Posted by: CJ | November 4, 2009

Violence is violence? Maybe…

I guess this is one of those “for the record, here’s what I think” posts. An idea I’ve toyed around with for many years is notions of equivalency between various forms of violence. Most people I talk to seem to believe that physical violence is worse than emotional or psychological violence. For a long time I thought that was foolish. That violence of any sort is bad, but that for matters of retribution it should also be convertible.

The reason I came to think this is really just a holdover from elementary and middle school. (Like I’ve said, I was a particularly legalistic child.) In those years there were times I would get picked on or made fun of, but I lacked the social skills to retaliate in a non-physical manner. But you don’t need any particular skill to cause someone physical pain, particularly if you’re fine with fighting dirty. (I was also a competitive child. If I started a game I played to win.) So I came to believe that if I was taunted I had a right to respond as best as I was able, using the means that would be most effective, to deter the person from ever doing it again. (Think Ender’s Game. This is one of many, many reasons I’m very glad I didn’t read that book when I was young. The over-achieving smart kid with alien notions of morality did not need a book telling him it was ok to kill other kids who were bullying him.)

But the belief that, in some sense, physical and psychological/emotional violence were interchangeable with me a long time. Even in college I got into arguments with friends about this. Philosophically, I had a deep belief that how someone was hurt was irrelevant. That psychological and emotional violence could leave scars deeper and worse than physical violence, so why should physical violence be considered worse? In an absolute sense, I still believe this. Free from any societal context, I don’t think there is a difference.

Thankfully my notions of retribution have become considerably less Old Testament. I now believe many such instances of perceived bullying are due to one of two things. The first is that it’s just a miscommunication–a joke or teasing that didn’t work. I think this is true of some physical interactions as well, as not enough people at my college understood the difference between an actual physical fight and screwing around. The other possible reason for perceived bullying is that they really are being bullied and the other person is an ass. But I think this is much less common.

What’s also changed is my understanding of how we, as a community and society, view physical violence. In the context of society, physical violence is worse because everyone agrees that it’s worse. And so the assumption is that people committing violence know everyone agrees that it’s worse. They know they’re committing a societal taboo. Hence the stronger punishments for physical violence.

(At least, that’s sorta true. The big caveat is that society must think beating someone is worse than belittling them to a similar degree. That is certainly true in middle-class and upper-middle class cultures. But I don’t think it’s quite so true in lower-middle-class and lower-class cultures. Different forms of violence are more interchangeable there. And that’s part of why I think the legal system we have, written more to deal with a middle-class culture, is inadequate for cultures that don’t accept those values.)

Anyways, that’s how my views have evolved over the years. And this post is just me hashing through some of them more explicitly.



  1. in an interesting side note to this, you know my school has a zero tolerance policy on fighting–anyone physically involved gets 10 days suspension. Physically involved includes protecting yourself if you do that by hitting or pushing the attacker away.

    Last week, a girl got beat on (not beat up) by her pending Baby Daddy in one of our hallways. She finally hit him to to get him away–but the security cams showed that she was getting hit and slammed into a locker for several minutes before she lifted a finger to get away or get back. She didn’t get suspended (first time I’ve heard of a kid not getting suspended in a fight in years), and there are 2 reactions: 1, she’s getting hassled by people who think she should have been suspended; 2, the office is concerned that she didn’t physically retaliate sooner, even though they admit they would have had to suspend her for a least a short time if she did.

    Go figure.

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