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Direct, Structural, and Cultural Violence (I)

The teaching and study of civil resistance can be found in many different academic disciplines. You can find courses and research on nonviolent movements in the fields of political science, sociology, international relations, history, theology, even psychology. The one field however that you will most likely find nonviolent action is in the field of peace and conflict studies. In it, it wrestles with a lot of the main concepts that define this field.

Three main concepts that inform a lot of the work in the field of peace and conflict studies are the concepts of direct violence, structural violence, and cultural violence. Now, these concepts come from thinkers like Martin Luther King Jr. and Johan Galtung, who is considered by many to be the father of peace research. Before diving into these three concepts, let us first define violence. Violence, broadly defined is, “the use of power to destroy.” To destroy can mean a lot of different things: to injure, to kill, to harm, to suppress. But it’s important that all of this is in order to prevent the realization of someone or something’s potential. It’s a key point here: to prevent the realization of someone or something’s potential.

So I want you to imagine a bird, and a bird at its full potential can spread her wings and she can fly. That’s what birds are supposed to do. Now, there are multiple forms of violence that I can use to destroy this bird and to prevent it from flying.

First, I can engage in a form of direct violence. Direct violence is a form of violence that can be experienced and observed as physical or verbal, and its effects are often times immediately seen or felt. So I could physically clip this bird’s wings and that would certainly prevent her from being able to fly, and this would be a form of direct violence. Now when people hear or use the word violence, they often are talking about direct violence. So armed combat, war, murder, rape, sexual assault, torture, fist fights—these are all physical forms of direct violence. Harassment, insults, degrading comments—these are all verbal forms of direct violence. In short, direct violence is visible and has the direct effect of destroying someone or something and preventing the realization of its potential.

Let’s go back to our poor little bird. I can also engage in a form of structural violence. Structural violence is a form of violence that is not always visible and its effects are not as immediate in the same way as with direct violence; but it still destroys, it still harms, it still injures and suppresses, and it still prevents the realization of someone or something’s potential. So I can put this poor little bird in a cage. Then after a couple of months, she’s going to get too weak or she’s going to forget how to use her wings, rendering her flightless. Now I did nothing physical like clipping her wings to destroy this bird’s potential, instead I created a structure in which the bird was forced to exist and that produced the same outcome. The bird is not flying. Now structural violence is felt and experienced as systems, as policies, as institutions that reinforce and perpetuate forces of injustice, discrimination, and oppression, all of which destroy, harm, injure someone or something’s potential.

Back to our bird, I can also engage in a form of cultural violence. Cultural violence is a form of violence that perpetuates and encourages a set of values and beliefs that violence is the ultimate form of power, and a necessary part of life. We experience cultural violence from our earliest years as a child, and we are surrounded by it on a daily basis from books, movies, our schooling, our traditions, our customs, et cetera. So going back to our bird, the culture of which I am a part could be writing books about how birds should not be allowed to fly. My community can celebrate the clipping of wings and those who clip wings. My family can instill in me the belief that all birds must be born into cages.

So these three forms of violence, they are all inter-connected. Cultural violence lays the seed bed for structural violence. To create systems and institutions that enforce discrimination, intolerance, and injustice, there must be some cultural elements that are used justify those institutions and those systems.

Structural violence bears the poisonous fruit of direct violence. Often times, structurally violent systems—be they governments, communities, families, companies—they must be enforced, oftentimes, and maintained through the use of direct forms of violence. In addition, the oppressed who live in structurally violent systems may look to or turn to direct forms of violence as a way to change or dismantle the system that is hurting them.

So how does nonviolence and civil resistance fit into this conversation? First, successful nonviolent movements make a conscious and strategic choice not to engage in direct forms of violence. These movements practice what’s referred to as nonviolent discipline, and this discipline is strengthened through training and experimentation on how to fight and resist without engaging in or relying on direct forms of violence.

Second, successful nonviolent movements try to organize and structure themselves in nonviolent ways. Meaning they develop systems and policies that are inclusive, that encourage participation amongst diverse people, and these structures support the realization of everyone’s potential. In this sense, nonviolent movements—in their struggle at the micro-level—are  creating and practicing the very systems they want to see practiced at the macro-level if they were to be successful. They adhere to this Gandhian principle that quote: “We must be the change that we wish to see in the world.”

Third, successful nonviolent movements leave us with cultural imprints—stories, lessons, songs, skills, traditions—that build and create a nonviolent culture, one that sees nonviolence, or as Gandhi called it Satyagraha—or soul force—as the ultimate form of power. So one conversation we can now have and are now having in the field of peace and conflict studies, thanks to civil resistance movements, is one of direct nonviolence, structural nonviolence, and cultural nonviolence. What do these forms of nonviolence look like? Who has practiced these forms of nonviolence in the past? Who is practicing these forms of nonviolence now? How are these forms of nonviolence practiced differently by different cultures around the world? And how can we practice these forms of nonviolence more effectively in the future? These are fundamental questions worth exploring.

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