and sexual abuse.

Occupying a Definition

The Occupy movement itself is non-violent, ruling out tactics that would fall under the label of direct violence. Indeed, the police response to Occupy has been violent in this sense, but, in another sense, it has been something else.

The Occupy movement, with its demands to end corporate greed, to remove corporate money from politics, to respect the environment, to put people before profits, and so on, is against structural violence. This is also one of the reasons why critics are able to muddy and dismiss these demands: the change is not quite so clear as an identifiable actor committing some sort of offence. The offence is in the structure of unregulated, or “free-market,” or “laissez-faire” capitalism that allows for and encourages the hoarding of resources by the very few. This is where the rallying call of being a part of the 99% comes from. (Or perhaps it should be the 99.99%?)

The response to the Occupy movement has been one of cultural violence. This is how the police find themselves not engaging in direct violence. We accept that they are merely doing their jobs, and the fact that we accept that the government has this monopoly on violence – a point that comes up in any introductory political science class – is another example of the dulling process of cultural violence.

It is at the intersection of these three ideas that the Occupy movement finds itself. It is beaten down physically. Its message, in its desire to address the deep-rooted structural violence of capitalism as we have it, becomes easily muddied and dismissed through a cultural adherence to tradition – though this particular capitalist tradition only became prominent in the late 1970s under Margaret Thatcher, then Ronald Reagan, and eventually Brian Mulroney – and a submission to authority. In this case, that authority is the business-people and lawyers who have the connections required to fund their campaigns and who, consequently, find themselves beholden to those connections.

Acknowledging these types of violence is a key component of seeing and understanding the message of the Occupy movement. Along with this comes the fact that we have been wrong and that we have been misled by those individuals we have claimed to trust most.

It is cultural violence that will prevent us from doing so, and it is this same violence that will keep the Occupy movement's message of widespread structural change slippery and out of reach, or perhaps render it invisible altogether.

Written sometime in 2011 by Kyle Turner, an unemployable academic currently living in St. John's, NL, where he enjoys both being called a bum and being told to get a job.

[1] Galtung, Johan. “Cultural Violence.” Journal of Peace Research, 27(3) 1990.
[2] Galtung, Johan. “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research.” Journal of Peace Research, 6(3) 1969
[3] Galtung, Johan and Tord Höivik. “Structural and Direct Violence: A Note on Operationalization.” Journal of Peace Research, 8(1) 1971.
[4] “Women, HIV and AIDS.” Avert. n.d. .
[5] Galtung, "Cultural Violence."
[6] Fick, Carolyn E. The Making of Haiti. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1990.

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