Galtung, Johan — Cultural Violence

Galtung, Johan.  “Cultural Violence.”  Journal of Peace Research 27.3 (1990): 291-305.  Print.

This article explores the concept of “cultural violence” as a follow-up to Galtung’s ideas on structural violence.  Cultural violence is “defined here as any aspect of a culture that can be used to legitimize violence in its direct or structural form.  Symbolic violence built into a culture does not kill or maim like direct violence or the violence built into the structure.  However, it is used to legitimize both.”  Galtung writes that “By ‘cultural violence’ we mean those aspect of culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence — exemplified by religion and ideology, language and art, empirical science and formal science (logic, mathematics) — that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence.”  According to Galtung, “Cultural violence makes direct and structural violence look, even feel, right — or at least not wrong” (291).  He offers a useful scheme to help differentiate among the three terms in his analytic: “Direct violence is an event; structural violence is a process with ups and downs; cultural violence is an invariate, a ‘permanence'” (294).  He notes, though, that “Generally, a causal flow from cultural via structural to direct violence can be identified.  The culture preaches, teaches, admonishes, eggs on, and dulls us into seeing exploitation and/or repression as normal and natural, or into not seeing them (particularly not exploitation) at all” (295).  One way that cultural violence works, Galtung contends, is by “making reality opaque, so that we do not see the violent act or fact, or at least not as violent.  Obviously this is more easily done with some forms of violence than others” (292).

Galtung’s piece foregrounds a number of connections between language and violence. He notes, for example, that cultural violence works internally on people: “‘alienation’ can be defined in terms of socialization, meaning the internalization of a culture.  There is a double aspect: to be desocialized away from own culture and to be socialized into another culture — like the prohibition and imposition of languages” (293).  Galtung underscores another function of language in cultural violence through the example of American slavery, in which centuries of massive direct violence that caused the death of millions of people, massive structural violence sedimenting the white/black hierarchy in the U.S., and massive cultural violence supporting ubiquitous racist ideas gets reduced and “forgotten” until “only two labels show up, pale enough for college textbooks: ‘discrimination’ for massive structural violence and ‘prejudice’ for massive cultural violence.  Sanitation of language: itself cultural violence” (295).  The author directly cites the movement toward the use of inclusive language as “a good example of deliberate cultural transformation away from cultural violence,” but he also observes that “there are more subtle aspects of language where the violence is less clear, more implicit,” that “certain space and time rigidities imposed by Indo-European languages” result in “a corresponding rigidity in the logical structure” (299).  Galtung’s analysis even extends to “the substratum of the culture,” arguing that at this level “occidental culture shows so many violent features that the whole culture starts looking violent.  There is chosenness, there are strong center-periphery gradients.  There is the urgency, the apocalypse now! syndrome [. . . and] a strong tendency to individualize and rank human beings, breaking up the unity-of-man” (301)

Finally, Galtung acknowledges the irony of pursuing a peace culture, which he notes is “problematic because of the temptation to institutionalize that culture, making it obligatory with the hope of internalizing it everywhere.  And that would already be direct violence, imposing a culture” (291).

Galtung’s expanded perspective in this article is helpful in considering the larger contexts of structural violence.  The concept of cultural violence urges us to consider the larger narratives of violence that undergird and influence our educational systems and which our writing pedagogies reproduce.  To what extent does literacy/writing instruction reinscribe the American Dream, the myth of the radical individualism and self-sufficiency, the cult of masculinity at the heart of “Horatio Alger” stories?  How much of what we take as “natural,” necessary, justified, or legitimate in writing instruction is, in fact, veiled matters of cultural violence, such as grouping students by abilities?  How much of our professional practice — such as our acquiescence to the “necesssity” of standardized tests of writing ability or of assigning A-F letter grades to students’ performances — serves to legitimize structural violence in our culture?  Galtung’s ideas are making me hyper-aware of how blind I have become to the violence of schooling in general.  What else can we make of a system that overtly deploys two very specific types of violence: detention, meaning locking people in (prisons, concentration camps), and expulsion, meaning locking people out (banishing them abroad or to distant parts of the country)” (293)?

I am struck by Galtung’s discussions of the linguistic nature of violence, including the sanitation of language — which resonates with Toni Morrison’s Nobel address — and the deep structural violence of Indo-European languages.  Similarly, I think there is great power in his discussion of the “steep Self-Other gradients that drive wedges in social space” in our culture.  To what extent does our teaching of audience awareness serve to reinscribe these self-other gradients?  To what extent does writing instruction work against the experience of empathy?  Even the idea of “voice” becomes suspect in this light, a celebration of the radically individualized, starkly demarcated from the voices of others.

I think it is clear that progressive educators, especially, may be blind to the violence of our efforts.  What we understand as efforts at empowerment are just as easily understood as matters of violence.  Think here of the concept of “community” in writing instruction.  Who could, who would, refuse the offer of “community,” with its warm sense of tolerance and support?  But since we have still not worked out the dynamics of the Students’ Right to Their Own Language, our offer of “community” and “empowerment” becomes an implicit command to become alienated to one’s home culture.  Still, I’m not sure that Galtung’s solution to this question is practicable: “non-violent socialization is to give the child a choice, e.g. by offering him/her more than one cultural idiom” (293).  Unless that range of offered idioms is universal, unlimited, then any idioms we offer is a violent truncation of the possibilities.  The question, then, is not how we can make certain aspects of writing instruction non-violent, perhaps, but less violent.  It is increasingly clear that even pursuing writing and nonviolence is a potentially coercive agenda, that any educational efforts at making writing/nonviolence a course expectation or requirement would be an act of violence in itself.  Can such teaching ever be more than an invitation?  

— Paul Heilker


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