How to be Civil to Wolves

For some time I’ve wanted to think carefully, on the page, about what I’m going to momentarily and inadequately call “legitimate violence.” This is just the first installment; I’m driving to eventually argue something like this:

Violence should be strategic, like a scalpel. This is what I’m advocating: not an end to violence (which goal strikes me as rather idealistic, even a kind of “lifestyle purity”), but rather a limit which excludes gratuitous/unproductive violence; a limit to only using violence as a tool. Even when we attack our adversaries, we ought do so because it will accomplish some goal–not because they’re evil or inconsequential, or because it feels good. 
You can see how this claim is pretty ethically generic: with Kant, I’m proposing that we never use our enemies as props. Except that, like Hobbes, I claim that this isn’t a moral obligation, but rather a smart strategy. It’s in one’s best, selfish interest to always strive to resume neighborly relations, even with the most vile and dangerous of enemies. It is in my interest to be trustworthy and polite.

It’s hard to get started, because I keep struggling to find an adequate vocabulary to talk about…“legitimate violence,” or whatever it is that I’m trying to talk about.

So let’s sample some other writers. Here’s an excerpt from The Revolution Will Not Be Polite (on Social Justice League, by Rachael):
So if you – the oppressed – hurt someone’s feelings, you’re just like the oppressor, right? Wrong. Oppression is not about hurt feelings. It is about the rights and opportunities that are not afforded to you because you belong to a certain group of people. When you use a racist slur you imply that non-whiteness is a bad thing, and thus publicly reinforce a system that denies (persons of color) the rights and opportunities of white people. Calling a white person a racist f***head doesn’t do any of that. Yes, it’s not very nice. And how effective (hurting feelings) is as a tactic is definitely up for debate (that’s a whole other blog post). But it’s not oppression. (My emphasis.)

One thing that’s useful about this paragraph is the distinction it draws between systemic oppression and bad manners. The difference between the two has to do with perspective: systems are big and complicated, and can only be understood using highly-abstract concepts. Bad manners, on the other hand, occur on the level of individuals. So when Shakespeare’s Antipholus tells Dromio, “Thou whoreson senseless villain!” in Comedy of Errors it’s personal. It is not “men” or “masters” or “the kyriarchy” who are speaking, but Antipholus; and he’s not addressing “slaves” or “servants” or “huddled masses,” but Dromio. Nobody needs any carefully thought-out abstractions to make sense of what’s happening; indeed, it can be a struggle to remain thoughtful during the heat of an insult.

So we’ve figured out that systems are abstract, and bad manners (comparatively) concrete. I can’t see or touch a system in toto (like nuclear fission, or DNA, or organic evolution, or evolution of a religious belief-system over centuries), but I know that they’re at least as “real” as my sensation of tasting chocolate or laughing at a joke. And, as Rachael says, we make a mistake when we conflate a system-level events (e.g. oppression) with individual-level events (e.g. insults).

Crimethinc. agrees. On the back of their poster The Police, they write:

Perhaps some police officers have good intentions, but once again, insofar as they obey orders rather than their consciences, they cannot be trusted. There’s something to be said for understanding the systematic nature of institutions, rather than attributing every injustice to the shortcomings of individuals. (My emphasis.)

So again we find this important distinction between the system-level (e.g. Seattle PD’s culture of brutality) and the individual-level (e.g. a Seattle officer’s “egregious” killing of a homeless man).
Okay. So, we’ve got the systems/individuals distinction clear. Next, I want to get a better idea of what “violence” is.


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