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In a Direct Line - Photo by Ulli Diemer

Reply to Violet Black

By Ulli Diemer


I would like to take up some of the points raised by Violet Black in her critique of my article "Dances with Guilt."

Violet Black criticizes me for using the word "violence" to refer only to physical attacks. In her view, violence includes "attitudes", "comments", "eating disorders", undermining someone's self-esteem, and other forms of "indirect violence", "emotional and verbal" violence, and "psychological violence."

I use the word "violence" in the narrower sense of physical attacks for two reasons.

The first is that this is what the word means. My Oxford dictionary defines "violence" as "exercise of physical force" and defines a violent act as one "involving physical force or the threat of force." That is what most people understand by the term "violence." I think we create unnecessary confusion when we arbitrarily redefine words to mean what we choose them to mean. Using "violent" as a synonym for "bad" or "harmful" serves to blur the issue of violence rather than to clarify it.

The second reason for the distinction, as I stated in my original article, has to do with importance of making men who are potentially violent understand that violence against a woman is not just another form of conflict, like anger or arguing, but a criminal act which never acceptable under any circumstances. I argued, and I still maintain, that we undermine efforts to turn violence into a social taboo when we indiscriminately label every objectionable behaviour, including thoughts and remarks, as "violence." If acting badly toward someone else and causing them emotional distress is violence, then every man, woman, and child is violent at times. According to Violet Black's logic, if a woman verbally abuses her husband, and the husband responds by beating her up, then both are guilty of violence.

My position is the opposite: I maintain that beating someone up is qualitatively different from verbal aggression. When you resort to physical force, you cross the line separating criminal behaviour from behaviour which may be inappropriate and hurtful (both men and women can be verbally and emotionally abusive) but which is not criminal. It has to be made clear to men who are prone to violence against women that, even if they feel provoked or angry, they must never cross that line. People like Violet Black, who deny the crucial distinction between violence and other forms of hurtful behaviour, like making nasty remarks in the course of an argument, are undermining efforts to make men understand that violence is out of bounds in both moral and legal terms.

This does not mean that I disagree with Violet's point that verbal and emotional abuse can also be very harmful. There are certainly ways of hurting someone without being violent. However, I do have reservations about her claim that psychological and verbal abuse can be "far more devastating than physical violence." There may be instances when this is true, but I suspect that the overwhelming majority of women who have been physically assaulted would disagree with Violet about this. There are very few things as emotionally devastating as being subjected to physical violence.

Having criticized me for making a distinction between violence and "behaviours which, though wrong, are not violence", Violet arrives at the absurd conclusion that I think there is no connection between them. Oblivious to what my article actually says, she alleges that I am urging "that efforts to link gender and crime ... be abandoned", and claims that I refuse to investigate "the connection between higher rates of violence among men and sexism." In her "reply" to my imagined position, she then argues that there is a connection between sexism and violence, that this connection is related to socialization and to issues of power and control, and that men must work to eliminate sexism.

I agree completely with these points in her "reply." I am aware (and I explicitly said so in my article) that there are "higher rates of violence among men." I don't imagine that this is pure coincidence. Obviously there are reasons for this. What I argued was precisely that these reasons are social and economic; i.e. that there is no biological link between violence and maleness, or between crime and race. I definitely did not say that there is no link between violence and gender; what I said was that the connection has to be explained in social, not biological, terms. I talked about changing "the conditions and experiences, especially in childhood, which breed violence", I referred to the importance of "behaviours, attitudes, and structures which are sexist and which need to be challenged", I said that "most serious acts of violence are committed by males" and that therefore "men have a particular responsibility to act against violence."

Since Violet seems not to understand how it is possible to simultaneously distinguish between violence and sexism while also holding that there is a strong connection between them, perhaps I can make my point clearer by using war or armed conflict as an analogy: There are structural and systemic factors which breed wars, for example, nationalism, religious fundamentalism, arms races fuelled by state-supported arms industries, rivalries between imperialist powers and their surrogates, and socialization and conditioning which pre-dispose people to accept and even desire violence and war. All these factors are clearly linked and connected. It will only be possible to eliminate war entirely when these underlying factors are dealt with.

However, this does not mean that there is no difference between war and other forms of rivalry and hostility. Trying to stop particular situations of hostility from turning into armed conflict can be a means of starting to solve the underlying problems (as well as a way of saving those who would be killed or maimed in the war). If we were to blindly insist, as some "ultra-leftists" do, that every form of conflict is a form of war anyway, we would be undermining the efforts of those who are working to prevent such conflicts from crossing the line and turning into shooting wars. There is a difference.

That is what I was arguing in my original article. I know that there are structural and systemic factors which breed violence. I pointed out some of these factors, such as sexism, racism, being abused as children, etc. I know that we will only completely succeed in eradicating violence when we eradicate all the underlying factors. But I also know that that is not going to happen overnight. In the meantime we have to make it clear to men who are prone to violence that violence, specifically, is a crime which will not be tolerated. You can't simultaneously tell them that they must never cross that line, while also denying that there is a line. There may be a connection between violence and other forms of hurtful behaviour, but there is also a crucial difference, and anyone who has been assaulted knows it.


Ulli Diemer
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