Distinguishing Categories of Violence

by Lierre Keith, an excerpt from the book Deep Green Resistance, Chapter Three: Liberals and Radicals

Distinguishing Categories of Violence

It’s understandable that people who care about justice want to reject violence; many of us are survivors of it, and we know all too well the entitled psychology of the men who used it against us. And whatever our personal experiences, we can all see that the violence of imperialism, racism, and misogyny has created useless destruction and trauma over endless, exhausting millennia. There are good reasons that many thoughtful people embrace a nonviolent ethic.

Violence can be used destructively or wisely: by hierarchy or for self-defense, against people or property, for self-actualization or political resistance.

“Violence” is a broad category and we need to be clear what we’re talking about so that we can talk about it as a movement. I would urge the following distinctions: the violence of hierarchy vs. the violence of self-defense, violence against people vs. violence against property, and the violence as self-actualization vs. the violence for political resistance. It is difficult to find someone who is against all of these. When clarified in context, the abstract concept of “violence” breaks down into distinct and concrete actions that need to be judged on their own merits. It may be that in the end some people will still reject all categories of violence; that is a prerogative we all have as moral agents. But solidarity is still possible, and is indeed a necessity given the seriousness of the situation and the lateness of the hour. Wherever you personally fall on the issue of violence, it is vital to understand and accept its potential usefulness in achieving our collective radical and feminist goals.

Violence of Hierarchy vs. Violence of Self-Defense

The violence of hierarchy is the violence that the powerful use against the dispossessed to keep them subordinated. As an example, the violence committed for wealth is socially invisible or committed at enough of a distance that its beneficiaries don’t have to be aware of it. This type of violence has defined every imperialist war in the history of the US that has been fought to get access to “natural resources” for corporations to turn into the cheap consumer goods that form the basis of the American way of life. People who fight back to defend themselves and their land are killed. No one much notices. The powerful have armies, courts, prisons, and taxation on their side. They also own the global media, thus controlling not just the information but the entire discourse. The privileged have the “comforts or elegancies” (as one defender of slavery put it) to which they feel God, more or less, has entitled them, and the luxury to remain ignorant. The entire structure of global capitalism runs on violence (Violence: The Other Fossil Fuel?). The violence used by the powerful to keep their hierarchy in place is one manifestation that we can probably agree is wrong.

In contrast stands the violence of self-defense, a range of actions taken up by people being hurt by an aggressor. Everyone has the right to defend her or his life or person against an attacker. Many leftists extend this concept of self-defense to the right to collective defense as a people. For example, many political activists supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, even taking personal risks in solidarity work like building schools and harvesting coffee. Indeed some people refuse to call this collective self-defense “violence,” defining violence as only those brutal acts that support hierarchy. I believe it is more honest to call this violence, and accept that not all violence is equal, or equally bad.

Violence against Property vs. Violence against People

Again, some people reject that violence is the correct word to describe property destruction. Because physical objects cannot feel pain, they argue, tools like spray paint and accelerants can’t be considered weapons and their use is not violent. I think the distinction between sensate beings and insensate objects is crucial. So is property destruction violent or nonviolent? This question is both pragmatic—we do need to call it something—and experiential. Destroying property can be done without harming a single sentient being and with great effect to stop an unjust system. Can anyone really argue against the French resistance blowing up railroad tracks and bridges to stop the Nazis?

But violence against property can also be an act meant to intimidate. This is the source of the unease that many progressives and radicals may feel toward property destruction. If you have been a person so threatened, you know how effective it is. Indeed, if violence against property were an ineffective approach to instilling fear and compliance, no one would ever use it. Burning a cross on someone’s lawn is meant to traumatize and terrorize. So is smashing all the dinner plates to the floor. A friend who survived a right-wing terrorist attack on the building where she worked was later hospitalized with severe PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder). Property destruction can have a crippling effect on sentient beings.

Whatever we decide to call property destruction, we need to weigh the consequences and strategic benefits and make our decisions from there. Again, “violence” is not a bad word, only a descriptive one. Obviously, many more people can accept an attack against a window, a wall, or an empty building than can accept violence against a person, and that’s as it should be. But wherever you stand personally on this issue, basic respect for each other and for our movement as a whole demands that we acknowledge the distinction between people and property when we discuss violence.

Violence as Self-Actualization vs. Violence for Political Resistance

Male socialization is basic training for life in a military hierarchy. The psychology of masculinity is the psychology required of soldiers, demanding control, emotional distance, and a willingness and ability to dominate. The subject of that domination is a negative reference group, an “Other” that is objectified as subhuman. In patriarchy, the first group that boys learn to despise is girls. Franz Fanon quotes (uncritically, of course) a young Algerian militant who repeatedly chanted, “I am not a coward, I am not a woman, I am not a traitor.” No insult is worse than some version of “girl,” usually a part of female anatomy warped into hate speech.

With male entitlement comes a violation imperative: men become men by breaking boundaries, whether it’s the sexual boundaries of women, the cultural boundaries of other peoples, the physical boundaries of other nations, the genetic boundaries of species, or the biological boundaries of ecosystems. For the entitled psyche, the only reason “No” exists is because it’s a sexual thrill to force past it. As Robin Morgan poignantly describes the situation of Tamil women,

To the women, the guerillas and the army bring disaster. They complain that both sets of men steal, loot, and molest women and girls. They hate the government army for doing this, but they’re terrified as well of the insurgent forces ostensibly fighting to free them. Of their own Tamil men, one says wearily, “If the boys come back, we will have the same experience all over again. We want to be left in peace.”

Eldridge Cleaver announced, “We shall have our manhood or the earth will be leveled by our attempts to gain it.” This is a lose-lose proposition for the planet, of course, and for the women and children who stand in the way of such masculine necessity. Or as the Vietnamese say, when the elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.

As we can see from these examples, whether from a feminist understanding or from a peace perspective, the concern that taking up violence could potentially be individually and culturally dangerous is a valid one. Many soldiers are permanently marked by war. Homeless shelters are peopled by vets too traumatized to function. Life-threatening situations leave scars, as do both committing and surviving atrocities.

But violence is a broad category of action; it can be wielded destructively or wisely. We can decide when property destruction is acceptable, against which physical targets, and with what risks to civilians. We can decide whether direct violence against people is appropriate. We can build a resistance movement and a supporting culture in which atrocities are always unacceptable; in which penalties for committing them are swift and severe; in which violence is not glorified as a concept but instead understood as a specific set of actions that we may have to take up, but that we will also set down to return to our communities. Those are lines we can inscribe in our culture of resistance. That culture will have to include a feminist critique of masculinity, a good grounding in the basics of abuse dynamics, and an understanding of posttraumatic stress disorder. We will have to have behavioral norms that shun abusers instead of empowering them, support networks for prisoners, aid for combatants struggling with PTSD, and an agreement that anyone who has a history of violent or abusive behavior needs to be kept far away from serious underground action. Underground groups should do an “emotional background check” on potential recruits. Like substance abuse, personal or relational violence should disqualify that recruit. First and foremost, we need a movement made of people of character where abusers have no place. Second, the attitudes that create an abuser are at their most basic level about entitlement. A recruit with that personality structure will almost certainly cause problems when the actionists need sacrifice, discipline, and dependability. Men who are that entitled are able to justify almost any action. If they’re comfortable committing atrocities against their intimates and families, it will be all too easy for them to behave badly when armed or otherwise in a position of power, committing rape, torture, or theft. We need our combatants to be of impeccable character for our public image, for the efficacy of our underground cells, and for the new society we’re trying to build. “Ours is not a war for robbery, not to satisfy our passions, it is a struggle for freedom,” Nat Turner told his recruits, who committed no atrocities and stole only the supplies that they needed.

Only people with a distaste for violence should be allowed to use it. Empowering psychopaths or reinscribing the dominating masculinity of global patriarchy are mistakes we must avoid.

A very simple question to ask as we collectively and individually consider serious actions like property destruction is, is this action tactically sound? Does it advance our goal of saving the planet? Or does it simply answer an emotional need to do something, to feel something? I have been at demonstrations where young men smashed windows of mom and pop grocery stores and set fire to random cars in the neighborhood. This is essentially violence as a form of self-expression—for a very entitled self. Such random acts of destruction against people who are not the enemy have no place in our strategy or in our culture. It’s especially the job of men to educate other men about our collective rejection of masculinist violence.

Editors Note: The organization DGR is founded on the ideas and analysis laid out in the book by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Aric McBay. To increase the book’s accessibility, especially to international audiences, we’re now making it available for free in two ways:

Lierre Keith on Feminism

People sometimes say that we will know feminism has done its job when half the CEOs are women. That’s not feminism; to quote Catharine MacKinnon, it’s liberalism applied to women. Feminism will have won not when a few women get an equal piece of the oppression pie, served up in our sisters’ sweat, but when all dominating hierarchies – including economic ones – are dismantled.

–Lierre Keith