The Two Violences

CW: Analytical discussion of violence and related loaded terms

The word (and idea) of violence means two different things, and there are people in America who use it and think about it in predominantly one way or the other. The nature of these two usages creates a venn diagram with a big abdominal section where there are acts/events that either side would describe as violence – one person angrily punches the other in the face. We generally agree that this is some kind of violence. But when we look at the two wings of this weird butterfly of violence, at the usages that seem incorrect (even dumbfounding, even hilarious) to one side or the other, we can identify what these two usages are.

On the one side, let’s say the right side of the diagram, there is violence used to describe actions against property. This seems deeply confusing and alienating to people on what we’ll call the left, because to them violence must be against humans or other conscious, feeling beings. But this usage of violence has a long pedigree, as long as the word; in this usage, violence is a property of the action, which could be against anyone or anything. Consider “a violent outburst,” “he said violently” etc. It refers to actions which are sudden, eruptive, damaging, angry. Compare also the use of vehement, which comes from a Latin word that can be translated as violent, but also ardent or eager.

On the other side, we have the use of violence to refer to psychologically harmful words and treatment. The practice of describing various microaggressions and other verbal offenses like misgendering as violence reached its peak a few years ago, and I have not seen it as much recently, but we can also include on this side of the diagram any descriptions that classify verbal sexual harassment, offensive terminology, or “routine” and “random” stops and searches as violence. The further removed it is from active, physical violence done in anger, the more likely it is to seem like a laughable misuse of the word to people on the other side. But in the usage on the left side of the diagram, violence is characterized by its effect on the victim, in terms of pain, harm, and trauma. We could relate this to the etymological relationship of violence with violation, a word whose cognates in Romance languages tends to refer to rape.

So we have two usages of violence, one of which places criteria on the actor and their actions, the other on the recipient and their experience. In a big middle ground of cases where there is both an aggressive act and a sensitive victim, both usages apply and we get the illusion that we are using the same word. Who uses which usage? I don’t have data, but my subjective sense is that people using the agent-centering usage of violence trend white, male, cis/straight, and conservative, and people using the victim-centering usage trend non-white, female, queer and progressive. That might be wrong, but I think it matches who I’ve seen express bafflement at each usage over the years. If we assume that’s right, does it tell us anything? Is there a reason for a white man to be more likely to think of violence as something you do, and a Black woman to think of it as something that happens to you?