Rethinking Peace and Violence in America


By Lester Asamoah

Peace


After the Charleston tragedy, among other tragedies foreign and domestic, the common notion is to call or pray for peace. But, in our universal desire for peace, do we recognize what peace is? Generally, peace is understood as an absence of violence. That is not a wrong definition. But, to fathom the nature of peace, we must discern the dimensions of violence.

The founder of the Peace Studies discipline, Dr. Johan Galtung, tackles this in his article Violence, Peace, and Peace Studies. (The idea of the Six Dimensions of Violence are all from Dr. Galtung, I attribute all of these ideas to him) My primary aims are to summarize a small portion of his analysis of violence in a digestible way, then apply them to contemporary situations.

The Six Dimensions of Violence

Taking the general idea that peace is the absence of violence is the starting point; if we can understand the dimensions of violence, we can prevent the obstruction of peace. Violence is usually thought of as physical and emotional violence. Again, that is not wrong, but a richer explanation of violence is critical to understand varying levels of violence occurring.

Before analyzing what Galtung refers to as the six dimensions of violence, he makes an important point about violence by explaining the potential versus the actual. Acts of violence are avoidable, and they minimize human potential. I will list the dimensions of violence and apply them to contemporary situations below:

  • Physical and Emotional violence: Physical violence includes the obvious physical harm of a person, however, it also includes restricting mobility. By keeping someone in chains, or keeping them from traveling far distances is a form of physical violence because one is being physically restricted from their potential realization.

Physical and emotional violence, as I stated before, is pretty well understood. So I want to focus on the restriction of mobility. A strong and tragic example of violence by restricting mobility is the story of Kalief Browder. Browder was held at Rikers Island for three years without a trial and eventually committed suicide once freed. The detention of Browder is tragic, but not entirely uncommon. Many people are held without trial or are held for disproportionate times to their crimes. This is violent. The act of detention, especially against the innocent is violent.

  • Negative and Positive Influence: (Influence always assumed as negative towards the subject’s potential) Whenever an influencer inflicts punishment for what they think is wrong OR rewards their subject for what they believe is right.

Negative influence happens all of the time. When individuals are punished for their religious or political views, this is violent. Especially when it results in a loss of employment. Also, when someone is positively influenced to become less they can be, that is violent. Here is an excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, when Malcolm’s junior high teacher tries to guide him, illustrating positive influence:

“’Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic as a n—-r. A lawyer—that’s no thing you can be. You need to think about something you can be. You’re good with your hands—making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work….’”

Note the teacher is trying to reward Malcolm’s work, and is generally being positive for the time, but is clearly obstructing Malcolm’s potential.

  • Objects: In response to the question, “when biological objects aren’t hurt, is there violence?” Galtung notes that violence can occur when the destruction of a non-human object forebodes the destruction of a physical or biological object.

Galtung makes an example in saying that nuclear tests are violent because they are used to forebode the destruction of biological objects (and often the tests destroy biological objects). Another example, many would argue, is the Israeli policy of destroying homes in Palestine. While nobody (usually) dies from the policy of destroying homes, it is usually used as a deterrent to terrorism.

  • Subjects: When there is no human subject that acts, can violence occur? Yes. Systemic violence occurs when people are restricted from obtaining resources needed for their potential. This situation, of course, assumes that this restriction is avoidable.

Systemic violence is growing into a larger discussion. There are many ways systemic violence is increasingly being unearthed. Of course, the quick example is the ethic-name resume. A National Bureau for Economic Research [NBER] study proves that people with ethnic names on their resumes get significantly less callbacks. However, the examples I prefer to look at are racist housing policies and the disenfranchisement of voters.

  • Intent: Violence can take place even with no conscious intent by the actor. Any act, intentional or unintentional, that robs potential in any avoidable situation, is a violent act.

Drunk driving is a simple way to understand intent. When someone is driving while drinking, their intent isn’t to hit another car. Yet… it still happens. Accidents will always happen in today’s world, but that does not mean they are exempt from being violent acts. The previous sentence is important because many times accidents and “unintentional” acts are deemed non-violent.

  • Manifest/Latent: Violence, as most are familiar with, is manifest, or obvious and physically visible acts of violence. However, Galtung is also concerned with the latent, or an unstable situation where any small act can trigger a manifest act of violence. I.E. daily acts that destabilize a situation leading to when a small act that can trigger a large act of violence.

Manifest violence is something visible like someone getting shot. But latent violence is most easily explained by the phenomena of microaggressions. Small, even as the name suggests, micro levels of day-to-day violence and disenfranchisement can build up and become largely violent acts. Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide in 2012 after discovering his sexual acts were secretly recorded by his roommate. The recording was the act that triggered the self-violent response of suicide.

Moving Forward

Now that we have a better understanding of the dimensions of violence, we can move toward a more peaceful America. Of course, the examples were highly limited and just designed to give a basic understanding. But putting this knowledge to use will explain many phenomena of violence against Native Americans, African-Americans, impoverished and homeless Americans, and even violence occurring against other cultures overseas. In the 21st century, we have to realize that violence is far beyond emotional and physical violence. And we can overcome this violence if we make genuine efforts to do so.

Lester is a Graduate Student at American University’s School of International Service.

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