How Our Obession with Violence Masks Violence

Continental philosopher and public intellectual Slavoj Zizek is always worth reading. I am working through his short book Violence: Six Sideways Reflections as part of a research project for my next book. In this book, Zizek begins by pointing out that liberals (Zizek himself is a hard leftist) are, generally speaking, entirely preoccupied with what he terms “subjective” violence. Subjective violence is direct violence, crime, assault, rape, etc. He delineates three types of violence: subjective, objective, and symbolic.

Opposing all forms of violence, from direct, physical violence (mass murder, terror) to ideological violence (racism, incitement, sexual discrimination), seems to be the main preoccupation of the tolerant liberal attitude that predominates today. An SOS call sustains such talk, drowning out all other approaches: everything else can and has to wait . . . Is there not something suspicious, indeed symptomatic, about this focus on subjective violence – that violence which is enacted by social agents, evil individuals, disciplined repressive apparatuses, fanatical crowds? Doesn’t it desperately try to distract our attention from the true locus of trouble, by obliterating from view other forms of violence and thus actively participating in them? (Zizek, Violence, pp. 10-11)

Obviously the unspoken answer to this question is “Yes.” Liberalism’s obsession with subjective violence can be observed by following the news cycle, where activists are thrown from one crisis event to another, never really slowing down to analyze all of the larger pieces and the bigger problems. I noticed this in myself just this year, when the news cycle careened from refugee crises to the student protests to the Paris shootings, to the BlackLivesMatter shootings, and back to fears about refugees.

As progressives, particularly as progressive Christians, we need to do a better job avoiding getting caught up in each crisis thrust at us by the 24-hour news cycle and dig beneath the surface to the unifying whole, the deeper violence that goes unobserved by most, the violence of our cultural, economic, political, and social systems.

The point is not to ignore the visible crises, nor to abandon desperate refugees (to use the most recent example), but rather to contexualize them within a larger picture. We cannot have a larger battle plan for cultural and political change when we are constantly jumping from fire to fire.

This is how our obsession with violence actually masks violence. Subjective violence is simply the most visible form of violence, and therefore the most obvious. But our obsession with subjective violence also prevents us from developing ways of exposing and dealing with the objective violence that lies behind subjective violence, disguised as a public good because it is part of the normal functioning of the system, and the symbolic violence that ultimately lies behind all violence, the violence of our symbolic landscape, our metaphors and language categories.


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