Identity in Violence
A Critique of Instrumental Violence
James A. Stroble
University of Hawai'i at Manoa
(Presented at the II nd World Congress on Violence
and Human Coexistence, Montreal, 1992)
The justification of the use of violence,1most notably in the case of war, presents us with a particularly significant opportunity to reflect on the nature of human violence itself. Taking this opportunity, I intend to offer a philosophical analysis of violence that will at once challenge instrumental justifications of violence and provide a basis for the practice of non-violence.
In seeking to understand, and thereby critique, instrumental violence we must analyze the one-sided consideration it gives to the relation of self-consciousness and violence. What is in need of explication here is why a conflict should come to the point of being a life-or-death struggle. But instrumental justifications are made unilaterally, or are self-justifications. It usually is assumed that I face a lethal threat posed to me by the "other," but nowhere is the reason for that threat laid out.
The problem, then, is the positing of the pre-existence of violence in any consideration of its justice or moral status. Violence on one side is regarded as given, as Being, as not-thought, and so is not considered further in our own thought about it. Violence, insofar as it remains an evil, a thing-in-itself, possesses a natural power that will not be overcome, and much less be understood.2Here violence is a mystery, a thing the reality of which thought cannot reach. On a skeptical note we might say that herein lies the "faith" for which Kant was making room. And here lies, underfoot and unnoticed, the stumbling block to the project of a "Perpetual Peace": violence is beyond the domain of reason. René Girard is clear on this point, making it explicit with the identity of violence and the divine.
As long as violence remains present among men, and as long as men pursue it as an absolute, as a kind of divinity, it will continue its devastating oscillations.3
But even for Girard, the status of violence, even with its mask removed, is again only a natural phenomena, or a merely structural element of any culture.4
If we seek to understand violence, we must get behind the bare fact of its existence and look for its origin in the conflict which is its occasion. The two choices for an aitiology of conflict are 1) the bare difference of the parties involved contradicting the simple identity of an object desired, or the postulate of scarcity in economics; or 2) the identity of the parties themselves, to which the objects involved are immaterial, amounting to a conflict of self-identity rather than a conflict of desire.5 Such a conflict of self-identity is more easily seen as a conflict of existence than a conflict of desire, or of mere possession.
The first option emphasizes the difference between the parties to a conflict. The fact that they cannot both possess the desired object, whether it be a bit of food, a piece of territory, or the recognition of sovereignty, rests upon the absolute difference between the individuals or social groups involved. Thus there must be conflict, and when it approaches the limits of absolute difference, violent conflict. But even in the face of the genteel forms of the "war of each against all", which for Hobbes underlies civilized society,6 we must ask why it is that any rational being would fight "to the death" for any possession. Not only does this first option posit an irreducible conflict between people (and nations), but it fails to explain why such conflict should be lethal. We instead must seek an understanding of conflict that can encompass the origin of violence and provide for its overcoming.
So far as this first explanation of violence is a mistake, it must be one of mistaken difference-- rather than identity. Most often we make the mistake of all too readily identifying a thing or situation, or that is we categorize because the prolonged uncertainty which precedes knowledge is, as the pragmatists maintain, uncomfortable.7 These "guesses" do not so often lead us astray; and when they do, the admission that we "jumped the gun" comes just as easily as does the original surmise. But on the other hand, if we have ruled out the possibility of such mistakes, aswhen we commit ourselves to the use of violence, the reversal of our judgement cannot but come as a sort of shock to us. There is no allowable possibility, then, in such cases, for us to account for our error when the situation turns out to be precisely what we denied it to be. So much more the case if our mistake involves our own self-identity.
So to refuse to make such a pre-emptive judgement, to really consider what is at stake in the use of violence, requires much more insight into oneself and the conflict than is usually the case, particularly among those who are prone to use violence. A justification of the use of violence, to the extent that it is possible, has to be based either on a certainty which approaches omniscience, due to the irrevocable nature of the act itself. Or, given the difficulty of securing such knowledge, on at least an awareness of both ourselves and "the other side". However, because violence is of itself an absolute measure, aiming as it does at the destruction of the opposing side, the admission of the enemy (or victim) to equal status cannot but land us again in the very uncertainty we sought to escape by recourse to violence in the first place.
This double aspect is at the center of the issue, and is the one that has to be used in any consideration of violence that is truly philosophical, rather than the traditional sort of unilateral approach for purposes of self- justification. What does this mean for the justification of violence? Rather than assuming an alleged transcendent viewpoint, accepting the violence of the other as given, and then concerning ourselves only with our own action, we must instead seek a comprehensive grasp of the situation from more than our partisan viewpoint. But to do so, from an instrumental conception of violence, is to immediately give up the justification which allowed us to foreclose further debate or negotiation and settle on the recourse to violence. But this only points up the fact that the decision for violence is not grounded in an objective certainty, but rather is a positing of such certainty and the attempt to prove it through victory. The suggestion that we re-open negotiations is then the resurgence of the original uncertainty we encounter in conflict, and insofar as it undermines the original decision for violence, smacks of treason.
To comprehend a violent situation in terms of both sides immediately shows that the responsibility for violence necessarily belongs to both parties: both blame the other and then respond in kind. Non-violence is premised on this insight; rather than placing blame for violence on the other side (which does exist, for non-violence is not non- oppositional), non-violence refuses to participate in violence. This then does not allow the other side to put the blame, as they equally must, on anyone other than themselves, or only in such a way that the lie is obvious to everyone, including themselves.
Violence then depends on human relations, but equally requires that these relations be denied. The "strategy" of non-violence is to make these relations explicit, and thereby deflate the intensity of the conflict. The difference which provokes a violent response is dispersed in the failure to identify with the enemy in death. The self-certainty of the violent one is premised on the identification of the enemy as also violent, or that is, as "one who does what I do, not what I wish".8 That is, we are violent because our enemy is violent, and so we are unified with them in the struggleto the death, identical in our willingness to risk our very existence to overcome that which is abhorrent precisely because it is so much like us.
If I have adequately captured the nature of violence, we must say that violence is due more to an identification with the opponent than to an irreconcilable difference. This identification, however, is not of the sort which promotes peaceful co-existence. Instead it sets up an intolerable situation which can only be resolved by the destruction of that which we see as threatening our identity by being identical with us. We seek to annul the identity by reducing the other to a thing, a lifeless object.9 But of course the same dynamic also is operating on the other side, and so they seek to do the same, as they must if they actually are our enemy, our double.
The major objection to this interpretation is that very often the use or occurrence of violence does not take place between equals. Indeed it may be said that where such equality is to be found it is most often the result of artificial and archaic rules, the codes of duelling and chivalry. But if we look at the proposed counter examples, not from the standpoint of one of the combatants but impartially, we see that in the context of a violent conflict both sides are interchangeable: each has what appears to it as indisputable grounds for the use of violence, each is willing to pursue the conflict to the destruction of the other side. If we abstract from the particular ideological claims of both sides, there remains nothing that could distinguish them, except, of course, victory or defeat.
This is not to say that the differences between the parties involved does not make a difference. But the use of violence by both sides tends to discount that difference in the equal willingness to risk oneself and to destroy the other. The willingness to subject one's ultimate value to the "fortunes of war" is to reduce that value to a partisan position, identical in the violent conflict to that of the opponent. It is violence then that confirms our values if we feel we must use violence to defend them, and so our ultimate value is faith in violence. And in this we differ from our enemy not in the least.
The inequality that may occur in violence, therefore, can only take place when one side refuses to submit to a role identical to that of its opponent. There are degrees to be found in this, as when one side forswears certain violent practices adopted by its opponent. The crucial case, however, is when one side abjures violence altogether. Notice that this is not to say that the non-violent side admits defeat, which would mean that they have submitted to the rule of violence and accepted an easily foreseeable outcome without actually putting it to the trial. Rather they refuse to put themselves on an equal footing with the opponent in the use of violence, which indicates a real difference between them, one that is not to be overcome by victory or defeat.
The refusal to enter into the identity of violence by one party maintains the difference between them, but also denies the difference that the other side would attribute to them predicated upon such identity. If the enemy will not fight, we cannot vindicate our own position through the use of violence, for our position is not equivalent to their's precisely because they will not resort to the same method to vindicate their position. And so in such a case exactly what we sought to preserve through violence is lost when violence is not reciprocated. Even if the issue is forced and violence is pursued unilaterally, nothing is thereby gained and perhaps much is lost. The lack of violent response undermines the certainty of our cause, throws us back upon ourselves in a way that makes victory worse than defeat.
If non-violence denies our identity with the enemy in violent conflict, it cannot resolve conflict itself. Difference if anything is more apparent. The resolution of conflict then requires a new ground, a new basis of unity. Having renounced the luxury of positing our own values as absolute and claiming the right of the use of any means in their defense, we now must meet our opponents on another ground, one where our identity is acknowledged. We are still tied to our opponents by our differences, but in the consciousness of our equality as disputers, and the commonality between us takes the form of conversation rather than the struggle to the death. The resort to violence is not merely the breakdown of negotiation, but is the denial of language, of human commonality. Perhaps if we can put violence behind us, we can get on with the serious business of being human.
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1. A definition of violence is assumed here that distinguishes
it from force, or mere destruction. Violence is a relationship that
holds between self-conscious beings and hence is immediately personal and
social. But this is what is to be shown.
2. As in Garrett Hardin, "Is violence natural?"Zygon, 18:405-413. Hardin states:
It should be clear then that, no matter how much we may deprecate violence as policy, we must continue to assert our willingness to react violently (and promptly!) against violence, whenever such reaction seems the best course of action in the long run. Violence, like original sin, is not something we can completely eliminate from life; on the contrary, violence is a powerful and dangerous force with which we must somehow learn to live. (p. 413)
3. Violence and the Sacred, p. 151.
4. Violence and the Sacred, p. 19:
Primitive societies are not given over to violence. Nor are they less violent or less "hypocritical" than our society. Of course, to be truly comprehensive we ought to take into consideration all forms of violence, more or less ritualized, that divert a menace from nearby objects to more distant objects. We ought, for example, to consider war. War is clearly not restricted to one particular type of society. Yet the multiplication of new weapons and techniques does not constitute a fundamental difference between primitive and modern warfare.
5. "Rivalry does not arise because of the fortuitous convergence of two desires on a single object; rather, the subject desires the object because the rival desires it. In desiring an object the rival alerts the subject to the desirability of the object. The rival, then, serves as a model for the subject, not only in regard to such secondary matters as style and opinions but also, and more essentially, in regard to desires." Girard, p. 145.
6. Hobbes, Leviathan, chapter 13:
From this equality of ability, ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our Ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which neverthelesse they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their End, (which is principally their owne conservation, and sometimes their delectation only,) endeavour to destroy, or subdue one another.
7. See William James, "The Sentiment of Rationality", as reprinted in Essays in Pragmatism, Alburey Castell, ed.; or Philosophical Writings of Peirce, Justus Buchler, ed., pp. 10-12.
8. This is the central insight of G.W.F. Hegel in section 182 of his Phenomenology of Spirit:
Thus the movement is simply the double movement of the two self-consciousnesses. Each sees the other do the same as it does, and therefore also does what it does only in so far a the other does the same.
9. Simone Weil, in her Iliad, A Poem of Force, points out that this is central feature of violence, intentional or not:
Such is the nature of force. Its power of converting a man into a thing is a double one, and in its application double-edged. To the same degree, though in different fashions, those who use it and those who endure it are turned to stone. (p. 25).
10. This is the area of ius in bello of traditional
Just War Doctrine, taken to be separate from the Doctrine of Just Cause (ius
ad bellum). As such, it deals with such details as proportional retaliation,
prisoner of war treatment, combatant status, and weapon conventions without
questioning the use of violence per se. However, if it does not allow that
military necessity ultimately overrides ius in bello, then it does question
the use of violence itself, if only at extremes.
Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred. Translated by Patrick Gregory. John Hopkins Univ. Press, Baltimore and London, 1977 (1972).
Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Spirit . Translated by A. V. Miller; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan . Dutton & Co., New york (Everyman's Library), 1950.
James, William. Essays in Pragmatism. Alburey Castell, ed.; Hafner Press/ Macmillan, New York, 1948.
Peirce, Charles Sanders. Philosophical Writings of Peirce, edited by Justus Buchler, Dover Publications, New York, 1955.
Weil, Simone. Iliad,
Poem of Force. Translated by Mary McCarthy. Wallingford, Penn.: Pendle
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