Monday, May 4, 2015

The word “violence” does not mean whatever you want it to mean

I’ve noticed many people on the left use the word “violence” in cases where it really doesn’t apply. Last week, a very smart acquaintance of mine from Hopkins (who I’ll call Sarah, though that’s not her real name) shared this blog post by Mia McKenzie in response to recent events in Baltimore. You should read it before proceeding, or else what follows will not make much sense. What follows is our exchange so far. As always, her words are in italics. I will update it as subsequent replies are posted.


I’m sorry Sarah, but words do not mean whatever you want them to mean. Merriam Webster defines violence as “the use of physical force to harm someone, damage property, etc.” Destruction of property is literally in the definition of the word. Separating property from people is ridiculous, because property is owned by people, and one of the foremost rights of people. When it’s destroyed, its destruction is absolutely “something that living beings experience.” Theft and vandalism cause real, painful, life-changing harm to people and their livelihoods, and – critical to the definition of violence – they involve the use of force. That is what violence is about: the exertion of force on other people and their effects. Destroyed storefronts, knocked over or ransacked shelves, burned homes – all of that is the textbook definition of violence.

Inversely, disagreeing with you about social problems is NOT violence. Neither is disagreeing with you about what MLK would have said in response to current events. These things may be pernicious, they may be racist, they may be hypocritical, they may be offensive and inflammatory and ignorant and many other things. They may even lead to violence under the right (or wrong) conditions. But mere thoughts and words are not violent, period. Violence cannot be attributed to any broad category of activity you find deleterious to society for rhetorical effect.

I’m generally with you on this stuff, but sometimes you get a bit carried away.

Sarah’s reply: So Andrew. The last sentence strikes me as weirdly personal given that I didn't write this piece (which I don't agree with literally every word of) and it's also kind of condescending? What I think is "getting carried away" is when libertarians say things about private property being the basis of freedom. But there's really no point in saying something like that rather than arguing the point itself. I couldn't imagine commenting on a post of yours I disagree with saying something like "you got carried away here," even if I strongly disagree. I'm sure you could tell that despite being anti-statist I'm not really a 'libertarian' and therefore certain differences are not that surprising, yeah? There's just something weird about this statement to me, sorry if I can't quite pinpoint it. Even if it sort of comes off as a respectable type of disappointed, rather than completely dismissing me as unreasonable.

Anyways. What is most important to me here is the takeaway that the destruction of property is not at ALL on a similar level with harm to human beings. That much should be clear. I can say that there is a such thing as violence against property, and still say that this is not as serious as violence against people. The definition of violence can be reduced to a semantic point.

So I don't rely on dictionary definitions for things because language is malleable and definitions change (you see that all the time in the same dictionaries you're citing when definitions are accompanied by the word "obsolete"). Dictionaries also aren't objective arbiters of reality; like history books, they are written by people who occupy certain social positions that impact their views (historically by one group of people: elite white men). There's tons of discussion about how the dictionary definition of "racism" is useless because it implies that prejudice against white people can be meaningfully (that is materially, socially, structurally, politically, etc.) similar to racism against those defined as not-white. There's Critical Race Theory, which draws on the experiences of those disempowered in the modern racial hierarchy to discuss white supremacy in ways that elucidate the underlying issues and imbalances of power, instead of just speaking of individual prejudice as a driver of racism. Definitions are contested and words that describe social issues are certainly the ones with the strongest theoretical debates behind them, so it's a bit silly to throw a dictionary definition at me and tell me I can't change what words mean (again, the fact that I'm sharing a rather popular article written by someone else shows that it's not just like I arbitrarily got "carried away" and changed the definition of this word).

So, with the word "violence," we have a similar thing. Violence is political. People speak of bodily violence. Psychological violence. Economic violence. There are whole bodies of theory on language/speech and its power, much of which is based in the experiences of black Americans and colonial subjects to show how discourses which might be seen as "just words" are deeply intertwined with "actual" violence that threatens their lives, whether it be bodily harm, economic marginalization, or psychological distress. This is one reason racial slurs are offensive—it's not just because it identifies someone as a racist and merely "offends" the mind, but because these are utterances historically associated with the threat of violence. One of the reasons freedom of speech is cherished is because we understand the power of speech—we understand that it can't be about *just* speech, otherwise why would it be so important to protect? There are a lot of long-debated questions contained within this issue that I could never exhaust here and I don't think your conclusions are definitive realities the way you have presented them to me. I would think you should read these corpuses of work before dismissing the resulting ideas as "getting carried away."

Similarly, there is so much brilliant, challenging, fascinating work on the relations between whiteness, blackness, property, capital, and the state which complicates the relations between property and freedom that you have just articulated. I can't get into that here, but what would come to be identified as "blackness" emerging through the desire to constitute a group of people as property is one major starting point for these frameworks and is integral to their historical exegesis. Or whiteness-as-property (see: Saidiya Hartman) and how this changes the meaning of property destruction in the context of white supremacy. And these things are certainly relevant to this whole issue, of property destruction and looting during black uprisings.

TL;DR: the fact that I disagree with you because I've come into this with a different understanding seems like a lot more than just "getting carried away" from a point where we might otherwise be in agreement. I don't need to resolve this debate right here, it would be impossible, but especially if you're speaking mainly based on classical liberal theory that emerged from the Enlightenment and is cherished in American political thought and I have shifted my foundations elsewhere. It's on topics like these where that chasm most clearly reveals itself, since otherwise, as you said, there's plenty we tend to agree on.

My reply:
I had schoolwork to catch up on, but now I’m done for a while and have time to respond. First, I apologize that my last sentence came across as condescending; I intended it to be conciliatory. Given recent events, outspoken racial justice advocates like yourself were getting a lot of criticism Tuesday from a part of the internet I don’t want to be affiliated with. I wanted to clarify that unlike those people, my objections were not motivated by hostility to your general message, especially at a time like this. That we disagree here was made clear by the body of my comment, but that final sentence was supposed to qualify my dissent, not sharpen it.

It clearly failed at that, and I winced when you quoted “get carried away” so often in your response. To give myself a taste of my own medicine, the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs defines that term as “to be overcome by emotion or enthusiasm in one’s thinking or actions,” which is not only not what I intended, but also a bit sexist in its implications. All I meant by that turn of phrase was essentially “this is where I break from you,” – that you get “carried away” off into that portion of leftist thought I can’t get behind. I still think you’re still wrong, but not because your thinking was addled by emotion or enthusiasm. I should be more careful, so again, sorry for those last five words.

Now on to the actual debate (I’m aware we’re starting from different assumptions and it may just boil down to that, but let’s see). Imagine for now the definition of violence is just a semantic point, and that what really matters is just general “harm to human beings.” Your conception of what counts as that is mighty narrow at some points, and mighty wide at others. On the one hand, your “most important” takeaway from this article is that the destruction of property does not count; it is not as bad as harm to human beings (in fact it’s not even “on a similar level,”) so you must see it as a distinct and separate category. But on the other hand, your idea of harm to human beings is broad enough to encompass “economic marginalization, or psychological distress,” – as if property damage doesn’t cause those things! Watch this Baltimorean’s 15 second video during the riots the other night and tell me the potential destruction of her property doesn’t produce psychological distress. Wouldn’t she have been harmed – morally, economically, psychologically, and in many other ways – if that fire had consumed her home? In truth, she would likely prefer a certain degree of violence be used against her person (perhaps being pushed to the ground and suffering a scraped forearm) to such a cataclysmic event as the loss of all her belongings. There’s no neat hierarchy of wrongs between the two, because the categories overlap.

Arguing that “the destruction of property is not at ALL on a similar level with harm to human beingsis incoherent, because property is linked with people by definition. That’s the only reason it matters. Libertarians don’t just have this odd affinity for inanimate objects; if you want to destroy useless, unclaimed items lying in the wilderness, be my guest. Property is different precisely because it belongs to someone. People are using it for their purposes. Oftentimes (and especially in areas like Baltimore), that purpose is something really important to their lives, like sustainment or shelter, and this is as true for grocery stores as it is for private domiciles. Harming property means harming people, and we should object to this even when it results from justifiable anger.

Finally, a note on the malleability of language. I understand the meanings of words can change over time, but generally this is only after a certain critical mass of people in society adopt the new meaning in common parlance. For example, take the word “literally.” For centuries, literally was used to clarify that something was actually true. It was the antonym of figuratively. Then, in the 21st century, many people started using it as an intensifier to give added weight to statements which, in their literal sense, were not technically true. Used this way, it became a synonym for figuratively. At some point, a threshold was crossed were everyone knew what you meant by that, and so in response dictionaries added a second meaning a few years ago: “used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true.” Today, everyone understands this new usage, even if curmudgeons like me still roll our eyes when we hear it.

But up until this usage became so widespread that the public understanding of the word changed, the people who said things like “I would literally rather gouge my eyes out than watch that movie” were simply wrong! Likewise, for the time being my definition of violence is the definition, whether you trust the dictionary or not. Go up to the average person on the street and ask them what violence means, and 95% of them will give you something roughly in line with the meaning I’m using. If you ask them “does throwing bricks through CVS windows count as violence?” they will say yes. If you ask them “does quoting Martin Luther King Jr. out of context count as violence?” they will say no. When the far left bandies about words like “emotional violence”, they’re largely talking to themselves. That’s fine if everyone is on the same page. But when Mia McKenzie addresses her article to people on the other side, who clearly define violence in a way that includes the destruction of property, objecting to their outrage on the grounds that she defines it differently is utterly unhelpful. Firstly, it does not determine whether damage to property – whatever you call it – warrants anger. And secondly, it only imitates objective correction, by dressing up as fact what in truth is the extreme minority opinion. She claims to “clear that up,” for people who are “hella confused,” but actually confuses things even more.

The point is, debating the underlying veracity of ideas requires a certain constancy of terms. If we’re going to have any kind of productive discourse, the meaning of words needs to be fixed enough that we’re not just talking past each other. I care about this because I engage in a lot of that discourse, and the actual, commonly understood meaning of the word violence is pretty central to libertarian philosophy (see the non-aggression principle, deontology, etc). We employ that word because it has a specific and important meaning, which can’t just be changed on the whim of frustrated bloggers.

Furthermore, if your usage were to catch on, and things like ignorance came to be called violence in everyday use, all that would accomplish from my view would be to cheapen the moral tug of the word, by clumping all sorts of morally distinct things within it. The word violence has a certain severity about it only because people envision X, Y and Z when they hear it. If it also comes to include A, B and C, which people’s consciences don’t intuitively see as comparable, the word’s power starts to wane. The parameters of a definition can only get so broad before it starts to become meaningless.

Unfortunately, there are PLENTY of examples of real and unconscionable violence against black people and their property to illustrate the hypocrisy of those who only care now. We needn’t stretch that word’s meaning to include it our list of grievances. I am eager to join you in condemning and combatting this violence. From criminal justice reform to drug policy to eminent domain abuse, I think there’s substantial overlap between libertarianism and progressivism on issues that might help places like Ferguson and Baltimore (not to mention our broader agreement on abortion or gay rights or immigration or foreign policy). Each movement would benefit from cooperation where our goals align, and there’s a lot of smart people doing good work forging those alliances (see Cathy Reisenwitz, Center for a Stateless Society or Bleeding Heart Libertarians for starters). I value your input on how to fix this stuff. I just thought this particular article was wrongheaded, and felt compelled to say that for the record.

Sarah's reply: Thanks for your thoughtful response (and apology). I don't have much more to say except that your point about property and its ties to people are definitely true, which is why things like dispossession (often of land, for example, which happens constantly in the developing world now but less in the developed world, because the land taken from peasants is used by the state or private sector or both together to initiate certain projects of capitalist development…though usually it's because those types of ownership aren't really considered 'private property' as part of modern regimes of property, yet) are of huge concern to me. My last job as a research assistant for a professor in JHU's sociology department was focused on this issue in India. Also, this is really only relevant because of my second sentence, but if you haven't heard of it before you might like the book Seeing Like A State by James C. Scott. It focuses on non-capitalist, statist regimes but the author (in his horror that the Heritage Foundation loved the book) argues that capitalist countries and private sector initiatives have produced similar dynamics. The author considers himself an anarchist, though he doesn't seem to act on that politically (i.e. the idea that 'anarchism is something you do, not something you are'). Anyways…

Without getting too much into it, there's ways in which property damage (or seizure) has long been conceived of as a strategic form of protest/revolt against the political-economic system people see as oppressing them—the Boston Tea Party is one that the US evokes as an iconic event (and other things in this article that just came to mind; and as for looting, one prominent protestor who himself only engages in nonviolence has strongly and repeatedly recommended this piece People will say for the Boston Tea Party comparison "well, that wasn't *their* tea!" but that is exactly how many poor people have felt about the windows they've broken or the stores they've 'looted' (the use of this word is always amusing to me, as it arose in India to describe colonial 'looting' of that which the British didn't consider the rightful property of indigenous inhabitants, but I digress…). There was an interview with some young people in Ferguson after a level of destruction here and they said something like "we don't own nothing out here," which basically exemplifies that sentiment. The way the QuikTrip was burned down—and then repurposed as a community space where they held musical concerts, of all things—was basically a realization of taking an establishment people found complicit in the community's exploitation (which is how places are often, though clearly not always, targeted, even when they're small non-Black-minority-owned businesses which surprises people) and making it into something that truly belongs to the community that lives there. It's different when you're talking about a senior center or something, and I could not tell you what motivated an attack there and will not even attempt to, vs. a Michael Kors store window. I think sometimes it's seen as embodying a radical idea of burning down the old world and building a new one. It's not necessarily just aimless, wanton destruction fueled by understandable anger, as opposed to rationalized action (also fueled by that anger we acknowledge as coming from a legitimate place). But regardless of whether you (or even I) agree with all of this, I think it's important to take into consideration how many of these actors see these acts which could be seen as acts of economic destruction or (as you pointed out) violence, though seen as punching up rather than punching down in terms of power. Looting, for example—some people articulate it as freedom, rather than the antithesis of freedom, for people to be able to take what they want (e.g. in many cases what people have been taking from convenience stores is living essentials). It's obviously a very anti-capitalist impulse, but it's why stealing water bottles from a Korean-owned convenience store is (appropriately, in my opinion) different from the state or private sector deciding you don't have a human right to water.

Alright I guess I totally lied when I said I didn't have much more to say, and I overdid the parentheticals, probably. But what I wanted to do was just indicate more of the ideas behind why people think so differently about this (in terms of the concrete issue of property damage) even though I don't expect you to necessarily change your mind (I've seen enough pointless 100+ comment arguments on here to know better than to go into the discussion with that goal lol). So what I meant is I won't attempt a point-by-point rebuttal, I think generalities are more helpful here as to why the overall perspective is different.

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