Understanding Violence

In my previous article on violence, I defined violence as actively and intentionally causing physical harm to a sentient being. But understanding violence and even having a workable definition of violent behavior raise further questions. To start, this knowledge does not tell us where violence comes from. And it doesn’t direct us on how to use our new awareness to affect behavior.

We can label character attitudes that lead to violence: indifference, lack of empathy, or hatred. But we still don’t know from where those attitudes originate. And if we grant that institutions like governments can cause violence, we discover it is even more difficult to pinpoint the source of institutional violence.

Understanding Violence

The difficulty increases further if we expand on my relatively narrow definition. Mark Vorobej, author of The Concept of Violence, does just that: “I can cause harm to someone unintentionally, without aiming to cause them harm. And I can cause harm to people of whom I am entirely oblivious.” Allowing for unintentional and even unwitting violence means we may be unable to identify even the primary cause or emotion associated with a violent act.

Given all these difficulties, how can we move from a definition of violence to positive change regarding violent acts? We need to start by accepting that doing harm to other sentient beings is a part of existence. The gut reaction to unchallenged notions of violence is that violence is bad and must be eliminated in every instance. But humans and other animals have committed intraspecies violence since prehistoric times (see my interview with Marcos Méndez on “A History of Violence”). Fortunately, as Méndez points out, “Our historical data indicate that the levels of lethal violence have changed dramatically in the last 20,000 years, suggesting that these changes are due to cultural, sociological or ecological factors and not to genetic factors.” Violence occurs in nature, but we can identify it and we can change patterns of violence over time.

Yet in many instances, violence is unavoidable. We must commit some violent acts in order to live. Killing animals for food is one such violent act. As a result, vegans encourage diets free of animal products. But as nutritionist and organic farmer Diana Rodgers pointed out in a previous interview:

“Eating a vegan diet does not mean blood is not shed to bring food to the table. …[Crop fields] are heavily sprayed, which kills insects, birds, frogs, the soil, and runs into rivers killing fish. Even if [crops are] organically produced, there’s still blood. When tractors go through and harvest, they are squashing and chopping up bunnies, field mice, etc.”

In a world of limited resources, there is constant competition for land, food and water. And some sentient beings will claim those resources at the expense of others.

That being said, recognizing that some violence is unavoidable does not mean that we should accept the status quo and turn a blind eye to all instances of physical harm. Vorobej concedes that “violence is indeed ineliminable” but asserts “we can meaningfully reduce the level of violence within our lives by taking steps to reduce the harm we inflict upon others.” And Méndez adds, “If we can understand how [cultural, social or ecological] factors have influenced the level of lethal violence, we can get useful insights of how to reduce conflict, or how to solve conflicts in a non-lethal way.” In other words, moving away from violence requires the same attention we applied to defining the term in the first place.

As we better understand violence, we will achieve a clearer picture of the role violence plays in our own lives. We will see how we act violently and which kinds of violence are morally acceptable and which are not. On a personal or societal level, we can then target specific behaviors we want to change. Doing so will allow us to develop the best strategies to move toward a definite goal with regard to violence.