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We often think of violence as an irrational avenue of a few individuals in society to fulfill their own interests, characterized by little to no rhyme or reason. We also think of violent acts as completely random in time and location, and acts that can only be committed by those not in their right minds - those who somehow are able to acquire the means to carry out their actions. We shall find, through Hannah Arendt’s analysis of various theoretical perspectives on violence, Begoña Aretxaga’s account on the Dirty Protest in Northern Ireland, and the issues of policing and punishment in South African townships as discussed by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, that violence is not only a routinised activity learned and practiced by groups that have become a part of a specific culture, it is also used in the absence of legitimate power in order to restore at least some semblance of justice that can appeal to the issues of the oppressed and even the concerns of the victims’ advocates.
What is interesting and unique about Arendt’s overall argument, however, is that it suggests that violence is unable to exist without power, and that power in and of itself does not equate to violence (240). I find this argument more plausible than Bertrand de Jouvenel’s argument that warfare characterises the state in the sense that the state and its power may disintegrate if there is no period of war, because power is what maintains stability in society (whether or not it is just is debatable, but the fact still remains that power comes with a sense of command and obedience) in the long term, while war, by contrast, is a short-term goal by contrast. Power is needed in order to even think in terms of means and ends in the first place, while still outlasting goals (Arendt, 241).
This makes sense, given that power is needed for the organization of a community. As a result, this means that power requires legitimacy, something violence could never attain (Arendt, 241). I agree with this notion, because violence only needs justification, and justification does not always have to be rational. Any reason, even if they have dire implications, can be given to subject an individual to violence. The other issue with violence as justification is that it can be difficult to challenge because of the risk that it can be used, or at the very least, used as a threat against challengers, and most people are either unable to intervene or feel that it is not in their place to intervene given that gruesome situations induce extreme fear and stress. Violence also tends to be individualized and dealt with in different ways, as we have seen in previous readings. Power, if corruptive, is easily recognizable and challengeable by a collective, because the majority will inevitably speak out if they feel the power structure is damaging either their individual interests or the general order in society - or even both.
Under these circumstances, power can fluctuate depending on the level of obedience demonstrated by followers (Arendt, 240). I would even argue that violence fluctuates as well due to the level of severity, although this entirely depends on the agenda and degree of passion towards a notion pertaining to why the violence is being implemented in the first place. We see that power does not depend on violence, as the enforcer is more likely to use violence as a last resort (Arendt, 240). Instead, it depends on the populace, something that we will see in the subsequent two essays. Speaking of which, I would argue that while a revolution may not be necessary in a state of powerlessness (Arendt, 240), it is inevitable because people will resort to (usually unwillingly) extralegal or indecent acts in order to get a message across that something needs to be done about the cruelty or the lack of accountability demonstrated by an enforcer.
One thing I found interesting is Arendt’s assertion about our bureaucratic system, which is the rule of nobody. She says it has no liability, and it is the most tyrannical form of power because there is no identifiable enemy that could be made accountable for actions (237). I agree with this, and if I were to draw parallels with a different example, we see this with the rise of economic laws. Corporations have limited liability in civil law, meaning that no one individual can be held responsible for their actions unless someone in the company commits a white-collar crime. Crimes, or “ethical misconduct” in the case of corporations, are swept under the rug, and companies continue to intentionally or unintentionally cause social harms through their practices. If we are to relate this to violence, we can even include the violence and exploitation present in sweatshops and factories.
Moving on to Aretxaga’s Dirty Protest, she prefaces her argument of resisting normalization with the assertion that Foucault has not considered what might happen if the techniques of normalization used by the watchers break down in practice (244). I agree with this; as much as I am a supporter of Foucauldian theories, one of the biggest issues with them is that they assume the watched, as a collective, will gradually succumb to government regulations, as they will learn to self-discipline against their own free will in order to avoid punishment.
We see this is not necessarily the case, as prisoners in Northern Ireland refused to wear their uniforms and smeared their feces on beds and walls during searches as a result of the violence and harassment they would face over toilet and shower use (Aretxaga, 245). What is interesting about this case, though, is that violence was implemented to socialise prisoners into the prison’s culture (Aretxaga, 247), and prisoners retaliated, not with violence in its traditional sense, but with excrement as a means to humiliate and damage the legitimacy of the regulators whose job is to maintain order in the prisons.
Feces is often considered a symbol of degradation, and the reason why it can be considered a form of violence is because it is an extreme form of power fueled by extreme passion used when seemingly nothing else is available as an option. Prisoners had no other means to exercise power other than to use their bodies (Aretxaga, 247), which, again, reinforces the idea that people can have free will to use their bodies in ways they believe will help them in a situation, and not necessarily be acted upon so that the body learns to be docile. The other advantage here is that the prison is not structured like a panopticon where prisoners are not constantly under surveillance, so it is possible for them to act under the radar - especially since they were allowed to leave their cells to use the restrooms - hence how they were able to accomplish their protest.
Of course, the Dirty Protest was met with controversy. While the political language made sense to outsiders, the actions did not (Aretxaga, 248) - which consequently does not make much sense to me. Discourse and actions go hand-in-hand; context is needed in order to understand the significance of the actions. Maybe to us, the actions are extreme, but we need to realize that the protest actually challenges and raises important questions surrounding moral legitimacy. Sure, spreading feces everywhere may be seen as uncivilized (Aretxaga, 249), but how is allowing prison violence any better, especially when, chances are, the majority of people do not even know the people in prisons and the real reasons as to why they are there? People are more sympathetic towards hunger strikes (Aretxaga, 247), where people are literally risking their lives to make a statement, than something that is simply part of human nature by contrast. It clearly shows people's’ priorities: their “civility” and superiority over everything else.
Even if it does not seem like it, people who resist are aware of what they are getting themselves into, notwithstanding the emotions that cloud their judgment. I say this because while they may see the risks or might be able to anticipate the reception they may receive for their actions, they nevertheless feel it is the right choice at the time in order to instigate social transformation that can potentially restore long-term peace. In South Africa, the township wanted to introduce a form of socialism through popular justice, which is described as an upright and disciplined approach respectful of communal norms as well as social and political values. It is, ideally, based in accountability and recognizes the apartheid state as the true enemy (Scheper-Hughes, 257). The interesting thing about the situation here is the irony; because there is no legitimate power put in place to ensure safety and prosperity of the township, Black South Africans are left to their own devices.
Specifically, they are left to police and discipline themselves (Scheper-Hughes, 258), because the people need their own justice that is not provided to them by a state working against them in the first place (Scheper-Hughes, 261), and because they are practically excluded everywhere (Scheper-Hughes, 258). Here is where the irony comes in: everyday violence is inflicted upon these people normatively, and yet this potentially vigilante approach to resisting oppression is considered senseless (Scheper-Hughes, 256). As we have seen in the case of the Dirty Protest, body use is problematic in social control, but it is at least understandable why these people advocate for popular justice: because they are trying to survive, and other systems may be obstacles to the creation of a new democratic civil society (Scheper-Hughes, 263).
There are also benefits to this approach, in that it embraces collective activity, negotiations, appeals to reason, mercy and human rights (Scheper-Hughes, 263). However, we also have to remember that existing structures are needed for orderly social life under inhumane conditions in the first place (Scheper-Hughes, 263), because without a structure to work with, people would just live in a state of chaos, something that Thomas Hobbes would undoubtedly say. Popular tribunals and civil associations can also be vulnerable to criticism, and since volunteers are needed, people may be afraid to serve because they face intimidation from peers of both the accused and punished (Scheper-Hughes, 263), potentially resulting in much less support.
Arendt, Hannah. 1969. "Reflections on Violence," New York Review of Books.
Aretxaga, Begona. 1995. “Dirty Protest: Symbolic Overdetermination and Gender in Northern
Ireland Ethnic Violence.” Ethos 23 (2): 123-48.
Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1987. "Who's the Killer? Popular Justice and Human Rights in a South African Squatter Camp." Social Justice 22 (3): 143-64.