Friday, 27 November 2015

Structural violence

An alluring and insidious idea that gets bruited about in Quaker circles is that of structural violence. There is a piece on this in the 'Being Friends Together' website, at reference w122p4, and the term appears in some of the publications of Quaker Peace & Social Witness. SV refers to a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.  The use of the word violence is a really a misuse of language; injustice and inflexibility would be better terms but even then there must be questions about how structures exist independently of people.  References to social, political and economic structures can be informative but they are not fundamental, and they can blind us to the truism that there are no structures which are not human and are made up at root by people dealing with other people.  SV is jargon which can be a way of over-simplifying complex situations and, worse, denying respect and attention to social, political and market actors or agents whose attitudes and position are different from one's own.

SV is a term which cannot be used by the personalist and ought not to be the currency of Quakers, who are committed to the equality of persons and to seeing that of God in everyone.  It is a way of dividing people between sheep and goats, oppressor and victim, and far from being illuminating tends to re-inforce prejudice and ignorance.  Apartheid was an evil and did harm to people but did that mean that the ministers of the white South African government were "structurally violent"?  And what did that mean for Mandela?  He chose to reach out to the racists with compassion and understanding, to see them as humans not as automata controlled by structures - and the white rulers reciprocated in kind.  To talk of others being ruled by structures is to de-personalise them.

The concept of SV is the antithesis of personalism, which I have discussed elsewhere in this blog. The proponents of SV have a job explaining how structures change, for so-called structures have no independent existence.  Analysis in terms of structures alone blinds us to the dynamism in human society.  A objection to SV is its lack of historical perspective and its inability to explain moral and economic progress.  Quakers can see from their own early history the possibility of moral and physical progress.  Compare longevity now and in the 17th century.  George Fox and Margaret Fell are credited with being the founders of Quakerism but this was possible not least because they lived into old age.  Many of the Valiant Sixty - Burrough, Hubberthorne, Fletcher, Nayler - died young through violence.  Burrough and Hubberthorne were amongst the early Quakers who fell victim to insanitary prisons; Nayler was broken by legal torture and then met his death at the hands of criminals; Elizabeth Fletcher was martyred aged 19.  Life expectancy in the 1700s was about half what it is today.  What does demographic history and the experiences of the early Quakers say about today's structural violence?  Doesn't it rather say that we should give thanks to be born into such (structurally) peaceful and prosperous times? 

Another instance of the way SV and a lack of historical perspective leads Quakers into a misuse of language is an attempt to equate the moral evil of chattel slavery with any social and political problem that may be going.  For example, 23.23 of Quaker Faith & Practice (4th edition) sees the housing shortage as the same problem in kind as slavery.  Slavery is par excellence an example of SV but the false analogy in QF&P can only mislead us into attempting sweeping but simplistic solutions to a problem of enormous complexity, principally solutions which seek to penalise those with capital assets as if this will of itself and magically build extra homes.  Anyone who equates chattel slavery with the housing crisis needs to ponder the differences.


  1. Interesting - but a summary of the article mentioned in the first para would be useful.

  2. Thanks for your interest. Most of what I say about structural violence is derived from the internet rather than the article, which assumes some prior knowledge. SV is the idea of a Norwegian academic Johan Galtung, about whom there's plenty on the internet. His idea contrasts with that of Thich Nhat Hanh, who says that true peace can only be created by ending conflict within oneself, one's family and community, which is what I'm trying to get at with my references to personalism.