Notes on Violence

(And on “Violence”)

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1.

In her influential 1971 article, “A Defense of Abortion”,[1] the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson deploys a number of outlandish thought experiments. Among them is the story of a woman much like herself who gets kidnapped and, on awakening, finds she is attached by complicated life-support apparatuses to a great violinist. Her kidnappers explain when she awakens that she happens to be just so physiologically constituted as to be necessary for the violinist's survival, and surely she agrees it is important to keep this rare musician alive, does she not? If she gets up and walks away, he will die; if she stays attached to him for nine months, they will both live. But, they acknowledge, she is of course free to go.

This particular scenario is one that Thomson only invokes in the course of making another point about another category of human beings than frail adult violinists, and yet it is a passing remark about his dependency on her that has preoccupied me the longest and most profoundly: we all agree, she reasons, that the person attached to the violinist is free to get up and leave, but she is not free to slit the violinist's throat before going. Why not? The effect is the same in both cases —the violinist dies—  and indeed a case could be made that killing him swiftly is more merciful than letting him die slowly.

Slitting the other’s throat, or walking away: these two gestures might stand as exempla for the two most basic categories of violence. We all know what the first kind is, while the latter cries out for a listing of instances. Within “walking away”, we might include what is today often called “structural violence”: state policies that compel citizens and refugees  to sleep in the freezing streets, for example, and surely also my own habitual refusal to bring those people into my own warm home for the night, instead remaining hidden behind the literal structures of my apartment building’s walls. Most of us agree that “living high and letting die”, to cite the title of an important book by the moral philosopher Peter Unger,[2] is unjust, but that if it is to count as violence this is only in an attenuated sense. We might have to concede by force of reason that it is indeed violence, even if we continue to suppose by force of feeling that throat-slitting remains much more paradigmatically so.

But there is also a possible third species of violence, of increasing interest over the past decade or so, and difficult to place neatly within either of the first two. This is the violence that is purportedly done by words, or even, sometimes, by the withholding of words. “White Silence Is Violence”, for example, has been one of the more enduring slogans of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020. Affirming standard dictionary definitions can also be met with an accusation of violence, as when gender-critical feminists (to use the relevant actors’ category) venture that “A woman is an adult human female”, and are told in response that this amounts to a “denial of trans people’s existence”, and is, therefore, violence.

Unlike walking-away, which is recognized as violence by most reasonable people, opinion is divided as to whether such speech as in these examples, or such conspicuous absence of speech, should count as violence even in an attenuated sense. The division appears moreover to map a generational divide: with Millenials and those younger expressing widespread ease and familiarity with this expanded sense of violence, and Boomers expressing confusion or contempt when it is invoked, falling back on the liberal mantra about sticks and stones, which, they still insist, alone have the power to break bones.

Here as in everything else Gen-Xers, among whom I count myself, are divided between their elders and the youth. Should we try to play along with whatever the kids today are saying, in the hope of passing as cool — which is all we really ever wanted to be? Or should we just admit that, while things change, at some point it is impossible to keep up, and so allow ourselves to be lumped in with the grandparents of the youngsters who take this new sense of violence for granted? It is a true dilemma, but at least we have a choice as to which of its horns will impale us.

2.

If I step out of the logic of social media and the intergenerational wars they are stoking, and instead say what I actually think, I must confess I do not have any clear idea of what ought to count as violence.

The difficulty is in part that we are clearly dealing here with a concept that invites all the classical philosophical problems of vagueness, and for which therefore any possible definition can obviously only ever be stipulative. What Sextus Empiricus worried about incest —that it cannot be immoral, since touching your mother's toe is not immoral, and whatever might follow from there is only a matter of degree— seems all the more worrisome when it comes to violence. Not that it must be morally permissible to knock someone unconscious if it is morally permissible gently to pat them on the back, but only that there can be no certain a priori rule for determining where precisely the boundary between the permissible and the impermissible lies.

It may well be that in some pragmatic contexts, to assert that “a woman is an adult human female” does constitute an act of violence — if for example it has as a consequence a change of heart that causes an attendant at a women’s shelter to turn a trans woman out in the street for the night, say. And this may well constitute an act of violence even if we agree it is perfectly and unassailably true that a woman is an adult human female. Telling the truth, too, can sometimes be aggressive (Sissela Bok calls a subspecies of such aggression “truth-dumping”[3]), and whether it is nonetheless morally righteous to do so is as difficult a matter as anything that arises in our shared social space of meanings.

But if the problem of violence appears far more intractable than the classic examples of vagueness (heaps, baldness), this has less to do with the difficulty of finding its boundary, than with the deep-seated modern conviction that violence can, and must, be eradicated from this world. And here is where some serious attention to paradigmatic violence, violence as bloodshed, may help us better to understand the depth of the problem.

Let us linger on incest just a moment longer, until we are all squirming in discomfort and shall be relieved to return to killing. Incest, like violence, is ineradicable — at least as an idea, as a dim consciousness of the direction in which one is already tending in certain healthy expressions of familial love, as in the fleeting erotic charge that a new mother might sometimes feel in breastfeeding. Various expressions of ancient wisdom might reassure us in such uncomfortable moments that everything contains its opposite, or indeed with Sextus Empiricus that what we rightly enjoy in fact does only differ by degree from what we would be wrong to enjoy — that this is not just spurious skeptical troublemaking, but is woven into the fabric of our earthly lives. But in the modern world, notably in the broadly speaking liberal philosophical tradition to which all of the moral philosophers so far cited belong, the young mother has little moral vocabulary for her fleeting sensation other than to say to herself that incest is wrong, and therefore this experience is either categorically distinct from it in spite of apparent similarity, or this experience is itself a significant moral lapse.

Thomson, to her credit, recognizes that the badness of something must not automatically entail a belief in the possibility of its eradication; there are some things that are bad, and the best thing we can do is to learn to live with them. But she does not see how this recognition might function, and indeed generally has functioned in human cultures, more as a cosmic regulatory principle than as a matter of mere “damage control”. In many traditional cultures, violence is not so much something to be minimized as it is to be channeled, incorporated into the social order as an acknowledged dimension of human life on earth. This incorporation generally has the effect of minimization, but from an internal perspective such an effect is no more relevant —to riff on something Reginald Foster said about the riches of Latin— than the goal of staving off arthritis of the hands is relevant to learning how to play a Mozart piano sonata.

3.

Thomson takes for granted that it would be wrong to slit the violinist's throat. Why? Who says? How does she know? And on what rational basis can she assume this when she acknowledges the outcome of both possible courses of action (slitting his throat or walking away) is the same? It seems the principal difference between the two cases is that the philosopher, like almost all of us today, is squeamish at the sight of blood, and even at the thought of the sight of blood in a completely fictional Gedankenexperiment.

Most human societies, in most places and times, have done significantly better than we do at facing the gore of our earthly existence, rather than “preferring not to see it” in both of the meaningful senses of that phrase: both finding it unpleasant (an affective state) and going about your life in denial as to its reality (a form of moral blindness). Now you might think that there is a basis to such denialism: you might think, with Steven Pinker and other recent Enlightenment defenders,[4] that the modern world is growing progressively less violent, and that therefore, at this rate, it is not a facing up to the reality of bloodshed that is the most moral and mature thing to do, but on the contrary we should be helping to hasten its ultimate elimination.

But do not forget: every year billions of animals are slaughtered for human consumption. Moral philosophers will often qualify the term “animals” with the adjective “sentient”, but an anthropologically more salient term would perhaps be “blooded” (which has an admittedly Aristotelian ring to it): these are creatures that are such that, when you slaughter them, blood pours.

People think I am exaggerating when I say this, but I mean it: the greatest moral transgression of the contemporary world is that we have, first, desacralized slaughter and the consumption of animal flesh, and second, moved this slaughter behind the walls of unmarked, remotely located slaughterhouses, rendering it structurally invisible. This is a historically unprecedented development, and if you are not prepared to call it a sin, either because you do not believe in sin or because you do not believe that animals have a moral status that enables them to be sinned against, you still must acknowledge that our treatment of non-human others as a mass-scale commodity comes with “wages”, in the form, namely, of ecological devastation.

There is still, in sum, a great deal of bloodshed in the world, more than ever before in fact, and it shows no signs of abating. If, in a speculative vein, we agree with the pioneering classicist Walter Burkert,[5] who in turn draws on a sifnificant body of work from Jean-Pierre Vernant, it was originally the recognition of the necessity of shedding blood, and at the same time the gravity of doing so —a gravity so great it rocked the entire cosmos— that served as the initial trigger for the emergence of culture in the performance of rituals meant to set the cosmos right again. Bloodshed was necessary, but modulating bloodshed through sacrifice was the key to social harmony and survival. If the world seems out of harmony right now —and again I am serious about this— it may have something to do with the fact that so many are overly concerned about identifying violence in its attenuated forms within the human social sphere, while conveniently side-stepping the fact that there is unceasing mass-scale violence in the most paradigmatic sense going on all over the world at all times.

But let us say you are a committed speciesist and nothing I argue will convince you of the moral salience of animal slaughter. You are, from a transhistorical and comparative-anthropological point of view, highly deviant, but that is your right. Still, if you find Thomson’s distinction compelling between various courses of action with regard to the violinist, then you must admit that the relative goriness of our actions is enough to make a moral difference between them (i.e., throat-slitting is morally wrong in a way that walking away is not), and it just does not seem plausible to suppose that there is a relevant species-specific difference between kinds of gore — that is, the moral relevance of slitting the violinist’s throat, to the extent that it cannot be grounded in the effect it has on a human moral subject (since its effect is the same as walking away), would seem to be a moral relevance that extends to any other creature, human or non-human, that is physiologically such that its throat can be slit just like ours.

4.

No indeed, we don’t like the sight of blood, and the best way to live with bloodshed is to not have to see it. But, to come back around to our earlier discussion: this is also the key to understanding the distinction between paradigmatic and attenuated expressions of violence. It is far more difficult for me to fail to acknowledge the harm of slitting a homeless person’s throat than of leaving that same person out in the cold night to die. It is far easier for me to cognize the gravity of a vivid report of anti-trans violence than to accept that a dissenting opinion about the ontological underpinnings of trans identity is itself violence.

It is likely for just this reason that online rhetorical strategies often seek to draw the causal and imaginative chain tighter, between discursive habits and real-world effects, than good sense might seem to tell us to draw it. Nor is it any coincidence that rhetorical strategies relying on an overstretched notion of violence have proliferated at just the same moment in history as the large-scale dematerialization of our interactions.

It makes some sense, that is, to tell other people that their tweets are hurting us, or hurting some unseen third party, when tweets are, increasingly, the only sign of life we are getting from other human beings. It may in this light be not so much that naïve and unworldly post-Millenials have spread the notion of violence too thin, but rather that the conflict-engine on which they spend their lives is also an engine for the sublimation of violence. And with this sublimation there comes inevitably a transformation in the understanding of what violence is.  

Certainly, a powerful case can be made that the future of warfare lies not in trenches but in trolling and hacking, not with human soldiers but with bots. Whatever frightening potentials this new era holds, on balance I think I would rather see enemy nations fighting it out with sick burns on social media (as the IDF seems to enjoy doing with the mullahs of Iran), than with the lives of young men: not quite the engine of peace that in the 17th century G. W. Leibniz imagined reckoning machines would soon become,[6] but better than getting your guts blown out on the battlefield. There is also some evidence that the universal free accessibility of pornography, for all its unprecedented moral harm, may be effective in dissuading some men from flesh-and-blood sexual assault, infidelity, and other transgressions (numerous studies purport to prove this, and numerous others purport to prove its opposite).

The internet in sum has the power to absorb human evil, which may in turn bring about a (short-term?) reduction in the evil we do to one another in the form of physical violence, but at the cost of revving up an ever hotter engine fueled on our ill intentions and dark fantasies. Seen in this light, it does not seem totally wrong to say that the internet is a site of real violence, even if acknowledging this marks a break with the past, and with our inherited understanding of what is to count as real.

5.

Still, there is plenty of blood that continues to spill, blood that does not course through fiber-optic cables, but through living beings, and should we choose to see this we will always be called back, from the hard new reality of our technologically mediated existence, to what is, so to speak, really real.

Over the course of the modern period, since philosophers began writing about the aspiration to perpetual peace, the expectation has reigned that we might extinguish violence, rather than modulating it through established cultural rites. The real effect of this has been not a reduction of violence, but rather a dumping of violence where, at least initially, it is harder to see, and dressing it up in idealistic language that makes it harder to identify. Stockades are dismantled and prisons are moved outside of the city and restyled “correctional institutions”; certain forms of war are called “peacekeeping”; sacrificial rules for the slaughter of animals and prayers of gratitude for the consumption of animal flesh are abandoned, and abattoirs, like jails, are moved from the market-square to the hidden outskirts of the city.

And now, too, the internet has emerged as a great global violence dump.

Older liberals are mistaken to carry their inherited ideas about free speech vs. real-world harm, about words vs. sticks-and-stones, over to this revolutionary new engine. Social-media discourse is no more an ordinary exercise in free speech than modern industrial slaughter of cattle is a sacrifice in some ancient temple. The industrialization of discourse —for that is what social media have brought about— will inevitably, like earlier instances of industrialization, generate new waste products that will be difficult to contain and that will bring about real-world harms.

The young people who are so ready to call internet speech “violence” might be exaggerating. They might also simply be operating with a foresight of what is to come that older people lack. These same young people, however, continue to operate within an Enlightenment framework that they otherwise often abhor, to the extent that they, like Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, Bertrand Russell, and the hippies too, take violence to be eliminable, rather than a basic feature of our condition — one that was lucidly recognized by ancient hunters and herders, who did not fail to offer up a portion of their meat to propitiate their gods.

[1] Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1, 1 (1971): 47-66.

[2] Peter K. Unger, Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence, Oxford University Press, 1996.

[3] Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, New York: Vintage Books, 1999 [1978]).

[4] Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, New York: Viking, 2011.

[5] Walter Burkert, Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical, trans. John Raffan, London: Blackwell, 1985 [1977].

[6] On the irenic hopes that Leibniz invested in his calculating engine, see Justin E. H. Smith, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, Princeton University Press, to appear February 2022.

I have a piece out in Tablet Magazine on one of my favorite subjects: the literature and ideas of the nineteenth-century American Renaissance (Melville, Whitman, et al.), and what they can tell us about the “American character”. I am not proud of everything I write, but this one, I think, will be a keeper for any eventual edition of my oeuvres choisis. (And I’m sorry to my gracious editors for publicly grousing about the title.)

In last week’s essay I made a huge —yet also somehow fitting— mistake: as I was told by an alarming number of readers, House of Pain are not from Boston, but rather L.A. I would like to say I’m sorry for getting this wrong, but given that the city in New England was already the source of so many false beliefs on my part, as I explained in the piece, doesn’t this one in fact make a nice addition? Also, I don’t know much about basketball, but I do know that if a rapper —even an early-nineties white rapper— does not wish to be taken for a Bostonian, he really should not be going around in a Celtics jersey (though I gather the outfit is meant in a spirit of pan-Fenianism, not athletic boosterism)

Two people I like very much have entered the Substack fray. I wanted to take this opportunity to encourage you to follow them and, if possible, to subscribe to their work. One is my old friend Wesley Yang, whom I last saw in Bryant Square Park eating Chipotle. He is an ice-cold observer of contemporary life, and I am sure his Substack will be excellent. The other person is someone I cannot call a friend, only because I do not know who she really is: Alice from Queens, namely, the pseudonymous Twitter phenom who has managed to stick herself into all the right people’s craws since she appeared on the scene a few years back. I am sure neither Wes nor Alice really needs any amplification from me, but I like them and I thought it was the friendly thing to do.