The Dialogic of Violence

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The word “dialogic” refers to the logic of dialogue. Dialogue is more than just two people talking “at” each other – you know, throwing opinions around like candy. “Dialogue” refers to an exchange of ideas. Opinions just come and go. But in dialogue, ideas address each other. Underlying each statement in a dialogue is the (often unspoken) question, “why do you think what you just said is so, or even meaningful, to either of us?” It is the fact that participants can answer that question as their exchange proceeds that drives each dialogue to new and more insightful ideas (about whatever they are talking about). The ethics of that question provide inclusion in mutual reasoning and the building of thought; it enables each participant to reach into the universe of the other, which makes both bigger. It brings people together. The luxury of throwing around opinion-candy leaves one isolated in what just tastes good personally.

Crime is not an opinion. And neither is police brutality. Both are forms of social violence for which the gnawing question silently lurks: “why are you doing this?” Though it asks for reasons, the act of violence never goes beyond its raw existence. It simply violates. Period. Whatever the robber is responding to in his past, or in his situation, the meaning of the theft is performative, nothing else. When a cop gives a command, and responds to disobedience with violence, its performativity is its reality. It simply exists. Indeed, if the cop had a warrant, he would simply serve it. But when the cop shoots a person, he is by-passing that “detail.” No warrants are served, and no messages are given. The relevance of any message (such as for justice) would have already died under the force of that violence. When somebody dies, it is too late to make a “message” relevant to them. Only the “fear component” of law enforcement is left, lying around on the ground for others to see.

Relevance is at the core of dialogue. The “logic of dialogue” has three dimensions: a response, a responsiveness, and a responsibility. A response is what one gives to another who has spoken or done “something.” Responsiveness pertains to the character of one’s response. It implies a recognition of the other’s thought, a respect for its substance without necessarily implying “agreement.” The other is granted their autonomy in the exchange by one’s responsiveness. It is a way of taking responsibility for that recognition, and for one’s own autonomy and relevance in responding. In the mutuality of respect, each speaker takes responsibility not only for relevance, but also for leaving space for the other’s response in turn. The exchange of thoughts can thus generate ideas that go beyond what each participant brings to it. The logic of dialogue is the common conceiving and giving birth to new thought. This is not complicated; we do it every day.

If social violence is not an opinion, then it contains a dialogical component. There is “something” to which the social violence is a response. But how is one to articulate that, given the existentiality of the violence, its termination of all mutual respect? After all, violence is an act of violating the autonomy of another person. To rob someone is to violate their personal environment, disrupting their sovereignty in it. To assault someone is to use their body against them, to imprison them in subordination to one’s attack. It creates a situation in which the other loses all autonomy as an unforgettable experience.

Violence and violation have the same root as words. To violate a person is to do violence to their identity, and to their autonomy. To do violence to a person is also to violate their autonomy and their identity. Whether by a cop or a civilian, violence is a violation of person’s being (for which torture is an archetype). Those who feel their autonomy thus violated are thrust into a subordination of life from which rebellion and reconstruction become necessary, in order to return to oneself.

The spectrum of violence runs from forceful captivity and pain through rape, handcuffing, robbery, arrest, kidnapping, censorship, segregation, isolation, and ostracism, all accompanied by emotional trauma, a wounding of the spirit. The common element is to separate a person’s body from their integrity as an individual who lives that body. Imprisonment is the role model. Endless solitary confinement represents the juridical attempt (tragically lawful, these days) to strip away a person’s identity.

To what is social violence a response? From where in one’s past might the responsiveness of violence have come? Might it be something ever-present in one’s world (like racial discrimination)? Might it be the trauma one carries of having had a brutal or abusive father? Whatever it was, did it lurk on one’s social horizon? Did it erase itself in order to be a hidden “reason” for an assault? When a cop shoots a person because they became “uncooperative,” to what is that cop responding? Commands terminate dialogue by demanding a pre-established response, thus ending the other’s autonomy. To what is the cop responding in thus violating another person’s autonomy? Indeed, in demanding obedience, the cop is creating the situation in order to do precisely that. He is not expressing an “opinion,” nor responding to a provocation. But he is ending all possibilities of a dialogue. The punishment for disobedience is thus premeditated. It is premeditated social violence.

Social violence has become a fact of life in US cities. It is part of a larger crushing reality. The job of sustaining life for those without big salaries or property assets held in reserve becomes complicated. Unemployment, rent gouging, police brutality, racial discrimination, job insecurity, inflation, etc. all make the sustaining of social life somewhat precarious. If one depends on a small wage, and watches it get eaten up by rent, then one has to do something extraordinary to put food on the table for one’s family. Sometimes, social violence becomes the means of buying shoes for one’s kids, or for helping one’s mother pay the bills. Sometimes it even represents an attempt to keep up with the life one sees in TV advertisement images. Meanwhile, the number of homeless doubles every couple of years. And those with substantial salaries begin to suspect that a mortgage default could put them out on the street as well. Everyone becomes defensive.

People approach city government for stability. Those with property become fearful of the homeless. They know the homeless are excluded from participating in policy-making about the homeless situation; yet when they try, they find their own inclusion similarly marginalized. The people of a city are told that they have “input,” but that merely reduces to writing letters that no one reads, or a mere couple of minutes to describe one’s situation or express one’s desperation in a city council meeting. Neighborhood associations try to bring people together. But if it is only to lobby the councilmembers who say “we are already doing everything we can,” what good is it? Meanwhile, the cops harass the homeless encampments, or assault the groups of teenagers hanging out on the street, or steal some time from people who are “driving while black.” People lose their jobs because they refuse a booster shot, remembering how they didn’t feel quite right after the last one.

The stress becomes unbearable. People shoot the people they love; teenagers get guns and use them to prove they have “come of age.” People fight at the slightest disrespect or disparagement. And sometimes, one succumbs to the need to just hit back at a society that squelches responses by giving endless commands and mandates. Some of them become mass murderers, picking up an assault rifle and spraying death on a group or a crowd (the US version of a suicide bomber, since most figure they will die during the event). Most if not all are white, and probably angry at not living in the society of white purity that their white bigot mentors promised them.

But when the response by government is to arm the cops with assault rifles or other military equipment, it becomes impossible to tell the difference between stress-related social violence and an explosive rebuke against a government that disdains its own people. An angry response to social stress will probably look insurrectionary when seen from behind those rifles by an eye that just yearns to pull that trigger. The police adoption or demand for military equipment only hides the fact that what they both represent and constitute is a government that kills its own people. Travesty breeds atrocity.

The cops shrug from behind their guns and affirm that they always give a command first before shooting. Even the state sees through that. Sacramento has passed a law (AB 481) that gives City Councils the power to use public sentiment and opposition to such weapons to refuse them to city police. Yet still, the police commands come at gun-point despite that bill. And they carry with them the deprivation of all autonomy. Both dialogue and autonomy become impossible as soon as one can no longer respond with “no.” Without autonomy, one is already in prison, a non-person.

Civilian social violence becomes the substitute for the absence of dialogue in everyday life; it is a desperate response to something that isn’t there. And police power to command is at the core of that social violence as its role model.

Is there any defense against social violence?

The police claim they need their assault rifles because of all the guns on the street. [cf. Part 1, for how many of those guns got there.] But they address people in crisis, people needing help, with guns drawn. People get guns, and keep them in their houses, as a means of self-defense. But are they not also there for self-defense against the police? Are they not responding to the fact that the cops shoot people for disobedience?

In 2012, a black person was shot by police every 28 hours in the US. In 2015, the total casualty list of police killings was over 1000 – more than three a day. Is self-defense a response to police militarization? If not, then what will provide the people with a defense against it? Are police assault rifles a response to the people’s assault rifles or are the people’s assault rifles a response to police assault rifles? Which is the egg and which is the chicken?

The people aren’t chicken when they have to confront a government that kills its own people. And the people aren’t the egg when they laugh at the thought of the police asking them for trust. How is it possible to trust someone who can destroy your autonomy whenever they like, someone who can reduce you to absolute subordination on a whim? If one can violate another’s autonomy at will, trust becomes a joke (a “joke” that rehearses the historical condition of enslavement).

But still, there is social violence. Sometimes, it is directed at specific persons. One decides to rob a specific person, or assault them for some reason. It has a component of revenge in it. Vengeance resides at the very core of this entire culture. All judicial thinking revolves around imprisonment and monetary fines, punishments that are nothing but vengeance. The system reduces justice to numbers — days or years or dollars. But those numbers only quantify vengeance. They turn the violence into data.

Social violence is not data; it is the pigment with which the urban political landscape is painted. Police violence hides behind the idea that the police are civil society’s main defense against social violence. It is a response to irresponsibility without any pretense to responsiveness. The police accept military-grade weaponry under the pretense of stopping social violence; it is a pretense because they pretend that a militarized act of stopping social violence is not an act of social violence.

In other words, at the core of this entire social issue, those who commit violence, those who act to reduce other’s autonomy, to deconstruct their identity and self-determination, don’t care who the other person might be. The bank robber robs banks not only because “that’s where the money is,” (John Dellinger) but also because the bank is an impersonal institution. For the cops, the person who refuses to be handcuffed is only an opportunity to reach for his weapon. One might care “what” the person one attacks is (rich, black, female, etc.), but not who. That’s why the question of what or who an assailant is responding to seems like such an empty exercise. They are responding to something else, something in their past, something seen on TV, or merely to being fed up. In such a case, the violence is only aggression. It reduces its victim to a language of hunger, a morsel fed into the jaws of austerity, as a way of owning the TV’s twisted images of wealth. The military weaponry that the government gives the police has no story to tell, only the invention of a war zone in which the people on the street become the enemy.

If the power to command is the real core of police militarization, then that militarization has already occurred, long before the grenades and drones were offered as gifts. There is no real defense against it. Militarization has already neutralized the autonomy that could conceive of self-defense. And it neutralizes any reason the police might have had to care who a person is. Their response to disobedience is a response to a non-response to a command, by someone who is already a non-person to the cop. The bank robber might be responding to something social, but the cop is not. He is enacting a war against an invented enemy. His commands simply set up the situation enabling an act of violence – either arrest for disobedience, or murder, or some such.

If police violence cancels the other’s personhood, leaving them without autonomy, then there is already no “other” to whom the cop is responding. This renders policing non-dialogical, leaving it to be simply opinion. But opinion with a gun in its hand is nothing but a form of social control, and social domination.

We have not been talking about organized crime, here. To do that, we would have to speak about capitalism, or the corporate structure, its organized, valorized, and globalized domination, its exploitation of people and the planet in new and horrendous ways. Corporate globalization has blurred the boundary between corporate crime and its mere capitalistic forms. The confluence of sex-slavery and pedophilia that have conjoined political power with blackmail (Cf. the revelations about Jeffrey Epstein’s career) exemplify just such a blurring of boundaries. The rich obey a different kind of law, a more highly developed paranoia with a different dialogic sense of vengeance, than ordinary people. Paranoia is a psychological state in which enemies are endlessly invented in order to be able to take vengeance against them.

But we are not speaking about “organized crime.” In fact, we have tried not to use the term “crime” at all for the social violence we are examining, since that would automatically imply a radical distinction between police violence and the social violence for which it is the role model (opinion with a gun in its hand).

But social control is never simple. Whether done by cops or by civilians, there is always another dynamic lurking behind it, a history that hides over that horizon of the past. It has emerged here and there in this essay. It is the dynamic structure of racialization. Police brutality and killing has always had a racial focus. And the social control constructed through police violence and civilian violence also has a racial focus. We shall deal with that in the next article in this series.

Steve Martinot is Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance, Forms in the Abyss: a Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (both Temple) and The Machinery of Whiteness. He is also the editor of two previous books, and translator of Racism by Albert Memmi. He has written extensively on the structures of racism and white supremacy in the United States, as well as on corporate culture and economics, and leads seminars on these subjects in the Bay Area.