The theory of ‘good violence’ | Pakistan Today

The theory of ‘good violence’

  • Brutalisation effect

In January 2017 on a marginally eventful Friday, Richard Spencer was punched in the face by a masked activist during a live interview. Spencer – a notorious white nationalist who has often aired pro-Nazi views – was attacked by a member of a left-wing organisation known as ‘Antifa’ – short for ‘Anti-Fascism’.

Since then, Antifa has been presented repeatedly in international media as an example of ‘left-wing extremism’, allegedly as bad as the right’s violent encroachment on civil and human rights. Liberal and centrist gurus rushed to their keyboards to pen lengthy essays on the need to curb violence ‘on both sides’ of the political spectrum. Endless center-right soliloquies about the need for civil debate over violence emerged and are being aired ever since.

Rarely is it acknowledged that violence already exists, which most people – liberals and conservatives – are not only okay with, but actively support.

‘Violence’, defined as an act of aggression, is not merely physical. If given a choice between losing your job or being punched by an angry left-wing activist, there are many who would choose the latter. Economic violence is generally as potent, and just as deadly, as direct physical assault. In fact, there is almost no example of organised physical violence in the world that exists without a politico-economic pretext.

When a Palestinian teenager slings a rock at an Israeli soldier or the soldier fires back with a gun, the exchange always occurs in the presence of larger politico-economic forces. The unequal exchange of physical violence between a rebel and a soldier, has been enabled by decades of non-physical violence in the form of speeches, memos, handshakes, and signatures.

I recall a tragicomedic exchange with a white American online denouncing anti-fascist activists who punch neo-Nazis and harm their property. Why? Because violence is unacceptable, and those operating a movement for the dehumanisation and alienation of racial minorities and victims of colonialism must only be countered verbally in civilised debate. I next asked for his opinion on the bombing of Hiroshima, and without any hint of irony, he replied that the nuclear holocaust was necessary.

Those who detest violence are invited to extend their disdain to violence in all forms. To be selectively offended by the violence of the resister, while disregarding the greater violence of the oppressor, is no path to civility

No, it’s not acceptable for civilians to use violence against one another or state apparatuses. Yes, Kashmiri civilians can resist the oppression in “better ways” than throwing rocks at the occupying soldiers. But one also wonders why states have a monopoly on violence, while everyone else is encouraged to use words but not fists? Why are angry civilians in the streets held up to a higher standard of morality and discipline, than trained soldiers who open fire at civilians?

We all grow up lionising violence as a ‘good’ act. When an American politician thanks a US soldier for his or her “service”, what service does one refer to if not violence? When one pins a poppy to his shirt in the memory of fallen British soldiers, what does one believe those soldiers were if not agents of violence? Oh, but that is ‘good’ violence.

We are taught to see violence as a ‘negative’ act that contradicts the very definition of a civilisation. We are also indoctrinated to celebrate heroic acts of violence against one enemy or another. We manage this cognitive dissonance by developing an unspoken concept of ‘good violence’, as opposed to ‘bad violence’ which must be avoided.

In most cases, it’s the state backed by corporate interests that is the anointed purveyor of ‘good violence’. When we call for a criminal to be sentenced to death, we signal our approval of violence as a positive force. By executing the criminal, the state signals its agreement that there is a thing as corrective violence. It exerts what psychologists call a ‘brutalisation effect’ on the masses, teaching them that violence is an effective way to solve problems; as opposed to countries that do not execute criminals, thus teaching its citizens that ‘killing’ is an unthinkable act and a threshold that nobody should voluntarily cross.

It is, of course, power that determines what kind of violence is compatible with our self-image of civility, and which violence is unacceptable.

Power is not on the side of an Antifa activist; the one who punches a white supremacist striving constantly to make America a worse place for racial minorities. Power is, however, firmly on the side of whoever decides to unleash drone fire on suspected militants in a Pakistani village; vaporising militants, and a number of women and children here and there. Like the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, statistics are irrelevant. This is ‘good’ violence, as far as those in power are concerned.

Those with power claim authority on ‘civility’, just as they claim agency in determining the acceptability of violence in different scenarios. It is no wonder, therefore, that an act of aggression ‘against’ power is bad; while an act of aggression to solidify the status quo and the concentration of wealth and power, is acceptable.

Those who detest violence are invited to extend their disdain to violence in all forms. To be selectively offended by the violence of the resister, while disregarding the greater violence of the oppressor, is no path to civility.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat is a medical doctor from Rawalpindi and an ardent traveller who writes frequently about science, social politics and international relations.