There's a righteous anger driving protests against police brutality in the U.S. But an effort on the left to radically redefine "violence" threatens to alienate people who are attached to a more conventional understanding of that word and trivializes the very real reasons why they're protesting. A demonstration that hinges on an anti-violence orthodoxy needs to employ a coherent definition of their central tenet, should they not want to undermine their own movement.
The leftist case for redefining "violence" relies on two main arguments: damaging a person is morally more serious than damaging an object, and psychologically damaging a person is worse than physically damaging an object.
"One reason it's important to maintain a clear concept of what violence is and isn't, is because true violence is such a deeply terrible human experience," writes Nathan J. Robinson at the socialist magazine Current Affairs. "Actual violence leaves people with brain damage, nightmares, disability, and trauma. The destruction of human bodies is a moral horror that simply cannot exist in the same category as the breaking of objects. Using the word 'violence' to describe the smashing of a window (which is, it should not need saying, incapable of feeling pain) diminishes the term."
Journalists, pundits, and activists alike have made a case similar to Robinson's in dismissing criticism of rioters and looters who have damaged buildings and businesses around the country during protests against police brutality. "Violence is when an agent of the state kneels on a man's neck until all of the life is leached out of his body," Nikole Hannah-Jones, the driving force behind The New York Times' 1619 Project, told CBS News last month. "Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence. To use the same language to describe those two things is not moral."
Hannah-Jones, Robinson, and many other supporters of the anti-police violence protests want to keep the media and America focused on state violence against black people, which is pervasive and chronic. Human lives are more intrinsically valuable than inanimate objects, but it does not follow that the destruction of property is insignificant, or that Americans who are concerned about that destruction are immoral or racist. Property is foundational to prosperity. Historical and institutionally racist barriers to obtaining property—like redlining—are a major reason why black wealth in America is a fraction of white wealth. While there is no shortage of concern-trolling about the destruction of black businesses during these protests, the fact is that black-owned businesses are less able to recover from property destruction.
You don't need to see a black life as equal in value to a black-owned business, or to a building or a car, to be concerned about damage to all of those things and resistant to people who say we should only be concerned about one of them. Litigating which kinds of damage count as "violence" might scratch some kind of polemical itch, but it is not a useful way to build the kind of broad political consensus necessary to end, or at least, dramatically curb state violence against black people.
At the same time, some on the left are attempting to expand the definition of violence to cover acts and behaviors that very few people have historically considered to be violent. "Silence is violence" is a good example. "Racism isn't a black problem. It's a white problem, and their silence is violence," Cherry Steinwender, executive director of the Center for Healing Racism, told the Houston Chronicle in a June 5 article titled, "'Silence is violence:' Why speaking up against racism speaks volumes."
Yes, we should speak up against injustices when we see them. But to say that declining to participate in the debate over policing and race is equivalent to actual physical harm, while also insisting that it is immoral to classify arson as violence, is incoherent.
But the redefining effort does not end there:
- Julia Beck, a lesbian activist from Baltimore and former co-chair of the local LGBTQ Commission, was criticized and expelled from that group for resisting the city's effort to replace "sex" with "gender identity" in certain policies. The Baltimore Transgender Alliance accused Beck of committing "violence against the transgender community."
- A protest last Wednesday in Richmond, Virginia, saw people opposed to lifting COVID-19 eviction moratoriums on the grounds that eviction is literal violence. (That idea isn't especially new.)
- deandre miles-hercules, a PhD linguistics student, told Vox in an interview that white people asking black people how to refer to black people as a group is, well, violent: "People tune in to this, 'What is the word? Do I call you African American? Do I call you Black? What is the word that people are preferring these days? I know I can't call you Negro anymore! So just tell me the word so I can use it and we can go on from there.' But that lacks in nuance. And that lack of nuance is a violence."
- To bring things full circle, consider the recent kerfuffle at The New York Times over Sen. Tom Cotton's (R–Ark.) op-ed calling for military support in quelling the violent demonstrations that peppered some of the protests across the country. "Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger," became a popular refrain on Twitter, repeated by a range of staffers at The Times.
To review: not speaking is violence; speaking charitably but clumsily is violence; having an unpopular opinion or providing a platform for one is violence; insisting that both parties honor legally binding contracts is violence; burning buildings, smashing windows, and destroying businesses are not violence.
These attempts at redefinition are not just confusing, they are socially corrosive. In a heterogeneous society made up of an abundance of ethnicities, races, religions, sexual orientations, and perspectives, we need to actively work toward broad consensus not just to function, but to rally majority support for protecting minorities. This process has been and continues to be painfully slow for many members of the American project. In the case of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, the consensus took too long. They died waiting for their fellow Americans—many of them white—to reach the conclusion that our police are too powerful, too violent, and too unaccountable.
But there also seems to be an emerging consensus that what happened to Floyd and Taylor should not happen ever again. We need to build that consensus until it is reflected in our laws. Does the effort to redefine violence beyond recognition get us closer to that goal, or slow us down?