Sister Outsider | Mapping Violence: Why we need to talk about power
New in Ceasefire, Sister Outsider - Posted on Wednesday, January 30, 2013 17:11 - 2 Comments
By Hana Riaz
When I started working on this piece, 22-year old Kasandra Perkins was shot to death nine times by her abusive partner, American football player Jovan Belcher. The very same day she was murdered, two other women, lost in and amongst nameless statistics, would have also been killed at the hands of their intimate partners in the US. A few weeks later, the horrific gang-rape of a 23-year old woman from Delhi who has since passed away, offered up a continued and ever painful reminder of the violent reality women are faced with daily. A reality in which, globally, women aged 15 – 44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and Malaria (cited in UN UniTE, 2011).
As a woman of colour, reducing violence or particular violent acts to sensationalised or individualised narratives has never been a luxury I could afford. Violence the world over is a collective endemic that my Feminist praxis screams out to confront. And yet, like many others, I’ve been plagued with how best we critically engage with the question of violence in order to take a step towards reducing, resisting and ultimately preventing it.
Much of what we understand to be violence is in fact assumed or taken-for-granted. Most definitions pertain to or are interchangeably used with the notion of physical force. Defining violence, however, is a socially and politically constructed process, something that is heavily rooted in the emergence of the modern (Western) state system. Central to this development was the role imperialism and colonialism had to play in its evolution, systems that were formulaic in the expression of power and control such as rape, slavery, genocide, war, theft and psychocultural destruction.
Violence under this premise offers both a means to an end and an end in itself, it becomes a function of power. The state, domestically, and Western states in particular as hegemonic powers in an international system, have come to hold a monopoly over violence and the legitimating processes that constitute it.
Mainstream institutional law, medicine, psychiatry, media and academia are a few sites that, historically, have discursively and materially constituted definitions of violence that are now mainstream or ‘common sense’. Who enacts it (legitimate versus illegitimate violence e.g. militarism and policing versus terrorism or failed states), who has legitimate access to it, who are legitimate victims of it, and when it is condoned or excused more often than not is bound up in some semblance of these structures and systems of domination that actively reproduce power and violence.
The emphasis on physical force and/or the use of constraint, however, often obscure the power relations crucial in its enactment, rendering social relations as things without human agency and social structure. What we understand to be violence becomes reduced to an ‘act’ or a violent ‘situation’ as opposed to a process in which it is embedded as part of the rest of (often banal) life. “Violence can be mixed up with all sorts of everyday experiences – work and housework, sex and sexuality, marriage, leisure, relaxing and watching television” (Hearn, 1998, p15). It is this everydayness that reproduces violence as normative.
Caroline Ramazanoglu offers one of the more useful definitions in the attempt to overcome the challenges Feminists have found in conceptualising gendered experiences of violence that are otherwise rendered invisible, culturally or legally. She argues that “violence should be understood as any action or structure that diminishes a human being” and that institutions or structures can in fact be as violent and intimidating as individuals (cited in Hanmer and Maynard, 1987, p5).
In incorporating structures and systems into our definitions, we can attempt to identify patterns of individual and interpersonal violence (such as patriarchy, masculinity and male privilege in sexualised violence against women) as well as forms of violence that are underwritten into institutions that may or may not be physical but offer a dehumanising material reality (e.g. poverty and famine).
More importantly, it allows us to make connections between the two that often go hand in hand with one another in systemising inequality and injustice (e.g. the physical violence committed against undocumented immigrants and the structural/institutional violence committed against them as ‘invisible’ bodies economically, legally, politically).
Focusing on violence as a function of power allows us to uncover how this relationship serves intersecting systems of domination such as imperialism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and ableism and how violence as a process ultimately comes to be shaped by them. This is crucial as it facilitates attempts to map violence more broadly while always locating it contextually.
For example, we are able to see how heterosexist masculinities have a key role to play in the fact that men are the main protagonists of all violent behaviour, both against other men as well as women (and children) globally, while seeing how these masculinities operate across cultures. In asking how we can also account for different institutions – such as media, advertising, entertainment, and consumer industries -discursively reproduce ideas to help construct cultures violence.
These approaches help us to understand the military-industrial complex that forms a core economic base for states like the U.S., Israel and the UK. Power reveals the role they internationally and domestically have to play in the development and trading of arms/weapons, the perpetuation and method of (imperial) wars used, and the violent nature of policing, incarceration, anti-immigration and anti-terrorist activities. A role that is intrinsic in reproducing racialised, classed and gendered forms of economic, political and cultural power.
It reminds us that this project of modern violence as being one rooted in an imperial history where technological development (such as drones), testing and use, transform not only the nature of warfare internationally but are deeply connected to the power of the state (and its corporate counterparts) domestically.
Power isn’t simply about structures and systems. Instead it emphasises the crucial role of agency. It allows us to engage with perpetrators and victims of a particular incident or account that are situated in and amongst these intersecting systems, and dictates when and how we can usefully make comparisons with similar or different experiences of violence. If we are to seek justice not just in the immediate, it’s essential we are able to understand where agency lies and how we can hold both individuals and institutions/cultures/structures accountable.
However, just as these decolonial definitions open up the visibility of violence and facilitate a recognition of more nuanced accounts, they also force us to think about the narratives that accompany them more carefully.
Even critically minded folk can fall prey to the never-ending reductive stories that emerge in mainstream media. Swayed by emotion, anger and angst we too can easily reproduce that which we are trying to resist. I was personally shocked to see so many ‘anti-imperialists’ producing articles pitting the dead bodies of children in Newtown against the dead bodies of children who were victims of US imperial drone attacks in Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan. Instead of engaging with what in fact both Adam Lanza and the US state have in common in murdering innocent children, the language and imagery used undermined its purposes to highlight the unequal, racialised value of life.
Language has a particular role to play in definition and the cultural production of meaning; it is a form of power that has an effect and this is more easily identified by the violence of language in dehumanising many on the margins. Often the narratives that are constructed about violence are in fact part of the process of violence itself. When we think about rape or domestic violence accounts this becomes abundantly clear, as they are often defined by victim shaming/blaming particularly of women: ‘she shouldn’t have been wearing/drinking/been out so late’.
In some instances, attempts to individualise and isolate particular incidents away from broader patterns of violence serve to perpetuate racialised male privilege, as was the case with Anders Breivik and Adam Lanza. while other narratives pathologise whole communities as perpetrators, as is often seen with communities of colour, in order to justify marginal experiences of inequality and injustice. These narratives are intrinsic in reproducing particular kinds of violence, shaping the common-sense beliefs that support their cultural perpetuation.
In using power as the basis to dismantle mainstream narratives and definitions we can challenge and question the value of life, the visibility of certain forms of violence, the role of historical and cultural context, who we talk about when we talk about victims of violence, who are the perpetrators and how we should talk about them in a way that is ultimately centred on justice and transformation.
Violence is real; people are dying in alarmingly large numbers around us; death and suffering that is preventable, that don’t have to be inevitable… that are emotional and mental just as they are material or physical. Critically engaging with how we think and talk about violence is the bare minimum we can do to confront and challenge the systems, institutions and beliefs that uphold violence as a fundamental cornerstone of life as we know it.