Galtung, Johan — Violence, Peace, and Peace Research

Galtung, Johan.  “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research.”  Journal of Peace Research 6.3 (1969): 167-191.  Print.

This article offers an extended, philosophical definition of violence and forms of violence.  Galtung begins by saying that “violence is present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations [. . . ] Violence is here defined as the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual, between what could have been and what is” (168).  Next, he considers the distinctions between physical and psychological violence, noting that physical violence goes beyond biological harm to include constraints on human movements, “as when a person is imprisoned or put in chains, but also when access to transportation is very unevenly distributed.”  But the basic distinction here, he notes, is “between violence that works on the body, and violence that works on the soul; where the latter would include lies, brainwashing, indoctrination of various kinds, threats, etc., that serve to decrease mental potentialities” (169).  Galtung notes that, like punishment, reward systems can also be considered violent if they serve to narrow down the range of one’s actions; that direct or indirect threats of physical or psychological violence work powerfully to constrain human actions; and that untruthfulness is always violent under this definition (170).

But the author spends most of the piece exploring the distinctions between and overlap between personal/direct and structural/indirect violence.  In the latter, “violence is built into the structure and shows up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances.  Resources are unevenly distributed [. . .], literacy/education unevenly distributed, medical services existent [. . . ] for some groups only, and so on [. . . ] [P]ower to decide is monopolized by a small group who convert power in one field into power in another field” (171).   Galtung writes that while the “object of personal violence perceives the violence, usually, and may complain — the object of structural violence may be persuaded not to perceive this at all [. . .] Structural violence is silent, it does not show [. . .] and may be seen as about as natural as the air around us” (173).  One way structural violence remains hidden, he ways, is that it need not seek to “destroy the machine,” but can work to prevent humans from functioning by “denial of input” (such as food) and/or “denial of output,” which can be somatic or mental (175).  Galtung contends that certain relationships are “structurally violent regardless of who staffs it and regardless of the level of awareness of the participants” (178).  Furthermore, Galtung suggests that when a “structure is threatened, those who benefit from structural violence, above all those who are at the top, will try to preserve the status quo [. . .] But one has to observe carefully, for those most interested in the maintenance of the status quo may not come openly to the defense of the structure: they may push their mercenaries in front of them” (179).  He notes that “those who benefit from the structural violence may themselves have severe and sincere doubts about that structure and prefer to see it changed, even at their own expense,” but he also asks us to consider “the extent to which all members of a violent society, not only the topdogs, contribute to its operation and hence are all responsible as they can shake it through their non-cooperation” (180).

The expansiveness of Galtung’s definition of violence prompts a number of intriguing questions about the relationships between language — especially writing instruction — and violence.  How is that we reach our “full potential” in language use or writing?  What are the necessary conditions by which we can reach such full potential?  How is that we can fail to reach our full potential?  In what ways does language use and instruction, especially writing instruction, reduce/inhibit/prevent someone from reaching his or her full human potential?  Some obvious avenues to pursue here include the limiting/indoctrinating effects of “academic discourse,” Edited American English, “the language of wider communication,” monolingual composition, and the effects of standardized testing in writing instruction.  In like manner, how does the reward system in educational contexts work to narrow down the range of one’s actions in language and writing?  [There would seem to be pretty direct connections to Foucauldian discipline here.]  Moreover, in discussing the psychological violence, that which “works on the soul,” Galtung all but names rhetoric as the primary means of enacting such violence (lies, indoctrination of various kinds, threats), which suggests rich possibilities for research and activism.  Galtung’s emphasis on the nature and effects of structural violence would seem to be an especially useful platform for analysis in any number of contexts.  Regarding language instruction and violence, for instance, how are resources being unequally distributed?  How have some small groups converted power in one field into power over how language is used and taught?  How much about what is “natural” in writing instruction is, in fact, the operations of silent, invisible structural violence?  In like manner, how much of writing instruction works by “denial of input” and “denial of output”?  Galtung also offers a mechanism for analyzing any case study of attempted educational reform: who comes to the rescue when a system of structural educational violence is threatened?  And what mercenaries do they push in front of them so they can remain hidden?  [I think here of Fox News, among others.]  Finally, I am unsettled and emboldened by Galtung’s contention that everyone in a society contributes to the continuation of systems of structural violence.  To what extent, then, can my work in writing instruction become a matter of overt and strategic non-cooperation?

— Paul Heilker

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