What is the Role and Uses of Violence in History?
The word “violence” conventionally means a type of violent action, such as murder, designed to make people afraid. In ordinary usage, however, the word “violence” is ambiguous, often suggesting any kind of extreme apprehension, without regard to the cause. Moreover, it may mean, on the one hand, the psychic state-extreme fear%u2015and, on the other hand, the thing that terrifies%u2015the violent event that produces the psychic state. This usage makes it clear that the experience of “violence” differs in many ways from other kinds of fear and from anxiety. Whereas anxiety may be caused by a number of factors, including intrapsychic tensions, interpersonal conflicts, and unsettled social conditions, the “violence” examined here is restricted to the emotional state caused by specific violent acts or threats (Turk, 2002).
Some historical periods have the reputation of being filled with violence. Jan Huizinga, in his study of the late middle ages, meditates on the violent tenor of life then, its oscillation between cruelty and tenderness, and the public joy in torture and execution. From the first age of feudal society, after the Frankish Roman Empire broke up, Europe had experienced widespread disorder, violence being more than a reaction to political disintegration though. It was deeply rooted, as Marc Bloch points out, in the social structure and the mentality of the time. Violence was even an element in manners, and medieval men, emotionally insensitive to the spectacle of pain, and having small regard for human life, “were very prone to make it a point of honor to display their physical strength in an almost animal way” (Sorel, 1990). Violence had become a class privilege for the nobility, which reserved to itself the right of private vengeance and, “as a mark of honour, any form of recourse to arms.
Violence, then, is not exclusively an instrument of control; it can also be a privilege of social rank. For example, among the Anuak people of East Africa, who had no king or chiefs, nobles claimed the privilege of attacking commoners who offended them. Moreover, some rulers, such as the Kabaka of Buganda and the Zulu king in the 19th century, used violence as a means of control but also performed violent deeds as conspicuous symbols and privileges of awful majesty.
Since this paper is dealing with violence as an instrument of power, it is necessary to exclude violence that occurs as a mark of status or honor, or for other reasons, such as a disposition to behave in a cruel or intemperate manner. Similarly, economic terrorism should be excluded, ranging from armed robbery to systematic extortion, and the various methods by which violence may be used for economic gain.
When violence is employed in the service of power, the limit of force is the destruction of the thing that is forced. Therefore, the process of violence and an act of destruction must be distinguished. The former is incomplete, for it is directed to an end beyond itself in the cases under discussion, the proximate aim is to instill terror; the ultimate end is control (Turley, 2003). Thus, in civil terror we are dealing with two processes, one dependent on the other: the process of violence in the service of terror, and the process of terror in the service of power.
Violence may occur without terror, but there is no terror without violence. In examining violence designed to control, we should distinguish the process of terror from the use of violence to change conditions. In the former case, the regime does not eliminate the group that falls in the zone of terror, but controls it through violence and fear. A segment of the group may be destroyed to instill terror in the rest, but the group is not wiped out. In the latter case, persons in the zone of violence are destroyed as a group, making a structural change in the society. The latter is an irreversible change, for the selective depletion of the population renders the society that emerges after the violence has ceased structurally different from the society that preceded it. In contrast, the process of terror is reversible, in this special sense, for by itself it does not alter the structural characteristics of the society. The very fact that the fundamental conditions remain unchanged makes the system of terror necessary in the minds of the directors (Elerick et al., 1997). The following examples will illustrate the difference between the two types.
First, consider a violent process that changes the conditions of control by liquidating a group of people. Take the hypothetical case of a tyranny opposed by an aristocracy, and imagine that instead of meeting aristocratic resistance by concessions or by terror, the regime decides to eliminate the intransigent aristocrats. When the dust settles, they are dead or have fled, the society is now structurally different, and the regime controls without the previous opposition.
Second, the “revolution” and the “holy war” are similar fanaticisms in which the impassioned ends necessarily justify any and all means. Moreover, history indicates that violence by its very nature is beyond any simple or reasonable laws of causation. It is, rather, a kind of contagious irresponsibility which allows its advocates to shrug off all blame for specific acts frequently resulting from the emotions they have generated. The leaders of the two main branches of today’s Ku Klux Klan (KKK), for example, both have piously disavowed violence and denied using it. One of them, James Venable, leader of the National Knights of the KKK, nonetheless told an Atlanta audience a few years ago that schools should be burned to the ground if necessary to prevent them from being integrated. The other, Robert Shelton, head of the United Klans (the largest of the KKK groups today), has declared: “We don’t advocate violence. If someone steps on our toes we are going to knock their heads off their shoulders” (Lancaster, 1990).
Furthermore, violence, then, may be used to destroy, to control, or to punish. Control and punishment are forms of power, whereas destruction is not, unless it is used indirectly to control or to punish. In conditions of minimal resistance, unless other cultural or psychic factors create a disposition to act in a violent manner, men in authority tend to avoid destructive methods of power. Resistance or the expectation of resistance, on the other hand, increases the probability of violence.
History is full of techniques introduced by rulers to manage the conditions of confrontation so as to reduce the potential for reciprocal control by subordinates. One way is to increase the political distance between ruler and subjects: by deifying the ruler or finding other ways to make him unapproachable, or by any method of political mystification drawn from that ancient bag of tricks known as the “arcana imperil”(Turley, 2003). One of the tasks of the present inquiry is to discover the conditions in which these more subtle methods of dealing with resistance are abandoned for the processes of violence and terror.
Moreover, in certain institutions that set the acceptability level of resistance near zero, the method of control, frequently resorting to violence, stands at the edge of the terror process. Slavery is such an institution. Theodor Mommsen in his great history of Rome remarks that slavery is not possible without a reign of terror. Stanley Elkins persuasively compares some of the techniques of North American slavery to those of the Nazi concentration camp. In the antebellum American South, Kenneth Stampp shows, slavemasters developed an elaborate power system that depended on complex techniques to minimize resistance (Elerick et al., 1997). Although most masters seemed to prefer persuasion and reward to punishment, violence was regarded as a necessary means of control and punishment. The violence of punishment, however, easily shifted over to the violence of terrorism, for the process was used not only to punish acts of disobedience and resistance but also to sap the potential for disobedience in advance, and break the power to resist. Brutality was common on large plantations, and the typical overseer preferred physical force to incentives as a method of governing slaves. Slaves had to be flogged, it was sometimes maintained, until they manifested “submission and penitence.” The lash was often used to “break in” young slaves and to “break the spirit” of insubordinate older ones.
To conclude, the violent process may be a means of destruction, an instrument of punishment, or a method of control and it may shift from war to terrorism, to punishment, and back. The mere presence of violence is not as significant as the degree of violence, the occasions for its official use, and its place in the temporal sequence of the process used in the service of power. Unfortunately, violence has been explicitly identified as a significant public health problem. Time swings like a pendulum and violence is once again an issue. Strong violence enables – and often entails %u2015shifts in one’s moral positioning. This is part of its power and a great deal of its threat. Still, the realm of violence is one of the few aspects of the refuge of unreason, and we must never be greatly surprised to find violent tendencies far out on those political extremities of the left and the right which have exchanged reason for passion and mystical faith.