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Definition of violence

I'm reading a book on "violence" by Steven Pinker. Also, there is often confusion in our circles (and outside them) about the difference between aggression and violence. For these and other reasons, I've been thinking about the definition.

Would you agree that violence cannot be defined as any particular action? I apologize for the graphic nature of this example, but it is the clearest one I have thought of: Take the action of a man inserting his erect penis into a woman's vagina. Is this a violent act? It certainly can be. If it is, we call the action rape. But it can also be quite the opposite.

I conclude that any definition of violence must depend on the perception of some person. Then one must ask: Whose perception? The person against whom the violence is committed? The person committing the violence? A third party?

It is difficult to think of an example in which the action is taking the life of another person. That action is usually considered violent and is perhaps the main category considered by Pinker. But there might be examples.

In any case, Pinker certainly allows for other forms of violence. It is my preliminary offhand guess that Pinker is going to disallow or dismiss many kinds of violence. And I'll guess that a correction to his thesis is this: The form that violence takes has changed over time, but the actual level has increased. He can say that violence has decreased by restricting the violence to which he pays attention or by ignoring certain forms of violence. This makes for a much flashier thesis and serves his philosophical and ideological agenda.

Here is a provisional definition: Violence (in human relations) is the perception by one individual that the action of a second individual is damaging to the life of the first individual.

This provisional definition requires two people, but things get really interesting when it is relaxed to allow for only one person. Do we wish to allow in the definition that a person can do violence to himself? We certainly use that language. Is that really something that happens? Does it necessarily require some kind of division of personality or schizophrenia?

As usual, I have disallowed "natural" violence. Of course, if a person gets caught in a lava flow, almost everyone will agree that he suffers violence. But I will follow my usual convention (galling to Nystrom it seems) of disallowing that violence which befalls man at the hand of nature. Thus, starvation may be natural and acceptable by my standards if it comes without the intervention of other humans, or it may be violently induced as in the Ukraine in the early 1930's.

There were a couple other comments I was going to make, but I'll save them for later. Perhaps there will even be comments from others and debate on this thread which will provide an opportunity.

Here's an earlier thread by Treg on the same book:


There wasn't much follow up. I was waiting until it came in the library---and I've got it now.

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Violence is what I don't want to happen to me.

Which is a two edged sword. the threat of violence is often used to coerce.

I look forward to reading Pinker's new book.

Look what I found: Pinker on violence

I'll be back.

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Your definition agrees with mine to the extent that the defining evaluation is one made by the "target" of the violence. Of course, this leaves open the possibility that "violence" is so subjective as to be arbitrary. This, however, is a problem for Pinker if he wishes to make the claim that violence has declined. But it must be noted that it is a *big* problem, if that is the true nature of violence.

Another guess: He will proceed under the assumption that there is some objective and quantifiable definition of violence. But if he doesn't give that definition, then everything else he does is questionable on that basis.

If we are on the right track, then one can perhaps discuss how to rank different levels of violence. But it certainly might be more serious violence (to me) to be forced to work to pay taxes (to be a slave), than for some woman to be tied up and whipped and sexually "abused" (to be another kind of slave---which she might really like). Alternatively, Pinker could take the elitist position that a regular person is not able to evaluate the violence against his own person, and Pinker himself decides on the definition. This is another way to say that his book is about his own perception. It may say nothing more than: It is Steven Pinker's opinion that violence (as he defines it) has decreased. And there could be other alternatives.

I think it's a pretty interesting and relevant question. Too bad that others around here don't seem to feel the same. What ever happened to Treg?


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Afternoon crowd

I posted this in the morning. I'm not saying it wasn't seen, but...