This is a call to violence. Not in the ordinary sense. Instead in the sense that I want you to go out and tell people that they should support a violent policy. What is that policy specifically? I want the police to start pulling over and if necessary arresting people who are speeding. You might think this isn’t a call to violence, you might think that this is simply a call for more police enforcement, but that obscures the real issue of what violence is.

What amazes me most is the incoherence of most people’s views on violence. If I walk up to a stranger and strike that stranger most everyone would agree that is violence. Why it is violence is another story. That’s the story I want to talk about here. To talk about that story I’m going to use that example and the example of the police pulling a driver over for speeding.

First I’m going to lay out a framework for thinking of violence, starting with and a reference and a couple definitions. The work that has most influenced my thinking on violence is Robert Paul Wolff’s On Violence. In this essay he lays out the case that given a strict definition of violence as “the illegitimate or unauthorized use of force to effect decisions against the will or desire of others.” our understanding of violence is completely wrong.

We have a mental conception of violence that varies by the individual. Some consider physically harming a living being violence. Some consider physically harming animals violence, but don’t include all living things. Some only include those humans who are not considered property, although thankfully those folks are rare here. Some think that there is an intentional element in violence, that is to say, there must be anger or some other purposeful emotion behind violence, not just the mere use of force. Some people consider breaking a window violence, some don’t. Some consider breaking a window violence given the specific situation. If I’m locked out of my house and have to break a window to get in far fewer people would consider that violent than would consider my breaking a Footlocker window to protest some political inequity. And yet the action itself is ultimately the same. That is the intentionality in our conception of violence.

There are two general alternatives to Wolff’s definition. Either

Involving great amounts of force.

This definition makes the most sense intuitively, and the least logically. What exactly counts as “great”? We’d all agree that a gun shot counts, but what about an arrow? How fast would that arrow have to be traveling? Does the physical harm inflicted make a difference? There are more questions here than answers. More than that, virtually all of us here, even the most pacifist, have, or would, made calls for this kind of violence in one way or another. Who here would not argue for a great use of physical force if it could stop the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan? How many did argue for the use of great physical force to stop the gusher in the gulf? Clearly we don’t want to set aside these uses of violence. Which leads us to the second definition.

Involving illegal exercise of force.

The reason I choose to use Wolff’s definition over this one should be clear. Mere laws should not determine what is and is not violent. If that were the case then one would have to say that Nazi Germany was not violent, or that the holocaust was not violent, nor would any war legally pursued under law, which is a patent absurdity. The basic gist is the same, violence has an aspect that has to do with authority and law, and whether or not something is authorized, legitimate or legal does have a bearing on whether it is violence. Legal and correct are not the same, as many of those who have fought for justice in the past

For example, and returning to my opening paragraph, a police officer hand cuffing a suspect is a use of force to effect decisions against the will or desire of some person. It seems clear to me that there are many cases of an officer cuffing a suspect that we would consider violent in no way at all. Most people, I think, would only consider it violent if the officer used some great amount of force, or used more force than was absolutely necessary. But the simple act of hand-cuffing a suspect wouldn’t be considered violent by most people.

A different, and yet more to the point, example would be graffiti. Graffiti is illegal, and it requires the use of force to accomplish, but it wouldn’t normally be thought of as violence. In fact, we could apply both of these definition in some cases of graffiti. Here’s the best example I can think of.

The most violent graffiti

I think this thing is beautiful, absolutely wonderful. It takes something that was already there and that people didn’t really think about being there, and if they did think about it they probably didn’t want it there, and it turned that into something beautiful. And it did so with a whole crap ton of force. Far more force than it would take to, for the sake of argument, stab someone. Or hand cuff someone. But I’d bet that most of us would consider stabbing a lot more violent than this art. I think that would be a reasonable position to hold. And yet, under any definition of violence I have talked about here this would be more violent than stabbing someone in self defense. Because stabbing someone in self defense is legal and the amount of force used is less than is used in creating this.

So where does that leave us? We can either completely ignore our intuitions on what violence is or have no real definition other than “It’s violence when I feel like it’s violence.” This is a rather frustrating. So let’s look at Wolff’s definition and see if that helps the situation.

“violence is the illegitimate or unauthorized use of force to effect decisions against the will or desire of others.”

If you’ve read the essay, linked to earlier in the piece, you’ll see that this definition also has it’s problems, especially around the ideas of legitimacy and authority. Calling something violent is essentially a moral claim about someone’s actions, not a claim about whether the actions fall under some set of criteria that would differentiate between different act separate from intention or cause. To return to an earlier example, if I walk up to a stranger and strike them hard most everyone would off the cuff assume that was violent. It would fulfill most every definition we’ve given for violence. But that is only assuming that I would have no legitimate reason for striking the person. Maybe they belong to a political party that is actively ethnically cleansing the ethnic group I belong to. There are numerous other possibilities that could justify striking them. And if it is legitimate then we’re stuck again with dueling definitions.

So what’s the point here. Sure, violence is weird and complicated. Most things are once you really look at them. But what does this tell us about our politics and government? The first thing it tells us is that government is violent. Some would say that violence is the defining feature of government. Policy such as the one I noted in my opening paragraph, are based on violence. Yes, they may be done for good reason, and they may work to reduce harm to society in general or to some specific group. But they are always based on force, or the credible threat thereof. And that force cannot always be legitimate and authorized. But without those things the government cannot exist.

And this is one of the important truths that many on the left really don’t want to admit: You cannot be against all violence and be for a government. The two are fundamentally incompatible. Government is the single most violent institution throughout history. Government was created through violence and is maintained by violence. Government’s central defining characteristic is violence, it is the thing which all government’s share. So the fact is that most people don’t in fact advocate for non-violence. Many people claim to praise it, and yet continue to push to implement their policies through a violent institution, the government.

The question then is whether we can order the world in a non-violent way. Can we organize ourselves and still hold to our ideals? Or are we doomed to continue the cycle of violence? To return to my initial call, is it worth it to use violence and the threat thereof to keep people safe on the road?