“My project at STIAS grapples with the moral dimension of violence,” said fellow Beata Stawarska of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Oregon. “Violence tends to be coded as a moral failure and a transgression that could eventually be eradicated. However, violence remains socially pervasive and arguably constitutes a global pandemic (according to United Nation’s statistics, 137 women die due to domestic violence every day). I argue that the manifest tension between the moral reprobation and the ontological tenacity of violence (or between what ought to be and what is), reveals an enduring moral puritanism, and calls for a Nietzschean ‘revaluation of values’ about good and evil.”
Describing her work as “moral theory with a social and political bent” she indicated that “it’s an attempt at engaged philosophy – which speaks to real, contemporary issues.”
“Sex and violence are key ingredients of contemporary popular culture,” she continued. “But while sexuality has been released from its Victorian prudishness, violence is still coded as a moral failure and transgression. I believe we lack moral guidance on violence and the use of force.”
She pointed out that state-sanctioned violence is an organised part of our lives.
“Violence is projected by state actors onto, often, non-violent others. Systematic, structured violence is often invisible and unnamed.”
She pointed to an assumed state monopoly on violence described as the legitimate use of force which is only illegal if carried out by non-state actors.
“Violence as a dangerous and destructive force often disguised as rule of law.”
When the state holds the monopoly on the use of force any other violence is seen as a threat to the rule of law. In domestic and gender-based violence women are generally not empowered to fight back and may face cruel punishment if they do. Vulnerability and passivity are instead promoted as the appropriate response, but Stawarska believes this can be dangerous and deadly, encouraging further victimisation and potentially endangering dependents.
She pointed to the US case of Marissa Alexander who fired a warning shot while being attacked by her husband, was arrested, charged with assault and sentenced to 20 years.
“How does one forcefully assert the right to live?” she asked. “We surely have a moral right to protect lives. In cases like this the state does not protect but further harms.”
“There is a feminist view that violence propagates violence, that any violence is an illegitimate threat to the rule of law and that criminality is the legal solution to gender-based violence,” she continued.
“Judith Butler’s Force of Nonviolence (2020) is a recent example of the condemnatory view expressed by US feminists. According to Butler, vulnerability provides a path to resistance and an alternative to violence. However, Butler’s view results in a carceral feminism that criminalises the actions of survivor defendants (women like Alexander who are incarcerated because they survive domestic violence by fighting back against their abusers), and advocates a necrovulnerability (a quasi-suicidal surrender to a dangerous and deadly environment).”
“Discussions on vulnerability often inadvertently impose further gendering of women,” she added.
Although there is often silent complicity in violence against women, women can also become complicit in their victimhood. Stawarska pointed out that women, by identifying themselves as easy prey and victims, often enforce ideas of ‘Black peril’ – “they become complicit in evoking deadly violence against the perceived threat of Black males”.
Turning to Nietzsche and specifically his work Genealogy of Morality, Stawarska tracked the genealogy of the morally puritan stance from an earlier warrior cast morality which advocated morality in action to the development of priestly mortality with the rise of Christianity.
“Priestly morality emerged through a resentful reversal of the ‘warrior’ values of power and valour into a body-abnegating powerlessness and suffering of a perpetually guilty conscience,” said Stawarska. “It internalised violence, without transcending it, into a form of ‘mental cruelty’. It also fails to provide moral guidance about the appropriate use of physical force.”
“Such internalisation doesn’t put an end to our violent inclinations,” she added.
“I follow Nietzsche’s lead in reclaiming the actional body as a site of moral and muscular growth. I re-situate the moral problem of violence in the bio-political framework of immunology, emphasising the porous and leaky relation between the attack and the defence, as exemplified by the virus and vaccine interdependency. I offer a philosophical-etymological reflection on the broad semantic spectrum of violence, which can indicate both the harmful force of a disease and the healing potency of a medicine. These immunological and etymological reflections suggest that violence broadly construed will not be eventually eradicated, but it can be cultivated into a morally codified, life-affirming, and harm-avoiding use of force.”
Breaking this down into more detail, Stawarska said that as the 2006 UN report presented violence against women as a pandemic “as with any pandemic our goal should be to build immunity, develop antibodies and a vaccine.”
“Actively building immunity is about developing a protective shield to a harmful, threatening agent. It includes building memory, preparation and readiness. Placing the body in a state of preparedness with the capacity for self-protection.”
She also unpacked the semantic ambiguity inherent in the word violence. “Violence has both French and Latin roots. It originally indicated force and strength. The negative moral connotation only emerged from the late 1300s. Violence belongs to a wide semantic spectrum. It can indicate both a harmful or healing force, can kill or cure, be both affliction and remedy.”
“We need to rethink what we mean by the term, uncover the semantic messiness.”
However, Stawarska was very clear that she is by no means promoting violence or violence in a retributive, quid pro quo sense.
“We have to rethink what violence is so that we don’t have a kneejerk condemnatory response. It might be possible to re-imagine violence, de-demonise it. There are a host of possibilities. Violence could be reclaimed as building physical and moral strength.”
“I’m also not advocating compulsory violence as a response to compulsory passivism. The project is thinking about the unacknowledged associated harms of relying exclusively on vulnerability as a strategy of resistance. Vulnerability and violence are on a continuum, not necessarily opposites. There could be power in vulnerability, it’s not necessarily passive victimhood. I’m aiming to look at vulnerability from a broader moral position.”
“Violence will never be eradicated but maybe it can be cultivated more into a life-affirming use of force.”
Stawarska’s latest book was published in April by Springer.
Stawarska, Beata. 2020. Saussure’s Linguistics, Structuralism, and Phenomenology. Cham: Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-43097-9
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Anton Jordaan